Weekend MusicWatch: Only in Oregon

Blake Applegate leads Cantores in Ecclesia at the William Byrd Festival

Oregon boasts a scintillating lineup of classical and other music festivals — the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, Pickathon, the Northwest String Summit, Cathedral Park Jazz, Portland International Piano Festival, etc etc. As impressive as they are, however, they’re far from unique. Other American cities enjoy summer chamber music festivals, even Bach festivals, and everyone knows about Newport’s legendary jazz fest and the profusion of summer outdoor rock fests. Even our fascinating Time Based Arts festival is part of a circuit of similar fringe fests around the world.

But Oregonians can count on a pair of singular late-summer celebrations that are hard to find elsewhere. Nowhere else but in Portland will you find a festival so devoted to the works of a particular English Renaissance composer. And you’d be hard-pressed to encounter as thoughtful and diverse an exploration of American music as happens every summer in Eugene.

Held in the old downtown Baptist church that’s been converted to a sweet sounding concert hall and music education center, and now celebrating its 2oth anniversary, OFAM has evolved over the years to be less focused on classical orchestra music (back in the Marin Alsop and James Paul days) and more about jazz, musicals and early pop music — which actually makes a lot of sense, both economically and because that’s where some of America’s greatest contributions to music occurred. And while, thankfully, we can hear the music of Copland, Ives, Barber et al elsewhere, it’s much rarer to experience the kind of intelligent historical explorations of musical theater and jazz anywhere except perhaps in New York. Oregon is really lucky to have OFAM’s founder-directors, James and Ginevra Ralph, who devote so much effort and so many resources to showcasing American music, old and new, the latter in the year-round concert series that also takes place at the Shedd.

This year’s Shedd summer musical, the Rodgers and Hammerstein perennial, The King and I, retains its musical power and stands as an early Broadway example of cultural crossover, via the story about an English governess meeting the king of Siam and how they learn from each other’s experiences and cultures. OFAM gives the 1951 drama a new production by Jerry Hooker, and the action is directed by Richard Jessup and musical director Robert Ashens, the former Eugene Opera conductor.

OFAM itself reprises one of its most rewarding past themes: Le Jazz Hot, which investigates the fertile fling between the African-inspired rhythms and colors of early American jazz and French colonial music, and the classical chanson and music hall tradition of Paris in the 1920s. This weekend’s concerts include Friday afternoon’s classical chamber music concert featuring the pop-inspired music of some of the century’s greatest and most accessible composers: Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud and the rest of the informal group of French-speaking composers known as Les Six. Friday night’s jazz concert recreates the swinging hothouse atmosphere of the Hot Club of Paris, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s still influential quintet — and not just in Woody Allen’s movies Midnight in Paris and Sweet and Lowdown. And Saturday night’s show brings a welcome spotlight to maybe the most underrated of early jazz deities, the great soprano sax and clarinet master Sidney Bechet — whose once-lost ballet La Colline du Delta OFAM revived in 2000.

Speaking of jazz, one of Oregon’s finest practitioners of that noble art form, Portland drummer/composer/sound artist Tim DuRoche, will lead one of Oregon Humanities’ valuable Conversation Projects on the subject Saturday from 1:00-2:30 p.m., at Cooper Mountain Nature Park in Beaverton. One of Portland’s most fascinating artists and thinkers, DuRoche “will look at the literature, economics, and history of jazz, as well as invite participants to think about the social values, such as unity, equality, integrity, and freedom, inherent in the genre,” says the OH website, and the conversation will “explore how jazz represents an ‘art of the possible’ [and] consider how jazz as a ‘community of memory’ might inspire us to embrace cooperation once again as an important cornerstone of our culture.”

The Gordon House

Speaking of American classics, the annual benefit for the Gordon House happens Sunday in Silverton. The event includes music, auctions, drawings, food and beverages and benefits a worthy cause: maintaining Oregon’s only Frank Lloyd Wright house. I happened to tour the beautiful structure last weekend for the first time and can say that it fully merits the support, so if you want to see the upstairs and support the cause, by all means attend or contribute online. However, if you want to see how the house really looked at the time, and how the greatest American architect designed it function (the major goal of residential architecture, after all), this is not the time to go. The auction tables, merchandise and posters that cluttered Wright’s beautifully airy downstairs space (which would otherwise have seemed much larger than it would appear from outside) pretty much ruined his intended effect. It was pretty much like hearing a Copland ballet score performed on kazoo. I can’t wait to return to see how it really looks. The house, which was moved to the Oregon Gardens from its original Wilsonville location, merits our support so that a travesty like this doesn’t happen here.


The Gordon House, with auction tables.

The other major August music celebration opens this weekend in Portland. The annual William Byrd Festival commences with a choral concert by the all star Cantores in Ecclesia chorus, directed by Cambridge organist Mark Williams. At southeast Portland’s St. Stephens church, they’ll perform some of Byrd’s verse anthems and music by his contemporaries. The rest of the week includes various liturgical services featuring Byrd’s music, lectures and more.

Most of the rest of this weekend’s classical action happens outdoors, including the Portland Festival Symphony’s long-running concert in the park at northeast Portland’s Grant Park, and Filmusik’s showing of the ludicrously execrable film Plan 9 from Outer Space, with a new live score by Portland composer Heather Perkins performed by Classical Revolution PDX’s string quartet.

I did make it to one indoor classical event this week: an introduction of a new radio opera called Valentine and sponsored by Portland’s Heretic Opera company. Since it is a work in progress, I won’t say too much about the material itself, except to say that it recounts the story (created by librettist and director Madelaine Coffman) of a hybrid bat cat (product of a lab experiment) who seeks a new home. Composer Kenneth Froelich’s original score was superbly played and sung by an excellent ensemble led by Portland keyboard player and opera coach Douglas Schneider on the recordings played at the event, held at Portland’s lovely Vie de Boheme wine bar. The music was accompanied by an extensive slideshow of images (photos, drawings, and more) related to the action, and featuring scads and scads of irresistibly cute kitties (who are not necessarily so benevolent in this tale), which totally skewed my critical judgment anyway.

What I do want to lift up for praise is the event itself, which included a beautifully crafted program and libretto, with CD, brief but informative remarks by Coffman, opportunities to mingle with the principals, accompanied by fine background music by the excellent Portland ensemble Seffarine, good food and drink, and in general a welcoming atmosphere that should draw fans to the finished product. Other arts groups could learn something from events like this one.

2 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    i LOVE the sound of heretic opera’s surround-the-senses production. i, too, wish there was more of that sort of thing in pdx.

    yes, it’s true, many of us operate on financial shoestrings. however, let the purse strings of our imagination manifest richer morsels than a measly bowl of chips, mediocre dips ‘n’ drips and – ESPECIALLY – a chintzy one page “program” xeroxed on crappy paper stock.

    in other words, may we all exhibit increased self-respect via well thought out care & feeding of our wonderful ODDiences – after all, they are invited guests @ the banquet of our art.

    of course, the MAIN course of the production (the art entree itself) must be absolutely mouth-wateringly bitchen.

    in other words: as above, so below, droogies.

  2. Jeff Winslow says:

    It’s always a bit dicey to respond to quotes unavoidably taken out of context, but I was struck by the juxtaposition of the Gordon House with the notion that jazz represents the “art of the possible”.

    Rather than an art which depends on what a human being can think up in a split second, as jaw-droppingly spectacular as that can be, surely “the art of the possible” much better describes what happens when there is time for the totally free play of imagination and the craft to realize it: the art of design, whether of buildings or of music.

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