Weekend MusicWatch: Percussion explosion

Colin Currie shows his Oregon spirit. Photo: Marco Borggreve

If the cannons that fired at the climax of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture at last week’s Oregon Symphony concert at Waterfront Park signaled the impending end of summer, then another OSO fusillade — the darbuke, djembe and other percussion instruments walloped and caressed by acclaimed Scottish percussionist Colin Currie —heralds the outset of the new classical music season. Happily, the season starts off a US premiere: Finnish composer Kalevi Aho’s percussion concerto Siedi, inspired by ancient rituals of the Sami people of northern Finland. Befitting Currie’s virtuosity (there must be something in the Scottish water — or whiskey — because that other great solo percussionist, Evelyn Glennie, is also a Scot), the concerto ranges from delicate and gentle to ferociously primal.

The show marks Currie’s third appearance with the orchestra; when I interviewed him last year about another new piece, he brightened audibly when I told him where I was from. “I’m the biggest fan of Portland,” he exclaimed. “Whenever I come there, I take time to go to those amazing restaurants.” But it’s more than the food that brings him here. “[OSO music director] Carlos Kalmar is  just the best. I first performed there a number of years ago and it was good but since he arrived the orchestra has been transformed. It’s a great experience to play there.”

The program contains another Finnish number, Sibelius’s nationalistic classic, Finlandia, and two of Ottorino Resphigi’s colorful, popular postcards: Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome.

Portland Opera’s opening Big Night is still a couple weeks off, but you see an open chorus rehearsal of some of the music to be performed there Sunday afternoon at downtown Portland’s Director Park. And you can see more opera music (though not a full staging) on Saturday at Eugene’s downtownAtroum center when Cascadia Concert Opera performs Otto Nicolai’s 1849 singspiel, The Merry Wives of Windsor. CCO’s professional musicians perform in churches, community centers, concert halls, nursing homes and other non traditional venues around the state. The next day at First United Methodist Church, Eugeneans can also catch rising young star Priscilla Dantas, a Brazilian prodigy discovered by the school’s piano prof, Alexandre Dossin, performing music by Debussy, Mozart, Bach and more. Dossin himself performs water-themed music by Haydn, Poulenc, Schubert, Britten and other composers with Austrian soprano Charlotte Pistor on Sunday at Corvallis’s Church of the Good Samaritan.

What with summer doldrums, Labor Day and all, there hasn’t been a lot of classical music to catch lately, but I did make it to a couple of late summer concerts in Portland. On August 26, the annual William Byrd Festival closed at southeast Portland’s St. Stephens Church with a superior performance by Cantores in Ecclesia  of anthems and other sacred music by the festival’s namesake and his English Renaissance contemporaries. English organist Mark Williams pulled double duty by also conducting in the absence of ill music director Richard Marlowe, and elicited vibrant, even passionate performances quite distant from the sometimes bland and bloodless ethereal approach favored by some performers in this repertoire. The opening Sing Joyfully was just that, while the choir sighed poignantly in more melancholy pieces. Williams added variety to the program by skillfully interpolating a few positiv organ pieces (one played with an additional third hand provided by one of the choristers). Cantores displayed their usual fine-grained control over dynamics and precise ensemble throughout, even on Byrd’s less-compelling minor works. It was easily one of the year’s best choral concerts, sung by what’s really an all-star lineup of some of the city’s finest choristers.

I had similar hopes for a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s reduction (for chamber orchestra) of Gustav Mahler’s magnificent Song of the Earth by the Martingale Ensemble a couple days later at downtown Portland’s First Christian Church, because again the players constituted an all-star band of some of Portland’s top classical musicians. Moreover, the concept seemed powerful: take the live energy that animates concert performances (and is often missing from studio recordings) and use it to make a more vivid live recording.

Unfortunately, precisely the converse happened. The superb musicians seemed so worried about making a mistake — especially in this transparent version in which almost everyone was playing each part alone, rather than in a section that could mask individual slips — that, out in the pews, at least — the result was a deliberate, careful and relatively inert reading.  It may sound different when the CD is released. And the performance was worth it for the dynamite singing of  mighty baritone Richard Zeller and tenor Robert Breault, who really caught the emotional tenor of the Chinese poetry settings that Mahler set to music. Occasional ArtsWatch contributor Maria Choban apparently had a similar reaction.

The rest of this weekend’s arts scene is all about Portland’s Time Based Arts Festival. Monday’s late-night show at the Works brings the intriguing mix of Saharan Afropop (as captured on cellphone recordings by Portland “amateur musicologist” and blogger Christopher Kirkley (who goes by Sahel Sounds), and the Portland band Brainstorm’s African and other pop. The rest of TBA’s weekend teems with what looks to be fascinating dance and theater. Give it a chance!

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