Weekend MusicWatch: Tough choices

Music fans will have to stretch far and wide this weekend

Janet Coleman, Sarah Tiedemann, and Diane Chaplin perform George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale at Northwest New Music’s concert last week.

This is the point in the season when Oregon music lovers face a conundrum a lot of places would love to have: too many irresistible concerts, not enough time. So many excellent shows are happening this weekend that it’s impossible to make them all, which is a shame. I wish some of these could get scheduled for the fallower periods of, say, August or December or January, but there are solid reasons why those periods are tough to schedule.

Saturday, for example, we encounter the rare spectacle of two Portland early music concerts directly competing against each other. Do you head over to Grace Memorial Church to hear the Portland Viol Consort (featuring Portland Baroque Orchestra regulars and other historically informed specialists) play Renaissance music by William Byrd and his contemporaries on modern replicas (crafted by Portland luthier Jess Wells) of ancient viols, that impossibly expressive string instrument whose soft voice helped doom it to obsolescence when its louder though no more alluring competitors, and larger performances spaces, came along? Normally, I would, not least because in addition to the viol foursome, the concert features the splendid countertenor Tim Galloway.

Ah, but these aren’t normal times.

That same evening, another corps of early music experts led by lutenist Hideki Yamaya performs rarely heard 17th century Italian music at Portland’s Community Music Center. Musica Maestrale gave an excellent concert of even rarer Polish Baroque music in August, and I’ve admired Yamaya’s many other performances of various strains of early music in the three years since he arrived in Portland. This time, he’s bringing a pair of young Baroque specialists, violinist Noah Strick and cellist Adahia Macadam-Somer up from the San Francisco Bay Area, which along with Boston probably boasts the US’s most fertile early music scene. (In fact, I’ve seen several PBO players performing with various Bay Area early music ensembles.)

I’m still not sure which concert I’ll go to; it may come down to geography, because the latter concert is in Southeast Portland — and so is Reed College’s Eliot Hall, which is where the great Iranian singer Salar Aghili joins the Hamnavazan Ensemble in a concert of traditional Persian music played on authentic instruments including the ud (lute), kemancheh (spike fiddle), tombek (drum) and, er, piano — but tuned appropriately. It’s possible for a music fanatic to rush from one to the other….

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These concerts arrive a week after still more early chamber music concerts last weekend in Portland and Eugene, by one of Yamaya’s other groups, Risonanti (which also includes the terrific PBO gamba and cello player Joanna Blendulf — who also plays in Portland Viol Consort; West Coast early music is an incestuous scene), which I had to miss because of still other terrific concerts. It’s a treat to see historically informed Baroque chamber music finally starting to reach a critical mass of performances, though it has a ways to go to catch up with the audiences that flock to early music choirs like Cantores in Ecclesia, Cappella Romana, In Mulieribus and others, and with PBO — which deserves some credit for giving work to some of the musicians who populate these spinoff small ensembles. It would be sweet to see more of the University of Oregon’s strong early music performers, and others in Eugene, playing in Portland — and vice versa.

Speaking of the UO, its music school’s always busy performance season really gets under way this weekend with a concert of Indian music by the Mysore Brothers, virtuoso violinist siblings who knocked me out in a Portland concert a couple years back. There’s more Indian music — of a very different kind — in Portland Saturday, when the renowned Bollywood singing star Padma Bhushan SP Balasubramaniam (popularly known as SPB) and other Indian film music celebrities plus a 17 member orchestra play the colorful movie music of India at 5 pm. Back in Eugene, Portland’s Vagabond Opera takes its frisky opera-meets-cabaret act to the WOW Hall on Saturday.

Old Maid and the Thief Trailer from Opera Theater Oregon on Vimeo.

Radio Play

Another pillar of Portland’s indie classical scene, Opera Theater Oregon, opens its new season this weekend with a typically creative program: an opera within an opera featuring midcentury American composer Gian Carlo Menotti’s popular little 1939 radio opera buffa, “The Old Maid and the Thief,” which chronicles the follies of small-town life, lust, longing and deception. It’s treat enough that OTO is returning to Menotti and 20th century opera (its “Twilight-Zone”-style, 2008 staging of his “The Medium” in the unlikely confines of Someday Lounge a few years ago remains a favorite memory), but even cooler is the way they’re staging it: in its original form as one of the old time radio plays popular in that period (even John Cage wrote one, staged by Third Angle some years ago in a Portland glass factory) – but with the radio station itself being the set. With help from novelist Robert Hill, composer Justin Rails, a cast led by the splendid singer (and PSU prof) Christine Meadows, Portland’s all-classical radio station 89.9, sound effects (foley) artists, voice actors and more, OTO will transform northwest Portland’s vintage Mission Theater into a 1930s radio station, which means we’ll be watching a performance of the performance, which will later be aired on KQAC.  The evening also features a screening of ”Behind the Velvet Curtain,” an original film short by OTO Film Director Jen Wechsler.

Swarmius performed at Portland State University Thursday
and returns Friday night.

Fortunately, that show has several performances in its two-weekend run, meaning that you can see it after checking out the hard to categorize new music ensemble Swarmius Friday night at Portland State.  A vehicle for inventive, rambunctious music by irrepressible former Portland State prof Joseph Waters, the quartet features his long time pal Joel Bluestone (the scarlet-shod PSU prof and FearNoMusic percussion whiz), plus violin and saxophone along with Waters’ own kaleidoscopic electronic music. At a noon show at PSU Thursday, the frolicsome foursome played music that sometimes superficially resembled prog rock, other times ‘70s-‘80s style jazz fusion, and various postclassical strains such as John Zorn’s. But really, Swarmius is a singular experience, deploying bursts of fiddle and sax phrases over electronic and percussion textures, never content to merely create a soundscape but always pushing forward, exploring different directions, meters, and tempos in a constantly shifting collage.

Thursday’s inspirations ranged from vampires to Waters’ newborn grandson, and the moods varied accordingly, but everything I heard shared a restless joyousness, and so did the musicians, who weren’t afraid to show it. I don’t know what to call what Swarmius does, but it’s always fun, and represents a promising, expansive embrace of rock, pop, classical, and jazz styles and instruments.

Old Church, New Music

Also on Friday, just up the street at the Old Church, Allen Matthews’ classical guitar, violin and cello trio plays Baroque, Classical, and contemporary music. The next night at the Old Church, accompanied by the ubiquitous pianist Janet Coleman, veteran OSO violist Stephen Price presents his annual free concert, featuring music by J.S. Bach, Faure, Portland’s own Gordon Lee, and more.

Last Friday, the Old Church was also the setting for Portland pop singer Alan Singley’s brave first attempt at “classical” style instrumental music. With Singley at the piano and fellow Ethos music center teachers and others on violins, cellos, basses and organ (a very nice touch), the ensemble made a pleasant sound. The first half opened with a dirge and never got much faster than that, resulting in a sameness of mood and tempo. The second half’s “happy jazz party stuff” proved not much more energetic, but further established Singley’s gift for memorable melody and ability to create reflective, often melancholy settings (including a sweet Bacharachian pastoral) that would seem ideal for indie film soundtracks. He’ll need to use more complex techniques (theme and variation, counterpoint, metric and tempo changes, minimalist evolution, or whatever) if he’s sustain audience interest in these longer-lasting works, but even now, Singley (who studied music theory for a year at Portland Community College in order to learn the basics of “classical” composing) shows promise as a composer of instrumental miniatures and perhaps more.

Alan Singley and his ensemble performed
at Portland’s Old Church.

On Saturday at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland Youth Philharmonic music director David Hattner leads the Oregon Symphony and Pacific Youth Choir in a kids concert featuring music about transportation. The Vancouver Symphony plays Copland, Saint Saens (the same “Organ Symphony” the OSO played last season), Ravel and more in its weekend concerts, and the Portland Guitar Society celebrates its silver jubilee at Marylhurst University Saturday with performances by a passel of classical and other guitarists.

On Sunday afternoon, Willamette University singer Christine Elder Welch and pianist Marva Duerksen perform songs set to texts by Emily Dickinson and Brenda Ueland by contemporary American composers Ernst Bacon and Libby Larsen at the Silverton Concert House. Also Sunday, the all-star Portland vocal ensemble called, uh, The Ensemble, which specializes in vocal chamber music that requires too few singers for most choirs and too many for most small choral groups, sings too rarely heard music by Monteverdi and Poulenc, then turns the stage at Grace Memorial Episcopal Church over to pianist Michael Barnes and singer Tim O’Brien for Schubert’s classic song cycle, “Winter’s Journey.”

American Classic

Most of the sounds at Northwest New Music’s Tuesday concert weren’t really “new”; only a couple came from the 21st century, and those just barely, the newest being the prizewinning composer Ken Ueno’s “Contemplation on Little Big Muff” from 2000, expertly played by NWNM artistic directors Florian Conzetti and Diane Chaplin on cello and various percussion instruments, including brake drums. Although it was clearly a piece of contemporary music, gaining tension from adroit bursts and distortion (through the Russian guitar pedal whose nickname gave the piece its title), it radiated the spaciousness of traditional Japanese music, an aesthetic the Brooklyn-born, Berkeley-based Japanese American composer has embraced in some works.

Before that, flutist Sarah Tiedemann ably entered Ian Anderson mode to perform Ian Clark’s Jethro Tullish 2001 solo, “Zoom Tube.” Using multiphonics, vocalizations (including a startling “Yeow!”), stomps, and other extended techniques, Tiedemann enthusiastically conveyed a sense of fun and adventure. The concert opened with a 1970 trio for cello (Chaplin), piano (Janet Coleman, in another of her many appearances on Oregon stages) and violin (Tylor Neist) by German composer Boris Blacher that was all about playing clever games with melodies and rhythms — backward, upside down, etc. The musicians spiritedly handled the first movement’s mischievous splashes, the second’s spaciness and the third’s tense, lurching and ultimately playful third movement.

Blacher did make at least one important contribution to music: he taught the great American composer George Crumb, whose music comprised the second and more consequential half of the enjoyable, uniformly excellently played program. Unleashing a voice that’s much bigger than her tiny size would suggest, soprano Catherine Olson’s mesmerizing, emotionally varied and dramatically astute performance of Federico Garcia Lorca’s lyrics from Crumb’s 1969 “Madrigals Book 3,” combined with the evocative atmosphere sensitively established by Conzetti and harpist Kate Petak, added up to a gripping performance.

Catherine Olson, Florian Conzetti, and Kate Petak
at NWNM’s Tuesday concert.

Tiedemann, Chaplin and Coleman returned to close the concert with Crumb’s equally haunting 1971 classic, “Voice of the Whale.” “Each of the three performers is required to wear a black half-mask (or visor-mask),” the composer has written. “The masks, by effacing the sense of human projection, are intended to represent, symbolically, the powerful impersonal forces of nature (i.e. nature dehumanized). I have also suggested that the work be performed under deep-blue stage lighting,” which unfortunately wasn’t used; I can tell you from experience (perhaps at a Third Angle concert) that it really makes a difference.

Chaplin emerged wearing a thematically appropriate but unfortunately unintentionally comic Northwest Native American (Haida) whale mask that, she explained, covers the head, not the face. Although her rationale makes perfect sense, the effect — a bobbing cartoonish fish head (I know, whales are mammals but it looked fishy) — was still a little silly for a piece that depends so much on atmosphere.

Fortunately, the trio’s superb, committed performance proved no laughing matter. Coleman, required to reach inside the piano and use various noisemakers on the strings and then play sometimes atmospheric, sometimes driving patterns, displayed special nuance in the work’s challenging textures, but all three players really grasped Crumb’s dramatic style, without overplaying the theatricality. It was a marvelous performance of a profound and beautiful work that sounds more like an American classic every time I hear it.

One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    dang, very sorry to have missed diane & florian’s concert. i LOVE their programming & believe it to be consistently vital for pdx new music oddiences.

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