Weekend MusicWatch: Bach to Bach brilliance

Portland Baroque plays Bach this weekend and next.

Portland Baroque plays Bach this weekend and next.

J.S. Bach is Europe’s greatest composer of sacred music, much of it written for church services in Leipzig, where he moved in 1723 to become music director for four churches and teach and direct choirs. But despite the masterpieces Bach created during his more than quarter century there, I can’t help wishing that he’d never gotten that job.

During the six years preceding his Leipzig church music gig, Bach lived in Cöthen, where “I had a gracious Prince as master, who knew music as well as he loved it,” he wrote, “and I hoped to remain in his service until the end of my life.” Alas for Sebastian and for history, his hopes were dashed when that prince married a prude who harassed her new husband into abandoning his love of music, forcing Bach to look elsewhere for secure employment. But before he lit out for Leipzig and its requirement to churn out cantatas and other choral music, Bach produced most of the wondrous concertos, including the Brandenburgs (his Cöthen call, as it were), that constitute much of his most colorful and universally appealing music. Granted, had he stayed content in Cöthen, we might never have received some of history’s greatest choral masterpieces. But it might be worth it to have more of those brilliant concerti and other glorious instrumental works like those he created there.

This weekend and next, you can experience ten of those masterpieces in one of the most essential Oregon classical music events of the year. On Friday and Saturday nights at downtown Portland’s First Baptist Church and Sunday afternoon at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, Portland Baroque Orchestra begins its survey (and soon to be recording) of Bach’s sublime concertos. They couldn’t be in better hands, because as anyone who’s heard PBO artistic director and violinist Monica Huggett, oboe master Gonzalo Ruiz and company (the group’s other violinists will also get a share of the solo spotlight) play Bach’s music knows, this is a band that understands that Bach’s music demands passion and dance. Unlike  too many interpreters who, astonished by Bach’s formal ingenuity, treat his music more as mathematical than magical or even musical, or Romanticize it with anachronistic sentimentality, or wallow in devotional tedium, treating it as an object of worship rather than an expression of passion, PBO’s rhythmically charged Bach gets bodies moving and hearts melting. ArtsWatch readers can score a discount by entering “ArtsWatch10” on the online ticket form.

Bach was one of history’s great organists, and this Sunday afternoon Greg Homza, the new organist at downtown Portland’s First Presbyterian Church, will play his music and that of seven other composers — including Portland composer and veteran jazz pianist Art Resnick — on the church’s mighty Jaeckel pipe organ. The day of the Jaeckel commences the church’s always intriguing Celebration Works series, which is free but always worth a donation

Just as Homza’s recital features an organist playing music by a pianist, Bowling Green University pianist Cole Burger performs music by a renowned organist, Olivier Messiaen, as well as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Like the 2 pm Celebration Works concert above, this 5 pm recital at downtown Portland’s St. James Lutheran Church is free, but any donations will benefit the Goose Hollow Family Shelter.

Also on Sunday at 5 pm, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral’s Chamber Singers, many of whom you’ll recognize from their appearances with Portland’s finest choirs, will sing music by William Byrd, and Bill Crane will play organ on the cathedrals Rosales pipe organ.

Another fine pianist, South African native Anton Nel, joins the Oregon Mozart Players in their namesake’s brilliant Piano Concerto #26,Saturday night at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall. They’ll also play a Mozart overture and the chamber orchestra transcription of Shostakovich’s powerful String Quartet op. 73.

The Oregon Symphony invests in the next generation of listeners Saturday afternoon with a kids concert with the Pacific Youth Choir and Dance West, performing film scores from “Superman,” “Spiderman,” “The Incredibles,” and even some actual classical music by Beethoven and Liszt. Speaking of the OSO, you can see its assistant principal bassoonist, Evan Kuhlmann, performing with the rest of the All Star Orchestra (no, not Ringo’s ad hoc band, but an orchestra whose members are drawn from a couple dozen of the best orchestras in the land) conducted by former Seattle Symphony music director Gerard Schwartz, on a new TV series whose first episode airs on Oregon Public Broadcasting Saturday at 7 pm. The American Public Television series pairs classics with modern masterworks by living American composers such as Philip Glass, Augusta Read Thomas, and Bright Sheng. That last piece appears on the appealing opening program, along with Stravinsky and Ravel classics.

Classical musicians are some of the most generous folks around, judging by the number of benefit concerts they play around the state. On Saturday at Marylhurst University’s Wiegand Hall, Portland Classic Guitar is hosting a benefit for the school’s guitar department (and for PCG’s William Jenks, who recently underwent expensive surgery), featuring some of the area’s top classical guitarists (Scott Kritzer, John Doan, Peter Zisa, and Jeff Ashton.

Kronos Quartet comes to Reed College Wednesday. Photo: Jay Blakesberg.

Kronos Quartet comes to Reed College Wednesday. Photo: Jay Blakesberg.

I realize this is WEEKEND MusicWatch, but sometimes concerts happen in the middle of the week (often because Portland makes a good midweek stopover between shows in larger West Coast markets to our south and north) and can get overlooked as a result. We certainly don’t want that to happen with next Wednesday night’s performance by the Kronos Quartet. Led by Portland native David Harrington for 40 years, Kronos has enriched contemporary classical music more than just about any single performer or group, commissioning literally hundreds of new works (many of them subsequently played and recorded by other ensembles), cultivating several generations of composers, and also inspiring many other performers; when I recently interviewed the founders of the new music wind quintet City of Tomorrow and the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, both cited Kronos as their model, not just for their advocacy of new music, but also for their ability to shed the stuffy trappings of classical music’s museum model and return it to its rightful place as part of contemporary culture.

But celebrating Kronos’s immense contribution to culture isn’t why you need to be at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium Wednesday night. You should go to this Friends of Chamber Music (which has brought Kronos to town often) concert because you’ll hear stimulating sounds you’ve likely never heard before, including music by Ukraine’s Valentin Silvestrov, Brazil’s Amon Tobin, early Mississippi blues woman Geeshie Wiley, early 20th century Polish-American cantor Alter Yechiel Karniol, Vietnamese traditional musician Kim Sinh, Canadian composer Nicole Lizée (who often incorporates various vintage electronic elements into her music) — and even an arrangement of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan” music by frequent Kronos collaborator Aleksadra Vrebalov. Where else could you enjoy such a diverse musical menu, all served up on strings (with some electronic garnish)? And again, ArtsWatch readers can get the kind of special discount available only to those who exhibit the highest levels of taste and discernment (as evidenced by their support of OAW) by typing the code “OAW” at this page.

On the jazzier side of chamber music, the acclaimed composer and drummer John Hollenbeck, who was here last spring with his Refuge Trio, returns to Oregon with his Claudia Quintet (including the great clarinetist and saxophonist Chris Speed and vibraphonist Matt Moran) at Lewis & Clark College. As his Guggenheim Fellowship, Down Beat awards, and rave reviews attest, Hollenbeck is one of the most ingenious jazz-oriented composers of his generation. On Friday at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s jazz club, you can catch a double bill of two of Portland’s most engaging jazz ensembles, Trio Subtonic (celebrating the release of their excellent new CD Night Runners) and Blue Cranes. And for some real out-there improvisation, catch Chicago taxman Ken Vandermark with Oregon expat Nate Wooley on trumpet, along with Portland’s Demolition Duo, next Wednesday at Portland’s Piano Fort.

World music fans also have several enticing options beyond Kronos’s concert, ranging from Kolkata sitar master Sugato Nag at Lewis & Clark Friday, to Bollywood singer Hariharan at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Saturday afternoon, to Niger’s effervescent Tal National at Portland’s Goodfoot on Wednesday, to Mexican traditional singer Edna Vazquez at Hillsboro’s Walters Cultural Arts Center. The sun is back this weekend, and so is the music on Oregon stages. We recommend heartily indulging in both.

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