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Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein/Scott Green/IFC

What do you really want to know?  To be completely honest just for a second, we can’t tell you what you really want to know, except maybe by accident, and even then, you’ll just want to know something else, now won’t you?

So, instead of telling you what you really want to know, we have some amusing links. If you like us on Facebook (you should, you really should!), you may have seen many of these, just not quite this way.

“Portlandia”? Yeah, we are supposed to have a take on it, and maybe we do, but I forgot it while I was mixing my own special blend of chai to soothe my hens. So, in the meantime, here’s the New Yorker “profile” of the show that suggests maybe that Portland would be better off it were, I don’t know, Cincinnati? Then again, maybe it doesn’t suggest that at all? Any idea why we are ending all our sentences with question marks?

When it comes to Portlandia humor, our taste runs toward @AncientPortland, a Twitter-er-er with a taste for the absurd. Heck, not just a taste, the full three courses. Portland Monthly interviewed @AncientPortland and learned all sorts of amazing facts. A recent tweet:

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Ancient Portland

@Ancient Portland
In the 4th circle of Dante’s “Inferno Portlandese,” those guilty of greed spend eternity waiting in line in the rain at Pine State Biscuits.

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The Colorado Symphony is roughly the same size as the Oregon Symphony, and it has been struggling to make its mark in Denver’s sports-drenched culture. So, following the lead of several other smaller orchestras, it has decided to re-think itself, according to the Denver Post. I cringe a little when I see the word “relevancy,” when it comes to classical music programming, because it so often means the “Star Wars” score or something, but the general notion — to fight a guerilla war rather than hole up in the symphony hall fortress — has some merit. (Not that I have anything against “Star Wars,” Obi Wan…)

Sometimes Europe gets it, they really do! So, when economic times get tough, they fund the arts at higher levels. Of course, fighting the wisdom of Keynes by imposing government austerity measures during a severely recessed economy? That’s not so smart. But what do we know? We just write about the arts!

Need some background chatter about the arts as you prepare that hoppin’ john for New Year’s Eve? Well, we’ve got just the thing: The quick witted Karen Karbo talked to us about her new book, “How Georgia Became O’Keeffe” and we actually recorded it for you!

Here’s a shocker: If you teach a kid how to play an instrument in school (or how to draw, act, write creatively, etc.) she/he does better in other subjects! The whole “testing” culture of our schools prevents us from really educating our children. Isn’t it?

We started to take the 409 and a sponge to our own Leonardo, but we were brought up short by this article: Treat your Leonardo’s with more care!

We Love Open Culture. Which is where we found this video of John Cage’s appearance on “I’ve Got a Secret.” It’s wonderful in all sorts of ways.

 

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company becomes only historical on New Year’s Eve. Here’s Cunningham dancer Alma Guillermoprieto’s take on this historical event.

The first episode described how a veteran Portland community music ensemble, Venerable Showers of Beauty gamelan, decided to take on a difficult but potentially enormously rewarding new set of repertoire and performance challenges for its 31st anniversary concert, which transpired last month at Lewis & Clark College. In this episode, the stakes involved grow and the preparations intensify to meet the challenge.

Venerable Showers of Beauty 30th Anniversary Concert November 2010

So far, the November concert was shaping up to be like our breakthrough 30th anniversary concert last year — a whole new set of more sophisticated traditional Javanese repertoire than we’d ever faced, and a major new (to us) Lou Harrison work (we played two smaller ones last year, with Lewis & Clark faculty musicians on horn, viola, and flute) that also required working with Western classical music soloists.

This year’s program would have been seemed daunting a year ago, but having surmounted those challenges in a sold-out concert featuring two dozen musicians onstage (including our old teacher from Java leading us), it now looked like a perfect next step for the band.

After hitting a trough in the years following Midiyanto’s departure, VSB was clearly on an upswing, handling more and more sophisticated repertoire and adding several new members even in the year since the anniversary concert. One was a composer who had worked for Harrison and played in his gamelan in California in the 1980s. Another was a member of Gamelan Pacifica who had moved to Portland and was familiar with the Double Concerto and other Harrison works — I’d seen Adrienne perform with Gamelan Pacifica in Seattle and was glad to add her to the team.

A superb pianist, Adrienne could read Western music, and so we assigned her one of the gamelan parts in the second movement. The other went to another rookie member, Matt, a trained percussionist. Both would need to read the Western music score the classical soloists would be using. The rest of us would use the Javanese cipher notation we were used to, with only a few wrinkles added by Harrison.

Two Plus One: Mass Appeal

Then came the third challenge. Our music director, Mindy Johnston, returned from a conference in London, where she’d looked in on a gamelan ensemble there. They happened to be rehearsing the world premiere performance of a brand new work written by the English composer Neil Sorrell, author of the most popular textbook on gamelan and an old friend of Midiyanto’s. Although Mindy much preferred traditional to contemporary gamelan music, she was transfixed by the beauty of Sorrell’s Missa Gongso, a six-movement work that set the Latin Mass to a gamelan accompaniment. After we heard the rough recording she made there, so were we.

Mindy asked Sorrell if we could play the American premiere, and he agreed. Then she asked L&C’s director of choral programs, Katherine FitzGibbon, if she’d be willing to let her community choir take it on with us. Dr. FitzGibbon, who already required her students to sing some works outside the narrow Western European tradition, was all for it — but since she was going on sabbatical, the only chance to perform it would be in the upcoming November concert that was already overloaded with tough new material. We gulped — and decided to add the Mass to an already packed and difficult (for us, not the audience) program. We didn’t really realize what we were getting into.

Composer Neil Sorrell

Missa Gongso posed challenges of the sort the group had never faced. Gamelan music is directed aurally — by a drummer who signals section and tempo changes, and permutations of irama, a difficult concept to translate to Western music that has to do with the rhythmic density of the piece. Western orchestras and choirs, in contrast, rely on visual cues from a conductor, but sometimes the gamelan and chorus actually perform in different rhythms. So we would have to look up from our scores and switch from being guided by our ears to FitzGibbon’s hands — not as easy as it sounds for amateurs who’ve never done it. Moreover, the piece contained all sorts of gestures and effects, a few of them very fast, utterly unfamiliar in traditional gamelan music. But again: it was a rare opportunity too good to pass up.

Lewis & Clark College Director of Choral Studies Katherine FitzGibbon. Photo: Gina Emerson Photography

Musical Community

The stakes were high. The group’s decision to take on these three challenges reflects a common conundrum among Portland amateur musicians: Do we stand comfortably still, or push ourselves to move up to what the sports cliche machine calls the next level?

On one hand, there’s a real pleasure in just gathering with your friends and sharing familiar tunes in a low-pressure situation, whether it’s picking guitars on the porch, singing shape note songs or even joining a church or amateur choir.

That’s especially true in gamelan, a quintessentially community form of music making in which the interweaving parts, not the solo contributions, are the key. The music’s extremely collaborative nature served as a kind of metaphor; it was more important to Midiyanto that everyone get along than it was to play a piece perfectly at the expense of the group’s comity.

The pressure of public performance of difficult music could threaten that relaxed vibe. I’d seen VSB and my previous group lose members when we pushed to perform publicly more often and raise our musical standards.

But for me, Mindy and others, there’s an even greater pleasure in sharing the music we love with the public, exposing them to beauties that never fail to bewitch them. (It’s not really about us as performers; the music itself is so shimmeringly beautiful that it sells itself.)

Moreover, performing live, especially challenging repertoire, forces you to get better, to sharpen your skills and amplify your engagement with the music. And taking on more ambitious repertoire brings its own pleasure, the reward for effort expended, like adding a mile to your run every year. New works and new kinds of music also keep the experience fresh, and that means we attract and keep members who’d be bored by simply repeating familiar repertoire in our studio every week.

Cultural Clash

We trusted Mindy to make those decisions for us, after some informal discussion.

“In some ways, not having the experience of being professional musicians, maybe they’re more willing to take risks,” she wrote in an email. “Because we have such an amateur group, most of them don’t really know how challenging something is or is not, and I’m the one who has to decide if we’re going to do it or not. So ultimately I can jump into something that maybe we’re really not cut out for — but maybe nobody knows if we are or not (and the people who DO know are up for the challenge, generally!)… and I just plow ahead as if we are, and then we do it!”

VSB music director Mindy Johnston and Midiyanto at rehearsals for the 31st anniversary concert

 We quickly realized that our standard weekly two-hour practice wouldn’t be enough to handle the complex new repertoire. Individual practice is much less of an option in Javanese music than in Western music. Western classical musicians can practice a piece at home with their own instrument and notation and are less dependent on group rehearsals to learn the notes. Conversely, in Java, gamelan musicians learn by playing over and over again together until every member of the group really gets it. Except for a couple of virtuosic instruments, practicing individually is less helpful because the real challenge is integrating your part with the whole, and the instruments (ours are owned by the college) stay in the studio. Everything depends on listening and responding to what’s going on around you, and that ultimately requires a lot of confidence gained from frequent practice with the group.

“Playing gamelan, especially for a performance, is an enormously challenging process in so many ways,” Mindy, who’s a trained violist, explained, “and it requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness and patience. It is really about the group, not about individual desire, so I understand why it pushes buttons for some people. It really is hard to go through this process and is different than Western music precisely because it relies on the group for the learning to happen.”

“And that’s different than Western musicians,” she continued. “They wouldn’t rehearse nearly as much as we rehearse. With semi-professional musicians, there’s an expectation that you’ll put in a lot more rehearsal time by yourself, but we can’t do that, so we need more time getting comfortable by rehearsing a lot together. It is hard to put the group needs first and maybe let go of the place you think you should be. But ultimately, it offers great rewards and I think can be a very positive experience for everyone if you can let go and surrender to that process.”

The extra rehearsals added pressure. “It being a community based group, we draw so many kinds of people to the group who have different scheduling issues,” Mindy wrote. “All of that feeds into how much we can do. This year we also had a bunch of new people to add at the last minute, and a couple of members worried that we were biting off more than we could chew. That kind of questioning throughout the process also adds a lot of extra work in getting them caught up, and puts a lot of pressure on the group.”

We wound up scheduling a half-dozen extra rehearsals leading up to the show, and we needed every one of them.

Three to Get Ready

We had less than three months to prepare three major concert components: the half-hour, three-movement Harrison Double Concerto; the six pieces of new Javanese music; and Sorrel’s half-hour Missa Gongso.

We spent the most time on Sorrel’s mass, mostly because it demanded extensive stop-and-start sections with lots of fast cues as the gamelan alternated with and then accompanied the singers — nothing like the leisurely, cyclical songs we were used to playing. We had a choral score in Western notation and a gamelan score in cipher notation, but no master score to see how they lined up!

So we relied on the recording and Mindy’s ability (along with that of a few of our other players with Western music experience) to bridge the gap. Much of the music had to be mastered by sight reading and practice, because it didn’t conform to the standard Javanese techniques we’d honed over the years and relied on. The new Javanese music and the Harrison concerto basically used techniques we already knew, just at a higher level. But performing the mass would involve learning a fundamentally different kind of playing.

“Even something as simple as figuring out where to start, where you have to stop — those are time-consuming things if you’re dealing with Western music and gamelan together,” Mindy pointed out. “Getting things in sync with both Lou and Neil’s pieces, dealing with Western scores — that was a challenge.”

The bonang barung and bonang panerus often play beautiful interlocking elaborating parts

We thought we were doing OK until October, when our first run through with the L&C Community chorus (itself an amateur community group that had convened for the first time only a few weeks earlier and had never worked with a gamelan) revealed that we weren’t even close to being able to play the piece in real time.

Rehearsals immediately became a lot more intense. For instance, I had to switch six times among three instruments in the course of the piece. Those parts were hard enough, but it wasn’t until dress rehearsal that we figured out how to make that work without distracting the audience, in part by positioning the instruments so I could turn around and play one of the bonangs upside down for several measures before returning to the other. New challenges spark new solutions. The piece teemed with similar uncertainties, and some parts were just hard to play.

Also, we were extremely lucky to add two new members with extensive Western musical training; Bonnie and Amelia became our “ringer singers,” running the soprano choral lines with us in rehearsal so we could hear how it all fit together.

In our few rehearsals with them, the community choir struggled with some of the writing in Sorrell’s piece. But with a constantly upbeat attitude yet crisp and precise instructions, the cheerfully unflappable FitzGibbon gave the amateur choristers as much as they could handle through each run — and no more. Though rough patches remained even at dress rehearsal, I was impressed at how adroitly she managed to fix each difficult section, one by one, keep the singers’ spirits high, and give both groups exactly what we needed simultaneously.

Lewis & Clark Community Chorale and Venerable Showers of Beauty rehearse Missa Gongso

Watching her work out these cultural translations and collaborations with Mindy (who has a master’s degree in mediation) made me think that if we could turn over the world’s diplomatic problems to these smart, cooperative artists, the world would be a much more peaceful place.

The Javanese material also proved harder than expected, especially for us singers. We didn’t have a good recording of how a couple of the songs were supposed to sound. Eventually, Mindy asked our generously patient instrumentalists to play easy (for them) sections for us over and over, while we singers worked out each phrase by phrase, until we were able to really sing with confidence. But because Midiyanto was drumming/conducting for us, and we hadn’t worked with him since the first day almost three months ago, and we’d have three wonderful guest musicians from Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica and Peni joining us the day of the show, we didn’t really bring those pieces together until the two rehearsals with everyone together on stage.

Jesse Snyder from Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica

And the stage made a huge difference. Unlike Western music, gamelan depends so much on hearing each other to know where you are that when you switch venues, it’s often a struggle to stay together, because sounds you were (sometimes unconsciously) cueing from in weeks of studio rehearsal suddenly aren’t audible on stage. For a group that had hitherto performed in public only in music we’d typically played for years, all this was scary.

But last year’s concert and others we’d played recently in various venues paid off: Our group quickly adjusted to the new sonic environment — a sign of its growing skill. By rehearsals’ end, just like last year, we were ready to play the traditional material.

However, all the work on that and the Missa Gongso left us little time to work on the third major challenge: Harrison’s powerful Double Concerto. Our soloists were busy professional classical musicians with teaching and performing gigs, and one, University of Oregon faculty violinist Fritz Gearhart (a superb Oregon musician whose performances with the Eugene Symphony and Oregon String Quartet and others I’d much admired), had to drive up from Eugene. S o we got only a couple of run throughs with the soloists.  We never did run the whole piece (the second movement required only two of our members) complete before showtime.

Fortunately, most members could rely on their experience interpreting traditional Javanese classical music to get through the piece. Unfortunately, thanks to Harrison’s thorny obbligato part I’d recklessly signed up for, I wasn’t one of them. And now we simply didn’t have time for me and the others who faced unusual tests in that piece to practice. The concert day had arrived.

And I was sick.

To be continued…

Linda Hutchins. silver and rust. silver wall drawing; 9'h x 15'w x 20'd. 2011.

Linda Hutchins. silver and rust. silver wall drawing; 9'h x 15'w x 20'd. 2011.

 

…the wall as a measure of the time it takes to speak, the hands as percussive…

Ethereal curtains. She calls them ribs. But any name is provisional, an approximation, a suggestion.

These are marks made by Linda Hutchins on the walls of Nine Gallery for the installation, silver and rust, on which she and poet Endi Hartigan have collaborated. When Hartigan and Hutchins met, Hutchins had begun experimenting with fingertip drawings, using nails on carbon-like paper to make scratch marks. And then came the thimbles. Here in Nine Gallery, ten silver thimbles tip each finger as she splays her hands at the ends of her upstretched, outstretched arms and makes marks, moving her hands up and down the wall in short strokes, always eight times; then she lifts her hands from the walls and moves them inward and down, replacing them on the wall and marking again.

The low-high sound of each mark-and-return times ten fingers is rhythmic and mezmerizing. Of course, I was lucky to be there, to hear. When you stand before these marks, you’ll have to imagine the silver scratchings. And this is as it should be, because these drawings are a record of a body in a space in time, the splay of Hutchins’ fingers, the height of her reach, the level of her heart which is at the foot of the valleys to which these swooping curtains dip.

And as they met, earlier this year, Hartigan was working on a suite of poems that, among other things she thinks of as an “incantation against nothingness, the calling into being what is not there,” in “the intermediate zone between the lyric and the world, the self and the voice, the white space and the image.” And so it was that the image spoke to the word and the word spoke to the image and silver and rust was called into being from the Nine Gallery’s white walls…but just barely. Some of the patterned drawings are so faint that you have to get close, very close, to see their thin lines. Hartigan’s sheaf of poems sits inside the door of the space, several pages hung on pins above. She’s been revising the poems throughout the course of the exhibition and rehanging select pages as Hutchins has added to the wall drawings, sometimes in response to Hartigan’s poems…the circular, flower-like forms elsewhere on the wall, for example, in direct response to Hartigan’s poem “Flowering Ribs.”

Elsewhere, Hutchins drawings truly do look like scratchings. This is what they sound like:

Thimbles.2

This is in case you missed the performance that artist and poet did, alternating between Hartigan reading and the sound and movement of Hutchins drawing. It can be no accident that a poem like Hartigan’s “Everything that is not a goldfish,” swoops and repeats rhythmically. It can be no accident that it speaks to this collaboration, to this set of drawings, to its own state situated as a poem in an art installation, to abstraction itself, abstractly and perfectly as only a poem could.

Everything that is not a goldfish
(excerpt)

Everything that is not a goldfish
Everything that is not a mustang
or a goldfish everything that is not a cloud

improved or a mustang or a person or a goldfish
improved Everything that is not a mustang
or a love or the molting improvement

Everything that is not everything improved
in a person become the molting of persons everything
that is still diminished in what it’s not be a mustang

Everything that is not the state of diminishment
become the state of a mustang everything
that is still a state of a mustang state itself

Everything incanted as a small curl
everything incanted forth glittering
Everything diminished and incanted….

 

And this is what is so rewarding about this installation: that the poem does not determine the drawing, that the drawing does not dictate the poem. Rather there are points at which they touch, and as Hutchins’ thimble-clad fingers touch the walls, something happens there. There is this silver membrane between word and image that remains intact, that filters the empirical, the obvious, through the sensitivities of two artists to create a productive ambiguous zone open to the viewer’s individual experience and imagination.

 

Linda Hutchins. silver and rust. silver wall drawing; 9'h x 15'w x 20'd. 2011.

Linda Hutchins. silver and rust. silver wall drawing; 9'h x 15'w x 20'd. 2011. detail.

 

Now come close, and look up. And you will see the glint of silver in the marks. And you might imagine as I did, a gilded space that had been created stroke by thimble stroke in a white box of a space. In looking up you will also see, running along the tops of the walls, excerpts from Hartigan’s “Whale Speech Elegy” which encapsulates the back and forth dance between drawing and poem: “…the wall as a measure of time it takes to speak, the hands as percussive….”


Closing reception and conversation with Barbara Tetenbaum:

Saturday, December 31, 11:00 am at Nine Gallery, 122 NW 8th Avenue
Related drawings on paper through Dec. 31 at Pulliam Gallery, 929 NW Flanders Street

 

The Venerable Showers of Beauty's instruments are more than 130 years old.

I normally keep my journalism and my amateur musical avocation as detached as Woody Allen separates his jazz gigs from his movies, but when OAW’s El Queso Grande asked me to recount the experience as a way to jump start an occasional series of first person accounts by Portland performers and creative artists, I acceded to the request in hopes that it will provide some insights a common Portland phenomenon: making art in your spare time.

Last month, the ensemble I play and sing in, Venerable Showers of Beauty Gamelan (VSB) faced one of its biggest challenges ever: An amateur music ensemble had to suddenly take on much more complicated and challenging repertoire — including music from the Western classical tradition, and to collaborate with musicians trained in that utterly different tradition.

Continues…

Yes, you wanted your holiday gift givers to buy local — but come on, you really didn’t want that official Mt. St. Helens lava lamp or the chocolate covered Willamette Valley slugs. What you really wanted was some made-in-Oregon recordings, and we’re here to oblige with this round up of CDs I recommended over the past year in Eugene Weekly, Willamette Week and elsewhere. Why not buy them from a local retailer?

 

Portland Baroque Orchestra: St. John Passion

Until recently, performances of Bach’s two surviving musical retellings of Jesus’s death often used bloated orchestras, choruses, and industrial strength modern instruments and tunings that violated what scholars believe to be the composer’s intentions, and rendered it an impenetrable, oversized musical monument rather than an intimate musical drama. Bach’s score doesn’t specify how many singers and players to use, but long-time PBO music director and veteran English early music violinist Monica Huggett has found that a small (a dozen each) chorus and orchestra make the porridge taste just right. Last spring’s transcendent PBO performances of this music —my favorite of several dozen classical concerts I heard last year, and one of the finest I’ve ever experienced –demonstrated the aptness of that approach, achieving an ideal combination of power and intimacy. Abetted by the outstanding Portland chorus Cappella Romana and uniformly superb soloists from Canada’s Le Voix Baroque, PBO’s bracing, crisp, urgent and emotionally searing recording is the most gripping I’ve heard — including others performed in the tunings and styles and on the instruments Bach knew. It makes PBO’s recent partnership with the Oregon Bach Festival (once a major perpetrator of anachronistic Passion performances) all the more welcome.

Cappella Romana: Mt.Sinai: Frontier of Byzantium
In its own concerts, the Portland-based chorus specializes in the powerfully austere music from the Byzantine empire. The group’s two decades of experience, its stentorian performance, and the expertise of its London-based director, Portland-born Alexander Lingas, and his scholarly consultants, makes this one of the definitive recordings of these haunting ancient vocal sounds. Drawn from medieval manuscripts fortunately preserved in a Greek Orthodox monastery at Mt. Sinai, the unison chant-like melody over a mesmerizing vocal drone somehow never grows tiresome, either live or on this splendid recording, which wisely preserves the cathedral echo and resonance listeners would hear live — now or a millennium or more ago.

Martingale Ensemble: Mahler: Symphony #4
A chamber orchestra version of a symphony by classical music’s mega-orchestrator may seem as appealing — and as oxymoronic — as fat-free cheese. Yet slimmed down instrumental textures can often reveal musical nuances obscured by a plethora of instruments. This 1921 reduction of Mahler’s 1901 original, arranged for a series of concerts arranged by composer Arnold Schoenberg, makes an appropriate vehicle for this most pastoral of the nature-worshiping composer’s symphonic statements. (Last summer, Chamber Music Northwest featured a gorgeous reduction of another Mahler masterwork, The Song of the Earth, intended for that series.) The 12-member ensemble here (featuring some of Portland’s finest musicians, including members of the Oregon Symphony) affords greater transparency for the symphony’s musical textures and evokes its essential atmosphere. Same goes for the other work on the disk, a 1920 arrangement Claude Debussy’s beguilingly impressionistic, gently revolutionary Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

Oregon Symphony: Music for a Time of War
The orchestra’s first CD with music director Carlos Kalmar repeats last May’s Carnegie Hall program that won effusive accolades from the New York Times and New Yorker critic Alex Ross, and which utterly transfixed me a week earlier at Portland’s Schnitzer Concert Hall. Although only John Adams’s somber setting of Walt Whitman’s The Wound Dresser (featuring the always-imposing singer Sanford Sylvan) specifically makes martial allusions, the ferocious, ominous mood of powerful but comparatively rarely heard works by Benjamin Britten (Sinfonia da Requiem) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (Symphony #4), plus Charles Ives’s opening American classic, The Unanswered Question, evokes the violence and anguish of our own era’s conflicts. Like the Carnegie triumph, this CD’s blistering, committed, sharply etched performances should show the rest of the world just how far the orchestra has raised its game since Kalmar’s arrival, and is certainly one of the year’s most compelling classical recordings.

Oregon Guitar Quartet: Something Wondrous Fair; Realizations
This fab foursome of award-winning Northwest classical solo fretboard masters— award winning composer Bryan Johanson, fellow Portland State University profs David Franzen and Jesse McCann, Portland Community College prof John Mery, who plays in various ensembles — released two splendid CDs in the past year. Wondrous Fair, comprising Johanson’s ingenious original arrangements of American folk music from blues to ballads to fiddle tunes to Thelonious Monk’s jazz classic, “Well, You Needn’t,” lives up to its title. Realizations sets Baroque classics by Bach, Haydn, Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Piccini in arrangements that demonstrate how, in the hands of players like these, whose nuanced control of texture and dynamics imbues so much musical color, a seemingly monochromatic ensemble can almost serve as a little chamber orchestra, adept at elucidating Baroque counterpoint and providing a different perspective upon and new insights into these 18th century masterworks.

Vagabond Opera: Sing for Your Lives
The Portland-based self described Balkan Arabic Klezmer-based, original absurdist cabaret ensemble’s most assured and cohesive recorded work to date maintains its hallmark variety, with a Brazilian and fado fueled piece, odd-metered East European dance music, a tango, and more. But this time, the many elements feel fully assimilated rather than occasionally derivative, maybe because they’re all originals written by the band members, including VO founder/leader and erstwhile opera singer Eric Stern and cellist/chanteuse Ashia Grzesik, a one-time Cirque du Soleil musician who maintains a flourishing solo career. You won’t hear more fun in a classically oriented disk this year.

Klezmocracy: Reach
Though klezmer (East European Jewish music) influences still wail, the Portland band’s second CD unleashes an extensive panoply of styles that reflects the breadth of the band’s many influences. After opening on a low-key note with composer Joe Janiga’s meditative “Columbia, the Headwaters,” inspired by the river, “Hava Netze,” Janiga’s Carl Stalling-esque “deconstruction” of a traditional Israeli dance tune that is goosed along by Jason Dumars’ intentionally detuned sax parts and Damian Erskine’s frantic bass line. Like other cuts, “First” embraces the odd meters characteristic of much East European music. Ralph Huntley wrote “Mideast Midwest” for his old rock band, but its polkafied klezmer feel fit the session, while his laid back “Grin File,” based on a trance rock melody, locks into a gorgeous sax groove. Janiga’s raucous Mingus-tinged “Adventures of a Soliloquy” updates an older two-beat klezmer track. After the stately, dreamy “Slow Beginnings,” saxophonist/slide guitarist/ 3 Leg Torso founder Courtney Von Drehle’s “Resolution” kicks off like an early ‘60s Coltrane cut, then embarks on a predictably unpredictable detour. Huntley contributes a lovely piano solo to his arrangement of 20th century Armenian Georgian composer Aram Khachaturian’s “Tales of Ivan.” “Jovano Jovanke,” jams on what Huntley calls “the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of traditional Macedonian songs.” Janiga’s “My I Am” transforms a fragment of an Israeli dance tune into a Black Sabbath tribute. But for all its stylistic divagations, whether it’s the solid underlying rhythmic pulse — all members are experienced dance accompanists — or the band’s natural chemistry, this Reach doesn’t exceed its grasp.

Various Composers: Light and Shadow (Navona Records)
Eugene-based composer Rebecca Oswald has two of the loveliest pieces on this disk of modern symphonic works performed by several orchestras, in this case the Moravian Philharmonic. Movie directors take note: “Finding the Murray River” could almost work as a film soundtrack behind one of a long pastoral shot of a carriage riding down a country road. “Sleep, Child” is an uneasy lullabye that seems to reflect (and quite fetchingly) troubled dreams rather than soothing thoughts.

Cynthia Stillman Gerdes: Solo and Chamber Music

The Seattle born, Portland-based composer enlists some of that city’s top musicians in this impressively varied disk of solo and chamber music that includes a sly tango for violin and piano, a cheeky little toccata, a charming pair of piano waltzes inspired by resumed correspondence between the composer and an old high school beau, a lively piano fanfare that demands an orchestration, somber piano and trombone duets, and a series of short, reflective solo piano pieces performed by Portland Piano International director Harold Gray. More ambitious works include now-assertive, now-delicate settings of songs (sung by Portland State University opera director Christine Meadows) from Portland author Ursula LeGuin’s translation of the Tao Te Ching; an extended, wide ranging conversation for piano and cello; a meandering, rhapsodic mood swing for violin and piano appropriately titled Crazy Jane; and “Idaho Toccata Trio,” a vibrant musical retrospective of Gerdes’s Boise childhood, with nostalgic references to cowboy songs and other old-timey tunes.

Adam Hurst:The Secret

After last year’s turn from Arab-influenced drones to a more Romantic style, with piano accompaniment, the Portland-based cellist continues to evolve on his ninth CD, which pairs his cello with an  “Array mbira” — a four-octave chromatic thumb piano whose shimmering, dreamy sound complements Hurst’s own. If you’re looking for rich, dark, moody sounds on a chill winter’s eve, Hurst is your composer. At the end of 2011, he released a compilation drawn from his earlier CDs, and had formed a quartet that may impend a new group-oriented direction.

Ezra Weiss:  The Shirley Horn Suite 

Over the course of four CDs and a decade on the Portland and New York jazz scenes, the still-youthful pianist has proved to be a reliably elegant and increasingly economical straightahead player and composer. On this lustrous new album, Weiss (who teaches at Portland State) honors the legendary jazz pianist / singer who also had the confidence and taste to leave plenty of space for feeling to emerge— characteristics that earned Horn the admiration of Miles Davis. The limpid instrumental trio pieces frequently achieve a reflective beauty that will enchant any fan of mainstream piano jazz, while the lovely original songs featuring veteran Northwest chanteuse Shirley Nanette don’t clone Horn’s sound, but do share her measured, relaxed swing and emotional depth.

Bill Beach: Buzios

Like pearl divers referred to in the title track of his breezy new CD, Portland pianist/singer Beach dove deeply — into Brazil. Beguiled by that bossa beat, he devoted almost a decade to studying both Brazilian music (including a trip to the source) and the notoriously difficult (for non native speakers) to pronounce Portuguese, ultimately writing his own lyrics in the language.  Buzios consists entirely of original compositions and reveals a musician completely at home in the idiom.

Various Artists: Hendrix Uncovered (Marzena)

A true wild card, this collection of works inspired by Seattle’s great musician, James Marshall Hendrix,  reveals the guitar deity’s breadth of musical exploration, because none of the works by these little known (except for Seattle’s Stuart Dempster) Canadian, US and European composers sound much like each other, yet all provide fascinating listening experiences, whether rendered by guitar, saxes, trombone and didjeridu, cello, Hendrix samples, kalimbas, “Oriental instruments and voices,” tape collages, viola, percussion, “cosmic background radiation” and various combinations of the above. Even the titles — “Almost Nothing like Purple Haze,” Castles Made of Sound,” et al are inventive. An obvious labor of love assembled by Portland composer Bob Priest, this may be the only Hendrix tribute that goes as far out, in its own deliciously weird ways, as its subject.

Karen Karbo recently concluded a set of three interpretations of famous 20th century American women — Coco Chanel, Kate Hepburn and now Georgia O’Keeffe. They all lived long lives. They were independent of spirit and just about every other possible way. And they all happened to be very successful.

O’Keeffe’s artistic life started in early modernist New York City, under the great impresario and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and she ended famously in New Mexico, gradually becoming a sort of cult figure. Karbo focuses on the earlier years, when O’Keeffe struggled desperately to figure out her way as an artist, and in that struggle for identity, Karbo manages to find some lessons for herself and the rest of us. And that makes for a very entertaining book.

Karbo chatted with me one day earlier this month. I recorded the interview in her house, with dogs underfoot, and what started out to be a quick little talk, expanded into something a little larger. Hope you enjoy it!

OAW Audio Karen Karbo by Oregon Arts Watch

Here are some photos that represent the ones we were looking at during the interview (though not the exact ones!).

Stieglitz took this photograph of O'Keeffe in 1918 (a year later than the one Karbo discussed).

This Stieglitz photo from 1929 is from the same session as the one we discussed.

Georgia O'Keefe's "Blue Line," Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O'Keeffe's "Two Calla Lilies on Pink," Philadelphia Museum of Art

If you’re sated by endless repetition of the same old versions of the same old holiday tunes, salvation, in the form of quick digital downloads, is just a click or three away. Here’s what’s in rotation at my family’s gathering.

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus: Sing & Swing the Season

This jazzy, just-released take on seasonal sounds forsakes the fa la la la las for other no less appropriate fare: Portland-born composer Morten Lauridsen’s modern classic “O Magnum Mysterium,” “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” a couple of Hanukkah pieces, the spiritual “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” which really should be a top choice every Christmas, Latin rhythms on pieces like “Stomp the Halls,” a perky “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and a dozen other not so familiar holiday tunes. Accompanied by a wind orchestra and swing band, both led by pianist Michael Barnes, and recorded live (and occasionally sometimes sounding a little boomy as a result) at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, Portland’s Westminster Presbyterian Church and Vancouver’s Skyview High over the past couple of years, it’s a fun holiday CD.

Cantus: Christmas with Cantus

The superb Minneapolis-based men’s chorus’s new holiday record, in contrast, is a much more solemn affair, showcasing the group’s rich harmonies in modern arrangements of half-millennium old carols from France, England, Slovenia and beyond, plus newer works by John Tavener and others, familiar tunes (“Carol of the Bells,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?, Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” Hugh Martin’s touching chestnut “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), and even a couple of Native American tunes, including an oldie from the Muskogee.

Eileen Ivers: An Nollaig: An Irish Christmas

A predictably livelier affair, the Irish American fiddler’s 2007 disk kicks off with an exuberant “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and proceeds through various relatively obscure and sometimes wistful carols and jigs, a gorgeous guest appearance by the unmistakeable voice of Susan McKeown, and a few familiar tunes, including Vince Guaraldi’s modern classic, “Christmastime is Here,” the album’s highlight.

Anonymous 4: The Cherry Tree

The word “carol” encompasses a lot more than Christmas  and a lot more than the dozen or so we typically hear this time of year. Take the title track, in which fetal Jesus responds to angry Joseph’s “The Supreme Being knocked you up? Yeah, right” by commanding the cherry trees to bow down and give Mary a little fruit and Joseph a little comeuppance. Like many of the songs on this sublime 2010 comeback collection from the planet’s pre-eminent female vocal ensemble, it dates back half a millennium, but the version affectingly  sung solo by A4’s Marsha Genensky — who though ironically obscured into anonymity by her group affiliation, surely belongs at the top of any list of today’s finest singers — comes from Kentucky. It and other Appalachian folk hymns here collected in an 1820s songbook connect to the album’s startling variety of medieval carols and ballads via texts, tunes or stories. And together, they perfectly bridge the medieval and early Renaissance repertoire that made A4 famous, and the group’s more recent and equally successful forays into traditional Anglo-American sounds (American Angels and Gloryland). Although, as scholars as well as performers, they’re careful to tailor their delivery in the appropriate idioms, you hear the common thread winding across the ocean and down the centuries.

John Zorn: A Dreamer’s Christmas
Guaraldi’s surprisingly melancholy Peanuts tune also highlights my favorite holiday album since, well, A Charlie Brown Christmas. And I thought Bob Dylan had made the least likely Christmas album. Jazz’s most iconoclastic composer, who founded a terrific Jewish music record label, makes an utterly delightful jazz Christmas record — perhaps not so surprising when you consider the crack lineup (guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist Jamie Saft, percussionist Kenny Wolleson, bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Joey Baron and more) he’s enlisted.

 

 

The Beach Boys: Smile
OK, maybe not entirely seasonally appropriate except for the fact that it was released last month just coincidentally in time for the Season of Acquisition. But it does start with a wordless prayer that’s as lovely as any short choral piece you’ll ever hear, and one of its two masterpieces, the poetically post apocalyptic “Surf’s Up” ends thus:

I heard the word
wonderful thing
a children’s song
A child is the father of the man
A children’s song
Have you listened as they played
Their song is love
And the children know the way

Which fits the spirit of the season. This is one masterpiece that will never really be finished, in the sense of realizing its initial ambitions; we’ll never know what might have been if auteur/composer Brian Wilson hadn’t wilted in the face of the era’s technological limitations, the album’s endlessly recombinable modular compositional concept, his own mental illness and pharmacological immoderation, and resistance from bandmate Mike Love and his record label. But after decades of awaiting an official release of the most famous album never made, hearing a convincing assemblage (the second since Wilson’s own 2004 remake) is like finding a long-awaited Christmas present that had been stuck in the chimney for 45 years, which is when most of the material was recorded. It reveals that Wilson merited the ultimately stress-accolade as one of the 20th century’s greatest composers, bestowed upon him by no less august an authority than Leonard Bernstein around that time.

This psychedelic history of America from Plymouth Rock to blue Hawaii pulses with poetry, good vibes, magnificent music and, yes smiles. Wilson’s “teenage symphony to God” represents the pinnacle of popular music’s artistic achievement, and demonstrates that avant garde ambition (including dashes of aleatoric and musique concrete techniques) and accessibility can not only co-exist but flourish. What Wilson created in that magical stretch between 1966 and ’67 belongs at the very zenith of 20th century American music, and on your holiday playlist.

And if you’re interested in some homegrown Oregon classical music recordings — whether for gifts for others or for yourself — check out my reviews of new CDs by Portland Baroque Orchestra, Oregon Symphony, Oregon Guitar Quartet, Vagabond Opera, Martingale Ensemble and Cappella Romana in the current issue of Eugene Weekly.

 
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