45th Parallel preview: from conflict to collaboration

ArtsWatch review provokes contention, then cooperation as ensemble invites writer to co-curate a concert featuring music by young Oregon composers

The young Oregon-born critic was dismissive. The program contained only music by dead European composers, and the performance, he wrote in his review, “was especially remarkable in that it was so out of tune, and set something of a record in that its well-trained constituents . . . played wrong notes in a simple piece….”

The conductor complained to the young reviewer. His expectations were too high, he said, for a struggling orchestra whose funding allowed for minimal rehearsal time. If you think you can do better, do it.

The young critic, who was also a composer, accepted the challenge. He programmed a concert by the same group he’d criticized the following season, including a work by a neglected and revolutionary American composer, Charles Ives, another work by one of the critic’s own neglected American contemporaries, and a new work the critic had composed himself. As we’ll see below, the concert that followed, on  April 5, 1946, became a milestone in American music.

This happened seven decades ago. The young critic-composer, Lou Harrison, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, had chided the New York Little Symphony for its December 1944 performance, and that ensemble’s director, Joseph Barone, invited Harrison to program a subsequent concert.

Bliss (l) and Ewer found common ground.

But something similar is also happening right here in Portland, Harrison’s birthplace, this Wednesday, March 29, when 45th Parallel Ensemble performs music by 20th century American composers (including Ives) and three 21st century Oregons — including the young Oregon ArtsWatch composer-writer whose negative assessment of one of the ensemble’s 2015 shows led them to challenge him to do better. We’ll find out Wednesday night whether he met the challenge. But for those who care about the future of classical music, the story that led to the concert is just as promising.

Inciting Incidents

ArtsWatch readers probably remember the uproar that ensued after Salem composer-writer Tristan Bliss’s “non-review” — really an essay about the frequent brain-dead necromusicophilia that throughout the 20th and 21st century has kept classical music concerts fetishizing the past rather than looking forward, or even to today’s culture. “I used it as a way to explore larger structures in the classical music world and comment on those instead of just doing the same old reviewing style,” Bliss recalled last week.

Readers who’d experienced the hostile responses posted on OAW and Facebook to an earlier OAW critical review of one of the ensemble’s concerts weren’t surprised to see the same sort of knee jerk defensiveness peppering the comments thread for this one. Nor should the increasingly heated tone of subsequent comments on Bliss’s review surprise anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the internet trollery (the Oregonian’s O Live site will provide a primer for anyone unfamiliar) that has turned the medium into a desert of actual reasoned engagement. There’s something about the instant, non-face-to-face mechanism of comments that brings out the worst in us.

Although in helping our readers discover the art that’s most worth their hard earned dollars and attention, ArtsWatch has occasionally criticized (positively and otherwise) many dance, theater, visual arts and other performers, only in the hidebound world of classical music do a few artists lash back with such unreasoned hostility and refusal to engage in rational discussion, much less alter course to avoid their headlong rush to the chasm of cultural irrelevance. Maybe that fear that fewer and fewer people care about their concerts is what produces so much heat instead of light.

Whatever the reason, Bliss understandably declined our offer to respond to the incendiaries, correctly noting that hardly any of the commentators (some of whom made what he calls “classist” insults about his working class status) actually addressed the substance of his argument. And for the only time in our history, ArtsWatch founder Barry Johnson, a longtime advocate of open constructive conversation about the arts, had to shut down the venemous comment thread, for reasons explained here. We’ve never seen this happen with any other Oregon artists. Too many journalism sites have found their audiences dwindling because readers are turned off by such hostility; many have moved comments to social media sites for just this reason, to get the poison out of the system. Word of the controversy even spread throughout the cozy classical music world, picked up as far away as London by author and classical music commentator Norman Lebrecht.

Finding Common Ground

Which makes what happened next even more surprising — and admirable. Sensing Bliss’s sincere desire to make classical music concerts more appealing to audiences his age (now 23), 45th Parallel artistic director Greg Ewer challenged him to compose a piece for the ensemble. Bliss took him up on the offer, and they met at a Portland coffee shop where Bliss showed Ewer a piece in progress. Now it was just two musicians, both interested in broadening the audience for classical music, talking face to face, score to score.

Tempers having cooled, and chagrined at how “that crazy comment thread” had gotten “out of control,” Ewer reached out, commendably inviting Bliss to help him create a 45th Parallel show that Bliss and his demographic cohort would want to attend. That’s the concert happening Wednesday night.

“I think it’s worked out great,” Ewer told ArtsWatch last week. “The first time we met, it was clear to both of us that we were both easygoing people and once we were there sitting across from each other instead of arguing online, we were talking about music. I was right about his desire to engage. Let’s see if we could come up something would appeal to people more his age.”

Tristan Bliss seeks creative inspiration.

“He’s been really receptive,” Bliss recalled. “The program is pretty  much 50-50 the pieces I wanted to program and the ones he wanted to program. He didn’t try to strong arm anything, and we have a really good relationship now, which is a really interesting and cool development. It’s all turned out out way better than I ever imagined.”

Sources of Inspiration

What they wound up with, Classical Crossroads, is one of the most intriguing and adventurous concerts of the year in Oregon classical music — a program, Ewer explains, that looks at aspects of contemporary culture that influence contemporary composers such as cartoons (New York composer John Zorn’s Cat O’ Nine Tails) and major events (Chen Yi’s Burning, a response to the September 11 attacks) to pop music (an arrangement of Guns ’n Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine.”)

Bliss chose solo piano works by Oregon composers Thomas DeNicola and Paul Safar and a solo cello piece by young Portland composer Nicholas Yandell, all of whom have had music performed at Cascadia Composers concerts. Along with their individual quality, Bliss says, “they were chosen for how they interact with the whole of the program and how they could be programmed in a sequence to create a larger flow to the concert.”

He says Yandell’s piece uses techniques previously used by composers to organize dissonant sounds to instead organize consonance. Safar’s solo piano composition comes “straight out of the Chopin tradition of really dense sustained harmony in the left hand and a right hand melody that floats above it,” Bliss says. “It’s oddly ethereal but also sounds very modern.” And recent Portland State graduate DeNicola’s tremolo-driven composition is “a real original intepreetatin of what a solo piano piece can be and you can structure ideas on the piano. It manages to sound very natural, but also not like a normal piano piece.”

They also picked Charles Ives’s wild yet nostalgic Hallowe’en, appropriate for music that seems superficially scary to some, but turns out to be all in good fun.

Bliss’s own Requiem for a Tradition begins with what “was meant to be a fuck you to the classical tradition, distorting these loved heirlooms,” including familiar classics like Igor Stravinsky’s century-plus old Rite of Spring and Felix Mendelssohn’s famous e minor violin concerto. But far more than pastiche or parody, it turns into something more visceral, dense yet minimalist influenced, that will grab millennials and other listeners to today’s metal, industrial, and electronic music.

“The overall structure is an attempt to move through different eras of music history and use those recognizable things to create a new and unrecognizable thing,” Bliss explains. “I’m not saying any of that music doesn’t have value. It’s just the context has changed — the world has changed wildly since that music was written, so the way the we interact with it needs to change.”

Looking Forward

Concerts like this show that the context can change, if musicians of good will can come together and respond to what moves today’s audiences. No single concert, whether in 1946 or 2017, will solve all of classical music’s demographic challenges, from archaic, unimaginative presentation and performance practices to dull, underrehearsed performances to high ticket prices and many others discussed here and elsewhere over the years.

Nor will it solve the internet’s enabling of the human tendency to retreat to self reinforcing bubbles rather than opening minds to new ideas and approaches.

Lou Harrison.

But maybe it’s a start. Or rather a re-start. Cooperation can produce happy endings. Lou Harrison’s performance helped Charles Ives, who was mostly forgotten (if he’d been heard of at all) by the 1940s, win the Pulitzer Prize — for a forward-looking composition he’d written decades earlier, his Symphony #3, which Harrison premiered (and conducted) in that concert. (For the surprising story of Harrison’s long relationship with Ives’s music and how the award happened, you’ll have to read my book.) It helped put Ives and his fearless, trailblazing music into the culture’s artistic consciousness.

That concert was only one way in which Ives and Harrison were ahead of their times. Harrison, born in Portland 100 years ago in May, himself didn’t really become well known in American classical music until he was in his 70s. Although his listener-friendly yet innovative music has earned a much larger audience than most classical composers, it may still be ahead of its time in Oregon. For although his centennial year is seeing performances of Harrison’s music from San Francisco to Ohio to Seattle to Lapland (!) to Washington to New York, none of his own hometown classical orchestras or ensembles have announced plans to perform the music of Oregon’s greatest composer in his centenary year. (Stay tuned to ArtsWatch for news of a major Portland Harrison celebration coming in June.)

Like Harrison 70 years ago, Tristan Bliss deserves serious kudos for his unflinchingly honest assessment of classical music’s shortcomings, and for smoothly transitioning from critic to cooperative concert programmer. Greg Ewer deserves serious credit for overcoming defensiveness and trying to accommodate the future rather than resisting it. Both merit our admiration for their collaborative creativity, which might eventually produce what everyone wants: diverse audiences for music relevant to contemporary concerns.

Like any other art form, classical music must evolve or die. With this show, 45th Parallel joins other Oregon chamber music groups that are starting to evolve, as we’ve frequently chronicled. Even if this week’s concert doesn’t produce a Pulitzer  or make the internet safe for reasoned dialogue, maybe together, they’re showing that it’s possible to leave behind unproductive old thinking and to broaden the audience for classical music new and old.

45th Parallel presents Classical Crossroads on Wednesday, March 29 at 7:30 pm at Artists Repertory Theatre (Alder Stage) in downtown Portland. Artists Repertory Theatre is located at 1516 SW Alder St., Portland.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

3 Responses.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    Brett, congratulations on your Harrison book finally coming out – looking forward to reading it – will ask my local bookseller to order it – always first choice over Bezos’ empire

    • Thanks, Jack, and agreed: always best to quench our bookish thirsts at homegrown literary oases. Ask your local bookstore to order a few copies, y’all!

  2. bob priest says:

    Yes, high ticket prices – an irksome matter. Simply put, the cost to attend this fascinating concert is out-of-range for many potential audience members.

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