45th Parallel review: Critical approach

Converting criticism into collaborative programming, concert features several generations of American composers, including contemporary Oregonians


If there were any doubt that music reviewers can influence the programming of classical concerts, that contention was put to rest, at least temporarily, on Wednesday night, March 29, in the latest concert of the Portland ensemble 45th Parallel. Reviewing one of the group’s earlier concerts from 2015, a young composer from Salem called Tristan Bliss (b. 1993) had attacked the program of 20th-century music as being uninterestingly composed of late Romantic pieces. Mr. Bliss went so far as to accuse Oregon composer Kenji Bunch of being merely part of a hidebound music establishment, and the ensemble as being afraid of truly new music and dedicated to consigning it to oblivion by not programming it.

45th Parallel performed Tristan Bliss’s ‘Requiem for a Tradition.’ Photo: Joe Cantrell.

This review rankled, needless to say, and 45th Parallel leader Gregory Ewer responded angrily online. A brief brouhaha ensued, with the result that Ewer invited Bliss to collaborate in planning a 45th Parallel concert. Bliss accepted and suggested five pieces, all written in the past three years, with the exception of perennial renegade Charles Ives’s piano quintet Hallowe’en, written way back in 1906 but sounding thoroughly contemporary. Ewer added three other selections, the earliest from 1988, and voilà! A concert was born.

Before commenting on the music, let it be said that the players of 45th Parallel are among the best in Portland, and the most expressive onstage. Violinists Ron Blessinger and Ewer, violist Charles Noble, cellist Marilyn de Oliveira, and pianist Doug Schneider, along with guests Thomas DeNicola on piano, Joseph Berger on horn, and Sergio Carreño on drums, gave lively, committed, and exciting renditions of whatever music they found before them. It would be more than worthwhile to attend any 45th Parallel concert, regardless of the music, just to hear these talented people perform.

Third Angle’s string quartet performed at 45th Parallel’s concert. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

The concert, which lasted a bit more than an hour without intermission, began with a delightful pastiche by the highly respected New York composer John Zorn, born in 1953. His Cat O’nine Tails — Tex Avery Meets the Marquis de Sade from 1988, was brilliantly and hilariously rendered by the Third Angle String Quartet: Blessinger and Ewer on violin, Noble on viola, Oliveira on cello. In this frankly humorous composition, we encounter ungodly scratching on or off the strings of all four instruments, snatches of music reminiscent of Strauss waltzes, salon music, movie cartoons, and much more. Good clean fun.

Marilyn de Oliveira played music by Nicholas Yandell. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Ives’s Hallowe’en, like many another of this composer’s pieces, is a tongue-in-cheek affair, played here by the above quartet with addition of pianist Schneider. At only five minutes in length, it made a slight impression following Zorn’s longer opener. The next three pieces on the program were played back-to-back without much of a break between them, an effort by Mr. Bliss to give a sort of narrative impulse to the concert. In practice, Thomas DeNicola’s Night-Time Suite, #10: Notturno, although quietly atmospheric, was short to the point of near-evanescence, and Paul Safar’s Intermezzo: Geese in the Moonlight only slightly less so, both of them played by Mr. DeNicola (b. 1991) on piano, and both composed in 2016. The third piece, though, young Portland composer Nicholas Yandell‘s And the Surface Breaks for solo cello, from 2014, proved a mesmerizing seven minutes of mostly double stops as soulfully played by Ms. Oliveira.

Greg Ewer played Guns ‘n Roses. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Next it was time for Mr. Ewer to seize the spotlight with the most ebullient piece of the evening, and perhaps the best played: violinist Adam DeGraff’s 2009 arrangement of “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” a 1987 song by Guns N’ Roses. The crowd of 125, seated comfortably in Artists Repertory Theater’s small space, burst into raucous and well-deserved applause at its finish.

Then came a composition by Chinese-American composer Chen Yi, born in 1953, written as a reaction to a political event: Burning: Global Outrage, denouncing terrorist attacks on 9.11.2001. This is a piece that Mr. Ewer has said he admires greatly. Oddly, its opening mimics the opening of Mr. Zorn’s piece in its string noises produced by scratching. Thereafter, it lasts only another two-and-a-half minutes, not long enough to make much of an impression. I suspect that if its title were, say, Earthquake in Taiwan, it would not be embraced as it has been, although its music would be just as faithful to the title’s event.

Composer Tristan Bliss. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Finally, the activist-critic Tristan Bliss had his say, with a ten-minute piece, very recently composed, called Requiem for a Tradition. Written for the unusual ensemble of violin, horn, cello, piano, percussion, and electronics (which seemed mostly to consist of thunderstorm simulations toward the end), it began by quoting melodies from familiar classical pieces by dead (gasp!) composers, then disfiguring them, and finally devolving into a maelstrom of noise, with Mr. Carreño seated at a standard drum set.

In a post-concert discussion, Mr. Bliss admitted that the drums and horn had been included for their “noise,” which he avowedly prizes for its own sake. In fact, the decibel level rose far above the norm for classical music. But this enhancement, however invigorating for the composer, did nothing to elevate his Requiem to the level of decent chamber music. Mr. Bliss’s progressive agenda was better served earlier in the evening by the other composers, dead, old, or young.

Recommended recordings

• John Zorn, Cat O’nine Tails
The String Quartets (Tzadik TZ 7047), 1999.

• Charles Ives, Hallowe’en
Danse Macabre, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano conducting (Decca 4830396), 2016.

• Thomas DeNicola, Night-time Suite, #10: Notturno

• Paul Safar, Intermezzo: Geese in the Moonlight
The Warbler Sings (North Pacific Music NNP PS 2016), 2016.

Nicholas Yandell, And the Surface Breaks

Adam DeGraff (arr.), Sweet Child o’ Mine

Chen Yi, Burning
Sound of the Five, Third Angle New Music Ensemble (New World Records 80691), 2009.

• Tristan Bliss, Requiem for a Tradition
no recording available

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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2 Responses.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    Of course, in the classical concert hall “noise” is nothing new, IMHO Edgard Varèse is the trailblazer, par excellence. He exploded on the North American scene with “Amériques” (1921), premiered 1926, by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, who also performed “Hyperprism” (1924) and premiered “Arcana” (1927). The downbeat of the so-called “requiem” for the classical concert hall tradition was given over a hundred years ago, assigned by many to Stravinky’s iconic “Rite” (1913). Nevertheless, debate on many aspects of classical concert hall music fails to abate. We now enjoy (or suffer according to some) a wider range of musical language, aesthetic and formal constructs than ever, yet some in the field seem compelled to keep the accessibility-vs-pandering, experimental-vs-traditional, playable-vs-arcane (et al) polemics going. Well, if it grows and engages a wider audience, why not?

  2. bob priest says:

    Heck, when I want “noise,” I reach for my 50-CD Merzbow boxxxed-set!

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