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Cascadia Composers and Northwest Piano Trio reviews: The Color of Magic

April 11, 2016
Featured, Music


Lights out. In a dark cavernous church, twinkling blue Christmas lights bob their way to a harpsichord. They tilt over it, no doubt praying. They un-tilt and lower onto a bench. The instrument emits a long sustaining moan.

THE HARPSICHORD SUSTAINS??!!??? What spell has been cast?


Jennifer Wright.

No time to think, the blue lights are driving the instrument to react. Like T-cells attacking an infection, the notes bombard the drone. Above, a screen displays the sound waves — oscillating, colliding, and my growing anxiety isn’t “How did composer, Jennifer Wright, achieve this?” It’s “OMG, Who or What is going to Win? How will this play out?” In You Cannot Liberate Me, Only I Can Do That for Myself, the composer/performer has managed to translate a creative concept/challenge (how to sustain a percussive sound) into a universal dilemma (how to deal with the new: fight it, ward it off, accept?). To be fair, I figured this out long after the performance, but only because the gnawing anxiety pestered me to work through it, to come to closure.

Science transcends process. Houston, we have Magic.

Lately more and more Oregon indie classical and even establishment classical groups are starting to realize the value of programming new and locavore music. It’s a really good sign of a developing homegrown alt.classical scene that’s not depending on dead Europeans and insular New Yorkers. I want all these groups who are playing homegrown 21st century music to succeed because Oregon draws outlaws, visionary DIYers who don’t just want to make it in New York and LA—they have something to say to today’s audiences. Oregon can be the role model for LA, New York, Paris.

But new and local are only the beginning, necessary but not sufficient if classical music is to (re)connect with broader Oregon audiences. The events need to appeal broadly, unless you just want a niche audience. And niches won’t sustain new classical music.

Multimedia helps. Taking the performances out of churches and auditoriums and staging them in bars and black box theaters helps. Dressing down or up (anything but black nightgowns) helps. Choosing a program that takes the audience on a ride helps.

Alas, even these ingredients are necessary but still not sufficient. To draw broad audiences, the essential element that must be cultivated is Magic.

Magic is not learned; it is omnipresent — there for the taking. It is the thing we often discount, the first feeling that comes up, the first glib utterance out of our mouths when throwing around ideas. Magic can only be welcomed in when she subtly drops a bomb in your ear. Or not; one can opt out, thinking the voice is too crazy, will offend too many people or the wrong person, and do the safe, sane, currently-in-mode thing and hope it’s enough to generate ticket revenue to cover what the RACC grant doesn’t. And the creative concept itself is only a start — much more Magic, courage to support the magic inspirations and lots of grunt work (including practice/rehearsal hours) are needed on this yellow brick road to the Emerald City.

Two concerts featuring new music by Oregon composers showed what can happen when presenters listen for Magic and then vest themselves in the quest of fulfilling that inspiration … and what happens when they don’t.

Jennifer Wright’s blue light special, You Cannot Liberate Me: Only I Can Do That For Myself, described above, happened in another of a growing repertoire of successful shows spawned by Cascadia Composer and presenter Dan Brugh. Perceptions of Sound glowed in the dark of First Christian Church in Eugene, Oregon on January 30 …with the longest concert subtitle I’ve ever seen: “Perceptions of Sound: A multi-sensory concert experience. Science, Synesthesia and Special Effects: melding new art music with modern performance to expand the experience of sound.”

Perceptions of Sound poster tabloidWith a description that reads like an academic science journal, it took more than Jennifer Wright’s (yes, the same Jennifer Wright!) hippie-trippy poster design to bring out 230 Deadheads, University of Oregon students, the young fashionably dressed Eugeneans sitting behind me and sprinkled throughout the audience, the middle-aged…the curious. Which is where Cascadia Composer Paul Safar comes in.

Paul Safar with his partner, singer/entertainer Nancy Wood, spawned Eugene’s Cherry Blossom Musical Arts in 2003. A vaudeville presenter of sorts, this inclusive organization promotes the creation of new music by crafting performances with jugglers, clowns, Wood’s charismatic voice and stage presence, in short, anything tailored to ignite and hold the interest of a town famous for everything hippie and laid back — ground zero for the Grateful Dead, its fanboys/girls — the Deadheads, and the Oregon Country Fair.

As a composer, Safar embraces the accessible, the pop, the general audience. I expect catchy riffs and gentle sly humor when I hear his pieces — like “Ribbitation” the third movement from his saxophone quartet Frogs at Dusk.

Magic can happen when liaisons form and orange sparks fan and firework between gifted producers like Dan Brugh who veer toward Science/Entertainment, and gifted presenters who veer toward Arts/Entertainment like Paul Safar. Brugh, who not only has a nose for where to place a concert, but prescience of how many will come, chose….a church! It was the dome at First Christian Church and its acoustic potential for swirling sound that lured Brugh. Like the academic title, the choice of a church violated the new formula for reaching younger audiences… Sometimes accepting Magic means breaking the rules. Brugh had good reasons for his choices (whether he knew why, or not).

The Bewitching Hour

The lone cello on stage pierces the twilight hue and three ghosts waft through the audience, moths drawn to the amber sound. Performing from memory, in the dark, they enact the ethereal sounds of Nicholas Yandell’s The Bewitching Hour… like a Robert Wilson slo-mo sequence. Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet deserves a shout out for setting a very high bar for the evening’s Magic. The ghosts drift back out through the audience, still playing, and the lone cello pines after them from the stage. I was indeed bewitched.

Members of Delgani Quartet performed at Perceptions of Sound. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Members of Delgani Quartet performed at Perceptions of Sound. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

And with three exceptions, I was mesmerized by the program’s content and its arc. Breaking the evening’s ethereal dreamscape, three of the last four numbers jarred me into a benevolent nightmare, sweat-soaked, outrunning unpredictable situations, accelerating this tension to the very end.

First the exceptions. Portland composer Ted Clifford, who consistently wows me with his harmonically smart, hooky rhythmic compositions not only put me to sleep with the second piece, his Introspections for solo flute (played from the balcony no less), but actually annoyed me, cutting into my ongoing reverie of the first piece with mindlessly meandering flute. It was like listening to someone who talks incessantly to cover their insecurity, but says nothing. Had it been shorter, a one or two minute piece, it would have worked as a nice palate cleanser before Susan Alexjander’s exotic Eikos, where after many years, I again fell in love with the sound of the DX7 synthesizer she played.

Another piece by another favorite Portland composer, Lisa Marsh, totally fled my memory. Even with the charismatic Nancy Wood on vocals, I still cannot retrieve her Counting Again, Beginning at One. Maybe because the following piece, Jennifer Wright’s electric blue You Cannot Liberate Me… obliterated it in my brain, ending the first half. The third exception, Eugene composer Alexander Schwarzkopf’s Recycled Wheels, I can barely dredge up thoughts and feelings of insipid meh academic/conceptual composing. He’s a terrific pianist, though, judging by his playing on three very different and difficult works this evening. It just goes to show, you can program charismatic composers, you can pair them with charismatic performers and it all looks good on paper but it still doesn’t insure a magic performance.

You know what was great about intermission? Music to accompany our chatter! Brugh/Safar programmed Portland composer Christina Rusnak’s Incidental Music: White Rock Morning. White continued into the second half with Safar’s White Canvas with Eugene composer Daniel Heila’s white video. Coincidentally matching canvases, Heila’s beautiful birds rippled like heat waves through his video lens while he continued stalking them two miles out as they darted in and out of focus. Obsessive, geometric, abstract and hypnotic.

White Canvas ended the dream portion of the evening when vocalist Nancy Wood assaulted our serenity with her insomnia-purple presentation (and I mean this in a good way!) of ArtsWatch contributor Jeff Winslow’s Soon it Will be Night, complete with a bottle of sleeping pills. Even Schwarzkopf’s following unmemorable ditty couldn’t capture my attention enough to at least annoy me. Brandon Stewart, who viscerally conducted his dramatic sonic temper tantrum, Spectra, with its cannon-loud percussion built on Wood’s frustration with the onset of night and Brugh finished us off with his white hot, near-threatening Whispers (click on the MP3 audio file below to listen), as though taunting and daring us to exit into the night after the show.

This show ran with no breaks for applause between acts. A screen projected the titles of the pieces in addition to visual images accompanying certain works — fortunately, as printed programs ran out early at this packed event. No dead stage set-up time, no dead unscripted talking time, no clapping to shatter the ambience.

Missing the Magic

Six weeks later, on March 11, the newly formed young piano trio, Northwest Piano Trio, performed their show, Living Local, at the Cerimon House. Earnest in their endeavor to capture an audience, they followed all the right steps:

  1. Programmed local composers
  2. Performed NOT in a church or auditorium
  3. Included other media like film images and dance
  4. Came up with a catchy concert title: Living Local

Magic was noticeably missing. In fact, the only element with personality in this show was its title. Living Local is pure advertisement gold: short, memorable, descriptive without giving it all away. Contrast this with Perceptions of Sound’s academic science journal behemoth abstract that passed for a title.

Multi-Media Meh

In general, I have not been a fan of mixing dancing with Cascadia concerts. The dancing never really melded with the music for me, and/or the execution looked flabby. However, newcomer Jonalyn Salzano’s choreography and dancing in a Cascadia February show, Dianne Davies’s Attachments and Detachments changed my mind. Salzano gave weighty but not pedantic meaning to Jeff Winslow’s Ghosts and Machines as filtered through Davies’s grief over the death of her idolized older sister. And the sharpness of Salzano’s struck poses and crisp, fluid moves created a mixed media production that provoked audible gasps in the audience.

At NWPT’s show, while I appreciated the tighter level of meshed-with-music choreography and execution of PDX Contemporary Ballet (compared to, say, Agniesszka Laska Dancers in Cascadia Composers/Jennifer Wright’s Skeleton Dances) as they danced to the last movement of Kenji Bunch’s Swing Shift, ending the show, I still felt that while the entrance and exits of the dancers fit the music, the moves in between were repetitive with poses struck with limp hands. Not sharp.

By the end of Swing Shift, I was so bored that I raced for the exit. This was not Swing Shift’s fault. I have heard ARCO kill this piece! Under founder Mike Hsu’s draconian drive, they practiced and dirtied it up with the personality so totally missing from NWPT’s performance. That wasn’t the only problem.

Portland Ballet dancers joined Northwest Piano Trio.

PDX Contemporary Ballet dancers joined Northwest Piano Trio.

• Inadequate preparation. All the multi-media in the world cannot mask lack of rehearsal, of really learning the personality of the piece, not to mention accurate alignment among the instrumentalists, particularly egregious in Portland composer Stacey Phillipps’s One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain or On the Beach at Night Alone. I can’t remember which was the offender because both were performed with such detachment that all I recall is how much I loved singer Nicole Leupp Hanig’s performance from an earlier Cascadia concert of Cynthia Gerdes’s Eve’s Version, and how Hanig and NWPT’s rendition of Phillipps’s On the Beach felt like a first read-through.

Contrast this meh-ness with Alexander Schwarzkopf and Nancy Wood’s near-terrifying performance of Jeff Winslow’s Soon it will be Night at the PofS concert. Ditto the duetting images on the screen in One Hundred Percent vs. Safar/Heila’s collaboration, White Canvas, which immediately plunged me into its taut starkness. I believe it made a difference that the creators Safar and Heila were also performers in the ensemble and had a vested interest in the outcome over and above being simply performers.

• Unsnappy stage presentation. Dear NWPT: Cut the bullshit adlib talking. Please do not traipse on and off the stage. Please do what Brugh/Safar did: Assume we can read our programs (which we could have if you had given us a decently sized font in a printed program that had two blank pages left over). If you’re still not sure we’ll get it, put the words on the screen, as did Brugh/Safar. If you’re still not sure…Hire Leo Daedalus to MC. Also note that PoS flowed seamlessly from piece to piece – no clapping, no on and off the stage. As with Brugh/Safar, invite all to come on stage (Including the composers) at the end for a group bow.

• Incoherent program arc. At the Perceptions of Sound concert, I was aware of the ride Brugh and Safar took me on. Ethereal and otherworldly, I was pushed to the brink of atmospheric tension all the way through Safar and Heila’s collaboration, White Canvas. Then, The Drop:

A drop is the moment in a dance track when tension is released and the beat kicks in. Great drops create overbearing drama. They’re built for the unabashed and uninhibited, releasing the enormous energy accrued during a song’s progression.

With Winslow’s Soon it will be Night, tension was released and the vampire, Wood, tore into our psyche mercilessly. Brandon Stewart followed with a sonic and visual (even in the dark!) onslaught of primal percussion, piano and violin as he conducted, no, whipped his band through his Spectra. Brugh completed the trifecta, opening Pandora’s box and releasing his innocuously titled Whispers upon us. It’s a classical concert arc I’ve experienced in the architecture of contemporary dance club music, and Brugh/Safar could only have known it by listening for Magic, as I’m pretty sure neither are writing for this genre.

In contrast, NWPT’s Living Local had no arc. I am not actually sure how the pieces were selected or why they were arranged like they were on the program. It felt like I was at a music teacher’s recital where each piece feels like it’s placed on the program for some left brained reason: from most elementary to advanced, or from baroque through modern; but not like it’s part of a scene which is part of a bigger act whose purpose is to make us feel something!!! TO TAKE US FOR A RIDE!

• Charisma deficiency. When I watch Nancy Wood take on a piece like Winslow’s in Eugene’s Cascadia PoS event, it’s like watching a vampire consume its prey…in erotic slow motion. I cannot take my eyes off her. Unfortunately, NWPT displayed all the charisma of a music stand. You’re on stage! Lose the frumpy sweater, lose the demure bridesmaid’s dress and pumps, discuss the look before hand OR learn to play your music better so that you can get away with frump, like Steely Dan (who still had sexy back-up singers). And for fuck’s sake, move like you’re in the twenty first century!!!! In particular, experience the visceral sexual pleasure of dancing a dirty grind before you attempt to play Mike Hsu’s piece, Moonstruck and Aardvark Sauce. Your Pat Boone sterility left me with no fucks to give.

Undermining any shot at charisma were violinist Heather Mastel-Lipson’s intonation issues. While plaguing the entire concert, they seriously damaged the first piece, Kenji Bunch’s Concerto for Piano Trio and Percussion. Unlike the Delgani String Quartet in Eugene, whose supernatural ghostly entrance captured me immediately with memorized, in tune playing, NWPT’s opener undermined my confidence in the rest of the show. This kills me to write because when I first heard and saw Mastel-Lipson at a ClassicalRevolutionPDX chamber jam two years ago, her rich and in tune David Oistrakh sound with her liquid organic rubato on a Piazzolla tango prompted me to run up on stage as soon as she finished to find out from which planet she came.

Part of my disappointment might have come from equally high expectations of all the performers. I have also loved pianist Susan McDaniel’s clean crisp playing in the past, but was disappointed here by the muddy Cerimon House instrument and maybe her intentionally underplaying to not bury the strings, producing a sound as drab as her attire. Cellist Hannah Hillebrand is part of the ARCO phenomenon and I expected the charisma from ARCO (particularly since founder Mike Hsu’s piece was on the program) to overflow into this concert which had so many promising elements on paper. But again: even the “right” performers, composers, and music won’t grab an audience without Magic, and here, crucial aspects like adequate practice and rehearsal were missing.

While I wouldn’t call their performance of Zach Gulaboff Davis’s Prelude for Piano Trio magic, it was at least more confident. Not a fan of things derivative and neo-romantic and sentimental, I nevertheless enjoyed Davis’s tight, hooky, neo-romantic melody and degeneration into noise. Judging from the way NWPT relaxed into this work and how effortless the phrasing sounded in the tonal sections, I’d have to guess that NWPT is probably most comfortable playing stock literature — Beethoven, Brahms, etc. Still, even with a few sweet spots in a program, like a great title and one piece that works better than the rest, you may or may not have a shot at getting more magic into subsequent performances.

Sniffing out Magic

Then how do you do it? Again and again I hear from performers or groups “How Can I Achieve Magic?” (or whatever word they use which means the same thing: Audience, critical acclaim, recording contract…). You can’t do it alone. Passively observing groups with magic, like representatives from Third Angle and Friends of Chamber Music attending ARCO’s January concert will net only observations filtered through their own biases. Perhaps their revelation? “Let’s book our next show at Holocene because ARCO drew 180.” ARCO also drew 60 at Holocene in a very un-magic show.

I do not expect every performer, presenter or audience member to have a nose for magic. It’s a frustrating Cassandra gift that can resurrect a genre if there’s enough SMART talent, and if that talent will listen and work their asses off! Some form of apprenticing or co-producing or using/hiring as the show’s advisor might work as long as you pick the right nose, the gifted magician.

Christopher Corbell partnered with Opera Theater Oregon with the sensational nose, Katie Taylor back at OTO’s helm. Corbell’s well thought out stripper opera idea (Viva’s Holiday), backed with his own indomitable work ethic, benefitted from his street smarts which led him to partner with OTO, insuring three sold out nights of a brand new opera.

We grapple with these issues in my own groups, and sometimes we’ve had to look outside for magic. For instance in a recent concert by my band, the Mousai, Dianne Davies salvaged what would have been a meh straightforward playing of Dan Schlosberg’s riotous first movement of Two Remarks by suggesting, then coaching, then INSISTING the comic theatrics she injected for that movement, STAY, turning it into the screaming, impolite hit it deserved to become.

Katie Taylor, Dan Brugh, Mike Hsu, Dianne Davies. You want Magic? Here are a few magicians with experience producing Magic on stage.

You’re welcome.

Portland pianist and teacher Maria Choban is ArtsWatch’s Oregon Arts Bitch.

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