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Cascadia Composers & Delgani Quartet: performance matters

By Brett Campbell
December 4, 2017
Featured, Music

When it comes to covering music, ArtsWatch tends to focus on composition more than performance. That’s not only because two of our regular music writers are themselves composers, but also because we want to tell Oregonians the story of Oregon creativity, which is really part of the larger story of what makes us what we are here in the 21st century. It’s a main reason I created our Oregon ComposersWatch resource, to make it easier for ArtsWatch readers to hear the fruits of our homegrown musical creators. And thanks to Cascadia Composers and others, Oregon contemporary classical music is an increasingly rich bounty.

But just as there’s more to a play than a script, more to a dance than choreography, there’s more to music than a score. A couple of fall Cascadia concerts showed — in both positive and negative ways — just how important performers are to the story of Oregon originality.

Dazzling Delgani

While the preponderance of Cascadia music is created by composers living in the Portland metro area, the group’s October concerts at Eugene’s First Christian Church and southeast Portland’s Community Music Center happened to feature music written by non Portlanders and even non Oregonians. And so it was appropriate that the performers, too, hailed from beyond Portland. Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet turned in one of the finest performances I’ve ever experienced at a Cascadia concert.

Delgani String Quartet played music by Cascadia Composers in Eugene. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Some of the best Cascadia shows have relied on veteran ensembles (Portland Percussion Group, The Mousai, Choral Arts Ensemble) rather than pickup groups. That’s no surprise: you’d expect musicians that have been performing together for years to do a better job than those who might never have played together before, and who might have rehearsed together only a couple of times. The tradeoff for audiences, though: a program that features the same forces on every piece necessarily offers less instrumental variety. This one happily provided considerable stylistic variety to compensate.

San Francisco Bay Area composer (and Willamette University alum) Andrew Robinson’s fourth string quartet started out dramatic, with percussive viola over insistent repeating patterns, turned briefly mournful as the instruments wove and traded their melodic lines before emerging into percolating plucked patterns. The second movement wound its way to a cello-led lament, ending on a slow, almost regretful note that recalled the opening tune. Havana-born, Los Angeles-based composer Yalil Guerra’s Cuban-inflected A Mil Guerras Solo (A Thousand Wars Alone), resembled a suite of dance miniatures.

Wood, Safar, and Delgani Quartet. Photo: Alan Niven.

Eugene composer Paul Safar’s A Quartet in Red, Black, and Blue loped gracefully between Turtle Island String Quartet jazzy swing and contemporary classical realms, with its mood shifting like the colors in the title, fiery red, melancholy blue. Safar and his partner, the superb singer Nancy Wood, added vocals to his setting of her poignant poetry. Depoe Bay composer Greg Steinke (more below) similarly contributed his own English horn to his Stravinskian Suspended. Pennsylvania composer Joshua Hey’s trippy lens flare from Alpha Centauri sounded the most forward looking, with its eerie, spacy swoops and ethereal interludes.

They wisely saved the best for last. I’m glad Tomas Svoboda was there to hear Delgani’s taut traversal of his blistering sixth quartet, an homage to the venerable Portland composer’s idol, Dmitri Shostakovich that left the audience cheering. Ranging from bleak to ominous to tense, it fully captured the Russian composer’s spirit without resorting to mere imitation, and — I’ll just say it right here — scaled the heights of Shostakovich’s famous skein of 20th century quartets. (I wish the many ensembles who endlessly play Shostakovich’s masterpieces could hear this one — I bet many would add it to their programs.) An ideal match of magnificent music, appropriate acoustic, and committed performers, it was one of the most powerful chamber music performances I’ve heard in Portland.

Throughout the concert, the Delgani members contributed crisp, emotionally expressive, clear playing, tight ensemble, secure intonation — everything a composer or listener wants from performers. Cascadia should consider making Delgani its house band, and if they’re not ready for a permanent commitment, I hope the two institutions can at least shack up regularly. The real winners in that relationship would be Oregon audiences who want to hear homegrown music performed with the skill and commitment it deserves.

Birthday Bashed

It’s reassuring to see Cascadia attracting better performers, because it does no one — neither the composers, who presumably want to show their music in its best light, nor audiences, who are paying to hear well-rehearsed, thoughtfully interpreted performances — any good to throw local music on stage only to have it played badly. So I was happy to see Delgani Quartet return, with other musicians, a couple weeks later to perform in a 75th birthday tribute to two of Cascadia’s most distinguished founder/members, David Bernstein and Greg Steinke, both now retired from long careers in academia. Alas, this concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall showed the flip side of the role performance quality plays in composers’ success.

I’ve never quite grokked Steinke’s emotionally distant music, which often consists of a succession of fragmentary gestures, phrases and effects that seem to go out of their way to avoid melodic engagement whenever a hook threatens. (Readers who do appreciate his music are invited to give their perspective in the comments section below.) Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by Steinke’s thrilling percussion trio, Diversions and Interactions, performed by Portland Percussion Group last summer at Cascadia’s concerts celebrating Portland-born composer Lou Harrison’s centenary. (I’d love to hear it and other Cascadian compositions PPG has performed recently in a single concert.) And it gives me hope that maybe there’s other Steinke music that will speak to me more than those on this program did.

Delgani maintained its high standards in two of the composer’s works. In Songs of the Fire Circles, inspired by verses by the Native American poet K’os Naahaabii, each player passed repeated filigrees back and forth among them to uncertain effect. But as with Suspended from the previous concert, the composer did his music no favors by ineffectively joining, this time on oboe, on another quintet with Delgani, the whimsical Lifschey Cards. When the music demands it, composers often write parts harder than they can play. Someone should have given this one a birthday present: hiring professional soloists. (A professional actor or reader would also have better served the poems he interpolated between movements.) Steinke did get a terrific soloist for Sacre Bleu, virtuosic bass clarinetist Roger Cole, who made his unwieldy instrument sing like a cello in a tedious piece that nattered on way too long.

Composer Greg Steinke joined Delgani Quartet. Photo: Alan Niven.

Bernstein wasn’t as lucky with his performers, although pianist Asya Gulua excelled in her performance with violinist Margaret Bichteler of his ruggedly propulsive September Soundscape, which made an excellent concert opener. Its title and ferocity anticipated the fury of the Columbia Gorge conflagration then raging a few miles away, although a young Bernstein wrote it many years earlier and miles distant from Oregon.

With Gulua’s powerful piano shadowing Sydney Carlson’s flute and Barbara Heilmair’s clarinet, Bernstein’s seductive new Sunlight and Shadow started playful without being frivolous, then delivered a real emotional punch with Gulua’s big bass piano chords. The premiere of Bernstein’s jazzy little Threading Light for flute and piano exuded unexpected Poulencian charm.

Then there were Bernstein’s seven brief Musical Mirages for solo piano.

It’s frustrating for those of us who value homegrown music that Cascadia concerts, like too many new music shows in Portland, have frequently been undermined by inconsistent, under-rehearsed performances — too often by the more recognizable names among classical music performers. Desperate as they apparently are to get anyone to play their music, no matter how poorly, composers refuse to call out incompetence when they hear it — although they sometimes also refuse to allow public release of videos of poor performances of their music.

Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise: busy, overcommitted musicians who make a living from gigs with bigger name outfits like the Oregon Symphony, Portland Cello Project, or teaching at local universities — apparently too often assign Cascadia concerts lower priority in their rehearsal schedules. Or maybe they think the audience just isn’t perceptive enough to notice their poor preparation. Or they just don’t care.

Why else would capable veteran performers so often turn in embarrassingly ill-prepared performances like Susan Smith’s stumble through even relatively easy pieces like Bernstein’s Musical Mirages— written for students, no less? The music and the audience would likely have been better served by engaging PSU piano students, who would certainly have placed those six miniatures atop their practice schedules. And they might have brought their friends, which would have bolstered the disappointingly diminutive turnout. As it is, I really have no idea how good Bernstein’s miniatures really can be.

Spotty performances like this and too many others by relatively well known classical musicians in Cascadia and other new music concerts over the years make it hard to assess the value of too many homegrown Oregon compositions, and deprive audiences of the chance to really hear our locally sourced sounds. Audience members don’t care how busy the musicians are or how big a reputation they have: they want to hear music played right, and that requires adequate practice and rehearsal. Shoddy performances risk making listeners unfairly dismiss the music the composers wrote instead of the performers who butchered it.

So it’s encouraging to see Cascadia now engaging skilled, conscientious players like Delgani, Cole, and Gulua who apparently take the job, the art, and the audience seriously enough to properly prepare. Oregon composers should insist on that level of commitment from all their performers. After all, if even Cascadia Composers themselves don’t care enough about their music to insist on adequate preparation from the performers they and the audience are paying good money to hear, why should anyone else?

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