Cascadia Composers preview: From Cascadia to Cuba… and back

Culminating a cultural and musical exchange, weekend concerts feature contemporary music by composers from Oregon and Cuba

In July 2015, when President Obama announced that the United States would begin normalizing relations with Cuba, Portland composer David Bernstein thought about music. Not the usual suspects when talking about one of the Western hemisphere’s most important musical traditions — jazz, Buena Vista Social Club, Desi Arnaz — but contemporary classical music.

It was a natural for Bernstein, who’d helped found Cascadia Composers almost a decade ago to provide performance, promotion, networking and other opportunities for composers in the Pacific Northwest. Since then, the organization had become one of the nation’s largest (60 members) and most successful, staging dozens of concerts featuring over 300 homegrown compositions in Portland and Eugene.

Cascadia Composers (l-r) Ted Clifford, Paul Safar, David Bernstein, Jennifer Wright, Dan Brugh in Havana last November. Photo: Nadia Reyes.

But they’d never attempted anything as ambitious as what Bernstein had in mind: sending Oregon composers to Cuba to have their music performed by Cuban musicians, and reciprocating with a Portland concert featuring American musicians playing works by today’s Cuban composers. Neither had anyone else.

“I’d known music of some Cuban composers like Leo Brouwer,” Bernstein explains. “I’d hear it played at various contemporary music festivals. I wanted to get to know what it was like now, and I wanted to get to know them.”

FearNoMusic performs music from Cuba on Friday.

This Friday, Bernstein’s vision becomes reality when Cascadia enlists the veteran Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic to perform eight pieces by leading Cuban composers, with two in attendance, at its “New Pearls from the Antilles” concert. The following evening, they’ll hear new music inspired by Oregon at a second Cascadia Composers concert.

Cascadia Composers’ David Bernstein

Via the Los Angeles-based organization Project por Amor (Project for Love), which had led artistic tours of Cuba for years, Bernstein connected with Havana composer Guido López-Gavilán, who ran the city’s well-regarded new music festival. After months of emails and phone calls, five Cascadia members traveled to Havana for the city’s prestigious contemporary music festival. Over ten days, they heard dozens of works by Cuban and other composers as well as their own music performed by Cuban musicians.

“They did a wonderful job with my piano trio,” Bernstein remembers. “We were well satisfied with the performance level of our music.”

They also explored Havana’s music-drenched culture, including contemporary classical music scene. “Cuba has this rich musical culture. It’s been so isolated from the US, but not from what’s going on in the rest of the Western world,” Bernstein points out. “They’ve had major composers visiting from Asia, Latin America, and Europe. They have a very sophisticated conservatory where they’ve been exposed to the major composers from the 19th and 20th centuries, just like we have.”

Cascadia Composers hoped to welcome Cuban composers to Oregon for this weekend’s concert, but Cuba remains an impoverished country unable to fund such visits. “I found out there was nothing being done like this since the reopening of relations,” Bernstein explains. “We couldn’t get funding for all the Cuban composers.”

Composer Guido López-Gavilán

They were able to bring one: a representative of the younger generation of Cuban composers, José V. Gavilondo Peón, a faculty member at the country’s main music conservatory who leads his own new music ensemble. He wrote his new Half-remembered Dreams for flute, percussion, and piano for this concert, which also features the 1987 string quartet Habana Sensual…y Contradanza Caprichosa by the esteemed López-Gavilán, and other chamber music for string quartet, piano trio, solo piano and more.

Cuban composer José Víctor Gavilondo Peón brings a new work composed especially for this concert.

They and the other composers represented on Friday’s program are part of a major Havana arts organization that represents musicians and artists of all kinds. Bernstein predicts that listeners will be surprised at the range of musical approaches on display Friday. “Stylistically, they’re very diverse from another,” he says.

Last fall, Cascadia presented the Oregon composers’ music that was to be performed in Havana in a concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. Read Matthew Andrews’s ArtsWatch review.

The Cubans — along with the rest of us — get to hear the similarly varied sounds of the Pacific Northwest in Cascadia’s second (!) concert of the weekend. Saturday’s “Sense of Place” show includes music inspired by bodies of water, the Banfield highway, roses, Tilikum Crossing bridge, Alaska’s Denali wilderness, Oregon’s state bird, a now-defunct bar, a park covered in snow in last winter’s Snowpocalypse, and more. The eight pieces’ instrumentation ranges from solo piano to saxophone and percussion, to piano trio, string quartet, electronics, voice and piano, and more. It’s an ideal opportunity for the Cubans — and for us Oregonians — to hear locavore music inspired by our own environment.

And after this weekend? “I hope this will be the beginning of an ongoing relationship between composers in our two countries,” Bernstein says. “And I hope other groups, not just composers, will take up exchange missions like this.”

Cascadia Composers present “New Pearls from the Antilles” featuring Fear No Music at Temple Baptist Church – May 19, 2017 at 8 pm. Pre concert chat featuring Cuban and Oregon composers at 6:30 pm.

Cascadia Composers present “Sense of Place – Sounds of the Pacific Northwest” 
at Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church – May 20, 2017 at 7:30 pm.

A version of this story appears in The Oregonian/O Live.

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

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