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Bach Cantata Choir: sweet rejoicing

Portland chorus channels joy in singing  into artistic growth

by BRUCE BROWNE

Portland’s Bach Cantata Choir has grown in artistic excellence in the past several years. The sonic values are fresh and vibrant. This choir has a wide age range, fine choral singers all. Many have labored in the choral trenches for several decades and are joined by a healthy number of those beginning their choral careers. So how do they maintain a composite and youngish sound? Good coaching, perhaps something more ephemeral.

Friday night’s concert offered more evidence of BCC’s growth and clues to its success. Under the leadership of founder Ralph Nelson, the singers and orchestra were fervent and compelling in the main work of the evening, the first three cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio presented at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church to an overflow crowd.

Bach Cantata Choir sang music from their namesake’s ‘Christmas Cantata’ and more.

Leading the way, but not as imposing as Bach, were two shorter works: Dieterich Buxtehude’s (1637-1707) “In Dulci Jublilo” (With sweet rejoicing), and “In Nativitatem Domini Canticum” (Song of the Lord’s Birth) by French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). Both were conducted by the choir’s assistant conductor, Emma Mildred Riggle.

Within BCC choral ranks, Mr. Nelson finds soloists who can fill the bill of quality performance. Charpentier’s quite charming In Nativitatem, one of his Latin motets for sacred services exhibiting both French and Italian baroque styles, was convincingly enhanced by four soloists: soprano Josephine Petersen, alto Megan Mattoon, tenor David Foley and bass John Vergin all showed off fine musicianship and vocal training.

Ms. Riggle masterfully enlivened this motet with well chosen tempi and strong leadership. This was a delicate, lyrical counterpoint to the other works on the program. Riggle is on a positive arc as conductor and leader, displaying clarity and authority, demonstrated particularly in the Charpentier.

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ArtsWatch Year in Music 2017

ArtsWatch chronicles a year that showcased women's music, natural inspirations, and institutional evolution

Oregon music is surging, and this year, Oregon ArtsWatch has been your personal surfboard to keep you on top of the tide instead of inundated by it. And to bring you views of the powerful creative forces beneath the waves. This roundup is in no way a comprehensive or even representative sample of the dozens and dozens of music-related previews, reviews, features, interviews, profiles, and more we presented in 2017. Instead, we’ve chosen mostly stories whose value transcends a particular concert, leaned toward Oregon rather than national artists (who can get plenty of press elsewhere), favored music by today’s American composers instead of long-dead Europeans, and tried to represent a variety of voices and approaches. We hope this roundup gives a valuable snapshot of an eventful, fruitful moment in Oregon’s musical culture.

Homegrown Sounds

Although we also write about jazz and other improvised music and other hard-to-classify sounds, ArtsWatch’s primary musical focus has always been contemporary “classical” (a term we’d love to replace with something more accurate) composition by Oregon composers, and this year presented a richer tapestry than ever. As always, Cascadia Composers led the way in presenting new Oregon music in the classical tradition, but others including FearNoMusic, Third Angle New Music, the University of Oregon and even new entities like Burn After Listening also shared homegrown sounds. ArtsWatch readers learned about those shows and composers from accomplished veterans like Kenji Bunch to emerging voices such as Justin Ralls.

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and ?? play with toys at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

Cascadia Composers and Crazy Jane fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum
Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that ‘classical’ ? — Music. JANUARY 20 MATTHEW ANDREWS.

Kenji Bunch: Seeing the Elephant
After returning to home ground, the Portland composer’s career blossoms with commissions from the Oregon Symphony and Eugene Ballet. MARCH 7 BRETT CAMPBELL.

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. MARCH 29  BRETT CAMPBELL. Also read Maria Choban’s review: 45th Parallel review: Horror show .

Burn After Listening: Stacy Phillips, Lisa Ann Marsh, Jennifer Wright.

‘Fire and Ice’ preview: accessible adventure
New Portland composers’ collective’s debut performance includes aerial dance, sculpture, poetry, icy instruments — and a close connection to audiences. APRIL 27 BRETT CAMPBELL

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Arletta O’Hearn: Oregon icon of Christmas cool

Oregon composer, teacher, and jazz pianist empowers thousands to play the music they love

by RHONDA RIZZO

Editor’s note: We’re republishing last year’s popular story about playing holiday music — an Oregon ArtsWatch perennial. You’re probably already hearing the holiday tunes blaring from speakers at the malls, in lobbies of businesses, even when you’re on hold. But if you want to actually play holiday tunes yourself at a holiday gathering, rather than passively enduring the same old same old recordings, you might turn to an Oregon icon of Christmas Cool. 

“I love ‘Christmas Time is Here,’ but I can’t play it.” This, from my beginning adult student who was super motivated, but realistic. Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown sound is difficult to master, even by advanced players. Luckily, a plugged-in piano teacher turned me on to Arletta O’Hearn’s jazz arrangements of Christmas carols. They’re easy to master, easy on the pocketbook ($3.95 to $4.95 per book!), and beautifully poignant in a Guaraldi kind of way.  


As poignant as Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here,” Arletta O’Hearn’s wistful version of “Up on the Housetop” is very playable and from her easiest book of Christmas arrangements, the pink
Christmas Seasonings.  © Neil A. Kjos Music Company. Used with permission 2016.

While the feisty Arletta O’Hearn is admired world-wide for her jazz compositions and arrangements, she’s been hoarded within the piano teaching circles… unintentionally. In fact, O’Hearn lives right here in Portland, Oregon! I’ve used her smart, accessible jazzed-up Christmas arrangements for beginning to intermediate students who wanted to play something that sounded Count Basie tasteful without requiring the Art Tatum chops. For advanced players, sight-reading through these books makes even a Grinch like me grin through the holidays.

Arletta O’Hearn playing Ellington.

The well known (but only in certain circles) jazz composer and arranger of Christmas tunes came in through the back door, eschewing the traditional path toward becoming a beloved icon. Former Portland pianist and teacher Rhonda Rizzo interviewed Arletta O’Hearn in 2013 for the Oregon Music Teachers Association. With her permission, we present an edited version, along with my annotated score excerpts and sound files I recorded so you can see and hear how easy it is for pianists of all skill levels to learn, just in time for the holidays. Click on each track below the score excerpt to play. 

O’Hearn’s music is available through Portland Music Company. Oregon’s own Christmas gift to music has made the holidays a little happier for thousands around the world! — Maria Choban.

Arletta O’Hearn’s first experience with college piano instruction didn’t go well. The teenager came to the University of Oregon to study with renowned teacher Aurora Underwood. “The first year I was there, Aurora was on sabbatical,” O’Hearn recalls. “The substitute didn’t know how to teach anyone but advanced students. He was there for graduate work and was too young. He couldn’t see the yearning in my soul to play. He couldn’t teach me.”

The experience of working with that teacher was so unpleasant that O’Hearn did not re-enroll. But it must have left an impression, because O’Hearn went on to create a career that made music accessible to anyone — not just piano professionals — who loves it.

O’Hearn’s creative journey has been filled with study, discovery, and an open-minded embrace of many styles of music. Her solid classical training combined with real-world jazz playing experience produced well-crafted, pedagogically sound compositions that are doorways through which classical piano students can enter the world of jazz.

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In Mulieribus review: musical time travel

Portland vocal ensemble's Christmas concert brings ancient music to life

by BRUCE BROWNE

In medieval Europe, “Mulier taceat in ecclesia” (women must be quiet in church) was the order of the day, until for at least two more centuries. That didn’t stop the women of In Mulieribus, the Portland women’s group of seven voices directed by Anna Song, on Wednesday evening at the St. James Proto-Cathedral in Vancouver WA. Virtually none of the music they performed would have been sung by women when it was written. So the singers deserve extra credit for modeling the treble voices we would have heard 600 years ago, arrived at essentially by non-vibrato singing and very careful blending. Except for the inclusion of female voices, what we heard from In Mulieribus is about as close to going back in time as we can get. The concert is repeated in Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral on Friday, December 22.

These women showed how much musical mastery those early audiences were missing. At its core, a truly memorable concert is composed of two things: curation (choosing the right pieces) and animation — bringing them to life, preserving their sonic essence in the chosen concert space. In Mulieribus accomplished both. Each piece was a gleaming gem in its own way and taken together created a palpable arch form. Waves of overtones were generated in St. James. And these occur only when a choir is singing perfectly in a perfectly tuned, perfectly blended manner.

In Mulieribus performed Wednesday in Vancouver and sings the same program Friday in Portland. Photo: David Lloyd Imageworks.

The repertoire was adroitly grouped in two ways: by subject – Angels and Prophecies, Magi, Shepherds, The Birth; and by region — notably England, France and Italy, all of which shared, during this time, a Roman Catholic visage of time and place. Each disparate regional style was presented cunningly by Ms. Song and the women, who constantly avoid the quotidian with grace and forethought. The highly decorative “Gloria,” from the Tournai Mass of 14th century France, was crystalline in its clarity and balance. Thought to have been concocted by several different composers, the Tournai is considered one of the earliest Missa tota, the complete mass presenting all five parts of the Ordinary – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. (Guillaume Machaut’s Messe de Notra Dame, the first known complete setting by a single composer, will be performed in Seattle and Portland February 2-3 by Cappella Romana).

The two Italian pieces, Magi videntes Stellam (The Magi seeing the stars) by Agostino Agazzari (1578-1640) and Omens de Saba venient (All they coming from Saba) by Giovanni Asola (1532-1609) were ravishing. The latter, referring to the Ethiopian city of Saba, was especially poignant in its energetic celebration of the “bringing of the gifts” and showing praise. Perhaps the most advanced in its harmonies and fullness of texture, it approached the high Renaissance styles of the contemporaries Palestrina and Victoria.

Choosing concert repertoire can be very tricky, especially in this day of accessibility to such a wide variety of literature. No, wait. Shouldn’t that make it easier? Certainly it is easier to access, to retrieve the pieces. The British Museum can, one might imagine, dispatch a digital manuscript across the pond in a matter of minutes. It is the culling of works, picking those which are true to the period (some primary source) and right for the group, and possess historical integrity. That is the hallmark of Anna Song’s programming.

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‘Raising the Barre’ excerpt: passion and persistence

A Eugene author makes a mid-life decision to fulfill a childhood dream -- dancing in 'The Nutcracker'

by LAUREN KESSLER

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch presents an exclusive excerpt from award-winning Eugene author Lauren Kessler‘s 2015 book, Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker, which has just been released in paperback and would make a delightful stocking stuffer. Here’s what ArtsWatch’s Jamuna Chiarini wrote when it was published. “Her love affair with ballet and The Nutcracker began at the age of five when she was taken to see famous ballerina Maria Tallchief perform in New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker. From there she began ballet lessons until she was twelve when sadly she stopped after learning that her teacher André Eglevsky, former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, had told her mother that she did not have the right body for ballet.

Her unrequited love for ballet and her deep obsession for The Nutcracker is where her story Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker begins. In the book, Kessler takes a ten day, whirlwind tour of Nutcracker performances across America, and when she returns home she decides she hasn’t had enough and bravely asks the Artistic Director of the Eugene Ballet Company, Toni Pimble, if she might take company class and perform in their version of The Nutcracker. The answer was yes and off she goes to prepare.

Through this adventurous immersion into the subculture of ballet, Kessler finally experiences what it is like to be a dancer—the misadventures of shopping for leotards, the rigours of getting in shape, buying and applying gobs of stage makeup, and, of course, learning steps and dancing with ease. She is a “midlife interloper” as she called herself at her book reading at Powell’s on Wednesday night (this week marks the release of this new book), and she experiences what she has been yearning for her whole life: What it is like to be a dancer and perform in The Nutcracker.

This is a great, inspirational story for someone who is looking for a push to take that leap and do that thing they have been putting off for a really long time. If Kessler can do it, you can do it.

***

I started this project in awe of the beauty and grace of ballet as seen at a distance, my view from the audience. I am now in awe of the sweat, the grit, the sheer will that gets them through nine-hour days and ten-hour bus trips and sixteen-city tours. To say “you have to love it to do it” is an understatement so colossal as to be meaningless. Yes, I know they are not out there curing cancer or feeding the homeless, but these dancers have committed themselves heart and mind, body and soul to an enterprise, and they do it every single day. Days when they are hurting. Days when the sun is shining, and they’d rather not be stuck in a windowless studio. Days when it’s wet and gray (like, for example, today) and bed looks like the best option. Days when life conspires against you. And still, they get up and do it. It is a lesson to us all – certainly to me — and not just a lesson about ballet and what I need to bring to class and rehearsals. It’s about what it takes, really takes, to do something well. Forget “waiting for the Muse.” It’s about daily commitment. It’s about the marriage of passion and persistence.

Lauren Kessler, center, performed in Eugene Ballet’s production of ‘The Nutcracker.’

All of a sudden it’s November. Mon Dieu! I’d say “merde!” but that’s how dancers wish each other luck (their version of “break a leg,” which, of course, is not something you’d dare say to a dancer). What I mean, though, is: Holy Shit. It’s November. My first performance as Clara’s Aunt Rose—a part created for me–is sixteen days away. Toni emails me that she’s scheduling costume fittings this week. I text Suzi and beg her to come over to give me a lesson in how to apply stage make-up. Meanwhile every rehearsal counts.

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MusicWatch bi-Weekly: holiday traditions

Oregon serenades 2017 to an end — and none too soon — with Celtic, French, Spanish, Indian and more music from across the globe and the centuries

While everyone hunkers down for the holidays, the music plays on, but not nearly as often as usual, so MusicWatch is taking the rest of the year off as part of its musical fasting treatment for 2017’s overindulgence in Oregon’s musical overabundance. Meanwhile, here’s a few solstice-brighteners to take us through the end of the year.

In Mulieribus

Tickets have long been sold out for Wednesday’s “Vivaldi’s Magnificat and Gloria,” a historically informed performance of a pair of Italian baroque classics by the period instrument performers (from Portland Baroque Orchestra and others in the region) presented by Northwest Baroque Masterworks at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, but click the link above and see if someone cancels. One of the best shows of every holiday season, though, In Mulieribus’s annual concert, does have seats available. On Wednesday at Vancouver’s Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater and on Friday at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, the sublime Portland women’s vocal ensemble this time takes a French twist, with medieval carols, nativity songs and other music from the Renaissance and earlier by Binchois, Dufay, England’s John Taverner, and more.

Another annual Oregon holiday tradition, if a five-year run can qualify for that status, comes to a close Friday when Mark O’Connor and his 2017 Grammy winning musical family band bring their final Appalachian Christmas show to Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Oregon Symphony cellist Nancy Ives, who wrote about it for ArtsWatch last year, returns, and another family, the Seattle (O’Connor’s hometown) trumpet and piano team of Allen and Laura Vizzutti open for the multi-Grammy award winner who may be the world’s greatest fiddler, who’s played with many of the planet’s finest musicians and again brings his Americana-tinged holiday tunes to Oregon one last time.

Speaking of Americana holidays, Oregon Mandolin Orchestra plays seasonal tunes at Portland’s luminous Festival of Lights at the gorgeous Grotto on Saturday. Lots of other bands and choirs are performing there throughout the holidays, so click the link to check ‘em out.

ArtsWatch has covered this combined music and theater event elsewhere, but here’s another reminder to catch the merry pianist and Liberace channeler David Saffert with Jillian Snow Harris in A Liberace & Liza Christmas at Portland’s Coho Theater December 21-30, with guest artists including singer Susannah Mars, star thespian Isaac Lamb, and more.

Next week at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland Youth Philharmonic’s annual day after-Christmas concert takes a mostly Spanish turn with music Enrique Granados adapted from his piano pieces inspired by Francisco Goya’s paintings, Goyescas; Albeniz’s musical depiction of Seville’s famous Corpus Christi Day procession, and some of the finest ballet music of the 20th century, a suite from Manuel de Falla’s colorful The Three Cornered Hat. An unrelated bonus: music from John Williams’s score to the reptilian screen classic Parque Jurassic. 

On December 30-31 at Portland’s Community Music Center, another annual holiday music tradition, Oregon Renaissance Band’s holiday concert, goes all Celtic, with a baker’s dozen specialists on wonderful archaic instruments like sackbutts, viola da gamba, cornamusen, krummhorns, racketts, tartold, bagpipes, spinettino, tabor, and even early recorders and violins playing and singing ancient tunes by Turlough O’Carolan, William Byrd, John Playford, Thomas Weelkes and more.

South India’s Carnatic tradition is just as venerable as all these European early music shows, and Oregon is fortunate to boast a family of musicians whose lineage on the beautiful, ancient long-necked veena lute stretches back eleven generations. Renowned India born veena virtuosi Sreevidhya Chandramouli and Chandramouli Narayanan join their sons Kapila and Sushruta Chandramouli and ghatam (clay pot) percussion master Ravi Balasubramanian December 30 for a Carnatic classical concert at Portland’s Christ United Methodist Church.

The Oregon Symphony plays music from Beethoven’s Symphony #9 on New Year’s Eve at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

On December 30 and New Year’s Eve at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, “Pink Martini New Year’s Extravaganza” returns with Portland’s own retro-Latin-Euro big band’s annual joint venture with the Oregon Symphony, now expanded to three performances, but tickets remain for only the last, late night bash. Along with orchestra-enhanced hits from throughout Pink Martini’s career and recent CD Je Dis Oui!, the Oregon Symphony will perform the glorious final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony #9.

For a smaller scale NYE, catch Portland’s venerable Florestan Trio, 41 years old and counting, as they precede a champagne and dessert reception with an hour of chamber music classics by Franck (from his famous violin sonata, Mendelssohn, Poulenc, Rachmaninoff, Falla and more at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall.

The Florestan Trio performs in Friends of Chamber Music’s New Years Eve concert.

The Christmas myth is many things, but one of them involves a resurrection story, which should resonate with fans of Eugene Opera, which just arose from its most recent near-death experience. Its New Year’s Eve opera buffa, Rossini’s 1816 The Barber of Seville, also has some here-and-now resonance, with its story of a powerful older man trying to coerce a much younger woman into an abusive relationship. Eugene Opera’s cast mixes a pair of Met vets (baritone Malcolm MacKenzie and mezzo Heather Johnson) with local stars Jake Gardner, Bill Hulings, recent arrival Craig Phillips (the New York Polyphony singer now at the UO) and more, all conducted by Andrew Bisantz, who’s added the title of artistic director to his EO portfolio. Maybe the triumph of true love over sexual predation will get 2018 off to a better start than the year it’s replacing.

After some post holiday dieting, the slimmer, sleeker MusicWatch will return in 2018, and don’t worry, in the meantime, ArtsWatch will have a few other music stories to tingle your ears as we bid a pffft! farewell to a troubled year. Meanwhile, here’s a new video from Oregon singer Marti Mendenhall to put you in the holiday mood.

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

’The Emerald Tablet’ and ‘Nonsense’ reviews: from playground to pulpit

A pair of Portland composer showcases range from the delightfully ridiculous to the seriously sublime

Last month saw two concerts of new, made-in-Portland music, each entirely devoted to a single Portland composer. Both create contemporary classical music music influenced by music from outside the classical realm.

And that’s about the only similarity between the music of Dan Brugh and Christopher Corbell. The former trained at a prestigious music academy (Interlochen) before matriculating at the University of Oregon, while the latter is mostly self taught. Brugh’s music incorporates electronic elements including synthesizers more commonly used in pop music, while Corbell, a folk-rock singer songwriter before embarking on the study and creation of contemporary art music, draws on ancient and modern folk and classical influences.

The music reflected the two composers’ divergent personalities too. Attending Brugh’s show was like jumping into his personal musical playground, a Brian Wilson sandbox of diverse musical and optical colors, cool synthesizers, imaginative sounds, absurdist verse, even giant mechanical flying fish.

Brugh, Wright and unidentified flying fish in “Nonsense.” Photo: Matias Brecher.

Corbell is as outwardly focused as Brugh looks inward. The former Classical Revolution PDX leader thinks and feels a lot about contemporary political and social issues, and passionately expresses his beliefs in his music and writings.

Both concerts mostly succeeded in reaching beyond their inventive creators’ own fertile imaginations and connecting with audiences. While Brugh’s was mostly about the wild, sometimes wacky world in his own head, Corbell’s looked outward, to the equally tumultuous world around him, and us.

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