Concert review: Third Angle New Music blends intensity with intimacy

First installment in experimental new Studio Series brings mixed yet promising results.

Oregon’s classical music scene has lately been steadily reinventing itself. Prodded by the prospect of irrelevance or financial unsustainability thanks to dwindling, aging audiences and an imminent decline in donations, Oregon classical music institutions have, in the state’s progressive, innovative tradition, embarked on a series of experiments in the presentation and substance of their concerts.

And change needs to happen. “[Y]ounger generations — by now that means people under 50, if not 60 — don’t want what we’re offering,” one of today’s wisest commentators on classical music, Greg Sandow, wrote this week. “Their culture has changed. It’s not much like ours, and to them we look like we’re stuck in the past. We have to address that. No more talk about bringing people to us. We have to go to them. We have to speak the language of the wide, wide world. Learn to give performances that people in that world will come to. And shout for. And line up to buy tickets for. Why don’t we do that? Because… we don’t believe it’s possible. Or we don’t believe it’s possible without dumbing down our art. But out in the world we look dumb already! Or at least we look blank. To get a new audience, we have to be smarter. More intriguing, stimulating, challenging. And most of all, we have to reflect the changing world around us.”  (Sandow, by the way, gives some great examples of other experiments happening elsewhere, including even a historically informed period instrument orchestra, that bring classical music to new audiences.)

Third Angle New Music string quartet performed at Portland's Zoomtopia. Photo: Lisa Volle.

Third Angle New Music string quartet performed at Portland’s Zoomtopia. Photo: Lisa Volle.

For a long time, classical music’s capacity to respond to a changing cultural climate was stifled by naysayers who, like today’s climate change deniers, insisted that everything was cool (instead of heating up), circled the wagons, talked only to others in their narrow circles about how The Way We’ve Always Done It is fine, insisted on doing the same old things in the same old way and ignored the rising sea levels and aging audiences. It can be hard or even threatening to acknowledge that what you’ve been doing for years in the past (e.g. burning fossil fuels) isn’t necessarily going to work in the future, just as the dinosaurs couldn’t have welcomed the arrival of the mammals. And when you love something the way it is, the way classical music fans like us at ArtsWatch do, it can be difficult to imagine that not everyone shares our ardor.

Classical music’s climate change-deniers supposed that the dwindling number of classical music fans and classical musicians (the narrow audience that remains when you’ve spent decades ignoring changing culture and making music lovers outside the club feel unwelcome) were the world, ignoring the larger, younger audiences that find them increasingly irrelevant. Or, insecurely imagining that acknowledging the need for change somehow devalues what they’ve spent their lives striving to accomplish (it doesn’t, any more than buying, say, a new violin somehow implies that everything you played on the old one never amounted to anything), and too lazy or unimaginative to do the creative, hard work needed to reinvent the genre, they attacked the messengers (including Sandow) that brought the news that their outdated attitudes wouldn’t win them the new audiences they needed to survive.

But, with a few mulish exceptions, that reflexive head-in-the-sand defensiveness, which in the past limited classical music’s ability to keep up with a changing culture, seems to be receding, at least around here. Rather than whining or denying the need for change, forward-thinking Oregon institutions (though admittedly still the exception in the larger classical music world) such as Cascadia Composers, Chamber Music Northwest, the Oregon Symphony (at least in some of its concerts with non classical musicians), ARCO-PDX, and others recounted in our recent four-part series, Summer of Renewal (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4), are tinkering with, tweaking, and in some cases utterly transforming various aspects of the old approaches and trying new ones.

Here at ArtsWatch, we’re committed to reporting on these experiments, to help presenters, performers and listeners figure out what innovations can best help classical music reach the people who’ll enjoy it. Our allegiance is to the audiences, the people paying with their hard-earned money and time for these performances, not just the players. We’re also cognizant of the listeners who aren’t coming to these shows because of the barriers (some erected by those outdated practices); how can Oregon classical music reach them? Our stories spotlighted several Oregon music organizations old and new, large and small, boldly striving to adjust to the realities of a 21st century audience that demands something more modern than the typical formula that ruled — and often stifled — classical music concerts for the past century.

Not that Oregon is alone; recent visitors the Sphinx Virtuosi also demonstrated that musicians unfortunate enough to operate in other states can also find new ways of broadening the audience for classical music by overcoming old barriers, such as racial disparities, near-exclusive obsession with old, European music, and neglecting audience connection by increasing the demographic diversity on stage and in the audience, and to program new music that reflects the 21st century and its new audiences. And despite all the praise ArtsWatch has lavished on these institutions’ admirable efforts, we have to remember that these worthy experiments are still the exceptions that prove the rule in classical shows. Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding Pollyannish, the takeaway from our string of admiring coverage suggests that Oregon classical music’s refresh is gathering pace.

But evolution, like science, proceeds via experiments/mutations, most of which ultimately fail. How well is this latest set succeeding? Are they bold enough? Can they win new audiences for tomorrow — without losing the old ones they depend upon today? The stakes are high: rapid demographic and economic changes mean that today’s institutions don’t have much time to avoid becoming dinosaurs.

The latest experiment came, not surprisingly, by one of Oregon’s most future-focused institutions, Third Angle New Music, whose new Studio Series offers an intimate venue, lower ticket prices, and shorter shows in an attempt to lower the barriers to audiences who want to sample new sounds.

Last Thursday’s first Studio Series concert featuring 3A’s string quartet opened with Kerrith Livengood’s Online Communion, featuring dreamy long string tones over recorded sounds, some musical, some not (rattles, creaks, a baby’s whimper, etc.) That unsettling undercurrent produced an intriguing tension that makes me want to hear more of the Illinois-based composer’s music. I like the idea of Third Angle sprinkling its New Ideas commissions (like this one) across the entire studio series rather than confining them to a single show. I just wish that at least one of the composers on these concerts would be an Oregonian; Third Angle does its audiences and its local creative community a big favor when it introduces them to each other.

The others happened to be two of New York’s best known avant musical figures. Last year, 3A artistic director Ron Blessinger asked John Zorn “What’s your hardest piece to play?” The answer: his 2011 string quartet, The Alchemist. “We’ll do it!” Blessinger replied, as he recalled in a pre-performance talk. And both he and and fellow fiddler Greg Ewer pronounced it perhaps the hardest piece they’d ever played.

That worried me. Choosing a piece based on how hard it is to play sounds like it’s all about the musicians proving themselves and testing their skills, rather than entertaining, enlightening, or intriguing an audience. It’s fine for the practice room, but when you’re charging money — even $20 instead of the usual $35 — there better be more in it for listeners than a musicians’ workout. Of course if the score had turned out to be a dud, I’m sure he wouldn’t have programmed it.

Blessinger told the audience that Zorn had the shortest attention span of anyone he’d ever met, and much of his music I’ve heard attests to that. The rapid, wrenching shifts of tone, emotion and gesture can be dizzying, even dazzling. But I’d never heard one of his pieces in that style nearly as long as “The Alchemist”’s half hour, and unfortunately, for me, all those extreme, intense changes produced first whiplash, then eventually numbness, like riding a roller coaster over and over, without compensating features like emotional or structural development and so on.

That wasn’t the musicians’ fault. Zorn told Blessinger he wanted musicians to ’bleed all over the stage’ and the doughty Anglers — violinists Blessinger and Ewer, violist Charles Noble, cellist Marilyn de Oliveira — did their best to oblige, plunging into The Alchemist’s wild gestures and spasmodic outbursts with ferocity and commitment, yet keeping it tight when precise ensemble was needed. Of course, it was a first performance, and there were moments when the players struggled (it probably improved on the second night), but in all, it was a tremendous, passionate attempt — and one made easier to appreciate in Zoomtopia’s intimate environs, where even from a few rows back you could see how hard they were working. I just wish it had been lavished on music more deserving of their obvious skill and devotion, a work that like its namesake failed to successfully transmute leaden metal into gold.

In fact, it was such an exhausting experience that for the first time in ages, I actually wanted an intermission — not for us listeners, but for the visibly enervated musicians who’d poured so much into it. (In that sense, it was perfect for the new short format; as Ewer told me afterward, neither as a player nor a listener would he have wanted more, and I had to agree that another hour as in a typical classical concert would have been intolerable.) They needed a break.

Instead, they gave us a balm after the Zorn, Philip Glass’s much more soothing and (being minimalist) predictable third string quartet — about as much of a contrast as imaginable. Although it sounds much simpler, Glass’s piece is difficult in a very different way from Zorn’s, demanding a intense mental focus to avoid getting lost in all the repeats. And as I feared, at this first performance at least, the amount of rehearsal time and/or energy devoted to the chaotic Zorn quartet appeared to take its toll on the Glass work, because that performance suffered from its ragged moments.

Third Angle also experimented with multimedia, accompanying the performance with stills from Paul Schrader’s sumptuous film Mishima, where this quartet originated. A friend of mine found the projections distracting, and I know they’re controversial. But Glass has always written music inspired by and linked to imagery; he considers himself a theater composer above all. I suppose you can always close your eyes.

But then you would have missed out on the one unqualified success of this experiment: the venue. Southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia proved as acoustically warm and welcomingly intimate as Blessinger promised in our preview, and I hope more classical groups will look to it (and perhaps a somewhat similar space, the Headwaters) when trying to bring the audience closer to the music. It really complemented his relaxed, friendly in-concert comments to the audience. Down to earth and enthusiastic, Blessinger makes partaking in sometimes challenging music seem like going to dinner at an old friend’s house who tells you that he decided to try something a little spicy in tonight’s recipe. Unlike some events, like occasionally at the TBA festival, you don’t get the feeling that you have to be avant garde or especially in the know to “get” the music. Rather, Blessinger’s generous comments (he always praises the audience for trusting the group enough to join them on this latest voyage into the unknown) and overall welcoming vibe encourages listeners to approach the music not as something fearsome but more like, ’Hey, let’s see what happens when we mix there peppers with that spice. It’ll be fun!’ And the intimate surroundings of Zoomtopia accentuated the cozy hominess — what the Dutch call “gezellig” of the event, making the music more approachable and making me feel more connected to the musicians’ passionate though imperfect performance.

I don’t always enjoy everything Third Angle plays, but I almost always feel that I’ve enjoyed the company, if not every item on the menu. And I admire the group’s willingness to experiment with new ideas in the presentation of music as well as the music itself. We won’t know the outcome of this particular experiment until the five-show season is over, when Third Angle will assess and if necessary adjust to new information and realities. That’s what classical music’s rising generation of non-deniers do.

Oregon’s classical music scene is too diverse for one-size-fits all answers; what works for Portland Baroque Orchestra may not fit the Eugene Concert Choir, nor can we expect much crossover between fans of Ben Folds joining the Oregon Symphony and, say, Cascadia Composers. (Or maybe we can; many Oregon music fans have ears as open as their minds.) But these experiments may show us principles and strategies that apply to groups beyond the ones that are employing them now. And these organizations need to able to approach them without being paralyzed by fear of failure — which means we audience members need to support their experiments.

We won’t really know the outcome of many of these experiments for months or even years, but we’ve got to applaud the open-minded organizations that are trying them. More are coming this month and next and beyond; stay tuned to ArtsWatch to keep abreast of the promising changes Oregon classical music is making.  If you attend some of these shows, please do the artists and audiences present and future a favor by letting us know, in our comments section in reviews and previews, including this one, what worked and what didn’t, and what suggestions you might have for them. ArtsWatch is happy to provide a forum for constructive conversation that helps all of us figure out how Oregon classical music can adapt to changing times.

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

7 Responses.

  1. Pat Zagelow says:

    Nice piece Brett!

  2. Thanks, Pat. I probably should have mentioned another upcoming experiment, perpetrated by Friends of Chamber Music: pairing a prominent pianist with puppets! But Jana Hanchett beat me to it. We’d love to know what ArtsWatch readers think of FOCM’s fascinating-looking show with Orion Weiss and Salzburg Marionette Theater this Sunday.

  3. Greg Ewer says:

    Bravo Brett for an exquisitely insightful, nuanced and beautifully written piece that captures the complexity of Portland’s classical music scene!

  4. Greg Ewer says:

    Both of Sandow’s examples involve the pairing of classical music with music of other genres. This format is fairly common, but by no means are the concerts universally successful. The successful ones usually involve interactions between the artists that project a sense of mutual admiration to the audience. When the orchestra is merely a back up band (often with lackluster arrangements) or if interaction is minimal, this spirit of commonality almost never emerges from the stage, leaving the audience with stereotypes intact. The recent OSO concert with Ben Folds was clearly the former.

    I could imagine a concert with someone like Folds performing on the first half, helping to set the stage for a piece like The Rite of Spring after intermission. I’m sure someone out there has tried it. Often it’s the orchestra playing light classics on the first half and a popular artist on the second half. Those concerts often strike me as a missed opportunity.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      That sounds exactly right, Greg. Perfunctory isn’t worth the time!

    • Isn’t that what the OSO did so brilliantly with Bela Fleck? It looked to me that that concert drew a lot of non-symphony regulars, who were treated to a spectacular performance of actual American classical music in the second half, which helped make it one of the most successful shows of recent seasons. The non-standard repertoire has to be extensive enough (i.e. not a token, perfunctory 7 minute contemporary piece with a bunch of 19th century stuff) to make it worth the ticket price for non-traditional listeners, as was the case in the Fleck concert, which featured two of his orchestral works.

      It feels like we’re groping in the dark here to some extent, trying to guess what works for which listeners. Is there any way of tracking whether those ticket buyers have been to other symphony concerts, and whether they return for another? Not that I think we should expect these concerts to draw those listeners to a standard-rep show, but it seems like it would be useful to find out from these classical-curious non traditional patrons just what brought them in, what they thought about the other material they heard, etc. Maybe offer a free ticket in return for filling out an email survey or something?

  5. Greg Ewer says:

    Great example! I didn’t play that concert, so it didn’t come to mind. I would guess the OSO’s database is capable of tracking this, and that someone has probably already looked at the data. What to do with it is another question.

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