Concert reviews: Oregon Percussion Ensemble, FearNoMusic

Nonmusical factors variously undermine and boost a pair of spring musical performances

Oregon Percussion Ensemble performed in Portland's Celebration Works series.

Oregon Percussion Ensemble performed in Portland’s Celebration Works series.

Carnegie Hall’s acclaimed Spring for Music series, which helped bring the Oregon Symphony deserved national prominence, has, alas, expired. But starting with March Music Moderne and continuing through April and May, Portland, in its typically shambolic, low-budget manner, has staged its own unofficial Spring for New Music, a non-festival of performances of contemporary classical music that I’d put up against any metropolis in the country outside the 212 area code. As noted in the initial post in this mini-series (and for that matter, our coverage of MMM  and other concerts this spring), the music has generally been of high caliber and broad appeal. But as mentioned yesterday, non-musical factors often impeded audience enjoyment of the excellent music onstage, and regrettably, that trend continued in some of the other shows I covered.

FearNoMusic performed music of Kenji Bunch at Portland's Alberto Rose Theatre.

FearNoMusic performed music of Kenji Bunch at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre.


FearNoMusic’s spring concert at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre seemed to offer just about everything a contemporary classical music concert should: an accomplished, flexible ensemble accustomed to playing new music; an entire program of engaging works by a local composer (Kenji Bunch, who just took over as FNM artistic director) with a deserved national reputation for music that’s both adventurous and accessible to broad, non-insider audiences; a hip venue more associated with pop music than classical. Yet non-musical elements made it fall short of expectations.

The sequence had something to do with it. Rather than starting off with a bang, like many pop shows do, Paraphraseology, a delicious piece for violin and marimba, takes its time warming up before catching fire in the final movement. Whenever an audience enters a venue ready to be introduced to a composer/band/music, it’s a moment ready for grabbing, but starting slow and slinky sort of took the air out of the room. With its smoky jazz harmonies and near-Romantic eruption, the beguiling piano trio Slow Dance (which like the opener received a fine performance by the FNM players) regained momentum. But the concert squandered it immediately thereafter with what unfortunately turned out to be the unexpectedly (and unfortunately) aptly named Boiling Point. By the time it finally started, after an insufferably slow set change, I had certainly reached mine.

Granted that providing a diverse instrumental palette keeps the audience engaged, still, only in classical music would performers make listeners sit through 10 minutes of stage futzing. Yes, they had to switch out a piano for a drum kit, and there were amplification and a heated tea kettle involved — but this should have been taken into account before the concert, and either the instruments arrayed elsewhere onstage beforehand, or plans made to cover the tedium. Juggle, talk, announce your Kickstarter campaign (as City of Tomorrow did during a re-set a few days earlier), show vacation slides … whatever it takes, but don’t insult your audience — your guests, who paid up to $35 to be there — by failing to keep them entertained. It’s like seeing a shy dinner guest arrive at a party where she obviously doesn’t know anyone who’s there at the moment, and ignoring her while she stands in the doorway, looking around uncomfortably.

This actually happens a lot in mixed-ensemble classical music, and I wonder if the worshipful attitude toward the music über alles inculcated in some musicians’ training might make them unconsciously neglect other aspects of how the audience is experiencing the performance. Of course we want them to serve the music, and most of the time that serves the audience, too, but the ultimate goal of playing music (or any other performance art) in public is entertaining/enlightening/moving the audience, and making us endure such a tedious stretch (which feels much longer than it sounds — try sitting still and staring straight ahead for 10 full minutes sometime) vitiates that goal.

Kenji Bunch played a solo encore at FearNoMusic's spring concert.

Kenji Bunch played a solo encore at FearNoMusic’s spring concert.

As it happened, all the setting up didn’t stop the drum kit from overwhelming the other instruments anyway. And it was all the more frustrating when (after a long intermission) to open the second half, the players spent almost exactly the same amount of time it had taken to reset the stage making announcements welcoming Bunch and incoming executive director Monica Ohuchi, deservedly honoring Bunch’s departing predecessor Paloma Griffin, and nervously introducing the young student violist playing the next piece on the program, Bunch’s solo viola showcase The 3 Gs. All that yakking was understandable, but could have happened while the stage was being re-set for the previous piece (behind a scrim if necessary).

After The 3 Gs (which would have made a fine concert opener, especially if Bunch himself had joined in), FNM turned in an evocative performance of Bunch’s alluring Drift for clarinet, viola and piano, whose crystalline simplicity might have been the evening’s highlight. The set-closing folk-flavored String Circle for quintet and lovely solo encore Until Next Time ended the show on an up note, but despite generally excellent music and performances, it still felt like a much longer evening than it should have. Most of the pieces ambled along at moderate tempos, so despite the variety of instrumental textures, a certain sameness settled in. Individually, these wonderfully appealing works might have been Kenji Bunch’s Greatest Hits (for chamber ensemble anyway), but that doesn’t mean that, heard collectively, they added up to a satisfying concert program.

A similar problem plagued the last concert I’d seen Bunch play The 3 Gs in, with the Portland ensemble 45th Parallel at the same venue in February. Although I admired that concert’s emphasis on American music, its willingness to vary the usual format (for example opening the show with performers playing behind the audience), and crossover experimentation (with local bluegrass musicians Jackstraw), the show labored on just too long (two hours BEFORE intermission and the classical/bluegrass jam) and suffered enough weak moments (the performances of unexciting early 20th century works; occasional lapses from insufficient rehearsal) to sabotage the good intentions and stretches of fine playing. It’s gratifying to see Portland musicians genuinely trying to reach new audiences by using alternative venues like Alberta Rose, programming non-warhorse material from here and now, and the rest, but more attention must be paid to how the music is presented.

Still, despite the frustrations of FNM’s Bunch tribute, it reaffirmed the ensemble’s skillful music making and creative vision, and confirmed my hope that Bunch’s arrival (and that of his wife, the formidable pianist Ohuchi) adds immensely to Portland’s contemporary music scene.

Oregon Percussion Ensemble

A week ago, the University of Oregon-based group demonstrated that it is indeed possible to pull off an ear-catching, all-contemporary music concert in an expansive church space — specifically, Portland’s First Presbyterian Church, which has swallowed up otherwise estimable chamber performances — in part through the visual appeal inherent in much percussion music. In May’s Celebration Works concert, the eight hands that coaxed appropriately underwater sounds (bubbles and splashes) from Steven Simpson’s opening number Radioactive Octopus seized my attention long enough to get to the next piece, Thierry de Mey’s Table Music, which makes the three percussionists’ hands dance in precisely timed choreographic movements that constitute the piece’s real interest, which is why it’s been performed at BodyVox and Time Based Arts Festival concerts, not just music shows. Three drummers with kits occupied different sections of the wrap-around balcony, making a virtue of the capacious sanctuary space by lending visual interest to 20th century Greek composer Iannis Xenakis’s (the only dead composer on the program) OKHO that fortunately for the listeners extended the music’s potent but short-lived sonic appeal; though I’ve enjoyed some of Xenakis’s percussion music, sometimes once you get the concept or process that constituted the composer’s real interest (as distinct from using the process as the means to the end of entertaining the audience), there seems little point in sitting through more of it.

The second half opened with the second-ever performance of under-40 composer Nathan Daughtrey’s scintillating quintet Silent Canyons, whose haunting vibes and bowed metal instruments and whispered vocals created a mysterious atmosphere that then exploded into a cymbal- and drum-driven thrill ride before returning to the shadow lands at the end. The variety and volume of the instruments filled the space to a degree difficult for conventional chamber instruments to match.

Oregon Percussion Ensemble.

Oregon Percussion Ensemble rocks the First Pres sanctuary.

The group smartly covered the ensuing (obviously rehearsed) tightly enacted stage re-set that inevitably accompanies percussion concerts with a program announcement that piqued our interest by promising to reveal during the next piece the contents of a prominently placed paper bag that would be used in the performance. Then another trio gathered around a single horizontal bass drum, which they played with chopsticks, a rubber ball, brushes, and sticks, to play Steven Snowden’s A Man with a Gun Lives Here, inspired by the secret codes used by Depression-era hobos to communicate with each other. Again, choreographed movement lent visual interest, with all three players ducking down at the end of the first movement’s big pounding climax. In the quiet second movement, the trio crouched over the drum shoulder to shoulder, their faces as intent as surgeons in the midst of a delicate operation on an unseen patient, their brushes fluttering and rubber ball moaning as they dragged it over the drumhead. In the third movement, faces flushed, they rubbed the bag and other noisemakers over the drum, switched to sticks — and then hoisted the bag aloft and split it open with the sticks, allowing dozens of ball bearings to spill out onto the drum, which they tilted to make the bearings roll over its surface percussively. The afternoon rain and thunder outside accentuated the stormy mood.

Next, a trio of white-masked players emerged, one by one, creeping through the audience to the stage for the last piece, Emmanuel Sejourne’s Martian Tribes, gathering at a marimba which they played in highly choreographed movements while grunting, playfully shoving each other and in general behaving like adolescent aliens. At one point, they played metal disks affixed to their thighs while dancing and eventually collapsing at the end. Tuneful and intricate, the music nevertheless took second place to the stage antics, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone in the cheering audience.

Of course the music should always come first in concerts, but if theatrical touches can enhance rather than detract from the music’s impact, it behooves performers to include them. Or just consider the performance to be a multi-media piece whose non musical elements, more than being a mere gimmick, instead combine with music to create a satisfying artistic experience. As it’s done for decades at the University of Oregon, where its concerts are among the most popular, OPE showed how to make that happen — even in the otherwise-unlikely environs of a big church. In contrast to other shows surveyed in this little mini-series, here the non-musical elements actually made the show more entertaining.

In the next and concluding installment of our Spring for New Music survey, we arrive at last at two very different venues, both of which are among Oregon’s finest for new music. But as we’ll discover, even playing fresh music in a sympathetic space doesn’t guarantee a winning concert experience. And sometimes the best performance spaces aren’t necessarily built for performances at all. We’ll also learn that another Oregon new music institution is getting the message that less can actually be more.

Read part 1 here.

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