DUO Stephanie and Saar’s Makrokosmos Project: Magical music

Oregon musicians join acclaimed American piano pair to perform an epic masterpiece by one of America’s greatest living composers, and more contemporary music.


It is increasingly rare to be able to stuff a $20 bill into your pocket, venture out into the Portland night and enjoy a full evening of local wine, art, and music, but next Thursday, June 25, from 5-9 pm DUO Stephanie and Saar will inaugurate the first year of their festival, Makrokosmos Project, with just this sweet deal. It’s not in a traditional concert hall or theater setting. And it’s not just any kind of music, but a celebration by Pacific Northwest musicians of the 85th birthday of one of the most innovative classical composers of the 20th century. Wait, make that 21st-century, since in 2000, he grabbed a Grammy award for best contemporary classical composition (Star-Child), to go with his many other honors, including the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Echoes of Time and the River.

George Crumb’s compositions and the repertoire choices for the rest of the festival manifest the musical goal of New York-based duo pianists Stephanie Kai-Win Ho and Saar Ahuvia: to present thought-provoking, jazz and rock-influenced compositions by Americans with a strong classical background.  Nationally this scene is blowing up, with the likes of Bang on a Can, Mohammed Fairouz, Nico Muhly, Kathleen Supové, Missy Mazzoli and a million more, and Oregon’s many participants include Third Angle New Music and FearNoMusic; musicians from both ensembles will perform in Makrokosmos.

DUO Stephanie and Saar return to Oregon with one of the summer's major musical highlights.

DUO Stephanie and Saar return to Oregon with one of the summer’s major musical highlights.

With the hopes of developing the Makrokosmos Project into a yearly festival highlighting Pacific Northwest performers and composers, DUO Stephanie and Saar are tapping into Oregon’s growing love for edgy classical music. They have gathered an impressive roster of Oregon pianists to perform George Crumb’s Makrokosmos for amplified piano Volumes I and II. Deborah Cleaver, Harold Gray, Alexander Schwarzkopf, Susan Smith, and Julia Hwakyu Lee will pluck, strum, sing, moan, and yes, whistle, their way through these fantasies on the zodiac.

Crumb stated that these compositions tap into “magical properties of music; the problem of the origin of evil; the ‘timelessness’ of time; a sense of the profound ironies of life (so beautifully expressed in the music of Mozart and Mahler); the haunting words of Pascal “le silence éternel des escape infinite m’effraie’ (the eternal silence of infinite space terrifies me); and these few lines of Rilke: ‘And in the nights the heavy earth is falling from all the stars down in loneliness. We are all falling. And yet there is One who holds this falling endlessly gently in his hands.’”

Named after these pieces, the Makrokosmos Project begins at 5 pm with a wine reception and panel discussion with Schwarzkopf and Cleaver on the techniques and spiritual backdrop of George Crumb’s work. At 6 pm they will present the first volume of Makrokosmos, which lasts about 30 minutes. Then at 7 pm, FearNoMusic’s artistic director Kenji Bunch and executive director Monica Ohuchi will perform works written by Bunch, one of Oregon’s pre-eminent composers. At 8 pm, Makrokosmos volume II will be performed followed at 9 pm by DUO Stephanie and Saar’s concert. The couple will perform Nikolai Kapustin’s Paraphrase on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca,” which certainly covers the jazz idiom, and John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction, which is a quintessential American work fused with rock and jazz elements. Concert-goers are free to come and go between these short 30-45 minute concerts.

DUO Stephanie and Saar are no strangers to Portland’s piano scene, and Stephanie actually grew up in Portland. “Forming community, strengthening connections, and catalyzing new collaborations is what I most look forward to with this festival,” stated Stephanie. “Kenji and I both went to the same high school,” she continued, “and Monica and I studied with the same teacher, Julian Martin. Here we all are now in Portland, and it’s such an exciting opportunity!”

Also in attendance at the festival will be George Crumb’s son, David Crumb, who teaches music composition at the University of Oregon. “It was a real discovery for us that not only does David Crumb live and teach in Oregon but he had already composed a piece for two pianos, The Whisperer,” said Saar. While the father and son have very different musical languages, both explore mystical and spiritual questions. “It’s a very philosophical piece,” stated Stephanie, “very serious and very passionate; he was very indirect about who the whisperer is, and was discreet when asked about the cathartic moment that happens in the piece. Overall, like his father’s works, the piece has a mystical, life-questioning element to it.”

All of this happens at the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland’s Pearl District, one of Oregon’s most important centers of photographic art, and the choice of that non-traditional venue (including the wine and cheese) is an important aspect of the festival. “Both George and David Crumb’s music is provocative,” stated Saar. “The Blue Sky gallery space, with its contemporary images, mirrors the feel of this music, of this festival. This is not a sterile concert hall experience; it is alive and happening now.”

The Makrokosmos Project happens Thursday, June 25, 5-9 pm, at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Avenue, Portland. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door and include the entire festival and wine. Students and seniors get in for $10.

Jana Griffin is a piano teacher living in Portland.

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