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Fear No Music review: Fear No Excellence

December 16, 2014


I have a few composer friends that I like to talk shop with, and we usually spend our time complaining about the lack of visibility of new music, the trials and tribulations of being an “emerging” composer (whatever that means) or how certain “big names” almost always soak up all the opportunities (not because their music is lacking, but more just a general frustration). Sometimes, though, I lose track of the fact that I live in an amazing town for new music, and fEARnoMUSIC’s inaugural Locally Sourced Sounds concert last Friday night was a refreshing reminder that local composers can still team up with world-class musicians and make real magic happen.

Voglar and Belgique play a new work by Portland composer Bonnie Miksch.

Voglar and Belgique play a new work by Portland composer Bonnie Miksch.


Locally Sourced Sounds is a project aimed at answering a question posed by fEARnoMUSIC’s artistic director Kenji Bunch: what does the music of Oregon sound like? FNM’s attempt to answer that question took the form of a call for scores sent out earlier this year to any and all composers in the state, regardless of age or status. The only requirement was they had to be based in Oregon and they had to submit an unperformed string quartet lasting 10 minutes or less.  This year’s winner was Tylor Neist whose ethereal electro-acoustic string quartet, Unfolding, proved to be a compelling counterpart to the other works on the program by veteran Portland composers David Schiff, Tomas Svoboda, Michael Johanson, and Bonnie Miksch.

The program began with Portland State University faculty member Miksch’s duet for violin and viola commissioned by violist Joel Belgique for his wife (and fellow FearNoMusic and Oregon Symphony musician) Ines Volgar for her birthday. Somewhere Like You, My Darling intended to “showcase their brilliance and musicality as performers, and allow them plenty of interpretive liberty,” according to program notes. The delightful showcase featured romantic vigor coupled with intimate musical dialogues. Colors abounded in the duet’s ten minute duration, and a couple of moments reminded me of lovers’ squabbles. Of course, these tensions always resolved to the intimacy established at the outset, and thanks to the couple’s marvelous playing, the music’s evocative intertwining sounds were incredibly clear.

Michael Johanson’s sinewy Toccata made a great contrast to the romanticism of Miksch’s lovers’ duet. The Lewis & Clark College professor’s piece didn’t waste any time picking up momentum. Beginning with an intense line played in unison between the piano and the alto saxophone, the fluttery musical figure served as the prime material before being subdued by a contrasting slower section — my favorite moment in the entire piece, but one that was sadly too short. Saxophonist Sean Fredenburg and pianist Jeff Payne’s performance of Johanson’s fun, energetic Toccata  were tight and well-rehearsed given the fireworks they were playing.

Next was Svoboda’s enigmatic Passacaglia and Fugue, Op. 87 for violin, cello, and piano. Svoboda’s work has been featured on a number of concerts over the last year in celebration of the retired longtime PSU faculty member’s 75th birthday, and the “dean” of Portland composers was well represented with this piece. Seemingly emerging out of nothing, the Passacaglia’s transparent textures featured a lovely melodic line, introduced by the piano, which was passed through the instruments, eventually building to a fever. One of my favorite moments in the entire concert took place about two-thirds through the Passacaglia; as the violin and cello were dueling it out, the piano re-introduced the opening melody in thick, fragmented chords. Pianist Susan Smith, a member of Portland’s other new music ensemble, Third Angle, stated the melody with a gravity that was difficult to describe but incredibly effective. As the melody was slowly reintroduced, the violin’s and cello’s wild melodic figures begin to fragment and elongate, and very slowly transitioned back to the thin transparent textures of the beginning — a magical effect which is extremely difficult to pull off. My one criticism would be that the final chord — a Mahlerlian 9th chord that was reminiscent of the ending of the Song of the Earth — was drawn out just a little too long, but it was easily forgivable given the magic that just occurred. The fugue that followed was vivacious and its subject (which was derived from the Passacaglia’s theme) opened the piece with a Copland-esque energy and closed the first half with a standing ovation.

After intermission we were greeted with Neist’s Unfolding, for amplified string quartet and electronics. For a process-based piece (meaning external elements such as mathematics or numerology determine things like melody or rhythm), it was surprisingly accessible, even blatantly tonal in some parts. The playback that came through the speakers sounded almost like a ghost ensemble: quiet, tense, and melodic without any one figure allowed foreground prominence. There were a couple of moments where I looked up and realized that the ensemble was sitting still; the sound coming through was an echo of their former self in the form of electronic looping. It was a fascinating effect, but I was left wanting more from the electronic aspects. Still, the quartet (coupled with a skilled sound engineer, Neil Blake) played well and seemed to do the piece justice. Unfolding has set a benchmark for the pieces that will follow in future score calls.

The final piece on the program Reed College professor David Schiff’s autobiographical New York Nocturnes, was inspired by his time in New York during his early twenties. It opened strongly with decisively jazzy figures sprinkled throughout the piece. Schiff’s harmonic language, which borrowed elements of jazz harmony while not confirming to jazz conventions, provided some nice surprises. There were many allusions to the composer’s well-known jazz influences such as “walking” bass lines in Nancy Ives’s cello part (a common jazz technique), among other figures. The piece ended in a surprisingly intimate fashion that earned Schiff a roaring ovation.

With this concert, fEARnoMUSIC provided a decisive answer to Bunch’s question. The music of Oregon is diverse, rich, and very much alive. I hope Locally Sourced Sounds, which Bunch intends to repeat annually, will continue to develop the bond between fEARnoMUSIC and the composers of Oregon. The state has a vast sonic terrain that is ripe for exploration.

Jay Derderian is a Portland-based composer who is currently serving on the governing board of Cascadia Composers, an organization dedicated to the promotion and performance of living composers in Oregon.

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