A Surfeit of Summer Fests?


Cross-cultural musical ecstasy came to the zoo.

Lazy, hazy? Hardly. Crazy? You bet! Summer used to be the dry time for music as well as everything else ’round these parts. That’s all changing, of course — ask your local farmer — and the same goes for the once-somnolent summer classical music scene.

Now, along with the always appealing Chamber Music Northwest summer festival (about which I’ll have much to say soon), August’s William Byrd Festival, and Portland Piano International (ditto), we have the Oregon Bach Festival‘s welcome incursion into Portland, and tonight, that poses the kind of dilemma that drives PDX music fans madder than Gesualdo.

Do you swing by the Schnitz to hear festival founder and artistic director Helmuth Rilling lead a performance of Beethoven’s mighty Symphony #9, AND see possible Rilling successor Matthew Halls conduct a performance of Handel’s magnificent Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, which drew rapturous raves from well informed music fans who caught it in Eugene last week? Or do you head down to Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium to hear the Brentano Quartet play some of classical music’s most famous unfinished works — augmented by completions of/responses to those works that the ensemble commissioned from some of today’s finest contemporary composers? It’s a real poser, but you really can’t lose either way. It’s the kind of problem most American cities would love to have.

All this comes on the heels of a week in which music maniacs faced similarly tough choices. Wednesday night’s sizzling (in both musical and atmospheric senses) Bach Festival concert by the incomparable Schola Cantorum de Venezuela at near stifling Trinity Cathedral deprived me of the always engaging 3 Leg Torso, among other attractive shows. A stimulating vocal recital (including the premiere of an ambitious new work by a promising young Portland composer, Justin Ralls) by a potential future star baritone, Nicholas Meyer, at the Old Church (again, more soon) forced me to miss a really appealing CMNW show.

And the very next night, I had to skip the same program AGAIN, thanks to a spectacular Oregon Zoo performance, teeming with the sort of unbridled joy that make music and dancing an essential part of human experience, unleashed by what’s undoubtedly the finest aggregation of so-called “world music” stars on the planet: AfroCubism. The occasional all-star band amalgamates the immense talents of a trio of Africa’s greatest and most influential musicians — kora master Toumani Diabate, Rail Band guitarist Djelimady Tounkara and ngoni virtuoso Bassekou Kouyate, plus lesser-known but no less accomplished fellow Malian music masters — AND Buena Vista Social Club legend Eliades Ochoa (still indisputably one of the finest singers on the globe) and his corps of crack Cuban compatriots. Any one of those luminaries would be worth seeing alone, and together they were absolutely incendiary, exhibiting the kind of joyful cross cultural connection that has always energized music.

At times, I felt as though I were experiencing a musical Rorschach, like those images that look like a lips kissing if you focus on the black part, like two swans or something when you look at the white. I’d listen to a piece and concentrate on some elements, and it sounded like familiar Malian blues, and then focus on, say, the horn section or Ochoa’s voice, and it was suddenly salsa. Which, I guess, was the point. A couple of pieces started off with the same rhythmic figures (it all comes from Africa, like humanity itself), but what the musicians added on top made them sound like they came from two entirely different traditions. It was a fascinating musical and cultural experience. Disappointingly, it was one of only two world music shows at the Zoo this summer, snapping a summer tradition of family friendly global performers that leaves the city’s summer soundscape less diverse.

Nevertheless, though temperatures may be often be cooler than usual out there, musically speaking, we’re already in the midst of one hot summer. The weekend isn’t even over; tomorrow night brings what may be the most appealing — and, alas, sold out — CMNW program of the summer.

And though the most invigorating Bach festival in years is winding down, Tuesday kicks off what may be the most exciting Portland Piano International Festival ever — easily one of the year’s most attractive classical music events.  So maybe this late-arriving summer thing isn’t so bad after all. I mean, geez, have you tasted the strawberries this year?

2 Responses.

  1. Suzi Steffen says:

    Brett, what did you decide? I hope you caught Halls if not Helmuth. I didn’t love the Handel, but I thought Halls did a splendid job of conducting it; he’s a Baroque specialist, after all. (The Ninth, on the other hand … sigh. Not HR’s strength area, and the bass actually flubbed the solo entrance. Can you imagine? IT’S ONLY THE NINTH.)

    Anyway, glad to hear things are hoppin’ up there as it’s now bleak as the Moon down here. Hm; possibly time for a PDX run.

    • Thanks for checking in, Suzi. I went for the Brentano, and though I can never know how much I’d have enjoyed Halls & Rilling, I’m glad I did. The quartet’s Fragments program was actually the premiere of a nationally significant series of commissions from world famous composers, and I just couldn’t let that important new-music opportunity go by. I’ll tell OAW readers more about it later this month in our CMNW coverage.

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