Mid-Week MusicWatch: More Ghoul-ash; a Nose reprise; Oregon originals onstage

No, your screen isn’t deceiving you (at least not about Oregon arts); this is a special bonus edition of our usually weekly look at what’s happening in Oregon music. Don’t blame us; blame the profusion of worthwhile events happening Wednesday night.

The Oregon Symphony performed with Portland indie rockers at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The Oregon Symphony performed with Portland indie rockers at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

I was actually tempted to call this one “News and Nose,” or “Nose and Notes” because, although opera fans have a couple of other treats coming up Friday (including Oregon Public Broadcasting’s TV premiere of one of today’s most prominent contemporary operas, San Francisco composer Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick,” on Great Performances, and of course Portland Opera’s “Salome,” which we’ll preview on a silver platter shortly), anyone interested in contemporary visual, theatrical and musical arts should hie herself over to one of the half dozen cinemas in Oregon that on Wednesday are screening the encore presentation of the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival of its acclaimed 2009 production of Shostakovich’s 1930 opera “The Nose.” This latest offering in the Met’s Live in HD series opened last Saturday and will be encoring at theaters in Bend, Beaverton, Happy Valley, Medford, Portland, Salem and Springfield.

Shostakovich’s quasi-Cubist score, which dazzles with everything from a percussion ensemble interlude to a gorgeous vocal chorale to a polka, is a precisely-performed delight, very different from the great 10th symphony he wrote at the end of this career, and performed by the Oregon Symphony last weekend. So is the source material, Nikolai Gogol’s proto-Surrealist 1936 short story, but the real star is the multifaceted visual design by one of the great visual artists of our time, South African theater artist William Kentridge.

I’d wanted to catch this runaway Nose ever since I immersed myself for a full day at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s encompassing 2009 exhibit of  the artist’s films and various components of his design for the Met’s production, which Kentridge based on the concept of the opera reflecting, or maybe refracting, the Stalinist politics and violence ravaging Soviet Russia at the time of its original production.

As I discovered in last Saturday morning’s screening, it succeeds brilliantly, with continuous projections, lighting, even supertitles all integrated with the precisely choreographed stage action. Matching the music’s montage style, hints of Terry Gilliam’s work, Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” even filmed cameos of the composer himself flit by, along with too many other images and shadow puppet style silhouettes to sort out. So much is going on at once, in fact, that it’s a little overwhelming to see it live. Which only makes me want to see it again.

However, that would mean missing a harmonic convergence of two ambitious new works by erstwhile Portland composer and pianist Andrew Oliver, who received a commission from Chamber Music America to write “New Traditions,” a new suite for his Kora Band, which for the past few years has made a fabulously fizzy blend of the West African kora harp, trumpet, and rhythm section. The group’s members have scattered to various points around the globe (Oliver to London), but are reconvening for a short West Coast tour, which alights at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s jazz club Wednesday night.

The equally attractive opening act, one of Oliver’s other ensembles, the Ocular Concern, will also be playing yet another brand new multi movement Oliver composition, his “Sister Cities” suite, featuring (in addition to the core jazz quintet) several prominent Oregon classical string players, plus Portland tango master Alex Krebs on bandoneon. Wait, you didn’t know Portland has a sister city in Argentina (the native land of that button accordion)? It doesn’t, but although the suite boasts plenty of global influences, they don’t derive from the music of those countries but rather from the letters of their names. It’s a terrific double bill of jazz-oriented new music by one of Oregon’s most valuable musicians. Let’s hope he returns home often.

Another young Oregon composer, Beth Karp, will perform her evocative original piano score to accompany a screening of Paul Wegener’s 1920 German Expressionist film, “The Golem” Wednesday night at northeast Portland’s Alberta Rose theater. And yet another Oregon composer, Eugene’s Michael Roderick, has written a tart, tango-tinted original score to another silent classic, F.W. Murnau’s Drac classic,  “Nosferatu,” which Roderick’s colorful band, Mood Area 52, performs Wednesday night at Portland’s Mission Theater and Thursday night at Eugene’s Bijou Cinemas.

Beth Karp conducted a chamber ensemble at Classical Revolution PDX's Decomposers Night.

Beth Karp conducted a chamber ensemble at Classical Revolution PDX’s Decomposers Night.

Oregon Originals

Reversing her process with “The Golem,” Beth Karp composed another score (“Things That Go Bump in the Night”) for a string quartet and soprano Arwen Myers, and then chose a scene from a much campier old film called “Genuine” to accompany it at Classical Revolution PDX’S annual Decomposer’s Night Sunday at downtown Portland’s Star Theater. It was one of several new works by Oregon composers at this year’s edition, all enjoyable in their very different ways, and all crisply performed. Decomposers Night has grown tighter and better each year, with last year’s performance proving that CRPDX’s best work deserves a bigger showcase than its valuable monthly jam sessions.

This time, the added value emerged in the sense of freshness and discovery emanating from the solid new works by Oregon composers on the program, some written especially for this performance. Saxophonist Patrick McCulley’s “Chaining the Leviathan” showed compositional promise as well as stupendous solo chops, including multi phonics. It and the opening John Dowland song were accompanied by a projection of a live digital painting created in the moment by Portland artist John C. Worsley, and the magical effect of its gradual development (and especially the way the picture changed to reflect the music’s sudden jagged edges) compensated for the annoyance produced by the jittery cursor flitting about on the screen behind him.

Classical Revolution understands the importance of such complementary visual elements to some contemporary staged musical performances. The Waking Guild’s performance of flutist Jason O’Neill-Butler’s pretty “Sandman” included an aerial performance by Petra Delarocha.

The other new piece on the program, Reed College student Nathan Showell’s incidental music (for clarinet and string trio) to H.P. Lovecraft’s haunting 1922 story, “The Hound,” effectively counterpointed Willamette Radio Theater basso profundo Sam Mowry’s gleefully B-movie style reading of an excerpt from the tale. (As last year, Mowry made an engaging MC as well.) Showell, whose age and OLCC policies conspired to prevent him from attending his own premiere, is a promising new voice on Oregon’s music scene.

All the new works had something to say, but the evening’s highlight was an oldie: early 20th century French composer Andre Caplet’s 1909 “Conte fantastique,” inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s famous chiller “The Mask of the Red Death,” which persuasively added to a string quartet a harp (played here by Kate Petak), of all instruments, to conjure musical chills. I’d love to see this rarely performed music, reminiscent of Ravel, performed as part of a theater or dance expression of Poe’s tale.

CRPDX members also battered at the barriers between pop and classical music in violinist Mike Hsu’s chamber arrangement of a song by the doomy ’80s band The Cure, and by joining in a song by the next act, Portland rocker Myrrh Larsen, although it was hard to hear the acoustic instruments over the amplified rock band. The goth industrial Church of Hive followed, and it was heartening to see how easily the classical music, musicians and audiences blended so naturally with everyone else at the theater. It felt like classical music was part of a bigger story of contemporary Portland music, rather than isolated to an irrelevant tangent.

In fact, Decomposers Night provided one of three encouraging signs for Portland contemporary classical music this month. A week earlier, Cascadia Composers’ fall concert also demonstrated that organization’s increasing vitality. The music, all written by Oregon composers, ranged from academic modernism to atonal to electronic enhanced, and most of it was performed by the Oregon Brass Quintet, who drove to Portland’s Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church from Eugene, continuing a trend toward top local performers at CC shows. Oregon music deserves strong performances, and it’s nice to see that happening both at Cascadia and Classical Revolution concerts. But even some of the state’s finest players need to allow adequate rehearsal time, which, judging by the aural evidence in a couple places, wasn’t always present here.

The strongest works  tended to be the shortest and composed for only one or two players. Pianist Monica Ohuchi’s incisive performance of Eugene composer Mark Vigil’s punchy Fantasy for Piano #1 showed that her husband, composer/violist Kenji Bunch, didn’t provide the only boost to the Oregon music scene stemming from the family’s recent relocation from New York to Bunch’s hometown of Portland. Justin Bulava’s searching solo on Portland composer Dan Brugh’s breezy Fantasia for clarinet and tape (a work written for him, which no doubt explains his fine performance) blended beautifully with the electronic textures. Ohuchi and trombonist Robert Taylor’s duet in Portland composer Cynthia Stillman Gerdes’s wonderfully woozy “Waking Up Slow” made me want it to go on longer, just like a morning slumber — but that would have violated the intent of the piece, which is all about not wanting to get out of bed in the morning (but apparently doing so anyway, darn it).

Despite the occasional stumble, brass ensemble works by Rick Crittenden (“So Far from Home”), Charles Copeland (who also supplied the best program notes among many good ones here!), Liz Nedela (“Cool Breezes”), and David Leetch’s funny fusillade of fanfares all provided enjoyable moments. The most ambitious piece, Michael Johanson’s “Summer Rhapsody,” seemed aimed at an academic modernist audience, but Medford composer I’lana Cotton’s peppy 2001 brass quintet, “Speed Trap Blues” ended the concert on vibrant note. Cascadia is elevating its concerts beyond the vanity showcases composer presentations often amount to; they’re now becoming audience-friendly exhibitions that anyone who wants to know what’s happening in Oregon music need to hear.

Pianist Monica Ohuchi joined members of the Oregon Brass Quintet at Cascadia Composers fall concert.

Pianist Monica Ohuchi joined members of the Oregon Brass Quintet at Cascadia Composers fall concert.

The third promising sign for Oregon classical music I caught this month happened at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, where pops conductor Jeff Tyzik led the OSO musicians in a collaboration with three prominent current and former Portland indie rock singers. The symphony has won something of a reputation in classical circles for its earlier, relatively tasteful work with popsters, which in some hands seem like slumming, often featuring over the hill rockers with goopy strings further bloating already festering prog fare.

The symphony certainly deserves kudos for any attempt to actually engage, on an artistic rather than merely demographic level, other elements of Oregon’s vibrant music scene, but how would it work in practice? Would the orchestra really be helpful or even necessary to the music?

The answer came in the first set. You could tell this wasn’t a standard orchestra concert because the male orchestral musicians were dressed like 20th century bankers rather than 19th century butlers — que c’est casual! But songwriter Holcombe Waller strode onstage resplendent in white (he was joined by guitarist/violinist Ben Landsverk, who has some experience with classical music as well, and drummer Gavin Bowes), and on his songs with the orchestra, the big sound (with generally astute orchestral arrangements by Gabriel Kahane, Jherek Bischoff and Waller himself) really seemed to be what expansive songs like “Down & Cried” and “Moses” wanted. Waller’s ample voice and confident delivery (despite a slippery sustain pedal at one point) kicked the concert off to a promising start. I haven’t always tuned into Waller’s frequency, but his strong performance here made me eager to hear his upcoming collaboration with FearNoMusic at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater next month.

Now, none of this is to say that this is “classical music” per se — but who cares about such arbitrary categories? It was a singer with an orchestra, and the question really is whether the combination made musical beauty. In the theatrical Waller’s case, the combo worked a treat. With the following singer, former Portlander Mirah, not so much — both her small, breathy voice and the scale of her songs were overshadowed by the big band. The final act, one of my personal recent Portland faves, Black Prairie, also possesses a bigger sound that mostly worked fine with the orchestral accompaniment, but the combo didn’t really add much to the music itself.

The concert qualifies as a mostly successful experiment, but even if it hadn’t been, the symphony would have deserved credit for trying something a little different. Such efforts haven’t generally led new listeners to return for classical music concerts, although they often provide a one-time boost to the bottom line. Nothing wrong with that, as long as the product isn’t a travesty, and that was never a danger here. In fact, I would have enjoyed the show even more if they’d cut the non-orchestral pieces that consumed half of each set, though maybe those were needed for the pop musicians’ core audiences in case they didn’t like all those strings and brass. But the show ran a little long, and ultimately, the concept stood just fine on its own.

I hope this commendable, frequently satisfying attempt to connect with Oregon’s larger musical community leads to more such collaborations — preferably involving (maybe commissioned) music by Oregon pop-oriented composers, built from the ground up for orchestra, rather than tacked on as an afterthought. What a splendid opportunity that could provide for Portland’s more creatively ambitious pop musicians to make more complex music than they’re able to compose for a rock band, as well as for the orchestra and for Oregon music lovers who care more about musical quality and freshness than category. Judging by the three concerts I heard in the past couple weeks, this community teems with a wealth of creative musical talent, classical and otherwise, that’s ready to enlist the state’s finest musicians to make new, ambitious homegrown music for Oregon music lovers.

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3 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    LOVE the caplet work & am sorry i missed it.

    yes, some of the oldies are definitely worth airing – especially when they are rarely heard. additionally, having a work from the established repertoire on a program with newly composed pieces helps put what we do &/or don’t have going for us in the present into illuminated focus.

    btw, it’s really a shame that debussy never lived to finish his two poe projects:

    1/ the fall of the house of usher
    2/ the devil in the belfry (is that the correct title?)

    next time around, peut-etre?

  2. Thanks, Bob. I agree: ghettoizing new music OR old music is detrimental to both. Concerts like this show that classical music, contemporary or otherwise, is all part of a spectrum, not two separate worlds. It’s a living tradition, just like rock bands dropping the occasional Stones, Velvet Underground or even Chuck Berry chestnut into their sets.
    Agreed that Usher would be an excellent choice for a future Decomposers Night. There have been attempts to reconstruct it, including (says the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia) one orchestrated by Oregon’s own Robert Kyr in the 1970s. I’ve never heard that one, but I did hear another that’s recorded on EMI. I remember thinking that it wasn’t too convincing, but that was a long time ago, so I’ll have to give it a listen again. I don’t know of any reconstructions of Devil in the Belfry, but I think there’s little to go on. Not that that stopped someone from reconstructing (with, admittedly, appropriate caveats) a Bach Passion that he left with no music at all!

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