Music Reviews: Revolutionary activities

The last time I heard a Classical Revolution concert at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater, I found some of the results underwhelming. Although I endorse the idea of bringing classical music (back) to informal (read: beer) spaces like its monthly jams at northeast Portland’s Waypost, I also discovered at last year’s Alberta Rose show that amateurish performances that I might have enjoyed in a bar or club seemed to wilt on the big stage. Maybe, I thought, I was a victim of my own unconscious expectations, cultivated over attending hundreds of performances in theaters over the decades. Maybe the disappointment derived from the greater focus viewers apply when we’re staring at musicians onstage in a theater rather than hearing them play in a bar.

Or maybe, it turns out, the players just needed to raise their game. That’s the conclusion I drew after Saturday night’s CRPDX Decomposing Composers concert, which happily combined the fun and relaxed vibe the group has brought to Portland classical music with performances that didn’t need excuses. 

Feldman & Sussely

Certainly the Halloween costumes the players wore contributed to the inviting atmosphere. In the opening number, pianist Virginia Feldman (who later contributed a short, welcome night raga, on violin) was attired as a ghoul and singer Flora Sussely wore a bloodstained white gown, collapsing on the stage apron at the end of Henry Purcell’s lament “When I Am Laid in Earth.” Violist Mattie Kaiser assumed a stiff zombie pose at the outset of her duet with violinist Lucia Conrad in  Camille Saint-Saens’s “Danse Macabre,” creaking her bow across the strings until Conrad got her moving at human speed, and somehow managing to play the piece while maintaining her zombified mien.

Beare & Choban

The show benefited from several projected video excerpts — a good reason to use a theater — including a looped clips of a (too short) part of Orson Welles’ film classic “The Third Man’s” famous chase scene through the shadowy streets of postwar Vienna, accompanied by the always riveting tenor Ken Beare and pianist Maria Choban. Momentum stalled with a overlong reading from the poems by Albert Giraud that Arnold Schoenberg famously set in his spooky century old classic, Pierrot Lunaire, accompanied by recorded excerpts of his music; it would have been better to just perform the whole piece. The first half concluded with a spry reading of the first movement of Shostakovich’s gripping “String Quartet #3” by a CRPDX quartet — accompanied by aerialist Petra Delarocha. Classical music definitely needs more aerial acrobatic accompaniment.

The second half began with pianist Beth Karp accompanying excerpts from the famed 1920 German Expressionist film, “The Golem” with her scintillating original score. Embracing elements of Philip Glass-style minimalism, old filmscores, and more, it still managed to be both cohesive and to complement the on-screen action without overshadowing it.

Karp & Golem

The pace stalled a bit with an arrangement of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” for a pair of bass clarinets, a clever choice in theory but that dragged in practice.  Pianist Gulchin Tarabus turned in a nice performance of passel of Dmitri Shostakovich’s too-seldom heard Preludes and Bartok’s “Rumanian Dances.: It might have worked better to separate those on the program, just as the string quartet did when they returned for the second movement of Shostakovich’s quartet, this time backgrounded by another silent film classic excerpt, from the first vampire film, “Nosferatu.” After it ended, someone took a seat at the hitherto unoccupied drum kit and set the familiar beat to the encore, a perfectly appropriate quartet and drum arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” — complete with Vincent Price-style narration by the familiar Portland voice actor, Sam Mowry, who also proved to be a funny, witty and even essential MC, covering stage resets with jokes, japes and other jawings in his distinctive deep rich voice.

The musicians were similarly jocular, contributing little sight gags throughout the night, and most of them joined the quartet onstage to dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” It was a sweet ending to a delightful night of music that few if any other groups could have pulled off with such good-humored panache. Classical Revolution continues to prove that classical music doesn’t have to be stiff and solemn, unless zombies are involved.


Shelter and the Storm

“You are going to be astonished,” Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar ( this night shorn of much hair and 19th century tuxedo tails) told the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall audience in introducing London/Los Angeles composer Thomas Ades’s “Asyla,” the fourth fairly recent piece the symphony has performed so far this season. Although it might be scarier than zombies for a portion of the orchestra’s audience, that’s a welcome development, as is Kalmar’s decision to help listeners into unfamiliar works with short explanations or demonstrations, which is becoming more common in classical music these days, perhaps in part because of the success Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop has enjoyed with the method since her days helming the Eugene Symphony. (Her mentor Leonard Bernstein was a master at it.)

As Kalmar adroitly demonstrated Ades’s use of such allegedly radical devices such as two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart, a water gong that changed pitch as it was lowered into liquid, and paint cans used as percussion devices, much of the audience seemed enthralled. I couldn’t help remembering that the use of quarter tones in Western classical music goes back to at least Charles Ives’s century-old sketches and compositions, and that Portland-born Lou Harrison and John Cage were using paint cans, a water gong (which Cage created) and brake drums in San Francisco percussion concerts in the late 1930s. The fact that they still sound new to so many listeners tells us something about how relentlessly backward looking the classical music establishment has been for so long, but better late than never.

“Asyla” required a trio of pianos and a passel of percussion.

Ades, widely regarded as one of today’s leading composers, made powerful use of those devices in the exciting 1997 “Asyla,” abetted by the orchestra’s characteristically supple, even explosive performance. As Kalmar explained, it plays on the double meaning of “asylum” as a place of shelter and a place for crazies, and the music accordingly moved from uneasy repose to anguish and confusion and beyond. More than anything else, it reminded me of some of Bernard Herrmann’s fabulous Hitchcock scores. Now that Ades is in LA, maybe the studios should take advantage of his presence — if studios are still using orchestras in coming years.

I missed the rest of the symphony’s program (which was, happily, recorded for later broadcast by Portland’s KQAC classical radio station) because I was rushing off to catch a premiere of Portland Opera’s “Don Giovanni,” which I’ll tell you about Thursday.

Shakespearean Sounds

One of the pieces I missed was Prokofiev’s masterful ballet score for “Romeo and Juliet,” but I was able hear other musical settings of Shakespeare at last weekend’s gorgeous Resonance Ensemble concert in the excellent Celebration Works series at downtown Portland’s First Presbyterian Church. Like CRPDX, Resonance augmented its musical performances with non musical elements — in this case, brief readings and scenes from the Bard’s plays, enacted by Lewis & Clark College drama students and graduates. Those interludes punctuated a program of music that was almost entirely unfamiliar to me. Resonance’s use of multi media elements and beautifully crafted performances of fresh repertoire (including four fine works by contemporary composers) help make it one of Oregon’s most valuable musical resources.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble.

The concert began with “Four Shakespeare Songs” by the youngest composer on the program, Finnish composer Jaako Mantyjarvi, all of which belong in the choral repertoire, especially the penultimate “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble,” which used Renaissance elements and Bulgarian-style yips and slides (and gleefully theatrical Sweeny Toddish singing by the splendid Resonance vocalists). The rest of the smartly crafted  program ranged from wan (Steven Sametz’s setting of Juliet’s famous elegy to Romeo, “When he shall die,” which some may recall from Robert Kennedy’s eulogy to his murdered brother) to folkish (Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “It Was a Lover and his Lass” to earnest (the great American composer Ned Rorem’s “Live with Me and Be My Love”) to sweet and (American composer Emma Lou Diemer’s Renaissance pastiche “Three Madrigals”) to almost syrupy (Vaughan Williams’s popular “Ode to Music”), to operatic works by Britten and Verdi. The altogether winning program benefited from enticing solos by soprano Natalie Gunn and countertenor Tim Galloway.

Finally, some of the best music I heard last weekend happened not in a theater at all, but rather in a dance performance: “Gather,” which Martha Ullmann West reviewed for ArtsWatch earlier this week. The work, which concludes its two-weekend run this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at downtown Portland’s Conduit studio, is really propelled by its powerful live jazz score (and particularly the drums) by the Portland jazz quartet Battle Hymns and Gardens, featuring composer/percussionist Tim DuRoche, bassist (this night) Andre St. James, and the horn players from one of my favorite bands, Portland’s Blue Cranes, Reed Wallsmith and Joe Cunningham — and the latter pair get a chance to participate more than just from the bandstand. The dance is terrific, of course, but music fans will find the sounds alone to be worth the price of admission.

One Response.

  1. Jeff Winslow says:

    A hearty second for Brett’s review of The Resonance Ensemble, which I also heard. The program was, in a word, brilliant, in both conception and execution. The inclusion of absorbing dramatic interludes and a beautifully performed selection from Richard Strauss’s recondite and rarely heard “Ophelia” songs (composed party as revenge for losing a lawsuit brought by a publisher who refused a satirical set of his songs) were highlights. I also much enjoyed the selections from Martin’s mercurial “Ariel Songs”, and I hope to hear the entire set at a future Resonance concert after they’ve had a chance to settle in a bit.

    And no, Brett, you’re not the only one who might apply the description “syrupy” to the final Vaughan Williams. No reflection at all on the performers. It just seems to be that kind of piece. Usually piano transcription leavens that, but here it has the opposite effect, possibly because much of the resulting texture is so widely imitated by lesser composers.

    But what do I know? It had been ages since I last heard excerpts from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” so I thought I would stay after intermission at the Oregon Symphony and give it a chance. What a mistake! I’m sure the orchestra performed it well, but for me the experience, outside of a few evocative moments, was deadly dull. A failed experiment in Veronese Realism. Still, the first half made up for it, with the fascinating Asyla and the passionate and nearly flawless Tchiakovsky performance by cellist Gerhardt.

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