Oregon contemporary classical music: Golden age?

Fall concerts offer an unprecedented bounty of homegrown sounds by Oregon composers

We may be entering a golden age for Oregon contemporary classical music. This past fall might have brought Oregon music lovers more new music by Oregon classical composers than any season in history. While some culturally insecure institutions and presenters cling to the old thinking that the only worthwhile new art comes from points east (Europe, New York), more and more presenters and performers are realizing that Oregon is a cultural leader, not a follower — and Oregon composers are delivering music that speaks to us here and now. Here’s a glimpse at some of them (click the links for videos of the Crazy Jane and Cascadia concerts), followed by a look ahead at many more Oregon composer shows approaching, so you can hear homegrown music for yourself.

McCulley, Petak and Olson performed at Cascadia Composers' fall concert.

McCulley, Petak and Olson performed at Cascadia Composers’ fall concert.

Cascadia Composers

The star of the regional composers’ organization’s fall concert, at the University of Portland’s Mago Hunt recital hall, turned out to be saxophonist Patrick McCulley, who gave an astonishingly expressive solo performance of Jack Gabel’s winding Still Dog after All These Years, and joined another Cascadia composer, Jennifer Wright, as comic narrators in Susan Alexjander’s 1990 e. e. Cummings setting Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, another brief delight that was one of my favorite pieces and performances of the night.

McCulley next teamed with pianist Benjamin Milstein in Greg Bartholomew’s protracted In the Language of Meditation, navigating its straightforward and neo-Romantic style (very different from most of the other music on the program) with equal aplomb. McCulley’s spirited alto occasionally overshadowed singer Catherine Olson’s atypically restrained delivery of Elizabeth Blachly-Dyson’s link clever Howl: Etiquette for Artists and Other Social Misfits. The tiny soprano’s confinement behind a music stand somewhat inhibited her often riveting theatrical chops.

Kate Petak played harp in that piece and in Greg Steinke’s One by One, using koto-like textures as she and another saxophonist, Sean Fredenburg, engaged in a kind of chase of melodic wisps. Petak also joined violist Grace Young and flutist Gail Gillespie in Homesick, which Linda Woody wrote for a concert in remembrance of the 70th anniversary of World War II. The beguiling trio of instruments, pioneered by Claude Debussy, made an effective vehicle for the nostalgic moods — by turn wistful, tranquil, and playful — that suited its original inspiration. The combo needed a little more rehearsal to capture all the beauty in the prettiest piece on the program, David Drexler’s 2012 scattered flurries, whose attractive, intricate patterned melodies demanded more precise and assertive playing than offered here.

Milstein, Olson, violinist Casey Bozell and clarinetist Christopher Cox captured the quirky charm of Gary Noland’s engagingly off-center 1994 setting of Jonathan Swift poems, Women Who Cry Apples, the musical equivalent of John Tenniel’s famous Alice in Wonderland illustrations. Bozell in turn joined in an oddball combination of accordion (Kiran Moorty) and vibraphone (Florian Conzetti) in Nicholas Yandell’s intermittently poignant Eventide’s Lament. One reason we mightn’t have heard that combo too often is that it proved hard to balance the sonorities, particularly in louder sections, but despite a couple of stalls, it was one of the more intriguing pieces on a strong program. The concert ended with the sturdiest, Michael Johanson’s potent Toccata, whose opening aggressive stuttering rhythms briefly calmed, like the eye of a hurricane passing over, before concluding with rapid fire fury.

Even with a few rough patches, this was one of the most successful and entertaining concerts I’ve heard from Cascadia Composers, offering a wider variety of musical styles than any other concert in Oregon that week. With quality of both compositions and performances steadily increasing, the group is really on a roll.

Susan McDaniel and Nicole Leupp Hanig performed music by Cynthia Gerdes at Crazy Jane.

Susan McDaniel and Nicole Leupp Hanig performed music by Cynthia Gerdes at Crazy Jane.

Crazy Jane

Cascadia’s second show of the fall might not have reached the heights of earlier Crazy Jane concerts, but its highlights were thoroughly entertaining. Unsurprisingly given the beauty that surrounds us, nature has supplied the theme for past Cascadia shows, and provided inspiration for several of the works here. Blachly-Dyson’s trio Fairy Bells and the Calypso Orchid, a sort of drunken tango inspired by hikes in Northwest fir forests, sent pianist Susan McDaniel reaching into the instrument’s guts to strum its strings. Stacey Philipps’s charming Prevailing Winds for, appropriately, woodwind trio smartly used unexpected silences and windy effects involving mouthpieces. Lisa Ann Marsh’s Dark Waters, as its title suggests, invoked nature’s less beatific moments. Inspired by the composer’s encounter with an Oregon coast shrine commemorating two boys who’d been swept out to sea by the sometimes treacherous Pacific waves, it moved from a sunny day at the beach to a turbulent passage to a kind of transcendence in “their journey to the light of after life,” as Marsh wrote in her program note. Christina Rusnak’s The Way Through musically recounted the struggles of pioneers and current inhabitants of the rugged North Cascades.

Cynthia Stillman Gerdes’s music also often draws inspiration from nature, but her ruminative Eve’s Version here took another common Crazy Jane theme — women — that’s a natural for this series dedicated to the music of female Northwest composers. Setting a poem by Kilian McDonnell (powerfully sung by soprano Nicole Leupp Hanig and accompanied by McDaniel) that gave a different perspective on the Garden of Eden than Genesis’s pro-Adam position. The First Blast of the Trumpet, Jan Mittelstaedt’s opening brass quartet used bumptiously un-regal quotes from royal fanfares to musically satirize a Renaissance church official’s opposition to gynecocracy. Liz Nedela’s simple but affecting Marija for flute and cello wordlessly traced the up and down experiences of one of her female ancestors, who arrived in America a refugee from her troubled native country and faced the challenges and sometimes triumphs of making a new life after her husband died. Bonnie Miksch’s gripping Allow My Heart to Ache showed the Portland State University professor at her best as both multi-tracked singer and composer.

Lisa Marsh conducted her music at Cascadia Composers' fall concert.

Lisa Marsh conducted her music at Crazy Jane’s fall concert.

As you’ll hear in the videos, the performance quality in these shows was usually at least acceptable, often excellent, but even the occasionally wayward moments never seriously interfered with my enjoyment of the best pieces. Moreover, both these concerts profited from quick, well thought out transitions between performances (much snappier than in some earlier shows), though a couple of times the musicians forgot to acknowledge the composers (who were present) during the applause. It’s always good to remind listeners that all this music we enjoy was written by real people, and didn’t descend from the heavens on stone tablets inscribed by bewigged deities. Sometimes, in fact, they’re  even written by our own friends and neighbors, and much of the music in these shows made me grateful to live in a place and time where our own composers’ creative flowerings can rival the natural beauty around us.

Second Chances

Another concert inspired by Oregon’s natural and human history featured all-original music by one the state’s most valuable musicians and mentors. November’s CD release concert at Portland’s First Unitarian Church for composer and jazz pianist Darrell Grant’s ambitious suite The Territory not only showcased one of the most important compositions to emerge from our state in the 21st century, it also underlined the value of repeated performances of new music.

Composers have long complained that premieres are actually relatively easy to achieve: their novelty attracts grants, media attention, and audience interest. Then our attention turns to the next new shiny thing. History is littered with the corpses of scores that got a single performance, only to be forgotten when the next premiere exploded onto the stage. Music can’t enter the repertoire unless it’s repeated. Any new performance art benefits from the kind of feedback artists get from throwing it onstage and gauging and responding to the audience’s reaction. And audiences themselves can find that repeated exposure to new material can help us appreciate it more; sometimes we’re trying so hard to assimilate what’s new that it can be hard to focus on the work as a whole.

Case in point: When I saw The Territory at its premiere at Chamber Music Northwest a couple of years ago, I thoroughly enjoyed most of the nine-movement suite, as I do all of Grant’s music, yet some sections still fell flat. That performance included some top jazz pros from New York (including a couple of my personal favorites, Brian Blade and Joe Locke) along with some locals including Grant himself on piano. To my (pleasant) surprise, experiencing it a second time with a band consisting almost entirely of Oregon players proved far more rewarding.

Some of Portland's finest musicians performed Darrell Grant's 'The Territory' at First Unitarian Church.

Some of Portland’s finest musicians performed Darrell Grant’s ‘The Territory’ at First Unitarian Church.

Grant’s enormously ambitious suite uses a colorful chamber orchestra  — singer (the scintillating Marilyn Keller), Grant’s own piano, vibraphone, cello, saxophones, flute, trumpet, bass, drums and bass clarinet — to evoke moments in Oregon’s own history, from the Missoula Floods to the first human habitation to Chief Joseph’s surrender to the cruel World War II internment of Japanese Americans to African American cultural landmarks to the massacre of Chinese miners. Whether it was thanks to greater rehearsal time, revision (although I don’t know if the score changed at all), using Oregon players to perform music so much about our home territory, my own familiarity with the music, or just the fact that Grant & Co. had lived with the music longer and performed it several times in the interim, this time, the performance really crackled, making me consider revising my initial assessment to include the word “masterpiece.”

Portland pianist, composer and professor Darrell Grant.

Portland pianist, composer and professor Darrell Grant.

The band also recorded a CD, released at the concert, with the ever-generous Grant encouraging buyers to spread the music as far and wide as possible. Thanks to his position on the Portland State University faculty, Grant’s not trying to make a living from CD sales, and he regularly mentors young Portland jazz musicians (the album was released on PJCE Records, started by two of his former students) and contributes to the broader Oregon community in many, many ways — including donating a portion of the proceeds of CD sales to the Oregon Historical Society. The concert program included a QR code to facilitate more donations from audience members. If Oregon gave a MVP award to its musicians, I’d nominate Darrell Grant.

The Territory concludes with an uptempo section called New Land (highlighted by the composer’s own rippling piano solo) that signifies the creative energy of Oregon’s recent diversification and growth. It could also serve as a theme song for the city’s burgeoning new music scene.

The only real problem with these all-Oregon (or for that matter all new music) concerts is that they tend to attract mostly a niche audience of fans of contemporary classical music, depriving other listeners (especially those who cherish old classical music) of an opportunity to hear homegrown music that they might actually like. That’s why it’s especially valuable (and unfortunately way too rare among timid Oregon major music institutions) for presenters to mix new Oregon music with classics, as the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra did in its November concert of Czech music that included Dvorak’s ever-popular Symphony #9, an overture by the 19th century composer Emil von Reznicek, and Portland’s own Tomas Svoboda, who forged a long teaching and composing career in Portland. This was another second chance performance, of Svoboda’s last (so far) completed work, the 2013 Clarinet Concerto commissioned and premiered by the Eugene Symphony, with the Columbia Symphony commendably offering the composer (who was in attendance here) and Portland listeners the first chance to hear it performed in his hometown.

Clarinetist Michael Anderson joined the Portland Columbia Symphony in music by Tomas Svoboda.

Clarinetist Michael Anderson joined the Portland Columbia Symphony in music by Tomas Svoboda.

If this is to be Svoboda’s orchestral valedictory (he’s still recovering from a stroke suffered just days after completing it), it’s a wonderful one. An ominous opening gives way to a clarinet solo strolling down a seemingly sunny path, then engaging in a conversation with orchestral clarinets. Svoboda masterfully uses the instrument’s plaintive tone and timbre, which always has a tinge of loneliness even in the jauntiest passages, to gradually darken the mood, like clouds gathering or a dream suddenly turning nightmarish. As the second movement’s Shostakovich-style martial music grew steadily more threatening, the solo clarinet unfurled lyrical passages (sensitively played by soloist Michael Anderson, the Eugene Symphony clarinetist for whom Svoboda wrote it) as though desperately trying to fend off the darkness. The orchestra’s unrelenting ten note theme receded as conductor Steven Byess held back its full force, but soon it implacably returned, stronger than ever — the paused while Anderson played a halting, almost bewildered solo echoed by orchestral clarinet (delivered here by a friend of his from high school) before finally wilting under renewed assault from the orchestra, then recovering — or awakening — with a melancholy solo.

Tomas Svoboda

Tomas Svoboda

Unlike so many contemporary concertos that seem more about stroking the egos (or more charitably, challenging the formidable skills) of the soloists, this one adroitly and economically uses the solo instrument and orchestra in an almost narrative and engaging way. Kudos to the Eugene Symphony for midwifing it, and to the Columbia Symphony for nurturing it during this celebration of the composer’s 75th year.

ArtsWatch has covered (click the following links for our stories) other fall concerts that included splendid Oregon music among works by composers from elsewhere, including Portland Piano International’s recitals featuring Henry Kramer (playing music by Eugene composer David Crumb) and Justin Bartlett (playing Johanson), the Mousai (performing Portland composer Thomas DeNicola’s Memories), my own favorite living Oregon composer Kenji Bunch’s music on a 45th Parallel program that I unfortunately had to miss because it happened the same night (a good problem for a music community to have, I suppose, but I wish such conflicts could be avoided) as Third Angle New Music’s performance of Jay Derderian’s Frozen Smolder (to my ears the most persuasive piece on the program) in October. Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet is dedicating substantial parts of its season to music by Oregon composers such as Paul Safar, Terry McQuilkin,  and David Crumb. And of course the fall also saw the big Oregon new music event of the season, Christopher Corbell’s opera Viva’s Holiday, and a program of readings of three new one-act operas in progress by Portland composers John Vergin and Theresa Koons. There were no doubt others we’re overlooking. All this in a period of about 90 days.

Coming Soon

The next few months offer abundant evidence that we may truly be in a golden age for Oregon contemporary classical music. I’m sure we missed a few, so please use the comment space below to let readers know about other events that feature Oregon contemporary classical music this winter and spring.

• Estelí Gomez
January 20, Beall Concert Hall, Eugene.
January 21, The Old Church, Portland.
Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch preview of the acclaimed singer’s concerts of music by University of Oregon composers.

• “Locally Sourced Sounds”
January 22
FearNoMusic, The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave. Portland.
Read my Willamette Week preview of the local new music ensemble’s latest concert of music by Oregon composers.

ARCO-PDX's January 22 concert includes music by Oregon composer and violinist Mike Hsu.

ARCO-PDX’s January 22 concert includes music by Oregon composer and violinist Mike Hsu.

January 22, Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St. Portland
February 13, WOW Hall, WOW Hall, 291 W. 8th Ave. Eugene
Read my Willamette Week preview of Amplified Repertory Chamber Orchestra of Portland’s mix of music by classic (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms) and contemporary (Jacob TV, Tom Johnson) including one of Portland’s most broadly appealing composers, ARCO’s own Mike Hsu.

• “Man of Words”
January 26
Delgani String Quartet, Oregon Contemporary Theater, 194 W Broadway, Eugene.
Orator Rickie Birran from Man of Words Theatre Company joins the ensemble in a show that mixes literary readings from Paradise Lost, Don Quixote, and more, with music by Telemann (18th century), Webern (20th century), and newly commissioned works by music by Eugene composer Paul Safar.

• Oregon Composers Forum
January 26
Beall Concert Hall, Eugene.
This free concert of the Oregon Composers Forum series will feature premieres of contemporary chamber music by ten University of Oregon composers: Izabel Austin, Alexander Bean, Tim Bloch, Makenna Carrico, Dan Daly, Michael Dekovich, Benjamin Penwell, Martin Quiroga, and Aidan Ramsey.

Catherine Lee + Matt Hannafin Duo
January 27
Lutheran Redeemer Church, 5431 NE 20th Ave, Portland.
Read my ArtsWatch review of the Portland duo’s new CD, whose music will be on this program along with music by John Cage (Ryoanji), and Portlanders Loren Chasse and Branic Howard.

“Perceptions of Sound”
January 30
Cascadia Composers, First Christian Church, 1166 Oak St. Eugene.
Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch preview of this multi-sensory, multi-media concert of new music by Oregon composers.

Bonnie Miksch, performing here at Crazy Jane's fall concert, will also perform in a concert of her compositions by FearNoMusic in February.

Bonnie Miksch, performing here at Crazy Jane’s fall concert, will also perform in a concert of her compositions by FearNoMusic in February.

• “Somewhere I Have Never Traveled: Music of Bonnie Miksch”
February 13
FearNoMusic, Lincoln Hall, PSU Room 75, 1620 SW Park Avenue.
This CD release performance features music by the Portland State University professor, singer, electronic musician and forward-looking composer Miksch, who’ll also perform.

• Sospiro
February 18
Beall Concert Hall, Eugene.
The 14-24 member contemporary vocal ensemble, composed of singers drawn from the school’s thriving choral community, features choral music by UO composers.

• Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble
February 19
Aasen Hull Hall, Room 190, University of Oregon, Eugene.
Founded in 2005, ECCE has premiered more than 100 works by emerging composers in Eugene, Portland, and other venues around the state. The dynamic group of composers and instrumentalists, dedicated to promoting and performing a diverse repertoire by today’s established and emerging Northwest composers, offer a winter themed concert that combines existing and new compositions by UO composers.

• “Grasshoppers”
February 20
The Old Church, Portland
This Portland Jazz Composers concert features music by student composers and their mentors, including Portland jazz musicians Kerry Politzer, Ezra Weiss and Douglas Detrick.

• Oregon Composers Forum
February 23
Beall Concert Hall, Eugene.
This free concert of the Oregon Composers series will feature premieres by undergraduate and graduate UO composers.

Pianist Dianne Davies plays music by Cascadia Composers Feb. 27.

Pianist Dianne Davies plays music by Cascadia Composers Feb. 27.

• “Attachments and Detachments”
February 28
Dianne Davies, Agnieszka Laska Dancers & Cascadia Composers, Lincoln Hall, Portland State University, 1620 SW Park Ave. Portland.
The stellar Portland pianist uses music from Cascadia Composers along with dance, theater and other multimedia elements to tell a personal story of grief (over her sister’s death), and her own struggle and recovery.

• Tai Hei Ensemble
February 28
Aasen-Hull Hall, Eugene.
Devoted to creating and performing new music that explores and enhances the dialogue between cultures, the ensemble includes a mix of western and non-western instruments. Its intercultural programs are inspired by non-western traditions.

Future Music Oregon
March 5
Room 163 Music Bldg. University of Oregon.
Performance features original electroacoustic music by FMO composition students and visiting composer Masayuki Akamastsu.

• Ova Novi Ensemble
March 7
Beall Concert Hall, Eugene
ONE champions women composers. The coming season includes works by OCF women composers and their contemporaries, as well as women of historical importance in music. Ova Novi’s concert will coincide with Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day (March 8).

• “Living Local” 
Northwest Piano Trio
March 11
Cerimon House, 5131 NE 23rd Ave. Portland.
The new piano-violin-cello trio plays 21st century music by Oregon composers.

• “Saxophone Collaborations”
March 15
Aasen-Hull Hall, Eugene.
Collaboration is the theme of a concert in which members of the Oregon Composers Forum and the saxophone studio of UO faculty member Idit Shner play new music composed for saxophone soloists and ensembles.

• “Oregon Stories”
April 1, Columbia Center for the Arts, 215 Cascade Ave. Hood River
April 2, Liberty Theatre, 1203 Commercial St, Astoria
April 8, The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave, Portland.
Live performances of three new Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble radio documentary pieces about exceptional Oregonians from minority communities featuring original music by Portland composers Darrell Grant, Mark Orton, and Douglas Detrick.

• “Night, Too, Shall Be Beautiful”
April 23-24
Choral Arts Ensemble, The Old Church, Portland.
The veteran choir sings music by Cascadia Composers and American composer Eric Whitacre.

The Mousai play music by Cascadia Composers in May.

The Mousai play music by Cascadia Composers in May.

• “Cascadia Invokes the Muses”
The Mousai
May 14, Village Community Presbyterian Church, Beaverton.
May 22, First Presbyterian Church, 1200 SW Alder St. Portland.
The Portland chamber ensemble performs music by Cascadia Composers including Thomas DeNicola, Matthew Kaminksi, Jan Mittelstaedt, Liz Nedela, Lisa Marsh, Mike Hsu, Ted Clifford, and Mark Vigil.

• Beaverton Symphony
May 20, 22
Village Baptist Church, 330 SW Murray Blvd, Beaverton.
The orchestra plays Washington composer Ryan Hare’s Maracanzo along with Beethoven and more.

• “A Finale Of Firsts”
Portland Chamber Orchestra
May 21, Nordia House, 8800 SW Oleson Rd, Portland
May 22, Lewis and Clark College, Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Portland.
Music by Kenji Bunch joins works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Prokofiev.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch. 

2 Responses.

  1. I just want to let readers know about another event happening Saturday, February 6, at 2pm and the Rimksy-Korsakoffe House, 707 SE 12th Ave, Portland. Composer Charles Copeland has written piano music to accompany the entire book “Through the Looking-Glass” by Lewis Carroll. He will perform the complete piece with voice actors Ryan Scott and Lisa Lipton. Approximate duration is three and a half hours. Free admission.

  2. Thanks so much for letting our readers know about this, Charles!

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