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Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Oregon Symphony reviews: making old music new

By Matthew Neil Andrews
July 7, 2017
Featured, Music

“All music was new to start out with,” said the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra executive director Betsy Hatton from the stage steps at First United United Methodist Church.

I can appreciate her gentle chiding: it’s a rare thing to go to an orchestra concert with any new music at all on the bill. So it was a pleasant surprise to attend a concert where an Oregon orchestra performed works by not one but two living composers.

Steven Byess led Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra’s season-ending concert.

First, though, concertmaster Dawn Carter and director-conductor Steven Byess warmed us up on some old music: Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. I had somehow never heard the PCSO before, and I was immediately impressed by their balanced sound: spry and nuanced and playful and a little melancholy. The strings sounded especially crisp and articulate, warm and expressive but not washy (at least, not where I was sitting). My heart warmed to the lovely horn playing, a rare treat, while the oboe’s insouciant tone on some of the bluer melodicles reminded me of just how much Gershwin owed to Debussy. Principal flutist Liberty Broillet nailed that difficult and oh-so-tonally-important quiet C#-centered motive that recurs throughout the little tone poem like the titular faun’s pan pipe (not for nothing is that C# one of the flute’s most difficult notes).

I was struck by how freshly old the music sounded, if I may be forgiven the paradox: I’ve heard this piece hundreds of times, and while it never sounds new, it never really sounds old either. PCSO made it sound appropriately timeless. Colorful, dreamy, luxuriant, detailed Debussy is a composer much better suited to live listening than recordings, and by the end of I was all chilled out and ready for some New Music.

“It’s always an honor to perform music by a living composer,” Byess announced next, “and doubly an honor when the composer is in attendance.” Portland composer David Bernstein, a founding member of the guild to which I proudly belong, Cascadia Composers, took the stage. “Two of us are still alive,” he said. “That doesn’t happen at many classical concerts.” Bernstein expressed his thanks on behalf of Cascadia Composers, and said that “Byess is the only one in this region to show an interest in what we do.”

Cascadia Composers’ David Bernstein

Bernstein explained that for his Spenser-inspired 2015 orchestral composition Gloriana, “orders came down from on high… meaning the University where I worked. This was a collaboration between Theater, Dance, English, and Music Departments, it’s two acts in 13 scenes, with singers, dancers, an orchestra…it was a rather large undertaking!” His understatement drew more laughter, and I thought of another good thing about living composers—they can come show up in person and charm the audience into accepting a new work, or at least humanizing it.

Bernstein assured us that “the program is only a suggestion,” which I took to mean I wasn’t obliged to hear an allegorical ode to Queen Elizabeth and the Redcross Knight’s evolution into a spiritually mature being, and thus felt quite free to visualize erupting volcanoes and steampunk hovercrafts—though I did leave room for Spenser’s dragon, whom Bernstein praised: “Let’s hear it for those dragons, they really get around, with the movies and the children’s books.”

Joan Tower once told Bruce Duffie, “If I’m next to Beethoven, that helps Beethoven. It really does, because the ears are geared toward evaluating and criticizing my piece. ‘Do I like this? Do I not like this? Why am I having these kinds of reactions?’ That helps Beethoven because that can be then transposed just by local time connection to Beethoven instead of, ‘Oh, this is Beethoven so I might as well go asleep. You know he’s such a genius. I can’t possibly criticize this piece on any level.’”

David Bernstein must have felt something of this. We already knew exactly what the other three pieces on the program are going to sound like. Bernstein was the only unknown quantity here, even to those of us who have heard his music before. What I heard in this new music was a relentless rush of angular, jaunty rhythms; brief, expressive timpani flourishes sounded with severe glee by Portland State professor Florian Conzetti; aggressive, menacing strings punctuated by snare drum assaults and creepy, Pendereckian glissandi; hints of Boulez in the vibraphone and piano; Rouse-ing blocks of crunchy cluster chords. To my ear it sounded like nothing else quite so much as those hidden gems on a John Williams soundtrack, the cues you don’t notice while the movie is playing but which pop right out when you listen to the CD at home, hearing it as music rather than score, and you suddenly sit up and go “what the fuck is this groovy shit?” Can’t wait to hear the whole thing someday. Oregon orchestras, step up!


Byess described  P.D.Q. Bach soloist Jeffrey Biegel as not only a great pianist but a great commissioner: Biegel spearheaded the commissioning of renowned P.D.Q. Bach scholar Peter Schickele’s recently “discovered” Concerto for Simply Grand Piano in 2015 with the involvement of over a dozen co-commissioning orchestras. Byess clarified the concerto’s character and intent, for those unfamiliar with the unique music of J.S. Bach’s most fictitious heir: “It’s cheeky, and intended to be that way. If you hear something that makes you laugh, the composer wanted it that way—both of em!” Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach conceit allows him to compose—or perhaps I should say decompose—new old music in a way which is both authentic and satirical.

Shortly after the orchestra started up the first movement’s bland, faux-elegant, faux-classical faux theme, Biegel wandered out to look the piano over like a used car, obsessively adjusting the stool and trying in vain to push open the lid before receiving help, finally, from concertmaster Carter. Biegel, seated at last, shook his head at his music and checked with Byess (busy conducting), only to have his a-ha moment and turn the music right side up just in time to play, with smug triumph, a perfectly timed single note.

The humor was mostly at about this level, which is to say Vaudeville, Looney Toons, Marx Brothers, which is not to say I didn’t like it. I have rather a special fondness for ridiculous, timeless, corny gags executed with dopey aplomb, and Biegel’s performance tickled me all the way through. In fact I’m pretty sure my chuckles got a few looks from the other Barn patrons.

At Chamber Music Northwest in 2015, Peter Schickele lectured on “What’s so Funny About Music?” in Lincoln Recital Hall.
Photo: Jonathan Lange.

It wasn’t all 1930s humor, of course. At one point Biegel whipped out his phone and started texting and instagramming and whatever bored pianists do, all while the music tromped on through its universally comedic sliding trombones and bloated bassoons. We got a lot more sight gags, the groaniest of which was probably Biegel knocking on the piano and then knocking cross-eyed on his head with a cheesy woodblock sound. Even Zappa would have grimaced at that one.

It struck me, though, that under all the comedy the music was a very capable imitation of a Mozart or Beethoven concerto: harmonically, formally, orchestrally, pianistically. Schickele’s no slouch, after all, and certainly could have done all of this “for real” if he’d wanted to (in fact, you should listen to some of his real music right now). Every now then he would shake off the 18th-century sententious stench and burst into these intermittent flashes of looney Aaron Copland stomps. I thought I spied a jab at anti-new music sentiment when every harmonically unusual passage saw Biegel making a priggish “this can’t be right” face. Of course, sometimes it was just wrong notes, or rather “wrong” notes.

Jeffrey Biegel played PDQ Bach with the CSO.

The pompous doofus routine got extra thick when Biegel stood up behind Byess’ back and tried to conduct the orchestra himself, flapping his arms around like a toddler in dad’s suit. Byess directed him sternly back with an imperious finger. Back at the piano, chastised and petulant, awaiting his cadenza, Biegel missed his entrance and mouthed “now?” to Byess…and then entered in the wrong key, correcting chromatically after a menacing glance from Byess.

The first movement ended and I wondered what the hell else they even had left.

The second movement started with a hushed, staggering, sliding little syrupy melody, and more stern looks from Byess when Biegel came in playing entirely too loud. It wasn’t too long before we got some farty horns and the intentional use of that slippy, lippy amateur tone I was so pleased to not hear in the Debussy. Trumpet mutes introduced the final movement, with Biegel’s sudden bursts into boogie woogie finally persuading the orchestra to play along. Absurdly long trills and a Grieg-like riff in major sixths made me wonder if, along with all the Beethoven and Mozart, Schickele was just trying to cram in every piano concerto joke he could think of.

It was the blues versus classical routine that made whole thing worthwhile. Biegel’s solos were full of blue notes, faux blues riffs on the faux classical themes, like Gershwin aping Mendelssohn. Eventually Biegel dove in all the way and ripped straight into “When the Saints Go Marching In,” his feud with the orchestra finally culminating in an Ivesian brouhaha.

After all that gaudy bombast, I was touched beyond words when Biegel came back out and performed, for his encore, an effortlessly endearing rendition of Chopin’s waltz in C# minor.

After the intermission, the Shostakovich. There’s nothing new to say about Shostakovich, of course, except to remark that it was enjoyable music played well. Here was that Hollywood Orchestra sound again, all tightly focused vibrato and deadly dry pizzicato like a Bernard Herrmann score. Shostakovich composed music for 36 films over the course of his long career, so perhaps he would have appreciated it. I was particularly impressed by the sturdy, expressive bass section, led by an attentive Marc Bescond, and several soloists shone, especially contrabassoonist Nicole Buetti’s solo in the second movement and the enchanting harmonics of harpist Bethany Evans. It was nice to hear PCSO playing an entire symphony; I get why their season is often full of shorter pieces and selections from longer works, but those of us with Attention Surplus Syndrome always appreciate the concession to the symphonic form.

Russian Dolls

Bruce Browne and Terry Ross have both admirably summarized Michael Curry’s involvement with the Oregon Symphony in creating a puppet-centric setting of Stravinsky’s generally hohummed Perséphone. For my part, going into Perséphone I really only cared about one thing: the puppets. I’m one of those weirdos who has seen multiple Michael Curry productions, thanks to an otherwise mostly unpleasant tenure in Central Florida. The touring version of Curry’s Julie Taymor tag-team reimagining of The Lion King is a minor miracle many of us have experienced (or at least youtubed), and his contribution to the Finding Nemo Musical at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom was one of the few things keeping me sane in those times of devastating tropicality (evidently I am meant for cooler climes, despite my Angeleno heritage).

I do count Stravinsky among my dearest composers, but his Neo-Classical period is already my least favorite (the glorious Symphony of Psalms notwithstanding) and this one barely clears even that bar. That said, it was good music and I was tickled by several delightful and characteristically Stravinskian moments throughout. I quite frankly don’t care about the text anymore than Igor did (sorry Gide); with the pure lush sound of the PSU Chamber Choir, the Pacific Youth Choir, and the face-meltingly exquisite tone of tenor Paul Groves, there’s really no need to fuss about the damn words.

Curry’s puppetry enhanced ‘Persephone.’ Photo: Brud Giles.

Much as I liked the singing and the puppets, though—especially the outrageous, unreasonably gigantic head of Pluton—it was the post-modern gestalt of perennial mythology that finally sold me. I’m an unabashed fan of Going Big, of mashing together a zillion and one disparate elements and making them all work together, if only by the sheer weight of confabulated superabundance. And there we all were, mid-Spring, crammed into a dark room with a bunch of other Portlanders in inexplicable formal costumes, consuming a reenactment of the oldest myth: the earth’s recurring cycle of death and rebirth, the fecundity of the buried and ruptured seed, the virgin sacrifice, the embrace of and escape from oppression and decay, the return of light and life, the dying goddess made whole again.

At times, it was impossible to distinguish singers and actors and dancers and puppets. A doll in a tree might become a dancer in a mechanical harness, her perfect movements an uncanny manifestation of grace in the void above the stage. Holograms of ghostly effulgence floated above the orchestra like the lost souls room in Beetlejuice, where “the absence of time renders our lives eternal. Everything was lit in vivid jade and sapphire (except that outrageous head, all volcanic ash and lava red wrath). Men in black were barely visible everywhere, moving about and controlling everything—puppets, sets, screens, singers, musicians, maybe even the theater itself. “O grieving Shades, you beckon!” Perséphone cries; “To you am I drawn.” Who can resist the lovely narcissus flower? “Beneath the warm day’s / Furtive caress / Even the meekest soul / Would love to acquiesce.”

Rebirth of the Symphony

The symphony orchestra keeps almost dying, and it keeps reinventing itself like Chesterton’s Everlasting Man (or, of course, like Perséphone’s return from Hades, depending on which mythology you prefer). Sponsor- and donor-driven community orchestras can help keep the tradition alive by supporting professional musicians and (too seldom) championing new works by living composers, while the big orchestras keep the fire going by pouring their resources into extravagant productions like Perséphone (and Mahler’s Second Symphony, and Turangalîla, and even the occasional living composer). If I were in a smaller town, we wouldn’t have any of this. If I were in a bigger town, it would be unremarkable. Portland’s classical microcosm, imperfect as it is, almost seems just the right size and character to keep us struggling to revitalize this flowing cycle of creative rebirth. I mean, thank gods it’s not all Brahms, right?

But to be perfectly blunt, I’d really rather hear a lot more new new music. Why Stravinsky, again? Why not a puppet show for Tower, Saariaho, Zwilich? Could we stage a Mazzoli opera in Portland? Or how about Du Yun, who just won the Pulitzer? How much struggle does it take? We all showed up for Bluebeard and Turangorilla and Kenji Bunch and Andrew Norman and Tomáš Svoboda, and we’ll show up again in November to hear a new piece by Chris Rogerson sandwiched between Schoenberg and Gershwin, and we’ll definitely show up for Bartók and Stravinsky and Richard Einhorn in January, and we can’t hardly wait for the Andy Akiho and Gabriel Kahane premieres next spring.

We like weird music. We’re fucking Portlanders. We want the new shit, and we want it big, and we want it all the time. In the words of my fellow PSU graduate and Oregon ArtsWatch writer Tristan Bliss, “new music is speaking to us from our own insignificant minute portion of history, but it’s ours, no translation or context needed.” As Perséphone’s chorus sings: “Nothing ever ends / We all eternally pursue / The vain and the vanishing.”

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer and percussionist at Portland State University. He and his music can be reached at http://composerswatch.proscenia.net/Andrews_Matthew_Neil.htm.

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