Portland Piano International: Locavore’s delight

New recital series that commissions new Oregon music and pairs local composers with rising star performers gets off to a strong start


The Portland metro area’s presenters of traditional classical music are slowly starting to notice the locavores in their audiences. So far, mostly the new are trying out the new – it’s been some years since the venerable Oregon Symphony programmed a work by an Oregon or Washington composer, but the younger Portland Columbia Symphony, Portland Chamber Orchestra (in May) and especially the Beaverton Symphony are all programming music by local composers this season, and the Vancouver Symphony did last season. Even presenters who don’t directly control their repertory are finding ways to get a piece of the action. Friends of Chamber Music invited the Martinu Quartet, who have Tomas Svoboda‘s 12 string quartets in their repertory, to give concerts last spring that included three of of them. Now Portland Piano International has upped the ante, not just (like the others named above) performing one or two Oregon-born compositions in an entire season, but helping create more Oregon music by commissioning six Oregon composers to write new solo piano works, with six more to follow next season. PPI has even paired each composer with a brilliant young pianist from its Rising Stars project for the premiere performances.

Pianist Justin Bartlett.

Pianist Justin Bartlett.

If the inaugural concerts are any indication, PPI has done itself and the region proud. Pianist Justin Bartlett gave four free, hour-long concerts of works by J. S. Bach, Dmitri Shostakovich, Karol Szymanowski, Toru Takemitsu, and Portland composer and Lewis & Clark College professor Michael Johanson, the first of the six Oregonians to be heard this season. Only two of the venues were in Portland; one was in Beaverton and another, unusually and commendably, in Bend. I caught the third concert, on October 4 at Portland Piano Company. It was not quite a full house, but the spectacular summery Sunday afternoon weather outside made formidable competition.

Justin Bartlett led off Portland Piano International's new Rising Star series.

Justin Bartlett led off Portland Piano International’s new Rising Star series. Photo: Dan Wasil.

Bartlett was all that could be desired, and more. We were drawn in by his fluent and engaging remarks introducing each work, and all works were given sensitive, technically expert, and individualistic treatment which brought out the composers’ musical personalities. Bach’s G major French Suite, BWV 816, sang and sparkled by turns, with a highly varied, well-judged use of the pedal. In his remarks, Bartlett made much of the role of his improvised ornamentation, but to me that was distinctive only in the lyrical Sarabande, where his understated yet yearning interpolations gave the formidable old German master an unusually tender face. Szymanowski’s Tantris the Fool – which as Bartlett explained, was inspired by a satirical story in which the famous lover Tristan schemes to tryst with his Isolda by disguising himself so well that not only dogs and guards but even Isolda herself fails to recognize him – was biting but also clear and direct. The final Prelude and Fugue of Shostakovich’s op. 87 set of 24 was appropriately grave, monumental, but also infused with a warmth that made an inspiring finale. If there was any fault to be found, it was that Bartlett’s interpretations were probably not quite as distinctive as he thought, and would gain even more depth from further exploration of the uniqueness of each work.

Composer Michael Johanson.

Composer Michael Johanson.

The star of the show was the pairing of Johanson’s new composition, Eternal Gardens, and the Takemitsu work that in some ways inspired it. The 20th century Japanese composer’s Rain Tree Sketch II was composed in memory of the great French 20th century composer Olivier Messiaen, who had just passed away, and Messiaen’s obvious influence makes it a fine homage. Johanson is also a great admirer of Messiaen’s music, and in fact, at the beginning of Eternal Gardens, I was slightly startled by its close resemblance to the soundworld of the Takemitsu. But it soon diverged and established its own, contrasting personality. Where Rain Tree Sketch was dark and restrained, Eternal Gardens was luminous and exuberant, almost like Takemitsu on hallucinogens. Before the performance, Johanson quoted him describing his music as “like a garden, and I am the gardener.” Johanson let loose a cloud of brilliantly colored butterflies in it.

Johanson and Bartlett confer before the recital. Photo: Dan Wasil.

Johanson and Bartlett confer before the recital. Photo: Dan Wasil.

One factor that no doubt contributed to the success of the premiere was that Bartlett committed it to memory along with the rest of the program. Memorization can seem an overwhelming challenge in new music, which is often virtuosic and full of unfamiliar patterns. But there’s no denying its power as a tool freeing the performer to directly impact the audience with the composer’s inspiration. Also, both the Takemitsu and Johanson are densely atmospheric works, with many complex harmonies fading away gradually before moving on. Bartlett in his remarks beforehand seemed concerned that his audience might grow restive, but he needn’t have worried; his pace and pedaling provided plenty of time for contemplation but never let us lose the way.

In the coming months, look for the premieres of PPI’s commissions to Depoe Bay composer Greg A Steinke, Eugene composer David Crumb, and Portland composers Jackie T. Gabel, Sarah Zipperer Gaskins, and Bryan Johanson (no relation to Michael). If they come off like this one did, they will show that often the best music is composed nearly in your own backyard.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers, as does Greg Steinke. Michael Johanson and Jack Gabel are also members.

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