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Portland Piano International: Looking forward, looking homeward

By Brett Campbell
August 7, 2011
Featured, Music

Portland Piano International puts the piano front and center

At most solo piano performances, you’re much likelier to get 19th and early 20th century virtuoso exercises by the likes of Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, with the occasional Ravel or Debussy tidbit, than anything contemporary or adventurous. Piano recitals too often exemplify the obsession with in-group virtuosity — let’s see who can play this great Romantic masterpiece just an eensy bit faster, or more precisely, than last year’s favorite, and by the way, who do you like better, Horowitz or Arrau in that etude, and which recording? And that obscures the music’s substance.

That doesn’t mean that Portland Piano International (PPI), the recital series founded in the late 1970s by former Portland State University faculty pianist Harold Gray, isn’t one of the city’s most valuable musical treasures. The program has, after all, gifted us with powerful performances by Murray Perahia, Mitsuko Uchida, Richard Goode and so many other magnificent keyboard wizards, including some rising stars.

The weeklong summer festival added in 1999 has amplified its value to the community by incorporating an educational element — lectures, master classes, films and more. It’s a great resource for students and educators and one of the highlights or Portland’s musical summers. But it wasn’t where I was expecting to find the shock of the new.

This summer’s Portland International Piano Festival (PIPF), held as always in the intimate confines of Miller Hall at the World Forestry Center in Portland’s Washington Park from July 12-17, certainly confounded those expectations. I wasn’t able to make it to every performance or the ancillary programming, but the recitals I did see provided as fascinating a traversal of today’s music as I’ve seen in Oregon this year. If the series keeps this up, Oregon will have found a new wellspring of contemporary sounds in one of the least likely locales — the new music equivalent of discovering a verdant oasis in the desert.

Anthony de Mare has made a valuable career out of playing contemporary American music, and his PIPF concert a couple of years ago remains one of my favorites. He’s commissioned some of today’s leading composers to create new versions of songs by an American composer who, by virtue of working in what’s now regarded as a corner (though what used to be the center) of  American music, is often overlooked on those lists of greatest living composers. Yet how can anyone ignore the staggering accomplishments of Stephen Sondheim, whose music has dominated American musical theater for the past four decades?

Anthony de Mare

De Mare’s set kicked off energetically — and ominously — with Portland native Kenji Bunch’s pounding “The Demon Barber” from Sweeney Todd (annoyingly accompanied by a piano bench that squealed whenever DeMare moved — and these pieces required the buff, compact virtuoso to move a lot), and proceeded through works by Seattle native and Pulitzer Prize winner William Bolcom (pleasant but slight), Ricky Ian Gordon (poignant) and others. The program ranged from obscurities (a fine number dropped from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum rendered here as a lounge jazz toe-tapper worthy, if that’s the word, of Michael Feinstein;  another from the criminally underrated Merrily We Roll Along) to America’s greatest living composer, Steve Reich’s (Steve R. covers Steve S! Who woulda thunk it?) pulsating take on “Finishing The Hat,” from Sondheim’s greatest work, Sunday in the Park with George. It sounded like the next entry in Reich’s “Counterpoints” series for various solo instruments played over pre-recorded tracks (which de Mare used here).

The most entertaining moment occurred before intermission, when another page turner somewhat mysteriously appeared. The reason for the presence of New York actor Daniel Sherman (who really is also an actual page turner) soon became clear as the pair engaged in a cleverly choreographed and precisely timed series of comic moves — all while de Mare played Erick Rockwell’s tangy take on “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” — that would have done Victor Borge proud. It’s so welcome to see humor in piano and new music performances, which too often share nothing but overabundant solemnity. De Mare’s illuminating stage comments relaxed the atmosphere, too.

Other highlights included a brilliant “The Ladies Who Lunch” from the ever-adventurous David Rakowski and an epic take on Follies’ beautiful “Losing My Mind” from Pulitzer winner Paul Moravec. Placid, limpid works by jazz pianist composer Fred Hersch and Britain’s Mark Anthony Turnage (delivered shortly before the performance and performed as an encore) provided welcome contrasts.

The whole program demonstrated the virtues and vices of show tunes, and Sondheim’s amazing ability to transcend the genre’s limitations. Throughout his career, Sondheim has been dismissed by some as primarily a lyricist (thanks to his work in his breakthrough with West Side Story) whose wry, tart tunes couldn’t match the great Broadway tunesmiths who preceded him — Rodgers, Kern, Arlen, et al. But this performance showed just how much musical muscle powers those durable tunes. I’d hadn’t seen some of these musicals in years. And yet, I immediately recognized every tune, no matter how disguised or transformed. If anyone still doubted Sondheim’s prowess as an instrumental composer, this project should firmly lay those doubts to rest.

De Mare is still soliciting compositions  — alas, a planned centennial commission from Sondheim’s teacher, Milton Babbitt (whose thorny music ranges about as far from Broadway as can be imagined), expired along with the composer earlier this year — and he hopes to have more ready for a planned New York performance with Sondheim in attendance next year. He told me that Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson has just signed up to take on “Send in the Clowns.” That should be rich.

California pianist Lara Downes commendably devoted her entire first program to 20th century works by American composers, who are so often shamefully overlooked in American classical music programs in general and piano music in particular. Everyone knew the orchestral classics — George Gershwin’s jazzy Rhapsody in Blue and the four dance episodes from Aaron Copland’s magnificent ballet Rodeo — she played in solo piano versions, but hearing them in this context reminded us of their purely musical power when shorn of other associations. I treasured even more her revival of Copland’s rarely heard Four Piano Blues, Samuel Barber’s Coplandish Excursions, and early African American composer Florence Price’s Fantasie Negre.

Lara Downes

Downes’s second performance/talk (repeated in the cozy confines of Vie de Boheme winery — a classical-in-the-clubs strategy I hope the festival retains) showcased another new music project, a dozen new works based on the famous opening aria of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, commissioned by the Gilmore Festival and due for CD release next month. At the wine bar, Downes played a half dozen of the variations back to back without naming the composers, which at first annoyed me but then made me really focus on the music (was that a 12-tone piece? Did I hear a little jazz thing happen? Ah, there goes a fugue!) instead of preconceptions. It made me listen much more intensely than I normally do at yet another Chopin recital. And like de Mare, Downes was happy to chat with audience members about her project and even solicited their responses to the music — including, at the WFC talk, artistic and musical replies.

For me, the highlights of this summer’s festival (as it is every time I hear her play, usually in the Bay Area) were San Francisco pianist Sarah Cahill’s two performances. The first featured early works in the American experimental tradition, including the great California composer/connector/piano prodigy Henry Cowell, who electrified audiences around the world in the 1920s with his dazzling original piano works that involved plucking the strings inside the instrument, tone clusters (smashing adjacent keys with a forearm) and other avant-garde techniques. As always, Cahill brought out the musicality, not just the flamboyance and novelty of these sometimes flashy pieces, especially the powerful 1938 Rhythmicana. She also played intriguing music by (and with) Portland’s own Tomas Svoboda, neglected American composer Dane Rudhyar, and striking renditions of three of Ruth Crawford’s lovely preludes, landmarks of the 1920s.

Cahill’s second show offered yet another creative project. Cahill has commissioned some of today’s greatest composers to write music on the theme of peace and war. Her lucid explanations helped listeners understand how music without words can convey anti-war sentiments. Every piece had something to offer, from Meredith Monk’s somber repetitive Steppe Music excerpt to Rzewski’s both sensuous and sometimes dissonant Peace Dances to Paul Dresher’s searching, minimalist-driven Two, Entwined (which Cahill said was inspired by a photo of President Obama with right-wing Israeli President Netanyahu), another minimalist-influenced work by Japan’s Mamoru Fujieda, and most memorably, the great California minimalist pioneer Terry Riley’s Be Kind to One Another, whose bluesy chords, “let’s try this” detours, textural shifts, repetitive structures and impulsive digressions reminded me of one of the one-time jazz pianist’s famous live piano improvisations, like walking down a previously unknown path and delighting in what he discovered there.

Stephanie & Saar

Unfortunately, a conflicting Chamber Music Northwest show made me miss Christopher O’Riley’s  concert devoted to the music of Schumann and Portland rocker Elliott Smith, but I did get to hear the vividly virtuosic duo Stephanie & Saar play music by John Adams, Gershwin,  Herbert Deutsch, and their phenomenal two-piano version of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petrouchka, a prodigious feat of memory and near orchestral color. I also regretted missing a concert of music sponsored by one of the state’s most valuable artistic entities, the increasingly active Cascadia Composers organization, featuring music by Oregon composers played by local piano students, and Catherine Kautsky’s performance of Frederic Rzewski’s classic De Profundis, which drew raves. But I did notice a lot of familiar faces from those circles, composers and audience members alike. Clearly, the emphasis on contemporary music is broadening PPI’s listenership.

And it’s also bringing new and thrilling sounds to Portland. We can’t always get brand new commissions, although between these three and the Brentano Quartet’s excellent project, offered during Chamber Music Northwest a week earlier, that commissioned composers to engage with various unifinished classical works, Portland sure reaped a bountiful harvest of new music in July. But the 20th and 21st centuries offer plenty of excellent keyboard music — John Cage’s pre-chance Sonatas and Interludes for prepared Piano remain one of the 20th century’s greatest musical achievements, and modern composers such as Riley, Messiaen, Cowell, Rzewski, Philip Glass, and lesser known figures such as William Duckworth, Kyle Gann, and Rakowski continue to prove that much great music remains to be found in those 88 keys.

While this wasn’t the the first time PPI had brought de Mare, Cahill, and American music to town, the summer festival had never presented so much new and homegrown music, much less built the series around them.Portland Piano International’s regular season recitals now also include unusual and contemporary programming, like last year’s toy piano performance at Doug Fir Lounge, with more to come next season, according to PPI executive director Patricia Price, including prepared piano by the German innovator Hauschka next June and Uri Caine’s jazz-classical intersections next month, Tuesday, September 20. Price says audience response has been “extremely positive,” and I’ve spotted plenty of stereotypically older fans at PPI’s (and CMNW’s) club shows, so the new emphasis on new music is working both ways — new listeners to old venues, and vice versa.

There will always be a place for the museum function of classical music — live performances of classics from throughout the centuries. But many museums also focus on contemporary art, and initiatives like PPI’s “The Americans” series this summer demonstrate that bringing us today’s — and tomorrow’s — art can bolster institutions that hitherto looked mostly backwards. Kudos to Gray and company for mustering the courage to reinvent a venerable Portland art pillar. Maybe they should retire that offputting term “piano recital” and call them piano excitements, because that’s how these summer adventures felt.

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