Rx for PDX and BKLN

Concerts suggest treatment options for music scene delusions of grandeur, inferiority complexes


PATIENT #1 DIAGNOSIS: Delusions of Grandeur

Patient presents with the following symptoms.

SYMPTOM 1: Hypertrophy of reputation: hype without content.
Example: exploding piano title etc. should have called it imploding piano.

EXPLANATION: Kathleen Supove’s piano recital at the Brunish Theatre on the evening of Saturday September 6 left me whelmed, neither under nor over. Fear No Music brought her to town thanks to new directors Kenji Bunch (artistic director) and Monica Ohuchi’s (executive director) Brooklyn contacts from their recent past lives in New York. Like Bunch, Supové grew up in Portland. I am looking forward to Bunch corralling more of our fledglings who left/fled town — both to fete them and to compare them to our own who migrated here or natives who stayed/returned. This time, Portland came out ahead of Brooklyn.

Kathleen Supové.

Kathleen Supové.

The best things about Supové are her wacky press photos and her refreshingly un-PR self-revelatory quotes, captured in Jana Hanchett’s Oregon ArtsWatch preview. Supové possesses a much-needed (in the classical music genre) sense of branding – both visual and textual. It isn’t that no one has said it before; it’s that she says it quicker and bloodier: “What really cemented it for me is the ‘dharma’ aspect of [contemporary music]: that you could help create the performance tradition for each piece; that you weren’t the three-millionth person playing that Beethoven sonata, oppressed by years of other people’s traditions.”

Or charming dry personality-revealing comments about her current Digital Debussy Project in which she commissioned several Brooklyn buddies like Annie Gosfield to contribute pieces: “Annie could give you a whole speech of how she felt like she had to wrestle Debussy to the ground. She said it really messed her up,” said Supové. “I mean, she’s OK now.”

Had I read this engaging preview prior to the concert, raising my own hopes artificially, I would have been several degrees less than underwhelmed after the actual event and this article would have been a rant. As it was, I was not surprised. Maybe I’m buzz-proof, but Supove’s millennial “Run Lola Run” Berlin stage attire looked a little dated and kitschy for me, foreshadowing a bait-and-switch from balls-out pyrotechnics to fake sex. My trepidation increased when she walked out to the piano in Portland’s Brunish Theater and politely addressed the audience, displaying slouching posture and total lack of charisma on stage. The blah opening set the stage for the rest of the show.

SYMPTOM 2: Hyperextension of composition: Protracted, unvarying music.
Example: All but one piece on Supove’s program.

Despite the title of her album and touring program “The Exploding Piano,” in fact, the piano actually came closer to imploding, ending at least five of the seven programmed pieces with drawn out held notes decaying to soft nothing.

I came to hear her opening piece, Jacob TV’s “The Body of your Dreams,” because Portland State student Linse Sullivan’s live performance at a ClassicalRevolutionPDX open mic at The Waypost in March 2012 of TV’s “Grab It!” for saxophone and soundtrack (from the movie Scared Straight) is still one of the high points in my audience career. But where “Grab It!” grabs us with its stark quicksilver silences — the stops and starts memorized by pure repetition during practice with the recording because there is no discernible patterned meter — “Body of your Dreams” is instead square metered, repeated 2/4 (6/8) bland chords cleverly set to funny-the-first-time spoken lines. They say baseball is fifteen minutes of action crammed into three hours. I’d say this is the same ratio for “Body”; it could have easily been a two-minute max concert opener and Andrew Russo’s 2’ 25” choreographed video excerpt of it on youtube (from the 2007 album Shining City) packs the punch I missed at the concert.

EXPLANATION: Supove, who commendably builds her reputation on commissioning dozens of new works unfortunately lacks the instinct or the foresight to program or play or implore her composers to write so that the happening captures and holds the audience’s attention. She’s not alone. I bitch about it all the time all over the classical music environment. “The bottom line, in art, in entertainment,” writes Screenwriter and film/theatre godfather, David Mamet, over and over and over “is the pleasure of the audience.” (p. 180, Bambi vs. Godzilla.)

Every composition on this program but one needed severe pruning and shaping, each running twice as long as the material warranted. Why is it that great writers’ career lives depend on great editors (Richard Taruskin with James Oestreich), great pop musicians depend on fantastic producers (Michael Jackson with Quincy Jones) but classical music composers think they hold all the keys? Schubert badly needed an editor and he knew it, sending his stuff to the best editor in the business: Beethoven (who never responded).

I lost my patience with Mohammed Fairouz’s “Miniatures” whose simplicity made them feel like beginners’ study pieces even next to Bartok’s famous teaching pieces Mikrokosmos book one yet ran at least 10 times as long as any of those two line ditties. Gosfield’s composition had three endings — two too many.

So bored was I by too long pieces lacking rhythmic and other variety that at intermission I grabbed a friend by the lapels and screamed “GIVE ME A FORTE, AN ALLEGRO, RESTS AND STACCATI OR SOMEBODY DIES!!!!!” (Translation: “Give me LOUD handfuls – NO! ARMFULS — of notes banged out on assault rifles from all directions with intermittent deathly silences for added tension! . . . . or somebody dies.”) Allegros are hard to find. I believe in some areas such as Brooklyn they have been declared extinct.

PRESCRIPTION: For composers: 1) Surgery: remove excessive, self indulgent extensions of ideas beyond audience patience, severing well before the point of wearing out listener interest. If you can’t tell what’s excessive and what is necessary, cut the length of your piece in half. If you think I’m kidding, ask David Mamet what he would do (to you). Or better yet, get an editor to take a look at your score and tell you what (to an audience) is excessive and self indulgent. I personally recommend a fellow flutist friend of mine when composers ask.
2) Medication: abundant doses of staccatos, rests, and allegros to provide musical space and variety. Occasional dynamics as needed.

SYMPTOM 3: Narcolepsy
Example: Every piece included a preludial explanation, NOT thought out, filled with default empty adjectives, in this case “Crazy” (as in “crazy guy” or “crazy piece”) and “um”s.

EXPLANATION: This criticism I level at ALL classical performers. You’re boring and I’ll go medieval on your ass publicly for this every time I have to write about you.

PRESCRIPTION: Unless you’re Ben Folds — the second coming of the extemporaneous Leonard Bernstein — DON’T WALK OUT ON STAGE WITHOUT YOUR WRITTEN AND/OR MEMORIZED SCRIPT!!!!! If you’re as good as my favorite drag clown, Carla Rossi, who is one of the fastest thinking wits on stage, do what her creator, Anthony Hudson, does and throw the memorized script away before walking on stage, because now you don’t need it.

SYMPTOM 4: Weak, underdeveloped chops
Example: “Ever Just as Sure” from “Disney Remixes” by Matt Marks.

EXPLANATION: An allegro finally made its way into the second half of the program in the penultimate spot: “Ever Just as Sure” from “Disney Remixes” by Matt Marks. The reason for their earlier absence became immediately evident. Supove couldn’t play it as fast as she tried and still keep both her hands crisply in sync. After the concert, I tracked down the only other performance of the piece I could find, also by Supové. Her playing was still sloppily out of sync between hands. Maybe it was supposed to sound like this, but why? If this was supposed to be a little piece of fluff, was it also supposed to sound like it was being played by a Disney-aged film watcher? (I’m not being snotty, I really wonder if this was part of the concept. If so, it didn’t come across.) The only saving grace was a mercifully short length compared to the other interminable pieces on the program.

Supové performed at Portland's Brunish Theatre.

Supové performed at Portland’s Brunish Theatre.

I know y’all pay exorbitant rents and your overhead of life in general is expensive in New York or Los Angeles or (increasingly) Portland, so you’re constantly gigging and hustling. But big city names mean nothing to me. Like Tom Bodett used to say pitching Motel 6 rooms on the radio “When you close your eyes, they all look the same.” When I close my eyes, you still sound like you need to practice.

PRESCRIPTION: For musicians: Take one daily dose of serious practice of the next pieces you’re performing. If performing chamber music, add one dose of serious rehearsal weekly.

The best way to gauge touring artists is to see our own very best and build a baseline of expectation. My favorite piano concert memories include Mitchell Falconer playing Alvin Curran’s For Cornelius at the Portland Journals concert presented by Jedadiah Bernards at the Everett Station Lofts in August 2013, Dianne Davies playing Portland’s Cascadia Composer Jeff Winslow’s 4th movement from his Ghosts and Machines at March Music Moderne 2014 presents “From Oregon to Venice with Love,” the entire Piano!Push!Play! CD release concert produced by Portland pianist and professor Darrell Grant and directed by Megan McGeorge at PSU’s Lincoln Hall July 2014 — all local performers playing local and non-local contemporary composers. Very rarely have out-of-towners met (much less exceeded) the above mentioned performances. You know why they were good? Because they practiced!!! How do I know? Because I had the privilege of hearing them bitch along the way about how difficult passages were improving or even better, I was allowed to sit in, in the case of Davies and Ghosts.

For example, I have heard Falconer talk about six-month rehearsal time on one saxophone with piano duet. He and I rehearsed the last movement of Tomas Svoboda’s Suite, op. 124 for over a year before playing it the first time publicly. Davies worked at least six months on the fourth movement of Winslow’s Ghosts. Dawn Weiss and I worked over a year on Paul Schoenfield’s “Ufaratzta” — a three-minute manic dance for flute and piano. Each player mentioned above practiced every day (and in ensemble rehearsal once a week). Every one of the above performances rocked the house.

Playing for keeps, for building a legacy, for grabbing audiences, ain’t for sissies. If you can’t give a stellar performance that will sell your next door neighbor who drives a truck for a living and listens to classic rock and new country (like mine does), don’t take the gig. This is my own litmus test. Take something that will pay better and won’t require you to give blood. Don’t undermine the legacy we’re building here in Portland as a focal point for contemporary classical music for the masses.

PATIENT #2: DIAGNOSIS: Inferiority complex.

SYMPTOM 1. repeated outbreaks of standing ovations for undeserving big name out of town stars; palpitations of cultural insecurity.

EXPLANATION: I know Oregonians know the difference between a big out of town name like the Chamber Music NW gang or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (who I adore, btw) and a great show; you’re not stupid, you’re just insecure.

PRESCRIPTION: GROW UP, PORTLAND, AND GROW A SPINE!!!!! If the performance didn’t move you, keep your butt in your seat. You paid money and gave up your precious time. People pleasing will not get you better liked or gain you the first shred of respect from the performers on stage.

SYMPTOM 2. allergic reaction to Oregon composers resulting in exclusion from concert programs; withered artistic self esteem.

How many composers living in Oregon has the Oregon Symphony performed in the past decade? Svoboda, Kyr?? Any others? Most of the state’s other orchestras are little better.

medicalsymbol4EXPLANATION: I almost decked the person sitting next to me after Supove’s concert who intimated no composer in Portland is as good as New York minimalist icon Steve Reich. I couldn’t stifle a loud “FUCK YOU!” though. Steve Reich is human. He’s totally over-valued and even he has to be tired of all this empty praise. Tomas Svoboda, Dan Brugh, Brandon Stewart, Ted Clifford, Bonnie Miksch. I’ll stop at this gang of pdx5 (though I could go on and on and on). I’ve heard compositions out of them that moved me every bit as much as “Different Trains” (“Muzak for 18 Musicians” does nothing for me)

Why won’t, for example, the Columbia Symphony make really tight performances of Oregon music their niche? They have players with chops and the stage is set for offering us a seasonal program completely different from the stale Oregon Symphony Orchestra classical series dead-European-guys programming.

PRESCRIPTION: Monthly injections of Oregon composers into programs. I’m THRILLED that fEAR no MUSIC and Third Angle New Music are racing forward, providing us Oregonians the opportunity to hear Oregon music. Of course Cascadia Composers already does this, giving me my fix seven or eight times a year. ClassicalRevolutionPDX and Muse: Forward, with their monthly gatherings pretty much assure monthly doses of new local composition each month. Or talk to Ann van Bever, the director of Celebration Works! concert series and intrepid, indefatigable scout for accessible audience-enjoyable contemporary classical music, spending hours on the interwebz finding up to the minute pieces for our ensemble The Mousai. She’ll probably direct you where to look for your ensemble or show.

Where else can programmers fill this prescription? Visit the Oregon ComposersWatch site. If you’re a mouthy audience member like me, pointedly find and ask an important looking person at the concert why they didn’t program an Oregon composer. It works. I’ve seen things change rapidly. I don’t have to like every Oregon composition I hear. I just want the right to hear them. Right now I’ll settle for monthly but I’m shooting for every concert by local performers and presenting groups.


In both cases, continued observation is recommended. Such observation to be carried out by interested invested audience members willing to share their findings on Oregon ArtsWatch.

Portland pianist and piano teacher Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

6 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Bang-Bang-Bang, dutifully loaded & diligently discharged!

    Yes indeedy, another MC shoot-em-up in real time sans silencer.

    Vut’z not to listen-up to & memorize here, droogies?

    Seriously, pay attention y’all as you really don’t want her to re-load!

  2. Jack Gabel says:

    I was feeling overlooked that this went un-reviewed

    whew – now I’m feeling lucky
    who knows might have escaped with only a flesh wound…
    note the feisty “allegro”

  3. Greg Ewer says:

    Quite the mean-spirited review.

    • It may have been harsh but I think the rationalizations she gave kept the article from being “mean-spirited”. Its harshness may be due, in part, to the fact that she used this particular concert as an example of the problem she sees with the bigger picture. Now I can’t say whether or not the review was accurate because I was unable to attend but her critique of the new music scene was spot on.

  4. Art Resnick says:

    Classic Maria! Bravo. All I can say is that if you were bored, I would have been “boreder”.
    I guess I was lucky to have had other plans that night. As far as the Drs prescriptions go, take them until further notice with or without a meal.
    The success of a performance is entirely dependent on the audience..

  5. Jeff Winslow says:

    I really wanted to like this concert. I’d heard of Supové and the publicity fired my imagination, so unlike Maria I went in with high expectations. Plus, I lost track of time that day and the Fear No Music management, Kenji and Monica, were nice enough to let me in long after the box office closed. (So, I only heard the second half.)

    But I’m sorry to have to admit, where I can compare, there were quite a few things that nagged at me about the concert and they line up uncomfortably close to Maria’s criticisms. Which I don’t believe for a second are made out of meanness, but because she wants us to shape up and succeed. Well, OK, more like “shape up and succeed, dammit!!” (Plus, as anyone who was at the MC Hammered all-Svoboda concert last March knows, she walks her talk.)

    One counterexample which stood out: “The Same Sky” by Carolyn Yarnell had much in it that was simply gorgeous in a fresh-sounding way, not least because Supové was totally in the groove with her “electronic partner” coming out of the sound system.

    Despite my nagging doubts, it was a valuable experience to hear, live, what the “Brooklyn School” has been up to lately. And wasn’t that the point? Not a parade of received masterpieces, of “classics”, but a window into explorations of new musical territory, complete with unexpected cul-de-sacs, holes in the map, maybe even a little running around in circles. Not so different from our own strivings here (patient #2 take note).

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