Summer Music Survey part 2: In Good Hands

Cascadia Composers' summer concerts make Oregon classical music's future look so bright we have to wear shades.

Even when it’s written in the 21st century, classical music is often stereotyped as music by dead people for old people. That’s hardly a recipe for growth or even survival, but Oregon’s major classical institutions contribute to this self defeating notion by relentlessly devoting the vast majority of their programs to music by long-dead people, attended by mostly people who won’t be around too much longer. While some of the old line institutions are tentatively, timidly starting to freshen up their programming, it’s unclear how many will be able to remake themselves into sources of vitality rather than mummification before inexorable demographics catch up.

Young hands played Oregon music at Portland Piano Company. Photo: Benji [Bao] Vuong.

Young hands played Oregon music at Portland Piano Company. Photo: Benji [Bao] Vuong.

Fortunately, in recent years, Oregon has spawned new sources of classical music devoted to making it new and strong. and we saw plenty this summer, as noted in the first installment of this little series. One of the most successful is Cascadia Composers, whose two summer concerts showcased its future-focused orientation. In July, Cascadia’s In Good Hands show at Portland Piano Company, which returned after a hiatus, demonstrated to young students and their teachers that music by 21st century Oregon composers can be just as educational — and a lot more fun and relevant to tomorrow’s young musicians — than most music by 19th century Europeans.

Anyone expecting only condescending, sugary simplicity for the tender little dears would have been startled by the modern moves (chromaticism, bitonality, even the dreaded Schoenbergian tone row) that spiced these pieces (most written for students), like Jan Mittelstaedt’s “Mooshi and Sparky,” Elizabeth Blachly-Dyson’s mini-suite It Takes Two, and “Tangled Chords” (from her left-hand only One Hand Tied Behind My Back, written for the composer’s mother, who suffered a stroke that paralyzed one side of her body) and Liz Nedela’s driving “Restless.” Yet both listeners and the young players seemed unfazed by the 20th century techniques, which in no way limited the music’s broad appeal. Paul Safar’s “Blue Note Suite” provided a sweet introduction to the blues for young players, as did Mittelstaedt’s “Tarantella Tease” for that dance rhythm — both cheerfully avoiding pedantics. The afternoon’s most ambitious composition, Jennifer Wright’s piquant Looper, did pose a tough challenge to the quartet of youngsters arrayed at a single keyboard, but likely nothing that more rehearsal wouldn’t have solved.

The intermission that followed took a lot of time assembling the students and their teachers for a group photo and flowers — fine for a feel-good educational event intended for the participants, not so welcome in the midst of (rather than after) a performance aimed at the general public, even a free one. Cascadia Composers will need to decide which kind “In Good Hands” is going to be.

Gary Noland’s lovably loopy “Ragbones,” which sprinkles quotes (with a sort of W.C. Fields accent) from various Joplin rags and Romantic gestures made a delightful second half opener, and it was followed by a very different moody gem from another Portland composer, Lisa Marsh, who knows how to combine pop and classical music. A few brief quotes from the classics also popped up in ArtsWatch contributor Jeff Winslow’s “Bumblebee on a Mum” charmingly captured bee to and fro motion. (Bee-thoven?) Mitteldstaedt’s meter-shifting “The Equestrian” also seemed to reflect its title, as did Cynthia Stillman Gerdes’s engaging “Slugs,” which moseyed along at a, uh, measured pace. Marsh’s lovely “Along the Road” reflected her fertile marriage of classical and the popular music that too many contemporary non-pop composers inexplicably ignore. David Bernstein’s noble “Ode to a Dreamer” and Mittelstaedt’s wistful “Winter Ice Festival” waltzed into unexpected turns. Nedela’s “Locrian Dream Catcher” for four hands gracefully used the title mode to conjure an appropriately dreamy mood while teaching the use of modes. Organizer Dan Brugh’s works both opened and closed the show in the spirit of sly fun, before pianist and ArtsWatch contributor Maria Choban led a spirited encore featuring a work by Tomas Svoboda that she described in an ArtsWatch story earlier this summer.

It’s great to see the Oregon Music Teachers Association embracing, for this event at least, contemporary music. Cascadia might also want to explore linking up with other Oregon music institutions that involve young musicians, such as Metropolitan Youth Symphony, or composer Kenji Bunch’s new efforts to involve young musicians in contemporary music, via his connections to FearNoMusic (where he’s artistic director) and Portland Youth Philharmonic.

Cascadia’s In Good Hands shows are a worthy contribution to Oregon music culture, both for introducing young players to new music by their neighbors, and for showing them and their teachers and listeners that there’s nothing to fear from the big bad wolf and much to gain by playing appropriate contemporary music. (Not that they’re anything new; “serious” composers like Robert Schumann and Bela Bartok and even earlier composers happily wrote pieces for kids.) Kudos to Portland Piano for donating its space, as it’s done for other worthy causes. Events like these are really an investment in the state’s artistic future, teaching students to play the music of their own time rather than focusing solely on the ancient classics that, to the detriment of musical relevance, dominate music education. With forward looking programs like this one, the future of Oregon classical music really is in good hands.

RE: Percussion

The busy Cascadia Composers staged a second concert this summer with percussion works by under-40 composers performed by the equally youthful Seattle duo RE:Percussion, which drew a solid turnout at southeast Portland’s Community Music Center despite being held on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon when many potential listeners were doubtless enjoying Oregon’s outdoor beauty. The show opened with Ivan Tevino’s 2+1, a groove based piece for four hands and one marimba that proved to be the tightest (to be fair, it was the only one not composed for this concert, meaning it probably received more rehearsal time) but also the least memorable. Minimalist pioneer Steve Reich’s influence pervaded the interlocking, repeating patterns of Troy Ramos’s engaging, untitled work, which drew gasps when performers Andrew Angell and David Solomon yanked it to a sudden, mid-air stop. I might have preferred to hear it end in a tumbling rush with a flourish, but the dramatic effect worked here.

Seattle's RE: Percussion Duo performed at Portland's Community Music Center.

Seattle’s RE: Percussion Duo performed at Portland’s Community Music Center.

Charlie Copeland’s Cape Perpetua, the only piece that didn’t seem to bear traces of the post minimalist influences that pervade much contemporary composition, used the contrasting textures of marimba and vibraphone to limn the coastal intersection of land- and seascape, while the gentle, simple melody and overtones (generated by bowing the vibes) of Sigur Ros singer Jonsi’s vibraphone duos Ævin Endar and Hoppipolla drew the biggest applause of the afternoon. Although I’m a Sigur Ros fan myself, I enjoyed even more (despite a blah patch in its third movement) Jay Derderian’s percussion duet Fantasy in Metal, whose tom toms and tuned flower pots (with vibes in one movement) and rippling rhythms provided a welcome contrast to the other works’ gentler textures.

With all three young composers offering some valuable musical moments, the no-intermission concert never slackened, and the relatively tight performances reaffirmed the wisdom of Cascadia’s recent trend toward using established rather than pickup ensembles when possible. Judging by these splendid summer concerts featuring younger Northwest composers and performers, plus the premiere of Oregon composer Ethan Gans-Morse’s moving new opera The Canticle of the Black Madonna, which Katie Taylor will review on ArtsWatch soon, the future of classical composition in Oregon looks as bright as the summer sunshine.

Cascadia Composers’ next concert happens October 5 at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church.

Read part 1 of our summer music mini-series here. Coming in the third installment: the summer’s hottest show.

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

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