45th parallel

ArtsWatch Year in Music 2017

ArtsWatch chronicles a year that showcased women's music, natural inspirations, and institutional evolution

Oregon music is surging, and this year, Oregon ArtsWatch has been your personal surfboard to keep you on top of the tide instead of inundated by it. And to bring you views of the powerful creative forces beneath the waves. This roundup is in no way a comprehensive or even representative sample of the dozens and dozens of music-related previews, reviews, features, interviews, profiles, and more we presented in 2017. Instead, we’ve chosen mostly stories whose value transcends a particular concert, leaned toward Oregon rather than national artists (who can get plenty of press elsewhere), favored music by today’s American composers instead of long-dead Europeans, and tried to represent a variety of voices and approaches. We hope this roundup gives a valuable snapshot of an eventful, fruitful moment in Oregon’s musical culture.

Homegrown Sounds

Although we also write about jazz and other improvised music and other hard-to-classify sounds, ArtsWatch’s primary musical focus has always been contemporary “classical” (a term we’d love to replace with something more accurate) composition by Oregon composers, and this year presented a richer tapestry than ever. As always, Cascadia Composers led the way in presenting new Oregon music in the classical tradition, but others including FearNoMusic, Third Angle New Music, the University of Oregon and even new entities like Burn After Listening also shared homegrown sounds. ArtsWatch readers learned about those shows and composers from accomplished veterans like Kenji Bunch to emerging voices such as Justin Ralls.

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and ?? play with toys at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

Cascadia Composers and Crazy Jane fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum
Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that ‘classical’ ? — Music. JANUARY 20 MATTHEW ANDREWS.

Kenji Bunch: Seeing the Elephant
After returning to home ground, the Portland composer’s career blossoms with commissions from the Oregon Symphony and Eugene Ballet. MARCH 7 BRETT CAMPBELL.

45th Parallel preview: from conflict to collaboration
ArtsWatch review provokes contention, then cooperation as ensemble invites writer to co-curate a concert featuring music by young Oregon composers. MARCH 29  BRETT CAMPBELL. Also read Maria Choban’s review: 45th Parallel review: Horror show .

Burn After Listening: Stacy Phillips, Lisa Ann Marsh, Jennifer Wright.

‘Fire and Ice’ preview: accessible adventure
New Portland composers’ collective’s debut performance includes aerial dance, sculpture, poetry, icy instruments — and a close connection to audiences. APRIL 27 BRETT CAMPBELL


MusicWatch Weekly: global vision

This week's Oregon music highlights feature music from the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and beyond

While our leaders do their best to keep the rest of the world away, Oregon musicians and presenters are keeping the doors open through music. Got more musical suggestions? Please add them to the comments section below.

Seun Kuti brings Fela’s band to Star Theater Wednesday.

Seun Kuti & The Egypt 80
The youngest son of the great Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer embraced not only his father’s immensely powerful and danceable music and sharp-edged progressive political and anti corruption attitudes, but also even the remnants of his mighty band, Star 80, who comprise three-quarters of the current lineup. They’ll also play contemporary music by Seun and others.
Wednesday, Star Theater, Portland.

Schubert Ensemble 
For the final Oregon stop on its farewell tour, the London piano and strings quintet plays music by Shostakovich, Schumann, and their namesake.
Wednesday, Liberty Theatre, Astoria.

“Mozart Requiem”
Portland Baroque Orchestra, Cappella Romana and Trinity Chamber Singers team up to perform one of the most moving musical obituaries ever written — Mozart’s final statement, a commission that turned into his own requiem. This is a rare and valuable opportunity to hear it performed on the instruments and in the style closest to what Mozart intended.  A pair of other popular Mozartean creations also decorate the program.
Thursday-Saturday, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 147 NW 19th Ave. Portland.

Portland Baroque Orchestra and Trinity Cathedral Choir join Cappella Romana in Mozart’s ‘Requiem.’

Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping
See AL Adams’s ArtsWatch preview.
Friday, The Old Church. Portland.

American Brass Quintet
In this Chamber Music Northwest/Portland5 show, the acclaimed trumpets-trombones-horn ensemble plays stirring music from 17th century England, 19th century Russia, 16th century Europe, and today’s tunes by leading American composer Joan Tower, Swedish composer Anders Hillborg and more.
Friday, Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway. Portland.

Raquy Danziger performs at The Shedd Friday.

Raquy Danziger
The Turkish composer/performer/teacher, a virtuosa on dumbek drum and 12-string Kemenche Tarhu spike fiddle, plays originals and music from Turkey and other Middle Eastern lands.
Friday, The Shedd, Eugene.

Michael Doucet and his bubbly Lafayette-based band continue their decades-long exploration of Louisiana Cajun and zydeco music, often spiced with rock, country, bluegrass, even African influences.
Friday, The Shedd, Eugene, and Saturday, Alberta Rose Theater. Portland.

45th Parallel
The organization’s first chamber orchestra show features Oregon Symphony musicians in a pair of the 20th century’s most tuneful and scintillating ballet scores: Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, plus Mozart’s lively ballet music from his opera Idomeneo.
Friday, Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, Portland.


45th Parallel, Bach Cantata Choir reviews: new music, old strings; old music, new strings

A pair of Portland concerts present new music on ancient instruments, and vice versa


The players of 45th Parallel don’t recognize musical boundaries. They’re as likely to play Beethoven or Mozart as they are to tackle music written yesterday.

On May 12th in the cozy confines of Portland’s Grace Memorial Church, an excellent venue for chamber music, they borrowed a leaf from the Portland Baroque Orchestra’s playbook and presented a string quartet concert using old-fashioned strings: Quartets with Guts. Two of the players — violist Adam LaMotte and cellist Joanna Blendulf — are regular members of the PBO, and therefore well used to gut, rather than steel, strings. The two violinists — 45th Parallel leader Greg Ewer (a onetime PBO player) and Sam Park — play with the Oregon Symphony on modern steel strings.

45th Parallel played Haydn, Beethoven and Bunch on period instruments. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Of the three pieces on the program, two lend themselves naturally and historically to being played on period instruments, because they would have been played on such instruments when they were conceived of and written. Josef Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 76, No. 5, a mature work written in 1797 by this 18th-century inventor (or at least popularizer) of the string quartet, was an excellent opener, with just the right amount of heft in the three fast movements. The 45th Parallel quartet presented the lovely second-movement Largo with extremely delicate and apposite playing, suitably cantabile e meso (“singing and melancholy”).

The other “old” piece, which ended the program, was Beethoven’s familiar, very early String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 1 from 1800, in which the young man, with his mentor Haydn still active as a composer, began to push the relatively new form of the string quartet in unexplored directions. The 45th Parallel players demonstrated the advantage of gut strings in the second-movement Adagio affettuoso ed passionato with a very smooth and warm beginning, sans vibrato, and all the more lovely for it.

Between these two classics came the world premiere of a new piece by 45th Parallel composer-in-residence Kenji Bunch, a violist and composer much honored in Portland, his native city. Apocryphal Dances is an apt title for this five-movement suite in an “old” style, which is to say each of the movements, two to three minutes long, is presented with a baroque title and structure. Both the first two (Entrée Grave and Rigaudon), in the same key, end with a pizzicato pluck from all four instruments. The third-movement Pasacaille sports a wonderful glissando upwards. The Musette that follows emulates its title by evoking a bagpipe-like drone, and the closing Tambourin obliges with Mr. LaMotte tapping on the back of his viola as if it were a drum. Although Mr. Bunch has referred to his piece as a “love letter to the 18th and 19th centuries,” the amour resides mainly in the forms. The musical harmonic language, tonal throughout, is thoroughly modern. Apocryphal Dances is a small (12 minutes) but potent addition to a very impressive oeuvre.

Who knows? Perhaps someday composers will write for instruments with gut strings because they like the comparatively mellow sound, not because they want to imitate Baroque or early Romantic music. If they do, they may help change or at least modify the current taste for fat, heavy, and wide vibrato on steel strings that to some listeners mars the beauty of so much contemporary playing. Players use vibrato on modern strings because it warms the tone and because they can; vibrato is far less noticeable on already-warm gut strings.

Gutless Bach

With his 48th Bach Cantata Choir concert, Artistic Director Ralph Nelson has now performed 66 of the master’s cantatas since 2006; he aims to do all 200 of them over a 30-year period. He is hardly alone in this quest. John Eliot Gardiner performed and recorded — on 56 CDs! — all of the extant cantatas (of some 500 that Bach wrote) in 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. Other “superstars” have accomplished the same feat over a longer period, and uncounted less-known choir directors worldwide have set themselves the same task. John Eliot Gardiner, Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and others have recorded the “cycle” using period instruments; others, like Helmuth Rilling, have done the deed on modern instruments. Nelson falls into this latter category.

In a Mother’s Day Concert on May 14 at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, Mr. Nelson and his Bach Cantata Choir saved the familiar Cantata No. 4 Christ lag in Todesbanden (“Christ Lay in Death’s Bonds”) for last and opened their program with a fistful of non-Bach selections, none frequently programmed. A short cantata by Bach’s contemporary Georg Philipp Telemann, Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (“Praise the Lord, All Nations”), got the choir, chamber orchestra (eight strings plus organ), and audience warmed up. A little Sonata for Flute and Continuo  in D Minor by King Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786), an avid amateur flutist and composer, was ably played by flutist Abby Mages and cellist David Tolliver, with Mr. Nelson on piano.

Bach Cantata Choir

The rarity of the program came next, the Magnificat in G Major by the Italian Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704), one of the most productive female composers of her time. This eleven-minute piece featured vocal soloists Arwen Myers, soprano, Laura Beckel Thoreson, alto, Brian Tierney, tenor, and Jacob Herbert, bass, plus orchestra and choir, all conducted in a very lively fashion by Bach Cantata Choir assistant conductor Emma Mildred Riggle. The lady soloists were, as these two always are, extremely good, and Mr. Tierney seemed to enjoy his lovely duet with Ms. Thoreson. The piece ended with a brisk choral fugue ending on the word “alleluia,” which also ended every other piece on this Easter-tide program, including all of the movements of Bach’s piece.

Bach’s Cantata No. 4, written when the composer was just 22 years old for an Easter Sunday service, is based on a hymn by Martin Luther that animates the entire piece, which runs about 23 minutes. Luther’s seven stanzas take the form of seven movements for chorus and soloists. After a very brief (one-minute) opening orchestral sinfonia, the choir launched into the best music of the cantata, an elaborate five-minute contrapuntal chorus setting of the first verse of the hymn. The choir’s sopranos and altos then sang the serene music of the grim second verse (all about death’s hold over us before the arrival of the Savior) by way of introducing the short tenor aria, nicely sung by Mr. Tierney, in which Jesus Christ comes. Another chorus follows in which the miracle of the Resurrection is celebrated, which leads to a bass solo by Mr. Herbert, all about blood and “burning love,” which would have been more effective if the singer had the requisite basso low notes. Choir soprano Nan Haemer and Mr. Tierney gave us the seventh of Luther’s verses (“Thus we celebrate the high feast”), and then it was time for Luther’s hymn as chorale, sung first by the choir and then again with the audience joining in, as is customary with Cantata Choir concerts, emulating the participation of the congregation in Bach’s time.

Two African-American spirituals framed the concert, stylistically out of place but both on message (“I Hear the Harps Eternal” and “Saints Bound for Heaven”) and both arranged by the prolific Alice Parker, still working at age 92.

This was a free concert, as are all five of the shows in each of the Cantata Choir’s seasons, with the exception of their annual Christmas Oratorio concert. All featured cantatas are performed on dates connected to the Lutheran church calendar for which they were originally written. So this concert was another labor of love and worship through music — the 65 members of the choir, except for four section leaders, pay annual dues of $150 per person. These funds and foundation and individual donations pay for the instrumentalists and soloists, and Mr. Nelson is to be commended for furnishing Portland with a healthy annual dose of this splendid music, whatever kind of strings his players use.

Recommended recordings

• Haydn
Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 76 Nos. 1-6 (complete), Takács Quartet (Decca 4756213), 2004.

• Bunch
Bunch, K.: String Circle / Drift / 26.1 / Luminaria / Boiling Point, Alias Chamber Ensemble (Delos DE3430), 2012.

• Beethoven
Beethoven: The Early String Quartets, Budapest String Quartet (Bridge BRIDGE9342A/B), 1943-1962.

• Telemann
YouTube: Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden.

• Frederick the Great
YouTube: Frederick the Great, Flute Sonata in D Minor Presto.

• Leonarda
Isabella Leonarda: Vespro a cappella della Beata Vergine, Nova Ars Cantandi, Giovanni Acciai conducting (Tactus TC623702), 2012.

• Bach
English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner conducting (Apex 749754), 2006.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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

ArtsWatch Weekly: Great Graham

Revisiting Martha Graham's potent power of the past; a Wanderlust Mother's Day; Michael Curry's "Perséphone" with the Symphony; Brett Campbell's music picks

Martha Graham created her legendary American modern dance company in 1926, and it’s difficult to imagine, more than 90 years later, just how earth-shattering her early works must have seemed. Graham carved legends out of time and space: intense, pristine, pared to the bone. She created a hyper-expressionist, essentially American style of dance, built on the works of Denishawn and other pioneers but reimagined in the movement possibilities and theatrical impulses of her own body.

She collaborated with many of the great composers and visual artists of her time, which was long and artistically fertile: born in 1894, she created her final dance in 1990, the year before she died at age 96. Her bold, emphatic approach to dance can seem overstated to contemporary audiences. Yet it carries the intensity and hyper-expressionism of the great silent movies, and if you just give it a chance, something of the pure rawness of her glory years comes through, as if it were new all over again.

Martha Graham in “Dark Meadow,” 1946. Reproduced with permission of Martha Graham Resources, a division of The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, www.marthagraham.org. Library of Congress.

No company built by a daringly original dancemaker – not Graham’s, or Balanchine’s, or Alvin Ailey’s, or José Limón’s – can survive on memories of its founder alone, and it can be a tricky business to balance the tradition of what was once radical with the need to remain in the contemporary swim of things. The Graham company, under current artistic director Janet Eilber, mixes things up boldly. When the company performs Wednesday evening in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the White Bird dance season the program will include works by a couple of high-profile contemporary dancemakers: the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, who now runs the Berlin State Ballet, and the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. But the core of the program will be two of Graham’s own works, 1948’s Diversion of Angels and Dark Meadow Suite, a distillation of an ambitious 1946 work that ran 50 minutes in its original form (the suite is much shorter).


ArtsWatch Weekly: Berlin stories

Andrea Stolowitz's "Berlin Diaries," world premiere at the ballet, new on stage, Brett Campbell's music picks, lots of links

The corner of culture, art, and politics is a busy intersection these days, when suddenly each seems to have something significant to say about the others, and so Andrea Stolowitz’s new play Berlin Diary, although it deals with events three-quarters of a century ago, also seems very much of the current moment.

Stolowitz, the Portland playwright and Oregon Book Award winner, spent a year in Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship retracing the steps of her “lost” Jewish family, those stuck in the archives after her German Jewish great grandfather escaped to New York City in the late 1930s. Shortly after, he began to keep a journal to pass along to his descendants, and it’s that family book that prompted Stolowitz’s sojourn in Berlin and the construction of this play.

Playwright Andrea Stolowitz, creator of “Berlin Diary.”

The past comes forward in recurring waves, touching futures as they unfold. “It’s not easy to get a Berlin audience to laugh at jokes about the Holocaust,” Lily Kelting of NPR Berlin wrote when Berlin Diary premiered there last October. “But American playwright Andrea Stolowitz manages to do just that in her latest premiere at the English Theater Berlin.” Kelting continues: “She says that writing the play has helped her realize that the guilt of surviving the Holocaust was a secret that ultimately tore her family in the States apart — even generations later.”


45th Parallel review: Horror show

Expertly programmed concert's dramatic arc makes for scary-fun entertainment


When you’re deciding what you’re doing tonight and your options are:

  • Blazers game
  • Fantastic horror flick like Dead Snow, Norway, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
  • Beer at ABV

chances are a niche chamber music concert titled “Classical Crossroads” won’t even register. Unless you group it under horror flicks to stay away from because you’ll probably die of boredom.

I had to go. A friend’s piece was on the program.

Show time. Players walk to their seats. We applaud. They fuss with their instruments and prepare to play the first note.

Bliss blasts Ross. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

B A M ! ! !

Whathefuck??????????? Whatjustfell???????????

“I hate ‘classical music!’”

OMG, YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tristan Bliss, the Salem friend whose piece is being played on this show, just interrupted with a bang, flinging a book to the floor then dramatically reciting the opening words from Alex Ross’s essay “Listen to This.”


Done ranting after what seemed like microseconds, the four musicians start scraping and pulling at their strings for real. An homage to the Marquis de Sade, New York composer John Zorn’s Cat o’ Nine Tails plucks my guts every time the players pick at their stringed instrument. The churning tickly sensation in my abdomen stops after three minutes. After another three days, enduring polite insider tittering from the audience  and cute too-subtle ad hoc moves (like pretending to fall asleep) by the players, I’m ready to turn Juliette on Zorn’s over-extended gimmick. Luckily the violist beats me to it. He’s had enough, stands up and air-lashes viciously at the others with his bow.

Third Angle String Quartet whips it good. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

OMG, YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Hallowe’en by Charles Ives sneaks in with layers of sound, a creepy merry-go-round where new players phantasmagorically enter with each verse. This Hallowe’en felt more wacky than scary because the under-rehearsed players had to conduct the performance with clown-big gestures in order to stay together.

Just as I rolled my eyes at the lack of preparation, they stopped. They weren’t even finished!

Come play with us, Danny.

Remember the ghost twins in The Shining? 

At the back of the darkened stage appeared Portland composer Thomas DeNicola, a young ghost at an upright piano, a single moonbeam of light on his back, playing his eerily serene Notturno. I wanted to stay and listen. I wanted to run away. Scared of what was coming.

DeNicola’s “Notturno.”

Of course Hallowe’en bombasted back from the dead like every great villain from Freddy Krueger to Chucky in beloved cheesy cult flicks. Tristan Bliss and the show’s producer, Greg Ewer, carefully architected this show for maximum horror.

Serene like dead Ophelia, I’m floating downstream, white light bathing DeNicola — this time playing Paul Safar’s Geese in the Moonlight. He makes it sound so vulnerable, so sad. I float past cellist Marilyn de Oliveira at the front of the stage, the moon focusing on her luscious strokes, playing Nicholas Yandell’s And the Surface Breaks. I can’t shake the portent of Yandell’s disturbed ripples. Sadness mingled with terror.

DeNicola and de Oliveira play Safar and Yandell. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance! Ezekiel 25:17 according to Jules – Pulp Fiction

You don’t see it coming. The distraction nearly eclipses the kill. Violinist Ewer fucked with our heads, shredding “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (Guns ‘n Roses/arr. Adam DeGraff). Burning followed. Composer Chen Yi’s musical reaction to 9/11 starts like John Zorn but plows into the Twin Towers like a feather. It’s over before you can process the fatality. Unsentimental, brutal in a real-time, real-sound, real-dead way. No film-bullet-reverb, no drawn out opera death. I couldn’t breathe and kept pulling at the front of my bra to give my ribs more room to expand.

Composer Tristan Bliss. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Having seen the score, I understood why Tristan Bliss’s Requiem for a Tradition ended the show. Had it worked, it would have exploded in a surreal catharsis of meteor-hits-earth-and-nothing-matters-anyway. But the microphones on the violin and cello never cut in except for about two seconds of cello near the end. I never heard the unremitting industrial chords that should have been pounding from Doug Schneider at the piano. The drums dominated. Too bad! Scored for multi-generations of instruments from classical strings, French horn, through pop drumset and onto electronica, what a fitting good-bye to civilization.

A few flubs aside, this was one of the funnest horror shows I’ve lived through!

Wanna get me out more?

  • Take me for a RIDE! I don’t give a shit about contrasting sonorities or chronological order or other left brained nonsense.
  • Arc your show as though it’s a movie script/storyboard.
  • Rehearse everything including tech stuff until you don’t need a score or an excuse.
  • Take chances!

Or hire team Bliss-Ewer.

Maria Choban is ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch. This story originally appeared on her new entertainment site, CatScratch.

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

45th Parallel review: Critical approach

Converting criticism into collaborative programming, concert features several generations of American composers, including contemporary Oregonians


If there were any doubt that music reviewers can influence the programming of classical concerts, that contention was put to rest, at least temporarily, on Wednesday night, March 29, in the latest concert of the Portland ensemble 45th Parallel. Reviewing one of the group’s earlier concerts from 2015, a young composer from Salem called Tristan Bliss (b. 1993) had attacked the program of 20th-century music as being uninterestingly composed of late Romantic pieces. Mr. Bliss went so far as to accuse Oregon composer Kenji Bunch of being merely part of a hidebound music establishment, and the ensemble as being afraid of truly new music and dedicated to consigning it to oblivion by not programming it.

45th Parallel performed Tristan Bliss’s ‘Requiem for a Tradition.’ Photo: Joe Cantrell.

This review rankled, needless to say, and 45th Parallel leader Gregory Ewer responded angrily online. A brief brouhaha ensued, with the result that Ewer invited Bliss to collaborate in planning a 45th Parallel concert. Bliss accepted and suggested five pieces, all written in the past three years, with the exception of perennial renegade Charles Ives’s piano quintet Hallowe’en, written way back in 1906 but sounding thoroughly contemporary. Ewer added three other selections, the earliest from 1988, and voilà! A concert was born.


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