boston modern orchestra project

Oregon classical music releases: Five 2014 favorites

Oregon composers and performers shine in new and old music.

It’s an arts journalism tradition to fill the year-end concert void with “best of the year” lists. I can’t pretend to have heard more than a fraction of Oregon music CDs released this year, so this roundup just represents a few favorites I expect many classical music-oriented ArtsWatch readers will relish.

Portland Baroque Orchestra, J.S. Bach: Concertos for Oboe and Oboe d’amore (Avie).

“Bach used the oboe as no other composer had before,” 20-year-veteran PBO oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz writes in the liner notes to PBO’s new CD, “treating it as an equal partner to the voice, and showering it with lyrically and technically demanding roles… the oboe must have been one of Bach’s favorite instruments,” receiving thrice as many solos as the violin in his cantatas.

PBOWhich makes the absence of any surviving manuscripts for oboe showcases in Bach’s most alluring music — the concertos he wrote in Cothen before moving to Leipzig to write primarily sacred music with voices — especially disappointing. However, some years ago, scholars realized that some of Bach’s lost oboe (and other) concertos were hiding in plain sight: in the guise of harpsichord concertos they deduced the busy Bach (obliged to deliver a huge quantity of music on deadline) had arranged from earlier concertos featuring other solo instruments — including the oboe and its older cousin, the larger and mellower oboe d’amore.

One of those scholars is Ruiz himself, who’s performed with most of the leading historically informed ensembles, teaches at New York’s Juilliard School and has mentored many of America’s leading Baroque oboists. His reconstruction of some of Bach’s Orchestral Suites with Monica Huggett’s Ensemble Sonnerie (recorded on a chart-topping, Grammy-nominated CD) proved far more persuasive than the previous editions that commonly — and mistakenly — replaced the composer’s intended oboe with flute.

“In Bach’s time, the oboe was considered to be the electric guitar of the 18th century, truly a virtuosic vehicle in the right hands,“ Ruiz told me, ”and there were plenty of right hands around. I hope this [reconstruction] stretches expectations of the Baroque oboe.”

Now, again teaming with Huggett, Ruiz continues his revelation — or more accurately restoration — of the oboe’s signficance to Bach’s music. This CD of concertos reverse-engineered by Ruiz and others from Bach’s own arrangements for harpsichord (with one exception compiled from a cantata movement and a concerto fragment) into showcases for oboe, oboe d’amore, and violin and oboe should re-establish the primacy of Ruiz’s instrument in Bach’s music. (In one case, it reclaims the spotlight from an earlier reconstruction from harpsichord to violin that, Ruiz contends, doesn’t fit that instrument nearly as well.) And, following its acclaimed 2012 St. John Passion recording, the disk could also place Oregon’s own historically informed period instrument band in the international spotlight for authentic Baroque recordings.


FearNoMusic is on the bill at Portland’s Someday Lounge. Image via FearNoMusic

Last November at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, Portland’s Third Angle New Music Ensemble tore through one of the 20th century’s most famous works, George Crumb’s searing 1970 string quartet Black Angels, music that reflected the turbulence of its time (including the Vietnam War) and which sparked David Harrington to create the Kronos Quartet, so that he would have a vehicle to perform new music with that kind of power and contemporary relevance. The music also inspired the creation of another musical institution.

“I was blown away,” young composer Justin Ralls recalls. “That was the moment I realized that some big things were possible here.”

At the reception after the show, Ralls, recently returned to his hometown after obtaining his degree in composition from the Boston Conservatory in spring 2010, chatted with 3A music director/violinist Ron Blessinger and cellist and PSU prof Hamilton Cheifetz, and learned that Portland’s new music scene had been blossoming since he’d graduated from Cleveland High School in 2006. The 23-year-old composer/drummer saw the enthusiastic but mostly middle aged audience and began to wonder: could there be a place in the city for a larger, orchestra-sized new music group rather than a small ensemble? And could it draw musicians and music lovers of his generation?

Ralls decided to find out, and the first manifestation of his vision appears this Sunday night at Portland’s Someday Lounge, when his new Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project makes its debut at what looks to be a fascinating new music festival featuring another veteran Portland ensemble, FearNoMusic, Eugene’s Beta Collide (founded by two veterans of other major contemporary music groups, New York’s Meridian Arts Ensemble and Chicago’s eighth blackbird), and other musicians from New York and California.


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