celebration works

In Search of the Golden Ratio

Recent Portland classical piano performances try to strike a delicate balance

Arnaldo Cohen, Portland Piano International's artistic director, in recital at Portland's Newmark Theater. Photo by Jim Leisy.

Arnaldo Cohen, Portland Piano International’s artistic director, in recital at Portland’s Newmark Theater. Photo by Jim Leisy.

by JANA HANCHETT

A familiar problem for any classical group or program is discovering the golden ratio of quality, venue, repertoire, and cost which produces the ultimate musical satisfaction and inspiration. The axis around which these factors revolve is the performer-audience relationship. Classical programs gain sustaining vitality when they use these factors to foster genuine interactions within their communities, but unfortunately, audiences are often targeted via their cultural-socio-economic niches.  This past May, four concerts approached the performer-audience relationship to varying degrees of success.

Arnaldo Cohen’s performance on May 5 was exactly what one would hope from the new artistic director of Portland Piano International. His musicality was both forward thinking and heartfelt, and his stage presence, while commanding, was simple and down-to-earth. In particular, his performance of Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Chaconne from his Violin Partita no. 2 in d minor invited the audience to participate in a search for Personal Legend  This may sound too epic for a Sunday afternoon piano concert, but at a masterclass at Portland Piano the day before Cohen stated, “What makes this piece difficult is that you pass from one section to the other, and, like life and literature, each phrase must be the inevitable consequence of what came before.” While a simple and obvious concept, it is amazingly difficult to apply.

Pianists often introduce the Chaconne’s theme with regal aggressiveness: very firm attacks, little rubato, and militaristic articulation. Such an introduction often works out as a virtuosic throw-down, leaving the audience in awe of the performer’s certainty and skill, but without a significant change in perspective. In contrast, Cohen’s performance steered clear from predetermined recitation; Cohen listened to the room, the piano, and the mingling of harmonies to determine how he transformed the theme. The melody became a dynamic character affected by the surrounding landscape of a 20th-century score (based on an 18th-century score) within a 21st-century environment.

This performance revealed an artistic director sincere in his desire to emotionally connect with his audience. “Music is sound, and pianists must project sound to people who are listening,” he said at the masterclass. “A challenge for pianists is to sense that the sounds we are playing are enriching the listener.” There’s a lot to unpack in those statements, but most important is the idea that the pianist and listener participate together in finding substantive musical meaning. Cohen teased out the irony of the situation: “I may be expressing one thing, you may be hearing something completely different, but in the moment we are communicating perfectly.” Such a statement speaks to the elusiveness of beauty, and also to the power of music to present new solutions to familiar problems.

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Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich

Undoubtedly one of the last century’s musical giants, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was as prolific as he was bold, compiling one of the most impressive outputs of string quartets since Beethoven. Twice in the past decade, including this week, Portland has been lucky to hear a complete cycle of Shostakovich’s 15 quartets, many containing the kind of personal music the Soviet authorities wouldn’t countenance in his big orchestral works. Beginning Sunday, March 10, at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, Friends of Chamber Music is giving Oregon another complete look at the century’s most impressive single chamber music cycle, courtesy of four concerts by the young Jerusalem Quartet, along with a welcome series of free talks, rehearsals and other audience outreach programs. Some concerts are sold out, so hurry! The series ends on Thursday. FOCM has posted some useful info on its website;  here’s a quick guide to the whole quartet cycle.

Led by Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu, the Oregon Symphony joins the Shostakovich orgy this weekend with a concert featuring his chaotic fifteenth and final symphony, containing quotations from earlier composers including Rossini and Wagner and much more, all very much worth exploring. The programs also include Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bare Mountain” (in the composer’s seldom heard original arrangement) and Saint Saens’ Spanish-scented third violin concerto, featuring soloist Benjamin Schmid.

Both FOCM and OSO shows are part of March Music Moderne, the annual Portland new music festival that gets going in earnest this weekend at Portland’s Community Music Center, with a free concert by the Free Marz String Trio and guests featuring more Shostakovich, ten short marches written by Oregon composers commemorating the centennial of Stravinsky’s music-changing masterpiece, “The Rite of Spring,” and more, including Lutoslawski’s epic string quartet. MMM’s Saturday night show at southeast Portland’s Piano Fort is an installment of The Late Now, the strangest and most fun talk show/performance event you’ve ever seen, featuring more musical modernity, humor, and more. On Sunday at the Community Music Center, Classical Revolution makes one of its many contributions to Oregon music with its showcase of new works by 10 Oregon composers.

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The Mousai perform at downtown Portland’s First Presbyterian Church Sunday.

It’s not part of March Music Moderne, but there’s no more appealing concert of contemporary music in Oregon this weekend than the Mousai’s Sunday afternoon showcase at First Presbyterian Church’s Celebration Works series. A nice complement to — and certainly more contemporary and more American than– MMM’s generally cooler, Euro-leaning midcentury modern focus, the concert offers the characteristically American (north and south) rhythms and melodies of Brian DuFord’s Gershwinesque “New York Streetscapes,” Kevin Gray’s African-influenced prepared piano work “Mebasi,” Montana composer David Maslanka’s bucolic “Blue Mountain Meadow,” Paquito D’Rivera’s (better known to jazz fans, and a fine composer) “Danzon,” and a relative oldie, French composer Darius Milhaud’s (who taught for many years at California’s Mills College) 1938 medieval-flavored wind work “King Renee’s Chimney.” The concert also includes the premiere of a brand new work the group commendably commissioned from a young Oregon composer who was featured at last summer’s Chamber Music Northwest, Katrina Kramarchuk.

There’s contemporary music and American music on the program at Consonare Chorale’s Saturday concert at Portland’s First Congregational Church of Christ, with choral music by leading American choral composer Eric Whitacre, Native American music (accompanied by the Cowlitz Indian Tribe Drumming Group), and more. At Eugene’s First Christian Church Saturday night, the Oregon Mozart Players play two works by contemporary composers: “Last Round,” Osvaldo Golijov’s plangent homage to his Argentine compatriot, the tango nuevo composer Astor Piazzolla, and the “Mirabai Songs” by another Boston-area-based composer, John Harbison, one of America’s most respected composers. Oh, and they’ll also play music by their namesake: Mozart’s own quartet arrangement of his Piano Concerto #12, with OMP music director Kelly Kuo playing the solo role.

And there is actually some even older music onstage in this month of modernity, the top choice being Musica Maestrale’s Saturday night show at Portland’s Community Music Center, featuring two top Northwest sopranos: Catherine Olson and Melanie Downie Robinson (familiar from the many other ensembles they’ve sung with) joining lutenist Hideki Yamaya and recorder virtuoso Polly Gibson in a splendid Italian Baroque program of music by Monterverdi, Strozzi, Frescobaldi and more. And there’s more Baroque music in Salem Sunday afternoon when the Salem Chamber Orchestra hosts the fun and fabulous Red Priest ensemble in music by Bach, Vivaldi and more.

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Portland Baroque Orchestra ended 2012 with three different concert programs.

Portland Baroque Orchestra ended 2012 with three different concert programs.

My mother, who I’m visiting for the holidays, has, like many seniors who live in retirement communities, downsized considerably. That must explain the surfeit of edible Christmas presents she received this year. Most of it is candy. Strictly in the interest of de-cluttering her small apartment, of course, I’m doing my best to help her consume as much as possible. Some of it (especially the handmade stuff her loving son brought from Portland) is really rich and tasty. Much of the rest, though, offers at most fleeting pleasures, and the surfeit actually reduces the pleasure of the best.

I’ve had similar feelings in attending the past month or so of classical music concerts in Portland. Many have been stuffed with musical pleasures, but often, in long programs, the mediocre works have undermined the gems. It makes me wonder whether classical music too often offers too much of a good thing — and whether that discourages audiences from appreciating, or even hearing, the good stuff. And to prove my point that you can have too much of a good thing, I’m going to make it in our longest post of the year!

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Trinity Cathedral's Michael Kleinschmidt

When Michael Kleinschmidt arrived in Oregon from Boston in August 2010, the first thing he decided to do was listen. Newly appointed to the position of  Canon for Cathedral Music at Portland’s Trinity Cathedral. The 46-year old Oberlin College graduate resolved to spend his first two years in the community “listening to where you are what your desires are for a community of faith, and trying to discern what your big dreams are for music making,” he told parishioners.

Now that his self-imposed two-year listening phase is ending, Kleinschmidt is still tuned into the community, but also stepping out himself a bit to perform outside Trinity. This Sunday, the prize winning organist and choral conductor closes the 10th anniversary season of the excellent Celebration Works series at downtown Portland’s First Presbyterian Church with a concert of organ music by the greatest church musician of them all, Johann Sebastian Bach.

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