christina rusnak

Oregon contemporary classical music: Golden age?

Fall concerts offer an unprecedented bounty of homegrown sounds by Oregon composers

We may be entering a golden age for Oregon contemporary classical music. This past fall might have brought Oregon music lovers more new music by Oregon classical composers than any season in history. While some culturally insecure institutions and presenters cling to the old thinking that the only worthwhile new art comes from points east (Europe, New York), more and more presenters and performers are realizing that Oregon is a cultural leader, not a follower — and Oregon composers are delivering music that speaks to us here and now. Here’s a glimpse at some of them (click the links for videos of the Crazy Jane and Cascadia concerts), followed by a look ahead at many more Oregon composer shows approaching, so you can hear homegrown music for yourself.

McCulley, Petak and Olson performed at Cascadia Composers' fall concert.

McCulley, Petak and Olson performed at Cascadia Composers’ fall concert.

Cascadia Composers

The star of the regional composers’ organization’s fall concert, at the University of Portland’s Mago Hunt recital hall, turned out to be saxophonist Patrick McCulley, who gave an astonishingly expressive solo performance of Jack Gabel’s winding Still Dog after All These Years, and joined another Cascadia composer, Jennifer Wright, as comic narrators in Susan Alexjander’s 1990 e. e. Cummings setting Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, another brief delight that was one of my favorite pieces and performances of the night.

McCulley next teamed with pianist Benjamin Milstein in Greg Bartholomew’s protracted In the Language of Meditation, navigating its straightforward and neo-Romantic style (very different from most of the other music on the program) with equal aplomb. McCulley’s spirited alto occasionally overshadowed singer Catherine Olson’s atypically restrained delivery of Elizabeth Blachly-Dyson’s link clever Howl: Etiquette for Artists and Other Social Misfits. The tiny soprano’s confinement behind a music stand somewhat inhibited her often riveting theatrical chops.

Kate Petak played harp in that piece and in Greg Steinke’s One by One, using koto-like textures as she and another saxophonist, Sean Fredenburg, engaged in a kind of chase of melodic wisps. Petak also joined violist Grace Young and flutist Gail Gillespie in Homesick, which Linda Woody wrote for a concert in remembrance of the 70th anniversary of World War II. The beguiling trio of instruments, pioneered by Claude Debussy, made an effective vehicle for the nostalgic moods — by turn wistful, tranquil, and playful — that suited its original inspiration. The combo needed a little more rehearsal to capture all the beauty in the prettiest piece on the program, David Drexler’s 2012 scattered flurries, whose attractive, intricate patterned melodies demanded more precise and assertive playing than offered here.

Milstein, Olson, violinist Casey Bozell and clarinetist Christopher Cox captured the quirky charm of Gary Noland’s engagingly off-center 1994 setting of Jonathan Swift poems, Women Who Cry Apples, the musical equivalent of John Tenniel’s famous Alice in Wonderland illustrations. Bozell in turn joined in an oddball combination of accordion (Kiran Moorty) and vibraphone (Florian Conzetti) in Nicholas Yandell’s intermittently poignant Eventide’s Lament. One reason we mightn’t have heard that combo too often is that it proved hard to balance the sonorities, particularly in louder sections, but despite a couple of stalls, it was one of the more intriguing pieces on a strong program. The concert ended with the sturdiest, Michael Johanson’s potent Toccata, whose opening aggressive stuttering rhythms briefly calmed, like the eye of a hurricane passing over, before concluding with rapid fire fury.

Even with a few rough patches, this was one of the most successful and entertaining concerts I’ve heard from Cascadia Composers, offering a wider variety of musical styles than any other concert in Oregon that week. With quality of both compositions and performances steadily increasing, the group is really on a roll.

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Crazy Jane and Third Angle New Music reviews: Inspired by Nature

New Oregon music responds to nature's beauty — and humanity's threats to it.

Living in a bountiful land where so many of us spend as much time in nature as possible, it’s no surprise that Oregon composers have devoted so much music to environmental themes, just as New Yorkers and Chicagoans often incorporate urban influences in their music. (“New York is a very percussive place,” the great American composer and New York native Steve Reich, once told me about the source his pioneering percussion music.) A pair of November Portland concerts showed how contemporary Oregon composers are also embracing the environment — sometimes including actual recordings of natural sounds — in their music.

Marsh and Miksch performed at Crazy Jane.

Marsh and Miksch performed at Crazy Jane.

Field Music

“The world is a huge composition going on all the time,” said the pioneering Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in a brief film Listen played immediately before Third Angle New Music’s “Afield” concert at southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia Studio 2 November 6. Schafer, who invented the notion of the soundscape (a musical evocation of an environment rather than, say, an attempt to tell a story or express a feeling via music) urged us avoid the noisy distractions of our bustling modern world and tune into nature’s sonic beauties.

That posed an implicit challenge to the three young Oregon composers (all University of Oregon graduate students) whose music Third Angle had, to its credit, commissioned for this latest entry in Third Angle’s innovative Studio Series: why should Northwesterners venture indoors to hear human-created sounds that sought to imitate nature, when we have so much of the real thing all around us?

The greatest living Northwest composer, Alaska’s John Luther Adams, has been persuasively answering that question for decades, as Third Angle showed last year in a vivid performance of his Earth and the Great Weather. Adams’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize suggests that the rest of the country is catching up to his and Schafer’s expansive vision of music and nature in harmony. Third Angle and Crazy Jane’s programs demonstrate that nature will continue to deeply and delightfully inform 21st century classical music.

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