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Music News & Notes

Recent happenings in Oregon music

Been awhile since we rounded up recent news in Oregon classical music, so here’s some items that lit up our screens in recent months.

Laurels and Plaudits

• Composition Champ. University of Oregon composition professor Robert Kyr was one of four American composers to win this year’s American Academy of Arts and Letters $10,000 Arts and Letters Award for outstanding artistic achievement by a composer who has arrived at his or her own voice.

Mia Hall Miller

Mia Hall Miller

Wonder Woman. Pacific Youth Choir founder and director Mia Hall Miller received the Oregon Symphony’s 2016 Schnitzer Wonder Award, a $10,000 prize that “honors an individual or organization that directly works to build community through the next generation of artists and/or student musicians.” Now in its 13th year, PYC boasts almost 300 singers in 10 choirs.

Violin Virtuosa. Portland violinist Fumika Mizuno is the only Oregonian selected among the 109 young musicians (age 16-19) from across the country for the fourth annual National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. It’s her second stint with the NYO, which (after a training residency in New York) performed with the great pianist Emanuel Ax at Carnegie Hall in July, then played concerts led by Valery Gergiev at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, in Montpellier France, Copenhagen, and Prague.

• Operatic ascent. Portland tenor A.J. Glueckert was one of six winners of the $10,000 George London awards, one of America’s oldest vocal competitions.

Eugene jazz musician Tony Glausi. Photo: Tyler Sams. 

Eugene jazz musician Tony Glausi. Photo: Tyler Sams.

Trumpeter on the rise. Eugene jazz trumpeter and composer Tony Glausi has been named the recipient of the 2016-17 Laurie Frink Career Grant, a biennial $10,000 award to give a “young brass player an opportunity for serious study or to undertake a creative project.” One of America’s most revered brass instrument teachers, Frink, who died in 2013, played in some of the finest jazz orchestras (including those of Maria Schneider, Benny Goodman Orchestra, Mel Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, John Hollenbeck, Darcy James Argue and more), performed with Broadway orchestras, co-wrote the definitive book on trumpet improvisation, and mentored some of today’s top trumpeters including Dave Douglas and Ambrose Akinmusire. Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch profile of Glausi.

The Marylhurst Chamber Choir performs at the 2016 Cork International Choral Festival.

Choral Voyagers. Marylhurst University’s premiere choral ensemble, the Marylhurst Chamber Choir, was one of only 34 choirs from around the world, and the only American choir invited to perform at the Cork International Choir Festival in Cork, Ireland in May. It placed third to choirs from Sweden and Turkey in a close contest for the placed third in the festival’s top honor, the Fleischmann Award and won the Peace Award for the choir that best embodied the spirit of the festival.

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‘Viva’s Holiday’: Making an opera, evoking a community

Made in Portland opera embraces much of the city's indie classical scene, and more.

“Thank you for supporting the arts,” the stripper said.

Back in the late 1990s, Astoria-based singer/songwriter Christopher Corbell made his first visit to a Portland strip club. A friend was visiting from New Orleans, where Corbell used to live before moving to Oregon, so the two visited an establishment in the city’s then-seedy Old Town. “I expected a sordid experience,” he recalls. Then one dancer emerged, with a winking act that was smart, tongue in cheek, “really engaging with everyone,” he says. “It was totally different than the experience I expected.” At the end of her act she said, “Thank you for supporting the arts.”

Years later, reading 2009’s Magic Gardens: the Memoirs of Viva Las Vegas, Corbell encountered that same line, and realized that he’d actually experienced Portland’s own Viva, a Willamette Week writer, Williams College grad, preacher’s daughter and author who insisted that stripping could be a feminist, artistic, empowering, and even intellectual experience.

It wasn’t just Viva who left a lasting impression on Corbell. She was part of “an artistic underground that seems to be threatened by gentrification,” he wrote. “Local musicians, artists, writers, and others who recall the cheap rents, shows, and drinks of the ’90s at clubs like Satyricon and La Luna generally knew Viva, both from her time on stage (in rock clubs as well as strip clubs) and from her writing and activism. As old-school bar after bar has closed and rents have climbed rapidly, it is an apt time to look at — and bolster — some of the worldview that made this recent era of the Portland scene magical. Viva has always been a vocal proponent of that outlook; it pervades her Magic Gardens memoirs.”

Later, after he’d moved into composing music in classical idioms (he also became executive director of Portland’s Classical Revolution PDX), Corbell was searching for ideas for his first opera, and remembered the book and its author. He knew he wanted to write a local story, with local heroes, and celebrate the scruffier 1980s-mid 1990s city before it added the -ia suffix. Who better to represent pre-glitz Portland’s simultaneously smart and seedy sides than Viva Las Vegas herself?

“It’s a local legend story,” Corbell explains. “I’m using traditional opera vocabulary, its passions and emotions, to depict someone we know in our community.” Viva certainly makes a better local hero than, say, Tonya Harding.

Soprano Helen Funston as Viva, bass­baritone Bobby Jackson as Dad, mezzo­soprano Sadie Gregg as Mom, and tenor Alexander Trull as Brother in "Viva's Holiday."

Soprano Helen Funston as Viva, bass ­baritone Bobby Jackson as Dad, mezzo­ soprano Sadie Gregg as Mom, and tenor Matt Storm as Brother in “Viva’s Holiday.” Photo: Jessica Beer.

But Corbell’s one act chamber opera, Viva’s Holiday, which runs Wednesday through Friday, December 2-4 at Portland’s Star Theater, just a few blocks from where Corbell and Viva first met, is more than a celebration of a Portland cultural icon. And Viva isn’t the only Portland figure to collaborate with Corbell on his new opera. As it began to take shape over the last couple of years, the project drew collaborators from across the city, including various strains of its burgeoning indie classical community. Even though it’s not set in Portland, Viva’s Holiday is truly a project that grew directly from the city’s culture. It’s also potentially a new model for making homegrown classical music. In creating it, Corbell wasn’t just composing music, but also a community.

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Classical Revolution PDX / ARCO-PDX reviews: Recipe for Relevance

Portland indie classical institutions find broader audiences through innovative approaches.

Can classical music ever be hip? This month, two of Portland’s major indie classical subversives infiltrated a Portland indie pop haven with a pair of concerts that demonstrated that classical music can regain its mainstream cultural appeal — if it’s presented in 21st century context.

ARCO-PDX performed at Portland's Holocene in early August.

ARCO-PDX performed at Portland’s Holocene in early August.

Premised on the notion that classical music (and we must add, contemporary classical, although that distinction would have struck the vast majority of classical composers in history as unnecessary and even pernicious) is as universally appealing as it ever was except that the presentation is outdated for today’s audiences, ARCO-PDX’s announced goal is to bring rock and roll energy and production to classical music. In this third concert, performed earlier this month in Seattle, Eugene and Portland, it advanced farther toward that goal in some respects, but stalled in others.

The sound design seemed richer and more accurate to my ears than the group’s previous concerts at another indie rock club, Mississippi Studios and rawer party space, Refuge PDX, in Portland’s industrial inner east side. The group seems to have resolved most of the tuning issues that occasionally bugged me in their earlier shows. Provided by DB Amorin and Cymaspace, the visual effects seemed subtler and more sophisticated than I remember from earlier shows, and though it left the stage darker, it also complemented the performance rather than calling attention to the images. 

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Violist Grace Young at Classical Revolution PDX's December jam. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

Violist Grace Young at Classical Revolution PDX’s December jam. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

by MARIA CHOBAN

It’s early December and I am at The Waypost, a Portland coffeehouse by day that turns to a tavern at night, occasionally repurposed by the founding fearless leader of Classical Revolution PDX, Mattie Kaiser for nefarious activities like kicking out the jams with chamber music open mikes. Tonight, as every first Sunday of every month, classical music mods and rockers gather to lustily quaff a few and make a joyful ruckus.

But I’m worried about tonight, because it’s happening at a moment when CRPDX’s tribes of mods and rockers threaten to turn into Sharks vs. Jets.

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No, your screen isn’t deceiving you (at least not about Oregon arts); this is a special bonus edition of our usually weekly look at what’s happening in Oregon music. Don’t blame us; blame the profusion of worthwhile events happening Wednesday night.

The Oregon Symphony performed with Portland indie rockers at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The Oregon Symphony performed with Portland indie rockers at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

I was actually tempted to call this one “News and Nose,” or “Nose and Notes” because, although opera fans have a couple of other treats coming up Friday (including Oregon Public Broadcasting’s TV premiere of one of today’s most prominent contemporary operas, San Francisco composer Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick,” on Great Performances, and of course Portland Opera’s “Salome,” which we’ll preview on a silver platter shortly), anyone interested in contemporary visual, theatrical and musical arts should hie herself over to one of the half dozen cinemas in Oregon that on Wednesday are screening the encore presentation of the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival of its acclaimed 2009 production of Shostakovich’s 1930 opera “The Nose.” This latest offering in the Met’s Live in HD series opened last Saturday and will be encoring at theaters in Bend, Beaverton, Happy Valley, Medford, Portland, Salem and Springfield.

Shostakovich’s quasi-Cubist score, which dazzles with everything from a percussion ensemble interlude to a gorgeous vocal chorale to a polka, is a precisely-performed delight, very different from the great 10th symphony he wrote at the end of this career, and performed by the Oregon Symphony last weekend. So is the source material, Nikolai Gogol’s proto-Surrealist 1936 short story, but the real star is the multifaceted visual design by one of the great visual artists of our time, South African theater artist William Kentridge.

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Classical Revolution PDX regular Grace Young plays viola on several works at Sunday's Decomposers Night.

Classical Revolution PDX regular Grace Young plays viola on several works at Sunday’s Decomposers Night.

By JANA HANCHETT

“We delved in this ghoul’s grave with our spades, and how we thrilled at the picture of ourselves, the grave, the pale watching moon, the horrible shadows, the grotesque trees, the titanic bats, the antique church, the dancing death-fires, the sickening odours, the gently moaning night-wind, and the strange, half-heard, directionless baying, of whose objective existence we could scarcely be sure.

—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Hound.

That horridly thrilling tale of grave robbery was the inspiration for this Sunday’s Decomposers Night, a classical-bending, genre-crossing musical production that explores the macabre with intellectual passion.

“We’ve gone a bit darker this year by including music based on both H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe,” says Christopher Corbell, executive director of Classical Revolution PDX, which is presenting the show at downtown Portland’s Star Theater.

“My first exposure to H. P. Lovecraft was an audiobook of short stories when I was on a road trip,” Corbell recalls. “Experiencing ‘The Hound’ in an audio reading was a wonderful introduction to the best of his writing — it’s a conventional horror piece in many ways, but with this wonderful layer of erudition and attention to aesthetics.”

With an eye towards Portland’s 2014 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, CRPDX organized a call for scores inspired by Lovecraft’s creepy tale. Out of 14 compositions submitted from all over the world, Nathan Showell’s score for violin, viola, cello, and clarinet led the pack. The premiere of the nineteen-year-old Reed College student’s composition at Decomposers Night will accompany voice actor Sam Mowry’s reading of “The Hound.” CRPDX hopes to submit a film incorporating Showell’s score and Mowry’s reading to next year’s Lovecraft Festival.

Inspired by Poe’s “The Mask of the Red Death,” the centerpiece of Decomposers Night is Andre Caplet’s 1924 “Conte Fantastique,” which musically illustrates the dramatic irony of unwittingly chasing your own bloody killer. To add to the exotic tone, Caplet (a prize-winning French composer probably best known today for his arrangements of the music of his colleague, Claude Debussy) throws the harp into the midst of a broiling string quartet.

This piece was pivotal in liberating the harp from its traditional role of being a virtuosic but shallow parlor instrument,” explains Kate Petak, the harpist for this concert. “Caplet shows that the harp can successfully convey the darkness, intensity, and mysteriousness needed to set the tone for Poe’s eerie story. It is my hope that modern composers will continue Caplet’s legacy by using the full range of expressions possible on the harp. There’s so much more room for exploration.”

The evening’s revolutionary nature also resounds in collaborations with musical forces outside the classical genre. The concert itself is a prelude to a performance by Church of Hive, a mainstay of Portland’s Goth/Industrial community. In addition, Myrrh Lars, curator of Someday:Incubator and classical musician-turned-dark-wave /rockstar impresario, is teaming up with CRPDX musicians.

“Classical music demonstrates how great passion can be expressed within, and even amplified by, structural constraints,” Larsen says. “Because my own band often incorporates video projections and movement in our rock shows, we also take a very deliberate approach to composition to make sure that all the different aspects of the show come together into something really powerful. It’s awesome to be part of an artistic community in which modern classical music is alive, part of the dialogue of the dark and complicated times we live in.”

Patrick McCulley premiers a new composition at Decomposers Night.

Patrick McCulley premiers a new composition at Decomposers Night.

Three other Oregon music premieres complement Showell and Larsen’s contributions. Created specifically for this Halloween concert by The Waking Guild’s Jason O’Neill-Butler, “Sandman” features one of Petra Delarocha’s gravity-defying aerial performances. Portland pianist and film composer Beth Karp, also a member of The Waking Guild, composed “Things that Go Bump in the Night” for violin, viola, cello, bass, and soprano for Decomposers Night.

Saxophonist Patrick McCulley’s composition “Chaining the Leviathan” draws on classical, jazz, indie rock and experimental music. “My inspiration for this piece came from an excerpt from [J.R.R.] Tolkien’s “Silmarillion” about the chaining of a satanic god figure, Melkor,” says McCulley, whose performance will be accompanied by John C. Worsley’s live illustrations.
“A visual artist uses a drawing program on a laptop and creates an illustration while music is being performed on stage,” explains Corbell. “The whole illustration process is projected live onto a screen behind the performer, often evolving in unexpected ways along with the music. It’s a cool artistic collaboration and often pretty mesmerizing, especially with a talented illustrator like John C. Worsley.

The concert concludes with Portland composer and violinist Mike Hsu’s arrangement of The Cure’s “Lullaby.”

The psychological exploration of darkness is not always easy or welcome, but CRPDX capitalizes on this Halloween season to make this particular concert an anticipated event. “With everything going on in the world, it’s hard to deny that we live in dark times,” says Larsen. “Dark art is a way to acknowledge that, express some of the fear and frustration that goes alongside it, but also to have a little catharsis. In every dark song we play, there’s a glimmer of hope in it, and a punk rock spirit of resistance and defiance that shines through the angst.”

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CRPDX presents Decomposers Night at the Star Theater, 13 NW 6th Avenue, Portland, on Sunday, October 27 at 8 pm. 21+, $10 suggested donation.

Jana Hanchett is a pianist in Portland.

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Good Fellas

There's a new music mafia in Oregon: meet the godfathers

By MARIA CHOBAN

I dragged myself to my first Cascadia Composers concert on a rainy November night in 2010, tired after a full day of teaching. David Bernstein greeted the audience with a welcome speech pleading with us to take pity on composers – so little respected and liked anymore.

I rolled my eyes. Who’s to blame for composers not being well respected or liked anymore? Could it possibly be. . . . THEY are to blame? For having subjected us for half of the 20th century to sudoku math puzzles or chance games masquerading as music? They called it the Modernist era, after the fact. I call it bullshit. Moreover, the music at that first CC concert sucked, the performances sucked and I stalked home in a bad mood.

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Founder Mattie Kaiser toasts the revolution at CRPDX's fifth anniversary bash.

Founder Mattie Kaiser toasts the revolution at CRPDX’s fifth anniversary bash.

When I first met Mattie Kaiser, she looked haggard. Sitting on a barstool at the Waypost, the founder of Classical Revolution PDX, an indie classical music organization founded for those who defined classical music as something larger than the pin-point of anything old and academic, she was waiting for one of its early-on chamber jams to be over so she could go home and sleep.

Kaiser would also have been easy to underestimate. In these early days of CRPDX, after they’d switched from infrequent jams announced well in advance (at various venues like Red & Black Cafe, Costello’s, Someday Lounge, the Woods) to weekly sessions at The Waypost in northeast Portland circa 2011, there were nights when it was just Mattie who held down the fort, playing solo Bach on her viola to no one in the room. Hard to believe from a personality so charismatic, from someone who understands the importance of physical appearances (and she is beautiful!), from what seems like a performer with a natural ability to draw an audience. Obviously it takes more and as I would soon discover, in Kaiser the tenacity is there.

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Enter Bob Priest, impresario of music festival March Music Moderne. We too started off on the wrong foot. I completely misunderstood his mission, having been completely seduced by the title of the first of his two concerts in his then-weekend festival: “Almost Nothing Like Purple Haze.” He assured me that that 2011 weekend concert series was a one-off, explaining that he was too tired and too burned out from having done this sort of thing in his distant past with disastrous consequences to his health, I nodded disingenuously in false agreement, secretly plotting how to get him to meet me for coffee so I could cajole him into presenting another year of expanded MMM festspielnalia.

Turns out it wasn’t hard. Priest is a festival creator addict. He had been taking notes on his yellow legal pad while waiting for me to show up. Full of ideas, exuberant, clearly in the throes of his high, he left me in the dust – something I’m not used to. Priest knew exactly what he wanted: Modernism! I detest it because of its academic elitist attitude and its misconceived perception that music is made minus feeling or choice.

I knew exactly what I wanted from Bob: a one-month long festival in March, feting up-to-the minute music with up-to-the-minute fresh professional presentations, something that could be marketed as a Portland tourist attraction in our least attractive tourist season. And never the two shall meet, or so I imagined after this fireworks first meeting.

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