david lang

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


ArtsWatch’s hit parade 2017

Readers' choice: From a musical fracas to rising stars to a book paradise, a look back on our most read and shared stories of the year

Here at ArtsWatch, it’s flashback time. It’s been a wild year, and the 15 stories that rose to the top level of our most-read list in 2017 aren’t the half of it, by a long shot: In this calendar year alone we’ve published more than 500 stories.

Those stories exist because of support from you and people like you. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit cultural journalism organization, and your gifts help pay for the stories we produce. It’s easy to become a member and make a donation.

Here, back for another look, is an all-star squad of stories that clicked big with our readers in the past 12 months:



Matthew Halls conducted Brahms’s ‘A German Requiem’ at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Josh Green.

The Shrinking Oregon Bach Festival

In June Tom Manoff, for many years the classical music critic for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, looked at the severe drop in attendance and cutbacks in programming at the premiere Eugene music festival. He summarized: “Thinking ahead, I ask: If this year’s schedule portends the future, can OBF retain its world-class level? My answer is no.” His essay, which got more hits than any other ArtsWatch story in 2017, got under a lot of people’s skin. But it was prescient, leading to …

Bach Fest: The $90,000 solution. This followup that had the year’s second-highest number of clicks: Bob Hicks’s look at the mess behind the surprise firing of Matthew Halls as the festival’s artistic leader and the University of Oregon’s secretive response to all questions about it.


Portland Opera review: two faces of David Lang

Production elements sometimes enhance, sometimes impair "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” and “The Little Match Girl Passion”


Sunday afternoon marked a bravura effort by Portland Opera Association on the front lines of 21st century opera. Never an easy sell, “new” opera these days is propelled by a combination of theatrics, good music, and – as in modern cinema – special effects. POA chose well here, offering two short dramas by composer David Lang: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field (a success) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Little Match Girl Passion (a knockout). The shows conclude their run at Portland’s Newmark Theatre on August 3 and 5.

Match Girl is a moving setting of the 1846 Hans Christian Andersen tale, set on a chilly New Year’s Eve. The eponymous character, opening the opera center stage in foreboding sepia tones, was played with poise and aplomb by Max Young. The tiny match girl is the embodiment of goodness and purity pitied by onlookers too busy applauding their own pious countenance to actually help her to survive.

Portland Opera’s “The Little Match Girl Passion.” Photo: Cory Weaver.

While there is no earthly hope for the tiny waif, Anderson offers her hopeful dreams, brought on by the lighting of one match and then another and then all – a Christmas tree, a roasted goose, a fire to warm her bare feet and her beloved sainted grandmother.

Lang, his own librettist, inserts three angelic characters into the ensemble – guardians for her journey. He also inserts a moral overtone which, he has said, is the Passion story according to St. Matthew, hold the religion. Pain, suffering, faith, indifference.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Banging the can

David Lang's "Match Girl" opera, JAW snaps open, Chamber Music Northwest's race to the finish, Brian Cox chats, art and science meet

Poor little match girl, and chamber music too: David Lang, cofounder of the effusive Bang On a Can and 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner for The Little Match Girl Passion, is all over the Portland cultural calendar this week.

Damien Geter, Cree Carrico, and Nicole Mitchell in David Lang’s “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” at Portland Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Portland Opera’s shift to a mainly summer season concludes with a double bill of Lang’s contemporary one-acts Match Girl and The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, opening Friday in the intimate Newmark Theatre. And his music will be on the bill Thursday and Friday at Chamber Music Northwest. Get the lowdown on Lang and his fascinating career from ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell in his profile David Lang: From iconoclast to eminence.


David Lang: from iconoclast to eminence

Pulitzer Prize winning composer and Bang on a Can founder's music will be performed at Portland Opera and Chamber Music Northwest this week

When David Lang was a Stanford University undergraduate, he once staged a famous avant garde work by American composer Lamont Young that required the performer to “feed” the onstage piano with a bale of hay. The result: Lang was formally banned from performing onstage at Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium again.

That experience typified Lang’s college years, and, in a way, his career. Now 60, the New York based composer has spent a lifetime challenging the rules and institutions of contemporary classical music, finding success on his own terms. A member of the faculty at both Yale University and Oberlin College, Lang reached the pinnacle of establishment cred when he received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music for his vocal quartet composition Little Match Girl Passion, which has been performed in Portland in the last two  years by Portland State University Chamber Choir and The Ensemble in its choral and original versions, respectively. One of America’s most performed and prolific composers, he’s also collected an Oscar, Musical America’s Composer of the Year award, Rome Prize, and other major grants, fellowships and honors.

Composer David Lang. Photo: Peter Serling.

Since its founding in 1987, Lang’s one-time insurgent organization, Bang on a Can, has grown from an annual music festival for non-establishment composers to a permanent and valuable institution of American music. His music is regularly performed at festivals and in concerts, dance performances, even films (YouthThe Woodmans). World renowned Eugene flutist Molly Barth this year recorded a new album of Lang’s music.

This Thursday and Friday, Chamber Music Northwest performs two concerts featuring three Lang compositions, followed by his appearance in a panel discussion Friday afternoon. And opening July 28 for four performances, Portland Opera stages two Lang creations: his 2002 chamber opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field and an original operatic setting of Little Match Girl, both designed by Portland’s own theatrical visionary, Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theater. The iconoclast has prevailed.


The Ensemble review: Children of their time

Portland vocal ensemble performs a pair of Passion settings composed half a millennium apart 


A Palm Sunday program offered by the Ensemble of Oregon brought two disparate renderings of a Passion, one about Jesus, the other not –  to Portland’s Old Church. Apart from their shared theme of redemptive suffering, the only similarities between these choral works, composed almost 500 years apart, were the four sonorous voices of Catherine van der Salm, Laura Beckel Thoreson, Nicholas Ertsgaard and director Patrick McDonough. Both pieces were unmistakably children of their respective eras.

The Ensemble performed passion settings by Lang and Lechner in Eugene, Portland, and Vancouver WA.

The first was the 16th century a cappella Story of the Passion and Suffering of our One Redeemer and Savior Jesus Christ” (“Historia der Passion und Leidens unsers einigen Erlosers und Seligmachers Jesu Christi), set in precise sequence by Austrian composer Leonhard Lechner, with a modicum of cuts to the text from the Gospel of St. John.

Lechner was a disciple of the justly more famous Orlando di Lasso, but judging from this Passion, quite a bit less adventuresome. Di Lasso, who had the freedom and interest in writing secular pieces, was able to introduce more innovation of harmony and style. Perhaps Lechner, whom we have to thank for cataloging di Lasso’s works, did not feel such freedom from within the liturgical setting. To today’s ears, the repeated cadential formulae and predictable harmonic movement, make for a stasis bordering on the quotidian. Looking back through the lens of Bach’s Passions (St. John and St. Matthew, the two fully extant ones), we are struck by any lack of word painting, much less the harmonic development that had appeared by the time of the high Baroque, some 125 years later, as in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

McDonough inserted chorales from that masterpiece, linking this early polyphonic work to a musical “grandson,” J.S. Bach. It was a good move, breaking up the Lechner. The chorales were transposed from the original so as to move harmonically smoothly within the Lechner key signatures; this placed voices quite high in the vocal range. But all the singers made easy work of that. Ms. Van der Salm was especially adroit in the higher soprano range.

The Passion was sung from the back of the sanctuary of the Old Church which turned out to be a nice acoustic. Two drawbacks, however. First, lack of optics, no visual stimulus. Second, McDonough acting as singer (bass) and conductor was facing his three colleagues, which created occasional balance problems.

On the other hand, it was well performed by our four vocal artists, the tuning and phrasing always in sync. The quartet then carried this elegance into their portrayal of The Little Match Girl Passion.

A Passion for Our Time

David Lang’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, the main draw of the program, is set in the dead of winter. In some ways an opera (and soon to be performed in that guise by Portland Opera in a full production with sets, costumes, lighting and original orchestration), it tells the Hans Christian Anderson story of the bereft little girl who leaves her home to sell matches, and ultimately freezes to death on New Year’s Eve, after experiencing visions (hallucinations?) of her long-dead mother, a holiday goose walking towards her, and a flaringly lit Christmas tree.

If the Danish tale of H. C. Anderson seems an unlikely fit for Passion week, consider David Lang’s decision to invoke the spirit of the choruses of the St. Matthew Passion in his composition. “What would it be like to tell the passion story, but take Jesus’ suffering out and put some other person’s suffering in?” Lang has said.  “Would that make the story universal?”

One particular musical reference is the serene benediction of “rest soft” in the final movement “We sit and cry” which evokes the “Ruht Wohl” lullaby chorus conclusion to the Bach St. Matthew.

Composer David Lang.

Fragmented in its handling of text and music, and minimalistic in many movements, it comes across something like an e.e. cummings poem. The music is brittle, ice cold, stark, passionately and painfully exquisite.  Its jagged, pointillistic deliveries were perfectly rendered by all of the singers. Dissonances cut like knives through the thin harmonic textures, the clangy minor and major seconds and sevenths evoking the spikiness of the winter, and heightening the emotion of the suffering here.

There were no drawbacks, nothing missing, in the performance of Lang’s Little Match Girl.  Each singer played at least one percussion instrument, so there were two layers of musical multi-tasking going on all the time. The singing and the playing were terrific. This is a piece for its time, and not just because of it being Passion Week. It speaks to homelessness, poverty, and yet somehow, hope and dignity.

Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer. Bruce Browne is a conductor and educator. He is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties.

Read Brett Campbell’s 2011 profile of David Lang. Read his and Jeff Winslow‘s ArtsWatch reviews of Portland State Chamber Choir’s performance of the choral version of Lang’s Passion.

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

Sing Awakening: New directions in vocal music

Today's choral composers explore new sounds

Ryan Heller conducted Portland Vocal Consort's 2013 Best of the Northwest concert.

Ryan Heller conducted Portland Vocal Consort’s 2013 Best of the Northwest concert.

Editor’s note: This is the first in ArtsWatch’s two-part look at contemporary choral music. See Bruce Browne’s appraisal of Portland’s choral scene here.


New choral music is hot, no doubt about it. And in Portland, new choral ensembles are hot too. Recent years have seen the inauguration of several top-flight groups such as the Resonance Ensemble, Portland Vocal Consort, The Ensemble, and In Mulieribus. Established groups such as Choral Arts Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers have passed the baton to ambitious new directors, and the incomparable Cappella Romana has expanded forces and repertory. While none of these groups devotes itself exclusively to new compositions, they tackle them regularly and show no signs of losing interest. Portland Vocal Consort even has an annual “Best of the Northwest” show, with music written entirely by living Northwest composers. (Full disclosure: PVC included my “The Sun Never Says” in its 2011 “Best of the Northwest” program.)

On the national scene, publicity genius Eric Whitacre continues to woo and wow the choral singing multitudes, and for only the second time in its 60-year history (the first was only five years ago), the Pulitzer Prize in music was just awarded for an a cappella (unaccompanied) choral composition. Any local composer like me, who has written a few choral works and who wants to write more, or any fan of contemporary classical music, should be excited about the future, right?


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