david schiff

Irving Berlin: For Everyman, by Everyman

In creating himself according to the nation's enthusiasm for his songs, Irving Berlin, the subject of a one-man show at Portland Center Stage, helped to create a national identity


Editor’s note: With “White Christmas” streaming from speakers everywhere, The Shedd’s production of Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun running through this weekend, and Portland Center Stage’s production of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin continuing through December, we thought it would be an appropriate occasion to re-run one of the definitive articles on the great American composer by another great American composer, as well as one of our great writers about music, Portland’s own David Schiff.

Do pop tunes have an afterlife? A new three-volume scholarly edition of the early songs of Irving Berlin, published for the American Musicological Society, suggests that all music, whether pop or classical, passes from inspiration to dissertation, living on as fodder for musicologists.

Irving Berlin circa 1906.

I recently decided to test Berlin’s suitability for the full scholarly treatment in the privacy of my home. As I began singing and playing through all 190 of these songs, written from 1907 to 1914, I thought I had finally discovered the secret to being the life of the party. The first few songs, for which Berlin wrote the words only, had an irresistible klutzy charm in their rhymes:

Oh Marie, ‘neath the window I’m waiting
Oh, Marie, please don’t be so aggravating . . .

Impatiently I wait for thee here in the moonlight,
Don’t be afraid, my dusky maid, this is a spoonlight . . .
I hit pay dirt with the seventh song, “Sadie Salome (Go Home)”

Don’t do that dance, I tell you Sadie,
That’s not a bus’ness for a lady!
‘Most ev’rybody knows
That I’m your loving Mose,
Oy, oy, oy, oy
Where is your clothes?
You better go and get your dresses,
Ev’ry one’s got the op’ra glasses.
Oy! such a sad disgrace
No one looks in your face;
Sadie Salome, go home.

Mel Brooks could not have undone Richard Strauss any better. I was ready to invite all my friends over.


‘The Clearing’ review: European present, American absence

Portland Piano International's three-day festival examines the state of the European Union’s contemporary classical music and its 20th century roots


“Clearing” is such a paradoxical word. It refers to the absence of something – storm, forest, piles of stuff – but at the same time invites contemplation of what comes to life in the cleared space. What first struck me about Portland Piano International’s three day, four evening festival of nominally contemporary piano music, “The Clearing,” the long weekend after the election was what was absent: American composers, aside from Elliott Carter, a composer with a long lifetime of ties to Europe.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Rich Brase.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Rich Brase.

Also, much of the repertory was not at all new: pre-World War II works by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, and music written immediately after the war by Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen and György Ligeti, who with Boulez’s passing just this year at the age of 90 are all gone now. These works were included primarily for historical perspective, and the narrow Eurocentrism of the repertory turned out to be only natural: PPI had appointed Serbian pianist Tamara Stefanovich to curate the festival, and she along with Pierre-Laurent Aimard make up what may be Europe’s reigning power couple of contemporary piano. And so the festival, held at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, turned out to be a lively and fascinating window into the world of European art music from the mid 20th century on, in all its uncertain glory.


Northern Lights, shining bright

Chamber Music Northwest takes a joyous trip to Scandinavia with a pair of Nielsens and Grieg's "Peer Gynt"

On Thursday Portland had a few hours of ideal summer, and the Reed College campus was lush with green trees, thick grass, and the lovely scourge of ivy. A few black tents dotted the landscape, shelters for people serving coffee and tea. Ladies in dresses and men in button-down shirts came and went. The relative ease of the atmosphere at sunset recalled an English lawn party. It was a prototypical evening at Chamber Music Northwest, and the spirited crowd had gathered to hear the concert Northern Lights: Scandinavian Gems. The music of the title’s two “lights” – the lesser-known Carl Nielsen and the more popular Edvard Grieg, with a new arrangement of his Peer Gynt – summoned less an imagining of the aurora borealis and more the mysterious spirits of nature on the move.

Violinist Theodore Arm (left) discusses David Schiff's new arrangement of "Peer Gynt" during rehearsal. Photo: Kimmie Fadern/Chamber Music Northwest

Violinist Theodore Arm (left) discusses David Schiff’s new arrangement of “Peer Gynt” during rehearsal. Photo: Kimmie Fadern/Chamber Music Northwest

Kaul Auditorium, Reed’s 750-seat concert hall, must be a musician’s dream. It’s made for acoustics, not just the audience’s leg room or vantage point, and outside and in seemed to blend. The welcoming smell of fresh timber filled the air. The greens gave off a vibrant hue through the windows as the stage lights glowed off the fresh polished neutral woods. The five chamber musicians took the stage in white coats and black shirt and tie, with the exception of cellist Mihai Marica, who wore an aubergine-colored gown. Not a stern soul was to be found: they entered the stage with bright eyes and glee in their cheeks.


Oregon music on record 2015: Contemporary classical

21st century sounds from Oregon composers and musicians

Now that you’ve given to friends, family, and (hint) all those worthy arts nonprofits, how about treating yourself to a gift of Oregon music? We heard only a fraction of the classical, jazz and world music released by Oregon artists this year, but we sure enjoyed a lot of what we did hear. We’re dividing our year-end wrap into three segments this time, and this one covers mostly contemporary music from Oregon composers. And don’t forget our past Oregon CD recommendations in 20122013, and 2014, or our previous entry focusing on Oregon early music ensembles.

David Schiff CD Cover ImageDavid Schiff: Chamber Music Northwest Premieres (2000-2014)
“All of my music is a form of autobiography,” writes Portland composer David Schiff in the liner notes to this new compilation. Judging by this two-disk survey compiling festival performances of five of his most recent compositions, the 70 year old composer has led a pretty fascinating musical life, and this important set chronicles the latest stretch.

The release is a product of one of Oregon’s most fruitful creative collaborations: the three-decade long partnership between Chamber Music Northwest and Schiff. Almost alone among major Oregon music institutions, CMNW has invested in its hometown’s creative potential through its frequent commissions of new music from the Reed College prof. The result is a body of chamber music that stands with any other American composer’s of the period.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Savory Schiff. Cookin’ at TBA. Percussion Currie.

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

Portland’s been celebrating its adopted musical son David Schiff with an ongoing series of concerts that began last year with a concert by Third Angle New Music Ensemble and included an all-Schiff concert by Fear No Music just a couple of days ago at Reed College, where Schiff has taught and composed and written terrific essays and books about music since he came to town 35 years ago.

Schiff conducts the Reed College orchestra.

Schiff conducts the Reed College orchestra.

The extended birthday party (Schiff recently turned a vigorous 70) continues with a November performance of his Infernal, after Stravinsky’s Firebird suite, by the Oregon Symphony; and also in November, a jazz-star performance of his arrangement of music by Duke Ellington and Bily Strayhorn, also at Reed.

ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell has written a fascinating profile of Schiff that I hope you’ll take time to read. He traces Schiff’s unlikely journey from a resolutely New York Jewish family to what seemed the frontier town of Portland, and the brilliant collision of musical and cultural forces that have made Schiff’s voice so distinctly American: klezmer and other Jewish music; Broadway show tunes; jazz; and classical influences ranging from Stravinsky and Copland to Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and his own teachers, including Elliott Carter and John Corigliano. And Portland, Schiff tells Campbell, fitted his eclecticism well: “It was much easier to be myself here than in New York, where the politics were tricky and I would have to choose sides somehow.”


Klinton Haliday performing at Hillsboro's Glenn & Viola Walters Cultural Art Center.

Klinton Haliday performing at Hillsboro’s Glenn & Viola Walters Cultural Art Center.

TRADITION HERE AND NOW. In her newest weekend dance feature, Jamuna Chiarini profiles Bharatanatyam classical Indian dancers Klinton Haliday and Dhruv Singh, frequent figures in Portland dance concerts. Singh comments on the attractions of Bharatanatyam: “the combination of rhythmic madness and complete freedom of expression portrayed through technique and body language – expressions ranging  from simple happiness, bliss, sadness, anger, violence, to more complex ones such as turmoil, peace, surrender, and confusion.”


Radhouane El Meddeb: the art of cooking. Photo: Carollina Lucchesini

Radhouane El Meddeb: the art of cooking. Photo: Carollina Lucchesini

IN THE WORLD OF NEW, YESTERDAY IS THE BEGINNING OF OLD. Contemporary cultural isn’t quite sure what to do with the whole idea of newness. New music groups sometimes play the work of adventurous but now dead composers from the early or mid-twentieth century, alongside genuinely new work by young twenty-first century composers. On the other hand, “modern art,” once the latest and most provocative thing, now refers to a specific historical period, and “contemporary art” is bound to disappear down the same narrow avenue of history, to be replaced by … what? Post-contemporary art? Not Futurism: that was grabbed off more than a century ago.

All of which is to say that TBA, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art‘s annual Time-Based Art festival, is 15 years old, which makes it something of a patriarchal figure in the swiftly shape-shifting Art of the Now. Still, it stands resolutely for what’s new and experimental, and this year’s festival, which ended Sunday (a few visual-art exhibitions continue until October 11), strove as always to keep things fresh. ArtsWatch writers were out and about, checking out TBA’s tradition of the new, and here are their latest reports:

The dance of the cook, the cook of the dance. Dance, couscous, and iPods coalesced in Radhouane El Meddeb’s culinary performance piece Je dans et je vous en donne à bouffer. The mood, Nim Wunnan writes, “oscillated between the sort of lighthearted or distracted prancing one does while on the schedule of a recipe and then, during the longer boils, something deeper and reverential as Meddeb clearly channeled his memories of other times and places where he was present for the preparation of this kind of feast.”

Philippe Quesne’s heavy-metal fairy tale.Andrea Stolowitz goes down the VW Rabbit hole and into the deep dark woods of Quesne’s La Mélancolie de Dragons, where AC/DC and Metallica hang out.

Still mighty and Tiny after all these years. At The Works, Nim Wunnan took in the “triumphant parade” of performers in Ten Tiny Dances, Mike Barber’s TBA and Portland perennial that’s been showcasing tiny dances for almost as long as TBA’s been around.

Wandering through Quesne's melancholic fairy tale. Photo: Pierre Grosbois

Wandering through Quesne’s melancholic fairy tale. Photo: Pierre Grosbois


SEASONAL MILESTONES ARE UPON US: Yom Kippur begins at sundown today, and autumn begins tomorrow. After a pause for reflection, the city picks up the pace with a variety of cultural options.


Composer David Schiff: Finding a musical home in Oregon

FearNoMusic's 70th birthday concert tribute this Sunday celebrates the native New Yorker composer who found creative freedom in the West.

When composer David Schiff moved from his New York birthplace to Oregon to take a teaching job at Reed College 35 years ago, he didn’t know whether he was consigning himself to provincial obscurity.

It turned out to be the best move he could have made. The Bronx native, who turned 70 last month, credits his move away from the center of America’s musical universe to Oregon for enabling him to find national renown. Oregon’s best known living composer, and probably the American composer most accomplished at creating viable hybrids of classical music and jazz, Schiff is also one of the country’s major composers of Jewish music (including klezmer) for classical forces. His music has been performed and recorded by major orchestras and ensembles around the country.

This month features the first European performances of Schiff’s Sacred Service in Berlin and Mecklenburg, and, this Sunday, an all-Schiff concert by Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic at Reed College (where Schiff has taught for 35 years). In November, the Oregon Symphony plays his Infernal (commissioned and recorded by the Seattle Symphony) and Portland jazz and classical stars Darrell Grant and David Shifrin play a new Schiff tribute to Duke Ellington, the subject of Schiff’s most recent book.

David Schiff conducting Third Angle New Music in last year's all-Schiff concert. Photo: Tom Emerson.

David Schiff conducting Third Angle New Music in last year’s all-Schiff concert. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The tributes actually started last year when Portland’s Third Angle New Music played a concert of his music featuring New York jazz stars Marty Erlich and Myra Melford. In July, Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest (really the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in its summer guise) premiered the latest of the dozen works it’s commissioned from him over the years. Last month, Schiff’s birthday was celebrated with radio tributes in Los Angeles, Portland and the national Composers Datebook show.

None of that seemed likely in that summer of 1980 when Schiff, in his mid-30s, arrived on the West Coast. Not that fame really mattered to him at that point. “I was so happy to have a job!” he recalls. “Back then, the attitude about being a composer is what you want is a good college or university job. That was the model. I had interviewed at Yale and Reed. At Yale I was told they had never given tenure to a composer, not even [Paul] Hindemith. Nobody told me that Reed had never given tenure to any creative artist!”

Moreover, Schiff had little reason to expect that this alien city out in the provinces would nurture his creativity. After all, his entire creative career sprang from his New York area upbringing. How would he ever be able to succeed on the West Coast?


Chamber Music Northwest review: New music showcase

Festival’s New@Noon series spotlights contemporary compositions

Is chamber music only for old people? Anyone who attends chamber music concerts in Oregon and takes a look at the audience’s relatively advanced age must be filled with both admiration and worry. Admiration for so many senior Oregonians who continue to pursue the pleasure of live music making, which at its best offers thrills no recording can match. And concern about the question: when a good portion of that audience is no longer able to make it to shows in a few years, who will support live chamber music in Oregon? Pollyannas postulate that the chamber music audience is always old, and that today’s youngsters will repopulate the seats when they’ve attained sufficient income and leisure time to do so, but informed observers like Greg Sandow say the data don’t back that claim, that the classical music audience is demonstrably older than it was three or four generations ago. And the fact that so many classical music presenters are trying all sorts of gimmicks to lure younger audiences suggests that they recognize the looming demographic disaster.

To its credit, Chamber Music Northwest has been trying hard to avoid it. A few years ago, the venerable Portland presenting series started its Protege Project, which brought younger performers to town — twenty and thirty-somethings who represent some of the cream of the rising crop of younger classical musicians, many of them students of CMNW’s veteran core — and set them loose in the festival’s informal Club Concerts in indie rock clubs and in the festival’s other shows.

But while the age demographic onstage grew younger, for the first years at least, the heads in the seats remained stubbornly gray and white. While it was gratifying to see CMNW’s surprisingly adventurous older audience members gamely venturing out to new venues, the early results (and my own anecdotal observations) didn’t show a dramatic drop in the age of attendees. Last year, the festival moved some shows from a ritzy private school far from Portland’s urban action to Portland State University’s splendid Lincoln Hall downtown, a venue easier for urban hipsters to reach.

The Jasper String Quartet performs Chris Rogerson's String Quartet No. 1 at Chamber Music Northwest.

The Jasper String Quartet performs Chris Rogerson’s String Quartet No. 1 at Chamber Music Northwest.

And CMNW continues to rise to the challenge. In introducing several of this summer’s concerts — and not just those devoted primarily to recent music — executive director Peter Bilotta made a point of emphasizing the festival’s commitment to new music, including this summer’s seven premieres. CMNW puts its money where his mouth is too, since it commissioned — that is, paid composers to write — several of them.

This summer’s 45th annual festival, which concluded at the end of last month, introduced yet another attempt at rejuvenation: longtime CMNW artistic director David Shifrin conceived the New@Noon series, which, along with sounding all 21st century hip with that twitterific @ symbol, presented three concerts of music by living composers at noon on Fridays at Lincoln Hall. How did it work? We’ll take a look at the shows in this story, and draw some conclusions in part two.


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