eugene contemporary chamber ensemble

Music Today Festival review: listening, collaborating, exploring

Biennial University of Oregon new music event provides glimpses of the future of Oregon music


The University of Oregon’s 2017 Music Today Festival (MTF) offered such a diversity of concerts that in trying to sum it up, I found myself searching for unifying themes. It wasn’t easy.

Produced by members of the Oregon Composers Forum (OCF), under the direction and mentorship of Dr. Robert Kyr, the bi-annual UO School of Music and Dance (SOMD) festival offered a varied three-week (April 19-May 13) program showcasing the richness of vocal and instrumental music being written today. Over the course of nine concerts I had the opportunity to hear not only the premieres of 40 new works by UO composition majors, but also music by many well known contemporary composers including Pauline OliverosLibby LarsenToshio HosokawaClaude VivierMagnus Lindberg and more. This was the twenty-fifth anniversary year of the festival, which Kyr founded in 1993, and which he continues to organize and direct as one of the most extensive and innovative new music offerings in the Pacific Northwest.


James Shields Trio with Laura Metcalf (cello) and pianist Conor Hanick perform new works by UO composers. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

For example, the Ova Novi ensemble’s concert focused on music by contemporary women composers. TaiHei (view concert) offered new works influenced by Pacific Rim and other world cultures. The Sonus Domum Ensemble (view concert) staged a cross-disciplinary and improv-based event celebrating the life and music of Pauline Oliveros, and the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble performed three extended instrumental works by student composers; an unusual opportunity for young composers to showcase their ability to write long and more complex pieces of music.

The festival also included music inspired by the soundscape of an old growth forest and two special concerts by guest artists soprano Esteli Gomez (view concert) and clarinetist James Shields and Friends (view concert) performing works specifically composed for each by OCF composers. MTF concluded with the world premiere of “The Banshee,” a new chamber opera by Daniel Daly.

I finally decided to focus on three themes: attentive listening, collaboration, and breaking boundaries. You can view unedited webcast videos of concert events by clicking on links marked (view concert). Skip over stage set-ups and other non-performance activities.


Oregon Composers Forum: Seeding new Oregon music

Fresh sounds flourish from University of Oregon new music program, guest artists, and student-led ensembles


As autumn’s leaves fall, fresh new music is already springing up at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance’s Oregon Composers Forum (OCF), the state’s primary seedbed of new Oregon music.

“The Forum is at the core of the school’s composition program,” texts Robert Kyr, founder and director of OCF, and chair of the university’s composition department. “It offers our students the opportunity to compose and perform their own works and music by their colleagues, while also learning how to found and direct new music ensembles.”  Such experiences, he adds, “deeply connect audiences with an exceptional broad range of contemporary music, including multimedia collaborations.”

OCF premiers new music by young composers. Photo: G. Ferrington.

OCF premiers new music by young composers. Photo: G. Ferrington.

The forum promises a diverse menu of concert options and it all begins with a fall OCF concert at 7:30 pm (Pacific), Tuesday, November 10. This live-streamed event from the University of Oregon’s beautiful Beall Concert Hall, features an array of new music ranging from Li Tao’s Illusion of Fog (2013) for solo piano to large ensemble pieces such as Benjamin J. Penwell’s Kafkaesque (2015) for Flute, Clarinet, Horn, Trumpet, Percussion, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass. Other selections include Passacaglia by Emily Korzeniewski, Echoes from the Void by Aidan Ramsay, Prayer for Roethke by Stephen Anthony Rawson, Tempest by Michael Dekovich, Stilly Sleep by Ramsey Sadaka, 7F by Cara Haxo, June by Madeline Cannon, Spaces by Izabel Austin, and Cascade by Nathan Engelmann.


Music Today Festival Preview: New sounds by Oregon’s next generation

University of Oregon festival celebrates contemporary classical music January 19-31.


Since 1993, the University of Oregon’s biennial Music Today Festival has nurtured and presented new music by emerging Oregon composers. Dr. Robert Kyr, Phillip H. Knight Professor of Music (composition), estimates that more than 100 students will participate in this year’s festival, coordinated by the Oregon Composers Forum (OCF), a group of upper division and graduate student composers committed to the creation and performance of new music. ArtsWatch interviewed by email seven of the 21 composers involved with the six student-organized ensembles in this year’s festival. All performances, including the world premieres of 40 new pieces, take place at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance except where otherwise indicated.


Visiting artist Esteli Gomez, soprano, will perform new compositions in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Esteli Gomez, Eugene: January 19, at 8 pm, Beall Concert Hall. Portland: January 24, at 8pm, Zoomtopia Studio 2, 819 S.E, Belmont. $10 general admission, $8 students and seniors

One of the nation’s rapidly rising sopranos, Esteli Gomez, opens the Festival with the performance of new works composed for her visit by OCF participants. A member of New York’s 2014 Grammy Award winning vocal octet Roomful Of Teeth, Gomez is this year’s year’s Vanguard Series artist-in-residence. Her fourth residency in Eugene includes a week of pre-festival one-on-one and small group discussion sessions with composers about each piece she will perform — highly valued by young composers given the unique opportunity to be personally mentored by a professional artist of Gomez’s stature.

The evocative springtime images in Robert Bridges’ poem “Asian Birds” inspired Rebecca Larkin’s The Voice of Spring for soprano and chamber ensemble of piccolo, clarinet, cello, and double bass. “Using a form that loosely follows an ABA pattern, the piece begins in a folk-like style and establishes joviality before giving way to an introspective middle and transitioning back to the original theme.”

Ramsey Sadaka began his Four Songs on Poems by Emily Brontë by asking Kyr about Gomez’s vocal capability so that he could compose in a way that highlighted both her voice and Brontë‘s poetic words. “He told me that she could do anything, which is, of course, a composer’s greatest wish.” Sadaka recalls. He found a video of her singing English Renaissance composer John Dowland’s “In Darkness Let me Dwell.” The purity and sweetness of her voice became essential to his song cycle for soprano, flute (doubling alto flute), violin, viola, and cello.

Sadaka admired the poems of Emily Brontë, whose six-line “Cold, clear, and blue” paints a scene by a lake at sunrise. “Though her poetry conveys private, inner worlds, they simultaneously express broad, vivid landscapes,” he says. “These were the qualities I tried to bring out in my setting of her poetry.”

Brontë‘s landscape theme helped Sadaka determine what other poems he’d use. “’Was it with the fields of green’” uses plant imagery as the narrator reminiscences about an absent lover,” he explains. ”’How golden bright from earth to heaven’ exalts the final rays of light as the sun sets; and ‘Tell me, tell me, smiling child’ is a dialogue between two people in which one asks what the past, present, and future are while the other compares them to various images. These poems thus show the progression of one day with a meditation at the end.”

Songs composed for Gomez by John Goforth, Justin Ralls, Alexander Bean, Dan S. Daly, David Sackman and Matthew B. Zavortink will also be premiered during her Eugene and Portland concerts.


The Fireworks Ensemble (Brian Coughlin, bass) conducts a reading session of OCF student work. February 22, 2014.

The Fireworks Ensemble (Brian Coughlin, bass) conducts a reading session of OCF student work. February 22, 2014.

Story and photos by GARY FERRINGTON

Most Oregonians with an ear for classical music will likely identify Eugene as the home of the Oregon Bach Festival. Yet Eugene also harbors a unique incubator of new contemporary classical music on the University of Oregon campus.

The Oregon Composer’s Forum (OCF), founded and coordinated by UO music professor and composer Robert Kyr, is composed of UO School of Music and Dance (SOMD) graduate and invited undergraduate student composers committed to the creation and premiering of new music. OCF composers’ music is often performed by visiting artists in residence or student-organized groups such as the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble and Tai Hei Ensemble, which explores a dialogue between Western and non-Western traditions in music with works and improvisations by OCF composers and others from around the world.


Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble performed at Bamboo Grove in 2012. Photo: Brian McKee, a former member and bassoonist

Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble performed at Bamboo Grove in 2012. Photo: Brian McKee, a former member and bassoonist


Composers and musicians from opposite ends of the Willamette will celebrate new connections between two river communities when the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble  (ECCE) and the Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project (CPOP) join forces for a March Music Moderne concert on March 8 at Portland’s AudioCinema studios.

Organized by ECCE director Andrew Stiefel, OCF members John Goforth and Matt Zavortink, and CPOP composers Jay Derderian, Lisa Lipton and artistic director Justin Ralls, the  New Music Co-Op: Inaugural Assembly includes 21 performers and 11 composers and features premiers of new music composed just for this occasion. 

The Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project, founded in 2011, is intent on connecting audiences with today’s young West Coast composers. The Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, one of six University of Oregon groups organized and run by School of Music and Dance students, has performed new music composed in a variety of configurations ranging from soloists to large ensembles. Made up of honors instrumentalists and composers, ECCE has, since 2005, premiered more than 60 new compositions in venues around Oregon. This inaugural collaboration received funding from a grant from New Music USA, one of only 60 awarded out of 1,618 project proposals it received.

“Our organizations have a shared mission — to support emerging voices in contemporary music through new collaborations and innovative concert experiences — so working together has given us a chance to broaden the reach and impact of our work,” Stiefel told ArtsWatch via email. “We hope this will be the first of many collaborative concerts between our organizations and the new music communities in Eugene and Portland. Strengthening regional collaborations increases the reach of our music and allows more people to participate in creating a vibrant musical community in Oregon.”

New Music From Upstream

The Portland concert will showcase new works by participants in the Oregon Composers Forum (OCF), a group of composition students at the University of Oregon and who have studied with School of Music and Dance faculty Robert Kyr, David Crumb and Terry McQuilkin.

David Eisenband was strongly influenced by thoughts of dancing when he composed Three Dances for String Quartet. “Each instrument has an extensive passage which I conceived of as music for solo dancers,” he writes. “The first movement is titled Blues as it uses a modified blues form, the second features the bowing technique bariolage, and the third is a joyous finale.”

Oregon Composers Forum members Alex Bean, Matt Zavortink, Andrew Stiefel, David Eisenband, John Goforth, David Sackmann, and Nayla Mehdi. Photo: Robert Kyr.

Oregon Composers Forum members Alex Bean, Matt Zavortink, Andrew Stiefel, David Eisenband, John Goforth, David Sackmann, and
Nayla Mehdi. Photo: Robert Kyr.

John Goforth’s Three Preludes explores the relationship between the two lowest instruments of the string family. “In the first prelude, the cello and bass descend into waves of resonance that begin to falter and eventually evaporate as they emerge and overpower the resonance from which they surfaced,” he explains. “In stark contrast to the first, the second prelude is quick and light with the cello and bass dancing around one another. The third prelude, the longest of the set, uses dramatic expanding gestures to return to the resonance of the first prelude.”

David Sackmann calls Rainier Monster Slayer “a fun little scherzo for violin, alto saxophone, and cello loosely based on an old advertisement I ran across in a bar.” While featuring all three instruments in unique ways, it places emphasis on the alto saxophone. The piece attempts to explore some of the interesting sounds that comes from this fairly unorthodox combination of timbres, while painting a fun and sometimes over-the-top picture of a hero’s journey (battling the “Rainier monster” as depicted in the ad) that finds its peak in a short alto saxophone cadenza towards the end. Video interview.

(Addison) Kei Hong Wong reflects upon his Macau childhood when discussing his Dances for Solo Violin. “The first movement mimics the lullaby my mom quietly sang to me when I was a baby,” he remembers. “It was sung in the afternoon while my dad was at work and my sister and brother were at school. The fast second section reflects a joyful festival celebrating the Chinese New Year when the streets are full of laughter, blessings, fire works, and dragon dancers.”

Foxglove, for solo flute, is based on composer Matt Zavortink’s friend’s favorite word. “It’s the juxtaposition of soft, fricative sounds (“f” and “v”) at either end with an awkward to pronounce string of consonants in the middle (“xgl” — try saying this part slowly) that has its appeal,” he explains. “The piece’s timbral palette is directly derived from these sounds and the mouth positions required making them. Additionally, the letters of the word were used to create a seven-note motive that gives rise to all of the piece’s pitch material through simple fragmentation and transposition.” Video interview.

Nayla Mehdi says her short would it have been for trumpet and electronics focuses on a moment missed. Composed of subtle complexities, it is intimate in nature, “calling for a more sensitive listening.” Video interview.


New Music From Downstream

The concert includes three compositions by CPOP members.  Justin Ralls explains that the title of his composition, Sat chit ananda, is Sanskrit for “being, consciousness, and bliss,” noting that the piece is minimalistic and perhaps spatially oriented and contains improvisatory elements for the ‘bliss’ section à la the minimalism jams of old.

Jay Derderian‘s [REDACTED], scored for amplified solo viola and fixed media (“tape”), is about “what we hold within — whether out of fear, necessity, social custom, or ineffable reason — we assimilate into the fabric of ourselves,” he posts. “Our memories and experiences inform the basis of our sense of self. The traces we leave around us — our interactions, words, photos — become the fabric of our lives, our outer sense of self, and along this process emerges our lives, experienced.”

Sam Resing ‘s fun piece for bassoon, She Doesn’t Know, “exploits registral differences to create several independent melodic lines that join together to create rich counterpoint,” he writes. “The opening rhythmic figure serves as the foundation of the piece, and all of the remaining material is derived from it. In addition, gradually changing harmonic cycles in each voice help propel the movement forward.”

The inaugural assembly of CPOP and ECCE concludes with a community performance of Frederic Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge and Terry Riley’s minimalist 20th century classic In C. Everyone is encouraged to bring their own instrument — voice, a trumpet, a guitar, a toy piano, or just a bucket and a pair of sticks — and join in.

Tickets are $7 in advance or $10 at the door. Discounted student/senior/military tickets are available at the door for $5 with ID. Tickets may be purchased online, and ticket sales will be donated to the Portland Community Music Center. Composer video interviews are available on the ECCE site.

Gary Ferrington is Senior Instructor Emeritus, Education, at the University of Oregon. 

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