eugene contemporary classical music

Makrokosmos Project II: Joyously crazy music

In both Eugene and Portland, New York piano duo Stephanie & Saar's second annual festival goes American Berserk!

Photos by Adam Lansky

Editor’s note: OAW writers and composers Jeff Winslow and Daniel Heila each saw Stephanie & Saar’s Makrokosmos Project 2 last month, in Portland and Eugene. The programs differed somewhat, and so did their respective experiences.

Portland— As I sipped wine in an intimate side gallery, a sudden crash radiated from the main exhibition space at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery like thunder rolling through the concrete canyons of Manhattan. Stephanie & Saar had just started New York composer Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos from 2008, yet another in a long line of works mining the sound that brought him millions of fans over a generation ago. I’ve never been one of those millions, and yet there was something glorious in the way the two lidless pianos echoed around the reverberant space. A recording wouldn’t be able to match it. In the hands of husband and wife team Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Ho, the work emanated a sheer joy of piano sound that reminded me of a very different composer. A century ago, Sergei Rachmaninov penned work after work that, however much today’s fans and detractors may argue about faults and merits, nevertheless undeniably overflow with that same exuberance.

DUO Stephanie & Saar created and performed in the Makrokosmos Project2.

DUO Stephanie & Saar created and performed in Makrokosmos Project2

Glass’s work was just the first in June 23’s evening-length series of piano concerts, the Makrokosmos Project’s second annual installment, “American Berserk!” As it turned out, the planned climax of the evening, Frederic Rzewski’s massive set of 36 variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”, never quite materialized because one of the six pianists who were to play it had last-minute health problems. The remaining pianists gave a rich sample, interspersing Saar’s and Stephanie’s lively commentary with about a quarter of the variations. They will all regroup to give the entire work in a free concert at Portland Piano Company this November 13th.

There was plenty of other joyously crazy and crazily joyous music to make up for it though. The world premiere of Gerald Levinson’s two-piano work Ragamalika: Ringing Changes, a Makrokosmos Project commission, was a firehose spewing colorful harmonic and contrapuntal confetti inspired by bell overtones and music of the Indian subcontinent. The John Adams composition that gave the evening its name (without the exclamation mark) came across like Claude Debussy’s etude For Chords on hallucinogens. Recent Baltimore-to-Portland transplant Lydia Chungwon Chung almost made us believe people could really fly under their influence, even if it turned out it was “only” her hands.

FearNoMusic pianist Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

FearNoMusic pianist Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

But nothing could match the utter strangeness of John Zorn’s Carny. New music maven Jeff Payne’s deadpan performance let the New York avant garde composer’s sprawling, herky jerky work, loaded with allusions to fragments of others, speak for itself, but I’m not sure what its message was exactly. Maybe I would have gotten more from seeing the choreography of the FearNoMusic founder and pianist’s hands, but seating was all around the edges of the room and I happened to be sitting on the opposite side from the keyboard in play. An idea for future Makrokosmos Projects: project video of each keyboard on the wall behind it, so everyone in the room can see the pianists’ hands in action.


Delgani String Quartet preview: Musical & cultural mix

Eugene quartet and guest guitarist strum 20th and 21st century Latin American compositions and an Old World classic


Infusing music from Iberian Europe with African and Native Indian melodies and rhythms gave Latin America’s cultural melting pot an extraordinary variety of musical forms and styles. The classical guitar made an affordable harmonic and melodic mix master for those diverse ingredients, from the early Old World music of Luigi Boccherini to the new world Latin American music of 20th and 21st century composers Máximo Diego Pujol and Alberto Ginastera.

Delgani String Quartet.

Delgani String Quartet.

The combination of guitar and string quartet embodies this meeting of American and European influences. On March 29, Ashland-based guitarist James Bishop ­Edwards joins Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet in a concert of contemporary Latin American music that reflects those cultural interactions and the evolution of its music for guitar and strings. Its theme, “Twenty Two Strings,” signifies the collective resonant chords of a string quartet with guitar.

The opening work, Luigi Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet No. 2 in E Major, isn’t Latin American, but does embody the mingling of musical cultures. Boccherini (1743-1805) was an Italian composer and cellist who lived and worked in Spain where he first began to write string quintets and drew inspiration from the rich guitar traditions of Italy and his adopted country. Although the Guitar Quintet No. 2 is a straightforward arrangement of his Piano Quintet No. 4, Op. 57, it nevertheless has the distinct style, or character, of the guitar.

Máximo Diego Pujol. Photo: Hamburger-Gitarrentage Press.

Máximo Diego Pujol. Photo: Hamburger-Gitarrentage Press.

That tradition of string quartet with guitar continues today in the work of the contemporary Argentinian composer and guitarist Máximo Diego Pujol (b.1957), considered one of the most important of Latin American guitar composers of the 20th century with his works often performed worldwide. His Suite Buenos Aires is strongly influenced by the great Argentine nuevo tango composer Astor Piazzolla, and uses the tango as a basic style in wonderfully colourful, melodically rich works that make full use of the guitar’s expressive powers. Pujol’s guitar compositions have won many international awards including the 1989 Argentine Composers’ Union prize as Best Composer of Classical Music.

The program concludes with a rarely performed work celebrating the centenary of one of the foremost representatives of musical nationalism, Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). The Argentine master’s String Quartet No. 1 (1948) incorporates rhythmic and thematic aspects of his country’s Gauchesco, or gaucho folk-music tradition, employing harmonies based upon the open strings of the guitar in addition to guitar­ like effects such as extensive pizzicato passages and strumming on the violins.

The historical sweep of the concert suits Edwards, who specializes in historical instruments including guitars and lutes. Over a 35 year career as a performer, teacher, composer and recording artist, the former head of guitar studies at Ashland’s Southern Oregon University has made more than 20 recordings featuring his arrangements of American and European classics and performed with many orchestras and ensembles including Jefferson Baroque Orchestra.

The collaboration with Edwards is the latest in a series of partnerships Delgani (violinist Jannie Wei and Wyatt True, violist Kimberlee Uwate, and cellist Kelly Quesada) has forged in its inaugural season. Read my ArtsWatch profile of the quartet.

James Bishop Edwards

Currently in residence at the Springfield Academy of Arts and Academics where they work with student composers on new music for string quartet, Delgani will also provide two related educational programs focusing on the incorporation of Argentinian folk traditions in classical music: a March 28 workshop and public performance with Douglas County Youth Orchestra at Roseburg’s First Presbyterian Church, and a March 30 workshop with students at Pinehurst Elementary​, a small rural school in the mountains outside of Ashland with only a few dozen students. followed by a performance at Ashland’s Greensprings Inn.

The Delgani String Quartet performs March 29 at the United Lutheran Church 2230 Washington St, Eugene. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling (541) 579­-5882. Twenty­ Two Strings is made possible in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust​

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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