Gabriela Lena Frank

Fear No Music & Third Angle reviews: discoveries

Portland new music ensembles open Oregon ears to music from beyond the usual sources

I love going to a concert with exactly zero familiar composers. In Oregon classical music programs, the standard is still usually one new composer per concert, sandwiched between the dead white guys. Even in Portland, it’s relatively rare to hear a concert with music by composers who are all new to me. In the last few weeks, veteran Portland new music ensembles Fear No Music and Third Angle delivered two such concerts that led me to new discoveries.

Fear No Music played recent music by Middle Eastern and emigrant-diaspora composers at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: John Rudoff.

FNM’s October 9 concert at Portland’s Old Church, The Fertile Crescent, featured music by six composers rooted in the Middle East. Although they were new to me, they are all accomplished international composers. Gity Razaz studied at Juilliard with Corigliano, Beaser, and Adler; Kinan Azmeh is a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble; Reza Vali, Kareem Roustom, and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh have all composed for Kronos Quartet (I’m sure they’ll get around to Bahaa El-Ansary eventually). Although the music performed at the concert didn’t always satisfy me, I liked most of it, and the pieces that left me cold still led me to discover other enjoyable music by the same composers.


Third Angle preview: spring planting, fall harvest

New music ensemble’s Saturday concert celebrates new music for voice and strings by emerging composers, including one with Oregon roots.


Collaboration is an underlying theme of the 21 October Third Angle New Music house concert with guest artist soprano Tony Arnold. The event, premiering works by six diverse composers from around the country, brings closure to a project that began last March at the very first Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music. It was at that spring residency the ensemble, Arnold, and invited composers, all of whom are early in their professional careers, planted the seeds for what is now a fall harvest of new compositions for voice and strings.

Academy participant and former Oregonian Brandon Scott Rumsey discovered his passion for composing while attending Lane Community College and the University of Oregon in Eugene and then went on to nurture his art at the University of Texas and University of Michigan. The Las Vegas born composer is currently an adjunct assistant professor at Michigan’s Madonna University, where he teaches music theory and counterpoint. A performing bassoonist, he serves as the artistic director for the Emblems Quintet, a teaching artist with the Trade Winds Ensemble, and an editorial assistant and engraver at the University of Michigan Gershwin Critical Edition.

Third Angle and soprano Tony Arnold play music by composers Dave Reminick (seated on floor) and Nina Shekhar (to the right of Gabriela Frank) this Saturday. Photo: Aric Hartvig.

For Rumsey, the concert will not only be the opportunity to have a new piece premiered, but also the chance to revisit Oregon, which has long been a home in spirit and where he has many colleagues and friends. It will also be a reunion with his fellow participants from the Academy’s inaugural class held on Frank’s beautiful country farms in Boonville, a small rural California community 115 miles north of San Francisco where the composers and guest artists participated in engaging seminar discussions, coaching sessions with master composer/mentor Gabriela Lena Frank and readings performed by guest artists Tony Arnold and Third Angle.

The Poetry of Presence

Rumsey’s Invocation (2017), dedicated to Tony Arnold and Third Angle, is based on American poet Geoffrey Nutter’s short poem of the same title. Rumsey, who earned a doctoral degree in composition from University of Michigan this past spring, has explored Nutter’s poetry for several years. “He frequently writes about mythology, nature, plainness and mundanity, and I return to his poems time and time again for his use of “motivic” language that tells a story while phrases wander, stall, and twist,” Rumsey says.


Chamber Music Northwest reviews: famous and unfamiliar fare

Emerson and Calidore Quartets excel in classics by male European composers, while Claremont Trio shines in works by three generations of female composers


Throughout his long and productive career, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) used the genre of the string quartet as an outlet for his emotions when his orchestral or operatic works had been criticized and suppressed by Stalin’s censors. Earlier this year, the Emerson String Quartet played Dmitri Shostakovich’s fourth quartet in an April 19 concert, and on July 8, still under the auspices of Chamber Music Northwest, they added the composer’s fourteenth quartet and on July 9, the eighth. What a treat to get to hear these wonderful players performing so much of the music of the 20th century’s greatest and most important composer of string quartets.

The Emersons — Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola; Paul Watkins, cello —began the July 8 concert with a tasty seven-minute appetizer by the English 17th-century composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695), one of his many chaconies small pieces originally written for what was called a consort of viols, generally a quartet of stringed instruments that were the immediate precursors of the modern violin, viola, cello, and double bass. In the Chacony in G Minor, Mr. Watkins took the part of the violone, the viol family’s version of the modern double bass. It was a plausible but hardly necessary introduction to the real business at hand: Shostakovich’s 14th Quartet followed by the same composer’s marvelous Prelude and Scherzo and then, in the concert’s second half, Mendelssohn’s miraculous Octet, written when the composer was only sixteen years old.

The Calidore Quartet joined the Emerson Quartet to play octets at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Shostakovich’s fourteenth and penultimate quartet (he also wrote fifteen symphonies) alternates between pensive and almost romantic passages. Shostakovich had begun the piece during a happy visit with the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), whom he admired, at Britten’s home in England. Dedicated to a cellist, the quartet showcases that instrument at the beginning before the second-movement Adagio, where the cellist is joined by the first violinist while the other two quartet members play pizzicato. In the final movement Allegretto, the players toss melodic fragments among themselves, a task difficult to do but very effective when done well, as the Emersons demonstrated. The quartet then ends with a quiet return to the first movement’s lovely Adagio.

To end the concert’s first half, the Emersons then brought onstage the Calidore String Quartet to join their mentors in Shostakovich’s not-well-known Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, scored for double string quartet. The Emersons generously assigned their younger collaborators (violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, cellist Estelle Choi) the first-chair parts for this energetic composition by the young Shostakovich, written when he was just 18 years old. Especially in its super-vigorous Allegro molto, with all eight players sawing away like mad, it proved an effective piece on its own.


Composer Gabriela Lena Frank and Third Angle pianist Susan Smith

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank and Third Angle pianist Susan Smith


Publicity that plays up a composer’s (multi)ethnic background, or mentions difficulties they’ve overcome, reminds me of a spectacular view from a restaurant, which experienced diners know usually covers for a ho-hum kitchen. So I rolled my eyes at the press release for last month’s Third Angle New Music concerts, which were devoted entirely to Gabriela Lena Frank’s music. Unfamiliar with her work, I was only partly reassured by examples on YouTube, which, while deftly constructed, ran heavily to thinly disguised ethnic dances.

So I am happy to say, after attending Third Angle’s October 17 performance in Lincoln Hall, PSU, that my skepticism was unjustified. There is nothing ho-hum about her. Whatever human interest stories may lurk in Frank’s background, such as her near deafness, as a composer she is as able as they come. Even better, her music demonstrates well-balanced concerns with immediate attractiveness and lasting interest.

The rhythmically driving curtain raiser, “Danza de los Saqsampillos” for two marimbas, nonetheless remained comfortably within the familiar ethnic dance vein. Not until the next work, “Adagio para Amantani,” inspired by a harsh yet inhabited landscape – an island in South America’s vast Lake Titicaca – did I feel I was entering a wider, more emotionally charged and complex world. Cellist Marilyn de Oliveira held us spellbound with passionate soliloquy, building to an anguished, defiant climax, while pianist Susan DeWitt Smith energized her with rich, atmospheric harmonies and flourishes, highlighting snatches of melody with a curiously plaintive one-note strumming technique. Frank’s lingering over complex chords apparently purely for expressive effect without any compulsion to justify them as manifestations of a universal system – a heady breath of 21st century air – also drew us in and kept us engaged.

We were brought gently back to ourselves by Frank’s informal commentary between works. Her easygoing stage presence, polished without being at all slick, nonetheless seemed always focused on the audience’s enjoyment, a model for composers talking about their own music.

The streams of the first two works combined and erupted in the sometimes fierce and always highly colorful piano duet “Sonata Serrana No. 1,” which revealed that Frank is a first-class pianist as well. She and Smith may have appeared a bit of an odd couple on the piano bench – one fair-haired and deceptively slight, the other curvy with masses of dark curls – but they made a strong and well-matched keyboard team. As if to emphasize the point, they traded places for the last two movements without any shift in focus or balance.

And such a team was needed: Frank the composer delighted in musical gestures that passed back and forth from one musician to the other, often with pianistic fireworks erupting all around. The two executed these and other tightly coordinated passages with precision and flair. Overall the work made brilliant use of four-hand resources on the full piano keyboard without filling it to that overstuffed condition all too familiar in piano duets.

“Sueños de Chambi: Snapshots for an Andean Album,” in a version for violin and piano, had a lighter feel, though no less inventive or colorful. It was inspired by the work of pioneering Amerindian photographer Martín Chambi, and the photos that inspired each of the seven movements were projected in turn at the rear of the stage as they were played. Some movements were dark, some were soulful, some evoked an expansive landscape, and the last one danced itself into a frenzy. Particularly notable was the penultimate “Harawi de Chambi,” an aching violin aria that somewhat resembled the earlier “Adagio para Amantani,” but with a kind of glow, as if the composer, inspired by the photographer’s self-portrait, were writing a love letter to him. Third Angle artistic director and violinist Ron Blessinger gave an impassioned performance, sensitively supported by Smith on piano. In introducing the composer near the beginning of the concert, Blessinger warmly expressed the enjoyment the whole group had gotten out of working with her, and his committed playing gave ample evidence through the entire set.

The final work, “Milagros” for string quartet, is a set of Frank’s own internal snapshots, as it were – eight particularly vivid impressions from her travels in her maternal homeland of Peru. Chock full of variety, like the previous work, but recently composed, like the duet sonata, it gave us a generous helping of string fireworks to go with the earlier keyboard incendiaries. Frank has a special gift for writing in close harmony, and we were treated to several delicious passages. It taxed the musicians to their utmost, though! A particularly wicked movement alternates pizzicati (plucked strings) between instruments, where they would be too fast or tiring on just one. The quartet didn’t quite have the knack, but they carried the day in other movements, and Blessinger again got to shine in the outer ones: short, pensive solo arabesques inspired by roadside shrines to accident victims.

I came away with an impression of a composer with a sure command of a rich variety of sonic resources, equally at home pleasing or challenging an audience (and able to turn from one to the other on a dime), and always mindful of her ethnic background, particularly her Amerindian side, without ever letting it turn her music into mere exotica.

Does this remind you of anybody? In the “Snapshots,” Frank admitted alluding to one of Bela Bartók’s works, and it was eminently appropriate. There were sophisticated echoes of the great Hungarian composer / musicologist in the slow movement of the duet sonata and the violin solos of “Milagros” as well. Frank’s background doesn’t include Magyar – at least, not that she’s been able to discover yet – and her sound is quite different from Bartók’s. Yet I think she can count herself a kindred spirit, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the ghost of the older composer were to tip his hat in recognition of abilities not far removed from his own.

If all this whets your appetite for the music of other women composers, I can’t resist pointing out that a perfect opportunity is just around the corner. Crazy Jane, a group of Portland metro area women, is giving a concert entirely of their works at the same venue, Room 75 in Lincoln Hall at PSU, Friday November 15th at 7:30PM. The theme of the concert is “Crazy Jane Misbehaves,” so I wouldn’t dream of trying to guess how well-composed the women are, but I trust that their music, at least, will merit the adjective.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and a board member for Cascadia Composers, which has the honor of being the umbrella group for Crazy Jane.

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Lucy Guerin's "Weather" blows into town tonight-Saturday at Lincoln Hall.

Lucy Guerin’s “Weather” blows into town tonight-Saturday at Lincoln Hall.

Yesterday, the finalists for the National Book Awards were announced, and in the poetry category, at the bottom of the alphabetically arranged list, was Mary Szybist for “Incarnadine: Poems” (Graywolf Press). Szybist has taught at Lewis & Clark College for the past 10 years, so that puts her into the “local poet makes good” category. These days, which may just be the Golden Age of Portland poetry (along with most other arts), that category is getting pretty full, but still, a National Book Award finalist!

Graywolf published “Incarnadine” last winter, and it received excellent reviews at the time. The Slate review by Jonathan Farmer was pretty typical, if more considered than many: “In ‘Incarnadine,’ Szybist longs for God and longs to long for God and treats her own longing with occasional scorn. The book is a mix of good manners and postmodern invention. At her most outlandish (a poem in the form of a sentence diagram, for instance), Szybist still sounds relatively conventional. At her most conventional, she’s up to something strange.”

The poems started with a trip to Italy, Szybist told Kirsten Rian, writing for The Oregonian, specifically the Annunciation scenes she found in the churches of Florence by Fra Angelico, Simone Martini, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli: “The Annunciation scene points out a moment of intensive encounter, if not confrontation, between the bodily young woman (Mary) and the starkly alien and spiritual (the angel Gabriel)…. I started asking: If what we fundamentally are is bodies, then is our longing for the spiritual in some sense a longing for what is fundamentally alien and other? Do we long for our own deepest fulfillment in the realm that is most alien, as well as alienating, to us?”

And here is a brief excerpt from Szybist’s “Hail”:

“…Here I am,

having bathed carefully in the syllables
of your name, in the air and the sea of them, the sharp scent

of their sea foam. What is the matter with me?

Mary, what word, what dust
can I look behind? I carried you a long way

into my mirror, believing you would carry me

back out. Mary, I am still
for you, I am still a numbness for you.”


Last night, I slipped into a little preview of Third Angle’s investigation of  Gabriela Lena Frank’s compositions, which begins tonight in earnest at PSUs Lincoln Hall. Frank herself was there to provide lively commentary on the excerpts of the pieces that the Third Angle quartet played, small and angelic looking, with a lively intelligence and way of talking.

Mostly, she explained how she derived the quartets from her experiences in Peru. Frank’s mother is Peruvian of Chinese descent, and Frank’s American father, whose heritage is Lithuanian and Jewish, while he was serving in the Peace Corps. They raised Frank in Berkeley, crossroads of world music, and when Andean music reached her, she was immediately interested in tracking it.

The quartets are both based on her travels in Peru, and on the musical instruments she encountered, the pan pipes, water drums and charango. They attempt to recreate those sounds on the instruments of the quartet, and she showed how the breath and the rhythm of the pipes, for example, could be recreated—or suggested at least—on a violin. Not that the music sounded like traditional Andean folk music. It has a contemporary energy, dissonance and complexity, though occasionally something that sounds like a folk melody might flit through.

Frank has received commissions from a long list of prominent groups, including Kronos Quartet, Wu Man, San Francisco Symphony, Houston Symphony, Chanticleer Ensemble, the Chiara String Quartet, the Brentano Quartet, Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project, and many others, and her visit to Portland is long overdue.

The Third Angle concert, ENTRE LOS MUNDOS/BETWEEN WORLDS, starts at 7:30 pm Thursday and Friday, in PSU’s Lincoln Recital Hall, Room 75, 1620 SW Park Ave.


Lincoln Hall is going to be busy this weekend, because White Bird continues its insanely busy month with a visit from Lucy Guerin Inc, which with Sydney Dance Company starts a little Australian mini-season this month. Guerin’s company performs at 8 pm at Lincoln Performance Hall Thursday-Saturday.

Guerin’s work has popped up here quite a bit, as White Bird’s Walter Jaffe points out on his informative blog. Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project performed one of her duets in 1999, and Chunky Move’s visits here featured her collaborations with Gideon Obarzanek, the brilliant “Tense Dave” and “Two Faced Bastard.” And PICA brought her company a couple of times, too.

Guerin’s work is definitely dance-y, but it’s also unpredictable. Which makes sense because here the company will be performing “Weather.” From the looks of it on Vimeo, “Weather” is incredibly demanding on the dancer and a creative brush with the idea of the title.

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