george crumb

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.


Oregon Rites of Spring Survey 2: Oregon interludes

Oregon composers' music highlights spring concerts of 20th and 21st century sounds.

As the last early evening summer sunlight streamed through the windows of Portland’s Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, the city’s most exciting current composer, Kenji Bunch, meandered around the main gallery, playing his viola, passing within inches of the several dozen people in folding chairs. As he orbited the two big pianos installed in the center of the space, Bunch’s New Orleans-accented 2010 viola solo “Etoufee” gradually heated to a crayfish-cooking boil.

After enthusiastic applause, Bunch’s wife Monica Ohuchi, an equally (at least) fine musician in her own right, followed with a brief blistering hurricane, Bunch’s 2010-11 Etude 4. Bunch then joined her for I Dream in Evergreen, a spare and melancholy 2008 “meditation on permanence and impermanence,” he said. In my imagination, the triptych formed a musical parable of New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Kenji Bunch played his own music at Blue Sky Gallery.

Kenji Bunch played his own music at Blue Sky Gallery.

The couple concluded one of the best sets of music I heard all season with a ferocious performance of his 1998 Suite for Viola and Piano, which began with a fervid, neb-romantic Rhapsody, a real joke of a Scherzo that alternated between plucked and bowed passages, then a yearning, heartfelt lament, interrupted by jagged sobs that lurched straight into a whizzing whirlwind that showed off the viola’s full range of expression, eliciting cheers and hollers from the crowd for a rousing performance that lived up to the set’s title, Unleashed.

Bunch’s set was the second of four in the June 25 inaugural edition of the Makrokosmos Project, the evening-long annual showcase perpetrated by duo pianists Stephanie and Saar. That concert, in turn was one of several this spring and summer that mixed contemporary Oregon compositions with other music, which we’re looking at here second installment in our three-part series covering Oregon contemporary classical music circa spring 2015. (The third and final episode covers several all-Oregon contemporary classical concerts that highlighted the spring music schedule.) While it’s always gratifying to see full concerts of music by Oregon composers like the one we looked at in the first episode of our spring survey, ghettoizing Oregon classical music (like any new music) may deny other listeners the opportunity to stumble across it. Many Oregon music lovers may not know they’ll like music composed by Oregonians, because they may not have heard much of it. Many of our major institutions, from orchestras to radio stations, implicitly signal its inferiority by devoting only a tiny percentage of their programming time to it. Mixing new and old, local and international, in concert programs, allows the audience for each to bolster the others — and listeners to discover new sounds that they might like as much as the music they came for.


DUO Stephanie and Saar’s Makrokosmos Project: Magical music

Oregon musicians join acclaimed American piano pair to perform an epic masterpiece by one of America’s greatest living composers, and more contemporary music.


It is increasingly rare to be able to stuff a $20 bill into your pocket, venture out into the Portland night and enjoy a full evening of local wine, art, and music, but next Thursday, June 25, from 5-9 pm DUO Stephanie and Saar will inaugurate the first year of their festival, Makrokosmos Project, with just this sweet deal. It’s not in a traditional concert hall or theater setting. And it’s not just any kind of music, but a celebration by Pacific Northwest musicians of the 85th birthday of one of the most innovative classical composers of the 20th century. Wait, make that 21st-century, since in 2000, he grabbed a Grammy award for best contemporary classical composition (Star-Child), to go with his many other honors, including the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Echoes of Time and the River.

George Crumb’s compositions and the repertoire choices for the rest of the festival manifest the musical goal of New York-based duo pianists Stephanie Kai-Win Ho and Saar Ahuvia: to present thought-provoking, jazz and rock-influenced compositions by Americans with a strong classical background.  Nationally this scene is blowing up, with the likes of Bang on a Can, Mohammed Fairouz, Nico Muhly, Kathleen Supové, Missy Mazzoli and a million more, and Oregon’s many participants include Third Angle New Music and FearNoMusic; musicians from both ensembles will perform in Makrokosmos.

DUO Stephanie and Saar return to Oregon with one of the summer's major musical highlights.

DUO Stephanie and Saar return to Oregon with one of the summer’s major musical highlights.

With the hopes of developing the Makrokosmos Project into a yearly festival highlighting Pacific Northwest performers and composers, DUO Stephanie and Saar are tapping into Oregon’s growing love for edgy classical music. They have gathered an impressive roster of Oregon pianists to perform George Crumb’s Makrokosmos for amplified piano Volumes I and II. Deborah Cleaver, Harold Gray, Alexander Schwarzkopf, Susan Smith, and Julia Hwakyu Lee will pluck, strum, sing, moan, and yes, whistle, their way through these fantasies on the zodiac.


DUO Stephanie & Saar preview: Cosmic dances

Piano pair performs starry works by American composers.


Think about what it means to explore the stars, those exploding nuclear reactions dangling above our tiny heads, those mesmerizing glints of blue and gold, those fiery hells each sparkling like some lost heaven. Now translate that stratospheric imagery into sound. This Sunday, pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia collaborate as DUO Stephanie & Saar for a FREE concert at Portland Piano Company.

Ahuvia grew up in Israel, Ho grew up in Portland, and the now married couple are based in New York City. The main piece on their program is the fourth volume of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos.  Crumb’s maddeningly creative soundscape, Celestial Mechanics: Cosmic Dances for Amplified Piano, Four Hands, depicts four stars: Alpha Centauri, Beta Cygni, Gamma Draconis, and Delta Orionis.


Completed by Crumb in 1979, Celestial Mechanics is the only piece he composed for four hands at the piano. The page turner is an honorary performer in this piece, too, helping to place steel rulers into the piano (Yes!). The plucks and strums of the piano’s steel strings, the taps on the piano’s crossbeams, and the crystalline execution of melodic passages alternately streak across and cannonball into sound baths of sensitive pedaling and intimate attention to pianistic resonance. In one of the most important pieces in 20th-century repertoire, let alone piano repertoire, Crumb expanded the orchestra of the piano into a universe of star beams and pulsing fire.

This Sunday, DUO will also give the West Coast premiere of Fantasia de Tres Mundos,  a new two-piano work written for them Miami-based jazz pianist Martin Bejerano that combines classical, jazz, and Afro-Cuban musical styles.

First invited by Portland Piano International in 2011, DUO Stephanie & Saar made a splash with their performance of a two-piano version of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petrouchka, and have returned to Portland semi-annually ever since. Last February, as part of Oregon Music Teachers Association’s Portland Contemporary Music Festival, they performed works by American-born composers, including Conlon Nancarrow.

Along with the West Coast premiere of Bejerano’s 2014 piece and George Crumb’s exploration of infinity, DUO will also perform Debussy’s own two-piano version of his orchestral work “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and a two-piano arrangement of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 18, No. 1.

DUO performs Celestial Mechanics as a kick-off for the Makrokosmos Project they are bringing to Portland in June. This new festival directed by DUO focuses on contemporary American music and Pacific Northwest musicians, and for its inaugural year will celebrate George Crumb’s 85th birthday. Volumes I and II of Makrokosmos will be performed by Pacific-Northwest musicians Susan Smith, Alexander Schwarzkopf, Deborah Cleaver, Julia Hwakyu Lee, Harold Gray and Katy Luo. In addition Monica Ohuchi and Kenji Bunch will perform some of Bunch’s music for piano and viola, and DUO will present a world premiere of two-piano works by Crumb’s former student, Swarthmore College faculty member Gerald Levinson, and perform two-piano works by David Crumb, the University of Oregon composition professor who happens to be George Crumb’s son.

DUO Stephanie & Saar perform music by George Crumb, Debussy, Beethoven, and a west coast premiere of Martin Bejerano’s jazzy Fantasia de Tres Mundos on Sunday, February 15 at 7:00pm at Portland Piano Company, 711 SW 14th Ave, Portland, OR 97205. FREE!!

Jana Griffin is a piano teacher living in Portland.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch. 

Weekend MusicWatch: Tough choices

Music fans will have to stretch far and wide this weekend

Janet Coleman, Sarah Tiedemann, and Diane Chaplin perform George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale at Northwest New Music’s concert last week.

This is the point in the season when Oregon music lovers face a conundrum a lot of places would love to have: too many irresistible concerts, not enough time. So many excellent shows are happening this weekend that it’s impossible to make them all, which is a shame. I wish some of these could get scheduled for the fallower periods of, say, August or December or January, but there are solid reasons why those periods are tough to schedule.

Saturday, for example, we encounter the rare spectacle of two Portland early music concerts directly competing against each other. Do you head over to Grace Memorial Church to hear the Portland Viol Consort (featuring Portland Baroque Orchestra regulars and other historically informed specialists) play Renaissance music by William Byrd and his contemporaries on modern replicas (crafted by Portland luthier Jess Wells) of ancient viols, that impossibly expressive string instrument whose soft voice helped doom it to obsolescence when its louder though no more alluring competitors, and larger performances spaces, came along? Normally, I would, not least because in addition to the viol foursome, the concert features the splendid countertenor Tim Galloway.

Ah, but these aren’t normal times.


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