jack gabel

Cascadia Composers and Third Angle reviews: Northwest inspirations

Oregon composers create music inspired by the sounds of their home

With all the natural beauty that surrounds us, it’s no surprise that so many Oregon artists, including composers, turn to it for inspiration. Two spring concerts showed that despite this common impulse, the state’s natural and other sights and sounds are simply too diverse to sonically stereotype.

In celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, Third Angle New Music commissioned three Oregon composers to write new works inspired by nature. It’s a testament to our state’s musical and natural variety that the three pieces performed in April at Third Angle’s Solo Hikes concert in southeast Portland’s Studio 2 @ New Expressive Works came out so utterly different.

As it turned out, the hikes weren’t really solo. Each composer relied heavily on contributions from the performers, and they in turn had help (projections, pre-recorded sounds, the audience) that augmented their instruments. The concert was a reminder that you’re never really alone, in music or in nature.

Marilyn de Oliviera at Third Angle’s ‘Solo Hikes.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

Christina Rusnak’s Glacier Blue came closest to what you’d expect of nature inspired sounds. (Think Vivaldi and other Baroque composers, Debussy, and others who sought to evoke nature’s sights and phenomena through sound painting.) Maybe abetted by the projections of the northern Montana wilderness that inspired it, I could feel the expansiveness of the mountain lake, thrill to the starry sky (evoked by plucked notes), hear the rushing waterfall. To cellist Marilyn de Oliviera (who displayed a lovely, rich tone throughout) and Rusnak’s credit, the piece sounded like an organic whole rather than a succession of programmatic devices.

In fact, the performers, who were deeply involved in the realization of these creations, really deserve equal credit for the success of all three compositions. In Matt Marble’s Arachnomancy, saxophonist John Nastos (plus pre-recorded soundtrack that emitted different electronic textures, from metallic bells to staticky drone) brought a similarly evocative tone and atmosphere, a bit reminiscent of In a Silent Way era Miles Davis’s band or some of Charles Lloyd’s more pastoral passages. Eschewing the complex virtuosity I’ve heard Nastos deploy in jazzier contexts, his long-breathed phrases evoked the orderly beauty of the spider web patterns that inspired it.  I can imagine different interpretations by different instrumentalists with different backgrounds and styles, but this one worked persuasively.

John Nastos at ‘Solo Hikes.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

Even more than Marble’s, Brian McWhorter’s Outside In depends on the performer and the performance. And it’s even more distant from nature sound painting, because it’s a process piece that, unbeknown to the audience, asks the performer to respond to the ambient sounds he’s hearing in the moment. So if someone dropped a program, say, Oregon Symphony percussionist Sergio Carreno would respond by smacking something that made a similar sound, and incorporate that sound into his repertoire. He entered, sat, and waited.


Sara Daneshpour review: Taking flight

Rising Star pianist soars in Portland Piano International recital


Pianist Sara Daneshpour is young, and speaks softly, almost shyly. But her hands flash across the keyboard like lightning and unleash heavenly thunder.

As her November 5 recital at Portland Piano Company, part of Portland Piano International’s Rising Stars series, got underway with two mild-mannered selections from French Baroque composer and seminal tonal theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Suite in A Minor, there was no hint of such godly powers. But she was definitely in command: melodies and harmonies were clear, phrases were elegantly shaped, and layered voices were distinct.

Sara Daneshpour performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Richard Brase.

Even in Maurice Ravel’s atmospheric virtuoso test piece, “Ondine,” which begins and ends with the most delicately piquant resonances, there were only a few rattling rumbles. The various elements were mostly clearly audible and well proportioned as in the Rameau, despite the flurry of fast fingerwork. Only a few unfocused moments and the fact this work is almost always performed as part of a set of three hinted that it may still be in development as a piece of Daneshpour’s repertory. Even so, with a little help from Ravel at the top of his game, it was easy to be uplifted to some magical land by her artistry.


Oregon contemporary classical music: Golden age?

Fall concerts offer an unprecedented bounty of homegrown sounds by Oregon composers

We may be entering a golden age for Oregon contemporary classical music. This past fall might have brought Oregon music lovers more new music by Oregon classical composers than any season in history. While some culturally insecure institutions and presenters cling to the old thinking that the only worthwhile new art comes from points east (Europe, New York), more and more presenters and performers are realizing that Oregon is a cultural leader, not a follower — and Oregon composers are delivering music that speaks to us here and now. Here’s a glimpse at some of them (click the links for videos of the Crazy Jane and Cascadia concerts), followed by a look ahead at many more Oregon composer shows approaching, so you can hear homegrown music for yourself.

McCulley, Petak and Olson performed at Cascadia Composers' fall concert.

McCulley, Petak and Olson performed at Cascadia Composers’ fall concert.

Cascadia Composers

The star of the regional composers’ organization’s fall concert, at the University of Portland’s Mago Hunt recital hall, turned out to be saxophonist Patrick McCulley, who gave an astonishingly expressive solo performance of Jack Gabel’s winding Still Dog after All These Years, and joined another Cascadia composer, Jennifer Wright, as comic narrators in Susan Alexjander’s 1990 e. e. Cummings setting Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, another brief delight that was one of my favorite pieces and performances of the night.

McCulley next teamed with pianist Benjamin Milstein in Greg Bartholomew’s protracted In the Language of Meditation, navigating its straightforward and neo-Romantic style (very different from most of the other music on the program) with equal aplomb. McCulley’s spirited alto occasionally overshadowed singer Catherine Olson’s atypically restrained delivery of Elizabeth Blachly-Dyson’s link clever Howl: Etiquette for Artists and Other Social Misfits. The tiny soprano’s confinement behind a music stand somewhat inhibited her often riveting theatrical chops.

Kate Petak played harp in that piece and in Greg Steinke’s One by One, using koto-like textures as she and another saxophonist, Sean Fredenburg, engaged in a kind of chase of melodic wisps. Petak also joined violist Grace Young and flutist Gail Gillespie in Homesick, which Linda Woody wrote for a concert in remembrance of the 70th anniversary of World War II. The beguiling trio of instruments, pioneered by Claude Debussy, made an effective vehicle for the nostalgic moods — by turn wistful, tranquil, and playful — that suited its original inspiration. The combo needed a little more rehearsal to capture all the beauty in the prettiest piece on the program, David Drexler’s 2012 scattered flurries, whose attractive, intricate patterned melodies demanded more precise and assertive playing than offered here.

Milstein, Olson, violinist Casey Bozell and clarinetist Christopher Cox captured the quirky charm of Gary Noland’s engagingly off-center 1994 setting of Jonathan Swift poems, Women Who Cry Apples, the musical equivalent of John Tenniel’s famous Alice in Wonderland illustrations. Bozell in turn joined in an oddball combination of accordion (Kiran Moorty) and vibraphone (Florian Conzetti) in Nicholas Yandell’s intermittently poignant Eventide’s Lament. One reason we mightn’t have heard that combo too often is that it proved hard to balance the sonorities, particularly in louder sections, but despite a couple of stalls, it was one of the more intriguing pieces on a strong program. The concert ended with the sturdiest, Michael Johanson’s potent Toccata, whose opening aggressive stuttering rhythms briefly calmed, like the eye of a hurricane passing over, before concluding with rapid fire fury.

Even with a few rough patches, this was one of the most successful and entertaining concerts I’ve heard from Cascadia Composers, offering a wider variety of musical styles than any other concert in Oregon that week. With quality of both compositions and performances steadily increasing, the group is really on a roll.


Skeleton Piano Dances: Emotional disconnect

Creative multimedia concert is long on virtuosity and inventiveness, short on emotional engagement


As far as I can tell, this world and our lives are terrifyingly shaped by things completely outside of our control or comprehension. Think I’m full of shit? Then why art? Why music? Why do we dedicate hours, weeks, years, and decades of our lives to jotting down specks of black ink onto five lines for someone else who has gone and dedicated the same goddamn amount of time to interpreting those black specks?

Composing and performing are standing on the precipice of existence, screaming into the void that amidst chaos your insignificant little self created something coherent, and that’s beautiful. Not that music shouldn’t be chaotic – it often needs to be chaotic! — but it should offer a humanistic insight into the chaos. Its creation must be propelled forward by emotion, for what else understands the daily human condition? Without emotion there is no philosophical human condition; it just is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is. . . just cold chaotic reality. When the predominant motivation for a work of art or music is not emotion, but something secondary such as the technicality of recording, form, or physical performance, only the physical reality of music is being realized: sound.

Jennnifer Wright plays her Skeleton Piano at BodyVox Studios this weekend.

Jennnifer Wright played her Skeleton piano at BodyVox Studios.

I have nothing but respect for the logistical capabilities of Jennifer Wright and Agnieszka Laska Dancers putting together Skeleton Piano Dances and furthermore effectively marketing the show, which happened at Portland’s BodyVox Studios October 3 and 4. As far as I could tell the first show was sold out, AND with an average age that has relatively low personal experience with colostomy bags! Not a small achievement in the “art” music world. The venue was hip or whatever – seriously though, having chamber music presented outside of academies and churches is refreshing. Odd as it may be, I also think the program book deserves an honorable mention: thick card stock, quality color printing, and creative design may seem like trivial details, but they go a long way for the perception of professionalism.

All this to say: great planning and professionalism, but for me, there was no emotional communication.


Martinů Quartet preview: From Prague to Portland

Czech string quartet plays music of its homeland and Portland’s Tomáš Svoboda.


On Thursday and Friday, Friends of Chamber Music gives Oregon music lovers the gift of an all-Czech program by one of that country’s leading musical ensembles, the Martinů Quartet. Expect insightful performances by musicians steeped in their native repertory: the artistic lineage of descendant Czech masters Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, Martinů, and Portland’s own Tomáš  Svoboda.

As both a teacher (he taught composition for many years at Portland State University before retiring in 1998), and inspiring artist, Svoboda has contributed significantly to developing the craft of musical composition and contemporary art music performance within our vibrant artistic community. I didn’t attend PSU, so never sat in his classes. Over several years (in the mid-1980s) we’d meet occasionally when I wanted his criticism of a new score. Anticipation of his generous spirit always led me with excitement to our sessions, even while knowing that his rigorous standards might cause me to depart, asking myself, “What was I thinking writing that one phrase like that?”

Svoboda and Gabel in 1999. Photo: Françoise Simoneau.

Gabel and Svoboda in 1999. Photo: Françoise Simoneau.

Svoboda composed his first string quartet at age 19, the second thirty years later and finally in 2002 he embarked on an intensive navigation of the form, authoring ten quartets in eight years. About this time, Svoboda began working with the Martinů Quartet. Together they pursued a mission to record all twelve quartets at sessions in Prague studios, when Tomáš and his wife Jana visited old friends there. He’d return to Portland with masters in hand and we worked together on release packaging.

The three quartets on this week’s Friends of Chamber Music concerts come from the final volume, not yet released. There were plans to bring it out, but then Tomáš suffered his massive stroke at the end of 2012. Since then, while he’s been recovering, nothing has been done with the recordings. I hope they’ll be available before much longer.

String Quartet No. 9, Op. 193 (2010) is strikingly narrative, almost cinematic. Svoboda writes that he was inspired by the story of an immigrant who, unable to culturally integrate, finally chose suicide. In addition to being one of Svoboda’s most programmatic chamber works, the quartet reveals an important aspect of Svoboda’s artistic approach: always seeking new and unusual structures. The first movement opens with chordal voicing so dense, one would expect its dissonant, weighty texture to serve as a destination rather than a point of departure. It thins into a quixotic mood at the structural apex, and then returns to the thick, airless, opening dread — essentially inverting the more typical structure, perhaps shaping the awkward misfit. The second movement offers hope, but it runs out of control as our tragic protagonist compulsively attempts to think through his desperate confusion. In the finale, he breaks down, trying to reason some way out … he descends into irreversible resignation.

String Quartet No. 10, Op. 194 (2007) was inspired by a dream of the composer’s homeland and its native folk music: robust, playful, affirmative, the Quartet is one of sustained joy and tenderness. It opens and closes its first movement with perhaps some of the most lyrical writing in any Svoboda score — touching and sweet. As with so much of Svoboda’s music, it sounds like he’s quoting extant folk tunes, but not so. Instead, you’re hearing Svoboda’s synthesis of his Czech musical legacy. Then follows an internal buildup and extended, driving ostinato — classic Svoboda, which could well serve any aspiring composer as a pointed lesson in how to artistically finesse getting into and out of a section of repetitive figures. It exemplifies the technical execution at which Svoboda is a master. The second movement is a brisk dance, the third, meditative and plaintive. The closing vivace delivers a typically intricate contrapuntal Svoboda idée fix — another carefully crafted ostinato — opening quietly then building and pressing relentlessly to an unrestrained dance of joy and focused conclusion.

Svoboda describes Quartet No. 12 Op. 202 (2010) “Post Scriptum” as a work of deep feeling in which all human experience is accepted and transformed into tenderness. We hear both great joy and intense pain, beyond optimism and pessimism. It opens with a simple, quiet, hymn-like chorale. Declamatory and stately, the adagio second movement engages imitative Renaissance counterpoint. The closing movement opens with a lively triplet foundation, supporting a soaring, cantus-like melody in rhythmic counterpoint, which evolves into a spirited dance, thus concluding the entire cycle of quartets with irrepressible joy, beyond life’s pain.

Portland’s Friends of Chamber Music brings the Martinů Quartet to Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. On Thursday, April 16, they play Svoboda Quartet No. 10, Op. 194; Svoboda Quartet No. 9, Op. 193; Dvořák Quartet in A-flat Major, Op. 105. On Friday, April 17, the ensemble performs Smetana Quartet No. 2 in D minor; Martinů Quartet No. 2; Janáček Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”; Svoboda Quartet No. 12, Op. 202, “Post Scriptum.” Tickets are available online

Portland composer Jack Gabel is a former student of Tomáš Svoboda and founder of North Pacific Music, the record label that has released eight collections of Svoboda’s music, including his first two volumes of string quartets.

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