jan mittelstaedt

Cascadia Composers reviews: Lights, poetry, music

Concerts seek meaning beyond music through complementary art forms

One of the oldest questions in music — right after “what the hell is music, anyways?” — is how music expresses meaning. We normally think of meaning as a semantic thing, something that can be explained in words and symbols. We can, of course, regard music as a kind of language…but when we think of meaning in music we normally go outside the music itself to something more overtly linguistic. Usually that means lyrics, libretti, and programmatic music based on poems or stories. We also tend to think of musical meaning as being something non- or extra-auditory — paintings, religious iconography, or the physical appearances of performers, conductors, and composers. In the past few months, Cascadia Composers has put on two concerts dealing with these strategies for meaning-making in music: one visual, one linguistic.

Visual Meaning: Desire for the Sacred

January’s Desire for the Sacred concert, hosted at Lewis & Clark College’s sylvan Agnes Flanagan Chapel, was as much light show as concert: performers on several compositions played up in the organ loft while the audience sat enveloped in the colored lights projected all over the chapel’s gorgeous modernist wooden ceiling and its Casavant organ, the world’s only circular pipe organ, its pipes suspended from the chapel’s ceiling in a dense spiral.

The organ in Agnes Flanagan Chapel.

The light show was run by Nicholas Yandell, whose music began each half of the concert. In the opening Dilate; Elucidate, slowly evolving pastels emulated the holy glow of the rising sun and reflected the yearning arpeggiations and pedal notes of the Pacific Northwest’s resident organ god, Dan Miller. After intermission, Yandell’s Hymn of Daybreak resurrected the solar theme, this time with Cheryl Young at the manuals and the sweet longing of Kurt Heichelheim’s distant horn imbuing the chapel with numinous charms.

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Cascadia Composers fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum

Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that 'classical' ? — music

Cascadia Composers can’t put on a boring concert. The organization of composers based primarily in the Northwest is only halfway through its 2016-17 season and already I’ve seen:

  • e-bow-generated harpsichord drones played on a dark stage, with the composer draped in blue LED lights and projections of cymatically stimulated beads of blue water dancing in time to the music;
  • a stack of toy pianos played by five composers crammed all together, music clutched in their hands or squinched in between the tiny wooden legs;
  • duets between cello and doumbek, between clarinet and electronics, between pianists wearing flamboyant wigs and chasing each other around their instrument, screeching like wild cats;
  • a simple pastoral song about barnyard animals turn into a horrifying depiction of slaughter;
  • a choir imitating an alarm clock, a forest, a goddess, a rose.

Jennifer Wright performs her ‘You Cannot LIberate Me…’ Photo: Matias Brecher.

This is what happens when Oregon composers get together and make music. Taken together, the concerts presented a snapshot of contemporary Oregon’s surprisingly rich and diverse contemporary classical music scene.

A Cuba con Amor

The first Cascadia concert of the season, October’s A Cuba con Amor, featured works written for the group’s first-ever composer exchange: the concert’s six composers traveled to Cuba the following month to have their works performed there by local musicians in the 29th Annual Festival de La Habana. This was the concert with the toy pianos (Jennifer Wright’s semi-aleatoric X Chromosome), the doumbek and cello (Paul Safar’s Cat on a Wire), the clarinet and electronics (“synth wizard” Daniel Brugh’s Fantasia), and an evening’s worth of lovely music. I was especially pleased to hear so much music written for strings, including Brugh’s Reticulum for tenor and string quartet and no less than three pieces for piano trio (Safar’s A Trio of Dances, Art Resnick’s Images of a Trip, and Cascadia co-founder David Bernstein’s Late Autumn Moods and Images).

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and Max Weisenbloom play with toys on Wright’s ‘X-Chromosome’ at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

One particularly memorable moment was Ted Clifford’s melodica solo during the middle movement of his composition Child’s Play. As the newest composer in the Cascadia stable, seeing this family of composers at work on and off stage (and afterward at a nearby watering hole) made me feel fantastic about joining up.

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Music in Small Spaces

Small-scale series bring new sounds closer to audiences

In the music world, most of the attention goes to the mega-venues: Keller Auditorium, Moda Center, Schnitzer Concert Hall, arena shows. Yet most of the creativity seems to happen in more intimate confines. Maybe it’s something to do with focus or informality or even lower ticket prices, but for me, cozy clubs, chapels, galleries, small auditoriums somehow make it easier to connect to what’s happening onstage.

That’s why I’ve cherished Music in Small Spaces, which for the past six years has presented new and unusual music in Beaverton and other towns on the west side of Portland’s West Hills (Tualatin Mountains), and Third Angle New Music’s Studio Series and Porch Music, which bring mostly new sounds to inner Southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia studios and the front porches of homes in a leafy old Northeast Portland neighborhood.

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Alas, MiSS’s indefatigable majordomo, Judy Castle, has announced that last week’s concert, at Portland’s ironically not-so-small Village Baptist Church, will be the last in the series — a big loss for the West Side and for Oregon music in general. The final two performances, as well as Third Angle’s season-ending (but thankfully not series-ending) show last week show just why these spaces are so valuable. And while it won’t be in a small space, you will have the chance to see a reprise of the final MiSS show this Sunday in downtown Portland.

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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.

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Oregon Rites of Spring Survey 3: Composer showcases

Spring concerts shine a spotlight on Oregon music's present and future.

“This one’s called ‘Taciturn,’” deadpanned composer Ted Clifford from his keyboard, “so I don’t have much to say about it.” The concision of all the tunes the Portland composer played in his enjoyable concert at southeast Portland’s Woodstock Wine & Deli came as a surprise, considering how much the music he played from his agreeable new album, Azir, is influenced by jazz — a genre better known these days for giving performers ample to stretch out and follow long meandering improvisatory paths.

Clifford, Friesen and Doggett  played music from Clifford's "Azir."

Clifford, Friesen and Doggett played music from Clifford’s “Azir.”

Clifford’s concert is one of several spring shows devoted mostly to the music of a single Oregon composers whose coverage here follows part 1 of our series (which examined Oregon composers’  place in the West Coast’s legacy of percussion music) and Part 2, which looked at concerts that sprinkled Oregon music among works by composers not lucky enough to live here. Like the other spring and early summer concerts covered in this series, I enjoyed much of the music I heard in these shows. Yet I missed even more what I didn’t hear.

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Crazy Jane and Third Angle New Music reviews: Inspired by Nature

New Oregon music responds to nature's beauty — and humanity's threats to it.

Living in a bountiful land where so many of us spend as much time in nature as possible, it’s no surprise that Oregon composers have devoted so much music to environmental themes, just as New Yorkers and Chicagoans often incorporate urban influences in their music. (“New York is a very percussive place,” the great American composer and New York native Steve Reich, once told me about the source his pioneering percussion music.) A pair of November Portland concerts showed how contemporary Oregon composers are also embracing the environment — sometimes including actual recordings of natural sounds — in their music.

Marsh and Miksch performed at Crazy Jane.

Marsh and Miksch performed at Crazy Jane.

Field Music

“The world is a huge composition going on all the time,” said the pioneering Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in a brief film Listen played immediately before Third Angle New Music’s “Afield” concert at southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia Studio 2 November 6. Schafer, who invented the notion of the soundscape (a musical evocation of an environment rather than, say, an attempt to tell a story or express a feeling via music) urged us avoid the noisy distractions of our bustling modern world and tune into nature’s sonic beauties.

That posed an implicit challenge to the three young Oregon composers (all University of Oregon graduate students) whose music Third Angle had, to its credit, commissioned for this latest entry in Third Angle’s innovative Studio Series: why should Northwesterners venture indoors to hear human-created sounds that sought to imitate nature, when we have so much of the real thing all around us?

The greatest living Northwest composer, Alaska’s John Luther Adams, has been persuasively answering that question for decades, as Third Angle showed last year in a vivid performance of his Earth and the Great Weather. Adams’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize suggests that the rest of the country is catching up to his and Schafer’s expansive vision of music and nature in harmony. Third Angle and Crazy Jane’s programs demonstrate that nature will continue to deeply and delightfully inform 21st century classical music.

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Cascadia Composers’ “In Good Hands” concert: Bringing students the music of their time

Tomorrow's Oregon musicians play music by today's Oregon composers.

By MARIA CHOBAN

The young performers were warming up; some with Chopin Nocturnes, which they played with studied rubato (that technique where you hold a note longer than rhythmically intended or on-purpose rush a passage, all in the name of playing expressively) handed down from teachers. Or they held notes that meant nothing in the sentence surrounding them except self-indulgence or dry harmonic leading tone stresses—that is, staying on a penultimate note longer than usual and thereby, in theory, sustaining tension.

It wasn’t a promising sign.

The 29 young pianists, students of 13 Oregon Music Teachers Association teachers, were about to star in a public concert on a weekday summer afternoon at Portland Piano Company. . . to a packed house! I was not there to hear Chopin, or any other library or dead composer. That might be typical of a private teacher’s studio piano recital and I avoid those, as do my students who play whatever the hell they want in recitals — from improvised blues duets with their dads to pieces they write to chamber music or pop songs played and/or sung with their invited friends. They even bring me snippets from dead white guys like Beethoven they picked up, asking me to find the rest of that song for them to play, having no idea that song (“Für Elise” or “Moonlight” Sonata or whatever) was written over 200 years ago and not today.

Young hands played Oregon music at Portland Piano Company. Photo: Benji [Bao] Vuong.

Young hands played Oregon music at Portland Piano Company. Photo: Benji [Bao] Vuong.

My belief that students can show us the future was why I was participating in the “In Good Hands” concert, leading a performance of a recent piece by the dean of Oregon composers. I was also here to witness what I thought was an urban legend—the marrying of young students of OMTA teachers with music by local  Cascadia Composers.

For me, this type of event—the introduction of young impressionable performers to up-to-the-minute local music—is more important than hearing yet another touring artist playing yet another cycle of Beethoven sonatas or Bach’s Goldberg Variations (and needling my students to go hear them . . . which I won’t!). The way too many of us teach music is killing the music we love, and events like “In Good Hands” show us how to change.

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