jeff winslow

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.


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.


Cascadia Composers and Northwest Piano Trio reviews: The Color of Magic

Two concerts featured contemporary Oregon classical music. One succeeded.


Lights out. In a dark cavernous church, twinkling blue Christmas lights bob their way to a harpsichord. They tilt over it, no doubt praying. They un-tilt and lower onto a bench. The instrument emits a long sustaining moan.

THE HARPSICHORD SUSTAINS??!!??? What spell has been cast?


Jennifer Wright.

No time to think, the blue lights are driving the instrument to react. Like T-cells attacking an infection, the notes bombard the drone. Above, a screen displays the sound waves — oscillating, colliding, and my growing anxiety isn’t “How did composer, Jennifer Wright, achieve this?” It’s “OMG, Who or What is going to Win? How will this play out?” In You Cannot Liberate Me, Only I Can Do That for Myself, the composer/performer has managed to translate a creative concept/challenge (how to sustain a percussive sound) into a universal dilemma (how to deal with the new: fight it, ward it off, accept?). To be fair, I figured this out long after the performance, but only because the gnawing anxiety pestered me to work through it, to come to closure.

Science transcends process. Houston, we have Magic.

Lately more and more Oregon indie classical and even establishment classical groups are starting to realize the value of programming new and locavore music. It’s a really good sign of a developing homegrown alt.classical scene that’s not depending on dead Europeans and insular New Yorkers. I want all these groups who are playing homegrown 21st century music to succeed because Oregon draws outlaws, visionary DIYers who don’t just want to make it in New York and LA—they have something to say to today’s audiences. Oregon can be the role model for LA, New York, Paris.

But new and local are only the beginning, necessary but not sufficient if classical music is to (re)connect with broader Oregon audiences. The events need to appeal broadly, unless you just want a niche audience. And niches won’t sustain new classical music.

Multimedia helps. Taking the performances out of churches and auditoriums and staging them in bars and black box theaters helps. Dressing down or up (anything but black nightgowns) helps. Choosing a program that takes the audience on a ride helps.

Alas, even these ingredients are necessary but still not sufficient. To draw broad audiences, the essential element that must be cultivated is Magic.

Magic is not learned; it is omnipresent — there for the taking. It is the thing we often discount, the first feeling that comes up, the first glib utterance out of our mouths when throwing around ideas. Magic can only be welcomed in when she subtly drops a bomb in your ear. Or not; one can opt out, thinking the voice is too crazy, will offend too many people or the wrong person, and do the safe, sane, currently-in-mode thing and hope it’s enough to generate ticket revenue to cover what the RACC grant doesn’t. And the creative concept itself is only a start — much more Magic, courage to support the magic inspirations and lots of grunt work (including practice/rehearsal hours) are needed on this yellow brick road to the Emerald City.

Two concerts featuring new music by Oregon composers showed what can happen when presenters listen for Magic and then vest themselves in the quest of fulfilling that inspiration … and what happens when they don’t.


Dianne Davies preview: Attachments and Detachments

Portland pianist uses Cascadia Composers music, dance, and visual art to tell life stories

Portland pianist Dianne Davies was looking at scores that she might want to play in an upcoming Cascadia Composers program when she picked up Ghosts and Machines by Jeff Winslow. After she played through the fourth movement, she realized that the Portland composer and ArtsWatch contributor’s solo piano piece, which he began in the wake of his older brother’s death years earlier, “fit perfectly into unresolved deep grief issues I’d had for years,” Davies remembers. “It speaks to a part of me, and says in music what I feel but can’t articulate. I think it’s incredible that people like Jeff can write such music out of deep places of pain.”

Davies knew about pain. Although Winslow’s composition was purely instrumental, she felt the composer’s loss. Davies had also lost a sibling, her beloved older sister, when Dianne was 11. “When my sister died, I couldn’t speak about what I was feeling inside, but it had to come out,” she recalls. “When I went to the piano and played and I could let myself cry, it made me feel better. It helped console me.”

Dianne Davies will perform and off her bench Sunday.

Like most of us, Davies suffered other losses — parents, a child leaving the nest — but at one point, she also almost lost the thing she loved most: music itself. Ultimately, she’d find solace in performing music from her own time and place.

Ghosts and Machines, which anchors Davies’s free show Attachments and Detachments at 3 pm this Sunday, Feb. 28, at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, is one of seven works by members of Cascadia Composers that Davies will play in a show unlike any other in memory: a cycle of contemporary compositions, augmented by dance, visual art, humor and narration, that represent turning points in the performer’s own life.



Musicians from Classical Revolution PDX performed at Holocene in March Music Moderne

Musicians from Classical Revolution PDX performed at Holocene in March Music Moderne.

There are people who really like the mathematically determined music of the 20th century Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis—more than just acknowledging its undeniable historical importance. There are also people, I am told, who enjoy being rolfed, walking barefoot across hot coals, participating in fight clubs, and being lashed by whips. I think these all must be the same people.

Enduring the relentless pummeling of the Portland premiere of Xenakis’s 1978 exercise in dissonance Ikhoor at Sunday night’s closing March Music Moderne, just after enjoying so many other concerts featuring young (and sometimes not-so-young) Oregon composers at the same festival revealed just how far midcentury modernism that MMM celebrates strayed from appealing to a broad audience — and how Oregon composers are leading the way in bringing music in the classical tradition back to its rightful, central place in the hearts and minds of anyone who loves music, not just the dwindling niche who dig discordance.


ArtsWatch guest post: In praise of music alive and rites ancient

Composer Jeff Winslow reviews Marie Chouinard's 'Rite of Spring' in Seattle and the Oregon Symphony

Montreal's Compagnie Marie Chouinard performs The Rite of Spring Thursday-Saturday at Portland State University

Montreal’s Compagnie Marie Chouinard performs The Rite of Spring
Thursday-Saturday at Portland State University.



“Heartfelt precision”—seems contradictory doesn’t it? But that’s the phrase that comes to mind when considering the Oregon Symphony’s performance Monday night. Mozart’s “Posthorn” Serenade bounced, strutted, and sang from movement to movement. The band responded crisply to music director Carlos Kalmar’s subtly flexible direction. I could never say for sure that here, they were pressing ahead, or there, they were holding back, but they never sounded mechanical. Posthorn trumpet soloist Jeffrey Work betrayed a slight nervousness, perhaps, in this way: Though his tone was pure and his intonation flawless, it sometimes happened that the first instance of a difficult phrase betrayed a slight rhythmic irregularity. But he always nailed it the next time it came up, leaving me with a smile on my face.

Mozart has some fun with this solo, like Beethoven with his rustic bassoon in the scherzo of the Sixth Symphony: It only plays when the orchestra is playing the one chord the solo instrument can hit. When the orchestra modulates away or indulges in bits of scales, the posthorn—an archaic valveless horn used to signal the arrival or departure of a courier or mailman —is silent.

After intermission, Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration” began so softly, many in the audience didn’t seem to realize it had begun. As it gathered force, I heard subtle gradations in timbre and dynamics that I can only describe as wondrous. Aside from beautifully realizing Strauss’s orchestral skill, the OSO’s rendition brought home to me just how a committed live performance can never really be replaced by a recording. This clarity and sensitivity continued throughout the often convoluted soundworld of the piece despite its over-the-top Romanticism —so much so that, toward the end, a slightly ragged entrance by a pianissimo brass choir stuck out unexpectedly. In every other way the band really outdid themselves on this one.

Nor did they lose focus in the same composer’s “Four Last Songs,” which had I eagerly anticipated the whole night. Rising star soprano Amber Wagner, the hometown favorite (originally from Hillsboro), poured her richly colored voice into the hall, while ably avoiding the twin sins of swooping and excessive vibrato. However, I must regretfully report that, while still in the land of the heartfelt, precision seemed too eager to wander away. Did something disturb her concentration on Strauss’s mercurially shifting harmonies? A friend reported her Saturday night performance as brilliant, eliciting a roaring standing ovation and extra curtain calls, and one Strauss excerpt that pops up on YouTube betrays no such problems. On Monday, however, the ovation was slow to develop and barely supported the standard three bows.

Wagner leaned back in her chair while listening to “Death and Transfiguration,” which Kalmar presented as a prelude to the songs. Was she tired? Yet she radiated a sense of enjoyment the whole time she was on stage. The mystery was ameliorated by the continuing heartfelt precision of the orchestra, which has the last word as the evening sun goes down. Pianissimo muted brass add an inner glow to the final chord, as Strauss leaves us with one final example of his superb orchestral imagination.

Spring Fever

To recall what it’s like when an orchestra is all heart, and precision hasn’t yet been crossed off the “to do” list, I have only to cast my mind back to last Thursday’s performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” by the the UW Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jonathan Pasternak, which accompanied the dancing of the Compagnie Marie Chouinard at Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus in Seattle.  (The company is bringing the dance to Portland this weekend, starting Thursday night, though with recorded music.) In honor of the 100th anniversary of the premiere of this seminal 20th century masterpiece, the UW Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jonathan Pasternak provided live accompaniment. Of course, dance is the star of this particular touring show, but only live music in the pit can hint at the full dimensions of the infamous riot-torn premiere, which shocked the audiences of the time in every possible way—choreography, costume and story—as much as, maybe even more than, the music.

As at the 1913 premiere, the first half of the company’s program used Chopin’s music, though Chouinard’s wildly kinetic and ever-inventive choreography is worlds away from the sedate and delicate “Les Sylphides.” Since “Chopin Preludes” won’t be seen in Portland (the company is instead presenting its 1994 dance to Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” the earlier and gentler but equally revolutionary work that presaged 20th century music), I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say it fascinated and astonished and generally keyed up expectations.

So I was good and ready when intermission ended and it was time for the first bassoon of the UW symphony orchestra to sweat bullets for his famous, stratospheric opening solo. To his credit, he opened strongly and the only misstep duplicated a previous correct note. The band continued pretty much on this level: they kept it together and propelled it forward with all the heart in the world, but it was often a bit rough around the edges, and very occasionally, a piece of the puzzle turned up missing. The orchestra’s performance was nevertheless quite an accomplishment, considering that their first task was to synchronize with the intricate and often hyperactive choreography, and they were after all a student group on opening night. And who knows: it might well be that this performance was more representative of the one at the premiere—to the extent people were able to hear it over the riot—than the near-flawless performances typical of major orchestras today, and which will no doubt be on the soundtrack in Portland.

And what will Portlanders see on stage? The choreography, with its naked breasts and abundance of phallic appendages attached to what little costume is present, is probably about as outrageous as choreography can be without actually committing a violent felony onstage. In one section, dancers (of both sexes I think) even held these appendages to their foreheads and their crotches. So that measured up pretty well to the premiere also.

But of course these days we have seen everything, and there was no need for any latter-day Florent Schmitt to shout at unruly patrons, “Shut up, whores of Mercer Island!” Surprisingly the impact was somewhat diffuse. (In fairness to Chouinard, she warns you in her program notes that she’s not interested in following the traditional narrative.) A dance I’d looked forward to from seeing a preview video, involving rising and falling horned heads during the Procession of the Oldest and Wisest One, turned out to occur during a different part of the piece, and while effective enough, in the preview it had been riveting.

The original Rite evoked an ancient human sacrifice ritual. But at the moment when the sacrificial victim normally is first spotlighted, the only dancer on stage was male. This raised an interesting possibility of gender substitution, but that dancer didn’t consistently remain the center of attention through the rest of the piece.

In general there was little obviously coordinated choreography for the full company (read “tribe”), so it was hard to get much of that sense of mob-driven menace that’s never far away in the music. And yet the various rituals and antics did indeed convey a glimpse of elaborate customs whose meaning has been lost in the distant past.

Of course the music wound me up as it always does, even when I play it badly on the piano. I certainly had no trouble staying awake, which I’ve been known to struggle with after drinking so much wine with dinner even with my cautionary double espresso. But all in all I came away from this interpretation, fascinating as it was, without ever really having felt the earth move.

Portland’s White Bird Dance presents Compagnie Marie Chouinard’s The Rite of Spring Thursday through Saturday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall.  Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and a founding member of Cascadia Composers.

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives