ken selden

Concert review: Haunted by the Moon

Challenges of Schoenberg's score don't eclipse Marylhurst's moonstruck production of Pierrot Lunaire

Ken Selden conducted the ensemble at Marylhurst University's production of Pierrot Lunaire.

Portland State University professor Ken Selden conducted the ensemble at Marylhurst University’s production of Pierrot Lunaire.


“Let’s go take in some Schoenberg” is not something I have ever said to another human. Yet I was excited and curious to hear about this harlequin clown, this moonstruck reject from the Commedia de l’Arte, and later, the cabaret. Pierrot Lunaire is a novelty, a rarity, and I enjoyed anticipating the “how will they pull this off”-ness of being in the audience. I had no expectations beyond “this could be a kick.” And it was.



MAHLER: The Song of the Earth (MSR Classics)
Martingale Ensemble directed by Ken Selden

In the summer of 1907, a friend gave Gustav Mahler a copy of Hans Bethge’s “The Chinese Flute,” a collection of German translations and adaptations of Chinese poetry. The German translations of these poems well suited the great Austrian composer’s state of mind, his philosophy of life and death, and his desire to live fully and accept death – not without regret – but rather with the inevitability that there may also be renewal.

In fact, many Mahler works relate to his ever-present thoughts on death and on the meaning of the many beauties that exist in nature. No greater work by Mahler so amplifies these thoughts to us, for us, and on behalf of us all, than his setting of these poems, “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”). If there is joy in loving life and knowing death, it is in the intense passion, excitement, ecstasy and loneliness exhibited in such a work as this.

This symphony-song cycle’s six movements in many ways represent the apotheosis of what solo voices can do matched with an orchestra whereby both protagonists – voice and orchestra – are on a completely equal footing. And the added interpretation of a text brings yet another level of dimension to this piece that can rarely be equaled by any other work in the repertoire of this kind.


In the first of the songs Mahler set to music, for example, one stunning line of text closes off each of three stanzas: “Dark is life; dark is death.” After concluding the first phrase of this text in G Minor, Mahler drives the tension of this repeated text higher by repeating it in Ab minor, followed again but repeated in A minor as the movement concludes. This is so awesome. G-G#-A… the sequence of tones used frequently enough as an accompanying motive behind other major ideas, but now employed at a macro level. Was it planned, or did his genius just inevitably lead his ear to do this as a major structural element for the piece? It’s part of what makes this opening song a totally unforgettable experience.

Mahler originally scored “Song of the Earth” for a full orchestra with tenor and baritone voices alternating in each of the six movements. (Although the role of the tenor can be performed by a mezzo/alto instead, we know that he preferred male voices for his music.) But can a version for a much smaller ensemble compare to the power of Mahler’s original vision for large ensemble? This new recording by Portland State University music professor Ken Selden and a 14-member ensemble of top-rank Oregon classical musicians provides the answer.


A Portland ‘Rite of Spring’ momentous in its own right

Ken Selden and Agnieszka Laska join forces to celebrate the 'Rite'


On May 29, 1913, “The Rite of Spring,” choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to music composed by Igor Stravinsky, premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for The Ballets Russes, the ballet captured a pagan celebration of spring: A young virgin, The Chosen One, sacrifices herself to the God of Spring by dancing herself to death. There were only eight performances of the ballet in Paris and London, and it was not performed again until its careful reconstruction by The Joffrey Ballet in 1987.

“”The Rite of Spring”” is notorious for the riots that supposedly occurred on its opening night in Paris. The night was a hot and humid, and tempers flared as the patrons at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées shared their opinions on the new production. Some reported that the theater broke out in pandemonium and the police were called; another report said a duel was scheduled because a lady was slighted; and another that the music was almost inaudible for the dancers onstage because of all the whistling, catcalling and shouting in the audience. Audiences up until this point were accustomed to a very different esthetic, what was seen and heard that night was considered by many to be ugly and noisy. Whatever the truth was, this was a turning point for both music and dance.

Henri Quittard, a music critic for Le Figaro, called the work “a laborious and puerile barbarity”: “We are sorry to see an artist such as M. Stravinsky involve himself in this disconcerting adventure.” But the view of Jacques Riviere, a French intellectual and editor of The New French Review, has prevailed: “The great innovation of le Sacre du Printemps is the absence of all “trimmings.” Here is a work that is absolutely pure. Cold and harsh, if you will, but without any glaze to mar its inherent brilliance, without any artifices to rearrange or distort its contours. This is not a “work of art” with all the usual little contrivances. Nothing is blurred, nothing obscured by shadows; there is no veiling or poetic mellowing, no trace of esthetic effect. The work is presented whole and in its natural state; the parts are set before us completely raw, without anything that will aid in their digestion; everything is open, intact, clear, and coarse…”


Lauren Michelle Richmond, The Chosen One, in Agnieszka Laska’s version of “The Rite of Spring” /Photo by Chris Leck

The June 7 centennial celebration of “The Rite of Spring” at Lincoln Hall with Ken Selden conducting the PSU orchestra and choreography by Agnieszka Laska was momentous. A live orchestra and a live dance performance on the same stage is rare in Portland, and the concert was met with great enthusiasm by the audience, a sold-out house and a standing ovation.


Filmusik in the Park: Gamera vs. Zigra from Filmusik on Vimeo.

The best things in life are free, especially in the summer. There’s French music (Debussy, Faure, 20th century classical/jazz crossover composer Claude Bolling, et plus in a free show Saturday at southeast Portland’s Community Music Center, courtesy of flutist Robert Beall and his colleagues. Or you can head over to nearby Sewallcrest Park to hear Willamette Radio Workshop voice actors dub corny English dialogue over a screening of the 1971 Japanese monster flick Gamera vs. Zigra. The free screening is part of Portland’s Filmusik series, which pairs composers and musicians with old films and results in new, original live soundtracks. This original score is written by one of Oregon’s most promising young composers, Justin Ralls, founder of Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project.

Beyond that, this weekend again looks sparse for classical music events in Oregon, with the biggest being the annual William Byrd Festival’s closing liturgical service (Saturday night’s performance of the English Renaissance composer’s magnificent Mass for Four Voices) and concert  (Sunday night’s survey of motets and anthems by Byrd and some his English colleagues). English organist Mark Williams conducts the excellent Portland choir Cantores in Ecclesia in both performances.


Oregon ArtsWatch Archives