mason bates

Eugene Symphony at 50: Looking back, moving forward

Orchestra celebrates its golden anniversary with five commissions of new works.

The Eugene Symphony has long enjoyed a reputation as Oregon’s most forward-looking orchestra. Particularly after visionary music director Marin Alsop ascended the podium in 1989, the ESO’s programming of contemporary, and especially American, music put it — and Alsop — on the national map. While the usual 19th century classics have always dominated the repertoire, Alsop’s successors Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Giancarlo Guerrero continued to feature more 20th– and 21st century music than typical American orchestras.

The progressive pace seemed to flag in the first few years of Danail Rachev’s regime, but recently the new sounds have begun to flow again. Half a century after its inception with a rehearsal in Caroline Boekelheide’s living room, it seems to be entering a new era — or re-entering an earlier one, the one that embraced contemporary as well as classic sounds. Beginning this Thursday with a new work commissioned from young West Coast composer Mason Bates who, more than any other American writing for orchestra, embraces a 21st century aesthetic that speaks to listeners beyond the cozy classical club, Rachev is featuring music by five living composers in the ESO’s golden anniversary season, including the world premieres of three original works written for the orchestra. Not that there’s a whole lot of competition in an orchestral landscape largely bereft of originality, but he’s restored ESO to its place as the most visionary of Oregon orchestras.

Eugene Symphony executive director Scott Freck.

Eugene Symphony executive director Scott Freck.

“Too often, we have this sense that classical music is this dusty canon, this revered library,” says ESO executive director Scott Freck, who took over in June 2012. “People forget that all music was new once. New music can be as valuable as older music because there’s a contemporary human relevance to it. And there’s power in putting new works up against old works and seeing what we learn about ourselves and the music. Even our existing audience will listen to the classics with fresh ears.”

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Sing Awakening: New directions in vocal music

Today's choral composers explore new sounds

Ryan Heller conducted Portland Vocal Consort's 2013 Best of the Northwest concert.

Ryan Heller conducted Portland Vocal Consort’s 2013 Best of the Northwest concert.

Editor’s note: This is the first in ArtsWatch’s two-part look at contemporary choral music. See Bruce Browne’s appraisal of Portland’s choral scene here.

By JEFF WINSLOW

New choral music is hot, no doubt about it. And in Portland, new choral ensembles are hot too. Recent years have seen the inauguration of several top-flight groups such as the Resonance Ensemble, Portland Vocal Consort, The Ensemble, and In Mulieribus. Established groups such as Choral Arts Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers have passed the baton to ambitious new directors, and the incomparable Cappella Romana has expanded forces and repertory. While none of these groups devotes itself exclusively to new compositions, they tackle them regularly and show no signs of losing interest. Portland Vocal Consort even has an annual “Best of the Northwest” show, with music written entirely by living Northwest composers. (Full disclosure: PVC included my “The Sun Never Says” in its 2011 “Best of the Northwest” program.)

On the national scene, publicity genius Eric Whitacre continues to woo and wow the choral singing multitudes, and for only the second time in its 60-year history (the first was only five years ago), the Pulitzer Prize in music was just awarded for an a cappella (unaccompanied) choral composition. Any local composer like me, who has written a few choral works and who wants to write more, or any fan of contemporary classical music, should be excited about the future, right?

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