michael johanson

Makrokosmos 3 review: powered by percussion

Minimalist and locally grown music headlined this year's edition of Portland's annual summer new music marathon


I walked into Northwest Portland’s Vestas building lobby just as Portland Percussion Group was leading the crowd in a Steve Reich clap-along, an exercise in audience participation that I’d love to hear more of at these types of concerts.

Actually, there aren’t enough of these types of concerts. Produced for the third summer in a row by piano duo Stephanie & Saar (Stephanie Ho & Saar Ahuvia), the June Makrokosmos presented five hours of contemporary classical music in a setting that allowed the audience members to move around, even leave and return, as they pleased.

Portland Percussion Group played part one of Steve Reich’s ‘Drumming’ at Makrokosmos.

The original of Reich’s Clapping Music calls for two players, although many other arrangements are possible (some of my favorites are the Evelyn Glennie rendition and this dollop of ridiculousness), and PPG’s enforced recreation had the audience split into halves to play the two phases of Clapping Music’s diverging pattern. Everyone seemed to be having a grand old time, which is reason enough to do something like this, but doing service as both Happy Hour Ice Breaker and New Music Process Demonstration made it a lot better than other pre-show talks I’ve endured.

I missed the actual opener, PPG’s performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming (Part One) but I can’t say I minded too much: I’ve seen that famous video of theirs, after all, and one of the very few things I’m stodgy about is performances of single movements of larger works. But all this was just the happy hour appetizer. The real action in Makrokosmos 3: Reichmokosmos! happened up in the open atrium/auditorium on the Vestas third and fourth floor, a bright, modern space I heard multiple audients comparing to the Wieden+Kennedy auditorium two blocks away. The stage area—little more than a wide walkway limning the bottom of a tiered wooden seating area covered in floor mats—already housed the six pianos, along with a vast amount of percussion.

Pianos dominated, as in previous years, but this year PPG came out to show us (came out to show us, came out to show us) the power of percussion with some marvelous new ensemble music. The resulting spectacle, for all its epic grandeur, somehow remained delightfully intimate.


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.


Portland Piano International: Locavore’s delight

New recital series that commissions new Oregon music and pairs local composers with rising star performers gets off to a strong start


The Portland metro area’s presenters of traditional classical music are slowly starting to notice the locavores in their audiences. So far, mostly the new are trying out the new – it’s been some years since the venerable Oregon Symphony programmed a work by an Oregon or Washington composer, but the younger Portland Columbia Symphony, Portland Chamber Orchestra (in May) and especially the Beaverton Symphony are all programming music by local composers this season, and the Vancouver Symphony did last season. Even presenters who don’t directly control their repertory are finding ways to get a piece of the action. Friends of Chamber Music invited the Martinu Quartet, who have Tomas Svoboda‘s 12 string quartets in their repertory, to give concerts last spring that included three of of them. Now Portland Piano International has upped the ante, not just (like the others named above) performing one or two Oregon-born compositions in an entire season, but helping create more Oregon music by commissioning six Oregon composers to write new solo piano works, with six more to follow next season. PPI has even paired each composer with a brilliant young pianist from its Rising Stars project for the premiere performances.

Pianist Justin Bartlett.

Pianist Justin Bartlett.

If the inaugural concerts are any indication, PPI has done itself and the region proud. Pianist Justin Bartlett gave four free, hour-long concerts of works by J. S. Bach, Dmitri Shostakovich, Karol Szymanowski, Toru Takemitsu, and Portland composer and Lewis & Clark College professor Michael Johanson, the first of the six Oregonians to be heard this season. Only two of the venues were in Portland; one was in Beaverton and another, unusually and commendably, in Bend. I caught the third concert, on October 4 at Portland Piano Company. It was not quite a full house, but the spectacular summery Sunday afternoon weather outside made formidable competition.

Justin Bartlett led off Portland Piano International's new Rising Star series.

Justin Bartlett led off Portland Piano International’s new Rising Star series. Photo: Dan Wasil.

Bartlett was all that could be desired, and more. We were drawn in by his fluent and engaging remarks introducing each work, and all works were given sensitive, technically expert, and individualistic treatment which brought out the composers’ musical personalities. Bach’s G major French Suite, BWV 816, sang and sparkled by turns, with a highly varied, well-judged use of the pedal. In his remarks, Bartlett made much of the role of his improvised ornamentation, but to me that was distinctive only in the lyrical Sarabande, where his understated yet yearning interpolations gave the formidable old German master an unusually tender face. Szymanowski’s Tantris the Fool – which as Bartlett explained, was inspired by a satirical story in which the famous lover Tristan schemes to tryst with his Isolda by disguising himself so well that not only dogs and guards but even Isolda herself fails to recognize him – was biting but also clear and direct. The final Prelude and Fugue of Shostakovich’s op. 87 set of 24 was appropriately grave, monumental, but also infused with a warmth that made an inspiring finale. If there was any fault to be found, it was that Bartlett’s interpretations were probably not quite as distinctive as he thought, and would gain even more depth from further exploration of the uniqueness of each work.

Composer Michael Johanson.

Composer Michael Johanson.

The star of the show was the pairing of Johanson’s new composition, Eternal Gardens, and the Takemitsu work that in some ways inspired it. The 20th century Japanese composer’s Rain Tree Sketch II was composed in memory of the great French 20th century composer Olivier Messiaen, who had just passed away, and Messiaen’s obvious influence makes it a fine homage. Johanson is also a great admirer of Messiaen’s music, and in fact, at the beginning of Eternal Gardens, I was slightly startled by its close resemblance to the soundworld of the Takemitsu. But it soon diverged and established its own, contrasting personality. Where Rain Tree Sketch was dark and restrained, Eternal Gardens was luminous and exuberant, almost like Takemitsu on hallucinogens. Before the performance, Johanson quoted him describing his music as “like a garden, and I am the gardener.” Johanson let loose a cloud of brilliantly colored butterflies in it.

Johanson and Bartlett confer before the recital. Photo: Dan Wasil.

Johanson and Bartlett confer before the recital. Photo: Dan Wasil.

One factor that no doubt contributed to the success of the premiere was that Bartlett committed it to memory along with the rest of the program. Memorization can seem an overwhelming challenge in new music, which is often virtuosic and full of unfamiliar patterns. But there’s no denying its power as a tool freeing the performer to directly impact the audience with the composer’s inspiration. Also, both the Takemitsu and Johanson are densely atmospheric works, with many complex harmonies fading away gradually before moving on. Bartlett in his remarks beforehand seemed concerned that his audience might grow restive, but he needn’t have worried; his pace and pedaling provided plenty of time for contemplation but never let us lose the way.

In the coming months, look for the premieres of PPI’s commissions to Depoe Bay composer Greg A Steinke, Eugene composer David Crumb, and Portland composers Jackie T. Gabel, Sarah Zipperer Gaskins, and Bryan Johanson (no relation to Michael). If they come off like this one did, they will show that often the best music is composed nearly in your own backyard.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers, as does Greg Steinke. Michael Johanson and Jack Gabel are also members.

Fear No Music review: Fear No Excellence

Locally sourced sounds concert showcases the diversity of Oregon classical music


I have a few composer friends that I like to talk shop with, and we usually spend our time complaining about the lack of visibility of new music, the trials and tribulations of being an “emerging” composer (whatever that means) or how certain “big names” almost always soak up all the opportunities (not because their music is lacking, but more just a general frustration). Sometimes, though, I lose track of the fact that I live in an amazing town for new music, and fEARnoMUSIC’s inaugural Locally Sourced Sounds concert last Friday night was a refreshing reminder that local composers can still team up with world-class musicians and make real magic happen.

Voglar and Belgique play a new work by Portland composer Bonnie Miksch.

Voglar and Belgique play a new work by Portland composer Bonnie Miksch.


Locally Sourced Sounds is a project aimed at answering a question posed by fEARnoMUSIC’s artistic director Kenji Bunch: what does the music of Oregon sound like? FNM’s attempt to answer that question took the form of a call for scores sent out earlier this year to any and all composers in the state, regardless of age or status. The only requirement was they had to be based in Oregon and they had to submit an unperformed string quartet lasting 10 minutes or less.  This year’s winner was Tylor Neist whose ethereal electro-acoustic string quartet, Unfolding, proved to be a compelling counterpart to the other works on the program by veteran Portland composers David Schiff, Tomas Svoboda, Michael Johanson, and Bonnie Miksch.

The program began with Portland State University faculty member Miksch’s duet for violin and viola commissioned by violist Joel Belgique for his wife (and fellow FearNoMusic and Oregon Symphony musician) Ines Volgar for her birthday. Somewhere Like You, My Darling intended to “showcase their brilliance and musicality as performers, and allow them plenty of interpretive liberty,” according to program notes. The delightful showcase featured romantic vigor coupled with intimate musical dialogues. Colors abounded in the duet’s ten minute duration, and a couple of moments reminded me of lovers’ squabbles. Of course, these tensions always resolved to the intimacy established at the outset, and thanks to the couple’s marvelous playing, the music’s evocative intertwining sounds were incredibly clear.

Michael Johanson’s sinewy Toccata made a great contrast to the romanticism of Miksch’s lovers’ duet. The Lewis & Clark College professor’s piece didn’t waste any time picking up momentum. Beginning with an intense line played in unison between the piano and the alto saxophone, the fluttery musical figure served as the prime material before being subdued by a contrasting slower section — my favorite moment in the entire piece, but one that was sadly too short. Saxophonist Sean Fredenburg and pianist Jeff Payne’s performance of Johanson’s fun, energetic Toccata  were tight and well-rehearsed given the fireworks they were playing.

Next was Svoboda’s enigmatic Passacaglia and Fugue, Op. 87 for violin, cello, and piano. Svoboda’s work has been featured on a number of concerts over the last year in celebration of the retired longtime PSU faculty member’s 75th birthday, and the “dean” of Portland composers was well represented with this piece. Seemingly emerging out of nothing, the Passacaglia’s transparent textures featured a lovely melodic line, introduced by the piano, which was passed through the instruments, eventually building to a fever. One of my favorite moments in the entire concert took place about two-thirds through the Passacaglia; as the violin and cello were dueling it out, the piano re-introduced the opening melody in thick, fragmented chords. Pianist Susan Smith, a member of Portland’s other new music ensemble, Third Angle, stated the melody with a gravity that was difficult to describe but incredibly effective. As the melody was slowly reintroduced, the violin’s and cello’s wild melodic figures begin to fragment and elongate, and very slowly transitioned back to the thin transparent textures of the beginning — a magical effect which is extremely difficult to pull off. My one criticism would be that the final chord — a Mahlerlian 9th chord that was reminiscent of the ending of the Song of the Earth — was drawn out just a little too long, but it was easily forgivable given the magic that just occurred. The fugue that followed was vivacious and its subject (which was derived from the Passacaglia’s theme) opened the piece with a Copland-esque energy and closed the first half with a standing ovation.

After intermission we were greeted with Neist’s Unfolding, for amplified string quartet and electronics. For a process-based piece (meaning external elements such as mathematics or numerology determine things like melody or rhythm), it was surprisingly accessible, even blatantly tonal in some parts. The playback that came through the speakers sounded almost like a ghost ensemble: quiet, tense, and melodic without any one figure allowed foreground prominence. There were a couple of moments where I looked up and realized that the ensemble was sitting still; the sound coming through was an echo of their former self in the form of electronic looping. It was a fascinating effect, but I was left wanting more from the electronic aspects. Still, the quartet (coupled with a skilled sound engineer, Neil Blake) played well and seemed to do the piece justice. Unfolding has set a benchmark for the pieces that will follow in future score calls.

The final piece on the program Reed College professor David Schiff’s autobiographical New York Nocturnes, was inspired by his time in New York during his early twenties. It opened strongly with decisively jazzy figures sprinkled throughout the piece. Schiff’s harmonic language, which borrowed elements of jazz harmony while not confirming to jazz conventions, provided some nice surprises. There were many allusions to the composer’s well-known jazz influences such as “walking” bass lines in Nancy Ives’s cello part (a common jazz technique), among other figures. The piece ended in a surprisingly intimate fashion that earned Schiff a roaring ovation.

With this concert, fEARnoMUSIC provided a decisive answer to Bunch’s question. The music of Oregon is diverse, rich, and very much alive. I hope Locally Sourced Sounds, which Bunch intends to repeat annually, will continue to develop the bond between fEARnoMUSIC and the composers of Oregon. The state has a vast sonic terrain that is ripe for exploration.

Jay Derderian is a Portland-based composer who is currently serving on the governing board of Cascadia Composers, an organization dedicated to the promotion and performance of living composers in Oregon.

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Judith Cohen

Judith Cohen


Time was when an “obscure” classical concert was full of blips, bleeps and possibly even baloney – works written for an audience so specialized, they might not even deign to listen to classic modernists such as 12-tone music pioneer Arnold Schoenberg (who died in 1951) in their spare time, let alone travel to a concert to hear. If ten people showed up besides the composers and performers, the producer called it a success.

In contrast, the tiny audience that found its way to Portland Piano Company’s delightful tall-windowed small recital room last Friday afternoon was treated to a gem of a March Music Moderne concert by Seattle pianist Judith Cohen, refracting the early glimpse of spring just outside. The MAX train rumbled by a few times, but in the friendly ambience created by the music and the pianist, it almost seemed to belong.


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