Monica Ohuchi

Makrokosmos 3 review: powered by percussion

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

Story by MATTHEW ANDREWS
Photos by MASATAKA SUEMITSU 

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.

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Kenji Bunch

Kenji Bunch

Since ArtsWatch broke the news that one of America’s best contemporary composers was returning to his hometown after two decades winning renown in New York, where he moved to attend the Juilliard School, Kenji Bunch and his wife, the superb pianist Monica Ohuchi, have quickly become an integral part of Portland’s thriving contemporary classical music scene. They’ve played in concerts by 45th Parallel, Cascadia Composers, March Music Moderne and more, and Bunch has worked with his old teenage youth orchestra, Portland Youth Philharmonic.

This month, veteran Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic announced that Bunch, who was already directing its admirable Young Composers Project, would become the group’s new artistic director, and Ohuchi would run the business end as executive director.

This weekend, Bunch and Ohuchi join the ensemble (composed mostly of current and former Oregon Symphony players and other top Oregon musicians) in an all-Bunch concert at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater: an ideal opportunity for Oregon audiences to hear Bunch’s engaging, intriguing chamber music, often inspired by popular music and culture, and performed by one of Oregon’s most valuable and adventurous music groups. It’s one of the most highly recommended concerts of the year.

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Kenji Bunch will lead FearNoMusic

The Portland contemporary music ensemble gets new artistic leadership

Kenji Bunch will lead FearNoMusic

Kenji Bunch will lead FearNoMusic

Composer/violist Kenji Bunch will become the new artistic director of FearNoMusic, Portland’s no-music-barred contemporary music group, ArtsWatch just learned.

The timing is propitious: the ensemble will perform an in-depth concert of Bunch’s work in “To Brooklyn and Back: A retrospective of the chamber music of Kenji Bunch” at 8 p.m. April 18 at the Alberta Rose Theatre. And Bunch recently published a sort of statement of principles on ArtsWatch, so we know exactly what’s on his mind going forward:

“We claim to possess the world’s most sophisticated ears, honed from years of training and dedication. Would it hurt to open our minds, our hearts, and these Olympic-caliber ears of ours to make room for all kinds of music, not just the precious tunes we already have in our heads?”

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