musica maestrale

MusicWatch Weekly: pianos aplenty

There’s also organ music, choral music, string ensembles and a couple orchestras’ worth of fine young classical players and more on Oregon stages this week

Portland’s most welcome frequent contemporary classical guests, DUO Stephanie & Saar, return for a pair of entirely different shows, bringing plenty of piano-playing colleagues with them; Portland Piano International’s latest Rising Star flashes across the keyboard; and two of jazz’s most forward looking pianists, Jason Moran and Ethan Iverson, bring their trios to town, the former celebrating still another great pianist/composer, Thelonious Monk.

Stephanie & Saar perform twice in Portland.

DUO Stephanie and Saar
The renowned New York based piano duo visit Portland, Stephanie Ho’s hometown, frequently. This time, they perform J.S. Bach’s final work, the massive keyboard monument to counterpoint, The Art of Fugue, which they recently recorded. The next night, they join some of Portland’s finest pianists (from Third Angle, FearNoMusic, and local universities) to reprise some of the “greatest hits” from the three annual installments of their Makrokosmos concerts, including music by the greatest living American composers (Steve Reich, George Crumb, John Adams) and more.
Wednesday, Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Lewis & Clark College, and Thursday, Portland Piano Company, 8700 NE Columbia Blvd. Portland.

Allison Au Quartet
One of Canada’s most acclaimed jazz stars, saxophonist/composer Allison Au’s melodic original jazz just garnered the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy award for best jazz album for her second release, Forest Grove. Unfortunately, they’re not actually playing it in Forest Grove, but you can hear them in Portland and Eugene.
Wednesday, Jo Bar and Rotisserie, Portland and Thursday, Jazz Station, Eugene.

Jerry Douglas Band 
Even if you’ve never heard of Jerry Douglas, you’ve almost certainly heard his dobro, a guitar augmented by a metal plate and amplifying cone that makes a distinctive twangy sound. A Nashville studio regular who’s played on over 1500 recordings, he’s transcended the  boundaries between bluegrass, country, rock, jazz, pop – even contemporary classical. Along the way, Douglas has garnered dozens of awards, including a baker’s dozen Grammies and a Musician of the Year award from the Country Music Association; added zing to albums by Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris, Paul Simon, Earl Scruggs, Bill Frisell, Phish, and dozens of other stars; played in bands with Ricky Skaggs and in Alison Krauss’s Union Station. He’s an American music legend and always worth catching with his own band.
Thursday, Alberta Rose Theatre, Portland.

Makrokosmos Project
With duo pianists Stephanie & Saar in town to play Bach (see above) and no doubt visit family, why not celebrate the third anniversary of its valuable Makrokosmos project (which ArtsWatch has covered extensively — type the word into the search field above) by reprising some of the three epic extravaganzas’ greatest hits by some of America’s greatest 20th century composers: Steve Reichʼs Six Pianos, John Adamsʼs Hallelujah Junction, George Crumbʼs Makrokosmos I and II and more, including works by Oregonians like Alexander Schwarzkopfʼs Recycled Wheels. Performers in this free concert include Susan Smith, Deborah Cleaver, Julia Lee, Monica Ohuchi, Jeff Payne, Schwarzkopf and DUO Stephanie & Saar.
Thursday, Portland Piano Company, 8700 NE Columbia Blvd, Portland.


Musica Maestrale review: Brilliance amid the darkness

Portland early music ensemble rekindles the late music of French Baroque composer Francois Couperin


In some quarters of our fair state, the name “coup”erin might be thought to evoke a new Peugeot convertible, or perhaps slang for a pigeon’s prison. Doubtless, the name is not on the top of the list at KGON, or even 89.9. We just don’t know much about Francois Couperin, a composer who, as a member of a prominent musical family, was a dominant figure in French music for the latter part of the 17th century. and into the 18th. But last Friday evening at Portland’s First Christian Church, ah…we were enveloped in the aura of Couperin’s brilliance.

Presented by Musica Maestrale, directed by Hideki Yamaya, and featuring two wonderful Portland sopranos, with the expert accompaniment of the theorbo and viola da gamba, this was a brilliant exposition of the later music of a great French Baroque composer.

Musica Maestrale played Couperin in Portland.

Musica Maestrale played Couperin in Portland.

They were a matched set, these two women. Sounding like womb-mates, the twinned voices of Catherine van der Salm and Arwen Myers were cloned air streams — soaring above the small but appreciative audience in the sanctuary.


“Dido & Aeneas” review: Sweet musical treat

The Ensemble gives a rich, tasty performance of Henry Purcell's operatic masterpiece


Damn chocolates! We might have had another decade or two of Henry Purcell, had he not indulged in recently unloaded chocolates from a ship’s hold, in 1695. Note that there are other theories about the great English Baroque composer’s demise, and this hypothesis may be full of nougat, but it makes a good story.

One of Great Britain’s grand masters of composition, Purcell was revered by Benjamin Britten, who arranged several of Purcell’s works and, most famously, wove one of Purcell’s incidental themes into his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Purcell’s themes (most notably “Dido’s Lament”) appear in film scores, most recently croaked by Timothy Spall in the recent film Mr. Turner.

The Ensemble performed Dido & Aeneas in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Corbett Niedfeldt.

The Ensemble performed Dido & Aeneas in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Corbett Niedfeldt.

At any rate, he did perish in his mid-thirties and bequeathed to us a luxurious mosaic of music: odes, primarily to St. Cecilia, anthems, catches/rounds (many quite obscenely composed for his Men’s Club in London), semi-operas and the lone opera, Dido in Aeneas, the first great English opera, which we heard performed by The Ensemble of Oregon on Sunday afternoon, January 24, at First Christian Church in Portland. (The Portland vocal ensemble, composed of singers from some of the city’s top choirs, also performed it in Eugene the previous night.) Sometimes called the “first English opera” (energetically debated now in favor of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and a few others), Dido is a wealth of Purcellian invention, a true child of its time.


Oregon Rites of Spring 1: Drums along the Pacific

Powered by percussion, the West Coast's adventurous musical legacy continues in spring Oregon concerts.

New York has long snagged all the attention as the creative center of American music. But a quintessential New Yorker (from The New Yorker, no less) reminded us recently that much of the impulse for American music’s creativity originated right here on the West Coast. As I explained a few years ago, “a little attention to history reveals that many, if not most, of America’s major postwar musical innovations actually originated here on the West Coast and spread east in a kind of reverse migration that energized NYC, rather than vice versa.”

This spring’s and summer Oregon concert seasons have sparkled with new music by West Coast and other American composers. One of those shows established a context that helps explain West Coast music’s trailblazing creativity, and several others revealed how it’s continuing now in 21st century Oregon. Even as the region suffers from historic drought, its musical wellsprings continue to flow abundantly.

Cascadia Composers percussion concert.

Cascadia Composers percussion concert.

I’ve never seen such a profusion of Oregon music over so long a stretch, so I attended as many concerts as possible (though I missed several that included contemporary Oregon music) to see what this snapshot revealed about contemporary classical music in Oregon 2015. I initially planned to end the survey in April — but the Oregon music just kept pouring forth, as new concerts were announced that also featured works by Oregon composers. That continuing abundance alone is a most welcome sign for anyone who cherishes homegrown music. But it also reveals some neglected areas still in need of exploration.

In this first of a three part series, we’ll look at concerts that perpetuated Harrison and Cage’s West Coast percussion legacy. Part 2 covers concerts that sprinkled Oregon music among sounds that originated elsewhere, and the third installment focuses on concerts devoted to showcasing the work of one Oregon composer, and a wrap up that draws some conclusions based on this rich spring sampling of Oregon contemporary classical music.




Members of The Ensemble and Musica Maestrale rehearse their Celebration Works concert in Portland.

Members of The Ensemble and Musica Maestrale rehearse their  concert, “Monteverdi Madrigali,” in Portland.


The 17th century had just begun, and composer Claudio Monteverdi was fed up. For roughly 200 years, composers across Europe, especially in Italy (then the center of the Western music world), had been working incremental changes on a style that balanced the traditional art of counterpoint – the careful arrangement of many voices, each with their own individuality, flowing together – with the new art of harmony, in which the voices move in lockstep through shifting block chords like a marching band display.

Each new generation tried to outdo the last in developing counterpoint and (especially) harmony, gradually moving farther and farther outside the long-established church modes into displays that today sound a bit like something Richard Wagner might have invented centuries later. There were rumblings of discontent here and there, most notably from the Counter-Reformation, but by and large, the pace picked up as 1600 approached. It was a foretaste of the 20th century’s amped up musical complexity.

Then it was over. In just a few years, leading composers seemed to tire of the whole game. Monteverdi led the pack. They radically simplified counterpoint’s surface, often reducing it to just two independent voices – the highest and lowest – but with intricate twists, as if all the lessons learned up to that time were now to be concentrated in them: polygamy converted to monogamy.


Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich

Undoubtedly one of the last century’s musical giants, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was as prolific as he was bold, compiling one of the most impressive outputs of string quartets since Beethoven. Twice in the past decade, including this week, Portland has been lucky to hear a complete cycle of Shostakovich’s 15 quartets, many containing the kind of personal music the Soviet authorities wouldn’t countenance in his big orchestral works. Beginning Sunday, March 10, at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, Friends of Chamber Music is giving Oregon another complete look at the century’s most impressive single chamber music cycle, courtesy of four concerts by the young Jerusalem Quartet, along with a welcome series of free talks, rehearsals and other audience outreach programs. Some concerts are sold out, so hurry! The series ends on Thursday. FOCM has posted some useful info on its website;  here’s a quick guide to the whole quartet cycle.

Led by Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu, the Oregon Symphony joins the Shostakovich orgy this weekend with a concert featuring his chaotic fifteenth and final symphony, containing quotations from earlier composers including Rossini and Wagner and much more, all very much worth exploring. The programs also include Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bare Mountain” (in the composer’s seldom heard original arrangement) and Saint Saens’ Spanish-scented third violin concerto, featuring soloist Benjamin Schmid.

Both FOCM and OSO shows are part of March Music Moderne, the annual Portland new music festival that gets going in earnest this weekend at Portland’s Community Music Center, with a free concert by the Free Marz String Trio and guests featuring more Shostakovich, ten short marches written by Oregon composers commemorating the centennial of Stravinsky’s music-changing masterpiece, “The Rite of Spring,” and more, including Lutoslawski’s epic string quartet. MMM’s Saturday night show at southeast Portland’s Piano Fort is an installment of The Late Now, the strangest and most fun talk show/performance event you’ve ever seen, featuring more musical modernity, humor, and more. On Sunday at the Community Music Center, Classical Revolution makes one of its many contributions to Oregon music with its showcase of new works by 10 Oregon composers.


The Mousai perform at downtown Portland’s First Presbyterian Church Sunday.

It’s not part of March Music Moderne, but there’s no more appealing concert of contemporary music in Oregon this weekend than the Mousai’s Sunday afternoon showcase at First Presbyterian Church’s Celebration Works series. A nice complement to — and certainly more contemporary and more American than– MMM’s generally cooler, Euro-leaning midcentury modern focus, the concert offers the characteristically American (north and south) rhythms and melodies of Brian DuFord’s Gershwinesque “New York Streetscapes,” Kevin Gray’s African-influenced prepared piano work “Mebasi,” Montana composer David Maslanka’s bucolic “Blue Mountain Meadow,” Paquito D’Rivera’s (better known to jazz fans, and a fine composer) “Danzon,” and a relative oldie, French composer Darius Milhaud’s (who taught for many years at California’s Mills College) 1938 medieval-flavored wind work “King Renee’s Chimney.” The concert also includes the premiere of a brand new work the group commendably commissioned from a young Oregon composer who was featured at last summer’s Chamber Music Northwest, Katrina Kramarchuk.

There’s contemporary music and American music on the program at Consonare Chorale’s Saturday concert at Portland’s First Congregational Church of Christ, with choral music by leading American choral composer Eric Whitacre, Native American music (accompanied by the Cowlitz Indian Tribe Drumming Group), and more. At Eugene’s First Christian Church Saturday night, the Oregon Mozart Players play two works by contemporary composers: “Last Round,” Osvaldo Golijov’s plangent homage to his Argentine compatriot, the tango nuevo composer Astor Piazzolla, and the “Mirabai Songs” by another Boston-area-based composer, John Harbison, one of America’s most respected composers. Oh, and they’ll also play music by their namesake: Mozart’s own quartet arrangement of his Piano Concerto #12, with OMP music director Kelly Kuo playing the solo role.

And there is actually some even older music onstage in this month of modernity, the top choice being Musica Maestrale’s Saturday night show at Portland’s Community Music Center, featuring two top Northwest sopranos: Catherine Olson and Melanie Downie Robinson (familiar from the many other ensembles they’ve sung with) joining lutenist Hideki Yamaya and recorder virtuoso Polly Gibson in a splendid Italian Baroque program of music by Monterverdi, Strozzi, Frescobaldi and more. And there’s more Baroque music in Salem Sunday afternoon when the Salem Chamber Orchestra hosts the fun and fabulous Red Priest ensemble in music by Bach, Vivaldi and more.

Weekend MusicWatch: Tough choices

Music fans will have to stretch far and wide this weekend

Janet Coleman, Sarah Tiedemann, and Diane Chaplin perform George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale at Northwest New Music’s concert last week.

This is the point in the season when Oregon music lovers face a conundrum a lot of places would love to have: too many irresistible concerts, not enough time. So many excellent shows are happening this weekend that it’s impossible to make them all, which is a shame. I wish some of these could get scheduled for the fallower periods of, say, August or December or January, but there are solid reasons why those periods are tough to schedule.

Saturday, for example, we encounter the rare spectacle of two Portland early music concerts directly competing against each other. Do you head over to Grace Memorial Church to hear the Portland Viol Consort (featuring Portland Baroque Orchestra regulars and other historically informed specialists) play Renaissance music by William Byrd and his contemporaries on modern replicas (crafted by Portland luthier Jess Wells) of ancient viols, that impossibly expressive string instrument whose soft voice helped doom it to obsolescence when its louder though no more alluring competitors, and larger performances spaces, came along? Normally, I would, not least because in addition to the viol foursome, the concert features the splendid countertenor Tim Galloway.

Ah, but these aren’t normal times.


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