peter bilotta

Cascadia Composers and Third Angle reviews: Northwest inspirations

Oregon composers create music inspired by the sounds of their home

With all the natural beauty that surrounds us, it’s no surprise that so many Oregon artists, including composers, turn to it for inspiration. Two spring concerts showed that despite this common impulse, the state’s natural and other sights and sounds are simply too diverse to sonically stereotype.

In celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, Third Angle New Music commissioned three Oregon composers to write new works inspired by nature. It’s a testament to our state’s musical and natural variety that the three pieces performed in April at Third Angle’s Solo Hikes concert in southeast Portland’s Studio 2 @ New Expressive Works came out so utterly different.

As it turned out, the hikes weren’t really solo. Each composer relied heavily on contributions from the performers, and they in turn had help (projections, pre-recorded sounds, the audience) that augmented their instruments. The concert was a reminder that you’re never really alone, in music or in nature.

Marilyn de Oliviera at Third Angle’s ‘Solo Hikes.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

Christina Rusnak’s Glacier Blue came closest to what you’d expect of nature inspired sounds. (Think Vivaldi and other Baroque composers, Debussy, and others who sought to evoke nature’s sights and phenomena through sound painting.) Maybe abetted by the projections of the northern Montana wilderness that inspired it, I could feel the expansiveness of the mountain lake, thrill to the starry sky (evoked by plucked notes), hear the rushing waterfall. To cellist Marilyn de Oliviera (who displayed a lovely, rich tone throughout) and Rusnak’s credit, the piece sounded like an organic whole rather than a succession of programmatic devices.

In fact, the performers, who were deeply involved in the realization of these creations, really deserve equal credit for the success of all three compositions. In Matt Marble’s Arachnomancy, saxophonist John Nastos (plus pre-recorded soundtrack that emitted different electronic textures, from metallic bells to staticky drone) brought a similarly evocative tone and atmosphere, a bit reminiscent of In a Silent Way era Miles Davis’s band or some of Charles Lloyd’s more pastoral passages. Eschewing the complex virtuosity I’ve heard Nastos deploy in jazzier contexts, his long-breathed phrases evoked the orderly beauty of the spider web patterns that inspired it.  I can imagine different interpretations by different instrumentalists with different backgrounds and styles, but this one worked persuasively.

John Nastos at ‘Solo Hikes.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

Even more than Marble’s, Brian McWhorter’s Outside In depends on the performer and the performance. And it’s even more distant from nature sound painting, because it’s a process piece that, unbeknown to the audience, asks the performer to respond to the ambient sounds he’s hearing in the moment. So if someone dropped a program, say, Oregon Symphony percussionist Sergio Carreno would respond by smacking something that made a similar sound, and incorporate that sound into his repertoire. He entered, sat, and waited.


Chamber Music Northwest review: New music for old people?

Summer festival's new music and outreach efforts bring a broader audience, but not necessarily a young one.

Open the program book for this year’s Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival, and the first thing you see on the inside front cover is a full-page ad featuring a pair of beaming septuagenarians shilling for Medicare Advantage. No question about it: despite the festival’s ardent efforts to broaden its audience, detailed in our previous post, like most classical music presenters, its core consists of admirable elders who won’t be around to support it in another decade or so.

How can classical music concerts draw broader — and especially younger — audiences? A new study, for example, suggests that “older people are more interested in music as an intense, inner experience, while younger ones view it as a way of escaping bad moods and connecting with friends.” Presenters who want to attract the broadest audiences therefore must try to create experiences that provide all of the above; those factors don’t sound mutually exclusive.

One obvious place to start is by programming music created during the lifetimes of the audiences you want to attract. Of course, it depends on which music you pick, since much of the listener unfriendly new music of the middle of the last century drove away a good portion of the classical music audience, a blow that presenters still haven’t recovered from, despite the fact that we’ve had at least a couple of generations of composers writing in more accessible styles. And no matter how ear-friendly the sounds, presenting compositions by unfamiliar names (i.e., anyone born after about 1940) risks cutting into the conservative core audience that, though dwindling, still pays most of the bills. It’s a tough dilemma that CMNW is working hard to solve.

Tara Helen O'Connor, Yekwon Sunwoo, Kenji-Bunch, David Shifrin and Fred Sherry premiered Bunch's "Ralph's Old Records" at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom-Emerson.

Tara Helen O’Connor, Yekwon Sunwoo, Kenji-Bunch, David Shifrin and Fred Sherry premiered Bunch’s “Ralph’s Old Records” at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

As we saw in the previous installment, the annual summer festival’s inaugural New@Noon series provided a valuable injection of new music into a classical music scene desperately in need of rejuvenation. But some of the best new music I heard at CMNW didn’t even appear on that new series. Judging by the enthusiastic response to CMNW’s “regular” July 7 concert at Lincoln Hall concert featuring new music by Portland’s Kenji Bunch and Pulitzer Prize winning New York composer David Lang, even CMNW listeners who came to the to hear Mozart found plenty to enjoy in 21st century American sounds as well. That integration of old music and new points the way to broadening the audience for classical music. And as we’ll see in a conversation with the festival’s director, that’s only one of many lessons this summer’s festival offers for the future of CMNW, chamber music, and classical music in general.


ArtsWatch News & Notes: Peter Bilotta dives into change at Chamber Music Northwest

The venerable chamber music organization has a new executive who want so speed up its evolution

OCTOBER 7, 2013—Because he grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, the first time he attended a chamber music concert, Peter Bilotta, the energetic new executive director of Chamber Music Northwest, naturally went to hear the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Even in the early ‘90s, the SPCO programmed pretty adventurously, and this particular concert featured Nigel Kennedy, who had started as a straight-ahead classical violinist and then enthusiastically embraced other forms from klezmer to jazz.

That night Kennedy performed his jazzy, distinctive version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” (still the best selling classical music recording of all time), and Bilotta, who had already begun to develop a taste for the more experimental side of music and theater added chamber music to his list.

The Chamber Music Northwest audience joined  composer Andy Akiho  onstage at Mississippi Studio./Jim Leisy

The Chamber Music Northwest audience joined composer Andy Akiho onstage at Mississippi Studio./Jim Leisy

Fast forward 20 some years later and stints at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and the past eight years as the head of development at the Portland Opera, and Bilotta is in a position to accelerate the evolution of Chamber Music Northwest. And that’s exactly what he says he hopes to do.

“We can’t make any assumptions about our audience, our community, the work we do, or the conventions about how arts organizations should run,” Bilotta said toward the end of our conversation.


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