portland columbia symphony orchestra

ArtsWatch Year in Music 2017

ArtsWatch chronicles a year that showcased women's music, natural inspirations, and institutional evolution

Oregon music is surging, and this year, Oregon ArtsWatch has been your personal surfboard to keep you on top of the tide instead of inundated by it. And to bring you views of the powerful creative forces beneath the waves. This roundup is in no way a comprehensive or even representative sample of the dozens and dozens of music-related previews, reviews, features, interviews, profiles, and more we presented in 2017. Instead, we’ve chosen mostly stories whose value transcends a particular concert, leaned toward Oregon rather than national artists (who can get plenty of press elsewhere), favored music by today’s American composers instead of long-dead Europeans, and tried to represent a variety of voices and approaches. We hope this roundup gives a valuable snapshot of an eventful, fruitful moment in Oregon’s musical culture.

Homegrown Sounds

Although we also write about jazz and other improvised music and other hard-to-classify sounds, ArtsWatch’s primary musical focus has always been contemporary “classical” (a term we’d love to replace with something more accurate) composition by Oregon composers, and this year presented a richer tapestry than ever. As always, Cascadia Composers led the way in presenting new Oregon music in the classical tradition, but others including FearNoMusic, Third Angle New Music, the University of Oregon and even new entities like Burn After Listening also shared homegrown sounds. ArtsWatch readers learned about those shows and composers from accomplished veterans like Kenji Bunch to emerging voices such as Justin Ralls.

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and ?? play with toys at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

Cascadia Composers and Crazy Jane fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum
Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that ‘classical’ ? — Music. JANUARY 20 MATTHEW ANDREWS.

Kenji Bunch: Seeing the Elephant
After returning to home ground, the Portland composer’s career blossoms with commissions from the Oregon Symphony and Eugene Ballet. MARCH 7 BRETT CAMPBELL.

45th Parallel preview: from conflict to collaboration
ArtsWatch review provokes contention, then cooperation as ensemble invites writer to co-curate a concert featuring music by young Oregon composers. MARCH 29  BRETT CAMPBELL. Also read Maria Choban’s review: 45th Parallel review: Horror show .

Burn After Listening: Stacy Phillips, Lisa Ann Marsh, Jennifer Wright.

‘Fire and Ice’ preview: accessible adventure
New Portland composers’ collective’s debut performance includes aerial dance, sculpture, poetry, icy instruments — and a close connection to audiences. APRIL 27 BRETT CAMPBELL

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MusicWatch Weekly: transformations

This week's Oregon concerts feature music that transforms words into music, one kind of music into other kinds, stories into music, and more.

Eugene Symphony
Maybe the best known violin virtuoso in his time was Niccolo Paganini, the early 19th century Italian phenom whose reputation for flashy performances enchanted audiences but also overshadowed his compositions (for guitar and violin) after he died. Simone Porter, a 20-year-old rising star from Seattle joins the orchestra for Paganini’s dazzling first violin concerto from 1818. The orchestra also plays Dvorak’s dark, dramatic seventh symphony and Berlioz’s sizzling Roman Carnival Overture.
Thursday, Hult Center, Eugene.

Ari Shapiro
The NPR newsman, Portland native and occasional Pink Martini guest vocalist brings his new Homeward project, featuring  his stories and songs (accompanied by veteran Portland musicians including at least one regular Pink Martini chanteuse) that Shapiro found were important to displaced people he’s interviewed in far-flung lands.
Thursday-Saturday, World Trade Center #2, 121 SW Salmon, Portland.

Ari Shapiro performs this weekend in his hometown.

Reed Orchestra Concert: In Remembrance
In memory of three of their fellow students who died last year — Mara Gibbs, Nico Villarreal, and Max hero Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche — the students play a free concert of appropriate music: Henry Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, and the Unfinished Symphony by another composer who, like Purcell, died too young.
Thursday, Kaul Auditorium, 3203 Southeast Woodstock, Portland.

Portland Baroque Orchestra
When you think of the great cities of Baroque music, Dublin doesn’t leap to mind. Turns out, the Irish city drew famous performers and composer like Handel and Geminiani, both of whom have works on PBO’s bassoon-boosted program this weekend, along with Vivaldi and others. The ensemble’s own crack bassoonist, Nate Helgeson, joins guest director Peter Whelan in a two-bassoon concerto (transformed from a two-cello concerto) and more.
Friday-Saturday, First Baptist Church, 1110 S.W. Taylor St. and Sunday, Kaul Auditorium, Reed College, 3203 S.E. Woodstock Blvd. Portland.

Ronn McFarlane rocks the Portland Guitar Society Friday.

Ronn McFarlane
The ace lutenist, Baltimore Consort stalwart, and Portland resident gives a too-rare hometown recital, including Renaissance, Baroque, Celtic, and his own splendid original music.
Friday, Marylhurst University’s Wiegand Hall, 17600 SW Pacific Highway, Marylhurst.

Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra
Piano star Andreas Klein takes the solo spotlight in Beethoven’s spectacular Piano Concerto #4, and the orchestra also plays a Beethoven overture and a neglected 20th century masterpiece: the Variaciones Concertantes by Argentina’s most venerated composer, Alberto Ginastera, whose frenzied conclusion was inspired by the dueling cowboy dances of Argentine gauchos.
Friday, First United Methodist Church, and Sunday, Reynolds High School Performing Arts Center, Portland.

Nonsense: The Fantastical Musical Multiverses of Daniel Brugh
In Cascadia Composers concerts over the years, Dan Brugh has forged a distinctive aesthetic, at once a kind of mad genius of Portland contemporary classical music as well as a composer whose music reaches beyond the traditional classical audience to embrace electronic textures, audience-appealing stage sensibility, and 21st century artistic ambition. This free concert taking place in an appropriately offbeat venue (a Portland design firm) includes three keyboardists, singer, clarinet, narrator, contemporary dance (courtesy of Portland’s Agnieszka Laska Dancers), unusual tunings and sounds, colorful synth wizardry, absurdist poetry, and even flying fish.
Saturday, The Place, 735 NW 18th Ave. Portland.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Oregon Symphony reviews: making old music new

On a single May weekend, two Portland orchestras tried different approaches to renewing a venerable musical form

“All music was new to start out with,” said the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra executive director Betsy Hatton from the stage steps at First United United Methodist Church.

I can appreciate her gentle chiding: it’s a rare thing to go to an orchestra concert with any new music at all on the bill. So it was a pleasant surprise to attend a concert where an Oregon orchestra performed works by not one but two living composers.

Steven Byess led Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra’s season-ending concert.

First, though, concertmaster Dawn Carter and director-conductor Steven Byess warmed us up on some old music: Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. I had somehow never heard the PCSO before, and I was immediately impressed by their balanced sound: spry and nuanced and playful and a little melancholy. The strings sounded especially crisp and articulate, warm and expressive but not washy (at least, not where I was sitting). My heart warmed to the lovely horn playing, a rare treat, while the oboe’s insouciant tone on some of the bluer melodicles reminded me of just how much Gershwin owed to Debussy. Principal flutist Liberty Broillet nailed that difficult and oh-so-tonally-important quiet C#-centered motive that recurs throughout the little tone poem like the titular faun’s pan pipe (not for nothing is that C# one of the flute’s most difficult notes).

I was struck by how freshly old the music sounded, if I may be forgiven the paradox: I’ve heard this piece hundreds of times, and while it never sounds new, it never really sounds old either. PCSO made it sound appropriately timeless. Colorful, dreamy, luxuriant, detailed Debussy is a composer much better suited to live listening than recordings, and by the end of I was all chilled out and ready for some New Music.

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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.

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Hampton Opera Center will be the new home of Portland's all-classical radio station.

Hampton Opera Center will be the new home of Portland’s all-classical radio station.

See me, hear me / Don’t you know you can’t get near me / You can only hope to hear me / On your radio. –Joe Jackson, “On Your Radio.”

If you’d been reading ArtsWatch’s Facebook page Monday morning, you’d have been among the first to get the early word about a big move in Oregon classical music: namely, that Portland’s KQAC, one of the nation’s few classical radio stations, is moving from the bunker-like building it’s leased for two decades from Portland Public Schools to the second floor of the Hampton Opera Center, when its lease expires in December. As Elvis Costello sang, radio is a sound salvation, but this move’s importance goes beyond what Oregonians can hear over the airwaves and the intertubes. It could open up new possibilities for Oregon music.

Station communication director Mary Evjen told ArtsWatch that the move will double the listener-supported station’s space for operations, raise its public profile as a separate entity from PPS (and for that matter Oregon Public Broadcasting, with which it’s too often confused by potential donors), and allow in-studio live performances and more social functions – not to mention providing a refreshing dose of sunlight to the on-air hosts who have long labored in mole-like conditions.

“Every nook and cranny [in the station’s current space] is filled, including an old storage attic,” Evjen said, adding that the station’s semiannual open houses are “stuffed to the gills. It’s like inviting 200 people into your home with no reception area.”

The opera building, located next to Oregon Museum of Science & Industry on the east bank of the Willamette River, used to be a television station (Fox 12), and having that broadcast infrastructure in place will make the renovation much easier, she said. According to the press release, “the $2 million renovation cost is being funded by gifts from individuals, corporations, and foundations.” The planning, renovation and move are slated to be completed by the end of December.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 30th anniversary this weekend

 

Last week’s MusicWatch was derailed by the fact that the prime upcoming musical offerings were either sold out or involved that sort of music in which neither the player nor the listener knows precisely what notes will be played. And in fact, the Portland Jazz Festival concerts I attended (especially those featuring Seattle-based guitar deity Bill Frisell, pianist Vijay Iyer with Indian musicians in his Tirtha trio, Italian trumpeter/composer Enrico Rava and a hot young band featuring the most powerful trombonist I’ve ever seen, and guitarist Charlie Hunter) all reached numerous musical peaks.

The PJF is certainly one of Oregon’s most valuable musical institutions, and not just for bringing such worthy internationally known performers to town, both during the annual February festival and throughout the year. This year especially, the festival made even more of a point of featuring Oregon jazzers in showcases around town and even opening for some of the legends — a policy I wish more of our music institutions would adopt.

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