renee favand-see

Resonance Ensemble review: context counts

Portland composer's impressive choral composition eclipses concert's other programming


Be careful with your programming.

This advice would have been well heeded by Katherine FitzGibbon in putting together the June 24 concert of her choir Resonance Ensemble at Portland’s Yale Union. Instead, what might have been a cohesive program of music in support of the featured selection, a very well-crafted piece by a local composer, became a very mixed bag of good, bad, and boring music.

Resonance Ensemble’s Katherine FitzGibbon and composer Renée Favand-See. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar Photography.

The main attraction, Only in Falling, which Resonance commissioned and premiered in 2014, is a 25-minute essay in five parts, each a setting of verses by Kentucky poet Wendell Berry (b. 1934). The poetry itself is very strong in its evocation of nature, especially in the first three movements, and composer Renée Favand-See does it justice in short bursts of sensitive part-writing. The second movement, “For the Future,“ made skillful use of Resonance Ensemble’s seven male singers (eight were listed in the program), and the third, “Woods,” proved a lovely vehicle for mezzo-soprano Cecily Kiester.

The music was just as interesting and even beautiful in the fourth and fifth movements, but these suffered from an overload of text. The fourth, “The Law That Marries All Things,” is in five separate parts, and although soprano Lindsey Cafferky, tenor Les Green and baritone Kevin Walsh sang their solos convincingly, the music dragged out to nine minutes and failed to have the impact of the shorter opening three movements, which lasted a total of eight minutes together. And in movement five, “The Wheel,” the long text, declaimed rapidly, was utterly lost despite the efforts of Mr. Green and soprano Vakaré Petroliunaité.

Still, the overall effect of Ms. Favand-See’s piece is overwhelmingly positive; it shows a genuine composer’s gift in its melodies and structures, and one looks forward to its release on a recording soon. On the other hand, there is no excuse for presenting Nikole Potulsky’s amateurish and lame three-minute song “Baby Mine,” which the composer sang, accompanying herself (amateurishly) on guitar, on which her repertoire consisted of three chords (I-IV-V). However unfortunate it was that Ms. Potulsky was mourning the death of three babies — in her own miscarriage and in a friend’s and a cousin’s still-births — there’s no reason to allow empathy to overrule musical taste and judgment.

Video: Alan Niven, Wolf Traks.

In contrast, Dominick Di Orio’s five-minute You Do Not Walk Alone featured a very effective repeated gesture of pausing on a dissonant chord on the word “walk” before finally resolving into a consonance emphasizing the title’s message. And Steven Sametz’s I Have Had Singing, although only two minutes long, was an excellent setting of a wonderful quote from Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, Portland of an English Village (1969), well worth printing here in its eloquent entirety:

The singing. There was so much singing then and this was my pleasure, too. We all sang, the boys in the field, the chapels were full of singing. Here I lie: I have had pleasure enough; I have had singing.

A piece called Last Letter Home by the well-known American choral composer Lee Hoiby (1926-2011) was skillful enough in its writing, but it dipped into bathos in quoting in full a soldier’s longish letter to his wife, and it consisted of seven unrelenting minutes of homophony, in which all the singers sang the text together in hymn-like harmony. Jake Runestad’s The Peace of Wild Things, on yet another text by Wendell Berry, also relied monotonously on homophony, although with occasional repetitions.


Cascadia Composers fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum

Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that 'classical' ? — music

Cascadia Composers can’t put on a boring concert. The organization of composers based primarily in the Northwest is only halfway through its 2016-17 season and already I’ve seen:

  • e-bow-generated harpsichord drones played on a dark stage, with the composer draped in blue LED lights and projections of cymatically stimulated beads of blue water dancing in time to the music;
  • a stack of toy pianos played by five composers crammed all together, music clutched in their hands or squinched in between the tiny wooden legs;
  • duets between cello and doumbek, between clarinet and electronics, between pianists wearing flamboyant wigs and chasing each other around their instrument, screeching like wild cats;
  • a simple pastoral song about barnyard animals turn into a horrifying depiction of slaughter;
  • a choir imitating an alarm clock, a forest, a goddess, a rose.

Jennifer Wright performs her ‘You Cannot LIberate Me…’ Photo: Matias Brecher.

This is what happens when Oregon composers get together and make music. Taken together, the concerts presented a snapshot of contemporary Oregon’s surprisingly rich and diverse contemporary classical music scene.

A Cuba con Amor

The first Cascadia concert of the season, October’s A Cuba con Amor, featured works written for the group’s first-ever composer exchange: the concert’s six composers traveled to Cuba the following month to have their works performed there by local musicians in the 29th Annual Festival de La Habana. This was the concert with the toy pianos (Jennifer Wright’s semi-aleatoric X Chromosome), the doumbek and cello (Paul Safar’s Cat on a Wire), the clarinet and electronics (“synth wizard” Daniel Brugh’s Fantasia), and an evening’s worth of lovely music. I was especially pleased to hear so much music written for strings, including Brugh’s Reticulum for tenor and string quartet and no less than three pieces for piano trio (Safar’s A Trio of Dances, Art Resnick’s Images of a Trip, and Cascadia co-founder David Bernstein’s Late Autumn Moods and Images).

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and Max Weisenbloom play with toys on Wright’s ‘X-Chromosome’ at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

One particularly memorable moment was Ted Clifford’s melodica solo during the middle movement of his composition Child’s Play. As the newest composer in the Cascadia stable, seeing this family of composers at work on and off stage (and afterward at a nearby watering hole) made me feel fantastic about joining up.


‘The Clearing’ review: European present, American absence

Portland Piano International's three-day festival examines the state of the European Union’s contemporary classical music and its 20th century roots


“Clearing” is such a paradoxical word. It refers to the absence of something – storm, forest, piles of stuff – but at the same time invites contemplation of what comes to life in the cleared space. What first struck me about Portland Piano International’s three day, four evening festival of nominally contemporary piano music, “The Clearing,” the long weekend after the election was what was absent: American composers, aside from Elliott Carter, a composer with a long lifetime of ties to Europe.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Rich Brase.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Rich Brase.

Also, much of the repertory was not at all new: pre-World War II works by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, and music written immediately after the war by Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen and György Ligeti, who with Boulez’s passing just this year at the age of 90 are all gone now. These works were included primarily for historical perspective, and the narrow Eurocentrism of the repertory turned out to be only natural: PPI had appointed Serbian pianist Tamara Stefanovich to curate the festival, and she along with Pierre-Laurent Aimard make up what may be Europe’s reigning power couple of contemporary piano. And so the festival, held at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, turned out to be a lively and fascinating window into the world of European art music from the mid 20th century on, in all its uncertain glory.


Chamber Music Northwest premieres Reed College professor David Schiff's new composition

This weekend brings a pair of new works to Portland, created by one of the city’s most esteemed composers and one of its newest. Both appear in concerts that bridge seemingly disparate musical worlds.

On Friday, veteran Chamber Music Northwest musicians make a winter visit to their usual summer home to perform one of the most creatively destructive works in the history of art, Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. To complement that spooky 1912 masterpiece — not coincidentally, the centennial  of Reed College, where it’ll be performed as part of the school’s 100th birthday celebrations — Reed professor and composer David Schiff composed a new work for the same instrumental combo (known for decades as the “Pierrot ensemble,” which includes  flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano and often finds the musicians doubling on other instruments like bass clarinet, piccolo, viola etc.).

“As soon as I heard they were planning a Pierrot Lunaire, I decided to mix up high and low and complicate the story of modern music,” Schiff told me last week, “so I proposed that I’d write a suite for the instruments of Pierrot based on popular music of the time.”


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