steve reich

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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Third Angle review: Riding the rails with Reich

Unusual rail museum venue adds dimension to new music ensemble's performance of Steve Reich's string quartets

It is not uncommon to hear classical chamber music performed in a museum, but on first sight it seemed absurdly incongruous to see an audience crammed between two rows of old trains listening to a string quartet play along with set of speakers.

Nevertheless, Portland new music ensemble Third Angle New Music decided to celebrate the composer Steve Reich’s 80th birthday under a massive creaking metal fan between rows of stately locomotive behemoths from another age on a rainy night down at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center on the east end of Portland’s newest bridge, Tillikum Crossing Bridge of the People.

Third Angle New Music played string quartets by Steve Reich at Oregon Rail Heritage Museum. Photo: Jacob Wade.

Third Angle New Music played string quartets by Steve Reich at Oregon Rail Heritage Museum. Photo: Jacob Wade.

The beauty of Reich’s music is that it is both formally engaging (in the purely musical dimension) and profoundly meaningful (in the extramusical dimension). In their fifteen years playing Steve Reich, Third Angle has become adept at bringing forth all that his music is and signifies, and this unique concert setting made for a profoundly moving experience.

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And suddenly it’s October. Among other things – pumpkin patches, Yom Kippur, the World Series, Halloween – that means we’re two days from First Thursday, Portland’s monthly gallery hop of new shows. This week’s visual art calendar is a doozy, from open studios to Warhol with lots between.

A few of the highlights:

James Lavadour Ruby II, 2016 oil on panel 32" x 48"

James Lavadour, “Ruby II,” 2016, oil on panel, 32″ x 48.” PDX Contemporary.

James Lavadour at PDX Contemporary. It’s always a good day when new work by Lavadour, the veteran landscape expressionist from Pendleton, comes to town. This show, called Ledger of Days, furthers his exploration of the land and its mysteries. “A painting is a structure for the extraordinary and informative events of nature that are otherwise invisible,” he writes. “A painting is a model for infinity.” Lavadour is also one of the moving forces behind Pendleton’s innovative and essential Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. Watch for what’s coming up.

The new Russo Lee Gallery: 30 years. What you’ve known for years as Laura Russo Gallery is celebrating three decades with a showing of new work by its distinguished stable of artists – and with a new name. The name is a fusion of the gallery’s long tradition and current reality. After founder Laura Russo died in 2010, her longtime employee Martha Lee bought the business and continues to operate it. This show promises to be a statement of sorts, and will have a catalog available.

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Third Angle preview: Reich on Rails

Portland new music ensemble's concerts celebrate the 80th birthday of one of the world's greatest living composers

When Steve Reich was a child in the 1940s, his parents separated, one living in California, the other New York. The young Jewish boy rode the rails back and forth across the country to see them.

Meanwhile, in Europe, other Jewish children were riding very different trains, taking them to their death in Nazi concentration camps. Had circumstances been different, Reich, now one of the world’s most revered composers, might have been one of them.

Third Angle string quartet. Photo: Evan Lewis.

Third Angle string quartet. Photo: Evan Lewis.

Reich musically portrayed these different fates in his 1988 composition Different Trains, which blended the recorded voices of Holocaust survivors (including one from Portland), the governess who accompanied Reich on those journeys, and a Pullman porter of the time with string quartet music whose rhythms were based on the rhythms of their speech.

This weekend, just days before his October 3 birthday, Portland’s Third Angle New Music performs that work and Reich’s two other string quartets in concerts that celebrate the composer’s 80th birthday, joining a long list of orchestras and ensembles around the world honoring one of America’s most revered musical originals.

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Minimalism & Millennials: Generation gap?

Minimalist music in Third Angle’s Reich-analia strikes one millennial musician as manipulative

By TRISTAN BLISS

Locational obliviousness combined with missing my first exit and leaving my apartment late due to compositional tunnel vision had me literally running up the stairs in the Montgomery Park Atrium on January 30 as Steve Reich’s Sextet began.

Heavy breaths and forced stillness; running to sit; momentum to dead-space; being on the very cusp of arriving late where every movement matters. Yet upon punctual arrival it all seems so pointless, which is coincidentally the feeling I arrived and left Third Angle’s Reich-analia with, originally due to my poor timing, but sustained by the music:

This is not an idea. Tthis is not an idea. Ththis is not an idea. Thithis is not an idea. Thisthis is
not an idea. This ithis is not an idea. This isthis is not an idea. This is nthis is not an idea. This is nothis is not an idea. This is notthis is not an idea. This is not athis is not an idea. This is not
anthis is not an idea. This is not an ithis is not an idea. This is not an idthis is not an idea. This is not an idethis is not an idea. This is not an idea. This is not an idea.

I’m sorry, let me clarify my thoughts on long-term phasing as a compositional tool. Or as eminent classical music scholar Richard Taruskin, author of the Oxford History of Western Music and other books, said of Reich’s contemporary Philip Glass’s five hour opera Einstein on the Beach: “it’s basic behavior-modification therapy, and so far from spontaneous or liberating, it is calculated authoritarian manipulation. I find it sinister. . .”

Third Angle New Music brought So Percussion to Portland to play music by Steve Reich.

Third Angle New Music brought So Percussion to Portland to play music by Steve Reich.

It’s this mechanical nature of strict minimalist ideas that fails to differentiate the early Minimalist movement from that of Modernism. Sure, the harmonic language had changed, but the same insipid relation to human existence outside of rhythmic patterns or various serialization schemes is the predominant aesthetic feature of both. The Modernists had their twelve-tone rows, mathematics, and cold Stochastic practices, while the Minimalists had their mathematical development of rhythmic motives producing phasing, and obsession with these pattern cycles at the expense of listenability and emotional impact. Life is more than patterns, twelve-tone rows and clever justifications for breaking the rules, jobs, school, social expectations, and all that stupid shit.

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Weekend MusicWatch: Reich rules

Previews of Oregon music events November 9-13

Third Angle plays Steve Reich Saturday

Contemporary Sounds

“Reich-a-nalia,” Third Angle, Saturday, November 10, Atrium at Montgomery Park: Portland’s premiere new music ensemble has had a thing for America’s greatest living composer, Steve Reich, for some years now, and even brought him to Portland a few years back. Last year, the band performed his music at an unusual and seemingly inviting venue: the spacious Atrium at northwest Portland’s Montgomery Park office building, which did somewhat break down the invisible barrier between audience and performers. But for whatever reason, the sound amplification was dreadfully muddy, blurring Reich’s signature intricate interlocking melody lines. The shaky student singing also sounded closer to the 19th century opera the composer loathes than to the pure early music sound his music demands. Third Angle is reprising its Reichfest at Montgomery Park this year, with an even stronger program — including perhaps the high point of minimalism and the zenith of postwar 20th century American music, Reich’s mesmerizing 1976 epic, “Music for 18 Musicians.” Considering that this year’s program includes two of Reich’s inventive “counterpoints” for clarinet and guitar (with Portland jazz guitar great Dan Balmer taking over Pat Metheny’s solo part), professional singers from Cappella Romana, and the fact that the band has had a year to work out the sonic kinks with the space, it’s a top recommendation for this season’s music schedule.

“Crazy Jane,” Cascadia Composers, Friday, November 9, Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church, Portland: Some of the most adventurous music I’ve heard at Cascadia Composers concerts over the past few years has come from its female members, and last year’s all-women composers Crazy Jane (named after a W.B. Yeats character modeled on a real woman) concert was one of the group’s best. On Friday, several of the organization’s women again present new Oregon music by Bonnie Miksch, Jan Mittlestaedt, Lisa Marsh and others created collaboratively with other female artists — poets, visual artists, dancers and more.

Dick Hyman and Lindsay Deutsch, Saturday, November 10, The Shedd, Eugene: Jazz meets classical music, and early electronica meets earlier acoustica when legendary jazz pianist and arranger Hyman (who soundtracked many of Woody Allen’s movies and possesses an encyclopedic expertise in jazz history) joins young LA based violinist Deutsch (who played with the Eugene Symphony last year) and a trio of Eugene-based classical players (violinist Fritz Gearhart, violist Leslie Straka, cellist Steven Pologe) in Hyman’s chamber compositions — including a version of his 1968 electronic music composition, “The Minotaur” (which, as we’ll tell you next week, by coincidence will be performed next weekend in Portland by a different piano and violin duo).

Molly Barth, Pius Cheung, David Riley, Tuesday, November 13, Beall Concert Hall, University of Oregon, Eugene: the erstwhile eighth blackbird flute virtuosa and current Beta Collider joins fellow UO faculty percussionist Pius Cheung and pianist David Riley in music by David Lang (a recent Third Angle guest in Portland), Toru Takemitsu, and more.

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Portland Piano International puts the piano front and center

At most solo piano performances, you’re much likelier to get 19th and early 20th century virtuoso exercises by the likes of Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, with the occasional Ravel or Debussy tidbit, than anything contemporary or adventurous. Piano recitals too often exemplify the obsession with in-group virtuosity — let’s see who can play this great Romantic masterpiece just an eensy bit faster, or more precisely, than last year’s favorite, and by the way, who do you like better, Horowitz or Arrau in that etude, and which recording? And that obscures the music’s substance.

That doesn’t mean that Portland Piano International (PPI), the recital series founded in the late 1970s by former Portland State University faculty pianist Harold Gray, isn’t one of the city’s most valuable musical treasures. The program has, after all, gifted us with powerful performances by Murray Perahia, Mitsuko Uchida, Richard Goode and so many other magnificent keyboard wizards, including some rising stars.

The weeklong summer festival added in 1999 has amplified its value to the community by incorporating an educational element — lectures, master classes, films and more. It’s a great resource for students and educators and one of the highlights or Portland’s musical summers. But it wasn’t where I was expecting to find the shock of the new.

This summer’s Portland International Piano Festival (PIPF), held as always in the intimate confines of Miller Hall at the World Forestry Center in Portland’s Washington Park from July 12-17, certainly confounded those expectations. I wasn’t able to make it to every performance or the ancillary programming, but the recitals I did see provided as fascinating a traversal of today’s music as I’ve seen in Oregon this year. If the series keeps this up, Oregon will have found a new wellspring of contemporary sounds in one of the least likely locales — the new music equivalent of discovering a verdant oasis in the desert.

Anthony de Mare has made a valuable career out of playing contemporary American music, and his PIPF concert a couple of years ago remains one of my favorites. He’s commissioned some of today’s leading composers to create new versions of songs by an American composer who, by virtue of working in what’s now regarded as a corner (though what used to be the center) of  American music, is often overlooked on those lists of greatest living composers. Yet how can anyone ignore the staggering accomplishments of Stephen Sondheim, whose music has dominated American musical theater for the past four decades?

Anthony de Mare

De Mare’s set kicked off energetically — and ominously — with Portland native Kenji Bunch’s pounding “The Demon Barber” from Sweeney Todd (annoyingly accompanied by a piano bench that squealed whenever DeMare moved — and these pieces required the buff, compact virtuoso to move a lot), and proceeded through works by Seattle native and Pulitzer Prize winner William Bolcom (pleasant but slight), Ricky Ian Gordon (poignant) and others. The program ranged from obscurities (a fine number dropped from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum rendered here as a lounge jazz toe-tapper worthy, if that’s the word, of Michael Feinstein;  another from the criminally underrated Merrily We Roll Along) to America’s greatest living composer, Steve Reich’s (Steve R. covers Steve S! Who woulda thunk it?) pulsating take on “Finishing The Hat,” from Sondheim’s greatest work, Sunday in the Park with George. It sounded like the next entry in Reich’s “Counterpoints” series for various solo instruments played over pre-recorded tracks (which de Mare used here).

The most entertaining moment occurred before intermission, when another page turner somewhat mysteriously appeared. The reason for the presence of New York actor Daniel Sherman (who really is also an actual page turner) soon became clear as the pair engaged in a cleverly choreographed and precisely timed series of comic moves — all while de Mare played Erick Rockwell’s tangy take on “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” — that would have done Victor Borge proud. It’s so welcome to see humor in piano and new music performances, which too often share nothing but overabundant solemnity. De Mare’s illuminating stage comments relaxed the atmosphere, too.

Other highlights included a brilliant “The Ladies Who Lunch” from the ever-adventurous David Rakowski and an epic take on Follies’ beautiful “Losing My Mind” from Pulitzer winner Paul Moravec. Placid, limpid works by jazz pianist composer Fred Hersch and Britain’s Mark Anthony Turnage (delivered shortly before the performance and performed as an encore) provided welcome contrasts.

The whole program demonstrated the virtues and vices of show tunes, and Sondheim’s amazing ability to transcend the genre’s limitations. Throughout his career, Sondheim has been dismissed by some as primarily a lyricist (thanks to his work in his breakthrough with West Side Story) whose wry, tart tunes couldn’t match the great Broadway tunesmiths who preceded him — Rodgers, Kern, Arlen, et al. But this performance showed just how much musical muscle powers those durable tunes. I’d hadn’t seen some of these musicals in years. And yet, I immediately recognized every tune, no matter how disguised or transformed. If anyone still doubted Sondheim’s prowess as an instrumental composer, this project should firmly lay those doubts to rest.

De Mare is still soliciting compositions  — alas, a planned centennial commission from Sondheim’s teacher, Milton Babbitt (whose thorny music ranges about as far from Broadway as can be imagined), expired along with the composer earlier this year — and he hopes to have more ready for a planned New York performance with Sondheim in attendance next year. He told me that Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson has just signed up to take on “Send in the Clowns.” That should be rich.

California pianist Lara Downes commendably devoted her entire first program to 20th century works by American composers, who are so often shamefully overlooked in American classical music programs in general and piano music in particular. Everyone knew the orchestral classics — George Gershwin’s jazzy Rhapsody in Blue and the four dance episodes from Aaron Copland’s magnificent ballet Rodeo — she played in solo piano versions, but hearing them in this context reminded us of their purely musical power when shorn of other associations. I treasured even more her revival of Copland’s rarely heard Four Piano Blues, Samuel Barber’s Coplandish Excursions, and early African American composer Florence Price’s Fantasie Negre.

Lara Downes

Downes’s second performance/talk (repeated in the cozy confines of Vie de Boheme winery — a classical-in-the-clubs strategy I hope the festival retains) showcased another new music project, a dozen new works based on the famous opening aria of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, commissioned by the Gilmore Festival and due for CD release next month. At the wine bar, Downes played a half dozen of the variations back to back without naming the composers, which at first annoyed me but then made me really focus on the music (was that a 12-tone piece? Did I hear a little jazz thing happen? Ah, there goes a fugue!) instead of preconceptions. It made me listen much more intensely than I normally do at yet another Chopin recital. And like de Mare, Downes was happy to chat with audience members about her project and even solicited their responses to the music — including, at the WFC talk, artistic and musical replies.

For me, the highlights of this summer’s festival (as it is every time I hear her play, usually in the Bay Area) were San Francisco pianist Sarah Cahill’s two performances. The first featured early works in the American experimental tradition, including the great California composer/connector/piano prodigy Henry Cowell, who electrified audiences around the world in the 1920s with his dazzling original piano works that involved plucking the strings inside the instrument, tone clusters (smashing adjacent keys with a forearm) and other avant-garde techniques. As always, Cahill brought out the musicality, not just the flamboyance and novelty of these sometimes flashy pieces, especially the powerful 1938 Rhythmicana. She also played intriguing music by (and with) Portland’s own Tomas Svoboda, neglected American composer Dane Rudhyar, and striking renditions of three of Ruth Crawford’s lovely preludes, landmarks of the 1920s.

Cahill’s second show offered yet another creative project. Cahill has commissioned some of today’s greatest composers to write music on the theme of peace and war. Her lucid explanations helped listeners understand how music without words can convey anti-war sentiments. Every piece had something to offer, from Meredith Monk’s somber repetitive Steppe Music excerpt to Rzewski’s both sensuous and sometimes dissonant Peace Dances to Paul Dresher’s searching, minimalist-driven Two, Entwined (which Cahill said was inspired by a photo of President Obama with right-wing Israeli President Netanyahu), another minimalist-influenced work by Japan’s Mamoru Fujieda, and most memorably, the great California minimalist pioneer Terry Riley’s Be Kind to One Another, whose bluesy chords, “let’s try this” detours, textural shifts, repetitive structures and impulsive digressions reminded me of one of the one-time jazz pianist’s famous live piano improvisations, like walking down a previously unknown path and delighting in what he discovered there.

Stephanie & Saar

Unfortunately, a conflicting Chamber Music Northwest show made me miss Christopher O’Riley’s  concert devoted to the music of Schumann and Portland rocker Elliott Smith, but I did get to hear the vividly virtuosic duo Stephanie & Saar play music by John Adams, Gershwin,  Herbert Deutsch, and their phenomenal two-piano version of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petrouchka, a prodigious feat of memory and near orchestral color. I also regretted missing a concert of music sponsored by one of the state’s most valuable artistic entities, the increasingly active Cascadia Composers organization, featuring music by Oregon composers played by local piano students, and Catherine Kautsky’s performance of Frederic Rzewski’s classic De Profundis, which drew raves. But I did notice a lot of familiar faces from those circles, composers and audience members alike. Clearly, the emphasis on contemporary music is broadening PPI’s listenership.

And it’s also bringing new and thrilling sounds to Portland. We can’t always get brand new commissions, although between these three and the Brentano Quartet’s excellent project, offered during Chamber Music Northwest a week earlier, that commissioned composers to engage with various unifinished classical works, Portland sure reaped a bountiful harvest of new music in July. But the 20th and 21st centuries offer plenty of excellent keyboard music — John Cage’s pre-chance Sonatas and Interludes for prepared Piano remain one of the 20th century’s greatest musical achievements, and modern composers such as Riley, Messiaen, Cowell, Rzewski, Philip Glass, and lesser known figures such as William Duckworth, Kyle Gann, and Rakowski continue to prove that much great music remains to be found in those 88 keys.

While this wasn’t the the first time PPI had brought de Mare, Cahill, and American music to town, the summer festival had never presented so much new and homegrown music, much less built the series around them.Portland Piano International’s regular season recitals now also include unusual and contemporary programming, like last year’s toy piano performance at Doug Fir Lounge, with more to come next season, according to PPI executive director Patricia Price, including prepared piano by the German innovator Hauschka next June and Uri Caine’s jazz-classical intersections next month, Tuesday, September 20. Price says audience response has been “extremely positive,” and I’ve spotted plenty of stereotypically older fans at PPI’s (and CMNW’s) club shows, so the new emphasis on new music is working both ways — new listeners to old venues, and vice versa.

There will always be a place for the museum function of classical music — live performances of classics from throughout the centuries. But many museums also focus on contemporary art, and initiatives like PPI’s “The Americans” series this summer demonstrate that bringing us today’s — and tomorrow’s — art can bolster institutions that hitherto looked mostly backwards. Kudos to Gray and company for mustering the courage to reinvent a venerable Portland art pillar. Maybe they should retire that offputting term “piano recital” and call them piano excitements, because that’s how these summer adventures felt.

 
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