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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.

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Cascadia Composers and Northwest Piano Trio reviews: The Color of Magic

Two concerts featured contemporary Oregon classical music. One succeeded.

by MARIA CHOBAN

Lights out. In a dark cavernous church, twinkling blue Christmas lights bob their way to a harpsichord. They tilt over it, no doubt praying. They un-tilt and lower onto a bench. The instrument emits a long sustaining moan.

THE HARPSICHORD SUSTAINS??!!??? What spell has been cast?

Je

Jennifer Wright.

No time to think, the blue lights are driving the instrument to react. Like T-cells attacking an infection, the notes bombard the drone. Above, a screen displays the sound waves — oscillating, colliding, and my growing anxiety isn’t “How did composer, Jennifer Wright, achieve this?” It’s “OMG, Who or What is going to Win? How will this play out?” In You Cannot Liberate Me, Only I Can Do That for Myself, the composer/performer has managed to translate a creative concept/challenge (how to sustain a percussive sound) into a universal dilemma (how to deal with the new: fight it, ward it off, accept?). To be fair, I figured this out long after the performance, but only because the gnawing anxiety pestered me to work through it, to come to closure.

Science transcends process. Houston, we have Magic.

Lately more and more Oregon indie classical and even establishment classical groups are starting to realize the value of programming new and locavore music. It’s a really good sign of a developing homegrown alt.classical scene that’s not depending on dead Europeans and insular New Yorkers. I want all these groups who are playing homegrown 21st century music to succeed because Oregon draws outlaws, visionary DIYers who don’t just want to make it in New York and LA—they have something to say to today’s audiences. Oregon can be the role model for LA, New York, Paris.

But new and local are only the beginning, necessary but not sufficient if classical music is to (re)connect with broader Oregon audiences. The events need to appeal broadly, unless you just want a niche audience. And niches won’t sustain new classical music.

Multimedia helps. Taking the performances out of churches and auditoriums and staging them in bars and black box theaters helps. Dressing down or up (anything but black nightgowns) helps. Choosing a program that takes the audience on a ride helps.

Alas, even these ingredients are necessary but still not sufficient. To draw broad audiences, the essential element that must be cultivated is Magic.

Magic is not learned; it is omnipresent — there for the taking. It is the thing we often discount, the first feeling that comes up, the first glib utterance out of our mouths when throwing around ideas. Magic can only be welcomed in when she subtly drops a bomb in your ear. Or not; one can opt out, thinking the voice is too crazy, will offend too many people or the wrong person, and do the safe, sane, currently-in-mode thing and hope it’s enough to generate ticket revenue to cover what the RACC grant doesn’t. And the creative concept itself is only a start — much more Magic, courage to support the magic inspirations and lots of grunt work (including practice/rehearsal hours) are needed on this yellow brick road to the Emerald City.

Two concerts featuring new music by Oregon composers showed what can happen when presenters listen for Magic and then vest themselves in the quest of fulfilling that inspiration … and what happens when they don’t.

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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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Crazy Jane and Third Angle New Music reviews: Inspired by Nature

New Oregon music responds to nature's beauty — and humanity's threats to it.

Living in a bountiful land where so many of us spend as much time in nature as possible, it’s no surprise that Oregon composers have devoted so much music to environmental themes, just as New Yorkers and Chicagoans often incorporate urban influences in their music. (“New York is a very percussive place,” the great American composer and New York native Steve Reich, once told me about the source his pioneering percussion music.) A pair of November Portland concerts showed how contemporary Oregon composers are also embracing the environment — sometimes including actual recordings of natural sounds — in their music.

Marsh and Miksch performed at Crazy Jane.

Marsh and Miksch performed at Crazy Jane.

Field Music

“The world is a huge composition going on all the time,” said the pioneering Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in a brief film Listen played immediately before Third Angle New Music’s “Afield” concert at southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia Studio 2 November 6. Schafer, who invented the notion of the soundscape (a musical evocation of an environment rather than, say, an attempt to tell a story or express a feeling via music) urged us avoid the noisy distractions of our bustling modern world and tune into nature’s sonic beauties.

That posed an implicit challenge to the three young Oregon composers (all University of Oregon graduate students) whose music Third Angle had, to its credit, commissioned for this latest entry in Third Angle’s innovative Studio Series: why should Northwesterners venture indoors to hear human-created sounds that sought to imitate nature, when we have so much of the real thing all around us?

The greatest living Northwest composer, Alaska’s John Luther Adams, has been persuasively answering that question for decades, as Third Angle showed last year in a vivid performance of his Earth and the Great Weather. Adams’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize suggests that the rest of the country is catching up to his and Schafer’s expansive vision of music and nature in harmony. Third Angle and Crazy Jane’s programs demonstrate that nature will continue to deeply and delightfully inform 21st century classical music.

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Musicians from Classical Revolution PDX performed at Holocene in March Music Moderne

Musicians from Classical Revolution PDX performed at Holocene in March Music Moderne.

There are people who really like the mathematically determined music of the 20th century Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis—more than just acknowledging its undeniable historical importance. There are also people, I am told, who enjoy being rolfed, walking barefoot across hot coals, participating in fight clubs, and being lashed by whips. I think these all must be the same people.

Enduring the relentless pummeling of the Portland premiere of Xenakis’s 1978 exercise in dissonance Ikhoor at Sunday night’s closing March Music Moderne, just after enjoying so many other concerts featuring young (and sometimes not-so-young) Oregon composers at the same festival revealed just how far midcentury modernism that MMM celebrates strayed from appealing to a broad audience — and how Oregon composers are leading the way in bringing music in the classical tradition back to its rightful, central place in the hearts and minds of anyone who loves music, not just the dwindling niche who dig discordance.

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