the old church

Fear No Music & Third Angle reviews: discoveries

Portland new music ensembles open Oregon ears to music from beyond the usual sources

I love going to a concert with exactly zero familiar composers. In Oregon classical music programs, the standard is still usually one new composer per concert, sandwiched between the dead white guys. Even in Portland, it’s relatively rare to hear a concert with music by composers who are all new to me. In the last few weeks, veteran Portland new music ensembles Fear No Music and Third Angle delivered two such concerts that led me to new discoveries.

Fear No Music played recent music by Middle Eastern and emigrant-diaspora composers at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: John Rudoff.

FNM’s October 9 concert at Portland’s Old Church, The Fertile Crescent, featured music by six composers rooted in the Middle East. Although they were new to me, they are all accomplished international composers. Gity Razaz studied at Juilliard with Corigliano, Beaser, and Adler; Kinan Azmeh is a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble; Reza Vali, Kareem Roustom, and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh have all composed for Kronos Quartet (I’m sure they’ll get around to Bahaa El-Ansary eventually). Although the music performed at the concert didn’t always satisfy me, I liked most of it, and the pieces that left me cold still led me to discover other enjoyable music by the same composers.


Sitting in the packed audience at the Fremont Theater last Thursday night for Portland Story Theater’s latest Urban Tellers show was both exhilarating and disheartening. Exhilarating because this was the latest chapter in Urban Tellers’ illuminating series of tales told by immigrants in and around Portland. Disheartening because this was the next-to-last Urban Tellers show ever in this little jewel of a space on Northeast Fremont Avenue in the Sabin/Alameda/Irvington overlap.

The following night’s repeat performance would be the end. Both houses were sold out. That made no difference: The Fremont is shutting down Nov. 12, and for Portland Story Theater, this was the abrupt end of a regular monthly gig. Matthew Singer wrote about the shutdown in Willamette Week, telling an all too familiar tale. “The basic circumstances are that we just ran out of money,” co-owner David Shur told him. Shur also noted that attempts to soundproof the space to appease other tenants of the building proved too costly.

Rodrigo Aguirre, Ruiyuan Gao (center) and Marisol Batioja-Kreuzer in the final Urban Tellers at the Fremont Theater. Photo: Kelly Nissl

The Fremont was used mainly as a music space, becoming one of several halls that helped fill the gap for jazz shows after the legendary Jimmy Mak’s shut down early this year. But it was home to Portland Story Theater and a few other more theatrical presenters, too, including puppeteer Penny Walter’s daytime Penny’s Puppets family shows and the old-time radio theatrics of Tesla City Stories, whose live shows are presented as if in a radio studio, sound effects included. Penny’s Puppets has its final show at the Fremont this Friday, Nov. 10. Tesla bids its adieu to the Fremont with a show the following evening, Nov. 11.


ArtsWatch Weekly: all aboard for Eugene

A Eugene cultural tour, Anne Boleyn's music book, a little shop of horror and a full gallop, monkey business, Yetis, two top art shows, "Hughie," roots music, Alien Boy, guns galore, spirit of '76

There are lots of good reasons to go to Eugene that have nothing to do with Ducks or football. Sure, the presence of the University of Oregon has a lot to do with the quality of things down the valley: two of ArtsWatch’s favorite things, for instance, the Oregon Bach Festival and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, are intimately tied to the university, and a lot of what’s good about Oregon’s new-music scene emanates from the halls and studios of the university’s music department. But the university is far from the only game in town. However you keep your cultural scorecard, Eugene – population roughly 160,000, metro area another 200,000 added to that – consistently hits above its weight.

Here at ArtsWatch we like to keep tabs on what’s happening in the Emerald City, and lately that’s been quite a bit. For starters, check out Gary Ferrington’s Arts Sampler: Eugene by train for a car-free, arts-stuffed weekend, a sort of cultural travelogue for Portlanders looking for a close-to-home adventure. Go ahead, plan an autumn getaway. And if you like, feel free to slip in a football game or a track meet on the side, too.

Portland-bound Amtrak Cascades at Eugene Station.

Portland-bound Amtrak Cascades at Eugene Station.

We’ve also picked up some good features from some top Eugene writers:

— Photographer and arts journalist Bob Keefer, author of the invaluable Eugene Art Talk online journal, has undertaken an almost year-long project of following the development of a new version of The Snow Queen for Eugene Ballet, with a fresh score by Oregon composer Kenji Bunch and choreography by EB’s longtime artistic director, Toni Pimble, who is recognized nationally as a creator of vivid and original ballets. Keefer will write about ten installments leading up to the premiere next spring, and ArtsWatch will reprint them once they’ve debuted on Eugene Art Talk. Here’s Episode 2, focusing on designer Nadya Geras-Carson.


The celestial strains of Alexander Courage’s famous theme from the original Star Trek series opened the second half of the Portland Cello Project’s concert Thursday night at Portland’s Old Church. It was an appropriate choice for a group that has taken its namesake instrument where no cello has gone before.

Now one of the city’s most popular musical exports, PCP has embarked on several successful national tours, appeared on National Public Radio, and has engaged pop and rock audiences like no other quasi-classical ensemble in memory since the Kronos Quartet. This concert showed why.

The show was a benefit for one of the city’s most invaluable music venues, The Old Church, which is raising funds for a air conditioner — a much -needed item, as anyone who sweltered through PCP’s 100-plus degree CD release concert there last summer will attest. The group has also recorded in the space, and deserve kudos for hosting this benefit to an institution that benefits the entire city’s music scene, in particular chamber and new music concerts by the likes of FearNoMusic and Third Angle.

PCP leader Douglas Jenkins, who took up the instrument as a college freshman (!) at the University of Oregon, has cherished classical music since his days of attending free rehearsals of the Honolulu Symphony as a kid, but he also played in punk bands as a teenager there. He led one of Portland’s most original bands, the improv-based, cello-guitar driven quartet Bright Red Paper, before starting the Cello Project, which he’s made into one of the unlikeliest success stories in pop music. They’re now rock stars — every music nerd’s dream come true.

Unlike PCP’s raucous, all-night dance parties at sold out rock clubs, which feature the cream of Portland indie rock scene singing their own hits and pop covers with PCP accompanying, this Old Church gig was a relatively conventional venue for an ensemble of “classical” instruments. But it did have one thing in common with the club gigs: this one, too, sold out.

The show opened with a lively classical piece, Manuel de Falla’s familiar “Ritual Fire Dance” from his 1915 ballet, Love the Magician, then delivered an original composition by PCP’s Gideon Freudmann (who was out of town and couldn’t make this gig). An arrangement of Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s famous “Caravan,” followed, and a famous chorus from Georges Bizet’s opera, Carmen, complete with audience participation. Then came several pieces by contemporary composers — including perhaps the hottest composer in the world today, Argentine-American Osvaldo Golijov and his plaintive “Lúa Descolorida,” (which I’ve also heard performed by his favorite singer, Dawn Upshaw, who premiered it; this version does the original justice).  Next came what Jenkins described as “a strict canon on a theme by [hip hop star] L’il Wayne, one of the most offensive songs in the history of man, ‘Lollipop’.” The set closed with Freudmann’s tuneful dirge, “Denmark,” inspired by a personal tragedy.

As a further preview of their forthcoming classical/ hip hop CD, PCP unleashed a Kanye West song, plus another jazz classic and another classic TV theme, Paul Desmond’s Brubeck Quartet hit “Take Five,” yoked to Lalo Schifrin’s driving Mission Impossible theme, and an unreleased song by the late, great Portland songwriter Elliott Smith, “Taking a Fall,” both from their darkly beautiful 2010 album A Thousand Words. And they revived one of their early signature covers, a dandy take on Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” before concluding with a Pantera cover that might have been the most inventive arrangement of the evening, and another Kanye West number.

This concert demonstrated that Portland Cello Project is much more than a gimmick. The cello, whose range approximates that of the human voice, can propel a band with plucked bass notes and also give wings to soaring melodies. Jenkins’ increasingly adept arrangements (now numbering nearly 700) for the ensemble provide musical depth while staying faithful to the pop hooks and tunes. The band’s hip hop covers bring out a pathos and musicality often obscured by massive beats and cliched, in-your-face lyrics. The group’s rhythmic prowess keeps heads nodding (in a good way) and feet tapping.

So to sum up, we have a youngish (mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings, I’d guess) sextet playing classical music, jazz, original compositions, hip hop , rock and pop music. On cellos. In a church. And it’s sold out. Classical music world — are you paying attention?

Admittedly the level of performance isn’t quite as stratospheric as at your typical classical recital, but the degree of musical expression and audience engagement certainly is — and so is the sense of spontaneity and delight. No one there thinks they’re entering a musty museum — they’re going because they know they’ll hear some vital music, regardless of genre or era, made by musicians who clearly love that music and work hard to get it across to the audience. There’s a lesson there for musical institutions everywhere, and not just classical ones. Something to do with boldly going where no one has gone before.

Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony: Taking the Show on the Road

Speaking of peripatetic Portland performers, Third Angle New Music Ensemble has embarked on its second trip to Asia in as many years, courtesy of an invitation from the Thailand International Composition Festival in Chiang Mai. What we heard of the program the group will play there in their Old Church concert in May tells us that the Thais are in a for a treat.

On the other side of the globe, the Metropolitan Youth Symphony has alighted in Vienna after a stint in Poland. What a wonderful opportunity for Lajos Balogh’s young musicians.

Meanwhile, reverberations from the Oregon Symphony‘s little jaunt to a concert venue in midtown Manhattan last May continue to echo. In his season round up in Musical America (disclosure: a publication I’ve written for), critic Sedgwick Clark proclaims:

My favorite concert of the [Spring for Music] series — and, as it turned out, the entire season — was by a conductor and orchestra making their New York debuts: the Oregon Symphony under its music director of eight years, Carlos Kalmar, in a remarkably imaginative program. Ives’s The Unanswered Question, John Adams’s The Wound-Dresser, and Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem were played without pause, an often pretentious practice but one that in this instance worked stunningly. After intermission came a positively searing Vaughan Williams Fourth Symphony, with fearless edge-of-seat tempos in the third and fourth movements, breathtakingly negotiated by all, the strings in particular. Kalmar and his virtuoso Oregonians will return to “Spring for Music” in 2013.

With a name like “Sedgwick,” you know he’s onto something. Clark’s pronouncement follows that of perhaps the world’s most esteemed classical music writer, the New Yorker’s Alex Ross. Those of us who heard the program at the acoustically woeful Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall will agree — the orchestra was on fire, although we missed the low notes and manifold other details you can discern at the renowned Carnegie, which is indeed a fine place to hear an orchestra, although to my ears, LA’s Disney Hall offers a clearer acoustic.

Nor was it a fluke: the band has steadily progressed in quality in the past few years, and may soon approach the front ranks of American orchestras. When stage-savvy symphony president Elaine Calder took the mike at the outset of the OSO’s homecoming concert after the Carnegie triumph and graciously bestowed on the band the rare and thoroughly appropriate honor of an actual entrance with the words “Please welcome the Oregon Symphony — your Oregon Symphony,” followed by an explosive round of cheers and applause, it brought a catch in the throat and tears to the eyes of even the most jaded critic. Without question, that performance has thrust the Oregon Symphony and Kalmar on to the national stage. The question now: how can the city seize this rare moment and provide our symphony with the resources it needs to sustain — and amplify — its newly exalted status? That’s a question we’ll explore here in future.

Even though Ross today declares it the best concert he heard last season (and he hears the best in the world), and the most thrilling I’ve heard from the OSO, a real highlight of last year’s music season, one of the best concerts I’ve heard in Portland … still, in its Schnitzer incarnation, that symphony performance might not have even been the best classical show I heard in Portland last year, though it’s certainly in the top three. Of the many strong candidates for top honors, I’d probably still lean toward Portland Baroque Orchestra’s magnificently moving March performance of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion, with singers from Cappella Romana and Montreal’s Les Voix Baroques. Such is the level of classical music achievement in this city. I don’t think we needed the imprimatur of New York critics to tell us that, but it sure is sweet to hear. And it’s a further delight to see so many fine Portland musicians spreading the city’s sounds to the rest of the planet.


Cross-cultural musical ecstasy came to the zoo.

Lazy, hazy? Hardly. Crazy? You bet! Summer used to be the dry time for music as well as everything else ’round these parts. That’s all changing, of course — ask your local farmer — and the same goes for the once-somnolent summer classical music scene.

Now, along with the always appealing Chamber Music Northwest summer festival (about which I’ll have much to say soon), August’s William Byrd Festival, and Portland Piano International (ditto), we have the Oregon Bach Festival‘s welcome incursion into Portland, and tonight, that poses the kind of dilemma that drives PDX music fans madder than Gesualdo.

Do you swing by the Schnitz to hear festival founder and artistic director Helmuth Rilling lead a performance of Beethoven’s mighty Symphony #9, AND see possible Rilling successor Matthew Halls conduct a performance of Handel’s magnificent Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, which drew rapturous raves from well informed music fans who caught it in Eugene last week? Or do you head down to Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium to hear the Brentano Quartet play some of classical music’s most famous unfinished works — augmented by completions of/responses to those works that the ensemble commissioned from some of today’s finest contemporary composers? It’s a real poser, but you really can’t lose either way. It’s the kind of problem most American cities would love to have.

All this comes on the heels of a week in which music maniacs faced similarly tough choices. Wednesday night’s sizzling (in both musical and atmospheric senses) Bach Festival concert by the incomparable Schola Cantorum de Venezuela at near stifling Trinity Cathedral deprived me of the always engaging 3 Leg Torso, among other attractive shows. A stimulating vocal recital (including the premiere of an ambitious new work by a promising young Portland composer, Justin Ralls) by a potential future star baritone, Nicholas Meyer, at the Old Church (again, more soon) forced me to miss a really appealing CMNW show.

And the very next night, I had to skip the same program AGAIN, thanks to a spectacular Oregon Zoo performance, teeming with the sort of unbridled joy that make music and dancing an essential part of human experience, unleashed by what’s undoubtedly the finest aggregation of so-called “world music” stars on the planet: AfroCubism. The occasional all-star band amalgamates the immense talents of a trio of Africa’s greatest and most influential musicians — kora master Toumani Diabate, Rail Band guitarist Djelimady Tounkara and ngoni virtuoso Bassekou Kouyate, plus lesser-known but no less accomplished fellow Malian music masters — AND Buena Vista Social Club legend Eliades Ochoa (still indisputably one of the finest singers on the globe) and his corps of crack Cuban compatriots. Any one of those luminaries would be worth seeing alone, and together they were absolutely incendiary, exhibiting the kind of joyful cross cultural connection that has always energized music.

At times, I felt as though I were experiencing a musical Rorschach, like those images that look like a lips kissing if you focus on the black part, like two swans or something when you look at the white. I’d listen to a piece and concentrate on some elements, and it sounded like familiar Malian blues, and then focus on, say, the horn section or Ochoa’s voice, and it was suddenly salsa. Which, I guess, was the point. A couple of pieces started off with the same rhythmic figures (it all comes from Africa, like humanity itself), but what the musicians added on top made them sound like they came from two entirely different traditions. It was a fascinating musical and cultural experience. Disappointingly, it was one of only two world music shows at the Zoo this summer, snapping a summer tradition of family friendly global performers that leaves the city’s summer soundscape less diverse.

Nevertheless, though temperatures may be often be cooler than usual out there, musically speaking, we’re already in the midst of one hot summer. The weekend isn’t even over; tomorrow night brings what may be the most appealing — and, alas, sold out — CMNW program of the summer.

And though the most invigorating Bach festival in years is winding down, Tuesday kicks off what may be the most exciting Portland Piano International Festival ever — easily one of the year’s most attractive classical music events.  So maybe this late-arriving summer thing isn’t so bad after all. I mean, geez, have you tasted the strawberries this year?

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