thomas denicola

45th Parallel review: Horror show

Expertly programmed concert's dramatic arc makes for scary-fun entertainment


When you’re deciding what you’re doing tonight and your options are:

  • Blazers game
  • Fantastic horror flick like Dead Snow, Norway, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
  • Beer at ABV

chances are a niche chamber music concert titled “Classical Crossroads” won’t even register. Unless you group it under horror flicks to stay away from because you’ll probably die of boredom.

I had to go. A friend’s piece was on the program.

Show time. Players walk to their seats. We applaud. They fuss with their instruments and prepare to play the first note.

Bliss blasts Ross. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

B A M ! ! !

Whathefuck??????????? Whatjustfell???????????

“I hate ‘classical music!’”

OMG, YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tristan Bliss, the Salem friend whose piece is being played on this show, just interrupted with a bang, flinging a book to the floor then dramatically reciting the opening words from Alex Ross’s essay “Listen to This.”


Done ranting after what seemed like microseconds, the four musicians start scraping and pulling at their strings for real. An homage to the Marquis de Sade, New York composer John Zorn’s Cat o’ Nine Tails plucks my guts every time the players pick at their stringed instrument. The churning tickly sensation in my abdomen stops after three minutes. After another three days, enduring polite insider tittering from the audience  and cute too-subtle ad hoc moves (like pretending to fall asleep) by the players, I’m ready to turn Juliette on Zorn’s over-extended gimmick. Luckily the violist beats me to it. He’s had enough, stands up and air-lashes viciously at the others with his bow.

Third Angle String Quartet whips it good. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

OMG, YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Hallowe’en by Charles Ives sneaks in with layers of sound, a creepy merry-go-round where new players phantasmagorically enter with each verse. This Hallowe’en felt more wacky than scary because the under-rehearsed players had to conduct the performance with clown-big gestures in order to stay together.

Just as I rolled my eyes at the lack of preparation, they stopped. They weren’t even finished!

Come play with us, Danny.

Remember the ghost twins in The Shining? 

At the back of the darkened stage appeared Portland composer Thomas DeNicola, a young ghost at an upright piano, a single moonbeam of light on his back, playing his eerily serene Notturno. I wanted to stay and listen. I wanted to run away. Scared of what was coming.

DeNicola’s “Notturno.”

Of course Hallowe’en bombasted back from the dead like every great villain from Freddy Krueger to Chucky in beloved cheesy cult flicks. Tristan Bliss and the show’s producer, Greg Ewer, carefully architected this show for maximum horror.

Serene like dead Ophelia, I’m floating downstream, white light bathing DeNicola — this time playing Paul Safar’s Geese in the Moonlight. He makes it sound so vulnerable, so sad. I float past cellist Marilyn de Oliveira at the front of the stage, the moon focusing on her luscious strokes, playing Nicholas Yandell’s And the Surface Breaks. I can’t shake the portent of Yandell’s disturbed ripples. Sadness mingled with terror.

DeNicola and de Oliveira play Safar and Yandell. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance! Ezekiel 25:17 according to Jules – Pulp Fiction

You don’t see it coming. The distraction nearly eclipses the kill. Violinist Ewer fucked with our heads, shredding “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (Guns ‘n Roses/arr. Adam DeGraff). Burning followed. Composer Chen Yi’s musical reaction to 9/11 starts like John Zorn but plows into the Twin Towers like a feather. It’s over before you can process the fatality. Unsentimental, brutal in a real-time, real-sound, real-dead way. No film-bullet-reverb, no drawn out opera death. I couldn’t breathe and kept pulling at the front of my bra to give my ribs more room to expand.

Composer Tristan Bliss. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Having seen the score, I understood why Tristan Bliss’s Requiem for a Tradition ended the show. Had it worked, it would have exploded in a surreal catharsis of meteor-hits-earth-and-nothing-matters-anyway. But the microphones on the violin and cello never cut in except for about two seconds of cello near the end. I never heard the unremitting industrial chords that should have been pounding from Doug Schneider at the piano. The drums dominated. Too bad! Scored for multi-generations of instruments from classical strings, French horn, through pop drumset and onto electronica, what a fitting good-bye to civilization.

A few flubs aside, this was one of the funnest horror shows I’ve lived through!

Wanna get me out more?

  • Take me for a RIDE! I don’t give a shit about contrasting sonorities or chronological order or other left brained nonsense.
  • Arc your show as though it’s a movie script/storyboard.
  • Rehearse everything including tech stuff until you don’t need a score or an excuse.
  • Take chances!

Or hire team Bliss-Ewer.

Maria Choban is ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch. This story originally appeared on her new entertainment site, CatScratch.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

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

The young Oregon-born critic was dismissive. The program contained only music by dead European composers, and the performance, he wrote in his review, “was especially remarkable in that it was so out of tune, and set something of a record in that its well-trained constituents . . . played wrong notes in a simple piece….”

The conductor complained to the young reviewer. His expectations were too high, he said, for a struggling orchestra whose funding allowed for minimal rehearsal time. If you think you can do better, do it.

The young critic, who was also a composer, accepted the challenge. He programmed a concert by the same group he’d criticized the following season, including a work by a neglected and revolutionary American composer, Charles Ives, another work by one of the critic’s own neglected American contemporaries, and a new work the critic had composed himself. As we’ll see below, the concert that followed, on  April 5, 1946, became a milestone in American music.

This happened seven decades ago. The young critic-composer, Lou Harrison, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, had chided the New York Little Symphony for its December 1944 performance, and that ensemble’s director, Joseph Barone, invited Harrison to program a subsequent concert.

Bliss (l) and Ewer found common ground.

But something similar is also happening right here in Portland, Harrison’s birthplace, this Wednesday, March 29, when 45th Parallel Ensemble performs music by 20th century American composers (including Ives) and three 21st century Oregons — including the young Oregon ArtsWatch composer-writer whose negative assessment of one of the ensemble’s 2015 shows led them to challenge him to do better. We’ll find out Wednesday night whether he met the challenge. But for those who care about the future of classical music, the story that led to the concert is just as promising.


Music in Small Spaces

Small-scale series bring new sounds closer to audiences

In the music world, most of the attention goes to the mega-venues: Keller Auditorium, Moda Center, Schnitzer Concert Hall, arena shows. Yet most of the creativity seems to happen in more intimate confines. Maybe it’s something to do with focus or informality or even lower ticket prices, but for me, cozy clubs, chapels, galleries, small auditoriums somehow make it easier to connect to what’s happening onstage.

That’s why I’ve cherished Music in Small Spaces, which for the past six years has presented new and unusual music in Beaverton and other towns on the west side of Portland’s West Hills (Tualatin Mountains), and Third Angle New Music’s Studio Series and Porch Music, which bring mostly new sounds to inner Southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia studios and the front porches of homes in a leafy old Northeast Portland neighborhood.


Alas, MiSS’s indefatigable majordomo, Judy Castle, has announced that last week’s concert, at Portland’s ironically not-so-small Village Baptist Church, will be the last in the series — a big loss for the West Side and for Oregon music in general. The final two performances, as well as Third Angle’s season-ending (but thankfully not series-ending) show last week show just why these spaces are so valuable. And while it won’t be in a small space, you will have the chance to see a reprise of the final MiSS show this Sunday in downtown Portland.


The Mousai review: The importance of now

Portland chamber ensemble’s concert of music by living American composers delivers emotional excitement


… enter the stillness of Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall on December 4, escaping the incessant drizzle and oil-slicked roads of Portland nights stretching the city’s west side, much of which I had just walked with my companions – having just escaped the daily salt mines – trying to smoke and be punctual: being young and alive in Portland is a gift of time and place. The Mousai (Janet Bebb, flute, Ann van Bever, oboe, Chris Cox, clarinet, ArtsWatch contributor Maria Choban, piano) programmed and performed the rare concert that doesn’t coerce nostalgia for a time gone-by that none of us have known, but sounds with torrential excitement to be alive now. Propelling the tornadic relationship of art imitating life forward new music, young and young-at-heart American composers, the Mousai reminded us on a murky Oregon Friday why life should imitate art.

No announcement, no pre-show pretense or sales pitch — City Vignettes (composed 2014) by Los Angeles composer George N. Gianopoulos kicked off the show, like much of life, without warning. Cox sauntered on stage as if “we’ll always have [Portland]” to Choban’s piano ramblings to a woolgathering audience, myself included, and, with no Now-Art-Begins pomp, began reciting a Sara Teasdale poem, catching the audience vulnerable to actual emotional involvement and holding them rapt. Gianopoulos’s City Vignettes for flute, piano, and narrator successfully borrowed noir sounds – deep unresolved existential piano arpeggiations with melancholy flute melodies – without sounding pastiche. Embracing Teasdale’s challenge to live life — “The dreams wear thin, men turn upon their beds, And hear the milk cart jangle by alone” — Gianopoulos audiated a somber acknowledgment that the dream of past music is wearing thin, and if composers don’t turn upon their beds, we’ll hear music history jangle by alone with nothing to say of our time or place.

The Mousai's happy ending to Schlosberg's premiere.

The Mousai’s happy ending to Schlosberg’s premiere.

Unwilling to accept that our time is mute, Daniel Schlosberg, a Brooklyn-based composer dissatisfied with the passivity of merely tossing his two cents onto the music history cart, composed pandemonium and quiescence intoxicated by life. Opening with an eclectic ragtime meets Dixieland Buster Keaton-esque free-for-all where the intentionality of everything is questionable yet brilliantly executed, including three butt-cluster chords perpetrated by Choban, Schlosberg dissolved our emotional defenses with laughter and took them captive. Dividing his Two Remarks (2015) into the “Clarinet Remoulade,” described above, and the quiescent timbral modulations and unaccompanied high pitched piano pedal tone of the second movement, “Bated Breath,” Chamber Music Northwest’s 2014 Protege Project composer enchanted the auditorium by the drama of contrast. Night and day, summer/winter, love/indifference etc. … life is dependent upon contrast for comprehension: contrast is as necessary to art as it is to life and Two Remarks, commissioned by the Mousai, made me feel alive.

Ann van Bever introduced popular Washington DC composer Scott Pender’s Variations as the Hollywood piece of the concert, and bad-news-Babbitt it was, and that’s not bad! While not my personal aesthetic preference, it was music to share a strawberry milkshake with a pretty girl to, and engage new audience members with music composed in 2010 that doesn’t demand fluency in 20th century compositional practices.


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