Tomas Svoboda

Cascadia Composers & Delgani Quartet: performance matters

Fall concerts show the value of prepared, skilled musicians to new music showcases

When it comes to covering music, ArtsWatch tends to focus on composition more than performance. That’s not only because two of our regular music writers are themselves composers, but also because we want to tell Oregonians the story of Oregon creativity, which is really part of the larger story of what makes us what we are here in the 21st century. It’s a main reason I created our Oregon ComposersWatch resource, to make it easier for ArtsWatch readers to hear the fruits of our homegrown musical creators. And thanks to Cascadia Composers and others, Oregon contemporary classical music is an increasingly rich bounty.

But just as there’s more to a play than a script, more to a dance than choreography, there’s more to music than a score. A couple of fall Cascadia concerts showed — in both positive and negative ways — just how important performers are to the story of Oregon originality.

Dazzling Delgani

While the preponderance of Cascadia music is created by composers living in the Portland metro area, the group’s October concerts at Eugene’s First Christian Church and southeast Portland’s Community Music Center happened to feature music written by non Portlanders and even non Oregonians. And so it was appropriate that the performers, too, hailed from beyond Portland. Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet turned in one of the finest performances I’ve ever experienced at a Cascadia concert.

Delgani String Quartet played music by Cascadia Composers in Eugene. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Some of the best Cascadia shows have relied on veteran ensembles (Portland Percussion Group, The Mousai, Choral Arts Ensemble) rather than pickup groups. That’s no surprise: you’d expect musicians that have been performing together for years to do a better job than those who might never have played together before, and who might have rehearsed together only a couple of times. The tradeoff for audiences, though: a program that features the same forces on every piece necessarily offers less instrumental variety. This one happily provided considerable stylistic variety to compensate.


FearNoMusic review: Church of new sounds

New music ensemble's concert makes a bully pulpit for new music by Oregon composers

I have now gone to so many Fear No Music concerts at The Old Church in Southwest Portland and met so many of the same performers, composers, teachers, and classmates (some of these fields overlap) that now it really does feel just like going to church, except that the music is mostly better (as is the company) and the wine comes in adult-sized glasses. The subject of the sermon at the new music ensemble’s February 13 concert, Locally Sourced Sounds, drew an attentive congregation of new music disciples and devotees.

FearNoMusic. Photo: JasonQuigley.

The first acolyte I always spot at these shows is Jeff Winslow, composer, ArtsWatcher, and Cascadian, with his bushy white beard and his attentive, friendly eyes. Percussion guru Joel Bluestone was there too, still part of the FNM family even after retiring from the group last year. Composer, violist, and FNM artistic director Kenji Bunch was tending the famous wine bar, dispensing generous pours of Lompoc IPA—that is, when he wasn’t on stage turning pages for FNM’s executive director (and Bunch’s wife), pianist Monica Ohuchi.

Two student composers from Reed College, Yiyang Wang and Nathan Showell, rounded out a program featuring Cascadian Denis Floyd, University of Oregon’s David Crumb, and Portland State’s legendary Tomas Svoboda, the patron saint (to continue the church analogy) of Cascadia Composers.

Voglar Belgique, Payne and Ives performed Yiyang Wang’s piano trio.

The concert opened with Wang’s Color Studies for piano trio, a perfect bit of chamber music which seemed rather too sophisticated for a college junior. Wang’s opening “Fugue in G” starts with a dark and “Shostakovichianmodal subject; cellist Nancy Ives fittingly evoked Rostropovich’s rich tone while Inés Voglar Belgique’s violin hovered sweetly above, supported by pianist Jeff Payne’s usual restrained, centered touch. Extended techniques characterized the second movement, “Steel,”with Payne plucking high glockenspielisch harmonics, strumming Cowell-esque chords, and brushing the low strings for a sound like sizzling power lines; meanwhile, Voglar Belgique and Ives passed the theme around with bouncy pizzicato glissandi. The final movement, “Racing”, used an erhu-inspired melody to pit the instruments against each other in a mad bitonal dash towards an inconclusive climax on a genuinely nutty (and well-voiced) cluster chord. If this is what Wang is capable of as an undergrad, I can’t wait to hear what she does after she finishes her studies.


Tomas Svoboda’s Symphony #2: A love story in four movements

Portland Youth Philharmonic gives world premiere of Portland composer’s lost 1963 masterpiece

First movement. It begins gently, then the music accelerates, swerves through several tight turns, propelled by percussion. Pastoral flute turns whimsical, as low strings gradually and ominously arrive like storm clouds shading the sun. Suddenly, all the strings march in an implacable one-two meter, like an invading army, louder and louder. Big low brass notes reinforce the advance guard. Calm briefly returns, swept in on a light breeze of wind instruments, a brief respite before the low strings gradually surge, and all the instruments erupt, loud and fast, until the movement races to an abrupt halt.

Music brought them together. Jana Demartini was a 22-year-old folk dancer who met Tomas Svoboda when the 22-year-old percussionist joined their Prague folk music group in 1961. He and some other friends were sitting on the landing of a palace when he saw the troupe of women, bedecked in traditional costumes, climbing the stairs toward them, on their way to a performance. “And Tom was looking at me,” she remembers. “He was almost childlike: when he looked, he looked. I think that purity drew me to him.”

After a long period of getting to know each other, he offered to accompany her home from the school where she taught art and Russian. “We rode the tram and got off in front of our house, and he kissed me,” Demartini recalls, “and ran off!”

As their romance gradually blossomed, Svoboda began working on his second symphony, which Portland Youth Philharmonic premieres in Portland this Saturday — more than half a century after he wrote it.


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.


Oregon Rites of Spring Survey 3: Composer showcases

Spring concerts shine a spotlight on Oregon music's present and future.

“This one’s called ‘Taciturn,’” deadpanned composer Ted Clifford from his keyboard, “so I don’t have much to say about it.” The concision of all the tunes the Portland composer played in his enjoyable concert at southeast Portland’s Woodstock Wine & Deli came as a surprise, considering how much the music he played from his agreeable new album, Azir, is influenced by jazz — a genre better known these days for giving performers ample to stretch out and follow long meandering improvisatory paths.

Clifford, Friesen and Doggett  played music from Clifford's "Azir."

Clifford, Friesen and Doggett played music from Clifford’s “Azir.”

Clifford’s concert is one of several spring shows devoted mostly to the music of a single Oregon composers whose coverage here follows part 1 of our series (which examined Oregon composers’  place in the West Coast’s legacy of percussion music) and Part 2, which looked at concerts that sprinkled Oregon music among works by composers not lucky enough to live here. Like the other spring and early summer concerts covered in this series, I enjoyed much of the music I heard in these shows. Yet I missed even more what I didn’t hear.


Martinů Quartet preview: From Prague to Portland

Czech string quartet plays music of its homeland and Portland’s Tomáš Svoboda.


On Thursday and Friday, Friends of Chamber Music gives Oregon music lovers the gift of an all-Czech program by one of that country’s leading musical ensembles, the Martinů Quartet. Expect insightful performances by musicians steeped in their native repertory: the artistic lineage of descendant Czech masters Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, Martinů, and Portland’s own Tomáš  Svoboda.

As both a teacher (he taught composition for many years at Portland State University before retiring in 1998), and inspiring artist, Svoboda has contributed significantly to developing the craft of musical composition and contemporary art music performance within our vibrant artistic community. I didn’t attend PSU, so never sat in his classes. Over several years (in the mid-1980s) we’d meet occasionally when I wanted his criticism of a new score. Anticipation of his generous spirit always led me with excitement to our sessions, even while knowing that his rigorous standards might cause me to depart, asking myself, “What was I thinking writing that one phrase like that?”

Svoboda and Gabel in 1999. Photo: Françoise Simoneau.

Gabel and Svoboda in 1999. Photo: Françoise Simoneau.

Svoboda composed his first string quartet at age 19, the second thirty years later and finally in 2002 he embarked on an intensive navigation of the form, authoring ten quartets in eight years. About this time, Svoboda began working with the Martinů Quartet. Together they pursued a mission to record all twelve quartets at sessions in Prague studios, when Tomáš and his wife Jana visited old friends there. He’d return to Portland with masters in hand and we worked together on release packaging.

The three quartets on this week’s Friends of Chamber Music concerts come from the final volume, not yet released. There were plans to bring it out, but then Tomáš suffered his massive stroke at the end of 2012. Since then, while he’s been recovering, nothing has been done with the recordings. I hope they’ll be available before much longer.

String Quartet No. 9, Op. 193 (2010) is strikingly narrative, almost cinematic. Svoboda writes that he was inspired by the story of an immigrant who, unable to culturally integrate, finally chose suicide. In addition to being one of Svoboda’s most programmatic chamber works, the quartet reveals an important aspect of Svoboda’s artistic approach: always seeking new and unusual structures. The first movement opens with chordal voicing so dense, one would expect its dissonant, weighty texture to serve as a destination rather than a point of departure. It thins into a quixotic mood at the structural apex, and then returns to the thick, airless, opening dread — essentially inverting the more typical structure, perhaps shaping the awkward misfit. The second movement offers hope, but it runs out of control as our tragic protagonist compulsively attempts to think through his desperate confusion. In the finale, he breaks down, trying to reason some way out … he descends into irreversible resignation.

String Quartet No. 10, Op. 194 (2007) was inspired by a dream of the composer’s homeland and its native folk music: robust, playful, affirmative, the Quartet is one of sustained joy and tenderness. It opens and closes its first movement with perhaps some of the most lyrical writing in any Svoboda score — touching and sweet. As with so much of Svoboda’s music, it sounds like he’s quoting extant folk tunes, but not so. Instead, you’re hearing Svoboda’s synthesis of his Czech musical legacy. Then follows an internal buildup and extended, driving ostinato — classic Svoboda, which could well serve any aspiring composer as a pointed lesson in how to artistically finesse getting into and out of a section of repetitive figures. It exemplifies the technical execution at which Svoboda is a master. The second movement is a brisk dance, the third, meditative and plaintive. The closing vivace delivers a typically intricate contrapuntal Svoboda idée fix — another carefully crafted ostinato — opening quietly then building and pressing relentlessly to an unrestrained dance of joy and focused conclusion.

Svoboda describes Quartet No. 12 Op. 202 (2010) “Post Scriptum” as a work of deep feeling in which all human experience is accepted and transformed into tenderness. We hear both great joy and intense pain, beyond optimism and pessimism. It opens with a simple, quiet, hymn-like chorale. Declamatory and stately, the adagio second movement engages imitative Renaissance counterpoint. The closing movement opens with a lively triplet foundation, supporting a soaring, cantus-like melody in rhythmic counterpoint, which evolves into a spirited dance, thus concluding the entire cycle of quartets with irrepressible joy, beyond life’s pain.

Portland’s Friends of Chamber Music brings the Martinů Quartet to Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. On Thursday, April 16, they play Svoboda Quartet No. 10, Op. 194; Svoboda Quartet No. 9, Op. 193; Dvořák Quartet in A-flat Major, Op. 105. On Friday, April 17, the ensemble performs Smetana Quartet No. 2 in D minor; Martinů Quartet No. 2; Janáček Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”; Svoboda Quartet No. 12, Op. 202, “Post Scriptum.” Tickets are available online

Portland composer Jack Gabel is a former student of Tomáš Svoboda and founder of North Pacific Music, the record label that has released eight collections of Svoboda’s music, including his first two volumes of string quartets.

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

Letter to a Young Composer

Your clever techniques and new ideas are only the means, not the end.


“Right in the middle of the First Allegro came a Passage I knew would please, and the entire audience was sent into raptures — there was a big applaudißement; — and as I knew, when I wrote the passage, what good effect it would make” . . . (Mozart’s letter to his father 1778)

J.S. Bach knew how to mix intellect and emotion in his music.

J.S. Bach knew how to mix intellect and emotion in his music.

Dear Young Composer,

Thank you for pitching your piece to me. I love playing pieces by Oregon composers and nurturing the careers of young composers. But when I or my classical bands commission pieces, the FIRST thing we insist on from the composer is AUDIENCE ACCESSIBILITY. This does not mean dumbed down. We’ve played audience-loving 12-tone (Hendrik Andriessen’s “Theme and Variations”), and prepared piano trios that kicked dance-ass (Kevin Gray’s “Mebasi” – written in 2008!). Plenty of composers past and present have written and are writing music that is simultaneously innovative, intellectually stimulating, but most of all emotionally moving. It’s doable: the young Cascadia Composer Brandon Stewart recently achieved it with The Telephone, his 2014 setting of a poem by Oregon’s Judith Barrington, a true account about waiting to hear whether her parents lived or died in a shipwreck.

It’s not easy, and it means feeling/thinking like an audience member. Mozart was famous for drinking beer at the back of a hall, while eavesdropping on nearby conversations when his new compositions were being debuted. 

Judging from your output, I’m pretty sure the conservatory or music school you attended spent less time on the the practicality of Mozart than on the philosophy of Modernism.

After two world wars fractured our insides so that we no longer trusted the manipulative power of music, many composers instead created strictly intellectual concepts to insulate themselves from feeling. The audience no longer mattered. It became a swap meet: Engineers for artists, concept for feeling. And you, young composer, got stuck in the middle, pleasing your music faculty stacked with concept driven engineers. I am sorry for you.

However, the back of my neck starts tingling in a bad migraine way when you get glassy-eyed, rapturously describing the concept that underpins your composition and how the idea is translated in every aspect of the piece. You have confused the means with the end. Use your cool devices to express an impassioned moment, feeling, noun. Otherwise, I do not care about your pitch class. I do not care about your hyperextended harmonies and their modulations. Nor do I care that your obsession with a certain number extends beyond the chosen numbered pitches to rhythm manipulation . . . . AND NEITHER DOES THE GENERAL NON-CLASSICAL AUDIENCE WHO WE DESPERATELY NEED TO COURT TO THIS GOD-FORSAKEN GENRE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

“It wasn’t the format that made the art great. It was the fact that somehow while playing around with something new, suddenly [artists] found they were able to put their entire selves into it. Only then did it become their “shtick,” their true voice, etc. That’s what people responded to. The humanity, not the form. The voice, not the form. Put your whole self into it, and you will find your true voice.”

Ignore Everybody by Hugh McLeod 2009,  p.104.

I also want to be clear that emoting without vocabulary is whiny-indie-junk and I have no patience for that shit either, nor does any audience. They are ALL smarter than we think! I think you are smart to work on the craft of your art, extending your vocabulary to capture what you passionately feel and want to project to us in the audience. My favorite composers (Bach, Ravel, Svoboda) are equal parts engineer and artist, but the engineer – the grunt worker – is subservient to the artist – the connector .

Strictly-Commercial-The-Best-Of-Frank-Zappa-coverConnecting with the audience may be underpinned by spectacular conceptual feats of innovation and intellect, but unless I cry or wanna grab a gun and go postal or Conga with jubilation til the cows come home, being stunned by a triple axel on the ice ain’t gonna do it for me. Having said that, Bach so moves me emotionally that his masterful intellectual underpinnings push me over the edge and make me want to stalk him in the afterlife. But the empty virtuosity of Frank Zappa’s “The Black Page” does nothing for me. Of course, not all output by my favorite composers knocks my socks off. I don’t care for a lot of Bach’s or Svoboda’s music – mostly when it gets process bound and far away from their emotional core. Conversely, I love Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage” – a conceptual album that traces the life of an ordinary Joe, making me feel the part of Joe, in increasingly extraordinary circumstances.

So, my young friend, you must write something for my bands or me that will appeal to an audience and make them not only want to hear your piece again, because my bands keep commissioned pieces in their ongoing performance repertoire, but will actually make an audience want to PLAY those pieces! And that’s what will REALLY feed this genre: Active playing participation. NOT just passive listening. 


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