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’The Emerald Tablet’ and ‘Nonsense’ reviews: from playground to pulpit

By Brett Campbell
December 18, 2017
Featured, Music

Last month saw two concerts of new, made-in-Portland music, each entirely devoted to a single Portland composer. Both create contemporary classical music music influenced by music from outside the classical realm.

And that’s about the only similarity between the music of Dan Brugh and Christopher Corbell. The former trained at a prestigious music academy (Interlochen) before matriculating at the University of Oregon, while the latter is mostly self taught. Brugh’s music incorporates electronic elements including synthesizers more commonly used in pop music, while Corbell, a folk-rock singer songwriter before embarking on the study and creation of contemporary art music, draws on ancient and modern folk and classical influences.

The music reflected the two composers’ divergent personalities too. Attending Brugh’s show was like jumping into his personal musical playground, a Brian Wilson sandbox of diverse musical and optical colors, cool synthesizers, imaginative sounds, absurdist verse, even giant mechanical flying fish.

Brugh, Wright and unidentified flying fish in “Nonsense.” Photo: Matias Brecher.

Corbell is as outwardly focused as Brugh looks inward. The former Classical Revolution PDX leader thinks and feels a lot about contemporary political and social issues, and passionately expresses his beliefs in his music and writings.

Both concerts mostly succeeded in reaching beyond their inventive creators’ own fertile imaginations and connecting with audiences. While Brugh’s was mostly about the wild, sometimes wacky world in his own head, Corbell’s looked outward, to the equally tumultuous world around him, and us.

Dan Brugh’s Playground

Nonsense: the fantastical musical multiverses of Dan Brugh opened with the musical equivalent of a lava lamp, the “stage” area bathed in both burbling, buzzing recorded synth sounds and shifting colored lights — orange, turquoise, green — projected against the tall white backdrop. Brugh made his way unobtrusively to the piano, unleashing big Romantic chords while alternating working the Korg Kronos controls — Rachmaninoff fronting Tangerine Dream. Although the composition, Extreme Gravity, meandered on too long for its musical content, it set an appropriately trippy mood for this adventure into Brugh’s colorful, wide ranging musical imagination.

Portland composer Dan Brugh performs “Extreme Gravity.” Photo: Matias Brecher.

From there, the rest of the first half of the November 18 show, held in an impromptu performance space at PLACE, a Northwest Portland design firm office, veered off-track. Last Night in Alabama set the slightly inebriated front-porch mutterings of a crusty white Southern curmudgeon to blustery music. Suitably attired in holey jeans, intentionally misbuttoned flannel shirt, pork pie hat and accoutered with cigarette and beer bottle, bass Dwight Uphaus sang beautifully but, tethered to his music stand (Alabama bound), he struggled to connect with the audience. With such a brief theatrical score, why not memorize words and music? Nor did the presence of a score appear to help pianist Karl Schulz as he botched Brugh’s Three Preludes, at one point even re-starting.

Actual robot flying fish provided more interest than the composition of the same name, with one almost nuzzling the composer at the piano, another dodging the ceiling fans. Brugh effused before the show about the cool new instruments decorating his musical playground, and the Roli SeaBoard 99 workstation synth (played by fellow Cascadia Composer Jennifer Wright) indeed produced some wonderfully weird textures, including theremin, jaw-harp, and more. But despite their efforts and those of a pair of remote-control wielding fish wranglers, ultimately, fish and (partly improvised) music went nowhere, both drifting aimlessly before getting stuck, one literally, the other figuratively, in the rafters.

Photo: Matias Brecher.

If the concert’s dismal first half seemed to embody the wacky downsides of Brugh’s playground theme — obsession with gimmickry and gadgetry over less whimsical but vital virtues like adequate preparation — the second half redeemed the promise of his outside-the-box vision.

Pelican Chorus, a setting of absurdist poetry by British writer Edward Lear (a favorite of John Lennon among many others) benefited from a strikingly theatrical performance by ArtsWatch contributor Maria Choban, who eschewed her usual piano in favor of a cabaret-style spiel that was a lot more entertaining than a mere recital, and by pianist Colleen Adent, who I was later astonished to learn had entirely improvised her bubbly part. But neither they nor Brugh (dressed in a duck outfit but merely uncertainly waving his wings rather than actually interacting with the other performers), colorfully bewigged and Whirly Tube-whipping Lisa Ann Marsh, and theremin player Timothy O’Brien could sustain interest all the way to the end as the piece, which would have made a fun 5-7 minute dazzler, repetitively stretched on for at least double that length. Nevertheless, the energetic performance drew the loudest applause of the night.

Marsh, Brugh, Choban, Adent in “Pelican Chorus.” Photo: Matias Brecher.

The most substantial music ensued, beginning with Brugh’s short Fantasy, which paired sinuous writing for clarinetist Justin Bulava (unfortunately concealed from much of the audience by an oversized music stand — another performance that should have been memorized) with Brugh’s whooshing, rumbling synthesizer backdrop providing immersive stereo effects, evoking a piper unconcernedly tootling away amid a squall of rain and thunder.

Clarinets should be heard and not seen.

Brugh then threw in a bonus not on the program, the rippling piano solo Fincastle, written when he was 19, whose declamatory opening gave way to sturdy neo-romantic melodies and dramatic gestures. Then the lights dimmed for Brugh’s Whispers, a powerfully haunting, sometimes delirious masterpiece for piano and fixed media that demonstrates why Brugh at his best is one of Oregon’s most idiosyncratically fascinating composers.

Performed entirely in the dark, it would have made an ideal segue into the closing work, which Portland’s Agnieszka Laska dancers persuasively performed in nocturnal lighting with a bed being the only prop. Unfortunately, the spell was broken by an intervening several minutes of fully lit instrument- and bed-moving and consequent covering thank yous and other talk, an unnecessary interruption that could have been avoided with some forethought in the stage setup.

Chanson proved worth the wait. Sometimes contrasting with Brugh’s seductively shadowy, even ominous fixed media music, choreographer Sharon Lang drew chuckles with a delightful dream sequence about an insomniac whose attempted slumber is troubled by insistently playful spirits, maybe representing all those irritating daily demons that plague our sleep. I’m not sure how much floor work was visible to audience members who weren’t sitting in the front rows — a drawback to using a non-stage setting that otherwise lent an enjoyably informal atmosphere to an avowedly jocular concert. Brugh encored on piano with a brief, reharmonized “Jingle Bells” as we entered the holiday season.

There’s a fine line between creative playfulness and self-indulgence. Cool instruments, costumes and effects — even flying fish — can dazzle audiences for a few seconds or minutes, but in a time-based setting, we also need musical or theatrical substance to maintain interest. Although the concert commendably allowed free admission, a full house of several dozen viewers did give up a Saturday evening to fitfully frolic in Brugh’s playground, and happily, Nonsense wound up providing some compelling moments of musical magic, exuding a spirit of fun and adventure too rare in new music concerts. I hope we can experience more of Brugh’s slant, singular vision — if he can balance his vivid, expansive musical and visual imagination with the audience-centered focus needed to bring his undoubted musical magic the broader listenership it deserves.

Christopher Corbell’s Pulpit

At one point between performances at the November 28 Cult of Orpheus concert at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall, composer Christopher Corbell abashedly grinned and apologized for the “sermon” he’d just delivered in explaining the genesis of one of his works on the program. He needn’t have bothered. While Corbell’s own social concerns informed his new music, infused it with a righteous passion, they never pushed his songs into preachiness or pedantry.

That real-world connection is increasingly animating today’s so-called “art music” in our politically charged times, and it’s part of Corbell’s objective to take the best parts of the music of the past, which often arose in elitist, monarchical, sectarian and other anti-democratic contexts, and revitalize and modernize them with contemporary progressive musical, philosophical and yes, political ideas.

“It is possible,” he’s written, “to appropriate the tools created by past aristocracies for revolutionary utterances and radical, transcendental egalitarianism.” This exciting Cult of Orpheus (as Corbell calls the production vehicle for his opera and art-song compositions) performance showed the promise of Corbell’s ambitious project.

Christopher Corbell at “The Emerald Tablet.” Photo: Diana Powe.

Give Them Space used that most historically esoteric of chamber music forms, the string quartet, to musically illustrate a four-movement journey from dominance (represented by tense, Bernard Herrmann-esque music) to solitude (which here sounded pleasantly pastoral) to dialogue (evoked in various Bachian polyphonic duos among the instrumentalists) and culminating in the concluding Copland-esque collaboration movement. Although it was instrumental, Corbell’s quartet, commissioned by Portland5 Centers for the Arts for the centennial of Keller Auditorium, was inspired by a quote from one my favorite books, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

After that strong opener, the quartet players (violinists Chris Fotinakis and Greg Allison, violist Nick Shadow, cellist Sonja Myklebust) were immediately joined by a vocal quartet (soprano Jocelyn Claire Thomas, mezzo-soprano Sadie Gregg, tenor Joe Soto, baritone Damien Geter) for The Emerald Tablet, Corbell’s translation and musical setting of a medieval European alchemical text that over the centuries became well known among certain thinkers, among them Carl Jung and Isaac Newton. It was new to me, yet sounded familiar, almost like a sutra.

The Emerald Tablet deploys various older forms — a baroque bassline here, a Handelian anthem or medieval carol there —each well suited to the lines it accompanied. As in the quartet, the performers excelled, especially Gregg.

In one of his explanatory non-sermons, Corbell talked about why those simple worlds so inspired him, explicating the ancient lines like a minister interpreting a biblical passage. He took the text to mean that every conscious individual has the capacity for creation — a profoundly egalitarian and democratic philosophy that mirrors his own experience as an outsider to the august classical music academies who by diligent study and practice has turned himself into one of Oregon’s most vital creative artists. It’s also the philosophy of the organization Corbell once headed (and from where he drew some of his musicians), Classical Revolution PDX — classical music is for everybody. Maybe, Corbell mused, if we all found the sense of transcendence through creativity here on earth, we wouldn’t suffer from the fear that provokes anxiety, violence and so many other social ills.

One of those ills that’s recently seized the spotlight, sexual assault/harassment, was the subject of Corbell’s potent setting of the Greek Daphne myth. Commonly read as a deity having his way with a human, it’s nothing less than a violent rape, and Corbell’s translation plausibly turns it into an angry parable about powerful males’ privilege enabling coercive violence. Then it goes further, using the sexual assault as a metaphor for greed-fueled despoiling of Daphne’s natural environment, a pastoral paradise. “Life was green in the bower where I made my home,” she sings, and offers a solution: “If you want to sing a better story / you’ll have to come up with better gods, / impervious to man’s regressive urges.”  Corbell’s troubadour style music fit the theme, and the performers (flutist Liberty Broillet, oboist Laura Gershman, percussionist Amanda DuPriest and Corbell on guitar) again served this 10-minute “opera miniature” well, with sterling mezzo Rachel Hauge as Daphne especially able to keep her eyes out of her score and connect with the audience.

Rachel Hauge in “Daphne.” Photo: Diana Powe.

We can expect similarly relevant political and philosophical context this summer in Corbell’s forthcoming opera, Antigone and Haimon, which retells a story often used to signify the ongoing struggle between individual conscience and repression by powerful institutions. Trombonist Jason Elliott and hornist Kelley Elliott joined the previous ensemble and vocal quartet to provide a taste of that music in the closing percussion-propelled Invocation and Overture with chorus and winds. While singing was tentative for the only time in the program, the instrumentalists, particularly percussionists, shone. Here and elsewhere in the concert, greater stylistic variety and richer textures reveal substantial growth in Corbell’s compositional development in the two years since he wrote his first opera, Viva’s Holiday. 

While this concert was itself one of the high points of the fall music season, it also foreshadows what’s sure to be one of the most anticipated events of the summer: the premiere of the full opera. Check the Cult of Orpheus page and of course Oregon ArtsWatch for information this spring.

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