The Sound of Oregon 2011: Locally grown CDs

Yes, you wanted your holiday gift givers to buy local — but come on, you really didn’t want that official Mt. St. Helens lava lamp or the chocolate covered Willamette Valley slugs. What you really wanted was some made-in-Oregon recordings, and we’re here to oblige with this round up of CDs I recommended over the past year in Eugene Weekly, Willamette Week and elsewhere. Why not buy them from a local retailer?


Portland Baroque Orchestra: St. John Passion

Until recently, performances of Bach’s two surviving musical retellings of Jesus’s death often used bloated orchestras, choruses, and industrial strength modern instruments and tunings that violated what scholars believe to be the composer’s intentions, and rendered it an impenetrable, oversized musical monument rather than an intimate musical drama. Bach’s score doesn’t specify how many singers and players to use, but long-time PBO music director and veteran English early music violinist Monica Huggett has found that a small (a dozen each) chorus and orchestra make the porridge taste just right. Last spring’s transcendent PBO performances of this music —my favorite of several dozen classical concerts I heard last year, and one of the finest I’ve ever experienced –demonstrated the aptness of that approach, achieving an ideal combination of power and intimacy. Abetted by the outstanding Portland chorus Cappella Romana and uniformly superb soloists from Canada’s Le Voix Baroque, PBO’s bracing, crisp, urgent and emotionally searing recording is the most gripping I’ve heard — including others performed in the tunings and styles and on the instruments Bach knew. It makes PBO’s recent partnership with the Oregon Bach Festival (once a major perpetrator of anachronistic Passion performances) all the more welcome.

Cappella Romana: Mt.Sinai: Frontier of Byzantium
In its own concerts, the Portland-based chorus specializes in the powerfully austere music from the Byzantine empire. The group’s two decades of experience, its stentorian performance, and the expertise of its London-based director, Portland-born Alexander Lingas, and his scholarly consultants, makes this one of the definitive recordings of these haunting ancient vocal sounds. Drawn from medieval manuscripts fortunately preserved in a Greek Orthodox monastery at Mt. Sinai, the unison chant-like melody over a mesmerizing vocal drone somehow never grows tiresome, either live or on this splendid recording, which wisely preserves the cathedral echo and resonance listeners would hear live — now or a millennium or more ago.

Martingale Ensemble: Mahler: Symphony #4
A chamber orchestra version of a symphony by classical music’s mega-orchestrator may seem as appealing — and as oxymoronic — as fat-free cheese. Yet slimmed down instrumental textures can often reveal musical nuances obscured by a plethora of instruments. This 1921 reduction of Mahler’s 1901 original, arranged for a series of concerts arranged by composer Arnold Schoenberg, makes an appropriate vehicle for this most pastoral of the nature-worshiping composer’s symphonic statements. (Last summer, Chamber Music Northwest featured a gorgeous reduction of another Mahler masterwork, The Song of the Earth, intended for that series.) The 12-member ensemble here (featuring some of Portland’s finest musicians, including members of the Oregon Symphony) affords greater transparency for the symphony’s musical textures and evokes its essential atmosphere. Same goes for the other work on the disk, a 1920 arrangement Claude Debussy’s beguilingly impressionistic, gently revolutionary Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

Oregon Symphony: Music for a Time of War
The orchestra’s first CD with music director Carlos Kalmar repeats last May’s Carnegie Hall program that won effusive accolades from the New York Times and New Yorker critic Alex Ross, and which utterly transfixed me a week earlier at Portland’s Schnitzer Concert Hall. Although only John Adams’s somber setting of Walt Whitman’s The Wound Dresser (featuring the always-imposing singer Sanford Sylvan) specifically makes martial allusions, the ferocious, ominous mood of powerful but comparatively rarely heard works by Benjamin Britten (Sinfonia da Requiem) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (Symphony #4), plus Charles Ives’s opening American classic, The Unanswered Question, evokes the violence and anguish of our own era’s conflicts. Like the Carnegie triumph, this CD’s blistering, committed, sharply etched performances should show the rest of the world just how far the orchestra has raised its game since Kalmar’s arrival, and is certainly one of the year’s most compelling classical recordings.

Oregon Guitar Quartet: Something Wondrous Fair; Realizations
This fab foursome of award-winning Northwest classical solo fretboard masters— award winning composer Bryan Johanson, fellow Portland State University profs David Franzen and Jesse McCann, Portland Community College prof John Mery, who plays in various ensembles — released two splendid CDs in the past year. Wondrous Fair, comprising Johanson’s ingenious original arrangements of American folk music from blues to ballads to fiddle tunes to Thelonious Monk’s jazz classic, “Well, You Needn’t,” lives up to its title. Realizations sets Baroque classics by Bach, Haydn, Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Piccini in arrangements that demonstrate how, in the hands of players like these, whose nuanced control of texture and dynamics imbues so much musical color, a seemingly monochromatic ensemble can almost serve as a little chamber orchestra, adept at elucidating Baroque counterpoint and providing a different perspective upon and new insights into these 18th century masterworks.

Vagabond Opera: Sing for Your Lives
The Portland-based self described Balkan Arabic Klezmer-based, original absurdist cabaret ensemble’s most assured and cohesive recorded work to date maintains its hallmark variety, with a Brazilian and fado fueled piece, odd-metered East European dance music, a tango, and more. But this time, the many elements feel fully assimilated rather than occasionally derivative, maybe because they’re all originals written by the band members, including VO founder/leader and erstwhile opera singer Eric Stern and cellist/chanteuse Ashia Grzesik, a one-time Cirque du Soleil musician who maintains a flourishing solo career. You won’t hear more fun in a classically oriented disk this year.

Klezmocracy: Reach
Though klezmer (East European Jewish music) influences still wail, the Portland band’s second CD unleashes an extensive panoply of styles that reflects the breadth of the band’s many influences. After opening on a low-key note with composer Joe Janiga’s meditative “Columbia, the Headwaters,” inspired by the river, “Hava Netze,” Janiga’s Carl Stalling-esque “deconstruction” of a traditional Israeli dance tune that is goosed along by Jason Dumars’ intentionally detuned sax parts and Damian Erskine’s frantic bass line. Like other cuts, “First” embraces the odd meters characteristic of much East European music. Ralph Huntley wrote “Mideast Midwest” for his old rock band, but its polkafied klezmer feel fit the session, while his laid back “Grin File,” based on a trance rock melody, locks into a gorgeous sax groove. Janiga’s raucous Mingus-tinged “Adventures of a Soliloquy” updates an older two-beat klezmer track. After the stately, dreamy “Slow Beginnings,” saxophonist/slide guitarist/ 3 Leg Torso founder Courtney Von Drehle’s “Resolution” kicks off like an early ‘60s Coltrane cut, then embarks on a predictably unpredictable detour. Huntley contributes a lovely piano solo to his arrangement of 20th century Armenian Georgian composer Aram Khachaturian’s “Tales of Ivan.” “Jovano Jovanke,” jams on what Huntley calls “the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of traditional Macedonian songs.” Janiga’s “My I Am” transforms a fragment of an Israeli dance tune into a Black Sabbath tribute. But for all its stylistic divagations, whether it’s the solid underlying rhythmic pulse — all members are experienced dance accompanists — or the band’s natural chemistry, this Reach doesn’t exceed its grasp.

Various Composers: Light and Shadow (Navona Records)
Eugene-based composer Rebecca Oswald has two of the loveliest pieces on this disk of modern symphonic works performed by several orchestras, in this case the Moravian Philharmonic. Movie directors take note: “Finding the Murray River” could almost work as a film soundtrack behind one of a long pastoral shot of a carriage riding down a country road. “Sleep, Child” is an uneasy lullabye that seems to reflect (and quite fetchingly) troubled dreams rather than soothing thoughts.

Cynthia Stillman Gerdes: Solo and Chamber Music

The Seattle born, Portland-based composer enlists some of that city’s top musicians in this impressively varied disk of solo and chamber music that includes a sly tango for violin and piano, a cheeky little toccata, a charming pair of piano waltzes inspired by resumed correspondence between the composer and an old high school beau, a lively piano fanfare that demands an orchestration, somber piano and trombone duets, and a series of short, reflective solo piano pieces performed by Portland Piano International director Harold Gray. More ambitious works include now-assertive, now-delicate settings of songs (sung by Portland State University opera director Christine Meadows) from Portland author Ursula LeGuin’s translation of the Tao Te Ching; an extended, wide ranging conversation for piano and cello; a meandering, rhapsodic mood swing for violin and piano appropriately titled Crazy Jane; and “Idaho Toccata Trio,” a vibrant musical retrospective of Gerdes’s Boise childhood, with nostalgic references to cowboy songs and other old-timey tunes.

Adam Hurst:The Secret

After last year’s turn from Arab-influenced drones to a more Romantic style, with piano accompaniment, the Portland-based cellist continues to evolve on his ninth CD, which pairs his cello with an  “Array mbira” — a four-octave chromatic thumb piano whose shimmering, dreamy sound complements Hurst’s own. If you’re looking for rich, dark, moody sounds on a chill winter’s eve, Hurst is your composer. At the end of 2011, he released a compilation drawn from his earlier CDs, and had formed a quartet that may impend a new group-oriented direction.

Ezra Weiss:  The Shirley Horn Suite 

Over the course of four CDs and a decade on the Portland and New York jazz scenes, the still-youthful pianist has proved to be a reliably elegant and increasingly economical straightahead player and composer. On this lustrous new album, Weiss (who teaches at Portland State) honors the legendary jazz pianist / singer who also had the confidence and taste to leave plenty of space for feeling to emerge— characteristics that earned Horn the admiration of Miles Davis. The limpid instrumental trio pieces frequently achieve a reflective beauty that will enchant any fan of mainstream piano jazz, while the lovely original songs featuring veteran Northwest chanteuse Shirley Nanette don’t clone Horn’s sound, but do share her measured, relaxed swing and emotional depth.

Bill Beach: Buzios

Like pearl divers referred to in the title track of his breezy new CD, Portland pianist/singer Beach dove deeply — into Brazil. Beguiled by that bossa beat, he devoted almost a decade to studying both Brazilian music (including a trip to the source) and the notoriously difficult (for non native speakers) to pronounce Portuguese, ultimately writing his own lyrics in the language.  Buzios consists entirely of original compositions and reveals a musician completely at home in the idiom.

Various Artists: Hendrix Uncovered (Marzena)

A true wild card, this collection of works inspired by Seattle’s great musician, James Marshall Hendrix,  reveals the guitar deity’s breadth of musical exploration, because none of the works by these little known (except for Seattle’s Stuart Dempster) Canadian, US and European composers sound much like each other, yet all provide fascinating listening experiences, whether rendered by guitar, saxes, trombone and didjeridu, cello, Hendrix samples, kalimbas, “Oriental instruments and voices,” tape collages, viola, percussion, “cosmic background radiation” and various combinations of the above. Even the titles — “Almost Nothing like Purple Haze,” Castles Made of Sound,” et al are inventive. An obvious labor of love assembled by Portland composer Bob Priest, this may be the only Hendrix tribute that goes as far out, in its own deliciously weird ways, as its subject.

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