Weekend ArtsWatch: Going local


Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 30th anniversary this weekend


Last week’s MusicWatch was derailed by the fact that the prime upcoming musical offerings were either sold out or involved that sort of music in which neither the player nor the listener knows precisely what notes will be played. And in fact, the Portland Jazz Festival concerts I attended (especially those featuring Seattle-based guitar deity Bill Frisell, pianist Vijay Iyer with Indian musicians in his Tirtha trio, Italian trumpeter/composer Enrico Rava and a hot young band featuring the most powerful trombonist I’ve ever seen, and guitarist Charlie Hunter) all reached numerous musical peaks.

The PJF is certainly one of Oregon’s most valuable musical institutions, and not just for bringing such worthy internationally known performers to town, both during the annual February festival and throughout the year. This year especially, the festival made even more of a point of featuring Oregon jazzers in showcases around town and even opening for some of the legends — a policy I wish more of our music institutions would adopt.

Three of those shows, featuring the Tony Pacini Trio (with drum legend Mel Brown), the Jackson-Mills Big Band, and Better Homes & Gardens (subsequently renamed Battle Hymns & Gardens, and featuring two members of Blue Cranes) proved worthy of the brighter spotlight, and served notice that Portland’s homegrown jazz scene is quite strong — and getting stronger, with new venues opening and young players emerging.

ArtsWatch doesn’t really have the bandwith to cover jazz yet, but we can say that this week offers proof of Oregon’s jazz resurgence, with ECM artist, long time downtown NYC avant jazz stalwart and Lewis & Clark College alum Tim Berne closing for Blue Cranes Friday at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater, and one of jazz’s true legends, Benny Golson appearing not at the Shedd, Eugene’s jazz capital, but at the incubator Jazz Station downtown. And there’s good jazz at several other Eugene venues, including the Shedd (Carl Woideck’s tribute project, featuring the Gershwins’ music), the University of Oregon Jazz Ensemble, saxophonist Idit Shner, and more.

There’s plenty of attractive unimprovised music on Oregon stages this weekend, too. Eugene actually scores the top road show of the weekend, with the University of Oregon’s Chamber Music@Beall series bringing France’s young Ebene Quartet, who so enchanted Portland audiences at a Friends of Chamber Music concert recently, to Beall Concert Hall on Sunday. The UO also honors a fallen music master, the late faculty member Steve Larson, in jazz and choral performances March 3 and 4, respectively.

The Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra marks its 30th anniversary season by bringing back its founding conductor, Jerry Luedders, to conduct the same Brahms overture featured in the orchestra’s debut concert in 1983, its reigning music director Huw Edwards conducting the first piece the orchestra played for him as music director, and two masterpieces: Shostakovich’s Symphony #9 and Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23 with Third Angle’s Susan Smith at the keyboard.

The Oregon Symphony features another great pianist, Inon Barnatan, whose Portland Piano International solo recital we praised earlier, in Saint Saens’s second concerto, and the band will also play Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances and more on Saturday and Sunday at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. And Portland’s two major young people’s orchestras, the Portland Youth Philharmonic (actually its string ensemble) and Metropolitan Youth Symphony also perform this weekend, at the World Forestry Center and Newmark Theater respectively. Meanwhile, you can hear homegrown sounds performed by some of the region’s most accomplished classical musicians at the Cascadia Composers concerts at Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church Saturday and Sunday, featuring musicians mentioned on OAW earlier such as Maria Choban, Renee Favand-See, and more. Note that the two concerts feature entirely separate programs, and include fine composers from Eugene such as Paul Safar and Mark Vigil, and some new names in the series. These Cascadia concerts are a good way to hear what musical ideas are bubbling up from our community’s creators today.

A Mozart piano concerto also highlighted the Oregon Symphony’s concert last week, as long time Oregon Bach Festival pianist (and LA Chamber Orchestra music director) Jeffrey Kahane sparkled in the solo role. The orchestra also turned in a gentle, nuanced performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s pastoral Symphony #5, a pronounced contrast to its recent performance and new recording of the English composer’s fiery previous symphony. As we mentioned earlier, this one will be recorded on the OSO’s next CD.

The other classically oriented concerts we did catch recently also offered charms.  Two were vocal recitals. Portland Opera’s excellent series featuring the company’s youngish studio artists, which we’ve praised before, scored again with baritone Nicholas Nelson — who began his performance by sitting down and accompanying himself on guitar in lute music by John Dowland. And he wasn’t just strumming chords, either. It made a warm, even intimate atmosphere at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium, and he also excelled in rarely heard songs by Schubert, Hans Eisler (the 20th century German composer whose work has been appearing more often on local stages of late), and Rimsky Korsakov (which required a good Russian accent). The opera’s associate conductor Robert Ainsley, an Oregon music  treasure, provided his usual solid accompaniment and informative notes and comments. These donation-only recitals are increasingly popular and draw shouts of deserved applause from fans, breaking down the distance that surrounds opera singers at the city’s cavernous Keller Auditorium and belying the notion that vocal recitals and art song are archaic.

Another such recital at Lewis & Clark College and Portland’s Old Church, featuring Lewis & Clark College choral studies professor and Resonance Ensemble director Katherine FitzGibbon, underlined the point. Again featuring lesser known composers (and a contemporary ones, Libby Larsen and Jake Heggie) alongside well known names like Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams and Richard Strauss), FitzGibbon’s performance persuasively conveyed humor, longing, pathos and more, as appropriate to the texts. She was capably accompanied by pianist Michael Barnes and joined in several selections — including Rossini’s famous meowing cat fight — by Portland Opera mezzo Hannah Penn, whose very different vocal quality made their interweaving lines much more distinct. It was a treat to hear an operatic voice and a choral voice meet so agreeably on the middle ground of art song.

More voices and contemporary sounds graced Portland stages at two major choral concerts last week. Choral Arts Ensemble sang music by 20th century American composers, including standout renditions of Randall Thompson’s surprisingly unplacid Book of Isaiah setting, The Peaceable Kingdom and Samuel Barber’s poignant version of Louis Bogan’s “To be Sung on the Water.” Just as admirably, the concert featured compositions by four Americans born in the 1970s or ’80s.

Portland Vocal Consort

Portland Vocal Consort continued its wholly commendable annual practice of dedicating one of its concerts entirely to the music of Northwest composers. The opening set featured songs related to Native Americans, including “Prayer of Black Elk,” a pleasant translation of the Sioux leader’s words with music by Seattle’s Karen Thomas, whose early music-influenced style has been heard here several times in recent weeks, and her 2010 setting of a Navajo prayer, “Beauty is Before Me.” Jack Gabel’s “Remember Me” is the closing section of a larger work, Salt Woman Came to Feast, based on a Cohiti Pueblo myth. His clever and unusual arrangement of voices made me eager to hear the whole piece — when will a local ensemble perform it? Oregon Repertory Singers director Ethan Sperry’s striking choral version of Valerie Naranjo’s “Ute Sundance,” based on that tribe’s traditional song, reminded us just what a significant contributor the Portland State professor is to the community’s music even beyond those two prominent posts. His sympathetic arrangements of world music for choir have graced several stages here of late.

Jeff Winslow’s “The Sun Never Says,” probably the most formally interesting piece on the program, assigned the piano an independent melodic part instead of the usual accompaniment and used the overtone series to hold together what might otherwise sound like multiple voices taking different directions. University of Washington student Eric Barnum’s “Afternoon on a Hill,” a 2007 setting of a frisky Edna St. Vincent Millay verse, blossomed into a big sound wave, while Pacific University prof Timothy Stephens’s fun “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere” gave the “symphony of singers” some tricky meter changes, which PVC handled with aplomb. Yet another worthy PVC effort, its annual composer contest, yielded immediately gratifying results with Mark Woodward’s lush”The Day Slipped By.” The assistant conductor of the Pacific Youth Choir, who conducts two other local choirs and recently completed his first book, contributed sweet and confident music that well suited Rachel AuBuchon’s celebration of the farming and natural cycles. An earlier winner of the prize, Ethan Gans-Morse, returned with a fetching setting of his partner Tiziana DellaRovere’s adaptation of the traditional “Ave Maria prayer”; a colorful related painting appeared behind the singers.

Vancouver composer Stephen Chatman provided soothing sounds for Walt Whitman’s “Darest Thou Now O Soul” and Seattle’s Greg Bartholomew’s concise, slightly tart “An Open World” evocatively set one of his father’s poems. Still after so many easy-tempoed, rhythmically square pieces, I welcomed the energetic charge of Portland composer Joan Szymko’s fun “Where is the Door to the Tavern,” complete with water bottle accompaniment. The concert soared to a close with Eugene composer Robert Kyr’s sumptuous but too brief motet “O Great Spirit.” But really the entire performance demonstrated the abundance of musical creativity teeming in the Pacific Northwest, and made me wonder again why so few other musical institutions possess the vision and boldness of PVC director Ryan Heller, and his organization’s commitment to the music of its community. Would that all Oregon classical music institutions invested so impressively in the music’s future instead of merely its past.

One Response.

  1. Jeff Winslow says:

    I was glad to read the detailed review of last weekend’s Portland Vocal Consort concert. And a perceptive one if I do say so myself, ahem. It’s interesting that both you and Ryan used the word “melodic” referring to the piano part in my piece. I think of it as tough love, or maybe good cop / bad cop. It cajoles, even coerces, it teases, and it does get a few moments in the limelight, but it also supports and celebrates. It’s not an easy piece but they did a very very fine job with it. As they did with the entire program of new work. Bravo Ryan and crew!

    Also can’t resist putting in a plug for Cascadia Composers. We had a very strong, multifarious program last night and folks should look for more, more, more tonight, including Ms. Choban!

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