Weekend Music Watch: Spring deluge of new sounds

Portland Opera presents Philip Glass's Galileo Galilei. Image: Courtney Weaver

Portland Opera’s latest collaboration with today’s best known composer, Philip Glass, Galileo Galilei, opens Friday night at the relatively intimate Newmark Theater in the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, with further performances Sunday (matinee), Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, April 1, 3, 5, and 7. It feels so strange and good to say that, like collaborations with living composers were a routine thing with big Portland music institutions. You can read my preview of this new production, directed by Kevin Newbury, of Glass’s 2002 chamber opera — written in roughly reverse chronological order, which is how the show proceeds, and including interviews with librettist Mary Zimmerman and Portland Opera artistic director Christopher Mattaliano.

Between PO’s Galileo and Eugene Opera’s production of John Adams’s important 1983 opera Nixon in China a couple weeks back, plus the continuing frenzy of new sounds that populate March Music Moderne, Oregon almost feels like the welcoming capital of contemporary music many of us fancy it to be. “I think that the future of opera depends on fostering new work,” Newbury said on PO’s website. “Opera should be as current and relevant as film, television and theatre. What are the stories that we need to tell today? How can we use music to look at life in the 21st century? For me, Galileo is a very contemporary story… all you have to do is turn on the news to see the battle between science and religion raging on.”

Alas, that false but appealing image of musical enlightenment will be shattered by a glimpse at next year’s season schedules, which revert to the notion that Oregon classical music fans, unlike the state’s theater and dance and pop music lovers or Seattle or San Francisco orchestra audiences, just can’t handle much of anything created a half century or more before they were born.

Where is Oregon’s cultural Galileo who will show the state that this fetishization of the familiar is ultimately foolhardy? We’ll have more discussion about the challenges and opportunities for contemporary and Northwest sounds with Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar and Mattaliano, both of whom graciously talked to ArtsWatch early last week in thoughtful conversations we’ll discuss in detail next week. In his interview, Mattaliano revealed that PO would be making the first commercial recording of the opera — as it did with Orphee — for Glass’s Orange Mountain Music, with the CD produced by Glass’s longtime music director Michael Riesman to be released later this year.


Eugene Scene

Speaking of Eugene, Oregon’s big orchestral concert this week features Eugene Symphony conductor laureate Marin Alsop bringing her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to the city’s Hult Center on April 2, and it’ll be worth the trip for anyone in Oregon. In a flashback to Alsop’s good old days in Eugene, their program will include music by American composers Aaron Copland, Joan Tower, and Jennifer Higdon — the same Grammy-winning 2005 Percussion Concerto that delighted Portland audiences last season when its dedicatee, Colin Currie, played it with the Oregon Symphony. Currie will also dance among the percussion instruments at Silva Hall.

And speaking of the OSO, the orchestra will perform Mozart’s breakthrough Piano Concerto #9 (with the esteemed Garrick Ohlsson as soloist), Shotakovich’s searing Symphony #5 and a Haydn overture this weekend at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. See our two week music calendar for more info on those and other Portland concerts.

In other Eugene classical music news, despite sharp criticism by expert observer and NPR classical critic Tom Manoff, the ESO renewed the contract of music director Danail Rachev through 2017. Manoff’s expose of composer Osvaldo Golijov’s alleged fudging of the composition credit for his Sidereus, performed in Eugene last month, made it into the New York Times. Happily, the ESO 2012-13 schedule actually features a world premiere by an Oregon composer: Tomas Svoboda’s Clarinet Concerto, with the solo role undertaken by one of the state’s finest musicians, Michael Anderson. Kudos to the ESO for believing in Northwest music and audiences. Commendably, the orchestra’s schedule is dotted with a few 20th century works, too, though most overfamiliar. Another former ESO music director, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, now in his 12th season with the Fort Worth Symphony, just added another post to his resume, chief conductor of Norwegian Radio Orchestra.

(L-R) Keith Clark, Florian Conzetti, Nancy Wood, Diane Chapman perform The Coast of Oregon

More Modern Music

Eugeneans also enriched Portland’s music scene (and brought samples from another of the city’s finest exports with them) at Thursday night’s March Music Moderne concert by Eugene’s Cherry Blossom Arts at BodyVox dance studio. The music came from Cherry Blossom’s Paul Safar, Robert Erickson (a wild trumpet solo played vivaciously by UO music prof Brian McWhorter), Portland’s Jack Gabel (accompanying a video by Agnieszka Laska that I praised in an earlier performance by Cascadia Composers) and former University of Oregon music professor Derek Healey, who’s now retired and living in Brooklyn but made it out to Portland for the premiere of his 2011 dramatic monologue, The Coast of Oregon. Healey’s epic setting of selections from the prose poem of that title by Canadian poet Norman Newton (who died in December but whose family members attended) stretches more than half an hour. The colorful story  traces a journey the poet made in the 1980s, exploring his notion (based on research from Mexican sources)  that Aztlan, the mythical land of emperor Montezuma’s ancestors, was actually  in Oregon, and he mounted an expedition to find it, before the conquistador Cortez destroyed his empire.

Healey’s music, while often mysterious and beguiling, didn’t vary its texture much, despite the episodic nature of the texts used, which would seem to lend themselves to greater differentiation among the musical components.That sameness imposed an enormous theatrical as well as musical burden on the singer at the center of it all, Cherry Blossom’s Nancy Woods, who came through marvelously with a bravura, sometimes snarling performance (for part of the tale, the encounter between Native Americans and conquistadores, is not a happy one, despite the presence of chocolate) that seized the audience’s attention and never let go. Wood’s powerful, extremely theatrical delivery (essential in a piece of this scale) was ably supported from a focused accompaniment by Northwest New Music’s Diane Chaplin on cello (including some gorgeous dialogues with Wood), Florian Conzetti on percussion and Sydney Carlson on flute, with Safar at piano, all carefully conducted and held together by Keith Clark. The group, and MMM, deserve plaudits for bringing this important new work to the stage.

BodyVox dancers perform Paul Safar's The C's Have It.

Two of Safar’s engaging pieces received dance performances dancers from BodyVox and Portland Festival Ballet. In the former, the choreography and music were developed separately (“like a blind date,” Safar’s brother noted) a la John Cage (patron saint of this MMM festival) and Merce Cunningham, which was a practical convenience given the bi-metropolitan nature of the collaboration. In a move that would probably have irritated Classical Revolution’s Mattie Kaiser, Safar based his piece on the letters of Cage’s name and chose text (declaimed by Eugene singer Ty Connor) from Cage’s writings and other sources associated with him. Unsurprisingly for a group as narratively oriented as BodyVox, the dance told a kind of story, and half the fun was seeing how the twain met, or didn’t. (I keep teasing Kaiser about her anti-Cage protest at the outset of MMM, but to be fair, she never said she didn’t like Cage: she just didn’t want us to imagine that music he wrote half a century ago was new, and she’s right.) It would have been better to have dance throughout the piece, as the narration alone wasn’t so gripping, but Safar was wise enough to keep it concise.

The other dance settings of Safar’s jazz tinged works by Portland Festival Ballet choreographers John Magnus and Lavinia Magliocco, wittily used the student dancers’ classical training and gestures. The program felt a little long, but it’s hard to blame this prolific and accomplished group for going all out in its first official Portland production (both Safar and Woods have appeared here often with Cascadia Composers), and the collaborations added a dimension to MMM’s scope.

Hildegard Westerkamp talks about her soundscapes at Portland’s Old Church. Video by Gary Ferrington.

The Sounds of the World

Another Canadian composer, Vancouver’s Hildegard Westercamp, also broke the usual concert formula in her MMM performance Tuesday at Portland’s Old Church, whose sanctuary she wired with eight speakers to create a platform for her celebrated soundscapes, a term coined by her mentor, Canadian composer Murray Schafer. Their depth and richness can’t really be replicated by listening to a recording at home. Westercamp’s complex set up, which took her more than three hours to complete, places listeners in the midst of worlds she evokes via a careful mixture of electronic and percussion music, sounds recorded in the venue she’s showcasing (a forest floor, a bustling Indian street scene, a walk along a bay), and other sources. She applies musical devices such as repetition to non-musical sound sources, so that the wail of a young Delhi street vendor, the washing up of waves on shore, a bird call or a car bell ring becomes a recurring motive. Within seconds, almost everyone in the theater had closed their eyes, the better to focus on the sounds playing around us, and suddenly, environmental noises that I would have automatically blocked out as “noise” now assumed great clarity, interest and prominence, much as happens with the audience and outdoor sounds made suddenly audible by the silence imposed in John Cage’s 4’33”.

Two of the pieces (1997’s Gently Penetrating Beneath the Sounding Surfaces of Another Place and 2000’s Into the Labyrinth) conjured up images of her journeys to India. Clanging pots, pans and cans, pealing bike bells, tooting scooter horns, Indian music instruments like the sarangi, footsteps, crickets, stoneworkers, and people singing, shouting, selling — sounds that I once would have ignored now suddenly seemed almost too rich to fully process (hence the closing eyes, the better to reduce the sensory inputs so as to focus full attention on the scenes unfolding all around us.

You’d think we Northwesterners would understand rain, but I’m not sure I’d really heard what rain sounds like until I experienced Westerkamp’s evocation of it, Talking Rain. The lesson: the sound of rain isn’t just the rain itself, but also the audible effect it has on the world it lands on. One gullywasher sounded so real I almost jumped up to check to see the windows were closed. And that might have been the sparest piece (in part because a technical glitch eliminated one of the channels) of the evening, which admittedly felt a little protracted. But what to cut?  Certainly not the closing piece, Fur Dich/For You, which expertly faded voices of her loved ones reading lines from Rilke (in her native German and adopted English) in and around the whirling sound mix, sometimes so softly that their consonants became mere sussurrations, like a jazz drummer using brushes. The resulting composition conveyed the feeling of Rilke’s words, which Westerkamp read in both languages before the performance, in a way the words alone never could.

Hildegard Westerkamp at the soundboard at Portland's Old Church

In her 1992 classic, Beneath the Forest Floor, recorded in old growth British Columbia forests, chirping insects, songbirds, and gurgling streams all belied the stereotypical notion that stillness equals stasis — the forest is alive, if we’d only listen to its voices. In 1989’s Kits Beach Soundwalk the experience was almost literally a moving one. As the microphone moves to louder and quieter spots, the soundscape imparts a sense of motion to the listeners, as passing cars and sirens Doppler by. Boomboxes, passing trucks and aircraft, and other urban clangor give way to clicking barnacles, the periodic splashes of waves and unexpected whooshes of wind. By giving us the contrasting urban noise, Westerkamp really made us apprehend the real sound of silence, the silence that Cage showed never really exists. Like Cage’s seminal piece, her work and the field of acoustic ecology of which it’s a part, reminds us of the old Buddhist lesson: pay attention.

This was one of those rare artistic events that truly changes the way you experience the world. Such encounters seem ever more urgent as our environment grows ever more distracted and cluttered, our senses implacably assailed by perpetrators we welcome.

This was, unbelievably, Westerkamp’s first visit to Portland; let’s hope the next will be soon. Till, then you can watch this video of the composer speaking at the Old Church, and you can read more about her in Portland writer Claire Sykes’s 1999 portrait, which she graciously updated and allowed us to republish here.

By contrast with several MMM shows that perhaps provided a slight surfeit of sumptuous sound, Saturday’s free MMM concert spotlighting pianist Maria Choban left us wanting more, in part because one piece had to be canceled because the singer, Kenneth Beare, was afflicted by the same virus that seems to have targeted half the audience in concerts this month. Choban’s admirably diverse program — presented under the rubric of MC Hammered Klavier — included a picturesque triptych for piano and recording by Brent Weaver, which depicted Greek myths involving three freethinking females (Echo, Pandora, Atalanta); an excerpt from Philip Glass’s collaboration with Allen Ginsberg, Wichita Vortex Sutra, powerfully narrated by Portland early music and theater legend John Vergin, a stirring performance of Portland composer Art Resnick’s Toccanata that Choban has really made her own, and superlative rendition of Portland composer Tomas Svoboda’s Storm Session that can’t have been more dynamic in its original incarnation for electric guitar and bass. The closer, the third movement of a breezy, jazzy streetscape called Harlem by New York composer Brian Duford and crisply performed by the Moussai Ensemble, made me want to hear the whole piece. Choban concluded with a lovely tribute to another smart (“You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap!”) and feisty female artist, Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

The entire delightful affair was over in an hour, with no awkward intermission (a practice I wish more performers would follow), no lax moments, considerable variety in tone, a warm and welcoming stage presence by Choban that made the full Community Music Center feel like we were in a friend’s living room, new works by local composers and contemporary works by national composers, some familiar, some refreshingly new … no other single concert so perfectly embodied the best of March Music Moderne, and the potential of Portland classical music.

Maria Choban plays Parton at March Music Moderne. Photo: Penny Okamoto

Which raises the question, which has popped up at several other MMM concerts: why are shows like this and several other sterling MMM performances such a rarity? Why must we endure endless repetitions of entirely standard repertoire, while ear friendly music from here and now lies neglected? Admittedly, few solo performers possess the chops, taste and panache to pull off such a feat with such unmitigated success, but even Choban had help. What she and other MMM performers are doing is nothing that Mozart and Beethoven weren’t doing two centuries ago, or your average rock club does every night: playing wide ranging repertoire from our own time and place, and presenting it in a way that generously invites audiences into the proceedings. It’s remarkable that, in our current calcified classical music culture, this is remarkable.

Liminal Performance Group’s theater, music, video, poetry and dance circus celebrating the great American artist Gertrude Stein might have been the most memorable moment of the festival so far. The centerpiece was One Dancing, a two-hour, come and go as you please pageant in the shadowy raw space of an inner eastside Portland studio, in which choreographer Camille Cettina and composer John Berendzen and various singers set Stein’s portrait of Isadora Duncan in slow motion. Stein’s not quite repetitive phrases, the grey-clad dance troupe’s often stately processions, with occasional surprising eruptions and Berendzen’s medieval and raga influenced chant (David Lang’s Pulitzer-winning Little Match Girl Passion is the closest piece that comes to mind, and even that’s not all that close) combined to create a really magical experience that’s difficult to describe or illustrate in photos, because much of the impact depended on the action (and later, David Abel’s ambulatory reading of Stein’s early works) flowing around and through the audience. Somewhat like a Robert Wilson production, it had the feeling of a ritual that had been going on for centuries before I arrived and would continue ad infinitum after we all left.

Liminal Group performs Gertrude Stein.

As is the opposite of most poetry and prose, Stein’s words always come most alive for me when heard and performed rather than read on a page — they seem to have been created as music more than information conveyance, and Liminal’s approach suited that concept perfectly. Because other concerts forced me to miss some of show’s components, I hope the group will revive this entire multifaceted production sometime soon, but even if it doesn’t, the revival of Liminal stands as one of the signal accomplishments of this year’s tremendously successful March Music Moderne, which closes Saturday night with a free showing of music related film shorts and excerpts at Portland’s Hipbone Studio.

We’ll have more about the final weekend of MMM next week. For now, we’ll leave with prayers to the memory of one of the last century’s most influential and enjoyable musicians, the great banjo master and bluegrass innovator Earl Scruggs, and to the recovery of one of the stalwarts of Portland’s classical music scene, the superb singer and choir director Brian Tierney, who was grievously injured in a so-far inexplicable example of the consequences of our society’s uninhibited access to concealable weapons of destruction. In spite of all, the music will play on, and sounds of renewal are, for now anyway, still stirring in the springtime air.

9 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    thanx so much, brett, for your beautifully evocative & insightful writing here, there & everywhere throughout MMM.

    while i can’t speak to the general wash of PDX programming for next season, i can report that plans for MMM 2013 are already being drawn down.

    but, first, MMM 2012 closes tonight – a 9 pm freebie @ Hipbone Studio with “Sounding the Cinema: Films, Feed & Festspiel Farewells.”

    there will be PBR.

  2. redipen says:

    not to be a curmudgeon, but Bodyvox simply pulled one off the shelf for their token Cagean contribution to the Cherry Blossom event

    one can see exactly the same choreography and costumes on the company sampler video, running in the lobby at the show – the piece is over 5 years old

    sure, why not, we all do it… borrow from ourselves – though the audience was expecting something a bit more in the spirit of what they’d been sold

    • bob priest says:

      wow, is this true? if so, that’s hugely disappointing to hear.

      i look forward to someone from BodyVox addressing this matter ASAP.

      thanx for your post.

  3. Nancy Wood says:

    I’m responding to this question as the Artistic Driector of Visual Music 2012. Yes– it is true that Bodyvox chose a piece out of their existing repertoire to be performed at Visual Music 2012. We did not ask them to choreograph a new piece, we just asked that they perform a piece of choreography at a the same time we performed our music. We did not require that it be brand new choreography, as we did not believe this was necessary to be true to what we were trying to do.

    The composer of the music, Paul Safar, and I had watched a video in which Cage and Cunningham talked about how dance and music could exist independently –side by side– time being the only thing that linked them. Anything that seemed to “fit” would be purely coincidental, and not planned. Bodyvox did everything we asked–the dancers had no idea what our music was like, – they didn’t know what the instrumentation was going to be, or if they would even be alone onstage. The only thing they knew was that they had to start and finish in 7 minutes. I did not intend to suggest that Bodyvox created new choreography for our show– so any misunderstandings about that are my fault, not Bodyvox’s! My apologies to anyone who feels this was “cheating”, though I personally feel that it worked out exactly as I had hoped. The dance and the music WERE independent of each other, and they DID exist side by side, it truly WAS a “blind date” and the only thing the dance and music shared was 7 minutes of time. Any percieved “fit” was audience perception, or chance, or coincidence, or all of the above– and all of this to me was true to the spirit of an homage to Cage.

    Many thanks for the comment though — anything that helps promote discussion is good.and I appreciate having an opportunity to explain it. If we ever do something like this again, I will know what needs to be included in the program notes.

    One last thing–being from Eugene, I haven’t seen any Bodyvox main company shows. So I had never seen this piece by Bodyvox until I was onstage myself , and don’t even know the title of the dance now.. so as far as that goes, it truly was a blind date.


  4. Nancy Wood says:

    One last thing! Now that I think about it, I realize that people really familiar with BodyVox’s repertoire could have felt disappointed that they werent seeing new choreography for our show– this honestly did not occur to me until reading the comment just now. So once again, my apologies!

    • bob priest says:

      hi nancy,

      thanx for your detailed posts. everything you say makes ample sense to me.

      however, i DO believe that BodyVox may have been “a tad” lazy in their approach to this project.

      in any event, congratz again on a terrific show!

      it still would be nice to hear something from someone over @ BV about their take on this topic.

  5. Thanks for clearing this up, Nancy. I don’t know whether anyone felt deceived or disappointed to learn that the choreography wasn’t new. I’ve gone to plenty of BodyVox shows myself in the past decade, and while it did seem familiar to me, I wasn’t sure whether I’d actually seen the piece just that it was in their familiar style.

    But even if I had known it was a repeated existing work, I wouldn’t have been disappointed. The program note explains that a major point of the piece is the Cage-Cunningham experience of juxtaposing independently created music and choreography. It didn’t specify that both should be new, although that’s usually (but not always) what Cage and Cunningham did, I think. (Dance experts, please enlighten us.)

    Just last week, a New York performance of Cage’s music used different choreography than originally: “Four Walls” (1944)… was an experimental dance-drama for which Cunningham, then 25 and still dancing with Martha Graham, not only made the choreography (largely now lost) but also wrote an extensive text. The music is now accompanied by the 1993 choreography of “Doubletoss,” the first completely new work that Cunningham made after Cage’s death,” wrote the NY Times.

    Since this was a Cherry Blossom show, I figured the CB component would probably be new — but even that’s not certain, as the program contained old CB works as well as premieres. I know that other MMM shows repeated works that had been presented recently in different contexts and concerts.

    Actually, it might be just as interesting to see how a viewer’s experience of an existing dance work changes when the music changes, and vice versa. Imagine a program of the same choreography performed to three different soundtracks.

    In any event, the show was billed as a Cherry Blossom production, with BodyVox as guests, not a BodyVox production in which the audience would probably — but not necessarily, as BodyVox often repeats its greatest hits in its own shows — expect at least some new work.

    However, I should note that even at MMM, most of the works, though modern, weren’t premieres at all, or even very new. Some of them, as was sharply noted from the outset, were even created by (now) dead people.

    Still, just to be on the safe side, it might be helpful to note in future whether the dance or musical work is new, particularly in a new music festival. Perhaps it’d be a good idea to require all MMM participants to include premiere dates for all works presented, in both the program and publicity materials.

  6. Nancy Wood says:

    Great points Brett! Clarifying what is “new” does seem to be important for a new music festival, and it is a great idea for next year to include premiere dates in all works! I know this is going directly into my “notes to self” when evaluating what needs to be improved for next season!!

  7. redipen says:

    again, nothing wrong with recycling and it’s good stuff… but, think they’d have done it were their collaborators… oh I dunno, Eighth Blackbird, Ethel, Bang on a Can All Stars? …just a thought

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