Weekend MusicWatch: Classical reconsiderations

The Baroque music ensemble Rebel performs at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall Sunday. Photo © Howard Goodman

As much as we here at OAW cherish contemporary and homegrown sounds, it’s a pretty wonderful week when you can see expert performances of three classical music perennials that inspire new insights.

Consider Mozart’s late works. Last week, the Oregon Symphony played his final symphony, the 41st, and Portland Opera performed one of his (or anyone’s) greatest operas, The Marriage of Figaro. Both feature everything that makes Mozart’s one of almost everyone’s favorite composers: the seemingly effortless singing melodies, the transparent arrangements, the rhythmic buoyancy, the quicksilver delight in music. Everyone wonders what would have happened to music had Mozart lived past age 35, but what if instead he’d died a decade earlier, when he was still relying on the admittedly considerable talents he’d cultivated through his teens and twenties? Despite a raft of mid-career accomplishments, he’d be remembered as maybe another Rossini, a pleasant if slightly lightweight junior partner to the great Joseph Haydn.

But later, when Mozart discovered J.S. Bach’s ingenious use of counterpoint and other techniques, he reinvented himself in a way that artists too seldom do, sort of the way the Beatles did after encountering the ambitions of Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson. All those skills converge in two famous moments Portland music lovers heard last week: Figaro’s Act II finale, in which eventually seven singers are all delivering interweaving vocal lines, and the propulsive end of Symphony #41, in which Mozart twines five different melodic lines into one of the most thrilling finishes in music.  I bet that most listeners who heard both performances might re-evaluate the occasionally leveled criticism of Mozart as merely a facile melodic manipulator. In both cases, knowing what was coming, I was able to focus on the mechanics of those two celebrated climaxes as well as the emotional power of the music, but you don’t need specialized knowledge of music or Mozart to marvel at the miraculousness of his accomplishments. You can hear these elements in close listening to recordings, but there’s nothing like a clear, well delivered live performance — like these — to really help a viewer/listener distinguish various musical lines, and their creator’s genius.

The OSO’s crisp and muscular performance lacked the final punch that would elevate it to truly memorable status, but it was gripping and very much in the welcome modern tradition that avoids inappropriately Romanticizing Classical-era composers like Mozart and Haydn, whose equally magnificent final symphony they performed to similar effect last year. Conductor Carlos Kalmar didn’t seem to micromanage quite as fussily as he occasionally did then in the Haydn. The players are so good now that he can loosen the reins a bit.

The second piece on the program eclipsed the able “Jupiter” performance. Pianist Steven Osborn and the band unleashed a spectacular version of Benjamin Britten’s  thrilling though woefully under-performed Piano Concerto. It’s been enlightening to hear a fair amount of Britten’s work in Oregon in recent years. Maybe, as with another 20th century composer, Samuel Barber, we’re due for a reconsideration of the English composer’s contributions, which seem to gain wider acclaim than they did a decade or so ago.

Also last weekend, Tim Galloway and Melanie Downie Robinson’s survey of Baroque music at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall last week gave a deserved spotlight to two of the city’s most accomplished classical singers. In various combinations with the accompanying instrumentalists Michael Wilhite and Douglas Schneider and each other, the countertenor and soprano, who sing in Resonance Ensemble and other choirs, enchantingly held the stage music by Monteverdi, Rameau (with Galloway in Uncle Miltie-style drag), Dowland, Handel and more.

Galloway was enduring a bit of a cold, maybe related to the one that also sent tenor Ken Beare to the (water? Tea?) bottle after song in Schubert’s Winter’s Journey. But Beare’s throat’s condition didn’t impede his impact on the audience — if anything, it added a vocal vulnerability appropriate to those songs of lost love and despair. Beare has the gravitas and stage presence to grip your attention even though he barely used most of the stage and was competing a bit with the slides he projected to illuminate each song. He was able to play multiple personalities, the key to these mood-swinging songs, and pianist Maria Choban’s dramatic piano accompaniment (particularly in intense songs like “Winter Wonderland” was an equally strong voice, adding depth and power to their performance.

The projected images, all taken from royalty free open sources, gave generations reared on video and TV something to look at, rather than relying on their imaginations — a necessary adjunct to much music these days. But since Beare and Choban intend to take this show on the road to college towns, I wonder if they (or some enlightened grantmaker) could afford to commission 24 local artists to create a visual image to project, one for each song?

Choban’s idiosyncratic translation (which include a couple of snatches of Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson verses) should also appeal to contemporary listeners more than Wilhelm Muller’s original angst-drenched poems, which in the Age of Irony seem hopelessly self pitying and narcissistic. Unfortunately, clever and relevant as they are, they occasionally clashed with Beare’s onstage affect, since he’s singing (and acting) the original lyrics in German, while her translation is projected on screen.

Thus we get Beare singing, approximately (in German):

Dark clouds are drifting

Across the bright blue sky

Soft breezes gently sigh

In the dark forest

But in moody silence

I walk with sluggish feet

Alone and unnoticed

In this busy street

Why is the air so tranquil!

Why is the world so fair!

Even in the raging storm

I never felt such despair


While we see on the screen:


I hate my path

Trudge Trudge Trudge.

It’s a bright beautiful world.

Fr everyone else.


It’s a bright beautiful world.

For everyone else.

(no one’s listening)

(welcome to my pity party)

We grin grimly at a couple of those lines and others, which is one way we cope with such powerful emotions these days. Having a healthy perspective on your despair may not be Romantic, but it can sure help anyone deal with loss. The new translations aren’t all so wry, of course, but at several points, these juxtapositions reveal how differently 21st century Americans respond to grief than did 19th century German romantics. Which presents a dilemma for the performers who want to update it for modern audiences: it’s hard for us to read the more literal translations without snickering at their corniness, but then it’s difficult to deliver such heated original words with anything like the cool irony we’re accustomed to now. Nor can I really imagine those new words going with Schubert’s music, which was after all a setting of Muller’s original. I don’t know whether this contradiction really bothered anyone in the audience, and it certainly doesn’t invalidate Beare and Choban’s approach, which I do think brings important insights to the this classic, as well as to how we’ve changed — and haven’t — in a couple hundred years. Beare contends that Winterreise documents a journey into  madness, and the theatrical, varied way he played it — without histrionics or over-acting — you can really appreciate that, mostly by virtue of the protagonist’s shifting personality. Anyone who loves Schubert will appreciate and feel the passionate commitment they bring to this immortal music.

This weekend offers further opportunities for re-evaluating musical judgments. If you’ve never heard Baroque music played by real specialists and on the instruments the music was composed for, check out the New York based early music ensemble Rebel (accent on the second syllable, just as the group’s namesake, Baroque composer Jean-Fery Rebel, pronounced it) at the University of Oregon’s Chamber Music@Beall series in Eugene. Abetted by oboist Meg Owens and singer Rufus Muller, they’ll play music by the era’s greatest composers — Handel, J.S. Bach, Telemann — and more, all on period instruments and in historically informed style. If you’ve heard this music only on modern instruments, performances like this one will force a welcome reconsideration.

Also in Eugene, at the Shedd, singers Siri Vik and Nathalie Fortin revive their popular tribute to French chanson (Piaf, Brel, et al) on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Portland offers plenty of classical music opportunities this weekend, including one more chance to catch Portland Opera’s Figaro, which ends its run this Saturday. This production overcomes rather drab sets and costumes with generally scintillating performances, as I noted in Willamette Week.

On Friday at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the Oregon Symphony joins the most influential and successful jazz pianist since Bill Evans in a role that most of his fans might not expect. Before Herbie Hancock made his reputation in the second great Miles Davis Quintet and a series of impressionistic Blue Note albums in the mid 1960s, he was playing Ravel as a pre-teen with his hometown Chicago Symphony. Like his mentor Davis, Hancock brought plenty of classical music influence to his improvisations, though they might be difficult to detect in his latter day fusion work from, say, Head Hunters to “Rockit!” Some years back, he made a sweet album of George Gershwin’s music, and Friday, he’ll play the solo part in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (an appropriate arrangement, as jazz gained much from Gershwin, and vice versa), plus music of Duke Ellington (including the latter’s swinging take on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker) and also play some solos.

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra plays Prokofiev’s popular Symphony #5 on Saturday and Sunday at Skyview Concert Hall just across the Columbia. And you can hear the next generation of orchestra players at Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Saturday concert, also at Schnitzer, featuring music by English composers and Beethoven’s final piano concerto. If you’ve never seen a PYP show, you might be surprised at the level of musical accomplishment.

Chamber music fans know that while you can hear plenty of string quartets during the year, string quintets are much rarer, because, well, there just aren’t that many fivesomes that play the repertoire, which normally requires a quartet to engage a guest musician. So it’s a special treat to have some of Portland’s finest orchestral players (including Oregon Symphony musicians Greg Ewer, Nancy Ives, Paloma Griffin and Ron Blessinger — the latter pair lead the two major Portland new music ensembles, Third Angle and FearNoMusic) convening under the rubric of the presenting organization 45th Parallel to play quintets by Mendelssohn and Dvorak at Portland’s Old Church on Saturday. The performance benefits the city’s valuable classical music radio station.

Anyone intrigued by our story on new leadership in Portland choral music can see one of the principals in action on Friday at Northwest Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, where Portland State University prof Ethan Sperry leads the school’s acclaimed Chamber Choir and other choruses in a startlingly diverse program of music by J.S. Bach, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Leonard Cohen, Carlo Gesualdo and much more.

Another world music show happens in Corvallis Friday and at Portland’s Oregon Buddhist Temple Saturday, as the singer, multi-instrumentalist and cultural historian Latif Bolat sings and plays music of Turkey, including settings of mystic poetry by Rumi and others (“turn over a rock in Turkey and you find a mystic poet,” Bolat said at a similar performance Tuesday night at Portland State University), troubadour songs, and more. His PSU show amounted to about half music and half explanations and contextualizations of the poetry and music and their half-milennium-old history, and included projections of scenic photography taken on the cultural tours of the country Bolat leads. Like several other performances last week, Latif’s presentation gives listeners not just fine music, but also some fascinating insights about it.

3 Responses.

  1. Curtis Heikkinen says:

    I am one of those people on whose list of favorite composers Mozart (and Beethoven and Bach, for that matter) do not reside. While many people laud Mozart, I find that orchestras and especially classical radio stations such as our own KQAC have drained all the freshness out his works by constant repetition. I’ve seen Figaro enough to last me for quite some time. I attended the recent Oregon Symphony performance of the Jupiter. Not unexpectedly, it was well done but that symphony no longer thrills me. For me, the compelling work was the Britten, who is now my favorite composer. I find his works to be far more interesting than those of Mozart or the other composers I mentioned. I credit the oregon symphony for usually placing at least one unusual piece on its programs. I am sure it costs them some ticket sales but it keeps the concert experience fresh for someone like me, who craves something different. One of the major problems in classical music is the over reliance on standard repertoire. It never ceases to amaze me that concertgoers and radio listeners can listen to the same pieces over and over again. Fortunately,there are alternatives to standard repertoire online withe streams such as radioioclassical, abc classic fm in Australia and bbc radio 3.

    • Maria Choban says:

      I second that emotion. Radio play (and over exposure in general) has killed for me Bohemian Rhapsody, Beethoven’s 5th and 9th, Georgia, etc. I love living in a town where I actually have options besides Mozart and Beethoven on a regular basis. Having said this, I am thrilled when a war horse recaptures my attention again due to an inspired performance.

  2. bob priest says:

    well put, curtis, i couldn’t agree with you more.

    2013 will be britten’s 100th birth year. what this means, of course, is that you will likely get a solid dose of sir benji’s works mounted in pdx & worldwide.

    for example, i know that the arnica string quartet are planning a run of britten’s 3 numbered SQs during their 2012-2013 season.

    as i LOVE much of BB’s music (especially the SQs, solo cello suites & his glorious nocturnal for guitar), i’m pretty damned excited!

    r. murray schafer told me that he once met britten. after murray played one of his recent works for the maestro, BB remarked; “spiffy good noise!”

    now, tell me, who doesn’t love a man that coos reviews like that!


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