Weekend MusicWatch: East treats West

Portland Opera opens its season with its annual Big Night concert Saturday. Photo: Cory Weaver

Portland Opera opens its season with its annual Big Night concert Saturday. Photo: Cory Weaver

When Toru Takemitsu was a teenager in post World War II Japan, he was entranced by Western classical music he encountered on radio broadcasts from the American soldiers occupying his native Japan after World War II. The sound so beguiled him that he would wander the city, listening for the sound of a piano, and then he’d ask the piano player if he could just touch the piano for five minutes. He was never refused.

Takemitsu’s infatuation with Western music led the self-taught composer to explore the second Viennese school composers including Schoenberg, and later Debussy (who was himself touched by Japanese aesthetics, as evidenced by the image of a Hokusai woodblock print he placed on the cover of La Mer), Messiaen and Cage. But by the 1960s, thanks in part to Cage’s own debt to Zen ideas, as well as seeing a performance of traditional Japanese bunraku puppet theater, Takemitsu began incorporating the Japanese music elements he’d long eschewed into Western orchestral and chamber settings, creating evocative musical fusions that made him one of the 20th century’s greatest composers. “I suddenly recognized I was Japanese,” he recalled. “I came to recognize the value of my own tradition.”

Best known in Japan for his hundred film scores (including several for the films of the great director Akira Kurosawa), Takemitsu eventually taught at Yale and other universities around the world and was awarded some of classical music’s most prestigious honors before his death in 1996. By then, his music had flowered into a sturdy hybrid that sounded like nothing else. Just before he died, the composer dreamed that he was a whale swimming in an ocean that had no east and no west.

That’s an apt characterization of both major works, each influenced by occidental and oriental cultures, on the Oregon Symphony’s season-opening program this Saturday and Monday, including Takemitsu’s haunting 1990 percussion concerto “From me flows what you call Time,” which deploys 32 percussors and a quintet of percussionists (one of the orchestra’s strongest sections) front and center in a serene journey inspired by Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

The orchestra is dedicating this weekend’s performances to the 50th anniversary of one of my other favorite Oregon cultural institutions, the Portland Japanese Garden, which is appropriate because understanding his connection to nature is crucial to appreciating Takemitsu’s unique sound world, less linear and more atmospheric than much of the Western music that preceded it. “My music is like a garden, and I am the gardener,” Takemitsu wrote. “Listening to my music can be compared with walking through a garden and experiencing the changes in light, pattern and texture.” Or as John Cage said, Takemitsu transformed nature into music.

Takemitsu’s concerto is perfectly paired with another colorful  literally, as you’ll see), episodic classic from a century earlier that purists will also dismiss as mere exoticism but less rigid music lovers will embrace for its healthy hybrid of Eastern and Western musical influences: one of the most thrilling and of all orchestral warhorses, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful 1888 symphonic sketches, “Scheherazade,” a magical near-violin concerto that, like the Arabian Nights title character, can still seduce experienced listeners and newbies alike, even after a thousand and one encounters.

Rimsky maintained a somewhat tense yet deeply respectful friendship with that other  19th century Russian composing colossus, Pete Tchaikovsky, despite some musical differences. In fact, before his sudden death, the latter was planning to conduct a performance of the former’s Symphony #3. This weekend’s Vancouver Symphony concerts  are devoted to Tchaikovsky’s music: the powerful “Slavonic March,” explosive “1812 Overture,” and excerpts from his opera, “Eugene Onegin” featuring singers Anna Kazakova, Lucas Meachem, and Beth Madsen Bradford.

And speaking of opera… the Oregon Symphony opener is one of two events that in recent years have announced the commencement of the classical music season. The other is Portland Opera’s Big Night, a concert at Keller Auditorium featuring the company’s orchestra and singers in opera’s greatest hits and musical theater (really America’s homegrown opera) classics. Unfortunately, this year it doesn’t include the street party that made the event feel like something more widely appealing than just a soiree for donors and fans, but it still benefits a most worthy cause: the opera’s outreach and education programs, which bring classical music to tens of thousands of students and others across Oregon.Over at Portland’s Old Church on Friday, Andre Feriante and The Bohemian Entourage (boasting musicians from Indian —both kinds!— flamenco, classical and other traditions) perform (says the press release) “original Spanish influenced music combined with opera, Bach, Leonard Cohen, jazz standards, east Indian rhythms played with Feriante’s creative banjo and ukulele techniques, fiery South American songs, early music” and more, including improvisations on Beatles tunes. And you can hear actual traditional North Indian music Saturday at Portland’s First Baptist Church when the presenting organization Kalakendra brings  sitarist Indrajit Banerjee, mandolinist Snehashish Mozumder, and tabla wallah Subrata Bhattacharya.

As you can read elsewhere on ArtsWatch, anyone interested in the future of choral/vocal music should be at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan chapel Friday night to hear the amazing New York/Boston based vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth perform this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning composition, “Partita for Eight Voices,” by 30 year old singer/violinist composer Carolyn Shaw. Arranged by a welcome partnership between two vital Portland music institutions, FearNoMusic and Resonance Ensemble, the concert also features several other of today’s most acclaimed younger composers — Judd Greenstein, Missy Mazzoli, Caleb Burhans, and more.

There’s more contemporary music at another Portland college campus Saturday. As part of the school’s annual Community Day (which also includes dance, chamber music and theater readings) , and to celebrate the opening of its new Performing Arts Building, Reed College is presenting two free concert readings of the fine composer Derek Bermel’s musical-in-progress “Golden Motors,” at 2 and 7 PM. Bermel, who’s written for artists as diverse as James Galway, Midori, eighth blackbird and the Guarneri Quartet, recently put out an excellent album with the new music orchestra Alarm Will Sound. Working with poet Wendy S. Walters, Bermel wrote three dozen songs recounting the story of workers at an imaginary Detroit auto plant during the early 1980s.

Speaking of contemporary music, Third Angle just concluded its run of Georg Haas’s third string quartet at Portland’s OMSI Planetarium. You can read Jeff Winslow’s ArtsWatch review or my Willamette Week take. To summarize, the music (as distinct from the overall experience, which of course is what you’re paying for, not just the musical element), while packing many moments of surprise and beauty, nevertheless eventually felt diffuse for its 45 minute length, a problem exacerbated by the planetarium’s bone dry acoustic that, as Winslow noted, swallowed up the spare sounds. Was that a slackness in the score, or in its interpretation by a quartet of some of the Oregon Symphony’s finest? On reflection, and without having seen the score myself, I’m really curious: how would the Haas quartet sound in, say, a cathedral or other more resonant space? And how would a jazz quartet, much more accustomed to improvisation (though way beyond the boundaries likely permitted by the composer), have handled this material? Anyway, kudos to Third Angle for stretching the boundaries of listeners and musicians alike.

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