Weekend MusicWatch: Final exams and star power

Portland Gay Men's Chorus sings gay holiday songs this weekend at Portland's Newmark Theater

It’s finals week, for those of us involved in academia, but there’s more going on on campus than just exams.  Although perhaps not as operatic as the antics of university sports teams and presidential firings, and certainly not as polished as their professional counterpoints, Oregon university classical concerts sometimes take on fresher material than sometimes stodgy institutions that rely on ticket sales and subscriptions, and they often bubble with the kind of enthusiasm that 20-somethings — both in the audience and onstage — bring to rock shows and Autzen stadium.

College performances are also usually considerably more informal and affordable than the usual classical ticket. (And yes, many publications impose a de facto ban on covering student productions, although happily not so much in Oregon.)

This is especially true in Eugene, where the University of Oregon School of Music and Danceboasts some of the most accomplished students and creative faculty in the West. Although the city hosts some excellent classical performers, for listeners seeking musical adventure, UO concerts at Beall Concert Hall and elsewhere — whether played by its top-notch faculty like the Oregon String Quartet, by touring ensembles in its chamber music and world music and other presenting series, or by student groups — are usually the top choice on any given day.

Now, as you’ll see below, the UO has birthed an important new ensemble that debuts this weekend. Portland, too, boasts fine faculty performing groups like Lewis & Clark College’s Friends of Rain and Portland State University’s Florestan Trio, and PSU in particular regularly contributes immensely to the community by hosting performances of other Oregon and touring musicians.

Portland State University Symphony and Choirs

Two concerts at PSU last weekend showed how engaging college classical music can be. On Friday, several ensembles in Portland State’s booming choral program (which has added two new choirs and expanded the size of others this year) sang their hearts out in seasonally appropriate yet fresh music by Randall Thompson, Edward Elgar, Claude Debussy (one of his few works arranged by the composer himself for choir, and probably the angriest Christmas music ever written, condemning German Great War atrocities against the French) and more. 

Youthful high spirits flashed, big staffs pounded rhythmically against the floor and each other, other percussion instruments rang and banged, and the student singers danced and grinned to a contemporary piece by composer Stephen Hatfield that delighted the audience as much as the performers. The audience also clapped and stomped along to a Russian folk song (famously used in the videogame Tetris), and choristers and conductor Erick Lichte donned scarves, hats, sweaters, and even goggles for a crazy Estonian sledding song written by the great contemporary composer Veljo Tormis. And several students delivered strong solos in PSU choral music director Ethan Sperry’s brilliantly bluesy mashup of “Amazing Grace” and “House of the Rising Sun.” And that was just the first half!

Sperry also conducted and contributed equally fresh arrangements for the second half’s program. His take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (which, thanks primarily to Jeff Buckley, I guess, threatens to become as overplayed as Handel’s version) brought out its poignancy, his arrangement (spiced with percussion) on a Bollywood number had the students dancing along. Along with obvious musical quality, the spirit of fun and adventure Sperry has brought back to PSU since his debut there last year must account for their spectacular growth in popularity.

The following evening, PSU’s other youngish conducting star, Ken Selden, led the PSU Symphony Orchestra in a splendid program that included Darius Milhaud’s jazzy The Creation of the World, a contemporary work by one of today’s most respected composers, Finland’s Magnus Lindberg, and music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, in which the student strings shone. They encored in a new, original Christmas song by a young composer who was present. It was an odd program that worked surprisingly well. Like Sperry, Selden has never shied away from challenging his young players with contemporary repertoire; they’ll emerge from school thinking nothing of playing a Romantic warhorse alongside a modern piece.

In some ways, I enjoyed the evening as much as I have many other performances by professional orchestras, and I hope classical fans will give these college concerts a try. Great music is happening on Oregon campuses these days, and they’re an important part of not just our music’s future, but also its present.

Richard Goode

After that, the stars descended on Portland’s classical scene, with one of today’s most acclaimed pianists, Richard Goode in a Portland Piano International concert. His performance of a Mozart fantasy and sonata could have used some collegiate freshness. For me, Mozart’s music works best when it sings and floats in natural, straightforward fashion, relying on those memorable melodies even in minor key works like these — with him and Haydn, lightness doesn’t equal lightweight. But Goode never let you forget that this was An Interpretation, using exaggerated agogic slowdowns and sudden speedups for contrast. Too often, they came across as mannered, lurching attention getters. It must be tempting to vary the formula when you’ve played as much Mozart as the 68-year old Goode but for me, his interpretation sounded like it came from a century later than the Classical era.

Which made Goode’s clear, “classical” take on the next piece, a Beethoven sonata that can veer toward heaviness, just as surprising — but more pleasantly. Heavy Mozart, light Beethoven … what would Goode (who apparently also studied at the Gould/Jarrett school of pianistic subvocalization) do with Chopin? Played it just the way he had the Mozart, only here it sounded natural rather than forced, as the music really invites that kind of interpretation. His Chopin and Bach encores ended the show on an up note.

The Tallis Scholars

Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die, and thanks to Chamber Music Northwest, which brought the Tallis Scholars to Portland for the fifth time Sunday night, you could enjoy the former without suffering the latter. The ten member chorus soared to the same transcendent heights you hear on their recordings, even though the cast has changed in the four decades since its founding by Peter Phillips, who led the veteran English choir in this show.

They were, naturally, slightly less radiant in the more austere aesthetic of one of the planet’s greatest living composers, Arvo Pärt, but still compelling — although I slightly preferred Portland’s own much larger choir Cantores in Ecclesia’s richer version of Pärt’s Magnificat last week to this one. But the Scholars’ rendition of another Pärt masterpiece, a setting of Nunc Dimittis, electrified St. Mary’s Cathedral, when it suddenly erupted from delicate to a near roar, and the melody bounced up and down from the lowest bass to higher voices. Because each singer is so strong, Tallis Scholars can produce an expansive sound yet retain the clarity a small ensemble makes possible.

As welcome as the Pärt and Benjamin Britten works were, though, the singers soared to celestial heights in the Renaissance music they’ve mastered for so long, even when outside their Tudor polyphony sweet spot. The final soaring “Amen” in Michael Praetorius’s Magnificat, the perfect harmonies in the two closing works by Palestrina — sublime.

Takács Quartet

I had to miss one of the week’s other celebrity visitors, violinist Pinchas Zukerman, who appeared with the Oregon Symphony, but I was even more eager to hear one of the planet’s greatest chamber groups, the Takács Quartet. I’ve heard many of the world’s finest chamber music ensembles courtesy of the UO’s chamber music series, CMNW and Friends of Chamber Music, which presented these two concerts Monday and Tuesday at PSU’s Lincoln Hall, but I don’t know that any of them have played more compellingly than this foursome (two Hungarians, an American, and an Englishman) did last week.

One of the many astonishments in hearing Takács performances of six very different composers is how adeptly they adapted to each style — yet infused each with their signature warmth and emotional intensity, not to mention the supreme intonation, ensemble, and the other hallmarks you expect from performers, like Takács and Tallis Scholars, who inhabit the very pinnacle of their profession.

Kicking off Monday’s concert with the “Lark” quartet by the pioneer of the form, Joseph Haydn, they caught Haydn’s buoyant spirit with from the jaunty opening phrase though the famous fusillade of sixteenth notes that first violinist Edward Dusinberre traipsed through at full tempo in the final movement. Unlike Goode’s Mozart, the quartet sounded completely natural in his friend Haydn’s similar sound world, never trying to force an anachronistic interpretation. And they sounded equally at home in quite different music by later composers.

But in the next piece, by Haydn’s compatriot (a couple centuries removed), Bela Bartok, they shifted to an intensely expressive style that profited from the players’ vivid connection. They watched each other carefully while flinging bits of the ricocheting melody back and forth with absolute precision. I’ve heard quartets play Bartok too cerebrally, but the Takács never forgot the folk music elements at the music’s root.

Takács award winning performances of Beethoven’s complete quartets really vaulted them to the apex of the chamber music heap, and their performance of one of his still modern-sounding last quartets was as striking as any Beethoven quartet performance I’ve ever heard.

Tuesday evening’s show was quite different, and not just in repertoire. First violinist Edward Dusinberre expatiated a bit on the story behind Leos Janacek’s first quartet, which is based on a Tolstoy story that, in turn, refers to a Beethoven violin sonata. His explanation helped us appreciate just how that process worked, and the performance was, again, riveting.

Dusinberre also introduced Benjamin Britten’s first quartet by explaining how intimations of the coastal scenery of Britten’s home territory, which the violinist had visited and found very boring, might have found their way into the subtle second movement. Their exuberant performance of the other movements made this piece come alive for me in a way it never had on recordings, as also happened with pianist Steven Osborne’s performance of Britten’s piano concerto with the Oregon Symphony last month.

That’s one of the great benefits of seeing these classical superstars live — not only do they set standards that our own players can aspire to, but they can make us hear old music in new ways, not by distorting it, but rather by inhabiting it fully on its own terms, a difficult trick for even the best interpreters to pull off when playing music in dramatically different styles.

The Takács Quartet did the same thing in their closing work, which happens to be my very favorite piece of chamber music: Maurice Ravel’s sole string quartet. This was the fourth version I’d heard of this magical masterpiece in Portland this year; all were valuable and none less than lovely — but the Takács’ transparent performance really brought out some of the power that’s sometimes eclipsed by its admittedly seductive surface elegance.

I’ve heard even the best groups occasionally lapse into stretches of excellent but routine playing — it’s hard to imagine maintaining, over many years and repeated renditions, the kind of freshness it takes to make you feel like you’re hearing a piece for the first time. That never happened for a moment in the Takács’ committed performances over two nights. All four are physically demonstrative players, occasionally rising out of their chairs, but the music they make sounds just as passionate if you close your eyes.

These were the kind of gripping, full-blooded performances I wish my rock music friends — the ones who think classical music is boring — could experience.


The final classical colossus to visit Oregon last week, virtually at least, was Philip Glass — and he brought the Metropolitan Opera with him. The screening of the Met’s restaging of its 2008 version of Glass’s 1980 opera Satyagraha was my first encounter with the company’s series of high definition broadcasts of its current season at cinemas around the country. It’s been a surprising success, bringing the visual component of the operas to music lovers who’d otherwise never encounter it. And — take it from someone who’s been there — the view is a lot better, at least from any seats I could ever afford.

Glass has long said that he’s primarily an artist of the theater, and those settings and stories seem to inspire his best music in a way more abstract, music-only projects seldom do. Portlanders saw this firs-hand in last year’s production of his Orpheus (with Glass present), and we’ll get another chance this spring in the company’s staging of his Galileo Galilei. 

Satyagraha’s music on record had never really grabbed me, even though I’m a big fan of Glass’s early works, including the breakthrough opera that preceded it, Einstein on the Beach, one of the landmarks of 20th century art. Although not staged by Einstein’s celebrated theater artist and frequent Glass partner Robert Wilson, this production of Satyagraha, directed by Phelim McDermott, uses many Wilsonian devices. Eschewing dialogue, it tells its story symbolically via gesture, facial expression, costume and prop design, slow choreographed movement and of course music, thereby connecting with deeper regions of human consciousness than a literal narrative ever could. A chorus sings texts from the Bhagavad Gita — in Sanskrit — throughout, and a few fragments are translated in projected briefly on the corrugated iron backdrop throughout the show.

The opera tracks actual events that occurred during Mohandas Gandhi’s two-decade civil rights struggle in South Africa around the turn of the 20th century, so the more you know about that history (I was relying principally on dim memories of the old Ben Kingsley movie), the more recognizable the stage action, but in a way it doesn’t really matter. Very little “happens” in a conventional, plot driven sense, and yet there’s a clear sense of events taking place over time, and you come away with a deep understanding of what really mattered.

Glass’s mesmerizing music, rippling along continuously for three-plus hours, contributes to the fever-dream feeling, and, like the stage action, works via the magic of minimalism, in which patterns are repeated over and over, with subtle variations that take on tremendous significance precisely because so much else is repeated.

I’ve been trying to explain the power of minimalism to non-believers since my very first published pieces in college two-plus decades ago, and I’ve concluded that you just have to experience it to get it. That’s true of Glass’s unbelievably powerful, unbelievably repetitive early works like Music in Changing Parts (which still grab me in a way his later stuff doesn’t) and even more true of his landmark early operas, because to describe what happens, musically and dramatically, on stage in Satyagraha or Einstein just sounds ludicrously simplistic. It reminds me of the ‘60s apologists trying to persuade clueless Mr. Joneses about blues and rock’s power by citing song lyrics, even those by Bob Dylan himself, which, divorced from the music, can’t compare to “real” poetry. The power lies in the synergy of the combination.That’s generally true of opera, too, and it’s especially so in minimalist opera like Satyagraha. You have to be there, and the Met broadcasts let us do that.

Almost, anyway. I found the camera work intrusive and distracting here, maybe because the stage action is so slow and spellbinding and ritualistic. And — utterly to my surprise, having  too often cringed hrough the typical multiplex crash-bang previews — it wasn’t nearly loud enough to provide the immersive experience that this trance-like work needs. I don’t know if that’s just the case at Cedar Hills, where I saw it, or if it applies to the other Oregon theaters that show the HD broadcasts.

This production features images of Gandhi influences Tolstoy and Tagore, a superb (both musically and dramatically — every facial gesture matters, especially in closeups) choral ensemble, colossal puppets and aerialists from the Skills Ensemble, which add a counterpointed texture that never seems distracting.

Simple, unforgettable images abound, like the climactic one of an African American speaker (clearly representing Gandhi’s successor Martin Luther King, as signaled by the 1950s-style microphones), his back turned toward the audience, who silently exhorts his invisible audience while Gandhi sings −- for maybe a quarter hour — a simple ascending scale 30 times. Stated thus, it’s hard to imagine anything more tedious. But in the theater — and even in the cinema — it’s utterly transfixing and emotionally moving, and Glass’s boldly minimal music deserves most of the credit. Glass also deserves credit for bringing Gandhi’s message to the street when audiences leaving the Met’s production encountered the Occupy protest — life imitates art imitates life. (Thanks to Alex Ross for the tip.)

Philip Glass addresses Occupy Wall Street protest at Lincoln Center


The second act explains why it’s so crucial to see as well as hear these multimedia productions. On record, you hear the choir singing ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha, over and over again. It gets a little old. On screen, you’re seeing a line of top-hatted colonialists in quasi-clownish, colorful 19th century attire, sitting reading newspapers (which they fold and unfold in unison), and chuckling at what’s clearly the printed reports of Gandhi’s exploits. In those ha-ha-ha-has, they’re laughing at him. (It’s not stated in the program, but could refer to a quote probably wrongly attributed to Gandhi — “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”) Then, still sing-laughing, they slowly rise, hoisting their chairs and gradually close in on Gandhi. Their laughter and expressions turn malevolent, sort of like a Clockwork Orange-era Malcolm McDowell, as they menace him with the chairs. Eventually, still chuckling musically, they crumple the newspapers into balls and throw them at Gandhi, who crumples to the ground as if being stoned.

This takes maybe half an hour, and you’ll have to trust me — it’s brilliant. You’re laughing at the cleverness of using laughter as music and then realizing that it’s turning darker and darker — just like the press and power structure’s dismissive response to Gandhi’s “truth power” or “satyagraha.”

Glass’s biggest influence was Indian music, dating back to his mid-1960s work with Ravi Shankar on a film score, and, appropriately enough for the subject, both musically and dramatically, Satyagraha has the cumulative power of the finest ragas, where cycles repeat yet gradually evolve — ultimately, in the best hands, resulting in the most transcendent experiences I’ve ever had in music. That happened in this production, too, and makes it clear that minimalism was no mere fad but one of the 20thcentury’s lasting combinations to art. I’m grateful that the Met made it available to the masses.

Eugene Concert Choir and Oregon Mozart Players perform holiday music this weekend at the Hult Center


Weekend Watch

Speaking of modern opera, Portlanders can hear Electric Opera Company play Christmas classics on electric guitars and other rock instruments at Saturday’s Oregon Zoolights series. The Oregon Symphony goes gospel in its annual holiday partnership with Charles Floyd’s Northwest Community Cospel Choir at Schnitzer Concert Hall Saturday and Sunday. Cantico: Portland Chamber Singers perform holiday tunes and other music ranging from the Renaissance to contemporary composer John Rutter (and pop genius Brian Wilson) Saturday at Portland’s Old Church. Under Ethan Sperry’s direction now, the Oregon Repertory Singers stage their annual holiday concert this Sunday afternoon and next weekend at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, including works by Britten, Portland’s Joan Szymko and seasonal faves.  And the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus sings holiday music for gay choirs at Newmark Theater Saturday. At Portland’s Trinity Cathedral’s annual party, the Trinity Choir, Pacific Youth Choir and others perform Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and more on Saturday and Sunday.

In Eugene, the revived Vox Resonat vocal ensemble, comprising current and former members of the University of Oregon’s Collegium Musicum, gives its debut performance Friday at Central Lutheran Church. The group promises to be an important addition to Oregon’s early music scene. On Saturday and Sunday, the Eugene Concert Choir, Eugene Vocal Arts Ensemble and Oregon Mozart Players welcome UO a cappella stars On the Rocks and Divisi (and their celebrated founders) to their big holiday concert at the Hult Center, featuring music of Handel (you know what), J.S. Bach and seasonal songs. Also in Eugene, the Shedd hosts a holiday concert and singalong featuring carols and more on Sunday afternoon, and the old downtown church-turned-concert hall continues its run of The Sound of Music for another week.

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