Weekend MusicWatch: Japan currents

The Tokyo Quartet performs Monday at Chamber Music Northwest.
Photo: Pete Checchia


This weekend is the calm before Oregon’s summer classical music monsoon season. Two major festivals (Chamber Music Northwest and the Oregon Bach Festival) begin next week, and a third (Portland International Piano Festival) follows in July. This weekend, music lovers in search of a little turbulence are advised to head coastward, where the Astoria Music Festival continues and the Siletz Bay Music Festival wraps up. Friday’s Astoria chamber music offering includes two surefire winners: Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet (which would astonish even if it hadn’t been written by a teenager), and Francis Poulenc’s 1939 Sextet for Piano and Winds, which combines insouciant wit, melancholy and sheer delight. A four-hand Schubert sonata rounds out the program. The Russian-themed Saturday matinee at Astoria’s Liberty Theater features cellist Sergey Antonov,  violinist Roy Malan and pianist Cary Lewis in an arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition plus music by Tchaikovsky and a potent piano trio by Anton Arensky’s. Saturday’s orchestral concert is an all-Brahms affair (Double Concerto, Symphony #2, Academic Festival Overture), while Sunday’s matinee concert with Antonov, pianist Alexandre Dossin and soprano Ruth Ann Swenson includes superb concertos for cello and piano by Haydn and Mozart, respectively, and music from Johann Strauss’s The Bat.

Down the road apiece, Salishan Spa & Golf Resort’s Siletz Bay Music Festival features many local musicians familiar to Oregon audiences — and brings the great New York jazz legend Dick Hyman back to Oregon, where he served for many years as jazz advisor to Eugene’s Oregon Festival of American Music. Among various other events and performances, Thursday’s chamber concert features Beethoven’s “Archduke” piano trio, Hyman’s own Piano Quintet, and Faure’s Piano Quartet. Hyman, who scored most of Woody Allen’s most famous films, is front and center in Friday’s orchestra concert, which features several of his works and improvisations with violinist Lindsay Deutsch, who’s spotlighted in a violin-centric arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Sunday night’s orchestral concert includes one of J.S. Bach’s keyboard concertos, with the solo part played on piano by Gerald Robbins, Saint-Saens’s Cello Concerto #1 featuring Max Bobby, and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto featuring all three soloists. The ageless New York pianist and arranger also performs in Sunday’s fundraiser concert along with music by the great mid-century American theater composers Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Dick Hyman performs at
Siletz Bay Music Festival.


If you missed last month’s transcendent concert by the Portland women’s vocal ensemble In Mulieribus featuring medieval and modern music composed and inspired by Hildegard of Bingen, you can enjoy it (or enjoy it again) and a trip out the Gorge Friday at Hood River’s Riverside Community Church, part of the little Gorge Music Festival put together by former Oregon Repertory Singers music director Gil Seeley.

More women’s voices are onstage at Northeast Portland’s St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church Saturday and Sunday when ViVoce, the a cappella female vocal ensemble of Portland Revels, sings sacred music by Renaissance composers Tomas Luis de Victoria and William Byrd, and performs music and stories from Britain, Eastern Europe and more.

Also on Sunday, a fab foursome of Portland Baroque Orchestra players perform Baroque music by rarely heard composers including Ariosti, Castello, Marini, Milandre and more at Northeast Portland’s Grace Memorial Episcopal Cathedral. Allora’s members play on authentic instruments — viola da gamba, viola d’amore, Baroque violin and harpsichord.

The next day, Monday, June 25, Portland’s biggest summer classical music series, Chamber Music Northwest, commences at Kaul Auditorium at southeast Portland’s Reed College. This year’s 42nd season feature a couple of famous ensembles that’ll soon be retiring, including one that started around the same time as CMNW, the Tokyo Quartet, which will open this summer’s proceedings with Claude Debussy’s magnificent 1893 String Quartet. The young players of the Amphion Quartet, who charmed listeners at last year’s festival, will join them in that Mendelssohn Octet that’s being played at Astoria. As part of CMNW’s Protege Project, which for the third season will bring classical performances to non-classical venues, the Amphions will play their own showcase Wednesday at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge, with music by three Bs — Bartok, Alban Berg, and (with pianist Gloria Chien) Brahms. And the Tokyo four return next the next night, Thursday, for three of the finest quartets of Haydn, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn.

The Medicine Peddler

This little breather in the classical season allows me space to recount some shows that somehow got lost in the flurry of classical concerts that filled the last frenzied weeks of the traditional concert season. A couple of weekends ago, Portland State University’s Center for Japanese Studies and departments of music, theater, and world languages and literatures combined their students’ and faculty talents to produce a spectacular season-ending show, the first of three performances (the others are in July and August) called Japan in Motion 2012. Although it was the seventh PSU kabuki production and the third time the center had produced the main feature, the classic kabuki play The Medicine Peddler, it was the first in the superb venue of Lincoln Hall and also the first time PSU — or any mainland American student performers — had ever produced it accompanied by a complete live musical ensemble, according to PSU prof Laurence Kominz, who spearheaded the extravaganza. Forty students participated onstage, including the members of PSU’s new taiko drum ensemble, directed by first-year PSU music prof Wynn Kiyama, who teaches piano and ethnomusicology as well as the Japanese drums. The drama was also accompanied by a shamisen (a traditional plucked, fretless, three-string banjo) ensemble led by PSU alum Matthew Shores, making this one of the most authentic productions of the drama to be presented outside Japan by non-Japanese performers.

Kominz abetted the audience’s reception of the piece by preceding it with a lucid explanation of how Japanese audiences would respond — something other presenters of world music and drama could learn. “If anything happens that you like,” he said, “clap!” If a performer does something exciting, it’s typical to shout certain Japanese phrases praising the performer, which he translated as “Jane, you rock!” The masked and costumed student performers earned plenty of shouts and claps from the appreciative audience even as they adhered to kabuki’s relatively formalistic style (though speaking in English). The production used the aisles as well as the stage, and maintained a sense of humor and wit that no doubt won plenty of adherents in the enthusiastic audience, even though it presented the play in truncated form.

PSU’s taiko group jumped
off to a strong debut

The kabuki performance was preceded by fan dances performed by a colorfully kimono-clad student ensemble with Kominz and recorded accompaniment. Kiyama followed with a solo dance that recounted a historical tale of young soldiers’ bravery in war and ended in a stylized ritual suicide by sword. Then the new student taiko ensemble took the stage to perform a series of popular traditional works and others composed by Kiyama and the students themselves, who briefly introduced their works. They performed the works with flamboyance and dance movements, accompanied sometimes by violin. The ensemble is an exciting addition to Portland’s world music scene.

Kominz, a scholar of Japanese drama who contributed to Imago Theater’s The Black Lizard last month, has helped bring artists from Japan to Portland, as he did in April when the shamisen ensemble Abeya included a stop at Lincoln Hall on its six city tour celebrating the centennial of Tokyo’s gift of cherry trees to the United States.


Abeya at PSU’s Lincoln

The sextet (including three members of the Abe family) is no academic endeavor. They entered in a procession down the darkened aisles of Lincoln Recital Hall, and gave an energetic, though carefully rehearsed performance that included plenty of comedy shtick, percussion accompaniment, improvisation, costume changes, musical theater, clowning, even a faux competition in which the audience cheered for its choice of performers in a kind of cutting contest. Again, a quick introduction helped prepare the audience for what was to come.

Of course, Japanese music, dance and theater are hardly new to Oregon. Portland Taiko has been performing Japanese percussion music since 1994. Their concerts are regularly some of the most entertaining in town because, like Kominz, the group works hard to consider the audience experience, and because the expressive performers aren’t afraid to project the joy they feel in their art.

Portland Taiko with Hanz
Araki and Mitsuki Dazai.

PT is as much about dance as drumming these days, and everything — instrument moving, transitions between segments, lighting, stage action — is carefully and crisply choreographed to keep the audience involved and entertained. Not coincidentally, their shows, including both of those I saw this year, the latest in March, often sell out Portland’s Winningstad Theater. It’s a great lesson for the classical music world, which can sometimes unintentionally come off as haughty or more concerned about the composers’ or performers’ needs than the audience’s. Portland performers could learn a lot from Portland Taiko — and not just about drumming.

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