Weekend MusicWatch: Modern music marches on


Fred Hauptman conducts Free Marz Trio's Diane Chaplin, Joel Belgique and (not shown) Ines Voglar


“Give me a C!” implored composer/classical radio announcer Robert McBride on stage at Portland’s Coho Theater Thursday night.

“C!” the audience shouted in reply, while the Free Marz String Trio played C major on their instruments.

“Give me an A!”


“Give me a G!”


“Give me an E!”


“What’s the spell?”


That was the first movement of McBride’s new work for string trio, 4”34’, a tribute to John Cage, whom we’re not supposed to be talking about. And yet as I write this, John Adams is talking about him in a discussion, webcast live, that’s part of  San Francisco Symphony’s American Mavericks series now bringing 20th century American west coast music to that orchestra and to New York City.

Commissioned by March Music Moderne, McBride’s piece, which actually owes as much to Paul Simon as to Cage himself, and featured a lovely turn by emerita Oregon Ballet Theater dancer Gavin Larson, was a highlight of the trio’s March Music Moderne concert, which also featured gripping solo works by 20th century Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti and Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (better known as the erstwhile LA Philharmonic conductor), each boldly played by one member of the husband and wife Oregon Symphony/ FearNoMusic team of Ines Voglar and Joel Belgique.

The full trio (with Northwest New Music cellist Diane Chaplin, who did a terrific job in some challenging, unfamiliar repertoire as a last minute fill in for the original cellist, called away on a family emergency) also converged for the blistering closing work, 1962’s Genesis I: Elementi, which opens with as arresting an intro as any music I’ve heard and proceeds through a fusillade of wild sirens and squeaks that would have surprised fans of its composer, Henryk Gorecki’s most popular work, the stirring Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, whose recording featuring Dawn Upshaw remains one of the most popular works of 20th century music yet seems a world away from these searing sounds.

Those pieces would have made this revelatory concert one of the year’s most worthwhile, but even more engrossing was Free Marz impresario Bob Priest’s other discovery, Czech composer Hans Krasa, whose Passacaglia & Fugue, written  at the Terezin concentration camp days before the Nazis murdered him at Auschwitz’s gas chamber, which whirled kaleidoscopically from lush late romanticism to neo-Baroque fugue to neo-classical and other styles yet somehow remained mostly coherent.  Add fascinating smoke and oil art by Paul Sutfin in the lobby and actor Jean Sherrard’s dramatic declamation of words by Czeslaw Milosz, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Michel Serres and we have one of the year’s most fascinating chamber music concerts.

March Music Moderne continues this week with performances of contemporary sounds all over Portland. Saturday night’s “Broken Flowers” at Zoomtopia 810 SE Belmont is another multimedia spectacle, featuring the Agniezska Laska Dancers performing one of their signature works that actually escape classical music and dance’s pretty museum and address contemporary concerns, in this case human trafficking and sex slavery.

Before that, a non MMM show at Old Town Portland’s Someday Lounge at 5 pm Saturday features the new Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project in music by CPOP founder Justin Ralls,  20th century American composer Frederic Rzewski’s Moutons de Panurge and more.

Sunday’s MMM showcase is one of the worthiest of the year, in which Classical Revolution PDX invests in the creation of new music, rather than merely fetishizing the worship of the old, by sponsoring a string quartet competition. Music from ten finalists among those who submitted entries will be performed by CRPDX and DTQ string quartets, and a panel of mostly distinguished (except for one) judges will determine which one gets the prize: a professional recording of the winning quartet.

There’s also a contemporary work on Kirill Gerstein’s Portland Piano International recital Sunday at Portland’s Newmark theater: a surprisingly gentle Oliver Knussen piece the pianist commissioned in 2010. The show also features music by Bach, Schumann, and Mozart.

See OAW’s two week calendar for more concerts and arts events worth catching. And don’t forget the chant: “Give me a C….”

9 Responses.

  1. Jeff Winslow says:

    “Genesis I: Elementi” was written when Gorecki was still a frog, before he was kissed by Dawn Upshaw. 🙂

    Still, I have to admit that it had such an impact on me that I’ve totally forgotten the previous Serres reading, even though Jean Sherrard’s other two readings remain powerfully etched in my memory, and even though, like a later hit maybe, it ultimately had too little variety to support its length.

  2. bob priest says:

    i feel truly blessed to be able to work with such superb artists on repertoire i deeply believe in. thanx sooo much for your warm & thoughtful review. when i first discovered that early gorecki work, i was stunned. i believe it to be one of THE strongest works of its time – AND, of ours.

    • Jeff Winslow says:

      Whatever the undeniable strengths of this work may be, it is emphatically not of our time. The year it was written, 1962, was the height of the cold war, before major US civil rights reforms, the sexual revolution, Stonewall, high-priced oil, and the rise of the environmental movement. Here in the US, jobs were not being drained to rising powers overseas by billionaires wearing American flag lapel pins then. I fervently hope most of the people reading this were not even born then! Our time is very different, and it cries out for very different music.

      • bob priest says:

        although i completely disagree with your first & final comments, i appreciate you sharing your carefully considered opinions.

        anyone else?

  3. redipen says:

    you’ve heard the question: why bother with concerts when everything is so well recorded – this is why: a memorable communal experience with top-shelf fine art presented with riveting staging and lighting – not available in your living room

  4. Joe Cantrell says:

    Thursday night’s concert went beyond music, it was an experience that modified my protoplasm.
    Many compositions really do need physical presence, and really wonderfully done at that.
    Confession: There were moments when I flashed to Dave Bowman riding through that infinite fractal, toward the end of “2001, A Space Odyssey,” and thought, “Dave buddy, I know how you feel.”
    I’m still a bit giddy. I guess that shows.

  5. How do you define “of our time?” And what does it matter anyway? A great work is worthy in anyone’s time, which is why we still are moved by Bach and Beethoven. Even though in 1962 I wasn’t yet playing the cello, I was alive then and feel that music written during my lifetime is indeed “of my time.”

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