Weekend MusicWatch: New beginnings

Classical music never really seems to take much of a holiday in Oregon anymore, but certainly the tide receded a bit after the big summer festivals ended last month, with only a few scattered events since then. And of course, almost everyone gets out of the way of Portland’s 800 lb September gorilla, the Time Based Arts Festival. But the cool breezes blowing through the state in the past few days, not to mention a couple of early concerts by the Oregon Symphony earlier this month and the Eugene Symphony last week herald the start of what promises to be one of the richest seasons of classical music in recent Oregon history.

The opera’s big news is its hiring of George Manahan as music director. It’s a serious coup for the company because in his 14 years in that job with New York City Opera, plus a various guest gigs with the highly acclaimed opera companies from Paris to Chicago to Seattle to Santa Fe to San Francisco, Manahan won praise for his ability to handle standards as well as new and unusual repertoire — something Portland Opera, so dependent on endless recycling of the same top ten operas, desperately needs. He’s also conducted top orchestras in Washington DC, Atlanta, San Francisco and elsewhere. The Atlanta native, who’s on the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, also directs the American Composers Orchestra and has conducted premieres by Steve Reich, David Lang, Tobias Picker and other important contemporary composers.

George Manahan at Portland Opera’s Bikes and Beer event.

I spoke to the affable Manahan when he (along with his wife Mary Lou and dog Spike) was in town a few weeks ago on a road trip up the West Coast, arriving in time for the opera’s annual bikes and beer event, in which innocent bicycle commuters on Portland’s Eastbank Esplanade are enticed to sample adult beverages and the next thing they know, they wake up with a hangover and a hankering for Don Giovanni. He acknowledged that City Opera’s loss was Oregon’s gain, because although his old friend Christopher Mattaliano (they met three decades ago when Manahan hired Mattaliano to direct an Omaha Opera show) had long discussed the prospect of a permanent gig in Portland, his annual sixteen-production season in New York prevented him from accepting another regular assignment. Although Manahan has conducted PO several times since 2006, the company has relied on guest directors since 2000. “To maintain an orchestra’s standard, there has to be some consistency in conductor,” he told me. The 60-year-old Manahan gets to hear some of the most promising young singers and can recommend them for appropriate Portland roles, and his experience will help in auditioning new singers, determining rehearsal schedules, and interpreting scores he’s quite familiar with.

But it’s the unfamiliar where he can help the most. PO Artistic Director Mattaliano will still call the shots about repertoire, but “what I can bring is my experience in my years at city opera with a vast repertoire including unusual works,” he said. Mattaliano has often expressed the desire to do more contemporary and non-standard works (and to add back the fifth annual production that was cut during the depths of the recent recession), but has felt constrained by the company’s precarious financial situation during the economic crisis. Although it produced a 20th century opera (“Candide”) and a 21st century opera (Philip Glass’s “Galileo Galilei”) last year, this season holds no works from the past century. With the economy gradually reviving, Manahan provides an ideal choice to help him realize that more ambitious vision. While he praises Mattaliano’s vision careful steering of the company through tough times, Manahan listed a few works he’d like to try if the stars align: Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” Debussy’s “Pelleas and Melisande,” Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck,” Tobias Picker’s “Emmeline,” even a Morton Feldman opera. “It’s a mistake to ghettoize the new music,” he explained. “You want to bring the audience along with you. I think contemporary works can attract new audiences. Our job is to expose them to it.”

Dancing with the Universe

One company that has carved out a niche and won new audiences by performing new and unusual works is Portland Chamber Orchestra. Conductor Yaacov Bergman regularly seeks out new works and new ways of presenting old ones. PCO’s concerts this weekend in Beaverton, Portland and Forest Grove will feature a world premiere. Bergman has known Czech composer Jan Jirasek for about eight years and long admired his work. Jirasek told him he’d written a new organ concerto, “Dance with the Universe,” inspired by his friend, the acclaimed German organist Juergen Essl. When Bergman discovered that Essi was coming to the US for a residency this fall, he pounced, asking Jirasek to let PCO debut the new work.

“It’s lovely writing, very contemporary in style but same time using elements really adapted from all different styles over the 20th century,” Bergman told me. “It’s a dialogue between orchestra and organ [in which] he maximizes the orchestral colors. It’s very pointillistic. You can hear a bit of minimalism here and there, even French impressionism, with very delicate textures that really come out of interesting rhythmic and melodic counterpoint, which give you an ethereal feeling without going from point A to point B. The spiritual element comes in like in a Bach chorale. It’s a dialogue between orchestra and organ [in which] he maximizes the orchestral colors. Pieces like this make me like so much to do contemporary music. It’s going to be an exciting musical adventure.” Jirasek and Essl will also do a lecture demonstration immediately before the performance, to help elucidate what’s going on in the concerto. The concert also boasts a fairly rarely heard Haydn organ concerto and Mozart’s last and greatest symphony.


Also this weekend, the similarly sized Salem Chamber Orchestra plays familiar works by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. On Saturday at Eugene’s Hult Center, the Eugene Symphony plays some of John Williams’s most famous film music, including bits from the Star Wars and Harry Potter films, Schindler’s List and more. And the Oregon Symphony opens its classical series this weekend with a recommended concert featuring still more Mozart: perhaps his most powerfully dramatic work, the magnificent Piano Concerto #20, with John Kimura Parker as soloist. The concert also features works by Rachmaninoff and Alfven and a brief but welcome new composition, Andrew Norman’s “Drip.”

Northwest Voices

Cat people Nancy Wood and Jeff Winslow.

Speaking of new music, Cascadia Composers opened its season last weekend with a concert of works by Northwest composers. It got off to a slow start by opening with a slow movement, the second of Michael Hsu’s string quartet, which the players struggled with. But the more propulsive fourth movement was good fun and made me want to hear the other half of this promising work. In fact, except for Jay Derderian’s moody “Violet Phantasy” and one or two others, fun was the watchword for this show, a welcome break from the often solemn world of new music. Greg Steinke’s spoof “Random Blackouts” for baritone and two pianists and David Bernstein’s playful Three Bagatelles for piano showed that lightweight doesn’t necessarily mean insignificant. Nancy Wood and Jeff Winslow displayed delightful chemistry in Winslow’s clever, skittering “Cat Tale.” Paul Safar’s brief, dreamy “Geese in the Moonlight” might have been the strongest single piece of the evening, except for Tomas Svoboda’s breezy, pensive, and finally rollicking closing Sonatina. It’s a treat to come away grinning from a new music concert.

The Portland Vocal Consort specializes in new music, especially by Northwest composers, but at Sunday’s concert at Northeast Portland’s spectacular Grotto goes back to the Renaissance for one of the greatest choral works, Palestrina’s sublime Pope Marcellus Mass (so beautiful that it persuaded the authorities not to ban music from religious services), plus music by English Renaissance composers Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, and later works by Brahms and others.
If you didn’t get enough Mozart at one of the above concerts, try Seattle pianist Byron Schenkman’s all-Wolfgang piano recital Sunday at Northeast Portland’s Grace Memorial Episcopal Church.

Finally, on Friday at Corvallis’s Majestic Theater and Saturday at Portland’s Aladdin Theater, you can hear classical instruments — the massed celli of Portland Cello Project, national award winning City of Tomorrow wind quintet, and a choir led by multi-talented Portland singer and impresario Stephen Marc Beaudoin — take on a classic rock album by the contemporary rockers most respected by classical figures like Christopher O’Riley (who’s recorded piano arrangements of the songs) and journalist Alex Ross— Radiohead’s darkly enticing “OK Computer.”

I’ll close by pointing you to appreciations I wrote last week for two of Oregon’s most valuable musical figures, Anne Dhu McLucas and Obo Addy, both of whom died this month. I think they’d be happy to know that, despite the sadness of losing them, we’re about to enter this seasonal renewal of Oregon’s flourishing musical bounty.

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