Weekend MusicWatch: Piano Storm

Hauschka plays Portland's Mississippi Studios Friday night

Hauschka plays Portland’s Mississippi Studios Friday night

The impending storm and wetter weather it heralds have driven the PianoPushPlay! instruments indoors, but there’s still plenty of powerful pianism on Portland stages this weekend. On Friday, the inventive German pianist Hauschka returns to Oregon, this time at Mississippi Studios. His last Portland performance, at a similarly hip indie rock club, Doug Fir, was Portland Piano International’s most entertaining concert of last season, featuring his own compositions, John Cage style piano preparations (various doodads inserted on and between the strings to afford new timbres), and, at the end, a geyser of ping pong balls flying out of the instrument. But Volker Bertelmann (his real name) is no mere gimmicist; his minimalist- and gamelan-influenced original miniatures can be as delightful as the sounds he contrives for them. He’s sharing a bill with former Portland composer/violinist/pianist Peter Broderick, who’s been living and playing in Europe with the exploratory Danish band Efterklang.

Speaking of PPI, the organization is presenting prizewinning Polish pianist Rafał Blechacz at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall Sunday and Monday nights. The former show is sold out (although you might check for cancellations from patrons unwilling to brave the storm), but the latter concert still has some seats available. For more on how the music he’s playing pertains to the myth of the Polish soul, read Jana Hanchett’s preview on ArtsWatch.

The pre-eminent pianist in town, Jeffrey Kahane, performs Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights with the Oregon Symphony, with whom he delivered a winning Mozart concerto last season. This time, he’s playing Beethoven’s Kahane, who’s directed the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for many years and succeeded Marin Alsop at the Colorado Symphony, might as well get a condo in Oregon; he also performed at Chamber Music Northwest in Portland last summer and is a long-time stalwart with the Oregon Bach Festival. The recommended concert also includes a Haydn symphony (part of the OSO’s Haydn recording project) and a 20th century classic, Bela Bartok’s “Dance Suite.”

The Newport Symphony kicks off its season this weekend with music of another classical musician who spent lot of time in Oregon, Ernest Bloch; his Schelomo features cellist Wendy Warner. The program also includes Mussorgsky’s popular “Pictures at an Exhibition” (in Maurice Ravel’s orchestration) and Saint-Saens’s “Samson and Delilah.”

The opera season hasn’t really gotten underway yet, but following last week’s Portland Opera concert gala, a couple more teasers are available this week. On Sunday at noon, Portland’s Living Room Theaters is screening a film of the Paris Opera’s production of Falstaff, which Portland staged last year. And on Tuesday, the company begins a new season of its excellent Resident Artist recitals at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium. Young soprano Nicole Haslett has chosen a wonderfully diverse program of songs ranging from Henry Purcell’s English Baroque settings to arias by Rossini, songs by Benjamin Britten, and contemporary American composer Dominick Argento’s “Six Elizabethan Songs.” It’s a good chance to get a taste of the latter’s music before PO presents his Postcard from Morocco later this season. Congrats to the opera, too, for last week’s release of its newest CD, drawn from last year’s production of Philip Glass’s “Galileo Galilei,” on the composer’s Orange Mountain label.

There’s similarly diverse singing available in Portland on Saturday night when The Julians, who gave an appealing performance at Ivories Jazz Club this past summer (especially after they ditched the microphones and sang their hearts out), and also sang at the just concluded TBA festival (where they again had to conquer an unsympathetic sound system), perform at Portland’s Jade Lounge. Judging by their program of Bjork, Kodaly, Gillian Welch, and more, the superb female vocal quartet will again demolish those false categories that separate the audience for old music from fans of the new, and vice versa.

Charmed to the Teeth

Speaking of sublime, boundary shattering singing, I hope many of you were able to catch Roomful of Teeth last week at Lewis & Clark College. Not since the advent of Classical Revolution has anything excited me so much about the future of classical music. Jeff Winslow’s ArtsWatch review astutely analyzes the program, but I want to note here how the singers managed to connect viscerally with the audience, despite the fact that they were singing in a chapel. (I’d love to hear them in a less formal venue.) Those of us who grew up singing in choirs well remember the injunctions to blend in so that no voice stuck out from the texture, but it was RoT’s very individuality that really drew listeners in; all the works on the program but one were written for these particular singers and exploited the human voice’s gloriously wide range of timbres and techniques, many drawn from non-Western cultures. As a result, we audience members could hear each line and voice distinctly, and we could see the casually dressed singers smiling, interacting with each other, and moving their bodies to the rhythms. You could tell from the raucous applause just how much the audience appreciated being able to identify each singer’s contribution — it really was vocal chamber music.

It was pretty much the opposite of the usual Church of Classical Music experience, where everyone dresses (uncomfortably) and acts alike, and individual expression is smothered in a miasma of bland interpretation, stifling 19th century performance rituals, and heard-it-all-before sameness. The noble intention, I suppose, is to put the focus on the music rather than the performer, but RoT proved that it’s possible to honor the music without stifling the individual human expression that gives it life. Pop musicians have known this for decades, and it’s inspiring to see classically trained musicians rediscovering what their ancestors knew, too. There’ll always be a place for those big choral blends, but it’s exciting to see the emergence of classically informed songs that reach audiences in the way that the best popular music can.

What really grabbed us, of course, was the fact that the music radiated the contemporary energy of its origin,  from people living and composing today, while drawing richness from the greatness of the past; it’s no accident that Caroline Shaw named her magnificent 2013 Pulitzer-winner, “Partita,” (one movement of which she rewrote and premiered in this concert) after one of J.S. Bach’s favorite instrumental forms. (She’s played his violin partitas.)

Recordings can never capture the vitality of the human voice, nor its many overtones and subtleties, but even more than most live performances, Roomful of Teeth’s vibrant take on fresh, hugely compelling and widely accessible music give me hope that the day will soon come when, like this weekend’s storm, the music of performers such as these will wash away the artificial distinctions that have severed popular and classical music (which are really the same thing) from each other, to their mutual detriment.

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5 Responses.

  1. Greg Ewer says:

    Well this is just lovely 😉 “It was pretty much the opposite of the usual Church of Classical Music experience, where everyone dresses (uncomfortably) and acts alike, and individual expression is smothered in a miasma of bland interpretation, stifling 19th century performance rituals, and heard-it-all-before sameness.”

    • Maria Choban says:

      I may often disagree with your comments, but I sure love your uninhibited from the gut reactions, Greg. I think you make it easier for those on the sidelines to jump in and comment and you’re not afraid to keep it lively!

  2. Greg Ewer says:

    Thanks. The author does pretty well in the liveliness department himself, no? 😉 And it’s basically a good thing. I just wonder sometimes if the Church of the Revolution keeps some folks from noticing all the places change is actually happening closer to home. RoT deserves serious props, and Brett rightfully gives it. But the mudslinging that follows makes it sound like (almost) everything else in this town basically sucks, when in actuality there are plenty of ‘troops on the ground’ experimenting with content, form and business model…all the time. Reading that bit gave me the kind of feeling I might expect from…say… watching Occupy mock the Green Party for having an office.
    Gen X and Y are changing art music, and we’re all part of it. Don’t miss the change for the Revolution.

  3. Actually, I was referring to the standard classical music experience everywhere in this country, not about any particular Oregon institution. While a lot of us are comfortable amid the penguin suits and ritual applause for the concertmaster etc., those formalities can also unfairly keep newbies away from some great music they’d probably enjoy. I’m hardly the only one who’s been saying that for years; many groups in town, including members the Oregon Symphony itself, have been trying to break down those barriers through performances in more casual environments. For example, here’s what Gabriela Lena Frank, whose music Greg will be playing next week with Third Angle, says about the “church” atmosphere. “[Classical musicians] are used to people that know all the Beethoven symphonies, that can know when to clap and know the various protocols – it’s a very regimented discipline. They come out onstage, they take their bow, then the concertmaster comes out, he takes a bow. Then they tune. Then, the music starts. But you go into a typical folkloric concert, a salsa concert – people are talking, they’re eating – they totally know what’s going on, but it’s just a different way of interacting. It’s very different, people expect to move and dance. It’s not this ‘holy’ experience. Although, it is at one level, it just doesn’t look that way. I mean, you go to a black Baptist service and they’re moving, they’re responding. It’s dynamic, and they think you’re weird if you’re just sitting like that.”
    If the classical music we love is going to survive, musicians need to find ways of presenting it that can reach audiences like those. Roomful of Teeth is one group that’s succeeding.

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