Weekend MusicWatch: Pirates, fairies and more

Maggie Rupp dances Titania in Portland Ballet's A Midsummer Night's Dream this weekend at Portland State University. Photo credit: Blaine Covert

Last weekend’s concerts showed that artistic assets like beauty and virtuosity can make for some splendid experiences — but they’re not always enough. The Consonare Chorale’s program last weekend at Portland’s First Congregational Church comprised almost entirely music by contemporary composers, including attractive works by Portland-born Morten Lauridsen and Portland based Joan Szymko. The singers sailed smoothly through the show, which was enhanced by contributions from violinist Cecilia Archuleta and Consonare founder Georgina Philippson’s enthusiastic and engaging between-song remarks, which punctured the formality that can creep in when several dozen people in tuxes and formal dresses stand in front of an audience.

That audience seemed well satisfied by Consonare’s uniformly pretty, soothing sounds — like an evening of warm apple cider that was an ideal antidote for what immediately preceded them on my way to the concert: chilly squalls and the first 2/3 of what then appeared to be a total dismantlement of my Oregon Ducks by USC.

And yet after one relentlessly pretty, slow-to mid-tempo song after another, my ears craved something spicier, edgier. But expecting that at many American choral concerts is like going to the Rose Garden and being disappointed that the Yankees weren’t playing.  Such simple, pretty, homophonic sounds are easy for amateur groups to learn, which encourages composers to fill that demand. Over-emphasis on textural and melodic beauty has been a characteristic of a lot of American choral music over the past couple of generations, and the attendant lack of innovation and diversity is one reason there’s so little overlap between audiences for it and more exciting, experimental instrumental new music (which is also why the latter tends to get a lot more attention in the media). In particular, I missed audible evidence of the 20th century’s greatest contributions to music — the African influences that pervaded blues, jazz and the century’s great pop music explosions beginning in the 1920s; the music of other cultures that energized so many American composers; and the harmonic and rhythmic innovations that avant grade-to- progressive American composers from Charles Ives on down added to the nation’s musical palette.

If you wanted warm and soothing, though, this concert delivered. Other Oregon choirs follow the same formula, if not always performed so adroitly. But the ultimate blandness and sameness of too much of the music made me appreciate all the more the fascinating, diverse, and daring programming I’ve heard recently at PSU and Lewis & Clark’s choral programs and in groups like Oregon Repertory Singers, Resonance Ensemble, Portland Vocal Consort and others, in Oregon and elsewhere. Other choruses around the country are infusing energetic elements from gospel and the new a capella sounds into the musical bloodstream. Even the choirs that focus entirely on pre-20th century music have more muscular, complex, diverse, and/ or transcendent (and often polyphonic) music to draw on. I’m encouraged to see increasing demand for those qualities among ambitious choirs around the country. It would be great to see local choral organizations programming and even commissioning such ambitious music from local composers. And I’m looking forward to hearing the skilled singers of Consonare taking on more diverse repertoire in their March concert, which promises a mariachi band, Brazilian guitarist, and more.

Other shows last weekend supplied abundant musical invigoration. The stage at The Julians’ Sunday afternoon concert at Portland’s St. Stephens Episcopal Parish boasted large posters bearing the visages of the iconic pop stars whose music they were covering. The all-star group of female singers, drawn from top-drawer groups like Resonance, Portland Symphonic Choir, PVC, In Mulieribus and more, channel potent pop and other music from composers from John Lennon to Kurt Weill to contemporary pop songwriters and make it their own — without the dreaded clueless condescension that often transpires when cabaret crooners or opera divo/as go slumming around in pop.

They’re sort of like the Portland Cello Project with voices instead of cellos — and, hmm, come to think of it, what a combination that would be. Each singer’s voice has real presence, and while their harmonies are as tight and spot-on as you’d expect from their resumes, they profitably exploit their voices’ distinctive textures.

From the opening old Tears for Fears hit “Mad World” through an encore of Bill Withers’ soul classic “Ain’t No Sunshine,” The Julians sounded fresh and feisty, with smart, concise sometimes doo-wop-influenced arrangements (especially by Kristen Buhler) that added to rather than detracting from the originals’ beauty. Not that I’d ever want to forgo the pleasure of the originals by Lennon, Joni Mitchell, or even Leonard Cohen, but various interpretations can bring out different attractions in them.  After a touching version of “Because,” singer Liz Bacon literally genuflected to John Lennon’s White Album portrait. In fact, in songs by some of today’s most original songwriters, like Bjork, Regina Spektor, and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, the Julians’ pinpoint harmonies and restrained arrangements revealed sinewy structures sometimes obscured by electric or electronic pop studio wizardry. Voices are often the weak link in today’s indie rock, where any hint of polish or precision is taken as evidence of counterrevolutionary inauthenticity, and it’s a treat to hear great singer/songwriters’ words interpreted by quite different instruments, even if the Julians never make a fetish of their obvious training and talent.

Frequently garnishing their two-, three- and occasionally four-part vocal harmonies with light percussion (cabasa, maracas, xylophone, metallophone, glockenspiel, woodblock, claves), plus ukulele, piano, and Chris Fotinakis’s violin and guitar and Jon Stuber and Buhler’s piano, the group sounded completely natural in a startling range of repertoire: Brahms, the great contemporary Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, Greek composer Michael Adamis, a traditional Georgian ballad, and more, including popsters from Cat Stevens to Sara Bareilles.

The perhaps overly thematic program sought cohesiveness with a framework allegedly proceeding through the stages of love, and each section introduced by a line from Mary Oliver’s famous poem “Wild Geese,” plus a theme of “he said” and “she said”  — gender-determined differences in perspective on love. A few moments got a little (winkingly) steamy for a Sunday afternoon in a church; the audience gobbled it up like the cookies at the after-concert reception.

In the second half, each singer received a solo showcase preceded by introductions written in haiku from another ensemble member, and in one case, a literal boost onto the piano from Stuber and Fotsinakis for a smoky cabaret version of Spektor’s “Summer in the City.” Other highlights included a bluesy reharmonization of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s Wizardly hit “If I Only Had a Heart” and a poignant cover of Weill’s “Stay Well.” When the pace threatened to flag, out came belters like “Hurricane Drunk.” The cleverly varied combinations and styles and quick transitions made a too-long program feel over too soon.

If bland and pretty too often represents the sometimes-enervated present of vocal music, I hope the Julians signal one exciting aspect of its future. They’re one of the most refreshing breezes to blow through Portland’s alt classical scene.

Oregon is really lucky to have had — for 35 years now! — a first-rate homegrown chamber ensemble, the Florestan Trio, based at Portland State and now including cellist Hamilton Cheifetz, pianist Janet Guggenheim and violinist Carol Sindell. Abetted by stellar guests, including Oregon Symphony/Third Angle violinist Ron Blessinger and veteran Connecticut-based violinist/violist and Chamber Music Northwest regular Theodore Arm (who’s played and recorded with some of the nation’s finest chamber ensembles, such as Tashi), their scintillating concert of music by Dvorak, Mozart, and Schumann captivated a nearly full Lincoln Performance Hall. The group evinced a solid chemistry and real fire, especially in the Schumann, which drew shouts and applause even before the final notes had faded.

Last weekend’s Oregon Symphony concert unleashed similar energy, on a larger scale. The band has gotten so adept at fast, loud, dramatic rep that they can now show off with a flamboyant crowd pleaser like contemporary composer Christopher Rouse’s blistering Phaethon, which gave a busy percussionist a real workout and established a high energy level for the whole concert.

The excitement mounted as frequent guest cellist Alban Gerhardt made the daunting solo part in Sergey Prokofiev’s ginormous Symphony Concerto look almost effortless. Once a showcase for Mstislav Rostropovich, this sprawling cello concerto in all but name is a thrill ride with innumerable virtuoso passages for both soloist and orchestra (sometimes traded back and forth like jazzers trading fours) that required exquisite coordination and precision. Yet as much as I like cellos, Prokofiev (a favorite composer), and everyone involved, it eventually felt exhausting, all about whirlwind virtuosity. It reminded me of that old movie Speed that you just had to admire for its breathless pace and clever pacing, but not much more. I think I’ll remember the performance longer than the music itself, but it sure was a blast to hear.

The concert closed with a tight and expressive version of that most popular of symphonies, Dvorak’s ninth, From the New World, built on an insistent theme that it repeats to car-alarm-like effect. Nevertheless, and despite its overfamiliarity, the music contains many felicities, and the Oregon Symphony gave us all of them.

Pianist Roman Rabinovich displayed similar seemingly unflappable virtuosity last Monday in an equally exciting Portland Piano International Concert at Lincoln Recital Hall. Dance and drama were the hallmarks of the three big pieces on this terrific program, which (except for the opening Haydn sonata) eschewed the usual solo recital sonatas and etudes in favor of solo piano versions of three of the 20th century’s greatest dance scores.

After that Haydn bauble, in which Rabinovich emphasized the composer’s wit and humor, with little slightly extended pauses in the phrasing, the pianist really captured the inherent drama and varying dramatic moods in the different scenes of Prokofiev’s epic 1935  Romeo and Juliet ballet score. Rabinovich got a huge sound out of the keyboard when the story demanded it, and the same was true in Maurice Ravel’s magnificent music for the 1912 ballet Daphnis & Chloe. Here Rabinovich made the piano seem an extension of his body, coaxing vast swaths of sound from the instrument even at quick tempos. Despite reducing exceptionally colorful music composed by classical music’s pre-eminent orchestrator to a single instrument, in Rabinovich’s able hands, nothing felt missing. He produced such dramatic effects that you didn’t need a synopsis to understand the basic emotional arc of the myth it’s based on.

After a brief break to mop his brow and catch his breath, Rabinovich dove boldly into music derived from the third great ballet score of the evening, Igor Stravinsky’s enchanting 1911 Petrouchka, and here (by contrast with Ravel’s intoxicating colors), he spotlighted the  powerful, pounding dance rhythms. The electrifying performance could perhaps have granted an occasional reprieve from the high powered dynamics, but most of Stravinsky’s brilliant virtuoso piano score demands fast, punchy and loud and that’s what Rabinovich supplied. He cooled down with brief encores by Rachmaninoff and Couperin. Curated by former Florestan pianist and PSU prof Harold Gray, Portland Piano’s excellent taste in performers, combined with its presence in PSU’s recently reopened, intimate Lincoln Recital Hall, makes its Up Close series a top recommendation for classical music fans.

Last month’s PPI star, Inon Barnatan, returns to Oregon Wednesday to perform a solo recital of Ravel, Debussy and Schubert’s music at Eugene’s Hult Center and then co-stars Thursday with the Eugene Symphony, violinist Chee Yun, and yet another young cello star, Joshua Roman in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. The orchestra will also play the composer’s Symphony #3 and a Verdi overture, and the concert will be preceded by still another Beethoven work, his tuneful “Spring” violin sonata #5. Other groups might consider emulating the symphony’s free pre concert chamber performances in the Hult Center’s intimate basement Studio.

This weekend’s classical schedule should blow away the tryptophan fog. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Lincoln Hall, Portlanders have six chances to catch the PSU Symphony, conducted by the visionary Prof. Ken Selden accompany Portland Ballet in the world premiere of choreographer John Clifford’s version of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, based on some Anonymous playwright’s work and featuring a glittering score by Felix Mendelssohn — who wrote the overture when he was a teenager, like the Portland Ballet dancers. The last showing will be followed by the premiere of Nerves of Steel, a documentary about the young dancers.

Friday and Saturday’s Portland Baroque Orchestra concerts at downtown Portland’s First Baptist Church star the legendary cellist and viola da gamba virtuoso Jaap Ter Linden and a smattering of string players in vibrant music by Telemann, Bach and more — all played on period instruments by masters of the style.

Choral music fans should check out Cantores in Ecclesias concert of Renaissance and contemporary music Sunday at Northwest Portland’s St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. And lovers of the human voice will want to hear the stentorian bass baritone singer Eric Owens at Tuesday night’s Friends of Chamber Music recital at Lincoln Hall.

The alt classical pick of the week: Opera Theater Oregon’s Black Pirate vs. The Flying Dutchman Friday at Portland’s Mission Theater, which harks back to the old days of improvised keyboard accompaniment to silent films. In this mashup, the omnipresent Portland pianist Douglas Schneider demonstrates his improv skills using themes from Wagner’s opera to accompany the screening of Douglas Fairbanks’s seminal pirate flick. OTO enters a new era under new music director and longtime pianist Erica Melton, but its winning combination of informal atmosphere (i.e. beer) and compelling music continues, this year augmented by film.

2 Responses.

  1. Maria Choban says:

    Thank you for your comment on insipid (my choice of adjective) chorale repertoire. I’ve heard the same thing from local composers who are frustrated because they have GREAT chorale pieces and no where to go with them. Choral groups don’t even need to commission!

  2. Liz Bacon says:

    A ‘thumbs up’ from Brett Campbell is an honor to get and the highlight of The Julian’s day. Thank you for your insightful critique, Brett. We are so grateful you took the time to be at our show!

Comments are closed.

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