Weekend MusicWatch: Straight Outta Brooklyn — and Sweden

Brooklyn Rider performs at Reed College's Kaul Auditorium Saturday

Although most of the action in Oregon arts so far this year has rightly involved theater, thanks to Portland’s important Fertile Ground Festival of new works and the opening of some major productions, the state’s vibrant music scene has certainly awoken from its holiday hibernation, stretched, yawned, shaken and howled for its breakfast.

Pianist Vladimir Feltsman proved a worthy last minute substitute for an indisposed Simone Dinnerstein in Portland Piano International’s first concert of the year a couple weekends ago, performing a pair of Haydn sonatas with an astute balance of playfulness and orderliness and thereby bringing out their real persuasiveness, and finishing with detailed yet dramatic renditions of all four of Chopin’s great Ballades, with a solid Liszt encore. It’s a credit to PPI and soon-to-retire honcho Harold Gray that the organization can obtain such a prominent pianist on such short notice.

A replica of an ancient Greek lyre reclined in a chair on stage during Northwest New Music’s  January 17 concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall — tangible symbol of that show’s theme, music related to the great ancient Greek poet Sappho. Portland’s newest new music group continues to prove there’s ample room for another new (three “news” in one sentence!) music ensemble on the city’s stages. Founders Diane Chaplin and Florian Conzetti’s concerts have featured 20th century composers, especially the modernists, whose work isn’t heard as much today as today’s postmodern stars (e.g. Steve Reich) or the earlier 20th century masters like Debussy, Ravel, Copland et al. This one included Boston based composer Dalit Hadass Warshaw’s 2006 Elegy on a Theme of Sappho, a charged work sporting long tones and occasional dissonant harmonies that reflected the sense of loss pervading the poem that inspired it, and was well played by Chaplin and an Oregon Symphony trio: violinists Erin Furbee and Paloma Griffin (who also lead their own ensembles Tango Pacifico and FearNoMusic, respectively) and violist Brian Quincey.

Chaplin and Griffin joined Conzetti, Third Angle pianist Susan Smith, flutist Sarah Teidemann and clarinetist Louis DeMartino for a 1992 work by Jacob Druckman, who was a student of Aaron Copland, and teacher, at Yale, Juilliard and Bard, of contemporary composers like David Lang. Come Round lived up to its title, with themes continually orbiting throughout the piece, appearing and reappearing in variations, almost like regular breathing, and regularly punctuated by percussion.

Another contemporary East Coast composer, Daron Aric Hagen, broke through to Northwest audiences via his score to Seattle Opera’s 2010 original production, Amelia. His 2004 Sappho Songs received the gift of exceptionally committed performances by Chaplin and commendably communicative singers Theresa Koon (who’s also a teacher and composer) and April Brookings Duvic. The set concluded with a bang — actually, quite a few of them — in Conzetti’s riveting solo run through Iannis Xenakis’s 1973 Psappha. The great Greek/French  composer’s score allows the performer to choose the instruments, and Conzetti went for color, masterfully deploying hardwood planks, Japanese skin drums, tom toms, bass drum, metal plates, “my favorite 10-inch cast-iron frying pan” and Chinese opera gongs — plus important moments of silence, often concluded with an extremely loud “WHAM!” on the bass drum. Inasmuch as a piano trio (see below) was performing directly upstairs in Lincoln Concert Hall, and this was about as loud as acoustic music can get, I must commend the construction and architecture folks involved in Lincoln’s remodel — I heard no reports of disgruntled chamber music fans. Did anyone who attended that concert notice any noise leak? Conzetti’s brilliant, virtuoso performance deserves to be heard again — and rumor has it that it may be, and soon.

I missed that evening’s upstairs concert with Trio Con Brio Copenhagen, of course, but I heard the threesome (presented both nights by Friends of Chamber Music) at Lincoln the previous evening, and came away impressed by their sensitive performance (with particular attention to dynamic contrast) of Haydn’s danceable “Gypsy Rondo” trio, one of the great works of Classical chamber music,  Swiss composer Frank Martin’s rarely played Trio on Irish Folk Tunes and Tchaikovsky’s truly epic sole piano trio, which, as you’d expect from a composer best known for his orchestral music, achieved symphonic proportions but also the kind of depth not always associated with his music.

Speaking of Friends of Chamber Music, the organization has been running insightful interviews with many of the performers it brings, conducted by board member Alice Hardesty. Chamber musicians must be a thoughtful crowd, because the interviews I’ve read have been really interesting. Here’s one with TCBC’s Jens Elvekiaer, and another with recent visitor Edward Dusinberre from the great Takacs Quartet. Here are some excerpts:

ED: “I think the greatest music tries to do a lot of different things at the same time. So for example, in a phrase of music we might get into a discussion in rehearsal where one person says the phrase needs a lot of forward direction, a sense of line, of momentum, a story that’s moving. Someone else says yeah but it’s got to have enough space and poise, and a sense of architectural strength. The reality is that a good phrase of music needs both. So a lot of rehearsing is just trying to incorporate seemingly contradictory elements into a phrase of music and making it work. And those are the most interesting phrases. You could be talking about emotions as well.”

AH: “[O]ne thing that you referred to in one of your articles was the “energy exchange” between audience and players. Obviously the character of an audience is important to you, but what makes an audience the kind you like to exchange energy with?

ED: That’s such an intangible thing, but something I always feel when we’re here in Portland. I like the sense of an audience that’s up for an adventure, one that’s willing to be taken somewhere else and doesn’t mind being challenged a bit, one that likes to be surprised. I think to an extent it’s up to the performer to create that mood. There are some audiences where it’s easier to do that than with others. I suppose you’d say it’s an issue of conservatism. There are many reasons why people go to concerts and it’s absolutely reasonable to go to a concert to be reassured, to be soothed and relaxed. Those are all valid reasons.

AH: You don’t necessarily get that with Bartok.

ED: No. But you want an audience on the edge of their seats, engaged. Up for adventure — that’s the best way to put it.

Tonight I will talk from the stage about both the Janacek and the Britten because I feel that even with this knowledgeable crowd, you need to help the audience feel that they don’t have to be scared of a piece that might be challenging. I think talking from the stage can help to break that down and make people feel that it’s going to be a fun experience.

So it’s a different process between contemporary and traditional music. Contemporary music you try to make more friendly. With the old masterworks it’s the opposite. If anything, you’re trying to make them seem more challenging and radical and vital, not something where the audience can just sit back and say, “Oh I’ve heard that 20 times, it’s just another performance of Beethoven 5.”

 The whole thing is just a fascinating read. Congrats to FOCM for bringing such exceptional performers to town, and presenting so much compelling ancillary material in conjunction with them, including these interviews, master classes, lunchtime performances at the library and other venues, and more.

Speaking of chamber music, the local presenting organization 45th Parallel brought a fine concert of contemporary and classic sounds to downtown Portland’s Old Church that same weekend. Cellist Hamilton Cheifetz again showed why he’s one of Portland classical music’s most valuable players, with a vibrant performance (with splendid accompaniment from pianist Janet Coleman) of Claude Debussy’s elusive, darkly beautiful Cello Sonata, one of his final works.

Coleman also accompanied the fine Portland soprano Angela Niederloh Hayward in contemporary composer Jake Heggie’s 2004 song cycle Winter Roses, which sets poems by by Emily Dickinson, singer Frederica von Stade, the great Northwest poet Raymond Carver, and Charlene Baldridge, who came up from San Diego for the show and gave a touching reading of her title poem. Heggie’s music here leans as much toward Broadway as the Met. Hayward and husband Matthew gave a knockout performance of an antic duet from Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville, their outsize voices threatening to knock down the intimate space’s walls. Coleman and 45th parallel founder Greg Ewer opened the second half with a vivid performance of a Fritz Kreisler virtuoso showcase, and the pair joined Cheifetz and Portland Baroque Orchestra violist Adam LaMotte with an good performance of Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E flat.

Cheifetz is also a key member of Third Angle and the Florestan Trio, and the former group presented an ambitious fusion of words and music last weekend at Portland’s Reed College. The concert opened with Tom Johnson’s fun Failing, a Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass for a soloist who plucks, bows and talks simultaneously, then continued with Portland’s famed poet twins Matthew and Michael Dickman (dressed identically in grey sweaters, jeans, white shirts, black shoes) reading poetry accompanied by 3A violinist Ron Blessinger and guitarist Nalin Silva, playing the latter’s evocative, electronics-enhanced score. For whatever reason, the work seemed to drag on, even though I’ve long admired the Dickmans’ poetry, and the music capably did its job of creating an atmosphere for the words. I wonder if I’d have felt the same way if the setting had been a poetry reading instead of a concert, with all those attendant expectations?

The concert’s centerpiece, excerpts from Illinois composer Stephen Taylor’s chamber opera Paradises Lost, also left me a bit frustrated because I wanted to hear the whole thing, especially after hearing the tantalizing pieces presented here, which left the story hard to figure out (although I’d read it years ago) and the often-attractive music difficult to fully grasp. Based on Portland eminence grise Ursula LeGuin’s powerful 2002 story, the opera premieres in Illinois this spring, but in a post concert talk, Blessinger urged audience members to ask Portland Opera to present it here. Based on what we heard last week, I hope they do — and I hope they bring in the extraordinary quartet of singers (Yaritza Zayas, Joo Young Bang, Lee Steiner and Joseph Arko) used here.

Friends of Chamber Music is at it again this Saturday night at Reed, bringing one of today’s hottest young classical ensembles, Brooklyn Rider, to Oregon for the first time to play music from Philip Glass’s unreleased score to the film Bent, downtown Manhattan avant-jazz legend John Zorn’s Kol Nidre, some original works, and Beethoven’s great Op. 131 string quartet. I recently interviewed the young founders (who also play in Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble) about their chamber orchestra, The Knights, and they have plenty to say about the resurgence of new classical music among members of their 20-something age group.

Unfortunately, the Brooklyn Rider concert is the same night as saxophonist Kim Reece’s free performance, at PSU’s Lincoln Hall, of music by some of today’s most adventurous composers: David Lang, Michael Gordon (both from New York’s pioneering Bang on a Can collective), the Dutch minimalist (and mentor to the can-bangers) Louis Andriessen, and a world premiere by Drew Krause. I hope she plays this program again sometime. We’re seeing more of these conflicts as Portland’s new music scene expands. I guess it’s a good problem to have.

An even younger chamber orchestra, Portland Youth Philharmonic, performs a splendid set of music by one of today’s greatest composers, Argentine American Osvaldo Golijov (Last Round, a tribute to his late compatriot composer Astor Piazzolla) and the West Coast world music pioneer Henry Cowell, whose exotic 1950s work Persian Set will use authentic Persian solo instruments (tar and tombek), played by Portland-based Iranian-American musicians Hossein and Bobek Salehi, with the latter also contributing original compositions. PYP music director David Hattner has conceived an ambitious program of contemporary world-classical music for these able players. A Persian arts & crafts exhibit precedes the show at 3 pm at the atrium stage at northwest Portland’s beautiful Wieden+Kennedy building Sunday afternoon. That space was designed by Portland architect Brad Cloepfil, who talked about his current and perhaps future work at the Portland Art Museum Thursday; we’ll tell you more about that next week.

There’s also plenty of orchestral music around this weekend. The Vancouver Symphony plays music by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius Saturday and Sunday, and the Newport Symphony plays music of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and contemporary composer Daniel Kellog Saturday in Newport and Sunday in Astoria. Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra plays film music for a Saturday fundraiser at the Portland Marriott Waterfront. And Friday, for whatever reason, the Oregon Symphony accompanies the Abba revival band Arrival, giving us the excuse to run a gratuitous photo and fantastic video of the irresistible ‘70s pop masters.

Abba won't be in Portland, but the Oregon Symphony will play their music this weekend.

One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    gee, i’ve heard that same rumor about florian kickin’ out that terrific xenakis piece again sometime soon.

    my source tells me it might be @ hipbone studio on monday 5 march @ 7:30 pm.

    so, lemme double-check with “rumor central” & i’ll get back to you soon!

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