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Weekend MusicWatch: When musical worlds coincide

By Brett Campbell
February 11, 2012
Featured, Music

Chamber Music Northwest premieres Reed College professor David Schiff's new composition

This weekend brings a pair of new works to Portland, created by one of the city’s most esteemed composers and one of its newest. Both appear in concerts that bridge seemingly disparate musical worlds.

On Friday, veteran Chamber Music Northwest musicians make a winter visit to their usual summer home to perform one of the most creatively destructive works in the history of art, Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. To complement that spooky 1912 masterpiece — not coincidentally, the centennial  of Reed College, where it’ll be performed as part of the school’s 100th birthday celebrations — Reed professor and composer David Schiff composed a new work for the same instrumental combo (known for decades as the “Pierrot ensemble,” which includes  flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano and often finds the musicians doubling on other instruments like bass clarinet, piccolo, viola etc.).

“As soon as I heard they were planning a Pierrot Lunaire, I decided to mix up high and low and complicate the story of modern music,” Schiff told me last week, “so I proposed that I’d write a suite for the instruments of Pierrot based on popular music of the time.”

Although the music of the first decade or so of the 20th century doesn’t get the acclaim of, say, the 1930s or the 1960s, “it’s actually one of the most interesting times in the history of American popular music,” Schiff explains, noting that the period between 1912 and 1915 brought us the first published 12 bar blues (W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues and St. Louis Blues), the first 32 bar pop tunes (by songwriters like Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin), and the first foxtrots, created by the tragically short lived composer James Reece Europe, the most famous bandleader in the land and a great figure in African American history. That transitional period between ragtime and jazz is “ kind of a dark age in music history,” says Schiff, who’s a scholar of jazz and American music, “and deserves to better than to be thought of as this awkward age.”

Schiff’s new Class of 1915 (titled to honor Reed’s first graduating class, who would have been freshman in that crucial Pierrot/foxtrot year of 1912) provides a musical survey of this overlooked period. The first movement consists of arrangements of five popular foxtrots of the time; the second — “more composition than arrangement” —  is an homage to Handy’s celebrated “St. Louis Blues,” featuring a solo for the bass clarinet that David Shifrin had to lug down from the East Coast to play in Pierrot. The final movement is a transcription of one of the most important (if today neglected) pieces of American music — Europe’s 1914 “Castle House Rag,” which is neither quite ragtime nor jazz and “goes from very rough and frantic then turning on a dime to sophisticated,” Schiff says. Europe’s original piece launched a colossal national dance craze for the foxtrot, which triggered a cultural landslide that some voters in our current presidential primaries have apparently never quite forgiven.

His new piece parallels the argument in Schiff’s new book, The Ellington Century: “we can’t go on having these two separate but equal histories of 20th century music, which is essentially what we have right now,” he says. “When you look at history, these guys were talking to each other and listening to each other. They did not exist in separate worlds.” Stravinsky visited the Cotton Club. Ravel heard Harlem and New Orleans jazz and incorporated elements of them in his Violin Sonata, his opera The Child and the Spells, and his Piano Concertos. James Reece Europe, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and other jazzers studied classical music. George Gershwin lived in two or three parallel musical universes. Schiff’s new piece, and this extraordinary concert at Reed (which also includes one of the great chamber works of the period, Ravel’s 1914 Piano Trio) demonstrates the musical upheaval rumbling on both sides of that false fault line between pop and classical music.

The program at Reed’s Kaul Auditorium Friday concludes with Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg’s truly revolutionary setting of 21 poems by Belgian writer Albert Giraud (tranlated into German) that uses both atonal music and a kind of hybrid of speech and singing. It’s still a spooky experience nearly a century later, and much depends on the speaker-singer, who in this case is Mary Nessinger, a mezzo soprano who’s performed with major symphony orchestras and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (which is not coincidentally the home of many CMNW musicians). Nessinger, says a Portlander who’s worked with her in coaching this very piece, singer Renee Favand-See. “has a haunting, smoldering presence when she sings this piece, [with] intense energy simmering underneath the surface and blazing out of her eyes (she barely looks at the score–she knows it from memory). She owns it. She’s amazing.”

Portland composer Renee Favand See composes by day and by candlelight

Solar Cycle

Favand-See herself has a premiere on the boards in Portland this weekend. The women’s vocal quartet The Julians will sing her song Lighting the Leaves on a program with music by Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Regina Spektor, Dolly Parton, Sinead  O’Connor, Stephen Sondheim, Joni Mitchell, Claude Debussy, Cat Stevens, the great Estonian choral composer Veljo Tormis, and other composers associated with both the pop and non-pop domains. The whole concert, at Portland First Presbyterian Church, demonstrates Barack Obama’s David Schiff’s philosophy that we don’t live in a classical America and a pop America — it’s all one big musical world. Last December, we wrote about the Julians’ last show, which contained some of the same works, so we’ll focus on the premiere here.

Favand-See, who moved to Oregon two years ago from New York, wrote the piece for a competition that required a text about the sun. Fortunately, she’s married to a poet, Corin See, a “built-in lyricist” who responded to her request with a poem about the solstice that used one of my own favorite poetic forms, the pantoum, a 15th century Malayan structure in which the second and fourth lines of the first stanza become the first and third lines of the next, which continues until the end, which repeats the opening lines. French poets appropriated the form in the 19th century — which probably explains how Maurice Ravel came to use it to structure the second movement of his Piano Trio being played this weekend at Chamber Music Northwest!

“As I was composing this piece,” Favand-See wrote, “I related the slow progress of the sun (towards the long, golden days of midsummer) to my somewhat steady daily practice (of singing and composing) that may (over years of work) lead to flow and ease.”

Favand-See (who also sings with top city choruses Resonance Ensemble and Cappella Romana)  told me last week that moving to Oregon helped her find a way to achieve daily discipline in her art, just as she’d hoped when she and her husband moved here in search of a more nurturing creative environment. “I was experiencing the fulfillment and joy of taking a risk to be able to do something I really wanted to do,” she explains. She’s found that Portland’s lifestyle has enabled her to do that, and she praises the city’s stimulating arts culture — especially an often overlooked factor in it: our open-minded audiences. They’re the listeners who’ll appreciate the new and varied sounds on display at the CMNW and Julians concerts this weekend.

Lighting the leaves
After three days the same,*
Sun creeps through the forest,
Lighting the leaves,
Taller each noon.
Sun creeps through the forest
On fireproof stilts;
Taller each noon,
More jaunty in his step.
On fireproof stilts
He takes to the branches–
More jaunty in his step,
He’s gliding.
He takes to the branches–
Then, one day,
He’s gliding
Above the bright buds.
Then, one day,
Slowly bringing you,
Above the bright buds,
All the gold in the world.
Slowly bringing you,
After three days the same,
All the gold in the world
lighting the leaves.
– Corin See

* During the solstices, winter or summer, the sun appears, to the unassisted human eye, to be at the same height for three successive days.

Another adventurous Oregon music institution, Opera Theater Oregon, continues its Opera vs. Cinema series Friday at Portland’s Mission Theater. Pianist Douglas Schneider (who took a solo role in their last such mashup in December) receives assistance from Oregon Symphony/45th Parallel violinist Greg Ewer in improvising on themes from Aida to accompany a screening of Fritz Lang’s classic silent dystopian film Metropolis. Singer Helen Funston and harpist Kate Petak will also perform.

Fans of more traditional opera have one more chance (Saturday at Keller Auditorium) to catch Portland Opera’s Madame Butterfly, which you’ve heard and read much about here (Angela Allen) and here (Bob Hicks). My own review appears in this week’s Willamette Week, James Bash’s is in Oregon Music News, and James McQuillen’s is in The Oregonian. I’ll save you the trouble: they’re all raves.

Portland Opera's much praised Madame Butterfly stars Kelly Kaduce and Roger Honeywell

Listeners in search of other older sounds can enjoy the Portland Baroque Orchestra’s concerts featuring two of the world’s greatest Baroque flutists, Janet See and Matthias Maute, in music of J.S. Bach, Georg Phillip Telemann and others, at First Baptist Church Friday and Saturday.

Speaking of Ravel, as we were earlier, pianist Paul Roberts is writing a book about him and playing his music and that of Debussy (whose music he’s also written a book about) in Portland Sunday, but the Portland Piano International show is, alas, sold out, so you’ll have to check back here next week for our coverage of it, and an interview with the remarkable Mr. Roberts.

In Eugene, the Oregon Mozart Players play an excellent program of music by Igor Stravinsky (his Pulcinella ballet music) and their namesake, including his stirring Symphony #29 and charming Piano Concerto #17, with University of Oregon faculty member Dean Kramer as soloist. The concert, at the Hult Center’s Soreng Theater Saturday, concludes the fine chamber orchestra’s auditions for the post of music director; the candidate this time is frequent OMP guest conductor Michael Nowak, who directs the San Louis Obispo Symphony.

And speaking of the UO, and new music sopranos (as we were a few hundred words ago), the school’s Vanguard Series brings acclaimed early music soprano Esteli Gomez to sing music written for her by UO composers at Beall Concert Hall on Sunday. And across the big river, Bravo Vancouver is staging Leonard Bernstein’s characteristically over-the-top, rock meets classical meets the ‘60s Mass, a spectacle worth experiencing at least once, on Sunday at St. Joseph Catholic Church.

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