Weekend MusicWatch: Youth served

Al Andalus performs Saturday at Reed College.

Al Andalus performs Saturday at Reed College.

Although too many of our institutions have succeeded in defining classical music as “music by dead people for old people,” in fact, as many of this weekend’s concerts demonstrate, young people make up a significant and promising part of Oregon’s classical music scene, which offers hope for the music’s future.

At 4 pm on Sunday afternoon at the Wieden + Kennedy splendid atrium performance space in Portland’s Pearl District, some of the best players from the city’s — and the nation’s — oldest collection of young musicians, Portland Youth Philharmonic, perform as Camerata PYP. It’s the kind of program every American orchestra should present every time, mixing contemporary, recent and old music by Americans, Europeans, and Oregonians: Beethoven’s Symphony #8, David Diamond’s midcentury American classic, “Rounds for String Orchestra,” the American premiere of Massachusetts composer Stephen Dankner’s “Meditation for Viola and String Orchestra,” and another contemporary work by a once and future Oregon composer, Portland native Kenji Bunch, who explained to ArtsWatch how he wrote the piece.

“‘Supermaximum’ was inspired by chain gang singing in Southern prisons. Police would sometimes arrest strong black men so they could use them for labor. It was like an extension of slavery. Once they were in the prison camps, they were treated in terribly inhumane ways. “What I find so compelling about the singing is they responded to this inhumane situation there not with violence but with art. It was done partly for their own survival, because whoever was slowest at the rock breaking or picking or chopping would get whipped or beaten, so the rhythm of the singing was such that no one was any slower than anyone else, so they desperately tried to keep a steady beat.I was thinking that if there’s a maximum of your humanity taken from you, then there’s a maximum equal amount of compassion necessary to offset that. So it starts with music of the chain gang and transcends that into something that celebrates the spirit.”

What a marvelous experience for PYP’s young musicians to learn first hand that classical music isn’t only made by dead people for old people, but also by people they actually know; Bunch got his start playing in PYP in high school, and has returned to work with the group, even sitting in with the viola section in a PYP concert a couple years back. He’ll be working with PYP (and, it’s rumored, another important Portland music institution) as an educator when he and his family move back to town next month.

Oregon teens are also learning that they themselves can be composers, and we can hear the results Sunday afternoon at Reed College in one of the state’s most admirable annual classical music events: the Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic’s annual Young Composers Project concert, the culmination of a year-long program that affords some of the most promising emerging Oregon composers the opportunity to work with the first rate pros in FNM and end up with new musical creations that will be performed at this concert.

Still another Sunday afternoon concert, this one at the Aladdin Theater, benefits young classical musicians in Oregon Symphony percussionist Niel DePonte’s MetroArts Inc. organization, which has been teaching creativity through the arts since 1993. Some of the city’s finest percussionists (and a few others, including members of the OSO, Third Angle, Susannah Mars and more) join DePonte in Drumlandia, which features mostly contemporary sounds.

Singing and Ringing

Young musicians also excel in the vocal arts. This weekend, Portland State University’s renowned opera program opens its production of Puccini’s “La Rondine,” which Angela Allen previewed for ArtsWatch. On Thursday, the University of Oregon chamber choirs sing for their plane fare to Ireland, where they’re competing in one of the world’s top choral competitions. And on Sunday night at Michelle’s Pianos in southeast Portland, the 20 students of TVI Choir premiere choral songs of Oregon composer Joel Ford, and sing music by contemporary composer Alvin Curran and more.

Speaking of singing, two of the state’s major choirs close their seasons this weekend. On Friday and Sunday at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, the Oregon Repertory Singers perform acclaimed young Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds’ oratorio, Passion and Resurrection” and a motet by J.S. Bach. And on Saturday and Sunday at northwest Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, Portland Symphonic Choir  sings music by young American composers Jason Saunders and Eric Sayre, plus Beaverton native and leading American choral composer Morten Lauridsen’s “O Nata Lux,” Benjamin Britten’s lovely Rejoice in the Lamb” and more.

What’s all this nonsense about “never on Sunday,” anyway? That day, Portland choral conductor David York leads his choral ensemble and the handbell ensemble Bells of the Cascades in music by Bach, Arvo Part, Dave Brubeck and his own choral setting of a Poe poem. And yet again on Sunday, the fine period instrument ensemble Wildwood Consort’s tribute to German Baroque composer Dieterich Buxtehude, featuring singer Mel Downie Robinson, at Gresham’s St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church.

Speaking of Baroque music, Portland Baroque Orchestra is actually not playing it this weekend in its concerts at Portland’s First Baptist Church and Reed College. The orchestra will instead perform great three early symphonies by Joseph Haydn that sound much more appropriately lean and transparent when played by an authentically small sized band on period instruments than by a conventional modern symphony.

Sultry voiced young singer Emily Miles has added a vocal dimension to Portland’s Al Andalus ensemble, which performs Mediterranean music played by flamenco guitarist Julia Banzi and multi instrumentalist Tarik Banzi and danced by Spanish flamenco dance specialist Cristina Chacon Saturday at Reed College. And speaking of guitarists, one of the greatest ever, Pepe Romero, performs at downtown Portland’s First Congregational Church Friday, in the Portland Classic Guitar series.

Pipa virtuosa Min Xiao-Fen sings the blues at Third Angle's Chinese Garden party Saturday.

Pipa virtuosa Min Xiao-Fen sings the blues at Third Angle’s Chinese Garden party Saturday.

Finally, for a unique musical experience, catch one of Oregon’s most valuable music institution, Third Angle New Music Ensemble, performing music by contemporary and traditional Chinese composers at downtown Portland’s pastoral Lan Su Classical Chinese Garden Friday. Not only is the music fascinating, but as with Third Angle’s earlier ambulatory Frozen Music showcases, the audience is divided into groups, and musicians perform (on Western and Chinese instruments) several different works simultaneously, in various intimate pavilions of the garden. This allows a dozen or so fellow music lovers at a time to sit close to the musicians, with each group moving on to the next performance when each is over. It’s one of the most memorable concerts of the year so far.

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