Weekend MusicWatch: Classical goes pop

Chanticleer performs at Portland's St. Mary's Cathedral

On Friday, Friends of Chamber Music brings  the sublime singers of San Francisco’s Chanticleer to Northwest Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral to sing music from the 20th and 21st centuries, including works by one of the greatest living composers, Arvo Part, and the great English choral composer John Tavener. Like their Bay Area colleagues in the Kronos Quartet, the nonpareil men’s chorus also embraces today’s sounds, including in this program music by SF-based composer Mason Bates a/k/a DJ Masonic (who’s become the darling of orchestras pursuing that ever-elusive younger audience), Patricia Van Ness, Sara Hopkins, and Jan Sandstrom, who share the unusual distinction (for a classical music concert) of actually being alive. As FOCM has proved recently with other powerful voices, such as Thomas Hampson and Dawn Upshaw, even classical music audiences are happy to hear all-20th– and 21st-century programs, if the performers are committed and persuasive advocates. They’ll also sing a token Renaissance work or two.

Portland singer Brian Tierney

There’ll be plenty of other great singers onstage Sunday at All Saints Catholic Church to support the family and help defray the medical expenses of Portland singer and choir director Brian Tierney, grievously wounded and now recovering in hospital from a still-mysterious shooting last month. (You can hear examples of his artistry here.) Many of the city’s finest singers, from groups including Cappella Romana, Cantores in Ecclesia, Resonance Ensemble, Portland Opera, plus other first-rate musicians from 45th Parallel and others, will be there to support the excellent tenor, who’s part of the choral Wrecking Crew of all star singers who seem to appear with most the top choirs in town whenever real virtuosity is needed. It’s reassuring to see the music community coming together to take care of one of its own.

Unfortunately, Portland’s most prominent choir, Oregon Repertory Singers, won’t be participating, because they’ll be singing the saucy, ever popular Carmina Burana in a long-scheduled concert at First Methodist Church. There’s a matinee show, so choral fans could actually make it to both events.

And speaking of music and community, Portland drummer, sound artist, writer and thinker-about-town Tim DuRoche is leading one of Oregon Humanities’ valuable Conversation Projects on Sunday at downtown Portland’s Multnomah County Central Library. It’s called The Art of the Possible: Jazz and Community-Building, and like everything the multifaceted musician does, it’s sure to be intriguing and constructive.

At the Eugene Concert Choir’s April 21 show at the Hult Center, hometown singer Jessie Marquez (who specializes in the midcentury pop music of her father’s native Cuba), plus national dance champions will join the chorus in a concert of Latin American dance music, including rumbas, sambas, tangos and more. Dance rhythms will also propel the Mousai Ensemble’s Sunday performance at First Presbyterian Church’s admirable Celebration Works series in downtown Portland. Some of the city’s top independent classical players (flutist Janet Bebb, oboist Ann van Bever, and pianist Maria Choban) have enslisted clarinetist Chris Cox, bassoonist Ann Crandall and hornist Leander Star to help them play a splendid set of dance-driven music by Ravel, Piazzolla, and contemporary composers Paquito d’Rivera (familiar to jazz fans as a fine clarinetist and composer), Paul Harris (whose music Choban played most persuasively at her solo showcase last month), Miguel del Aguila and more.

Eleanor Stallcop-Horrox (as Camille), Douglas Webster(as Rodin) star in Promise. Photo credit: Mike O'Brien Photography

On Friday and Sunday, theater and vocal music fans can hear the new chamber opera Promise, Theresa Koon’s long-gestating music drama about the French sculptor Camille Claudel, at Portland’s Scottish Rite Theater. To accompany the four-member cast, Portland Youth Philharmonic conductor David Hattner directs a quartet of players from Opera Theater Oregon, 45th Parallel and other Portland music ensembles.

There’s more superior singing from another classical tradition onstage at Lewis & Clark College Saturday, when the greatest living exponents of the ancient Dhrupad vocal style, the Gundecha Brothers, return to Portland in a concert presented by the venerable Kalakendra organization. When I saw them at Portland’s Movement Center last year, they held the audience spellbound for an hour with just their voices, before the drum even kicked in. Originally sung by Vedic priests, the music’s roots stretch back to medieval times; it’s been undergoing a revival, much like European early music, since the 1960s.

Another Large voice commands the stage with the Oregon Symphony this weekend when Portland rock prima donna Storm Large joins the band for a concert of her songs and other rockers. Rock violinist Aaron Meyer opens the show.

Classical musicians playing pop music is nothing new, of course. By turning to local musicians and others (e.g. Antony and the Johnsons, Rufus Wainwright, Pink Martini) with higher levels of originality and critical cred than the usual aging crooners, the Oregon Symphony has actually made the once-derided crossover/pops concert into a credible event that still rakes in the “outsider” ticket buyers without making the usual fans hold their noses.

The Portland Cello Project did pretty much the same thing last week in their CD release concerts in Portland and Eugene. As often happens at PCP concerts, one of the Portland shows opened with a guest vocalist from a local rock band — not Storm, but Steven Bak applying his clear, soaring tenor to Adele’s ferocious hit “Rolling in the Deep” and  Led Zeppelin’s classic “Kashmir” (which has become a favorite of classical cellists from Matt Haimovitz to Maya Beiser) with such accuracy, power and full commitment that even Robert Plant himself might have been impressed. Of course, no mere human drummer could replicate Bonzo Bonham’s tree-trunk rolls, but it was still a mighty impressive cover.

Diane Chaplin joins Portland Cello Project

Northwest New Music’s Diane Chaplin, who seems to be everywhere these days, took the lead on an arrangement of Spanische Serenade, by one August Nolck, a late 19th/early 20th century cellist. Augmented by ironic rock star smoke swirls and another guest singer, John Brophy, the show also included regular PCP fare like the most famous tune from Carmen, a Pantera cover, and of course Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” along with a slew of hip hop covers from the band’s new Homage album, including their brilliant take on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s hit, retitled for this family friendly show (and there were lots of kids grooving to the beats) “That’s My Sandwich.”

The youngish, indie rock crowd (trying hard to avoid the derogatory “h” word here) and vibe couldn’t have been farther from the older (by a generation or two) audience, matching polo shirts, and irony-free atmosphere at the following evening’s Satori Men’s Chorus concert at Portland’s Old Church. Yet the programming strategy wasn’t so different: pop songs arranged for a “classical” choir. Satori’s tended toward squares versions of Beatles, Johnny Cash and other ‘60s hits and showtunes, but the singers’ earnestness, enthusiasm and engagement with their audience easily overcame the usual shortcomings amateur choruses inevitably face. It’s one of Portland’s pleasures that the city offers so many opportunities for singers and other amateur classical musicians from across the range of experience and expertise.

Satori Men's Chorus sang at Portland's Old Church

On Friday, Opera Theater Oregon brought tenor Daniel Buchanan in for its latest mashup of opera and cinema, Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde vs. Dr. Atomic. The series is built on the piano improvisations of Douglas Schneider (with occasional help from other top local musicians), and this time flutist Jayde Weide and percussionist Ian Kerr joined the fun as well, improvising on themes from John Adams’s 2006 opera Dr. Atomic. But although all (especially Schneider) played well, and Kerr and Buchanan’s sound effects contributed to the spooky atmosphere, in this case, more amounted to a little less, as the musicians seemed to be more concerned about staying out of each other’s way than being equal partners with the onscreen action. What I heard from these able players made me want to hear more. To be fair, John Barrymore’s bravura performance would eclipse almost any music (and certainly outshone the rest of the rather static 1920 film) but I wonder whether the totally improvised, unrehearsed strategy really works as well with more musicians involved, particularly if they’re not as experienced in improv as Schneider. It probably gets easier with practice.

Opera Theater Oregon improvised a score for Dr. Jekyll& Mr. Hyde

Before entering rocky Stormy waters, the Oregon Symphony managed to rock the house with a rollicking performance of Mussorgsky’s perpetual crowd pleaser, Pictures at an Exhibition, led by ebullient guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto (who was introduced by music director Carlos Kalmar, taking the weekend off). At the performance I saw, the orchestra’s superb horn section navigated the exposed parts in Ravel’s colorful orchestration flawlessly and vigorously all the way through the slambang finale, prompting cheers of delight. Guest guitarist Sharon Isbin was predictably impeccable in one of the great 20th century works for her instrument, Joaquin Rodrigo’s 1958 Fantasy for a Gentleman, but leisurely tempos diluted some of its dance-driven energy. Otherwise, the jovial Prieto conducted with snap and aplomb, emphasizing dramatic contrasts in Ravel’s Morning Song of the Jester, helpfully explaining the story behind Sofia Gubaidulina’s Fairytale Poem (which gave the audience a way to connect to fairly abstract but enjoyable music), and in general charming the house. I bet he’ll be back.

Next month, the symphony closes its season with a performance of the most important classical music of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky’s shattering Rite of Spring. Last weekend, Eugene audiences got to experience the music in context (though, alas, with recorded rather than live music this time) in the Eugene Ballet’s splendid performance of the piece featuring choreography by its artistic director, Toni Pimble, along with two other Stravinsky masterpieces set to live music and contemporary choreography.

Carlos Miguel Prieto's performance with the Oregon Symphony earneda standing O

When it premiered a decade ago, Pimble’s rather brutal choreography engendered some controversy for its emphasis on the male dancers’ threatening aggression, from preening to strutting to leering to menacing, and the couplings seemed more like rape than randiness. A male choreographer would never have gotten away with some of the superficially misogynistic moves (including what appeared to be beating and kicking the sacrificial virgin, played by the vibrant veteran Jennifer Martin, who’s retiring after a long and fruitful run with the company), and it seemed even more intense this time because the lead male perpetrator, Mark Tucker, was much more physically imposing than his predecessor, Matt Hope (who now dances with Portland’s BodyVox). Of course, the original scenario, involving a human sacrifice to appease the deities, is a pretty savage one, too, but the narrative here seemed to portray the Chosen One as less a fertility offering than a rejected victim, after all the other dancers had coupled erotically with their partners. Still, it was effectively crafted, well danced, and probably evoked some of the same shock as Nijinksy’s notorious original choreography (which is what really drew the boos, more than Stravinsky’s score) a century ago in Paris. The main problem was a persistent annoying rattle that I believe came from the projector that created the illusion of a wall of water. That worked better live last time, too.

The Rite’s aggression contrasted sharply with the lighter-than-air neoclassicism of Stravinsky’s 1928 Apollo, with pointe-peppered choreography by New York’s Melissa Bobick that might have suited a Tchaikovsky ballet. The set and costumes also evoked ancient Greece, at least as imagined by later generations, and even with a few wobbles, the live string orchestra, conducted by former Portland Opera director Robert Ashens, added immensely to the atmosphere. I missed East Coast Chamber Orchestra’s performance of this music, sans dancers, in Portland last month, but it’s always seemed to need dancers to fill in the foreground, and the combination worked smoothly here, aided by graceful performances from title character Juan Carlos Amy-Cordero and company.

Eugene Ballet performed Igor Stravinsky's The Wedding with the Eugene Vocal Arts Ensemble

Although opening with maybe the most powerful music ever written might portend an anticlimax, EB’s performance of Stravinsky’s almost-as-revolutionary 1923 The Wedding more than held its own, again in part because of the compelling use of live music (and despite some balance problems between the individually miked soloists —uniformly superb — and the inadequately ambient-miked chorus from the Eugene Vocal Arts Ensemble). Pimble was in strong form here, presenting a tableau with a backdrop evoking church windows and guests who served as much as props as dancers, creating a formal frame for some lively duets, solos and more, and culminating in the revelation of the nuptial bed. The rhythmically tricky piano, percussion and vocal score is too-rarely performed, both because of its unusual instrumentation and, I imagine, its sheer recondite complexity. (Resonance Ensemble performed it at Portland’s Lewis & Clark College last year.) But for the most part, the musicians handled the tough assignment adroitly, resulting in a compelling climax to a rich afternoon of dance and music by the 20th century’s greatest composer.

And you can see and hear more Stravinsky for dance this weekend and next when Oregon Ballet Theater (which staged Stravinsky’s frequent collaborator George Balanchine’s original Apollo a few years ago) performs the pair’s Violin Concerto and three other works at downtown Portland’s Newmark Theater.

OBT performs Stravinsky/Blaine Truitt Covert

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