Year-end MusicWatch: Lessons and observations from 2012

Cappella Romana and Portland Baroque Orchestra made beautiful music together in 2012.

Cappella Romana and Portland Baroque Orchestra made beautiful music together in 2012.

The pause in performances at the outset of the new year offers a chance to take a deep breath and try to draw some conclusions from the flurry of events that filled Oregon’s — and particularly Portland’s — classical music scene in 2012. Usually, we’re too busy here just trying to tell our readers what’s about to happen or what just happened. So rather than presenting only the usual “here’s what I saw — again” recap, I’ll offer a quick overview, and then say a bit more about what it means. Naturally, I could attend only a fraction of the many worthy performances around even Portland, much less the rest of the state, so this take is far from comprehensive or definitive. And apologies in advance for the worthy work I did see and unintentionally left out– when you attend several concerts per week over the course of a year, it’s easy to let a few slip the memory banks. Moreover, it excludes much worthwhile nonclassical music I heard last year, from taiko and Indian music to jazz, rock and much more.

First, though, we have to note some of the comings and goings in the Oregon classical scene: departures in leadership at the Portland Columbia Symphony, Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other institutions, and arrivals at the Oregon Mozart Players, Choral Arts Ensemble, Eugene Symphony, Portland Opera and more. Sadly, the music suffered some serious losses — we salute the memory of Anne Dhu McLucas, Obo Addy, Franya Berkman, and others. Classical music is, or should be, ever-renewing.

Peak Performances

The quality of orchestral performances I saw continued to rise, led by the Oregon Symphony, which just seems to get better and better, not only from year to year, but often even from concert to concert. As I noted last spring, and will again soon, I still think the programming caters to too narrow an audience, but last year’s programs boasted a number of relatively fresh gems — from a brilliant little piece called “Drip”  by a young American composer Andrew Norman to newish works by Thomas Ades, Sofia Gubaidulina, John Adams and others — and always able, often superb performances of museum music. I hope the orchestra can continue raising its performance standards under whoever replaces the departed executive director Elaine Calder, but it’s already made such enormous strides in that regard that it now can afford to also look to other areas of improvement — community outreach, contemporary programming, etc. Last season’s concluding concert featuring John Adams’s “City Noir” and Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was one of the city’s top classical music events of the 21st century.

It’s great to see the state’s flagship orchestra raising its game, but for me, last year’s most valuable classical players had to be Portland Baroque Orchestra, which staged a series of memorable concerts last year, topped by a stirring performance of Handel’s “Dixit Dominus” and a year-ending “Messiah” with Cappella Romana. PBO has really become an all-star ensemble of players from up and down the West Coast, and its vigorous performances regularly draw strong crowds and rapturous receptions from its fans. If I had to recommend only a single classical music event to an Oregon visitor, it would be: catch a PBO concert.

Portland’s choral music scene also continued its resurgence, which we discussed at length earlier this year. As we chronicled in numerous posts,  In Mulieribus, Oregon Repertory Singers, Cappella Romana, Resonance Ensemble and other choirs produced some of the year’s diverse and musical accomplished moments — often featuring the same core group of star singers.

Third Angle & Resonance Ensemble proved a potent combination.

Third Angle & Resonance Ensemble proved a potent combination. Via Tom Emerson Photography.

¡Viva la Revolución!

Another welcome Portland development in 2012 was the continued growth of the city’s indie classical music scene, which (along with another story on the city’s visual arts scene) was chronicled in the Wall Street Journal. Admittedly, a few groups (temporarily, I hope) retrenched. I saw little from Electric Opera Company, Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project’s status is uncertain with its founder’s departure for graduate school, and FearNoMusic took the autumn off for a reboot, but looks to come back strong in 2013. Opera Theater Oregon produced mostly its intriguing but less-ambitious (and less expensive) Opera vs. Cinema series rather than full scale productions, although two it did mount, a reduced version of Debussy’s “Pelleas & Melisande” and Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Old Maid & the Thief,” provided some of the year’s most enjoyable music/theater moments.

But the positives were many. Classical Revolution PDX really blossomed last year, with its monthly chamber jams at Northeast Portland’s Waypost soaring in attendance (they’re always jam-packed now) and quality; performance standards seem to have risen substantially, with some of the city’s top musicians occasionally sitting in, and even those amateurs who are dusting off long-closeted instruments apparently rehearsing a lot more. The sessions can stretch to three hours but because they transpire in such a relaxed, informal setting (you can come and go as you please, quaff beer, chat, and munch, and no shushing is allowed), there’s no cover charge (though donations are eagerly encouraged and accepted), and the variety of music and performers is so wide, they’re never boring. CRPDX even held the stage at Alberta Rose Theater, with relatively high quality performances that needed no apology. With something like 200 musicians on its call list, and an increasing reputation as a place where musicians can try out new works in a supportive atmosphere, Classical Revolution has become a vital part of the city’s classical music scene.

Similarly, Cascadia Composers expanded its ambit, offering a wider and much-needed variety of music (particularly by female composers) and producing a concert of homegrown music on the average every six weeks or so. The organization also hosts sessions in private homes in which composers present and discuss their works. It would give the community a useful insight into process of creating music if those monthly talk/demos happened in a public space, much like CRPDX’s chamber jams. I hope a suitable venue, with piano, might offer such a regular opportunity. Can the group continue its impressive growth now that sedulous founder David Bernstein has retired from the leadership?

More pop-oriented groups that embrace classical instruments and influences, such as Vagabond Opera and Portland Cello Project, also enjoyed a busy year with new albums and many performances.

Third Angle New Music Ensemble continues to go from strength to strength, producing two vauntingly ambitious programs (in a productive partnership with the great Resonance Ensemble chorus) that ranked at the top of the year’s classical offerings: a gorgeous performance of Morton Feldman’s haunting 20th century classic, “Rothko Chapel,”and other works by the composer and his mentor/colleague, John Cage, and another concert devoted to one of today’s greatest composers (and a Northwesterner to boot), John Luther Adams’s “Earth and the Great Weather.” 3A’s composer commissioning project proved especially valuable last year, generating excellent new works by emerging composers from the Northwest and beyond. They even took Oregon music to China! Third Angle is an Oregon music treasure.

Before taking its short sabbatical, the city’s other veteran new music ensemble, FearNoMusic, produced perhaps the year’s single most fascinating music event: a multifaceted tribute to John Cage at YU’s capacious southeast Portland art space. (Although not primarily a music group, the theatrical group The Late Now also included some of Cage’s music in a similarly crowded and enjoyable Cage tribute later in the year.) FNM’s other shows, including a 20th anniversary concert that culminated in a huge group performance of Terry Riley’s minimalist masterpiece, “In C,” were also among the year’s most valuable.

A third all-contemporary music group, Northwest New Music, broke through the decades-long 3A/FNM duopoly on new sounds by producing several fascinating concerts of modern music, including great performances of music by composers like George Crumb, Iannis Xenakis and Peter Maxwell Davies. Although it’s fantastic that the city can support three different new music ensembles, the fact that that deserves special mention shows how ridiculously regressive America’s classical music scene became in the 20th century. Before that, most classical concerts were new music concerts — and the new music was by composers like Beethoven, Liszt, and so on. There’s plenty contemporary classical music that’s both innovative and accessible to broader audiences than the usual narrow classical demographic, so even three new music ensembles isn’t nearly enough to bring a fraction of it to Oregon listeners.

Festival Fervor

Which is why it’s been so heartening to see so much contemporary music offered by both indie classical groups and the older, more established institutions during the annual March Music Moderne festival curated by composer Bob Priest. Necessarily limited by its indefatigable creator’s unapologetically singular vision, MMM still somehow managed, on dental floss budget (slimmer than shoestrings), to provide a wide spectrum of contemporary sounds and cross-promotion opportunities, from some of the state’s largest classical music organizations (like the Oregon Symphony) to the smallest and quirkiest (the Peculiarium). Every concert — many of them free or at easy to swallow prices — offered music that intrigued, fascinated, or both. Many of the concerts from established organizations might have happened anyway, but the festival provides an important frame and incentive for contemporary sounds — and thereby for revitalizing our musical culture with today’s music. For me, the highlights included the first Portland visit by the great Vancouver, BC composer Hildegard Westerkamp, who concocted several of her celebrated soundscapes in an unforgettable concert at the Old Church; concerts by the Free Marz  String Trio and Cherry Blossom Musical Arts (the latter at BodyVox studios, the former at Coho Theater), and Classical Revolution (featuring Austin composer Graham Reynolds and others) at the Blue Monk.

Contemporary music also appeared in Portland Opera‘s dazzling production of Philip Glass’s 21st century opera, “Galileo Galilei,” at the wonderfully intimate Newmark Theater; the music, though not top notch Glass, was still enjoyable, as were the opulent set design and costumes. Portland State University’s renowned opera program also staged a memorable 20th century opera, Francis Poulenc’s searing “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” And speaking of young musicians and contemporary music, Portland Youth Philharmonic‘s concert featuring the great 20th century American composer Henry Cowell’s Persian set and music for Persian and Western instruments by Portland composer Bobek Salehi, proved that the youngsters can not only handle contemporary and local sounds, but that audiences enjoy it.

Other festivals brought world class musicians to Oregon. The Oregon Bach Festival continued to benefit from director John Evans’s gradual overhaul, presenting a powerful Oregon debut performance of Michael Tippett’s 20th century classic, “A Child of Our Time.” Portland Institute of Contemporary Arts‘s annual Time-Based Arts Festival offered much more than merely music, with the standouts for me being performances by Faustin Linyekula, Gob Squad, and a striking alfresco concert of soundscapes by Portland composers curated by one of the city’s emerging new music stars, Claudia Meza.

Chamber Music Northwest‘s summer festival also continued to freshen its approach with performances (usually involving its emerging artist Protege Project) in alternative venues, with a show at BodyVox studio, the Emerson Quartet’s performance of Beethoven’s “Grosse Fugue,” and a Baroque concert with Michala Petri among several standouts. CMNW also offered enjoyable new music from Portland’s own David Schiff, New York composer Aaron Kernis, and more, and a zippy concert by the young Time for Three trio that felt fresher than anything else onstage last summer.

Fab fiddlers Gilles Apap and Kevin Burke jammed with 45th Parallel.

Fab fiddlers Gilles Apap and Kevin Burke jammed with 45th Parallel.

Valuable Visitors

Speaking of chamber music, almost every concert I attended presented by Friends of Chamber Music last year featured superlative performances by some of the world’s finest small ensembles. It’s inspiring to see those groups (including the Parker Quartet, Trio Con Brio Copenhagen, the Shanghai Quartet, Pacifica Quartet, the amazing Takacs Quartet, and others) imbuing the classics with so much passion.

It was especially gratifying to see so much compelling new music from visiting musicians like San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet and Chanticleer, Brooklyn Rider, Hauschka (brought by Portland Piano International to the Portland rock club, Doug Fir Lounge), intrepid New York pianist Adam Tendler (who played a fabulous version of John Cage’s mid-20th century classic “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano”) and the uncategorizable ensemble Swarmius (both sponsored by Portland State University). Seattle’s Pacific MusicWorks (brought by PBO) magnificent, historically informed performance of a Baroque classic, Monteverdi’s “Vespers of 1610,” ranked among the very finest concerts of the year.

Local musicians also presented plenty of chamber music (much of it included in the above discussion) at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, First Presbyterian Church’s marvelous Celebration Works series, the Community Music Center, the Old Church, and elsewhere. I tended to remember best those that varied the usual formula, with a shining example being 45th Parallel’s inclusion of two of the world’s greatest nonclassical fiddlers in its May concert: the legendary England-born, Portland-based Celtic fiddler Kevin Burke (with his long-time musical partner, Trail Band guitarist Cal Scott) and the great French violinist Gilles Apap. After delightful performances of music of Bach, Ligeti and more, a jam session ensued that featured 45th Parallel violinist Greg Ewer (who’s also played in bluegrass bands) gamely joining in on the fun in one of the most memorable concerts of the year.

Ewer, whose fine work in the Oregon Symphony, PBO, Pink Martini and Third Angle makes him one of the state’s most versatile and valuable classical musicians, also left the classical comfort zone to participate in one of my favorite classical music moments of 2012: a story for Willamette Week in which he played on downtown Portland street corners for tips from passersby. Seeing how a chance encounter with well played classical music can affect and move even listeners who don’t listen to it regularly bolstered my faith in the music’s lasting power.

Unfortunately, as often happens in journalism, WW didn’t have room to run most of the interviews I did with the passing Portlanders who dropped bills and coins in Ewer’s battered violin case. Here’s one:  “I just spent $17 on a pair of movie tickets for me and my wife,” said a middle aged man in green shirt and khaki shorts from Beaverton who’s visiting downtown for the day. Sam isn’t a classical music fan (“mostly hip hop, some R&B, rock”) but “I was a little stressed after trying to find a place to park and it calmed me down to hear him play. I had a couple extra dollars in my pocket, times are tough and [Ewer’s] standing in the sun playing beautiful music.”

That’s what I heard over and over from appreciative passersby: “Classical music adds beauty to the city.” When the Washington Post staged a similar experiment with Joshua Bell, the writer lamented how many passersby ignored the great violinist. But I was actually encouraged by the positive response by so many recession-weary Portlanders to their unexpected encounter with beautiful music played beautifully.

Reminders of that beauty were especially needed in the face of a couple of dark moments: the horrendous massacre at Newtown, Connecticut, followed by Portland Baroque Orchestra’s magnificent “Messiah,” and a benefit for Portland choral singer Brian Tierney, which brought colleagues from all the city’s top choirs to raise funds to reimburse his medical expenses after a still unexplained shooting. Happily, Tierney was soon back on stage, singing beautifully. In such cases, music is more than a distraction from reality’s often-troubling side — it beckons us toward our capacity to create beauty, not just destroy it.

Greg Ewer busked in downtown Portland.

Greg Ewer busked in downtown Portland.

Musical Ecology

Maybe the best news about Oregon classical music in 2012 is that there was so much of it, and in so many places beyond the usual suspects in bars and clubs (for example, McMenanmin’s monthly series and CRPDX’s Waypost jams), as well as churches and concert halls. That’s generally a good thing, but there’s another side to the proliferation of performances. I used to think that the more the merrier — any performance of classical music is better than none. It’s important to remember that, unlike die-hard classical music fans and music journalists, some audience members may never have experienced, say, a Beethoven symphony or Mozart piano concerto or Haydn string quartet live, even in the traditional stage setting.

But while it’s healthy to see so many performances, there’s a legitimate concern that if new listeners (in particular) encounter passionless or incompetent or simply boring classical music in expensive, formal stage settings, they may falsely conclude that classical music is itself boring. (I’ve taken friends whose musical tastes run more to metal than Mendelssohn to passionate string quartet performances and found them utterly transfixed. But too many others see a tedious performance and decide that they’re all like that.) The difference between a yawn-inducing performance and a really vibrant one makes all the difference, in any art form.

So, looking ahead now instead of back, I’m wondering now whether it might be healthier for Oregon’s classical music scene — which I desperately want to see survive and flourish –to leave the museum performances of overplayed warhorses on the formal stages mostly to the professionals who really have the time and chops to play that music with the technical and interpretive skills that make it truly come alive. However much the musicians may enjoy playing the classics, what matters most for the health of the music scene is how audiences respond, particularly when they’re shelling out serious shekels for tickets.

Does that mean there’s no room for other performances of classical warhorses? Of course not. But if a solo or group performer is going to take yet another shot at a classic that’s been played a zillion times already, and they lack either the skill or time to invest in playing it with real zest and power, shouldn’t they offer audiences another fresh element, either in repertoire or format? I’m thinking of Classical Revolution PDX’s always enthusiastic but often delightfully rough and ready chamber jams at the Waypost and Someday Lounge, which compensate for relatively lower quality level by providing a refreshing informality, intimacy, and affordability. In fact, 45th Parallel is doing just that in its next concert in February, devoted to music by modern composers. Similarly, excellent performers like FearNoMusic and Third Angle offer more than just competent, often superior playing — they give us the shock of the new, the thrill of hearing music written in our time we may have never heard, or at least heard live, before.

The need for more new music in Oregon classical concerts is really a subject for another time — specifically, March, when the next edition of March Music Moderne happens. We’ll talk much more about that then. In the meantime, please tell us about some of your own favorite Oregon musical moments from last year in the comments.

3 Responses.

  1. Heather Blackburn says:

    Hi Brett! I am amazed by the sheer number of concerts you attended last year. While I disagreed with a couple of points in your previous post, I’d like to thank you for raising issues which have been quite thought provoking for me and many of my colleagues. My quartet has started discussing programming for next season with a different sensibility, in part provoked by your post. I appreciate the time you invest in Portland’s classical music scene.

    best, Heather

  2. bob priest says:

    oppa, campbell style!

    while psy might have more youtube hits than you, YOU are doing the molto serioso heavy lifting! holy schmokin’ butt in seat @ lotsa concerts there, brettman, how do you do it?

    well, however you do what you do, please keep on a-doin’ it. the pdx music scene is lucky to have a dedicated soul like you!

    and, thanx for the coverage of March Music Moderne (MMM) & the Free Marz String Trio. i will write in a few comments about this part of your post in a separate note quite soon.

    so, yes, please stay ‘tooned . . .

    • bob priest says:

      part II (in lazy point form):

      1/ “unapologetic”? yes indeedy, guilty as charged. actually, the deeper truth is that i’m NOT gonna apologize for being unapologetic! :)))

      2/ as for my “singular vision,” well, MMM 2013 will present 33 concerts featuring 89 composers from 19 different countries – a goodly range & diverse sampling of styles & aesthetics that abound in today’s musical global village.

      3/ happily, MMM’s “dental floss budget” has just received a sharp spike via a wonderfully generous sponsorship from Willakenzie Estate – MMM’s first such contributor beyond the now limping & shoe-strung-out funding formula provided by the Baby LeRoy Memorial Trust during our first two years.

      soooo, maestro brett, you think you’ve already been a-chasin’ down a gaggle of great sounds during the year in this here PDX of ours? hahaha, stay tuned, muchacho, MMM & other new musik-machen crazies are fixin’ to pile it on, big time!


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