March 24th, 2010 5:33 pm | by BRETT CAMPBELL News | Posted In: CLEAN UP

LIVE REVIEW: A roundup of recent concerts of music by Portland composers.


"New music is old music now." That was the winning definition of “new music”—the inadequate and deliberately vague shorthand often used to describe contemporary music in the classical tradition—in Classical Revolution's impromptu contest at their concert last Sunday at the Someday Lounge. Unfortunately, Portland concert presenters too often prefer the tired and true. Compare the paltry percentage of homegrown works played by our local music institutions to the number of dances made by local choreographers or plays written by local playwrights or visual artworks crafted by locals. In a culture as creative as Oregon's, presenting one or two performances, among dozens per year, by local composers is unconscionable and a major reason why so many music lovers feel disconnected from classical music.

Fortunately, Portland's smaller institutions are stepping up and tapping into the city's creative wellsprings. Third Angle has recently played music by David Schiff, Robert Kyr, Greg Vajda, Bryan Johanson and others. And at last week's Cascadia Composers festival, part of the National Association of Composers/USA national conference, FearNoMusic, the ensemble that comprises members of the Oregon Symphony and other top notch performers, joined various other first-rate Portland classical performers as the house band in music by composers from Portland, Eugene and environs, plus some from points east and south. Alas, I wasn't able to attend Friday night's final concert (for reasons described below), nor any of the afternoon lecture-demos, which featured excerpts of works by such well known Northwest composers as Tomas Svoboda, Gary Noland and Jack Gabel. But the first two evening concerts revealed the state of this slice of Oregon's musical union to be, as the President usually says in that annual address to Congress, strong, if a bit timid. Come to think of it, that's probably a fair description for the President's administration.

Wednesday's lineups included New Orleanian David Cortello's charmer Three Movements for Flute, obviously inspired by Claude Debussy and played well by the excellent Portland flutist Tessa Brinckman; Alden Jenks' moody settings of Charles Simic poems, Ghost Songs for soprano (Irene Weldon) and piano (Christopher Schindler); and Eugene composer Mark Vigil's sensitive Five Preludes for Violin and Piano ( FearNoMusic's Paloma Griffin and Jeffrey Payne, respectively), which displayed real growth from his earlier work. A couple of laptop pieces—Nick Sibicky's concise, flitting Fireflies and Christopher Penrose's spacy Sextuple Entendre , occasionally managed the apparently difficult trick of not sounding like every other electronic soundscape I hear at academic electronic music concerts, where ambience is all. Bay Area composer John Bilotta's Petroushka Dreams cleverly captured its Stravinskian namesake's rhythmic exuberance. The student competition winner, Martin Blessinger's scampering Duo for SAxophone and PIano (performed by the ever-amazing Tom Bergeron, with Diane Baxter accompanying) revealed considerable promise.

Portland State prof Bonnie Miksch's alluring Man Dreaming Butterfly Dreaming Man easily outshone the rest. Violinist Ines Voglar and Payne exchanged fluttering tremolos, then rapid fire flashes, then joined in a wistful, poignant duet before the music wafted away. Miksch's electronics and percussion piece was a highlight of FearNoMusic's Homegrown concert last year, as was her work for flute and electronics at the previous Cascadia Composers concert. Along with this beauty, the first all-acoustic piece of hers I've heard, they make a strong case that she's emerging as one of the city's, and the region's, most promising and accomplished composers.

Thursday night's concert kicked off with Brinckman skillfully conveying the nuances of a flute solo, Kristin Shafel's haunting “Caoineadh.” Trent Henna's piano solo (played by the composer) Tiburon Panorama would certainly appeal to the George Winston crowd, with its big Romantic swelling chords, pop simplicity and evocation of Western landscapes. Nancy Bloomer Deussen's “Primavera & Autumnal” for flute, cello and piano recalled post-Victorian parlor pieces. Attention Portland jazzers: Eugene composer Paul Safar's engaging Five for Violin and Piano (with Griffin and Payne), which effectively channelled Grappellian swing, could make an excellent jumping off point for improvising. Receiving a committed performance from Voglar, Payne and FearNoMusic cellist Nancy Ives, David Bernstein's picturesque Winter Sunlight and Shadow closed the evening on a strong neo-Romantic note. Even more than some of the other conservative works on these programs, I can easily imagine this well-crafted, heartfelt piece filling the “contemporary/American” slot—if only even such a token slot existed—on just about any classical chamber music program and not driving away the bluehairs.

One problem with much contemporary music is that it's so damn serious all the time. I know, “dying is easy, comedy is hard,” but musical humor has a distinguished tradition going back to at least Haydn and Mozart and a well executed musical joke enlivens a concert like a good joke does a speech. I' d already seen local trickster/composer Bob Priest's witty Cirque de Deux at a previous Cascadia Composers concert, and like most jokes, it's not as funny the second time around, but still worth experiencing for its opera references, stage antics, and bassoon flatulence. Priest's student Elizabeth Blachly-Dyson must have contracted some of her teacher's subversive humor, because her clever, original lyrics to her song cycle “High Fructose Corn,” were laugh-out-loud hilarious, as even some of the titles (“You Are My Wii-mote,” “Lend Me an Ear-Bud”) show. Her splendid music received the gift of a fine delivery from the ever-impressive Payne and soprano Emily Zahnister, who struck just the right facial expressions and body language for maximum humor. I really hope FNM, Classical Revolution and any other group with a piano and a singer will give this delicious piece further exposure.

I regret not being able to attend Friday night's closing concert at the Old Church, but it conflicted with another all-local-composers postclassical concert a few blocks away: Portland Vocal Consort's Best of the Northwest show. I don't know whether to be happy that our local music scene is rich enough to support two (actually three, if you include Filmusik's original score to a classic film noir that was happening at the Hollywood Theater this night) concerts of new music by local composers—or frustrated that these groups don't coordinate their schedules better so we don't have to choose among them.

The concert was framed by the two movements of University of Oregon prof Robert Kyr's earnest ode, In the Name of Music, which would make a dandy standard for many choirs if the second movement weren't quite so tricky to sing. This posed no obstacle to the crack Consort chorus, some of the city's finest vocalists, who gave it an uninhibited performance. They did the same for PSU prof Bryan Johanson's Psallite, which powerfully conveyed the joyousness of its lyric. Alto Tuesday Rupp imbued Joan Szymko's Rilke setting, Herbst, with great delicacy and affection, over the choir's rich blend. As a fan of Lewis Carroll, I really wanted to like Karen Thomas' settings of verse from the Alice tales, but except for “ Father William,” the music didn't convey the source's magic. Oh well, I hear even Tim Burton had that problem.

I hesitate to criticize Portland Vocal Consort for affording so many locals a showcase, but the concert did start to drag a bit around the time it hit Timothy Stephens' appropriately somber setting of In Flanders Fields and Vijay Singh's Let Peace Abound, both of which proved that good noble sentiments don't necessarily produce compelling music. But fortunately, they were separated by the most refreshing and forward-looking work of the evening, Jack Gabel's gorgeous Farewell to Wang Wei, which invigorated this program even though the Consort performed it last year. But as much as I love the Jefferson dancers and visual adjuncts to music, their performance did little more than distract from the poignant music this time. So did artist Robert Akotia's long pitch for his paintings, on sale at intermission. Bass Paul Sadilek sang Seth Stewart's sly “Bow of Night” with aplomb, and Kyr's student Ethan Gans-Morse's solemn “Surrender” showed some potential, while Oren Selah's flute added a little variety in Tom Hartmann's wedding song, Arise My Love, from the Song of Solomon. The ensemble was at its best in their urgent, assured performance of the best known work on the program, Morten Laurdsen's dramatic settings of Robert Graves poems, Mid-Winter Songs.

That wasn't the end of the weekend's contemporary music. That Someday Lounge concert featured spirited performances of music by Terry Riley (the highlight), Steve Reich and, farther back in the 20th century, along with a new work for chamber orchestra and singers (including, here, Parentheitcal Girls' Zach Pennington and AU's Luke Wyland) by Seattle composer Jherek, who also played guitarrone, standup bass and guitar. Originating in a song he wrote for a video game, and enhanced by an armada of glockenspiels, the piece should be considered by David Lynch for his next filmscore. Apparently, the new music deficiency has struck Seattle as well, despite fine work by the Seattle Chamber Players, the Fisher Ensemble, and others, because Jherek had to get this played in Portland. Portland composers and listeners are lucky to have venues like Someday Lounge and the dedicated, accomplished professional musicians of FearNoMusic and Portland Vocal Consort (plus the devoted amateurs of Classical Revolution) to perform their creations. I just wish other Portland presenters and venues would give our local creators more opportunities to showcase their talent, and local listeners a chance to hear the music of our own time and place.
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