In a way, last weekend's 24/7 concerts
didn't have to say anything about the seven years of continuing American wars they were commemorating. Although it's been used for antisocial ends (think of the Nazis and Wagner), classical music itself is a statement about the anti-conflict values of cooperation, listening, and crossing borders. Many of the 350 performers and composers came from diverse lands, some of them recently at war with each other. And the enormous dedication of the excellent musicians who donated their time, Wieden + Kennedy (which donated its lovely atrium), and everyone else involved made a statement about the value of generosity. Organizers Thomas Lauderdale and Bill Crane used their multifarious connections adroitly to pull the whole thing together, and Crane especially seemed to be everywhere during what I saw of the 7 pm to 7 pm event, changing clothes a few times but always there to announce an act or play piano. Because of previous plans and a strange biological compulsion to sleep in the early morning hours, I was only able to make about a quarter of the performances, but even those were enough to convince me that this is something that needs to be repeated, though perhaps modified. Nor does it necessarily need to be an anti war statement each time, although history suggests that there seems to be little danger of the US running out of them anytime soon, no matter the results of the last election.
The event's popularity was evident when I arrived late (I was at a play earlier) for Saturday's 9 pm Portland Gay Men's Chorus performance—and couldn't get in, along with a few dozen others who had to wait at the overflow lobby until others left; the atrium was at capacity.
So the first concert I saw was the 10 pm show by mezzo soprano Peggie Schwarz, with Crane on piano, featuring cabaret songs by Aaron Copland, Kurt Weill, and others. Schwartz proved an elegant host, displaying easy audience rapport, wisely moving around the space, turning toward different segments of the audience (which sat on bleacher-style risers above the performers) and establishing eye contact by eschewing music stand or mike. The nowhere-to-hide setting created a kind of a vulnerability for performers that made the audience seem closer to them.
Unfortunately, as happened often while I was there, song titles weren't always announced, and the “program” was necessarily vague because the event was coming together as it happened. Her performance of Weill and Ogden Nash's “I'm a Stranger Here Myself” was the highlight. Such minor glitches were understandable and testified to the improvised nature of the event.
For the next few hours, I watched the listeners, who ranged from about 200 to 350 (rough guess) pay deep attention to the music even as they had to shift around on the hard wooden step risers. I really appreciated my yoga, which let me sit in a variety of pretzel like formations and reduce the strain on my back. My bike helmet wrapped in a sweater offered a little neck support, too. But despite seat discomfort and other trade-offs, the open setting was worth it: liberating music from the stage makes it more accessible and seemed to loosen up performers as well. And as at LA's Disney Hall and other in the round settings, you also get to see the rest of the audience.
Next came the Oberlin Trio , who were in town for another gig and brought over by Portland Youth Philharmonic director David Hattner, who also played clarinet in Stravinsky's trio arrangement of his Soldier's Tale music. I missed the narration and full instrumentation, but it was a charming performance. They also played music of Mendelssohn and Brahms.
Anyone who was feeling sleepy as the witching hour approached was quickly jolted awake by FearNoMusic percussionist Joel Bluestone's clangorous whanging away on Chinese opera gongs (along with vibes and electronics) in a stirring performance of former Portlander Joseph Waters's deliciously raucous “Flamehead.” FNM's string quartet then played a folk dance from a riveting string quartet by Pittsburgh composer Reza Vali, who hails from one of the axes of evil (Iran). It was disappointing only because they didn't play the whole thing.
For the thematically appropriate “Jilted,” which Portland composer Robert McBride wrote it to accompany a dance depicting a woman whose fiance was killed in war, FNM violinist Ines Voglar wore her wedding dress and the space was decorated, if that's the word, with a half folded American flag and what we assumed was a “we-regret-inform-you” telegram from Uncle Sam. Unless I missed it, no one announced the closing “surprise” piece, but it was another appropriate work: the great contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov's “Last Round,” which features a sort of duel between two string quartets (in this case, FearNoMusic and Third Angle's) mediated by a bassist.
FNM's showcase sort of morphed into the next concerts, because the Melegari Chamber players contain members of both FearNoMusic and Third Angle. (Most of these great musicians perform in the oregon symphony and other top regional orchestras.) Sneakin' Out mandolinist David Gerow's bluegrassy arrangement of the Who's quadrophenial “Love Reign O'er Me” was surprisingly effective and helped by Oregon Symphony violnist Greg Ewer's alter ego as a bluegrass fiddler. After Ewer and Melegari diretor Paloma Griffin's duet on a Leclair sonata, the Fearless musicians returned, surrounded by a couple dozen members of the Flash Choir , for John Lennon's … “Imagine”? nope. “Give Peace a Chance”? Uh-uh. “All You Need is Love?” negatory. They chose one of Lennon's last songs, the poignant “Real Love,” which became the last Beatles release. Pink Martini singer Timothy Nishimoto's artless lead vocal maintained the unaffected, un-anthemic quality of the whole event and made the performance genuinely touching. A septet of horn dogs then played a nice contrast: a brass choir version of Bibel's Ave Maria.
Third Angle returned for their set, beginning with two short string quartets by New York based, Chinese American composer Chen Yi (whose complete quartets they're recording), one optimistic, the second, “Burning,” as fierce as you'd expect from a piece written in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Then they played one of the real masterworks of 20th century chamber music, George Crumb's still shocking, amplified 1970 quartet “Black Angels,” written during the Vietnam War (“in tempore belli,” as he subtitled it). The band worked on the quartet with the composer at the University of Oregon a few years ago, and they really caught all the complex emotional undercurrents pulsing beneath the wild extended techniques and special effects (water glasses, thimbles, mallets) of this searing work, maybe the most appropriate piece on the whole program.
I'd love to have stayed for many of the overnight performances, but it was 2 am, my ears were full, my eyes were droopy, and the echoes of “Black Angels” seemed an appropriate soundtrack to my bike ride home. By the time I left, the crowd had dwindled (after a brief surge for the after dinner or after show crowd) to under 200 people—still pretty darn impressive, even for a free show.
I made it back the next morning for FNM pianist Jeffrey Payne's survey of an hour's worth of Olivier Messiaen's “Twenty Aspects of the Infant Jesus.” I was out of town during his complete performance earlier this season and wasn't about to miss this one. With all the devout composer's references (read aloud by Payne before each segment, for context) to the Holy Spirit and the Magi etc, it seemed like a good Sunday morning substitute for church for a heathen like me. I was surprised to see a couple hundred people there, and not just the usual classical crowd (whatever that is; in Portland, it's pretty diverse) or hipsterati but kids, seniors, even a few people of color, which is sadly unusual. Despite its subject matter, this is no easy Christmas carol, featuring some extreme dynamics, tempestuous passages at either end of the keyboard, bursting left-hand bombs interrupting otherwise placid passages, it's a turbulent ride, and Payne played it not just with technical precision but with the real panache that only true mastery can permit. Every phrase seemed carefully considered yet never overstudied, and Payne's complete command of the vast, shifting emotional landscape made for a gripping performance.
It was marred only by a late arriving couple who, unlike every other late arriver I saw (and this was one of those events where it was OK to enter and leave) chose not to wait at the upper levels but instead to try to make their way, loudly and distractingly, down several levels of stairs, disturbing the people in front of them (but fortunately not Payne, whose back was to the action) at the climax of his performance. I note this only because you might expect that the couple was a pair of barbaric 20 somethings, there because it was a free show. Nope. As in every single other case of inconsiderate behavior I've seen in literally hundreds of classical music performances, this rudeness was perpetrated by what appeared to be an over-60 couple. Now, I'm not one for unnecessary formality or hushing people who want to clap or have to cough. But whether it's classical or folk or other acoustic music, most people can figure out when to be considerate of other listeners and respectful of the musicians. Twenty- and thirty-somethinss are usually too paralyzed by fear and the intimidation of classical music's formal presentations to dare do more than breathe anyway. Yet all the cell phone ringers, cough drop unwrappers (“cellophane terrorists” as a former WW
reporter friend of mine calls them) and mid-passage talkers invariably appear to be older and prosperous. Let's have more of those considerate 20- and 30-somethings, I say! End of rant.
A few minutes after that exhausting performance, Payne, still tuxed and tuckered, answered Crane's call for a page turner during the latter's piano accompaniment to a Brahms sonata — a perfect example of the sacrifice and generosity displayed by so many of these musicians. I wish I could be so generous, but in fact, we're not supposed to be hearing Brahms at all. This is one of several times when the schedule was changed at the last minute — unsurprising and entirely forgivable for an event put together so hastily. Yet because I'm not willing to disturb other listeners, I'm now in my worst , Gitmo-style nightmare: trapped by Brahms. Fortunately, Crane and cellist Justin Kagan's performance is winning enough, and my proximity allows me to notice details like the cool shadow cast on the floor showing the cello bow dancing over the strings, Kagan's worn score—stuff you never see when you're out in the concert hall seats, separated from the musicians. And I'm mollified by Kagan's unscheduled performance of a J.S. Bach cello suite, one of my favorites. And the Brahms gives me time to ponder the aforementioned rudeness issue, and the fact that the W+K surfaces seem especially friendly to low notes like the brass choir, cello, the piano's bass notes.
Crane also announces that the 3 and 4 pm programs are switching, and a singer is ill, so that gives me time to have lunch—I haven't eaten in like 15 hours—and decide whether to come back for a couple hours of more Romantic repertoire and as yet unannounced pieces, or watch my tape of last night's Trail Blazers game, which I'd missed while at 24/7. I can't read a newspaper until I do, because of course it's no fun watching the game when you know who'll win. Hmm, Blazers or Brahms, how to decide? I know—how much is WW
paying me for reviewing these concerts again?
Blazers win, beating Milwaukee 96-84.
Thus refreshed, I'm back to hear soprano cantor Ida Rae Cahana sing jewish music and more. It's a really unusual and fascinating program, and like Schwartz yesterday, Cahana is an engaging performer, easily connecting with the audience looming above and around her. The non-Jewish interlude is a mysterious performance of Claude Debussy's haunting “Syrinx” for flute—mysterious in part because I can't see the flutist. Finally we realize that she's playing from the floor above the atrium, so that the notes drift down on us. It's a lovely, creative use of the space, which has hosted many fine performances, including aerial dance.
And that's it for me, because I have tickets to a show elsewhere. As I leave, I'm startled to see a line of people around the block, waiting to get in to the closing performances, including Portland Taiko and the finale to Beethoven's ninth symphony. It's pretty amazing, really, and a testament to the popularity of classical music in Portland, especially when it's affordable and breaks the usual presentation formula. For all the little understandable glitches, this is definitely an experiment that, overall, succeeded.
I'm in awe of Crane, especially, who not only put the whole thing together (with Lauderdale) and kept things moving smartly, but also played on many of the concerts. And I really admire all the musicians—many of whom are already overbooked with rehearsals and gigs—who gave so generously of their time deserve the highest praise.
Still, 24/7 left me a little unsatisfied. In no way do I want to disparage the truly noble efforts of all involved — none of them could be expected to do more. Yet I wish they'd enlisted the help of anti war or pro international groups for what was billed as “marking” — not protesting — seven years of war. It's not like George W. Bush telling Americans to go shopping in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, but it seems a bit too easy, just showing up to hear gorgeous music. Maybe more was said at the many events I missed, but it seems as though the event could have leveraged the presence of so many music lovers into something more constructive. Maybe a box could have been set up for donations to pro-piece groups or those promoting international amity or veterans' health care. Or that pamphlets or even sign up sheets for those groups could have been available. Or that the numbers of war dead, the cost of war (the true cost, including decades of medical care) and many other relevant figures and facts could have been projected, maybe during set changeovers, on the big screens looming above the atrium. Something … more. I guess I just wanted the event to give people a chance to actually do something about this terrible period in our history, rather than just passively hearing great music by fine and generous musicians. But the music was plenty.
Image courtesy of Weiden + Kennedy.