It was a good week for classical music old and new in Portland, starting with an opera that's never been staged here.
Global warming! Cross dressing! Anti patriarchal feminism! Horny huntresses! Dreadlocks! Girl on girl action! You'd almost think La Calisto was written last week instead of in 1651. Portland Opera's original staging of Francesco Cavalli's early Baroque carnival opera radiates charm, quick wit and humor. Although not all the singers rise to the level of the leads, the production uses its sexy, young cast of studio artists to their best advantage. The Newmark Theater's intimate atmosphere, enhanced by the Portland Baroque Orchestra's chamber-sized diaphanous period instrument lineup and the minimalist set allow the enthusiastic singers, in turn, to focus on conversational, nuanced singing and acting (even when sitting or reclining), rather than having to bellow to the back of the cavernous Keller Auditorium. It makes the opera feel like it's happening in your living room. Jettisoning almost everything alternative audiences hate about traditional opera—overheated, irony-free Romantic excess; endless recycling of the same creaky warhorses; oversized venues; bloated instrumental armadas and singers—this lithe, lean, and deliciously comic production is an ideal alt-opera.
John Minervini's review gives more details. Personally, I liked some of the creative low budget touches, like Giove's (Jove) Eurotrash gold lame cape and louche shades; they made the production seem more approachable. And amid all the comedy came moments of real distinction, as in Angela Niederloh's performance and in the gorgeously erotic duet between Endimione (Gerald Thompson) and Diana (Hannah Penn), "Dolcissimi Baci" that closes the first act. Such was their chemistry that, despite the opera's concluding ode to chaste affection, we don't believe for a minute that this lusty pair is going to stay on second base.
The unsung hero of this production is music director Robert Ainsley, who "realized" the score (which, as was common then, required not only orchestration but also a fair amount of actual composition in the opera's style) and judiciously cut it (with sensitivity to dramatic as well as musical needs and 21st century attention spans) nearly in half from its original four-plus hour length. Ainsley also trained the young singers to surmount the very different kinds of challenges, particularly rhythmic, endemic to this early opera and the period ensemble, whose sounds decay much faster than modern instruments. I did miss some of the flash and fire you hear in latter day Italian historically informed ensembles like Venice Baroque Orchestra and Il Giardino Armonico. Maybe that would have been rectified if PBO's charismatic prima violina Monica Huggett had been playing in the pit instead of sitting a few seats down from me in the balcony. Or maybe Ainsley worried about the instruments overshadowing the near constant recitative. In any case, it was a treat to hear the subtler charms of Baroque lute, theorbo and the alluring, rarely played lirone.
Happily, Portland Opera and Portland Baroque Orchestra will be continuing their partnership in the Newmark next year. PBO is not only one of the city's brightest artistic gems, it's one of America's few full-time period-instrument ensembles. That means it's ideally suited to pick up on one of the hottest trends in opera: the rediscovery and revival of long-neglected Baroque operas. Combined with Seattle's new Pacific Operaworks, PO and PBO could put the Northwest on the national map as a font of historically informed early operas, which are much more newsworthy than yet another performance of, say, Carmen.
Friday's inaugural Cascadia Composers concert at the Old Church (the third of three excellet concerts I heard there last week) produced surprisingly strong attendance and some engaging music, beginning with a darting, rhythmically tricky firefly of a piece for flute and percussion by Dan Senn, a pretty art song by Jeff Winslow and the premiere of a little cat and mouse action for violin and xylophone by Tomas Svoboda. Cascadia organizer David Bernstein's ardent, unabashedly neo-Romantic "Late Autumn Moods and Images" would have charmed even the hidebound contingent that resists chamber music composed before the Great War. The second half began with a harangue/performance-art incident involving an audience member who took it upon himself to alert the hall to the shameful, Cheney-esque conspiracy to suppress the no doubt magnificent sixth symphony of a composer none of them had heard of. Who says people aren't passionate about classical music? Gary Noland's new "Waltz Fantasy" and Jack Gabel's 1984 "That Old Song and Dance" both looked affectionately toward music of the past, refracted through contemporary sensibilities. Noland put a modern twist on a Strauss—style waltz, while Gabel, as so many composers throughout the millennia have done, used familiar folk tunes (the medieval ditty "Tristan's Lament" and an Irish jig ) as kernels for a thoroughly modern and winning work. Greg Steinke's closing string quartet "Expressions on the Paintings of Edvard Munch" imaginatively evoked not just the subjects of three Munch paintings (whose images were helpfully included in the program), but also the painter's expressionist renderings of those subjects. "The Scream," of course, used Bernard Herrmann's shrieking "Psycho" strings, while "The Dance of Life" used, what else, various dance rhythms.
Carlos KalmarThe major local work premiered last week, though, was Svoboda's Vortex for Orchestra, which closed the weekend's Oregon Symphony concerts. This had to be one of the season's best shows, not least because they achieved the unlikely feat of keeping me awake in a Brahms symphony, and making a persuasive case that his third isn't, as sometimes claimed, the runt of the litter. Tight ensemble, luscious sonorities, expressive playing … it was a compelling performance, marred only by a somewhat mannered third movement, but then the orchestra sounds so good these days (especially the cellos and horns here) that it's easy to understand (if not endorse) music director Carlos Kalmar's decision to linger on certain plush passages rather than letting the tune unfurl naturally and unsentimentally. Flashy Freddy Kempf played the heck out of Sergei Prokofiev's whirlwind 1921 Piano Concerto #3, and the orchestra stayed right with him, not least in the piece's cocky, Jazz Age swagger.
Either of those classics can be a daunting act to follow, but Vortex raised the artistic stakes. Opening with plucked strings, the piece proceeded through punchy brass exclamations, martial piccolo and snare drum, building to a gradual eruption of strings with punchy brass punctuation. Quieting with spiraling-down cello passages played affectingly by Nancy Ives , Vortex exploded into a crossfire of brief brass, cello, percussion and violin volleys, then again subsided to quiet cello and xylophone passages before climaxing in a furious flurry of strings and more. You didn't need to read the program note to appreciate that Vortex is a contemporary artist's response to the terrible war and other American crises of the past decade, when the the 69-year-old Portlander composed it. Like most music written in this vein, echoes of Dmitri Shostakovich are hard to avoid, but Svoboda's original voice resounds. Vortex demands more hearings, and not just in Portland.
Bad Plus
Normally, the premiere of a powerful new work by a distinguished local composer would have capped a fine week of Portland music. But in fact the climax—and maybe my favorite musical moment so far this year—arrived the following evening, when visiting avant-jazzers The Bad Plus ended their Portland Jazz Festival concert at the Crystal Ballroom with the unthinkable: a Flaming Lips cover that eclipses the original. Some of their new barbiturated '70s covers (Bee Gees, Heart, Yes) from their new album, For All I Care, can't overcome the cheesiness of the original material—the musical equivalent of donning thrift store '70s clothes to look hip. But on stronger songs, like Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," Ethan Iverson's seismic polytonal piano accompaniment (Charles Ives meets Pink Floyd) and the radiant lead vocals from guest singer (and Minneapolis alt rock veteran) Wendy Lewis, reached rapture. Even though they're covering pop songs, the trio's intelligent amalgamation of their jazz, rock and contemporary classical music backgrounds obliterates these constrictive musical pigeonholes. I hope those rising young opera stars who graced the Newmark stage can aspire to the rich power and beauty that Lewis, a tiny, middle-aged chanteuse in jeans and librarian glasses, delivered all night. In the concert's epic encore, as she intoned the three words of the title of the Lips' "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate," over and over and over, borne aloft on the hitherto all instrumental band's soaring, Beatlesque vocal harmonies, I never wanted her—or this extraordinary week of music—to stop.