Sunday, May 24, 2015

Oregon Symphony closes its classical season with Beethoven

Stephen Hough. Photo by Hiroyuki Ito
Monday May 18 saw the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall host the Oregon Symphony for the final night of the '14-'15 classical season. On tap was an orchestral suite by Tchaikovsky, one by contemporary composer Jörg Widmann and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1.

Widmann's piece, Con Brio, was intensely engaging from an aural standpoint. With musical little themes that began sounding much like Beethoven quickly evolving into soundpieces featuring weird, chuffing aspirations from the winds and the timpanist banging on what for all the world looked like an upside down copper kettle, it was an entertaining cacophony. It was an exercise in special effects for much of the orchestra, with the timpani tuning and detuning audibly as the timpanist pattered on the rim, huffing, wailing patterns by wind and brass players aspirating through various tubes and slapping the bells of their instruments, it was an immediate hit with the audience.

Beethoven was next, featuring soloist Stephen Hough. This being an earlier work by the master, it featured almost nothing by way of the deeply personal, harmonically dense and innovative sturm und drang of most of his more well-known piano works, so a different approach was required. Hough was keenly aware of this and his interpretation left nothing to be desired; rather the music was allowed to stand on its own merits. The orchestra opened with a rather extended, high Viennese classical theme so delightful it was easy to forget one was awaiting the start by the soloist. Hough's delicious cantabile reveled in the exposed, easy melody, highlighting the strength of this opening movement. His entrances were so natural that they seemed to come from the aethir, so that the whole first movement was an organic ebb and flow, with the soloist usually seeming part of the orchestra rather than a separate player.  Hough was never self-insisting, perfectly so since the music didn't have that character either. It would have been easy for this music to sound pedestrian in less capable hands than Hough's and the OSO's, but instead it was charming and arresting. If there was ever a soloist with a 'knack' for rendering this music in such a fashion, Hough seemed to be him.

The Tchaikovsy that comprised the second half was his Orchestral Suite No. 3. Glorious, languid Slavonic melodies were the highlight of the first movement, staggering themselves between the strings and winds. The rest of the piece had problematic moments. Imprecise entrances, not usually a bugbear for this orchestra, did stand out occasionally throughout the piece, with not all sections firing simultaneously when called for. The stentorian theme of the fourth movement was handled somewhat ham-handedly by the winds; not to say there was anything wrong per se, but there wasn't much there that was interesting to listen to either.  Usually the OSO excels with these orchestral show-ponies, but this didn't feel up to their usual par. Concertmaster Sarah Kwak's sultry violin solo was a bright spot--rich and warm, she sounded almost like a violist at times. Late in the game, the closing polonaise was where it seemed to finally come together for the whole ensemble.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Former Portland Opera Director Stefan Minde passes

I have just received email from Edith Minde that her husband, Stefan Minde, died on May 21st. He was 79 years old. Minde was the General Director and Conductor of Portland Opera from 1970 to 1984 during which time he did some amazing work for the company, including Richard Wagner's "Die Meistersinger," Ernst Krenek’s “Life of Orestes," and the world premiere of Bernard Hermann’s “Wuthering Heights." In her message, Edith mentioned that she and Stefan were married 54 years and he drew his last breath while listening to the last bars of Bach's "Christmas Oratorio," which was the last piece he conducted (with the Sinfonia Concertante Orchestra). My interview with the Mindes in 2011 for Oregon Music News gives a glimpse into their lives when Stefan was still healthy. For an excellent, longer obituary, please refer to Mark Mandel's piece in The Oregonian.

PS: I sang under Minde's direction with the Portland Opera chorus for productions of "Faust," "Fidelio," and "Il Trovatore" in Keller Auditorium, and "Die Fledermaus" and "Der Freischütz" in Washington Park. He was an inspirational, excellent conductor. RIP Stefan.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ken Selden talks about his "Octet" and upcoming concert at Marylhurst

Ken Selden's "Octet" will be one of the works performed this Friday at 7:30 at the Flavia Salon at Marylhurst University. The concert will also feature Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" in the version for thirteen instruments and "Chorale" (homage to Aaron Copland) by Tomas Svoboda, plus two student works. It's all part of Marylhurst's Composition Seriers, and the concert is free.

Instrumentalists featured in this concert, which will be conducted by Selden, are some of the best in the Northwest:

Zach Galatis, flute
David Hattner, clarinet
Adam Trussell, bassoon
Susan Smith, piano
Fritz Gearhart and Shin-young Kwon, first violins
Fumino Ando and Sarah Roth, second violins
Brian Quincy and Jen Arnold, violas
Hamilton Cheifetz and Valdine Mishkin, cellos
Ted Botsford, bass

Tomas Svoboda's "Chorale," a quintet for clarinet, piano and strings, is played without conductor.

Selden, who teaches music at Portland State University, is currently on sabbatical. I peppered him with a few questions:

Are you teaching music at Marylhurst as well as PSU?

Selden: I've never taught at Marylhurst, but each spring they bring professional musicians to perform for their Composition Series, and I've been the conductor all three years. John Paul and Bob Priest, who were the composition professors back then, came up with a great educational concept: the idea was to introduce students to a major work from the twentieth century, and then using the knowledge gained from analysis and study, the students would then develop their own compositions, featuring the same instrumentation. The conclusion of this project is for the student compositions to be placed on a program with the major work, performed by professional musicians.

The first year we did Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale," and last year we did Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire." In addition to the student compositions, we've also featured works by John Paul and Wynton Marsalis. This year, with the thirteen instrument version of "Appalachian Spring," it is our biggest event yet. We are performing in the Flavia Salon at the university, which is a rather informal and intimate space, with no space between audience and performers, so I am expecting it to be a rare and unusual experience. John Haek has been working with the composition students, and he has done a great job helping them organize their materials.

When did you write your octet piece? Did you write it during the summer when you don't have to teach?

Selden: I've been composing since I was a kid. I studied orchestration and composition quite intensely in college, but it's the one thing I haven't had time for since coming to Portland in 2006 to direct the PSU orchestra program. As you know, every ten years or so, we get a sabbatical from teaching (this is my first sabbatical, and it goes from January to September), so I decided to use this opportunity to travel, and to write some music. Now that I've started composing again, I'm finding it personally rewarding, which makes me think I will have to find a way to balance it with the requirements of my job as a conductor and teacher.

I tend to be one of those people who think about things for a long time before actually writing anything. I wrote my "Octet" in about a week, in January, but it was something I had been thinking about for a long time.

The "Octet" features a single improvisatory stream of unaccompanied eighth notes, in which both the harmonies and contrapuntal material are embedded into the intervallic structure. As a violinist, I often think this way, in the tradition of certain solo violin movements of J.S. Bach, where the arpeggiation of the line implies both harmony and counterpoint.

I composed my "Octet" with fragments of dance rhythms from "Appalachian Spring" in the back of my mind, but the basic musical concept (in which all pitches are played in unison) actually goes way back to my first experience with the music of John Cage when I was still a violin student. In 1992 Cage visited New England Conservatory, where students and faculty presented a series of concerts in a festival devoted to his music. One of the Cage pieces that I performed in was the ensemble version of his Cheap Imitation. The rhythmic material for "Cheap Imitation" is identical to Erik Satie’s "Socrates,: but Cage replaced Satie’s pitches with those he chose himself using a chance process, hence the title. Originally composed for solo piano in 1969, "Cheap Imitation is a quiet, meditative piece consisting of a single melodic line with no harmony or accompaniment. In the ensemble version, the melody is passed gently among the various instruments.

In the midst of that John Cage Festival, I had an idea of writing my own piece that would feature the distribution of a single line, but in terms of character it would be the opposite of "Cheap Imitation." I imagined an energetic, virtuosic piece in a toccata style, with sudden instrumental juxtapositions, unexpected doublings and octave displacements. I did not expect to wait this many years before finally writing the piece, but since the idea had been in my subconscious for so long, the actual compositional process was quite brief, taking about one week in January of 2015.

Do you intend to keep writing music? What is the next piece that you will be working on?

Selden: Two of my most recent compositions are being premiered this month. Momoko Muramatsu and Maria Garcia just performed my "Dialogues for piano four hands" last week, and my "Octet" is this week. Those are both short pieces, but at the moment, I'm also working on a full length ballet score called "Scandal in the Deep," as well as a large scale sacred work for string orchestra, "Tenebrae." Those are both major works that I'm hoping to complete during my sabbatical.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mercadal brothers make strong case for more double clarinet concertos

Tolo Mercadal and Juanjo Mercadal
Concertos for two clarinets are rare in the orchestral repertoire, but Juanjo and Tolo Mercadal, two virtuoso clarinetists from Spain, made a strong case for more of them by delivering an enchanting performance of Franz Krommer’s “Concerto in E-flat major for Two Clarinets and Orchestra” (Opus 91) with the Vancouver Symphony on Sunday evening (May 17) at Skyview Concert Hall. The terrific tonal balance between the two soloists was one of the main strengths of their playing. If you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t have been able to tell which one was playing at any given time. They also were exceptional when handing off phrases to each other. It was smooth as silk.

Perhaps some of the almost telepathic abilities of the soloists were due to the fact that they are brothers. Juanjo, the older brother, lives outside of Barcelona and is the soloist for the Symphony Orchestra of the Grand Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona’s opera house). Tolo lives on the island of Menorca (one of the Balearic Islands) and teaches clarinet at the music conservatory there. Juanjo and Tolo also happen to be the brothers-in-law of Salvador Brotons, music director of the VSO, giving this concert an ‘all in the family” moniker.

After receiving enthusiastic applause from all corners of the hall, the Mercadal brothers responded with an encore, Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” in an arrangement for two clarinets and orchestra. Through the Mercadal brothers ability to create a sultry mood and the image of two tango dancers entwined on the stage.

The infectious musicality of Brotons came to the fore with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in the second half of the program. This piece, with its emotional fluctuations, is one that plays to Brotons strengths. He used every inch of body language to coax huge dynamic contrasts from the orchestra, and the orchestra delivered them with panache. The cutoffs were crisp, runs from the violin section were almost always unified, the reoccurring fate motive had gravitas, the woodwinds created a sense of expansion and contraction that added color, and the fortes were electrifying. Even though the French horns had a blip or two that clouded things a bit, principal Allan Stromquist expertly conquered his solos in the second movement. Principal timpanist Florian Conzetti had a field day. His playing added tremendously to the overall effect of the piece.

It seemed that the musicians were very familiar with this work, and that allowed them to get out of their scores and respond to Brotons’s conducting. When that happens, wow, the music making climbs to a higher level and connects directly with the audience. In fact, in this concert, the audience started applauding right after the end of the first movement. Brotons had lit a fire, his hands were extended skyward, and listeners responded naturally. That’s a compliment for any orchestra.

Earlier in the concert program, Brotons conducted “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt.” This piece was the one that the audience selected from pieces that had been played earlier in the season. The gradual change in tempo was executed well, and the “prestissimo” finale whirled about wildly.

The concert actually began with a snappy rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” in an arrangement for orchestra. It was conducted by Kathy Grambsch, who won the chance at the orchestra’s gala fundraiser. Everyone seemed to be having fun with this piece, including stand-up opportunities for the piccolos, trumpets, and trombones.

Postscript: The Tchaikovsky was a late substitute for Richard Strauss's "Alpine Symphony." The orchestra couldn't afford the expense of the Strauss symphony, probably because it requires much larger forces. Hopefully, the Strauss will be done in the near future.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

James Carter brings bold sax sound to the fore – Orchestra excels with Rouse, Bernstein, and Barber

Saxophone virtuoso James Carter made a bold statement with both soprano and tenor saxophones on Saturday (May 9) with the Oregon Symphony. His playing of Roberto Sierra’s “Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra” created a panoply of sounds that showed off the versatility of each instrument and Carter’s supreme mastery. He made squeaks and squeals, full throttle basso growls, lovely burnished sounds, mellow tones, honks, and amusing pizzicato piercings. Carter knows the piece very well, since it was written for him by Sierra (completed in 2000 and premiered in 2002), and its improvisational character plays to Carter’s jazz-oriented virtuosity. But Carter chose to play most of the piece really loud. Except for a section of the lovely second movement, which he played quietly on the soprano saxophone, he pretty much ran over the orchestra. I am not sure why he chose to do that. The audience at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (which was very full) ate it all up anyway. To be sure, Carter’s performance was amazing, but it would’ve been more amazing if he had chosen to play piano and even mezzo forte once in a while.

Also on the program was Christopher Rouse’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” which he composed in 2008, making it one of the newest pieces that the Oregon Symphony has performed. Musically speaking, this one-movement piece was all over the map. It opened with a pulsating beat that came to a sudden stop, followed by glissando-ing trombones and a wild ride through the strings. Then the trombones proclaimed a series of fervid glissandos that went higher and higher as if climbing a pole. That led to a delightful racket from the entire orchestra, which died down to reveal muted, pulsating sounds from the trumpets and bells. The music then became motionless until the violins and double basses started to move in parallel with the violins near the top of their range and the double basses in the basement of their range. Against this strange pairing, the violas began a mournful commentary, followed by the cellos and later by chattering woodwinds.

The above description covers (inadequately) just a fragment of Rouse’s piece. It demanded virtuosity from everyone in the orchestra. The percussion battery had a field day with a huge assembly of instruments. Principal timpanist Jonathan Greeney had one absolutely wild passage in which he wailed the dickens on everything in his reach. Zachariah Galatis got a few exceptional licks with the piccolo before the finale, in which the orchestra created a raucous celebration.

The concert opened with the “Symphonic Dances” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” The orchestra, crisply directed by Kalmar, played each selection with pizzazz, starting with “The Prologue” in which you could picture gang members walking with a loping gait before Niel DePonte (on the drum set) got them to break into a run. “Somewhere” countered the tension with its sweet and wistful melody. “Mambo” rollicked the atmosphere with sharp accents from the trumpets and timpani. A quartet from the first violin section introduced the lovely “Maria” theme. Somewhere along the way, I noticed that DePonte was reading from a huge placard-sized score that he had to change by laying one placard carefully on the floor. Tender playing by guest principal flutist Michael Gordon during the “Rumble” section signaled the tragic outcome of the story.

Sandwiched between the peppy, louder works was Samuel Barber’s soothing “Adagio for Strings.” The strings of the orchestra played the piece with intensity and sensitivity, striking an excellent balance so that none of the phrases dripped into sentimentality. The one problem with this piece is that it is so often played by classical radio stations, but hearing the piece in a live performance with this caliber of orchestra made the music fresh and satisfying.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Seattle Opera's Ariadne auf Naxos sparkles

Kate Lindsey and Sarah Coburn. Photo: Elise Bakketun.
Seattle Opera's production of Ariadne auf Naxos began its run Friday, May 2nd at McCaw Hall in Seattle. Featuring Kate Lindsey as The Composer, Sarah Coburn as Zerbinetta and Christiane Libor as The Prima Donna (Ariadne),  there was marvelous singing to be heard.

The Prologue took place under a monolithic, austere gray arch like a concrete wall, and with costumes reminiscent of the mid-century or so it was a stylish setting. Lindsey gave an outstanding performance vocally speaking--she possesses an incredibly vibrant and nuanced voice, capable of shifting easily between timbres.  When she sang Mächtige gott it was immediately entrancing--she ranged from a clear, bell-like timbre, perfectly understandable even when whispering quiet, to a large, bold mezzo. As she and Zerbinetta discuss their competing visions of the Ariadne myth the whole process unfolds naturally, a slow, sinuous descent into a strange infatuation. Patrick Carfizzi as the harried Music Teacher also deserves special note for his expansive, inviting baritone.

The orchestra, under Lawrence Renes, rendered the overture to The Opera in a sentimental, homey way, like listening to an old crackling phonograph. The trio with Naiad, Dryad and Echo (Amanda Opuszynski, Maya Lahyani, Andrea Carroll) began the spellbinding of the myth--a languid discourse featuring fascinating blocking with an oddly hypnotic blue cloth simulating waves over and over and over...

Christiane Libor had an extremely difficult task with the lengthy, serious arias that Ariadne is tasked with singing. In Ein schönes war, in which she laments her lost love, it felt like something was lacking at times in the low end of her range. Still the overall effect was powerful--her careful, stylized acting, in which each gesture and facial expression carried added weight, only served to heighten the outcome.  She had to maintain her tragic mien and remain immune to the capering  during the bits of silliness and frippery when the harlequinade made forays subtle or bold onto the rock where she expounded her grief. She retained an air of complete sadness in the face of all efforts to cheer her up, and there was a sense of continuity to her performance despite the bits of comedy.

Christiane Libor as Ariadne. Photo by Alan Alabastro.

Coburn's Zerbinetta nearly stole the show with Grossmächtige Prinzessin. Her character seemed determined not to be outdone or drowned out in the face of Ariadne's grief, and she along with her entourage provided the much-needed counterpoint to Ariadne. Coburn's singing was magnificent--light when called for, yet with plenty of heft to back it up as needed. Her comedic styling was impeccable, and all this plus her charisma made her the center of attention whenever she was on stage. During the 'show within a show' staging of the opera, it was fun to watch see SO's iconic former general director Speight Jenkins as a member of the onstage audience, much to the delight of the actual audience at McCaw.

SO's production of Ariadne auf Naxos continues its run through May 16th at McCaw Hall.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Review of Portland Symphonic Choir: "Shakespeare in Song" with Portland Actors Ensemble

Guest review by Phil Ayers

A gorgeous early May afternoon (Sunday, May 3rd) beckoned most Portlanders to be outside in their yards and gardens, or taking kids and dogs to playgrounds, or taking a long stroll along many urban paths. But many of us found our way to St. Mary's Cathedral for a spring concert of word and song. Most of the words were provided by William Shakespeare and the music by a variety of 20th century composers. A new component to a Portland Symphonic Choir concert was introduced with four members of the Portland Actors Ensemble performing portions of plays and sonnets by the Bard. It was an afternoon well-spent, and even the desire to be outside abated. After all, one could, as this reviewer did as soon as he arrived home, remove layers of clothing and get outside as quickly as possible, remembering - and even singing - the delights just heard.

Central to the concert was Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music" that was originally composed for sixteen soloists and arranged by the composer for choir and four soloists, with an option of some of the solo passages sung by entire sections. It has a decidedly "chamber-ish" aspect to it, an intimacy, that I felt was captured well by this large choir at its best. While it would have been preferable that the choir be "up front," this performance forced the listener to truly listen, following the exquisite text from Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," Act V, Scene i. "Harmony" occurs three times in the text:

Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony (twice);

and later,

Such harmony is in immortal souls.

The rich voice of soprano Cameron Griffith Herbert and the lovely violin solo played by Janet George enhanced and highlighted throughout. But the real star (alongside conductor Zopfi and his excellent ensemble) was Douglas Schneider at the organ, playing a piano reduction made by the composer and edited by Michael Kennedy. While an organ is not imitative of a full orchestra, despite theatre organs and such stops on them as xylophone and snare drum and ophicleide, this arrangement worked fabulously well. Schneider is versatile, and at the conclusion of the program proved himself a more-than-adequate jazz pianist. He generously gave this reviewer an informal interview at the intermission, explaining the delightful Gerald Finzi organ piece (not in the program) that he played as the singers made their way to the gallery and the fact that the gallery organ, a refurbished 19th century instrument, "is a Vaughan Williams organ."

The concert opened with Vaughan Williams' settings of "Full Fathom Five," "The Cloud-Capp'd Towers," and "Over Hill, Over Dale." These are a capella choruses, the second for double-chorus, from "The Tempest" and "Midsummer Night's Dream." According to the program notes, the composer "… said that the entire set was based on the words 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on.'"

When I saw that George Shearing's music would be on this program, I thought of that marvelous blind English pianist, more noted for his jazz piano work, but recalling that a friend had programmed an organ piece by Shearing on a program once. So I knew that this composer was able to move from classically-wrought music to jazz and back again. The excellent diction in "Music to Hear" ("Sonnet #8") was notable and the piano and bass (played by Kevin Deitz) accompanied Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day with the familiar line "And summer's lease hath all too short a date." "Is It for Fear to Wet a Widow's Eye" ("Sonnet #9"), a chant-like episode by women choristers holding forth, concluded the first Shearing set.

The live actors' parts were interspersed between musical portions, often leading into them, as the part from "Richard II", Act II, Scene ii, with its many references to "harmony" that would re-appear in the Serenade that followed on its heels. This scene has the familiar ode to England, "This sceptered isle … this blessed plot … this England!"

As the Vaughan Williams "Serenade" concluded, a standing ovation finished the first part of the program, the audience obviously enchanted and thrilled with the artistry, subtlety and sheer glory of this work.

Four Shakespeare Songs by New York composer Matthew Harris (b. 1956) opened the second half of the program. His six-volume collection of Shakespeare's songs includes these four from books three and four, written in the nineties. They range in style from wistful and folk-like in "It Was a Lover and His Lass" to the raucous in "When Daffodils Begin to Peer" (program notes). In a few spots, a sense of ensemble was lacking in the chorus. These selections were conducted by Kathryn Lehmann, assistant conductor.

Emma Lou Diemer's "Three Madrigals" followed with no pauses between them. This is "accessible music," a term I've become fond of, and I use here to create an image of someone new to hearing this sort of music and liking Diemer's music in particular. They were accompanied by piano which provided a solid underpinning to the choral parts. Again, the listener could be reminded of memorized Shakespeare from school days, with "Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty!" from "Twelfth Night" and "Hey nonny, nonny" from "Sigh No More Ladies" ("Much Ado About Nothing"). Again, the actors provided a lead-in to these madrigals with a very lengthy selection from "Twelfth Night," I, v.

More from "Twelfth Night" was acted well by Olivia Shimkus, leading into a set of seven short, pithy songs "reminiscent of the renaissance genre of the madrigal in which the text and music were intimately intertwined" (program notes) by Ned Rorem that he composed in 1951 in Paris. Here were non-Shakespearean texts, except for the last "attributed" to the Bard; this included an excellent setting of the text that begins, "Crabbed age and youth cannot live together … Youth is nimble, age is lame … Age, I do defy thee: O, sweet shepherd, hie thee, / For methinks thou stay'st too long." Along the way, there were some slight intonation problems that were quickly righted.

A well-acted portion of "Troilus and Cressida" segued well into more George Shearing from his "Music to Hear", composed for the Dale Warland Singers in 1985 for chorus, piano and string bass. They were settings of the familiar "Blow, blow thou winter wind / Thou art not so unkind / As man's ingratitude" and "Sigh no more, ladies … men were deceivers ever … Then sigh not so, / But let them go / And be you blithe and bonny …". Heads nodded and toes tapped during these two!

I found myself saying as I left the Cathedral into the bright afternoon warm sun, "'Serenade to Music' and George Shearing were worth the price of admission!"

As far as I know, this is the first time Portland Symphonic Choir has teamed with four professional Shakespearean actors. Olivia Shimkus, Douglas Reynolds, Jen Elkington and Curt Hanson, directed by Asae Dean performed well and engaged the audience, as some of us craned our necks backward to grasp the words. How I yearned to have Shakespeare's texts in hand, or at least know the "canon" better. As noted above, many times the drama segued into the musical portions; at other times I wondered what, exactly, was going on. But it was all pleasurable and fun.