Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Third Angle pitches new music in library racks at Mount Angel Abbey

Photo credit: Tom Emerson Photography

Guest review by Curtis Heikkinen

Over the past several years, there has been considerable discussion about the need to alter the way classical music is presented to the public. The Third Angle New Music program (Light and Music in Aalto’s Library), presented at the Mount Angel Abbey on Sunday (October 4), provided a glimpse into one possible future for classical music concerts (at least for small ensembles). The concert I attended was one of six given over the course of two days and was designed to celebrate the Abbey Library. Third Angle’s imaginative program featured works by two Finnish composers: Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Quintet from 1992, and Einojuhani Rautavaara’s “Herran Rukous” (“The Lords’ Prayer”) from 1973. The program also included two Gregorian Chants, the “Antiphon for St. Benedict” and “Psalm 8,” by the Capella Romana vocal ensemble. The program specifically consisted of an initial recital in which the quintet was performed, an audience exploration of the library, with accompanying sounds and words, and a finale that featured the vocal works.

Photo credit: Curtis Heikkinen
 Magnus Lindberg is certainly one of our most important living composers. His body of work includes a large number of orchestral pieces, including his Clarinet Concerto from 2002, a work that deserves a Portland performance, and a substantial number of works for smaller ensembles, including a superb trio for clarinet, cello and piano from 2008. The clarinet trio is probably a little easier listen than the clarinet quintet, which consists of a single movement just shy of twenty minutes long.

Lindberg has described the piece as “insect like,” which would not be an unreasonable description. A dissonant work of great intensity, the quintet features an attractive beginning in which the clarinet commences the proceedings, after which the strings quickly join in. The score thereafter is quite dense. For me, the most interesting portions of the work occur at roughly the 10 minute mark. At that point, after some relatively introspective passages for the clarinet, the intensity is increased substantially as the clarinet explores the extremes of its register. The effect was seemingly one of extreme anguish. For an admirer of musical dissonance, this was heady stuff. It was at this point that the insect analogy seemed most appropriate. The intensity decreased a bit toward the end of the piece, which ended ambiguously with the clarinet dispatching the final notes in a manner that reminded me somewhat of the finale of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony.

Before the concert, I had some concerns about the unusual format that required the musicians to play this demanding work three times on Saturday and three more on Sunday. Sitting in on the next to last performance, I wondered if the considerable demands of the piece would result in some loss of focus after so many performances. My concerns were quickly put to rest. Louis DeMartino gave a bravura performance of the demanding clarinet portion, which required him to play continuously. He was ably accompanied by violinists Ron Blessinger and Greg Ewer, violist Charles Noble, and cellist Marilyn De Oliveira. The performance hall was suitably intimate and, from where I sat in the rear of the hall, comfortably contained the extremes of pitch.

After completion of the recital portion of the program, the musicians led the audience to the library, where we were encouraged to explore the magnificent facility as the string players spread out to various stations where they drew their bows across wine glasses filled with precise amounts of fluid. This was intended to create a perfect pitch designed to match the resonant frequency of the building. The eerie sound effect continued as members of Cappella Romana recited the words of the library’s architect, Alvar Aalto, at various positions throughout the library. Any initial discomfort I may have felt as a result of this most unusual way of integrating audience and library into the program quickly dissipated. It seemed a most ingenious and effective way to introduce the audience to the beautifully designed library.

Photo credit: Tom Emerson Photography
Eventually, the members of Capella Romana gathered in the center of the library for the recitation of the Gregorian Chants. I expected a lot from that ensemble and was not disappointed. The members performed the chants with a lovely tone. The concert concluded with the Rautavaara’s “The Lord’s Prayer” for mixed choir, which featured exquisite balance and faultless intonation. Given the library’s fine acoustics and spiritual nature of the work, the conclusion to the concert was most moving.

Photo credit: Curtis Heikkinen   

Photo credit: Curtis Heikkinen

Curtis Heikkinen became a classical music fan after moving to Oregon over 30 years ago. He is especially fond of 20th Century and contemporary composers. He believes that, in order for classical music to prosper, performers, orchestras, and radio stations must find a way to move beyond standard repertoire.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Superb performance by Anne Akiko Meyers of Bernstein’s “Serenade” with the Vancouver Symphony

Anne Akiko Meyers signing at intermission
Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers’s sensitive, yet exhilarating playing of Bernstein’s “Serenade” (after Plato’s “Symposium”) swept everyone away at the Vancouver Symphony season opener on Saturday afternoon (Oct 3) at Skyview Concert Hall. Wielding immaculate technique, artistic finesse, and a deep understanding of the music, Meyers wonderfully conveyed Bernstein’s somewhat esoteric music in a personal, tangible way. That’s no small feat, considering that the “Serenade” deals with the ideas spoken by seven Greek philosophers on the topic of love at a dinner party about 2,400 years ago.

From the first notes, sotto voce, at the beginning of the piece, Meyers effortlessly created gorgeous tones from her violin, the Vieuxtemps’ Guarneri del Gesu. Even at stratospheric heights, her violin exuded sounds that were as smooth as silk. But Meyers could also deliver amazingly crisp staccatos as well as precise, finger-flashing runs. The call and response setup between Meyers and the orchestra in the quick third movement (“Erixymachus”) and the transcendent calm of the fourth (“Agathon”) were highlights of the concert.

The orchestra, guided by Salvador Brotons, rose to the occasion with excellent playing, but I would have liked a little more intensity and a bit more zip at the end when Alcibaldes and his cohorts crash the party. However, the duet between principal cellist Dieter Ratzlaf and Meyers in the fifth movement (“Socrates; Alcibaldes”) was a gem.

Following a sustained, standing ovation, Meyers and the orchestra gave an encore, the “Love Theme” by Ennio and Andrea Morricone from the movie “Cinema Paradiso” in an arrangement by Angela Marley. When announcing the piece to the audience, Meyers said that it would be dedicated to the victims of the horrible tragedy in Roseburg, and all on stage played the piece with great feeling.

Some tentative entrances and intonation problems hindered the orchestra in its performance of eleven movements from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Still, there were plenty of dramatic moments, including the ponderous bass trombone and tuba passages in “The Montagues and the Capulets,” the mellow alto saxophone line in “Friar Laurence,” the blend of the woodwinds in the “Minuet,” and the surging horns in “Romeo at Juliet’s Grave.” Concertmaster Eva Richey executed her solos exquisitely.

Brotons and the orchestra had fun with the Overture to Bernstein’s opera “Candide,” which was the concert’s curtain-raiser. The melodies percolated along and all sections of the orchestra handled the trickiest passages cleanly, but a faster tempo would have made the piece more delightful.

During intermission, many concert goers lined up to get their programs signed by Meyers. She also signed her CDs, including her latest, which features the Bernstein “Serenade” and the “Love Theme” from “Cinema Paradiso” as well as other pieces from the stage and film. But even for those who didn’t get a signature, Meyer’s performance will be remembered as one of the best ever on a Vancouver Symphony program.

Preview of Anne Akiko Meyers with the Vancouver Symphony

This weekend, acclaimed violinist Anne Akiko Meyers will play Bernstein's "Serenade" with the Vancouver Symphony (WA). I wrote a preview of the concert, which was published by The Columbian newspaper.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Colin Currie brings urgency to MacMillan’s “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”

With virtuosic prowess and gusto, Colin Currie commanded a large variety of percussive instruments at the Oregon Symphony’s concert on Saturday (September 26). Whether it was tubular bells, gongs, marimba, congas, tam-tams, or tom-toms, the Scottish soloist displayed intensity and finesse in delivering an engaging performance of James MacMillan’s “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.”

The piece draws from a French Advent plainchant dating back to the 15th-century in which the orchestra repeats four chords from its refrain. You could hear those chords especially in the brass sections. They settled nicely into the background – sort of a foggy blur against all of the things that Currie and other parts of the orchestra did in the foreground. And there was a lot going on – from the robust fanfare of the “Introit,” which were accented by some very loud smacks on the gongs – to the rolling waves of overtones from the tubular bells and the myriad of metal pieces that the orchestra members struck during the “Coda” at the end of the piece.

Some of the pummeling that Currie did on the various drums and blocks seemed aggressively loud, but it did convey a sense of urgency in the piece, which sought to present a world in agony and in need of redemption by the coming of Christ. That urgency was supported initially by slashing sounds from the orchestra, including eerie high notes from the strings. It all progressed or digressed into episodic blasts and sonic convulsions that seemed to cry out for a resolution. That resolution came when the orchestra members began to strike the little metal pieces that hung from their music stands and Currie calmly walked to the back of the orchestra and began to intone the incredibly tall tubular bells. The blend of overtones from the bells along with metal chimes was heavenly.

The orchestra also performed four tone poems from Bedřich Smetana’s “Má vlast” (“My Country”). The double harp introduction, exquisitely played by Jennifer Craig and Jenny Lindner, to “Vyšehrad” (“The High Castle”) was one of the highlights of the evening. Flutists Alicia DiDonato Paulsen and Sarah Tiedemann created marvelous swirling sounds during “The Moldau.” Memorable moments from “Šárka,”included the snoring tones from Adam Trussell’s bassoon, which were followed by a fast and furious finale that seemed to scorch the air. “From the Woods and Fields” contained a wonderful fugue that travelled through all of the string sections as well as a lovely French Horn and clarinet choir. Overall, the orchestra, guided deftly and very expressively by Carlos Kalmar, evoked a magical landscape of sounds that made the piece thoroughly enjoyable.

The opening piece on the program was a delightful number by Luigi Cherubini. Nothing much of Cherubini’s many works is performed today, but Beethoven regarded Cherubini as his greatest contemporary, and, indeed, Cherubini’s influence can be heard in Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” The Oregon Symphony played the Overture to Luigi Cherubini’s opera “Ali Baba, ou les quarante voleurs” (“Ali Baba, or the 40 Thieves”) with carefree élan. The strings put on a real show with snappy articulation during passages that blitzed by in a few seconds. The spry yet careful exchange of brief phrases between each section of the strings down to the cellos was immaculately executed. In the midst of it all, Niel DePonte tapped the triangle and his colleagues in the percussion section added a Turkish flavor to the music. In that small way, Cherubini number became an excellent lead-in to the MacMillan piece.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Ear Trumpet - Portland's new music schedule for October

Another big thank you to Bob Priest, Mr. March Music Moderne, for compiling this information!


2 - Fri - 7:30 pm
"Rising Stars" - Justin Bartlett
M. Johanson, Takemitsu & Szymanowski
Flanagan Chapel @ Lewis & Clark

3/4 - Sat/Sun - 7:30 pm
Wright, Gabel, Senn & ALD Dancers
BodyVox Theatre

5 - Mon - 7:30 pm
Montrose Trio
James Lee III
Lincoln Hall

7 - Wed - 7:30 pm
Zakir Hussain & Dave Holland
Schnitzer Hall

8 - Thur - Noon pm
Harvey Sollberger
Lincoln Hall

<<< ET PICK >>>
8 - Thur - 8 pm
"Wax Wings: Wind Chamber Music”
Donatoni, Ran & Stockhausen
The Old Church

9 - Fri - 8 pm
"Encore: The Music of Ola Gjeilo”
Kaul Auditorium

10 - Sat - 7:30 pm
Sofia Gubaidulina
Schnitzer Hall

13 - Tue - 7:30 pm
Wayne Shorter Quartet
Revolution Hall

15 - Thur - 7:30 pm
"The Crossroads Project”
Fry Street Quartet
Newmark Theatre

16 - Fri - 7:30 pm
"Cascadia Ventures Forth”
Alexjander, Drexler, Noland & Woody
Mago Hunt Recital Hall @ U of P

24 - Sat - 4 pm
Lise de la Salle
Debussy & Ravel
Lincoln Hall

24 - Sat - 7:30 pm
"Portland State of Mind”
Anna Thorvalsdottir
Lincoln Recital Hall

25 - Sun - 2 pm
Ginastera & Ravel
Schnitzer Hall

31 - Sat - 1:30 pm
"Halloween Extravaganza!”
Crumb, Daughterty & Stockhausen
Mississippi Studios

3/10/17/24/31 - Saturday: 8-10
All-Classical @ 89.9 FM

5/12/19/26 - Monday: 8-10
KBOO @ 90.7 FM
ET Recording of the Month:

Stabat Mater & Symphony III
Simon Rattle - City of Birmingham Sym. Orch.
EMI Classics
ET West Coast Trail Concerts of the Month:

22/23/24 - Thur/Fri/Sat - 9
"Nomadic Streams”
A Festival of Ambient Music
Feldman, Cage & more with the Flux Quartet
VIVO Media Arts, Vancouver, BC






ET was birthed by MMM with funding from
The Baby LeRoy Memorial Trust

March Music Moderne returns:
18-20 March 2016
5 Concerts for our 5th Festspiel

Principal trombonist Aaron LaVere at work with the Baltimore Symphony

Usually, I try to take notice of the movement of musicians in an out of the Oregon Symphony roster, but somehow I keep forgetting to check up on Aaron LaVere, who has been the orchestra's principal trombonist 2001. Starting last year, he was still listed as the principal trombonist but on leave. I didn't think much about it, because a few years ago, he took a leave to serve as the principal trombonist of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. Well, one of my colleagues asked me what has happened to LaVere, so I looked him up on the web and found out that he has taken over the principal trombonist desk at the Baltimore Symphony. We are going to miss his terrific playing, but fortunately the OSO has enlisted Daniel Cloutier as acting principal. Cloutier is the principal trombonist of the Grant Park Orchestra, which happens to be Carlos Kalmar's summertime band.

In other news, I attended the annual meeting of the OSO, and found that that the orchestra has extended an offer for the principal flute position. This month, orchestra will be holding auditions for the principal clarinet position.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Melnikov delivers masterful recital of Shostakovich and Schubert

You might that Shostakovich’s “24 Preludes and Fugues” would be some of the driest music you’ve ever heard, but in hands of Alexander Melnikov, Shostakovich’s pieces acquire a life of their own. That’s what I experienced at Melnikov’s recital on Saturday afternoon (September 26) at Lincoln Hall. The Russian pianist made the most of his debut concert with Portland Piano International, delivering exceptional performances of the first twelve preludes and fugues of Shostakovich plus Schubert’s “Wanderer-fantasie” and “Three Piano Pieces.”

Shostakovich wrote his “24 Preludes and Fugues” (Opus 87) after hearing Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues of Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier" performed at an international competition in Leipzig, Germany. Like Bach’s fundamental work, Shostakovich’s probes the circle of fifths with pairings of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys. In lesser hands, the “24 Preludes and Fugues” would sound like an academic exercise, but Melnikov is one of those rare artists whose playing elevates this work to a higher plane.

Combining pinpoint technique and generous expression, Melnikov found the core of each prelude and fugue so that listeners could feel their way into the music and into the mind of Shostakovich. His articulate playing revealed the character of each piece, yet linked them together. Some were delicate and tender in nature. Others were forceful and demonstrative. Sometimes the left hand seemed to be holding a conversation with the right, at times bordering on a playful mood. There were lonely and melancholy moments as well, reminding the audience that Shostakovich wrote this music during a very stressful time after he had been reprimanded by Stalin’s policies, which dictated that art and artist must serve the Soviet state.

Melnikov opened the concert with Schubert’s “Wanderer-fantasie,” displaying excellent control of dynamics, crystal clear runs, and gorgeously shaped melodies. With cat-like reflexes, he guided the the listeners past dramatic landscapes and could also relax and enjoy the dreamy ones. He ended the first half of the concert with an immaculate performance of Schubert’s “Three Piano Pieces,” and the rousing ending of the third piece generated loud applause.

At the end of the concert, which lasted over two hours, Melnikov was rewarded with a standing ovation and cheers that brought him out on the stage several times. That must have gotten him re-energized in order to sign CDs, including his highly acclaimed release of Shostakovich’s “24 Preludes and Fugues” under the harmonia mundi label. He was scheduled to play the remaining pieces on Sunday afternoon, and I would think that they turned out equally splendid.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Before his upcoming Portland Piano International recital, Alexander Melnikov talks about Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues

Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov will be making his debut appearance in two concerts this weekend sponsored by Portland Piano International. Since winning the International Robert Schumann Competition in Zwickau in 1989 and the Concours Musical Reine Elisabeth in Brussels in 1991, Melnikov has enjoyed an international career that has included numerous recordings. His recording of Shostakovich's "24 Preludes and Fugues" received the BBC Music Magazine Award, the Choc de Classica and the Jahrespreis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik. Topping that off, in 2011, BBC Music Magazine listed that album as one of the “50 Greatest Recordings of All Time.”

It so happens that Shostakovich's "24 Preludes and Fugues" will be the focal point of Melnikov's performances in Portland on September 26th and 27th at 4 pm at Lincoln Hall. Shostakovitch wrote this work after serving on the judging panel for the first International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition in Leipzig, Germany, in 1950. He was so impressed with the 48 preludes and fugues of Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier" and with the competition's gold medal winner, Tatiana Nikolayeva that after returning to Moscow, he wrote the "24 Preludes and Fugues" very quickly. Nikolayeva premiered the work in Leningrad in December of 1952 and went on to record the complete set at least three times.

I sent some questions to Melnikov via email. Here is our exchange (edited for brevity):

How long did it take you to learn all of Shostakovich's "Preludes and Fugues?" Do you have a photographic memory?

Melnikov:  I played four of the Preludes and Fugues many years ago, around 1996 or 1997. Already back then I started playing with the idea of learning more. The rest I have learned for the recording, in two installments, I don't remember exactly how long it took me, over a year I think, but I was combining it with many other things I was doing. No, I don't have a photographic memory and (except those four in 1997) I have never performed the cycle by heart. During the recording I tried it (playing by heart) once at home - I could do it, but I would be never able to do it on stage, and even if I did I would have to concentrate so much on the memory issues that I would not be able to even start making sense of the music

What do you like most about this music?

Melnikov: This is a bit of the "dancing about architecture" question. But, yes, I find it one of the most important polyphonic works of the 20th century, and I find it simply fascinating how many characters emotions colours and stories Shostakovich could cram into this very rigid and dogmatic model he has chosen for himself.

Shostakovich dedicated this work to pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, who recorded these pieces several times. Did you try to find an interpretation that differs from hers?

Melnikov: No it was never ever the case that i tried to be different, or even tried "to find an interpretation. I am always trying (with sometimes lesser sometimes bigger success) to try to understand the composer's musical language, and to convey it with minimal losses. That's all there is to it, really. I have respect for Nikolayeva's recordings, and many others too.

Do you have any advice for pianists who are trying to learn this music? Is it best to learn the first one and proceed to learn them in order?

Melnikov: It depends. If they want to learn the whole thing - I would start with the hardest ones, but learning the entire cycle should never become a goal in itself. Otherwise I find the most natural way to start with the ones which are most appealing, but that goes of course for any music.

What is your next recording project?

Melnikov: Prokofiev solo sonatas on modern piano and Mozart violin sonatas with Isabelle Faust on historic. There are also couple of things already recorded but not yet released, not least 4-hands fortepiano Schubert CD with Andreas Staier...

While you are in Portland, will you have a time to travel or see anything in the city? Or visit the Pacific Ocean?

Melnikov: I very much hope so. So far my knowledge about Portland is Wikipedia limited, but I already love it - beer, roses, steam engines, direct democracy, and "keep it weird" - things don't get much better, do they?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Seattle Opera's 'An American Dream' tackles powerful issues

NOTE: This article was supposed to be published at another site and was not. The opera reviewed was performed at 8pm on August 21 2015. Apologies for the untimeliness of the post

The world premiere of Seattle Opera’s An American Dream, by composer Jack Perla and librettist Jessica Murphy Moo, was more than a traditional opera. It was a multimedia experience, beginning with audience members being ‘processed’ for entry to the self-guided tour, behind fake (but convincing) barbed wire and surrounded by dour-faced, pacing guards in dark glasses, who responded to queries with succinct, disinterested and well-rehearsed phrases.  

An attempt to impart something of the experience of Japanese Americans incarcerated by the U.S. Government starting in 1942 and lasting the duration of the war, the exhibits actually traced the lineage of racist anti-Asian laws passed by various governments in the U.S. beginning in the late 18th century, and culminating with the incarceration of Japanese Americans at the start of the second world war. By the time the music started, the exhibits had served their purpose admirably, creating a heightened sense of expectation of the performance to come.

The set was spare—a few household furnishings set against a backdrop of cavernous emptiness. As the overture played, projections onto the emptiness began to unfold: a splash of ink across the dark, dragonflies winging across the water. Perla’s score here was atonal yet pastoral at times. The video projections, while beautiful, tended to distract from the action onstage. The overture itself felt overly long for such a short opera (about one hour 7 minutes.)

The scene opens with the Kobayashi family hastily sorting through paperwork, looking for anything that a suspicious US government might use against them. In a powerful trio, the family voice their private regrets in starkly haunting melodies as they prepare to be forced from their home. There is a sense of time running out as Papa (Makoto Kobayashi, sung by bass Adam Lau) begins negotiating with American vet Jim Crowley (baritone Morgan Smith) over the sale of the Kobayashi home. Crowley’s wife Eva (soprano D’Ana Lombard) gushes over the beautiful farmstead, while her husband negotiates in bad faith with Kobayashi, knowing he has them over a barrel and explicitly stating that there is no time to negotiate before the government comes. Reluctantly, Kobayashi agrees to sell the farm at a huge loss.

Setsuko Kobayashi, the daughter (sung by soprano Hae Ji Chang) hides her beloved doll under the floorboards in her room, singing a moving lullaby to the ‘Empress’ as she calls the doll. As the FBI arrives to arrest Mr. Kobayashi away for possessing dynamite (which he had once used to remove stumps) the home passes to the Crowleys.

After a brief light moment when the new couple moves in, Eva, a German Jew whose friends and family were not so fortunate to escape Hitler’s Europe as she had, begins to piece together just what happened to the Kobayashis and how her husband procured their new home, the darkness returns, and stays.  Lombard’s performance was particularly compelling: her lush, dark timbre and convincing acting spoke volumes as to the emotional import of the work. When she discovers Setsuko’s doll and finally understands what happened, the comparisons between the racial cleansing happening in Europe and America begin. Her husband Jim angrily says ‘we don’t murder the innocent here,’ and while there is an understanding that the detention centers in America are far different than the concentration camps in Europe in both design and purpose, the image hangs like a shameful question mark. If we don’t murder the innocent here, just what do we do to them and with what justification? Given the travesties and disparities in  the current American judicial system and culture at large vis-à-vis race, the topic is still disturbingly current.

As Mama (Hiroko) Kobayashi ails in the detention center, Setsuko attempts to cheer her up, trying to envision what her father might say, lying to her mother. This leads to a trio between Chang, Lau and a cello, as Setsuko imagines her father standing next to her, telling her what to say to comfort her mother. 

In the final scene, as Jim is confronted by his shame when Setsuko returns to their former home to meet her father, all the threads come together. Chang sings ‘I have nothing—don’t you recognize me?’ She is no longer the child who left a doll years ago, but a young woman, defiant in the face of Jim’s suggestion that she leave, and Eva finally learns the fate of her family in Europe. They have all been killed.

All of the vocal performances were fine—in particular Chang and Lombard. Their acting most especially drove the story forward, and exposed the ugly truths behind the similarities to be found in racial hatred no matter where it lies. Perla’s score and Moo’s libretto were up to the task of imparting this powerfully disturbing message—appropriate in tone and timbre, yet not so heavy as to labor the point in any way. Though the through-composed score read (fittingly) like a threnody from beginning to end, with an almost perpetual eeriness, it was lively and varied at times--there was a moment of domestic levity as the Crowleys lament the dusty, hard work of moving, a light moment that drew the audience in—who can’t relate to that?

The entire experience, from the exhibits at the beginning to Setsuko’s final reunion with her father at a home that is no longer theirs, Mrs. Kobayashi having died from grief while in detention, was incredibly moving, an experience that will not soon be forgotten. Seattle Opera plans to take the performance on the road if suitable venues can be found. Hopefully they can, because this work deserves to be seen far and wide.