By Brett Campbell
It took 150 years—that is, a grant tied to the state’s sesquicentennial celebrations—but it was gratifying to see a concert featuring only music by contemporary Portland composers. Of course, that happens every night in the state’s pop music clubs, and a contemporary music concert would have seemed utterly normal to audiences in Bach and Beethoven’s times. But in the insular world of contemporary American “classical” music, a concert that dared actually feature composers from our own place and time qualifies as a momentous event. Which isn’t to disparage the remarkable efforts of one of the state’s most valuable performing arts ensembles, Fear No Music—in fact, it shows just how critical they are to Portland’s artistic vitality.
But if the musicians’ commendable boldness lived up to their name, I’m not sure the composers did. While almost every piece offered moments of stimulation or beauty or both, only a few really seemed to boldly go where past composers haven’t gone before.
The concert opened with the premiere of PSU music professor Bonnie Miksch’s Ever widening rings of being, an appealing exercise in electronica academica that paired computer-sampled metallic percussion burblings (the only really modern sounds in the concert) with alternately shimmering and squealing acoustic metal percussion sounds by FNM percussionist Joel Bluestone.
John Peel’s 1997 Scene ed Aria at least admitted its retro ambitions. Inspired by Old Vienna violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler’s arrangements, Peel imagined his own arrangement of a 19th century opera aria for violin and piano. I suppose that makes it postmodern, but it wound up sounding like an updated Cesar Franck sonata, moving deliberately from pensive to brooding to dramatic virtuosic passages, eloquently played by Ines Voglar.
A solo dancer (with literal narrative choreography contributed by Paul Destrooper) accompanied Jilted, a brief 2007 work by Robert McBride. Mcbride is best known as an announcer for Portland’s invaluable KBPS classical radio station, where last year he created a much-needed, weekly two hour modern/contemporary music program called Club Mod. The short and simple elegy portrayed a woman left bereft by the wartime death (or so a telegram and folded flag suggested) of her intended bridegroom.
The pace and ambition picked up with three etudes—by turns brittle, melancholy, and eruptive— played by their composer, former PSU prof Tomas Svoboda. The danceable, Bach-meets-Bartok vigor of these pieces vaulted them, like Debussy and Chopin’s etudes, beyond the realm of mere studies and suited them to Agnieszka Laska’s lovely choreography—at least what I could see of it, which wasn’t much.
I hesitate to disparage the Disjecta art center, both because it generously came to the rescue at the last moment when the original venue abruptly canceled and because new music and boho visual art centers have a long and productive mutually nurturing relationship, as composers from Cage to Glass and Reich and more could attest. But it simply wasn’t capacious enough for the hearteningly teeming audience, resulting in claustrophobic seating and too many obstructed views, especially whenever the dancers descended for floor work.
Abetted by a bravura performance from viola soloist Joel Belgique (in its own way as impressive as, if more concentrated than, his stalwart 2007 Oregon Symphony performance of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy), the second set opener, David Schiff’s brilliant Joycesketch II, blew away everything that came before it and most of what followed. Inspired by James Joyce’s immortal story collection, Dubliners, Schiff’s sketch transformed elements drawn from Irish ballads and fiddle tunes into a vital brew as rich as a pint of Guinness. Drawn from an opera that Schiff (unfortunately better known as an astute writer on music for The Nation and New York Times than for his compositions) intends to finish someday, it suggests that he should get back to it posthaste.
FNM deserves credit for programming composers at all stages of their careers, from Svoboda (entering his eighth decade) to the youngest, Ryan Anthony Francis (born 1981), a Portland native whose compositions have received awards and acclaim at Juilliard and beyond. His earnest, neo-Romantic, 2006 Litany gave cellist Nancy Ives some pretty moments. Bob Priest’s little Cirque de Deux exploited the bassoon’s rich comic potential while providing the soloist the rare opportunity to, er, get down. Another commendably concise work that (unlike others on the program) didn’t outlast its ideas, Jack Gabel’s 2007 Mama’s Song, provided another highlight and the evening’s most purely lovely sounds; I wish I could have seen more than a few, enchanting glimpses of the choreography, also by Laska.
The major work on the menu, the premiere of University of Oregon professor Robert Kyr’s cinematic Variations for a New Day, kicked off with a memorable, Coplandish melody, cruised along jauntily, then suddenly burst into tense, rhythmically charged episodes that culminated in a whirlwind, crowd-pleasing finale. The full FNM ensemble (Bluestone, Belgique, Voglar, Ives, and pianist Mika Sunago), though clearly still reading, managed to give Kyr’s euphoric piece (based on an Sacred Harp hymn) the robust energy and focus it demanded, ending the concert on a terrific high note, a satisfying original musical tribute to the state’s 150th birthday.
Every time I hear Fear No Music, I’m amazed that these master musicians, most of whom play leading roles in the Oregon Symphony, can pull off these challenging, never-before-heard works so convincingly in spite of their crowded schedules and no doubt inadequate rehearsal time. It demonstrates their deep and admirable commitment, not just to brand new sounds but also to subsequent performances of older contemporary works, which give the worthiest pieces a chance to enter the repertoire. These intrepid musicians certainly live up to their name.
But do the composers? I certainly don't miss the bad old days of atonal angst, but this concert presented nothing to fear and little to surprise, with most of the sounds contentedly based in creaky European classical models. In the stretch between the first and last pieces on the program, little of the music really seemed to speak any of the diverse musical languages of 21st century Oregon or even America. Svoboda and Schiff’s engaging compositions might have been cutting edge for 1965 and 1981, respectively, but aren’t younger Oregon composers drawing on contemporary American influences, from microtonality to electronica?
Of course there should be room for all kinds of new sounds, but amid the backward gazing nostalgia (neo Romantic, post Schoenbergian, etc.), where were the rollicking rhythms that've propelled the powerful pop and jazz that permeated the last few generations of American culture? Where were the sounds of other cultures (particularly Pacific Rim) that have enriched American music from the glories of Portland native Lou Harrison beginning half a century ago to David Byrne’s danceable cross-cultural pop a generation ago to today’s Asian underground electronica? Where were the digital technologies and post Reichian minimalist pulses that have drawn new audiences and galvanized two generations of composers, including east coast collectives from Bang on a Can to NOW, 20-somethings from Nico Muhly to Mason Bates, and west coasters from Paul Dresher on down? Most of all, where were the sounds we couldn’t have imagined before we heard them?
I guess that’s the problem when these kinds of concerts come along so infrequently — inevitably, they can present only a limited cross section of Oregon’s musical vitality. The blame lies not with the few groups like FearNoMusic that at least try to perform music of our time and place, but rather with the other institutions, from orchestras to rock clubs, that shun contemporary postclassical composers. Let’s hope these Homegrown concerts plant the seeds of new opportunities for Oregon composers.
FearNoMusic will perform the Homegrown concert this week in Salem and Eugene.
EUGENE: Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 8:00 P.M.
Presented by Vanguard Concert Series as part of MUSIC TODAY FESTIVAL
Beall Concert Hall @ University of Oregon ($8,$5)
SALEM: Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 7:30 P.M.
Presented by New Music at Willamette
Hudson Concert Hall, Mary Stuart Rogers Music Center @ Willamette Univ. (FREE)
Brett Campbell writes for many publications, including Oregon Quarterly and the Wall Street Journal, and is classical music editor for Willamette Week.