Monday, March 16, 2009

Cascadia Composers expand Portland's new music scene

By guest reviewer Aaron Berenbach

If the inaugural concert of the Cascadia Composers group is a sign of things to come, fans of the new music scene in Portland have much to look forward to. Friday’s concert featured a well-rounded selection of composing styles and instrumentation choices. From the shrill, phasing timbres of piccolo and orchestra bells, to the surprisingly pleasant blend of solo violin and xylophone, to the warm, rich sound of a string quartet, each composer stood distinct in his choice of instruments and styles.

Starting the concert with a series of duets, Dan Senn’s Cartwheels displayed the acrobatic skills of both piccolo and orchestra bells as the two instruments vaulted around, and sometimes through the other. Ultramodern, sometimes painful, the differing attacks of each musician would dissolve into an overlapping resonance that echoed in the ear long after the final note had decayed.

Jeff Winslow’s Aftermath displayed Janice Johnson’s soprano voice most favorably as the skilled piano work of Jeffrey Payne shifted, flowed, and wound its way around the words. The fierce, emotional declamation of the text and the surging, wavelike motion of the piano accompaniment brought to life the desperation of the protagonist, trapped between the raging ocean and the catastrophe being fled.

Thomas Svoboda’s Elusive Canon for Violin and Xylophone was a playful duet, engaging the performers in a musical dialogue that displays a sense of humor and whimsy sometimes sadly lacking in modern music. An interesting combination of instruments that lent itself to the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of the piece.

David Bernstein’s Late Autumn Moods and Images expanded the palette of instruments to three, and the extended form of his piece made great use of that effect. Borrowing material for the first two of three movements, Bernstein wove together the familiar with his own intuitive senses, creating an aural experience that reached far beyond the original material. The third movement displayed a grasp of compositional techniques that brought together disparate musical ideas into a colorful whole.

This being Portland, land of the weird and wonderful, no one thought it amiss that the second half of the concert opened with an oratory. It was only after a few moments of garbled speech that it began to dawn on the audience that this performance art was not planned. Nevertheless the mysterious stranger who seized the spotlight received a warm round of applause. Hooray for Portland.

Without missing a beat, the concert rolled on with Gary Noland’s Schmaltz Fantasy (sorry, that’s Waltz Fantasy). Like an André Rieu opium dream, Noland’s waltz slowly emerged from a morass of sound, solidified into a lush, decadent, Viennese waltz before dissolving and reforming again and again. Like Bernstein, Noland made great use of the familiar, in this case the easily recognized waltz form, but made it personal, unique, and extremely interesting in his interpretation.

Finally expanding to a full string quartet, Jack Gabel’s That Old Song And Dance took the audience by surprise as the obligatory tuning period of four musicians flowed seamlessly into the written piece. What at first appeared a musical game of two-on-two solidified and moved smoothly through ancient song and dance forms. As with all the composers working with borrowed material, Gabel displayed an understanding of traditional forms but brought them fully into the present with imagination and flair. Devolving back into the chaos of musicians tuning at cross-purposes, this piece in particular seemed to delight the audience with its sense of completeness.

Bringing the concert to a close, Greg A. Steinke’s Expressions on the Paintings of Edvard Munch had the definitive final say in the Cascadia Composer’s inaugural concert. A hard act to follow, Steinke explored his personal reactions to three of Munch’s famous paintings and managed to bring those images to life quite forcefully with his compositional style. The first movement brought to mind George Crumb’s Black Angels, particularly the movement, Night of The Electric Insects. More personally, it reminded this reviewer of almost every horror scene that has plagued his nightmares. Surprising, mesmerizing, and engaging, the entire piece seemed to draw the performers in as much as the audience. Both the freedom and the form of this composition was a powerful way to end the concert.

As usual, the work of the fEARnoMUSIC performers was professional, honest, and a delight to experience. It was heartening to see such a large crowd as well as an ever-growing number of younger listeners in the audience. The Cascadia Composers are a welcome addition to the Portland new music scene with a healthy blend of compositional styles and individual takes on musical forms. Future concerts are presumably being planned, so stayed tuned.


Aaron Berenbach is studying music composition with Bob Priest at Marylhurst University and pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter/composer/teacher.

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