Monday, December 31, 2007

Year end thoughts...

I've really enjoyed writing Northwest Reverb since my first posting in February. I'm happy to report that the blog is now attracting just a hair under 900 visits a month.

I'd love to devote more time to the blog, because there's so much superb music-making underway in Portland and the Pacific Northwest, but I have to be careful about how much time I spend blogging.

Besides all of the wonderful concerts by established groups, it's really great when people like Charles Noble and Bob Priest put together their own concerts, because these kind of under-the-radar events energize very lively, responsive audiences. I hope to attend more of these performances in 2008.

With best wishes for a Happy New Year!

- James

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Willamette University flute instructor Molly Barth nominated for Grammy Award

Willamette University flute instructor Molly Barth was a member of Eighth Blackbird, whose recording Strange Imaginary Animals has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Chamber Music Category (Category 104). I briefly talked with Barth, and she confirmed that her playing is in this recording, which was completed before she took the job a Willamette University.

Barth has impressive credentials, including 4 CDs with Cedille Records, the 2000 Naumburg Chamber Music Award, the 1998, 2000 and 2002 CMA/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming, first prize at the 1998 Concert Artists Guild International Competition, the 1998 Coleman Chamber Music Competition, and 1996 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition. You can read more about this on her Willamette University faculty page. I heard Barth play with the Fear No Music ensemble in their November concert, and her performance was excellent.

Overall, eight blackbird has been nominated for 3 Grammys:

Category 104: Best Chamber Music Performance - strange imaginary animals
Category 107: Best Classical Contemporary Composition - Jennifer Higdon, Zaka
Category 97: Best Producer of the Year, Classical - Judith Sherman

The Grammy winners will be announced on February 10th. We'll see if Eighth Blackbird makes a sweep!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

What's in a name?

On Friday evening, I heard the Portland Baroque Orchestra's concert with Cappella Romana as the chorus. But only LeaAnne DenBeste and a couple other people in the chorus normally sing with Cappella Romana. In fact, none of the core Cappella Romana men (including Mark Powell who also serves on the administrative staff of Cappella Romana and on the staff of PBO) sang in this concert or the concert series (four performances). So why bother to call the vocal ensemble Cappella Romana?

Monday, December 24, 2007

Bob Priest's letter regarding Elliott Carter in New York Times

Composer Bob Priest has been on a letter-writing spree lately. His letter about Elliott Carter's music appeared on page 40 of Sunday's New York Times Arts and Leisure section. BP has allowed me to reprint it here:

From: Bob Priest
Date: December 10, 2007 4:01:27 PM PST
Subject: Elliott Carter

I am thrilled that Elliott Carter is still alive and continuing to compose. I have admired and learned much from his scores over the past 35 years. His craft is impeccable. Unfortunately, I generally can't bear listening to his actual music. I have struggled mightily in the past with this dichotomy. Now, I've made peace with the fact that Carter's music "speaks" to me through my mind - not my ear.

Bob Priest
Portland, Oregon

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Composer Bob Priest registers his thoughts about Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony

Portland-based composer Bob Priest wrote the following letter to the New York Times regarding the turmoil with Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. He has allowed me to print his letter in Northwest Reverb. So here it is:

From: Bob Priest
Date: December 17, 2007 12:54:08 AM PST
Subject: "Gerry's" Seattle Symphony

I lived in Seattle for 11 years and worked with the Seattle Symphony on several projects ( "Penderecki Week" - 1988, and the Seattle Spring Festival of New Music and World Arts - 1992 with Toru Takemitsu as composer-in-residence). During this time, I established some fleeting "friendships" with a few key symphony principle players. While these fine artists rarely had anything positive to say about Schwarz, my personal experience with the "maestro" was relatively problem free. He was quite kind and supportive of my/our new music projects in a distant sort of way.

However, after reading your recent article about the intense bickering, politics and divisive gamesmanship surrounding Gerry's ongoing tenure with the band, it is abundantly clear that "The Ger" (as some have appelled him) should step down and move on . . . What I experienced first-hand and have recently read underlines the FACT that the present situation is far from being optimally conducive to trusting, sympathetic and forward driving music making. When "politics" assert their nastiness to this degree, anything other than a "regime change" merely prolongs the death throes of what is essentially the rotting corpse of a done deal.

Bob Priest
Marzena Performance Ensemble

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Assistant conductor shines in Wintersong concerts

I thought that Anna Song did a terrific job, conducting the Portland Symphonic Choir in its Wintersong! concerts over the weekend. She seemed to be a little wound up for the first concert on Saturday evening, but she really looked relaxed and very expressive during the concert on Sunday afternoon. I enjoyed singing in both concerts and will look forward to singing under Anna's direction again.

Kudos also to the women of the choir and accompanist Douglas Schneider in an Caldwell/Ivory arrangement of "Go Where I Send Thee." Ace soprano Cameron Griffith Herbert took over direction for this piece and led a Lights Out performance!

Also, a wonderful highlight was Gretchen Corbett's superb narration. Corbett put everything into her delivery. I especially liked her rendition of Barbara Robinson's "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever."

Seattle Symphony commentary

The Seattle P-I ran the entire New York Times article about the Seattle Symphony's problems on its front page yesterday. And you can read a lively commentary from readers here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Anna Song to the rescue!

Steven Zopfi, artistic director of the Portland Symphonic Choir, won't be able to conduct the choir's concerts this weekend. Zopfi is attending to family matters on the East Coast because his father just passed away. Fortunately for the choir (of which I am a member), we have a very talented assistant director, Anna Song, who will direct the pieces (except for a couple of them). Song has a BA in composition from UCLA and an MM in conducting from the School of Music and the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University. She has conducted the choir in several pieces before, but this will be her first time to lead an entire program. So that will add a bit more excitement to the concert.

The program includes traditional Christmas carols, a Hanukah piece entitled “Aleih Neiri” (“Rise Up, My Light”), a Kwanzaa song called “Harambee” (“Call to Unity”), and the Ukranian folksong “Shcedrik,” which is popularly known as the “Carol of the Bells.” The choir will also perform a suite of songs called “Native American Ambiances,” which was written by Jackson Berkey, one of the members of Mannheim Steamroller. Berkey combined texts from American Indians with flute, pre-recorded percussion and environmental sounds (wolves, rivers and other nature sounds) to create a thought-provoking atmosphere. On the humorous side, we'll sing PDQ Bach's "Good King Kong Looked Out," and in a nod to the gospel genre, the women of the choir will perform "Go Where I Send Thee." That's not all of the numbers, but that's all that I have time now to mention. For more information about the concert, see See you at the concert!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Carl Herko - new PR guy at the Oregon Symphony

It's not often that the new PR person at the Oregon Symphony is greeted with fanfare, but that's what it feels like from my perspective. I received an email announcement from Elaine Calder that Herko is the point person for the Symphony's publicity. Herko has a strong background in journalism (as David Stabler notes in his blog), and it will be very interesting to see what Herko will do to help advance the cause of the orchestra.

Herko's official title is Vice President, Media & Public Relations or VPMPR for short. He has lived in Buffalo, NY for decades, but he moved to the Northwest a couple of years ago. I'm looking forward to meeting him and finding out his perspective on the orchestra.

As an additional note, I like how Elaine Calder comes out before the orchestra concerts begin to welcome everyone and introduce the orchestra. Calder's personality comes across as genuine and likable, and I've heard good comments in the audience.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Suggestion for next year's Comfort and Joy

KBPS has put together a fine holiday CD called "Comfort and Joy" that has been a popular gift for listeners who have donated to the station over the past month or so. Staff members made the selections, which number 20 and begin and end with two from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker." Next year, KBPS should look into making selections from local groups. I would think that the Oregon Repertory Singers, the Portland Symphonic Choir, the David York Ensemble, the Columbia Symphony, and many other ensembles in town would love to donate the performance of at least one seasonal tune to a recording that would be very appreciated by KBPS's listeners and would generate interest in the concerts for those groups during the holidays and beyond.

PR changes at the Oregon Symphony

Besides Michael Kosmala's exit, I received news that Allison Griffin, public relations associate at the Oregon Symphony, has recently left the mother ship. In her email, Griffin didn't say that she was laid off, but that's the way it looks. When I find out who the new PR people at the Symphony will be, I'll post it here.

Great coffee deal

Caffe D'arte is offer a pound of coffee free with every pound that you purchase at their new store in NE Portland. I just tasted their Velletri blend, and it's fantastic - very smooth and rich tasting. So, for $14, you can get another pound of coffee for free! I think that this deal extend only through the end of the month.

Caffe D'arte has taken over the spot where Torrefazione used to be in NE 15th between Weidler and Broadway. Try it out! Here's the company's main web site.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Reviews now also in Seen and Heard

Many of my reviews will now be published also on MusicWeb International's "Seen and Heard." You can find recent Oregon Symphony review here.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Review of the Oregon Symphony's Italian concert

The Oregon Symphony transported us to Italy, performing Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” Edward Elgar’s “In the South,” and Hector Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture.” I attended the concert on Sunday night (December 2nd), and was treated to an outstanding concert by the orchestra and its guest soloist Eilina Vähälä. Here's my take on what I heard.

Pared down to a lean chamber ensemble of 21, the orchestra delivered a remarkably expressive and crisp rendition of Vivaldi's gem with the beautiful, Finnish violinist Eilina Vähälä as the soloist. Vähälä performed with impeccable, breath-taking control and dynamics that made this piece come alive as if it had never been played before. Accompanying her with the utmost attention to subtle nuances, the orchestra blended perfectly in support of Vähälä artistry, and together they created convincing tableaux of bucolic landscapes in their seasonal guises.

Artistic director Carlos Kalmar led with his hand rather than with a baton, which worked to keep the music soft, such as when the shepherd slept and a dog barked in the background. The slashing rainfall during the summer thunderstorm and the icy winter storm was thrilling as the sound raked the stage. Vähälä and the ensemble wonderfully evoked the peasant’s dance, hunting scene, and other summer pleasures before slipping away into the bitter chill of winter. Harpsichordist Sue Jensen and principal cellist Nancy Ives played superbly throughout.

Vähälä made a terrific case for herself as a violinist to be reckoned with. I hope that she will return to Portland to inspire us again.

I didn’t care for Les Sarnoff’s style of narration of the accompanying sonnets. His voice was pleasant but too avuncular, so all of the words seemed to be coated with sugar.

The second half of the program began with a brilliant sweep of sound that introduces Elgar’s "In the South." Sometimes this part of the piece makes me think that it had been written by Richard Strauss, but Elgar takes us down a path that is entirely his own. The orchestra wielded a generous palate of colors and painted a rich and varried soundscape.

At one point, melancholic and lyrical passages faded away before the orchestra threw itself into big blocks of sound. I thought of a giant walking across a valley floor, but apparently Elgar meant this passage to convey ancient, warlike, Roman troops as described in a poem by Tennyson. In any case, the masculine theme rumbled off into the distance, and we are left to wander in a daze until the strings picked us up and escorted us onward.

Principal violist Joël Belgique’s solo in the third section was exquisite, and the violins added a nice layer of sweetness. Overall, this piece showed a lot of exciting energy and drive. The woodwind and brass, especially principal French horn John Cox and principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao, played outstandingly from beginning to end.

I would normally think of opening the concert with the “Roman Carnival Overture” by Berlioz, but by concluding the program with this piece, Kalmar and company convincingly capped off the evening with a shower of sonic fireworks. Harris Orem played the English horn solo with pure, plaintive beauty. I also enjoyed how principal flutist David Buck and principal oboist Martin Hebert finished each other's conversations seamlessly. Also, contrasts between the quiet, thoughtful passages and the festive eruptions were marvelous. The audience in the Schnitz, which seemed to be close to 90 percent full, soaked up the final chords with gusto.