Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Review: Beta Collide - Uptown meets downtown

By Anarch Zigzagovich

Portland has of late been blessed with its sixth contemporary music group—Beta Collide—founded by Grammy Award-winning flutist Molly Barth (former member of Eighth Blackbird) and trumpeter Brian McWhorter (of the Meridian Arts Ensemble). Beta Collide, though currently based in Eugene, presented its Portland debut concert on Friday evening (17 October) at the atrium of the White Stag Building. Word is out that this talented ensemble is planning to do concerts on a regular basis in the Portland metro area.

To date the most prominent contemporary concert hall music ensembles in Portland have been Fear No Music and Third Angle. The eighteen-year old organization Seventh Species, which moved its base of operations from Eugene to Portland three years ago, has long been the only concert series of its kind in Oregon featuring music primarily by local and regional composers. Since 2006 composer Robert Priest has imported his Marzena series from Seattle, and has attracted a wide following of new music aficionados. Aside from Beta Collide, the other “new kid on the block” is Cascadia Composers, an official chapter of NACUSA (National Association of Composers USA, founded by Henry Hadley in 1933), which is scheduled to give its inaugural concert of chamber works by seven of the region’s most distinguished composers on March 13th, 2009 at the Old Church.

At this point in time, I cannot help but marvel that Portland (despite its cultural inferiority complex) has what might be considered a “vibrant” new music scene, though it still has a long ways to go before it can be on a par with cities like Boston or New York. This will only happen when the powers that be open their coffers to local rather than imported talent.

Friday’s Beta Collide concert had originally scheduled Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III for soprano (written for his wife, the inimitable Cathy Berberian) to be performed by baritone Nicholas Isherwood who, disappointingly, was taken ill with laryngitis. Isherwood was also scheduled to sing another work by the Hungarian György Kurtag, a composer who has risen to international prominence over the last twenty years and who studied composition with the same teachers as his student colleague and compatriot György Ligeti. Instead, we were treated to a tongue-in-cheek solo trumpet work by the American Robert Erickson entitled Kryl (named after the circus acrobat and cornet master Bohumir Kryl), which demonstrated a vast array of pyrotechnics, including glissandos insterspersed with hums, screams, and various fart-like sounds. Brian McWhorter played this piece with matchless verve and gusto. Another solo work was Eliot Carter’s Scrivo In Vento for flute, which had rapid alternations of high screechy, pointillistic figures and slow languishing moments, and was played with panache by the supremely gifted Molly Barth. The other solo pieces presented were Lutoslawski’s Sacher Variation (1975), expertly rendered by cellist Justin Kagan (who is a prominent fixture in many music venues throughout town) and a work for solo trumpet by the quirky composer Mark Applebaum of Stanford University.

While the solo works were rigorously precise in their notational directives to the performers (the notation in the Applebaum bears some resemblance to the ultra complex scores of his colleague at Stanford, Brian Ferneyhough), the three folios composed in the early 1950s by Earle Brown were either graphically or semi-graphically notated (i.e., with black rectangles of various sizes and/or multiple staves with waves, etc.) and thus required ultroneous improvisatory gestures from the performers. Occasionally I noted that the musicians did not actually have their eyes on the scores while performing the music represented thereby, which made me wonder if they had “memorized” the rectangles, waves and squiggles (?). Notwithstanding, they pulled off the folios with wit and aplomb. One element that lent distinction to this concert was that extremes of anally precise notated works on the one hand were presented side by side with representations of a sort of blasé indeterminacy on the other: Uptown meets downtown. The concert was divided into four segments, the first three of which consisted of the aleatoric pieces seamlessly segued into the more academically severe solos. At one point this reviewer lost track of what piece was being played—which didn’t seem to matter.

The repertoire presented, all in all, had very little meat on the bone, and while I can’t fault the performers for the conviction of their interpretations, I might suggest that if it is their intention to be “unconventional” or “cutting edge,” they might consider throwing in some less run-of-the-mill items. I, for one, would be delighted to hear more works by lesser known—albeit infinitely more talented—composers like Joseph Fennimore (who has yet to be “discovered”), the late Gottfried von Einem (the Austrian composer whose revival is long overdue and who is doubtless destined to attract a following on the scale of Korngold’s or Mahler’s in the near future), Tison Street (one of Boston’s notable talents), Henry Martin (perhaps the greatest contrapuntist alive today), Hsueh-Yung Shen (a Boulanger-trained eccentric who apparently does very little to advance his cause), or Noam Elkies (the Harvard mathematician who is the youngest person ever to have received tenure at that institution and who at the same time is one of its brightest musicians), to name a few, or even works by such luminaries as, say, Ligeti, Rochberg, Rzewski, Del Tredici, Schnittke, Tsontakis, or Currier. I remember hearing Del Tredici express to a symposium of younger composers at the Bloch festival some six years ago his observation that there is a pervasive indifference to harmony amongst the vast majority of today’s composers—a criticism that could aptly be applied to the works presented on Friday evening by Beta Collide.

Suffice it to say that I did not come to this concert expecting to be served Wienerschnitzel and Schnapps. The serving was more akin to a plate of cilantro garnished with nettles. More schmaltz sil vous plait!

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