Friday, June 27, 2014

Uneven Debussy performances open Chamber Music Northwest’s 44th Summer Festival

O'Connor, Neubauer, and Allen at Kaul / Photo credit: Tom Emerson
Chamber Music Northwest opened its 44th season with an all-Debussy program that received some superb performances and some that ran a little rough at Kaul Auditorium on opening night (Monday. June 23). Part of the program featured three sonatas that Debussy wrote towards the end of his life. He had had planned to write a set of six sonatas, but because of failing health (colon cancer) and the outbreak of WWI, he only finished three of them: a Sonata for Violin and Piano, a Sonata for Cello and Piano, and a Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. These pieces were accompanied on the program by a solo piece for flute, and rhapsody for clarinet and piano, and an arrangement inspired by “Children’s Corner” by David Schiff.

The concert got off to a good start with the Sonata for Violin and Piano. Violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Melvin Chen circumnavigated the mercurial soundscape of this piece with excellent balance and an air of spontaneity. Sometimes Beilman fashioned light and fluid sonorities that starkly contrasted with solid, repetitive chords the Chen emoted from the piano. Other times, both instruments danced along or delved into a lush melody. The third movement reached a wild, climatic state that elicited enthusiastic rounds of applause from the audience.

Flutist Tara Helen O’Connor has probably played “Syrinx” a thousand times, but she always seems to find something new to say with this short piece. It’s an intimate number that evokes the Greek legend of a river nymph who success to elude the amorous intentions of Pan by transforming into marsh reeds, which Pan then uses to make musical pipes. O’Connor succeeded in finding the sad and unsettling quality of this music, and her playing made me want to hear this brief piece again.

Next on the program came “Five Pieces and a Ghost from Debussy’s Children’s Corner,” a quintet for clarinet and strings that was written by Portland composer David Schiff. Just to whet the audience’s appetite, Chen popped out on the stage to play the original piano version of the “Golliwogg Cakewalk.” That may have been a last-minute offering, because it sounded awkward and bass-heavy.

Schiff’s piece was played by clarinetist David Shifrin, violinists Theodore Arm and Beilman, violist Paul Neubauer, and cellist Peter Wiley. It had the childlike spirit and charm of the original. Highlights included the bubbly playing of Shifrin in “Doctor Gradus and Parnassum,” the mysterious quality of “Jimbo’s Lullaby,” and the jazziness of “Golliwogg’s Ghost.”

After intermission, Shifrin and Chen played “Premiere Rhapsodie” for Clarinet and Piano. Creating dreamy lyrical lines that seemed to float about, Shifrin played the entire piece from memory, but his artistry didn’t seem to gel all that well with Chen. The same problem cropped up when Wiley and Chen followed with a performance of the Sonata for Cello and Piano. Wiley created all sorts of nuanced sounds and dynamics, but Chen was often too loud and rough. It seemed that the two artists were coming at the piece from different angles, and the combination just didn’t work very well.

The last piece on the program, the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp was the best of the evening. O’Connor, Neubauer, and harpist Nancy Allen elicited a wonderful variety of intimate sounds that transported the listeners beyond Kaul Auditorium to an enchanted space where notes danced about. The threesome listened to each other as they played and created music that was intense and engaging. The audience responded with thunderous applause, and most strolled over to the lobby where they were treated to champagne and sweets as part of the celebration of CMNW’s 44th season.
CMNW reception / Photo credit: Tom Emerson

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

PYP to perform at Grant Park Music Festival - Free sendoff concert in Pioneer Courthouse Square at high noon today

From the press release:

Date:               June 25, 2014 at 12:00 p.m.
Venue:            Pioneer Square, Portland, OR
Free and Open to the public
Program:       BunchSupermaximum
Cowell: Ancient Desert Drone
Theofanidis: Visions and Miracles
Dvořák: Symphonic Variations, Op. 78
BrahmsAcademic Festival Overture

Date:               July 5, 2014 at 7:30 p.m.
Venue:            Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Grant Park Music Festival, Chicago, IL
Program:       BunchSupermaximum
Cowell: Ancient Desert Drone
Theofanidis: Visions and Miracles
Dvořák: Symphonic Variations, Op. 78
BrahmsAcademic Festival Overture

Portland, OR - (May 12, 2014) The Portland Youth Philharmonic and Musical Director David Hattner have been invited to appear in the 2014 Grant Park Music Festival at the request of Carlos Kalmar, Music Director of the Oregon Symphony and Artistic Director and Principal Conductor for the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, Ill.  The Portland Youth Philharmonic will perform on Saturday, July 5, 2014 at 7:30 p.m. in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.  The concert is free and open to the public and will serve as the conclusion of the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s 90th Anniversary Season.
Kalmar says, "The Grant Park Music Festival, the last free Classical Music Festival, is happy to present the Portland Youth Philharmonic. We are a Festival that has gained an international reputation over the years not only for excellent quality, but also for unusual programming. In that sense it is wonderful to partner with PYP, who will bring not only new American music to us, but also a rarely played gem by Dvorak. It will be great to hear such a fine young orchestra in our venue!!"
The concert program will champion many American composers including Kenji Bunch of Oregon, Henry Cowell of California and Christopher Theofanidis of Texas.  Since the mid-1950s, under the leadership of Musical Director Jacob Avshalomov, PYP has nationally distinguished itself among other youth orchestras through its tradition of commissioning and performing contemporary American classical music.
PYP’s Grant Park Music Festival concert will open with the full orchestra version of Kenji Bunch’s Supermaximum, which will also be the Chicago premiere of this work.  Bunch, a Portland native, violist and PYP Alum, has been deeply involved with the Portland Youth Philharmonic for many years.  In addition to transforming his Supermaximum from a chamber orchestra piece into a full orchestral work, he also leads the organization’s music theory program and is a frequent collaborator and chamber music coach.
Following Supermaximum, the Philharmonic will perform Henry Cowell’s Ancient Desert Drone and Christopher Theofanidis’ Visions and Miracles. The second half of the program will offer more standard classical fare in Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture and Dvorak’s lyrical Symphonic Variations.
Before they depart for Chicago, the Portland Youth Philharmonic will continue its pre-tour tradition of performing a free open-air concert in Portland; this year’s event will be held on Wednesday, June 25, 2014 at noon in Pioneer Square, Portland’s Living Room.  The entire community of Portland is invited to come out to support their Portland Youth Philharmonic musicians and give them a proper send-off before they make their mark in Chicago.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

With music critics in Chicago – Muti and the Chicago Symphony – Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra

Riccardo Muit and MCANA members / photo credit: Todd Rosenberg
Last week I was in Chicago for the annual conference of the Music Critics of North America. Yes, there is such a group. We have about 100 members, which include some big names in classical music criticism like Alex Ross of The New Yorker and Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times. Because there aren’t all that many full-time classical music critics left in North America, MCANA consists of a lot of free lancers like yours truly. The membership could easily be a lot larger, but many critics haven’t chosen to join for one reason or another. MCANA has launched an online magazine, which recently received $35,000 in grants and is paying writers for articles (I have a Seattle Opera review there). So, we are hoping to attract new members via that angle.

Our conference included two concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plus a meeting with its music director Riccardo Muti, and one concert by the Grant Park Orchestra plus a meeting with its music director Carlos Kalmar. We also had informative panel discussions on a variety of topics and a couple of opulent receptions that gave us the fleeting feeling of importance. I decided to stay an extra day to hear another concert by the Grant Park Orchestra since it was a rare opportunity for me to hear another orchestra under the baton Kalmar, who, as most of you know, is the music director of the Oregon Symphony.

On Tuesday evening (June 17), we heard the CSO under Muti play Schubert’s Sixth Symphony, Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, and Schubert’s First Symphony. This was the last of four performances that the orchestra did of this program, and the hall was almost sold out. The highlight of the concert was the Mozart, which featured the CSO’s principal bassoonist David McGill, who is retiring from the orchestra at the end of the season after 17 years with the band. He will become a professor of bassoon at Northwestern University.

David McGill - Riccardo Muti - CSO / photo credit: Todd Rosenberg
McGill’s playing was absolutely gorgeous and flawless. His numerous runs and trills were impeccable and lively. His sound was rich, resonant, and refined and his cadenzas mesmerizing. He brought his sound down to a whisper, which,unfortunately was interrupted by a cell phone somewhere in the hall. Topping it all off, McGill played the entire piece from memory, and he received an ovation from the audience and had to return to the stage three or four times (one time, Muti didn’t let him get to the wing before grabbing him and swinging him back to the front).

Both Schubert pieces were played elegantly by the CSO. The Sixth Symphony featured graceful ensemble work by the principal members of the woodwinds in a couple of extended passages. The sound of smooth and fleet strings enhanced both the Sixth and the First symphonies. Nuanced dynamics made the music a pleasure to hear, but the fourth movement (Allegro vivace) of the Fourth was the most spirited, spurred by Muti, who is 72 years old, who seemed to jump a couple of times.

Just after the concert, in the lobby, I ran into Oregon Symphony violinist Emily Cole and OSO bassoonist Evan Kuhlmann. Both were in town to play with the Grant Park Orchestra as subs. Kuhlmann was still in awe of McGill’s performance.
Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein, CSO vice president Martha Gilmer, CSO violinist David Taylor, composer Anna Clyne, and composer Mason Bates / photo credit: Todd Rosenberg
The next day, my colleagues and I heard a panel that included CSO composers-in-residence Anna Clyne and Mason Bates talk about the CSO sound. We also caught an afternoon rehearsal with Muti and the CSO of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, which was followed by an hour-long interview with Muti. He is quite a passionate speaker and a storyteller, and he likes to flirt a little bit with women. He talked to us about the importance of music criticism, and encouraged us to explain its cultural relevance. He sees music as a way to elevate humankind, and he feels that music can save the world. After he returns to Europe this summer, he will conduct musicians from 20 different nations in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem at a war cemetery that contains over 300,000 unmarked graves. This will be a concert for peace and the audience will consist of people from many cultures, languages, and religions. He feels that music is above politics, but he is worried that classical music has been stigmatized as elitist and confined to concert halls.

Muti talking with MCANA members
 Muti is also very interested in making sure that Verdi’s music is performed correctly. He finds that, over the years, singers have taken too many liberties with the music. For example, when the tenors hang onto high notes before coming down to the tonic that causes the audience to get all stirred up (Muti: “fever”) and he calls it a “dirty trick.” He doesn’t think that “historically informed” performances are all that great, pointing out that Salieri conducted Haydn’s Creation with 1,000 musicians. He dismissed the early music purists as fundamentalists and “vegetarians of music.” For Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which the CSO will perform the next evening, he got a hold of the original score, which clearly shows that the solo line for bass violin in the third movement is really for one instrumentalist and not for a group as the new edition that was issued by the Mahler Society had claimed. Now it turns out that the Mahler Society has realized its mistake and will republish the edition with that correction. The CSO will do a Scriabin cycle next year, and he thinks that Scriabin’s music will become very popular in the future. Muti joined us in a photograph, and that is what is posted at the top of this article.

Looking down on Grant Park/Millennium Park/Pritzker Pavilion from the Cliff Dwellers Club
 Throughout the day, the weather shifted to very stormy and rainy, but that didn’t deter anyone from going to Grant Park to hear the Grant Park Orchestra. That orchestra is the main band of the Grant Park Music Festival, which is the nation’s only free, summer-long outdoor classical music series. It was founded in 1935 and this year is its 80th season. Kalmar is now in his 14th season as Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the GPMF.

The orchestra was onstage for the concert on Wednesday evening (June 18th) and warming up with thunder and lightning struck. Rain began to pour down in buckets and that overflowed the drainage system on top of the Frank Geary-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Water started to gush down from the roof and hit the stage right in front of the podium. The orchestra quickly exited the stage, and the audience was asked to move to east-side parking garage. I found out later that the park management was very worried that the lightning would strike the metal surface of the Pavilion and the damage that might ensue (it is grounded, but there are still a lot of ifs that only a real lightning strike would “resolve”).

Jackiw, Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra
 After the deluge stopped (30 minutes later), the audience was told that the concert would start. We reassembled in the front part which has 4,000 seats. I found out from the GPMF press relations guru Jill Hurwitz that 1,200 had stayed to hear the concert. Kalmar and company decided to forgo the first piece, Otto Nicolai’s Overture to “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and play Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 (“Turkish”) with guest artist Stefan Jackiw (who has performed in Portland a couple of times with the OSO). Due to the ominous clouds overhead, the orchestra and Jackiw took the Mozart at about as fast as possible without getting a speeding ticket. It was absolutely amazing to see Jackiw fingers fly in this performance, and he and the orchestra were still able to convey the elegant emotion of the piece. During the pauses between movements, they were interrupted by ambulances and police sirens, but their patience paid off as they finished in lively and refined fashion.

After the applause ended, the larger orchestral forces quickly took their places and Kalmar got them launched in Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 3, a rarely heard work. It started energetically, with muscular and broad brush strokes by Kalmar, but just a few minutes later, thunder and lighten started to smack the skies. I saw at least four flashes of lightning, and they were… not far away, and the thunder was like an amplified bowling alley. So, part officials bolted from the wings onto the stage and closed the concert. Kalmar faced the audience and shrugged his shoulders. He then came to the lip of the stage and applauded the audience (which had shrunk to about 600) for staying. People came up to him to shake his hand and talk. I said hello, and he teased me about bringing rain from Oregon. Another fellow talked with him in Spanish, and he signed programs for others. It was a disappointing end to the concert, but people were still upbeat, and Kalmar greeted all who came forward.

Kalmar and audience
The next day (Thursday, June 19), several of my colleagues and I returned to the Pritzker Pavilion and met with some of the administrative staff of the GPMF, including President and CEO Paul Winberg (who used to be the executive director of the Eugene Symphony) and Ed Uhlir, Executive Director of the Millennium Park Foundation, who was extremely instrumental in signing up Frank Geary to design the Pavilion. Since that morning’s rehearsal had just ended, Kalmar also came by to talk about the GPMF, and its unique mission, and the superb acoustics on the stage of the Pavilion. He also mentioned that Jackiw has sort of a weather-jinx about him in regards to the festival. The last time he was scheduled to play there, they received tornado warnings and had the cancel the concert.
Ed Uhlir, Carlos Kalmar, and Jill Hurwitz
 That evening, I heard the CSO under Muti perform Schubert’s Fifth Symphony followed by Mahler’s First. The Schubert started with a wonderful conversation tone that was reminded me of Mozart. The strings again excelled in every direction, the dynamics engaging, and the brief Rossini-esque nod in the last movement (Allegro vivace) was delightful. The Mahler was packed with great dynamic contrasts and it was terrific to hear an orchestra with a massive string section to counter-balance the percussion and brass. The high-wire sound of the violins was terrific, the offstage trumpets sounded wonderfully in the distance, and the harp absolutely clear and enchanting. The brass sparkled, especially the bracing rip of the horns in the first movement and the grand sound in the final movement. The solo bass violin (principal Alexander Hanna) was plaintive and moving. Hats off to the percussion and timpani (double-matching sets) for a rabble rousing finale. Principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh’s technique on the bass drum was astonishing and a thing of beauty to watch. The Mahler brought down the house – everyone was standing and bravos echoed about.
Muti conducting the Mahler 1
 The next evening (Friday, June 20) I returned to the Pritzker Pavilion to hear the Grant Park Orchestra under Kalmar perform the Suite from Handel’s “Water Music” in an arrangement by Hamilton Harty, Carl Maria von Webers “Jubel-Overtüre, and Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1. This time, the weather cooperated nicely. The orchestra members are quite adept at turn the pages of the score and securing them with oversized wooden pins (kind of like clothes line pins) in case the wind kicks up. Even Kalmar has a weight that he uses to keep his score from flapping in the breeze.

Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra
Because Harty’s arrangement of Handel’s “Water Music” is for a large orchestra, the sound was much more expansive and grand than what is typically heard a Baroque-sized chamber ensemble. The Grant Park Orchestra played this piece with terrific definition and the work or principal oboist Nathan Mills was superb. The strings conquered the Weber with fast and accurate finger work, and a smile came over the faces of much of the audience when it heard the familiar strains of “My country tis of thee” in the finale. Elgar’s First Symphony was impressively played with the big romantic melody in the last movement was a hit with the audience. It seemed to me that the orchestra should have been a little quieter during the solos that the concertmaster played. I enjoyed hearing the orchestra with the aid of the amplification, but it didn’t have quite the clarity of a concert hall. It would be fun to return some day to hear the orchestra and its chorus in one of the spectacular pieces that Kalmar schedules. If all of the seats are full and the lawn is filled to capacity (another 6,000), then the GPMF can easily provide live concerts to 10,000 people. I’m sure that the festival provides an entry point for many people who have never heard live classical concerts or can’t afford to hear them. What a great accomplishment.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

It’s a mod mod “Iolanthe” at Mock’s Crest

Dru Rutledge as Celia, John Vergin as The Lord Chancellor, Audrey Sackett as Phyllis, and Joshua Randall as Strephon
Placing Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” in the mod London of the 1960s is a brilliant stroke in the current Mock’s Crest Production at the University of Portland. The women (Fairies actually) cavort about in go-go boots, mini-skirts, and polka-dotted umbrellas – all of which are splashed with a Peter Max-like color scheme (“Yellow Submarine” anyone?). The men (peers in the House of Lords) in charcoal grey suits and black bowlers maintain a stiff upper lip. They all interact in a colorful London-street-scene backdrop that niftily converts to the red-cushioned benches of Parliament. To top it off, in the performance that I saw on Sunday afternoon (June 15) all of the evocative costumes (designed by Gregory Pulver) and scenery (designed by Larry Larsen) was supported by an outstanding cast of principals with terrific stage direction by Kristine McIntyre, making this the strongest and best balanced Mock’s Crest production that I’ve seen in several years.

Since “Iolanthe” is a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, its storyline is amusing, farfetched, and complex. Iolanthe (Beth Madsen Bradford) is a fairy who has been banished from the fairy realm for the past 25 years because she deigned to marry a mortal (fairies are immortal and don’t age – well, they age for a little bit, let’s say 21, and then stop). Iolanthe’s fairy sisters want Iolante back because she writes all of their songs and dances, and they need some new ones, and they miss her anyway. The Fairy Queen (Alexis Hamilton) relents and summons Iolanthe to appear and pardon’s her. Iolanthe reveals that she has a son, Strephon, who is half fairy (down to his waist), but his legs are mortal. Strephon (Joshua Randall) meets the fairies and tells them that he is in love with the beautiful Phyllis (Audrey Sackett), but she is the ward of The Lord Chancellor (John Vergin), and he wants to marry her himself. Actually, several members of the House of Lords want marry Phyllis. In particular, the Earl of Mountararat (Robert Winstead) and Earl Tolloller (Brian Tierney) have upped the ante in their quest. They spy Strephon in a tender embrace with his mother and point out it out Phyllis. None of them believe that Iolanthe is Strephon’s mother since she looks so young. Phyllis rejects Strephon; so he calls on the fairies to help him. The Queen Fairy concocts a magical spell that makes him a Member of Parliament with the ability to pass any bill he proposes.

Things get more twisted and sillier from this point onward, but that's part of the fun of “Iolanthe.” Bradford sang the title role winningly. The fetching singing and acting of Audrey Sackett created a convincing Phyllis. She was well-matched by Randall who created an ardent Strephon. John Vergin garnered plenty of laughs as The Lord Chancellor, and he delivered a complicated patter song at full speed, which was impressive yet very hard to follow past the first stanza. Winstead created a delightfully incompetent yet lovable Earl of Mountararat and Tierney was his equal as Earl Tolloller.

Hamilton’s ability to totally embody the persona of the Queen of the Fairies was totally hilarious. She combined an over-the-top British accent with a vocal prowess that goes into a few basements. Most singers cannot produce much of a tone in the lower regions of their voice, but Hamilton was just fantastic. One of her best lines came with the words “O shame upon you,” which seemed to come from the depths of earth.

Erik Hundtoft made the most of his brief, yet very amusing role as Mr. Willis. Dru Rutledge, Valery Saul, and Taylor Kendig were enjoyable as Iolanthe’s fairy sisters. Director McIntyre and choreographer Anne Egan had them doing the twist, the swim, and the mash potato as part of their dance numbers.

The chamber orchestra was well-paced by conductor Tracey Edson, and the chorus sang and acted with aplomb. The final scene included surprisingly inventive costume changes some flashy use of props that fit the show perfectly.

Iolanthe continues this weekend and the next with the final show on June 29th. For more information, check the Mock’s Crest web site.

Kwak, Antonov, and Lewis play Romantic-infused music to preview the Astoria Music Festival

For the last few years, pianist Cary Lewis, who is also the Director of Chamber Music at the Astoria Music Festival, has helped to organize a concert at the Old Church, which functions as an enticing preview of the AMF. I heard the preview concert last Friday (June 13th, which featured Lewis and two of the festival’s featured instrumentalists, violinist Sarah Kwak and cellist Sergey Antonov. It was a well-organized, Romantic-infused program, leading off with Kwak and Lewis in Edvard Grieg’s Sonata in C Minor, followed by Antonov and Lewis in Ernö Dohnányi’s Sonata in B-flat Major, and all three collaborating in Johannes Brahms’ Trio in B Major.

Kwak and Lewis opened the Grieg with an engaging exploration of the heavier and lighter themes of the first movement that were linked with smooth transitions and an excellent tonal balance. The second movement led off with a delicate melody that was exquisitely played by Lewis before it was taken over by Kwak in an equally lovely way. Excellent fortes accented some of the passages and foreshadowed the rousing sentiment of the last movement and made the collaboration between Lewis and Kwak a winner.

Lots of thematic and dynamic contrasts were hallmarks of the Dohnányi performance. Antonov’s low rumblings and mutterings seemed to come out of the depths, and they were remarkably juxtaposed to the higher, more lyrical passages that he played. Antonov also cooked up a soufflé of light, agile, and repetitive sounds that, at times, acquired a crusty and agitated flavor. Lewis supported his playing expertly, including some passages that required him to play at the topmost and bottom most ends of the keyboard at the same time. Themes from the first three movements reappeared in the fourth (“Tema con variazioni”), and it was enjoyable to catch several of them, and the piece contained some effective pauses that Brahms would have been proud of.

After intermission, Kwak, Antonov, and Lewis launched the Brahms with elegance, but the cello seemed at times to be a tad too loud. Still, the threesome was nicely in sync and that worked especially well, especially in sudden crescendos. The pulsating heartbeat of the cello and the melancholic duet between the Antonov and Kwak were high points of the third movement. The fourth movement stirred up the atmosphere a bit, but it didn’t quite seem to gel. I would’ve liked to have heard it again in Astoria where the program was repeated the next day.

The AMF is well underway at this point in runs until June 29th. There are a variety of programs, including more chamber music. Check the AMF web site for the latest information.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Opera Theater Oregon entertainingly mashes film and opera in "Giasone and the Argonauts"

Daniel Buchanan as Sole \
Photo credit - Martin Stabler
Opera Theater Oregon has a colorful history of adapting operatic works to silver screen, often with tongue and cheek results. OTO’s latest offering, “Giasone and the Argonauts,” uniquely melded the music of Francesco Cavalli’s 1649 opera “Giasone” with the Ray Harryhausen’s 1965 film “Jason and the Argonauts.” The result was a wry yet dramatic hybrid, and the performance that I experienced last Thursday (June 5th) at the Hollywood Theatre was an absolute hoot.

To get a grip on “Giasone and the Argonauts,” you have to understand that it didn’t follow the music or the story line of Cavalli’s “Giasone,” but rather, conductor Erica Melton arranged the music and rewrote the text so that it would match up with the storyline in “Jason and the Argonauts.” This happened, because Cavalli’s opera has four main characters and is wrapped around the love mixer of Giasone and Medea, and “Jason and the Argonauts” has eleven main characters, and loosely follows the legend of how they attained the Golden Fleece with the help of Medea.

Catherine Olson as Amore \
Photo credit - Martin Stabler
Because I was a bit confused about all this, I wrote to Melton and she confirmed my hunches, adding “Much of the text had to be changed and many of the recitatives adapted or re-written. I also used music from Cavalli's opera “Ercole Amante” and Monteverdi's opera “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” for some of the action scenes.” Considering the scope of work that Melton did in order to line up the music, using a chamber orchestra consisting of theorbo, harp, guitar, steel guitar, violoncello, percussion, two violins, and a trumpet, the score was quite a challenging undertaking.

The prologue was proclaimed with stately demeanor by Daniel Buchanan, who took the regal persona of Sole (aka Zeus). This was followed by an overture during which the main characters came on stage and did humorous poses, all the while showing off the exaggerated costumes that were created by Useless Woman art collective. After the cast members took their place on stage, next to and just behind the orchestra, the film began to roll, and we were underway with the original sound of the film turned off and all of the performers turned on. Some of the swords and sandals film was humorous because of cultural differences, but everyone in the audience became very engaged when the stop-motion creatures, like the harpies and statue Talos, wracked havoc.

Stacey Murdock as Giasone /
Photo credit - Martin Stabler
A strong cast of principals anchored this production with expressive singing. Stacey Murdock created a manly Giasone. Hannah Penn countered with a seductive Medea. Catherine Olson’s pleaded eloquently as Amore. Daniel Buchanan reigned thoughtfully as Sole. The urgency in voce of Ian José Ramirez in multiple roles (Acasto, Hyllo, Phineo, Guard), the basement-rattling gravitas of Deac Guidi (Ercole and Aeetes) as well as André Flynn (Pelias and Argus), and the plaintive lament of Hsin Yi Lin as Aphrodite added to the enjoyment.

A quartet of artists from Unchained Productions created a variety of evocative sound effects, such as fire, wind, sword fights. Their timing with the film was impeccable.

The chamber orchestra, directed by Erica Melton, featured the expressive playing of the Theorbo by Hideki Yamaya. For much of the evening, the sound was distinctly Baroque, but near the end it was modified by an amplified steel guitar (Chris Gabriel), which was equally pleasant yet different.

Hannah Penn as Medea
/ Photo credit - Martin Stabler
“Gaisone and the Argonauts” was a blast, but it makes me wonder what OTO might be able to do if they had enough money to stage its own version of the story without using the film. That might be even better.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Quadraphonnes Saxophone Quartet at First Presbyterian Church

Saxophone Impressions

Quadraphonnes Saxophone Quartet
Michelle Medler, Mieke Bruggeman-Smith, Mary-SueTobin, and Chelsea Luker
Concert on Celebration Works: Music & Art at First Presbyterian series
12th Season

Where: Sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church, 1200 SW Alder, Portland
Free parking during concert in underground garage at corner of SW 12th and Morrison

When: Sunday, June 8 at 2:00 pm

Tickets: General admission: $15. Students/Seniors: $10. Sold at the door.

About the concert - from the press release:
Celebration Works Concert Series concludes its 12th season on Sunday, June 8th at 2:00 pm in the Sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church with the Quadraphonnes Saxophone Quartet in “Saxophone Impressions”. The Quadraphonnes are an all-female saxophone quartet, comprised of Chelsea Luker (soprano sax), Mary-Sue Tobin (alto sax), Michelle Medler (tenor sax), and Mieke Bruggeman-Smith (baritone sax). They will be performing a wide range of classical saxophone quartet literature as well as several duets. Guest saxophonist, Lee Elderton, will be joining themon the duets.

Many view the saxophone primarily as a jazz instrument. This concert will be a unique opportunity to see the depth and beauty of the saxophone as a classical instrument. Even though the saxophone was not invented until the 1840s, there are many original works for saxophone quartet. Many of these works are by lesser-known composers; earlier composers such as Bach and Mozart did not have the instrument as part of their pallette. Today’s saxophonists can play Bach and Mozart though, due to the many modern arrangements of older repertoire. The Quadraphonnes will be performing one transcription of J.S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier to showcase what was originally composed for solo keyboard translates to a saxophone quartet piece. Original compositions for saxophone quartet, including works by Glasunov and Bozza, will also be featured along with a modern transcription of a tango by Astor Piazzolla.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Flames, trembling souls, and angelic wings soar in Portland Symphonic Choir’s Verdi Requiem

The flames of Dante’s Inferno, trembling souls, and the hovering wings of an angelic presence swirled about the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Sunday evening, June 1, during a concert of Verdi’s “Requiem” (“Messa da Requiem”). Presented by the Portland Symphonic Choir, the powerful and engaging performance involved over 140 voices, including four soloists. Conducted masterfully by Steven Zopfi, the singers and orchestra scoured the heights and depths of this massive work, which is well-loved for its dramatic and operatic flair, and the result was an emotionally and satisfying experience.

The “Messa da Requiem” was written by Verdi in response to the deaths of two great compatriots that he admired. The first was Rossini, who died in Paris in November of 1868. Even though he was an agnostic and fiercely anti-clerical, Verdi proposed a “Requiem Mass” to be composed by Italy’s foremost composers, with one movement to be written by each. Verdi wrote the “Libera me” for that collaborative work, but it was not performed because of disagreements over money and personnel. In May of 1873, the novelist Alessandro Manzoni passed away, and that was keenly felt by Verdi, who considered Manzoni to one of Italy’s greatest writers. Within a year’s time, Verdi wrote the “Messa da Requiem,” incorporating the “Libera me,” and it received its premiere in Milan at the Church of San Marco in 1874 with Verdi on the podium. The work, which is known as Verdi’s “Requiem” has remained in the repertoire ever since.

The soloists, consisting of soprano Kelley Nassief, mezzo Kathryn Weld, tenor Jason Slayden, and bass-baritone Matthew Scollin made a formidable presence. Nassief sang majestically, and kept her vocal prowess in check most of the way, blending well with the other soloists. She definitely got the got the last word in the “Libera me” section. Her voice soared and her emotion was heartfelt and genuine. With the choir and orchestra, she left it all on the stage floor, pleading as an individual for mercy.

Weld did her best work in the upper register, but her lower register needed some extra heft to bring out the full force of her solos and also to be heard against the sound of her colleagues. Slayden supplied a heroic tenor that was remarkably expressive and supported with terrific stamina. His “Ingemisco teamquam reus” (“I groan as a guilty one”) beautifully forged power with lyricism. Scollin poured as much gravitas as possible into his solos, and his singing of “Confutatis maledictis” (“When the damnned are silenced”) wonderfully changed from a subterranean force to a tremulous plea.

The explosiveness of the choir was sudden and thrilling, especially with the “Dies irae” (“Day of wrath”) and “Rex tremendae majestatis” (“King of dreadful majesty”), and "Sanctus" ("Holy") passages in which the volume level got turned up a couple of hair-raising notches. Yet the sound was always well-defined rather than a blare. The choir also excelled in the opposite direction when hushed or solemn moods were demanded. On top of that, the diction of the choir was so superb that you didn’t need to read the text in the program. Consonants were distinct and added meaning to every phrase. Finally, the intonation of the choir was first rate. This was evident right away, when the singers flawlessly executed an extended a cappella section at the beginning of the piece. If they had sagged in the tone, it would have ruined the overall effect when the orchestra joined them.

The orchestra consisted of members of the Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, and some of the best local freelancers. The played impressively with great attention to detail, including many tender moments (woodwinds and strings) that accompanied the singers with eloquence. Even the trumpet battery in the balcony was spot on – a fairly difficult feat because of the distance between the balcony and the stage.

Despite all of the extremes in this work, Zophi didn’t over emote. There were no huge gestures and no playing to the crowd. The exactness of the response that he received from the singers and instrumentalists was astonishing. Crescendos and decrescendos were exhilarating. The piccolo and high brass could be heard above the tremendous rush of sound during the “Dies irae,” and that heightened the overall effect of the words.

Sung without intermission, Verdi's "Requiem" could have had a laden-like effect if not done with the passion and drama that came across in this performance. The audience soaked it all in and then responded with thunderous applause and cheers.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Steven Byess to become the music director of the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra

From the Portland Columbia Symphony press release:

The Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra is delighted to announce the appointment of Steven Byess as Music Director and Conductor, effective today, and to release dates for the 2014-2015 performance season.
This selection is the result of a two-year process led by a search committee made up of orchestra musicians and members of the board of directors. After an intensive year of searching, five finalists were selected from a pool of 151 qualified candidates to vie for the position. Each of the finalists took the podium to conduct concerts for the 2013-2014 season. Ratings of these candidates were rounded out by musician and audience polls. The search committee happily selected Steven Byess based on his demonstration of character, charisma, an excellent array of skills, and a deep-seated passion for the arts.
We extend our gratitude to maestro Huw Edwards for leading PCSO for twelve successful seasons and will welcome him back in the future as Conductor Emeritus and Principal Guest Conductor.
STEVEN BYESS – Conductor
The extraordinarily varied career of Steven Byess takes him not only to the stages of symphony orchestras and opera companies, but also to the stages and genres of Broadway, jazz and television. He is a dynamic conductor and has been hailed by critics as "masterful and brilliant," "creating the epitome of instrumental elegance" and "a talented interpreter, able to capture the sweep of a piece without neglecting detail."
Steven Byess was raised in Atlanta , educated at Georgia State University and the Cleveland Institute of Music, and now resides in Los Angeles . He is the Music Director of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra and the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra, Associate Music Director of the Ohio Light Opera, Principal Guest Conductor of the Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra of Krakow, Poland, and formerly held the posts of Cover Conductor for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Conductor for the International Vocal Arts Institute in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Music Director of the Colorado Youth Symphony Orchestras. Former academic posts include Opera Conductor for the Cleveland Institute of Music (Ohio), Music Director of Opera for California State University — Los Angeles, and conducting faculty of the University of Michigan School of Music in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Steven Byess is a passionate advocate for the arts, much sought after for his speeches on the arts, music, music education and general education. An important community leader, he has created and organized frequent and annual collaborations with numerous choruses, chamber music ensembles, and festivals of the arts. He also wrote, co-directed and is featured in a PBS presentation entitled Count On It!, which is designed for children grades K-3, and shows the correlation of music to mathematics. 
Mr. Byess was chosen by Walt Disney World Entertainment to conduct the 2000 NFL Superbowl Halftime show. The production had over 400 performers, including the Walt Disney World Millennium Orchestra, broadcast to over 900 million viewers worldwide. Byess is also currently featured in a commercial videotaping for the Starz and Encore movie channels, airing internationally.
2014-2015 SEASON
PCSO celebrates its 33rd season in 2014-2015 with four programs of symphonic music. Friday night concerts are held at Portland ’s First United Methodist Church , and Sundays at 3 Series matinees are hosted by Mt. Hood Community College . Symphonic Safari Goes Halloween, the popular family holiday concert, will repeat at Parkrose High School in October 2014.
September 19, 2014 – 7:30pm – First United Methodist Church , Portland
September 21, 2014 – 3:00pm – Mt. Hood Community College Theater, Gresham
November 21, 2014 – 7:30pm – First United Methodist Church , Portland
November 23, 2014 – 3:00pm – Mt. Hood Community College Theater, Gresham
March 13, 2015 – 7:30pm – First United Methodist Church , Portland
March 15, 2015 – 3:00pm – Mt. Hood Community College Theater, Gresham
May 1, 2015 – 7:30pm – First United Methodist Church , Portland
May 3, 2015 – 3:00pm – Mt. Hood Community College Theater, Gresham
Founded in 1982 by Jerry Luedders at Lewis & Clark College , Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra is a not-for-profit service organization dedicated to presenting quality performances of standard, worthy but rarely performed, and new orchestral repertoire. The orchestra features regional composers, soloists, and musicians both professional and semi-professional. Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra brings together musicians and audiences in friendly, affordable, and accessible concert experiences.