Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Oregon Symphony and Solerno-Sonnenberg excel in edgy season opener

Guest Review by Phil Ayers

"Contemporary music is cold and calculated!" So said my music-major girlfriend long ago when I expressed my love for so-called "modern music." For me, that meant, in descending order of affection, the music of Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and a dormitory friend's recordings of the Louisville Symphony. I was on the verge of un-loving her for her crass comment, but what did I know then? We're talking about 1960 here, the year before I abandoned an English major to become a music major myself. I'd show her that not all new music was what she said it was!

Anyone familiar with Robert Whitney, conductor of the Louisville Symphony, will immediately remember what "modern music" sounded like. It was pioneering work, promoting the music of many unknown contemporary composers in the nineteen-fifties and beyond. This kind of stuff was "edgy," you might say: "Hard to listen to," someone else would opine. "Can't take it!" "Give me the Three B's any old day!" still others would pontificate.

If subscribers and ticket-holders to the Oregon Symphony September 27-29 had done their homework, they would have been prepared to hear an evening of "edgy/modern" music. Four works were presented, and only one, Beethoven's lovely little gem of a First Symphony, would qualify for the category of "Sweet Melodies." That was what a late friend said she preferred as she willed us an LP record of the organ music of Messiaen someone had given her: "I like sweet melodies!" The other three pieces on the program may well have "pushed the envelope" for many attendees. But it would be nice to think that, judging from the enthusiastic reaction to violinist's Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg's reading of the fiery Shostakovich's Concerto in A Minor, even those who were skeptical about the program initially were thrilled and perhaps even converted to liking "modern" music. "Edgy"? I was on the edge of my seat during Solerno-Sonnenberg's performance.

Solerno-Sonnenberg, who, according to the program notes is something of a phenomenon in our day, having come from Italy at the age of eight to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, is a visual, as well as aural, modern icon. Resplendent on Sunday evening in a striking black top with hot-red pants and heels, moving about the stage as though in a trance when she wasn't playing, very much "with" this complicated and difficult music at all times, involved athletically, she gave a performance that truly "wowed" us. That's exactly what I said - Wow! - as I immediately stood up to applaud at the conclusion of this wild work.

I remarked on our exit from the hall to head for home, "Gosh, she's not here signing CDs!" My wife, an excellent critic in her own right, but refusing to write this review for me, then said, "I think Nadja has probably gone to her hotel room, taken a nice, long, warm bath and gone to bed after that!"

Conductor Kalmar gave some introductory comments about the Shostakovich concerto: "The opening movement is dark, like solitary confinement, but contrasts come after." Yes, contrasts: they were plentiful, from sotto voce to bombastic! The concerto is in four (not the usual three) movements and contained a truly edgy, even gritty, scherzo; a beautiful, enchanting passacaglia (with the tuba and basses providing the theme much of the time); some dialogues between the solo violin and English horn and French horn; a masterfully-played enormous cadenza; and the finale, "Burlesca: Allegro--Presto," over-the-top in every respect. By that I mean both the music itself and its performers were unified as a whole unit, yet the solo artist was able to bring us to the "top" in no time at all in that movement. Right down to little human r Kalmar gave some introductory comments about the Shostakovich concerto: "The opening movement is dark, like solitary confinement, but contrasts come after." Yes, contrasts: they were plentiful, from sotto voce to bombastic! The concerto is in four (not the usual three) movements and contained a truly edgy, even gritty, scherzo; a beautiful, enchanting passacaglia (with the tuba and basses providing the theme much of the time); some dialogues between the solo violin and English horn and French horn; a masterfully-played enormous cadenza; and the finale, "Burlesca: Allegro--Presto," over-the-top in every respect. By that I mean both the music itself and its performers were unified as a whole unit, yet the solo artist was able to bring us to the "top" in no time at all in that movement. Right down to little human touches, such as a brief, humorous dialogue with an audience member (inaudible to me), and adjusting the extraneous parts of her bowstrings, Salerno-Sonnenberg was at the heart of this performance.

I was not present at this artist's performance of this very same work that she gave with the OSO in 1993, with conductor James DePriest. Twenty-one years ago? The skeptic might say she was ten then! Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg will, we hope, return here again and again to "wow" and stun us with her stellar playing and presence.

Another contemporary work on the program was Michael Torke's Charcoal from Black and White ballet, a brief work that opened the concert, not at all "edgy" but very melodic and, some would no doubt say, after hearing the Shostakovich and Barber works, "listenable." This was its first performance by the Oregon Symphony. The Beethoven followed, with many sweet, delicate passages, well and accurately played by the ensemble. The unconventional opening to the symphony, with a seventh chord moving immediately to a tonic resolution, held our interest for the rest of this delightful work. Interesting it was to read in the notes that Beethoven studied briefly with Franz Josef Haydn but the relationship was strained and Beethoven claimed to have learned nothing. Nevertheless, the piece reveals the composer's study of Haydn's music.

The evening closed with Samuel Barber's "Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance" from a ballet composed in 1946 on a commission from Martha Graham. What we heard was a reconception of a longer suite that Barber made ten years earlier. The complex and tragic tale of adultery and murder is portrayed in this truly edgy and riveting music. We were sent on our way with a bang and not a whimper! No "sweet melodies" here, although the "tender Barber" could be discerned now and then.

It was a memorable evening and a superb start to a new season of the OSO classical subscription series. Oh … my former girlfriend, a fine organist, later became enamored - and studied with - Jean Langlais, the blind French organist and composer. While not necessarily "cold and calculated," he could, on more than one occasion, be "edgy" though!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Kamenz delivers inspiring virtuosic performance in Portland Piano International debut

Pianist Igor Kamenz blazed his own trail in Portland, performing a very demanding program that offered an exciting contrast between the flashy Baroque style of Scarlatti and emotionally exaggerated excess of Liszt. In his recital on Monday night (September 22nd) at Lincoln Hall, he used superior technique to accentuate the dynamics of each piece. It all added up to an impressive concert by the Russian native who was making his Portland debut under the auspices of Portland Piano International. That shouldn’t have been a surprise to listeners, since the 46-year-old pianist has won 18 first prizes in international competitions and made numerous recordings, but he has been so busy in Europe that made his New York debut just last month, performing in the Mostly Mozart Festival.

The first half of the concert featured ten sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti pieces, most of which Kamenz has recently recorded and released on the Naïve label. The opening sonatas (K. 96, K. 24, and K. 119) were scintillating in execution with one hand nailing 32nd notes while the other quickly sprang over the top to just touch a note. Three of the following sonatas (K. 197, K. 322, and K. 109) offered a welcome reprieve with relaxed tempos and simpler themes. Unfortunately, these quieter pieces were interfered by Kamenz’s own breathing, which took on an inexplicable wheezing quality. The next set of light-hearted and fast sonatas (K. 492, K. 17, and K. 29) were loud enough to cover any breath-marks. They had a remarkably delightful spirit that turned the tricky passages into playful adventures.

At the start of the second half of the concert, Kamenz delivered a mesmerizing decent into hell via Franz Liszt’s “Dante Sonata” (“Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata”). The defiant chords, the rapid shifting of rhythm and melody, the showy and complex arpeggios, the wafting passages in upper reaches of the treble clef… it was all stunningly played by Kamenz. He created scenery of anguish and flames as well as lovely and distant sounds that seemed to come from above. It was an over-the-top performance that got everyone out of their seats in rapturous applause.

Kamenz delved into the cantabile essence of four songs by Franz Schubert that were arranged by Liszt. The first two pieces, from Schubert’s song cycle “Die schöne Müllerin” (“The Miller’s Beautiful Daughter”), provided sharply contrasting emotions from the cycle. In the hands of Kamenz, “Das Wandern” (“Wandering”) created the sense of a young lad who sets out on adventure full of hope. “Der Müller und der Bach” (“The Miller and the Brook”) created an atmosphere of loss and desperation. The gently rocking undercurrent and the main melodic line were wonderfully mixed together in Kamenz’s playing of “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” (“To be sung on the Water”), but his interpretation of “Erlkönig” (“The Elf King”), with the pounding hooves, the threatening vision of the specter in the woods, the father with his son in his arms, and the sudden, tragic ending was absolutely convincing.

Another standing ovation followed, and Kamenz responded with an outstanding rendition of Bach’s Fugue No. 3 in C# Major. It was a fitting ending to a spectacular concert that PPI artistic director Arnaldo Cohen neatly summed up in his introductory remarks, welcoming the audience to “planet Kamenz.”

Scott Showalter - the new President and CEO of the Oregon Symphony - talks about his decision to come to Portland and his job

Last May, the Oregon Symphony announced that Scott Showalter would become the orchestra’s President and CEO. Showalter, who is 41 years old, brings an impressive resume with him. He is a classically trained pianist who received his undergraduate dual degree in Economics and German Studies from Stanford University and an MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles. He has served as the Vice President for Development of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, the Associate Vice President of Alumni Relations and Development of the University of Chicago, and the Associate Dean for External Relations of Stanford Law School. Earlier this week, it was announced that Showalter will be participating Chief Executive Program: Community and Culture that is offered by National Arts Strategies, an acclaimed nonprofit organization for leaders in the arts.

I met with Showalter a couple of weeks ago at his office and asked him a few questions. Here is our conversation.

Why did you leave the LA Phil, Dudamel, Disney Hall, and huge budget and endowment to come and take over the Oregon Symphony?

Showalter: I’ve been in development for 20 years, and I’ve loved the work that I’ve done in higher ed and the arts. Coming to the Oregon Symphony has been an opportunity, albeit at a smaller institution but with a broader vision, to make a real difference. The product on stage at the LA Phil is superb. The budget and endowment are tops. It was excellent place for me to get my artistic professional start. Because I am a classically trained pianist and a music lover at heart, it was a natural transition to go from higher ed nonprofit administration to the LA Phil. Now in coming to Portland, it’s a chance to make a difference in a community that has an exceptional artistic product, but doesn’t have the funding. For me, as a leader, this is the real energy. With more resources we can do bigger and better things.

I wouldn’t have come to Portland if Carlos and the musicians weren’t already at a high level. Now it’s a matter of marshaling the resources and creating the vision to get people who are buying tickets excited and the people making donations excited.

Yes, there’s more opportunity to raise donations, but it’s not a matter of hiring the right fundraiser and putting him or her in the corner office and expect them to deliver. There’s opportunity on the earned revenue side of the house to sell the quality of what we are doing and the purpose of what we are doing. Why these concerts should matter. Why this music should interest the community. Why it’s not so intimidating to come to the Schnitz and hear Bach and Beethoven. I’ve been spending a preponderance of my time out in the community, meeting with arts leaders, the board, donors, patrons, and the general public.

There’s more art events being offered than ever before, and a lot of groups have increased the number of performances. That creates a very crowded field. So your effort will not be easy.

Showalter: The difference is between looking at the pool of resources as fixed versus expansive. If you assume that the greater Portland community can give only this much pie, then it’s a zero sum game. But I would argue that the pie with more product and interested patrons is bigger than we might have once considered – even in Portland. It wasn’t all that long ago that the LA Phil itself was in similar position. It needed more funds. That was before moving into Disney Hall, and expanding their programs, and developing the Hollywood Bowl in a new way. That orchestra didn’t have the sure financial footing that it has today.

It’s not that Portland is any less of a city or any less worthy. It’s just at a different stage of its development. There’s a lot of opportunity as I see it.

I know that the marketing of the performances is a tricky thing.

Showalter: We are being creative about that. Jim Fullan our Vice President of Communications, Marketing and Sales, and I talk about how to get the word out through new channels. Carlos and I, a couple of weeks ago, were at the Hillsboro Hops game. He conducted a group of adult marching band musicians in the “Star Spangled Banner” and then again during the seventh inning stretch. We were up on the big screen and got some good press coverage. It was a new way to get Carlos’s face out in the community. Tonight I’m going to the OHSU gala at the invitation of one of our donors to promote an auction item on behalf of OHSU that will garner attention. There are many ways to get out the message.

The expansion of the Waterfront Concert into an all-day event is part of this. Our thought, when I talked to the mayor about the concert, is that the grant we received is not about the Oregon Symphony. It costs a lot of money to put on that event, there’s cleaning up after dogs and geese, permitting the big stage that takes four days to set up, the sound system, the musicians… we thought that this would be a terrific platform to engage our community partners. So we put on a music festival. It started in the afternoon with the 234th National Army Band of the Oregon National Guard, followed by several youth groups, Portland Taiko, Portland Opera, Oregon Ballet. Of course, the Oregon Symphony with the cannons and the fireworks provided the grand finale, but the grant gave us the chance to convene a music festival, and that was a great way to give back to the community.

Your predecessor, Elaine Calder, was noted for coming out on the stage at Oregon Symphony concerts and introducing the orchestra to the audience. Do you plan on doing that?

Showalter: I do! I plan to do that for every classical concert and many of the specials. It’s a great way to put a face on the organization and brag about the orchestra.

Speaking of specials, I’ve got a couple of friends who think that the orchestra is relying too much on popular artists. They want the orchestra to play more new, serious music.

Showalter: We would love to do more new music and help to advance the art form that is classical music. We just need more money. Just to wax philosophical for a moment – as a general rule, people buy tickets to music that they know. So, anything that is new – a commission or a piece that they’ve never heard before – makes people reluctant to buy tickets. If you are in a position where you have to squeeze every last dollar out of every of performance, then you don’t have the luxury to do it for the good of the art form, because you have to sell out the hall. On the other hand, if we are not doing new music, this art form dies. Music has been evolving for hundreds of years. At one point Beethoven was new, and Mahler was new. We want to build to new serious music. It’s just going to take more money.

Are things working well with Carlos?

Showalter: Connecting with Carlos is one of the key factors in making my decision to take this job. He and I have spent a lot of time together while I’ve been here, introducing me to board members and donors. He has hosted me at his house for dinner, we did the Hillsboro Hops game together, we’ve spent a lot of time together. It’s all good and a lot of fun. He is going to be a great partner.

I’m also enjoying going to rehearsals and meeting the musicians. I stuck around for most of the rehearsal at the Waterfront. I’ll be hearing them at our concerts, and at concerts around town. I recently heard our concertmaster Sarah Kwak play at All Classical FM. That was fun.

How did you even hear about this job?

Showalter: Thomas Lauderdale is a good friend of a good friend of mine. Pink Martini performed at the Hollywood Bowl a little over a year ago, and that was when I met Norman Leyden for the first time. He was giving his Bowl debut. Because of the mutual friend who was at the concert serendipitously – he doesn’t live in LA or Portland, I got to be friends with Thomas and the band for the three nights that they were performing at the Bowl. Since I was vice president of development, I was backstage a lot at the Bowl. It wasn’t long after that that Thomas was encouraging me to consider coming to Portland. It took many months of discussion, but it all worked out.

Now that you’ve been in Portland for a little while, have you made any surprising discoveries?

Showalter: The most surprising and heartening thing that I found is how receptive other arts leaders are to my presence. In other cities you might find the opera and the orchestra are a bit competitive, or the art museum and the performing arts world try as much as possible to distinguish themselves to retain board members and our donor base. Here I’m finding that from Portland Center Stage to the Art Museum to OBT to the Opera… everyone is welcoming me with open arms, introducing me to their patrons and board members and thinking about what it means to collaborate. That’s pretty unique. I didn’t expect that.

I’m an avid cyclist. I’ve been getting out and exploring the hills around Portland. I’m a climber; so I’ve been enjoying how easy it is to get to the hills right outside my door on the West side of town.

I’m a beer connoisseur. So I’m in beer mecca here.

But you don’t have the beer gut!

Showalter: That’s the only reason I cycle! So that I can drink more beer. [Laughs!] I love coffee too. I just downed my third cup. I love the culinary scene here.

The environment, culture, and allure of Portland means that it is on the upswing. It’s great to be here and have this opportunity.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Béla Fleck wows the Schnitz with 'Impostor'

Béla Fleck
There was a different crowd and atmosphere than is perhaps usual for an Oregon Symphony Concert when Béla Fleck played the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Saturday, September 13. This is no surprise considering the banjo virtuoso's crossover appeal; he has been nominated in more Grammy categories than any other artist in history.

After opening with a flashy Overture to Candide that wowed the crowd and made me wish the opera was forthcoming, OSO got down to the meat of the program: Fleck's concerto for orchestra and banjo entitled Impostor, premiered in 2011 with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Fleck was warmly welcomed to the stage, and seemed humorously discomfited at being a part of the more formalized world of a classical symphony orchestra, while also amused at his own creation, much to the delight of the audience.

The first movement, Infiltration, began as a gentle threnody on the strings, around which was wound groups of somber, murmuring winds. This gave way to a sudden and violent tempest from strings and percussion as dissonant chordal motives from the orchestra were interspersed with fascinating polytonal fingerpicking by Fleck, who seemed as though he were wandering his own way, independent of the orchestral background before suddenly finding his way back. At times Fleck played an ostinato, and moments of levity found their way into the somewhat dark mood.

The second movement, named Integration, was more sparsely textured, and Fleck's playing at times was reminiscent of a gypsy guitar. After the initial exposition there were times when the thematic material of this movement was somewhat dull; it simply felt unnecessarily long. The last movement, Truth Revealed, was a pastiche of interesting ideas that somehow never found their way into a cogent overarching theme. It could be that was the entire point, but it was difficult to tell. There were some fine textural experiments, and an absolutely brilliant extended cadenza that showcased Fleck's dizzying virtuosity on his instrument. All in all, this was not the work of an experienced symphonic composer (as Fleck took pains to point out in the program notes), but it was rather a largely enjoyable and promising assay into a new sound world for this undisputed master of the banjo.

Big Country, one of Fleck's more traditional compositions, was aptly named, with a broad Appalachian feel, an expansive sweep of sound redolent with Americana. Although Fleck was mic'd, the orchestra often drowned him out in this work, something they'd avoided during the concerto. Fleck treated the delighted audience to a solo encore consisting of the most whimsical and virtuosic rendition imaginable of the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies.

The second half consisted of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's  boisterous and brief Danse Negre, and a suite from of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess arranged by Robert Russell Bennett at the behest of the composer. It began with a heartachingly lush andante, with muted statements from the trumpet sounding forth like dreamy echoes, and featuring a Summertime as languid and sultry as one could want.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Andrés Lopera talks about his work with the Metropolitan Youth Symphony and its upcoming season

Andrés Lopera is starting his third season as the music director of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony. A native of Columbia, Lopera holds a Master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the New England Conservatory of Music, a Master’s degree in trombone performance from the University of Texas at Austin, and a double degree in conducting and trombone from the Universidad EAFIT in Medellin, Colombia.

This past summer was the assistant conductor of the National Repertory Orchestra in Breckenridge, Colorado where he worked with Carl Topilow and Jeffrey Kahane. I talked with him a few weeks ago. Here is part of our conversation

Since you are a trombonist, do you bring it to rehearsals?

Lopera: Sometimes to give a little extra encouragement to the brass section, I’ll grab my trombone and come30 minutes before the session and do some warm ups with them, talk about technique, and work with them a bit. It’s really good because we have all of the kids from all of different brass levels.

How did you get into conducting?

Lopera: I enjoy the trombone repertoire, but I wanted to go farther. I wanted to expand my horizons beyond playing trombone. I wanted to understand the other instruments in the orchestra. I come from a little town in Columbia, and we didn’t have violins for people like me. Wealthy people had violins, but that was a different situation. I played trombone in salsa groups, jazz groups, a town band, a ska and reggae group, and a university orchestra. I used to put quintets and small ensembles together for little concerts. I got interested in studying conducting, and my teachers said that I had really good leadership qualities. I talked to the professor who taught conducting at my university, and told her that I really wanted to conduct. So, she began to teach me.

So, it was really great that the trombone gave me a lot of versatility. It allowed me to play in different groups and earn some money for my university education. One of the wonderful things about MYS is that we try to instill versatility in our ensembles. We have three levels of jazz, three levels of band, and six levels of orchestra.

One of the things that we are trying to capitalize on at MYS is the international relationships that I have. So we are doing Skype sessions with the musicians of an orchestra called A Far Cry, which is based in Boston, Massachusetts. I know a lot of the members of that ensemble from my studies at the New England Conservatory. So we used Skype to pair up leaders from my chamber orchestra, which is all strings, and they received lessons from the professionals. A Far Cry came to Portland last January for a concert, and after that they came to MYS and worked with my kids. It was really fantastic.

Last year, I conducted a piece on the season-opening concert of the New World Symphony in Miami. It was Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. I also got to work with Michael Tilson Thomas on the other pieces of the program. Another great thing was a discussion that I had with him about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. We talked about it for three hours. Then after I returned to Portland, I had that piece on one of my MYS programs, and Michael Tilson Thomas called me to find out how it went with the kids. That was a really nice thing to do.

We also used Google hangouts to work with Michael Tilson Thomas and other professionals, like the concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. It’s been really great for our kids. We have worked with musicians from the Oregon Symphony. About 20 of them came to one of our rehearsals last season and played side by side with our musicians while Carlos Kalmar conducted. My students learn a lot just by listening and by example. We have a lot of great coaches from the Oregon Symphony, as well as other excellent local professionals. But one of our main interests is to create leaders in our ensembles who can become leaders at their local schools also.

We are doing a lot of building at the local level. We are using our ensembles to reach out to schools. For example, we went to the César Chávez School. I talked to the kids there in Spanish. Everything went very well. We have a new program called Beginning Strings for students who attend underserved elementary schools. So we cover music from a very wide range of abilities.

How many kids are involved in all of the MYS programs?

Lopera: I think that we had 480 students last year, and it will probably be about the same this year. Around 85 are in the symphony orchestra.

Do you have to motivate the students?

Lopera: No, that’s because the kids are already very motivated. They are willing to give up time watching TV or on the computer to learn how to master an instrument and make beautiful music. It really helps to develop their brain, and it will help them later in life when they are in college. They are very motivated to take three hours out of their Saturdays to come and work at rehearsals. It’s great to see that they want to do well. My job is to keep them challenged, treat them as individuals and young professionals, but be demanding. I love their energy and sometimes they come up with funny things. Last year, they gave me a gigantic basket filled with college food: instant soups, cookies, and cans of tuna. I had told them that I wasn’t a good cook, and they said, ‘don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.’ It was really cute.

Your orchestra has already played at the Waterfront Concert at the end of last month. Tell us about the concerts you’ve planned for this season.

Lopera: The Waterfront concert was a first for us, and it went really well. For our December concert, we will play Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. That’s a big challenge for the kids. We’ll also play Glinka’s “Ruslan and Ludmila Overture.” The concert will feature some of the other MYS ensembles like the Concert Orchestra and the Interlude Orchestra.

For our spring concert, we will again collaborate with some choirs. This year we will do opera choruses. We will have a lot of singers in the loft. The concert will have some surprises, too. This concert will be a wonderful opportunity for the symphony orchestra to work with singers. It will be really wonderful.

Our last concert will have music by Brahms. We will play his “Hungarian Dances” and the Symphony No. 4. We will also have a piece that will feature the winner of our concerto competition.

Have your parents been able to come to Portland to see you conduct?

Lopera: Not yet. Portland is a long ways from Columbia. I send them a DVD of my concerts here with the MYS. I’m the weird kid in the family. I’m the youngest of seven, and the only one to live outside of the country. But they have seen me conduct orchestras in Columbia. In March, I conducted my university orchestra and a professional orchestra. My parents and all of my siblings were there. It was a beautiful experience.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

45th Parallel Quartet to open its sixth season with Leclair: A Tale of Two Countries

Greg Ewer and Adam LaMotte
From the press release:

45th Parallel presents the opening concert of  its 6th season Wednesday, October 8th at 7:30 pm at The Historic Old Church in downtown Portland. The concert is entitled Leclair: A Tale of Two Countries. Performers are Greg Ewer and Adam LaMotte, violins; Nathan Whittaker, cello; Susan Jensen, harpsichord. The Old Church is located at 1422 SW 11th Avenue, Portland, OR, 97201.

The program will feature works by Jean-Marie Leclair, Arcangelo Corelli (Italy) and Jean-Baptiste Lully (France). Leclair is credited with establishing an important link between Italian and French musical styles of the 18th century. Ewer and LaMotte will perform selections from the recording, and discuss Leclair’s blending of influences from the two countries.

In March, 2014 Ewer and LaMotte released a landmark recording of all 12 Sonatas for Two Violins by Jean-Marie Leclair. It is the first time this music has been available as a complete set and in high definition. It has received critical acclaim from over a dozen national and international publications.

New York Times - “an elegant recording…sparkling with French refinement and spirit”
The Strad Magazine - a “landmark recording of Leclair’s twelve violin duo sonatas”
Early Music America - “Ewer and LaMotte…show an uncanny ability to match gesture, timing, quality of sound, phrasing and ornamentation”
Fanfare Magazine – “Urgently recommended.”

Tickets, $25 for general admission and $20 for student/seniors, are available at http://leclair.brownpapertickets.com/ and http://www.45thparallelpdx.org.  45th Parallel, founded in 2009, is a nonprofit celebrating musicians of the Pacific Northwest. With emphasis on small ensembles and creative programming, 45th Parallel seeks to bring Portland’s rich chamber music culture out of the living room and onto the stage.
Contact: Gregory Ewer, Artistic Director, 503-341-0606, info@45thparallelpdx.org

Friday, September 12, 2014

Supové concert offers new take on piano performance

The piano did not explode, but Kathleen Supové did create some new sonic textures at her concert last Saturday (September 6) at the Brunish Theatre. Her unusual piano recital, entitled “The Exploding Piano,” was a showcase for new music, primarily from the “Downtown School” of composers who live in New York City, and, for her concert, that meant that most of the pieces were for piano and soundtrack. The combination of electronic media and piano was fun to hear, and did expand my experience of what a piano concert could be like, but it didn’t bowl me over. I felt that the soundtrack sometimes dominated the performance and that the music, though serious at times, just wasn't transcendent.

Supové kicked off her program with “The Body of Your Dreams” by Jacob TV (Ter Veldhuis), a Dutch composer who likes to infuse some of his pieces with an aspect of popular American culture. “The Body of Your Dreams” featured snippets from commercials that sell a muscle toning belt called an Abtronic. The loud and punchy part for the piano perfectly complimented the wildly enthusiastic selections from the Abtronic commercial, which alternated between a man and a woman talking about how easy the product was to use and how it got rid of flabbiness. As the piece went on, I found myself listening more and more to the woman’s voice, especially when she exclaimed “Wow! It’s so easy!” That really made me laugh, but I forgot to listen to the piano part, which was equally vigorous.

Missy Mazzoli’s “Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos” created a swampy, surreal sound as if the music were being played under water. The soundtrack had a vague tone that would become more penetrating and then fade away. Supové overlaid a spectrum of full chords that crashed about and complimented the soundtrack with a buildup of overtones. She seemed to be using the sustain pedal almost all of the time except when she played a fragment from Schubert’s Sonata in A major. The piece ended in a somber and understated way that was poignant, especially in regards to Eberhardt’s death at the age of 27 during a flood in the wilderness of North Africa.

The two piano miniatures by Mohammed Fairouz showed off the piano without an accompanying soundtrack. Both “Lullaby for a Chelsea Boy” and “For Syria” had a wistful quality, although the latter was more solemn. Neither piece struck me as virtuosic in any way, but more like Mozart, in which a simple melody has to sound natural and free. Supové conveyed that feeling very well.

Just before intermission, Supové played Randall Woolf’s “What Remains of a Rembrandt,” which came across as an intellectual and abstract piece. Its soundtrack began with a vague and drifting tone that gave the sense of something falling apart. Sporadic thuds and sparse sounds from the piano accented the wash of the soundtrack before things shifted to a rhythmic section with a rolling piano part and blipping sounds from the soundtrack. This transitioned into a shimmery keyboard segment with lots of overtones then a helter skelter break that dissolved into abruptness and jamming, slamming chords. The final section of this piece returned to something like the drifting soundtrack that was at the beginning of the piece and an equally drifting passage for the piano, creating a sense of slow motion.

After intermission came parts 3 and 4 from Annie Gosfield’s “Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind.” This soundtrack contained a recording of Hurricane Sandy as well as sounds that had had an eerie hollowness and some that were very piercing. The piano part, based on Debussy’s prelude “What the West Wind Saw,” accompanied the wind-blown background extremely well.

Supové played with like precision during “Ever Just As Sure” from “Disney Remixes” by Matt Marks. The piece, inspired by Bach as well as some famous Disney tunes, started out simply and became very complex at the end. I didn’t catch the movie themes, but the piece had an appealing, carefree attitude.

It was difficult to tell which tones came from the piano and which came from the soundtrack in Carolyn Yarnell’s “The Same Sky,” but the music generated several exciting moments when it became nervous and faster. Some segments gave the impression of many tiny bells echoing about. Intriguing also were the changes in volume and harmonics. There was a lot going on in the sky of this music.

As an encore, Supové teamed up with violinist Kenji Bunch to play the first set of Randall Woolf’s Anti-Fragile Études.” This piece had an improvisation aspect that both performers played with verve. Together they knotted together several dystopian riffs that included half-tone glissandos, pizzicato strumming, and something like ricochets by Bunch. The piece brought down the house.

This concert was Supové’s professional debut in Portland. She was born and raised here before studying music in California and later in New York City where she built her career. There were around a hundred people in attendance but very few college students. Perhaps this was because Portland State has not opened yet. It would have been interesting to get their take on the concert, and if they saw piano music moving in this direction.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

“The Canticle of the Black Madonna” – a fine effort by a new opera to tackle serious subjects

Serious topics deserve serious music, but a little levity might have helped “The Canticle of the Black Madonna,” a new opera that received its world premiere at the Newmark Theatre on Friday evening (Sept. 5). Composer Ethan Gans-Morse and librettist Tiziana DellaRovere and Anima Mundi Productions deserve kudos for tackling post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) and an environmental disaster, but a bit of humor would have helped the audience to digest the double whammy of a heavy story that fortunately achieved some uplift at the end through kindness of a friend and the miraculous intervention of the Black Madonna.

“The Canticle of the Black Madonna” tells the story of Adam, an Afghanistan war veteran, who struggles with his emotions after returning home to Louisiana from duty in Iraq. His wife, Mara, bears the brunt of his violent feelings, and she is at her wits end in trying to help him return to the man he was before he left for the war. In the meantime, an oil spill off the coast causes them to lose the family’s oyster business. Somehow, in a divine way, the couple is healed through the help of the Black Madonna, a Marian-like deity and a friend, Paul, who opens his house and farmland near the Mississippi River to them.

The opera’s title is inspired by the statues or paintings that depict the Virgin Mary with dark skin. Most of these artworks date back to the 12th to 15th centuries and can be found in Catholic countries. In this opera, the Black Madonna is not an icon or relic, but becomes an active character in the story and represents universal love rather than the Virgin Mary per se. At one point, Adam sees the Black Madonna, even though is not explained how he would have even heard of such a visage. The audience is expected to accept this matter and not question it. If Adam and/or Mara had said that he/she had visited a Black Madonna shrine in Italy or Mexico, it would have made a stronger link between them, but, overall, the link between them was not convincing.

With a whiskey bottle at the ready, baritone Michael Mayes made a formidable impression as the volatile, stressed-out war veteran. Soprano Lindsey Cafferky was equally convincing as the loving spouse who doesn’t give up on her damaged husband. Both singers displayed powerful voices that explored the raw emotions of their respective characters. Less effective was contralto Gwendolyn Brown as the Black Madonna, because her vocal power and quality was very uneven, especially in the upper range.

Bass André Flynn created a deceptively wise and compassionate Paul. Rachael Marsh and Timothy Galloway blended well in their roles as angels.

The chorus, consisting mostly of Portland State Chamber Choir members, did as fine of a job as possible from the upper balcony. There was quite a distance between them a conductor Ryan Heller, and it was very difficult for them to increase the volume. The sound seemed to go straight up into the high dome over the audience.

Heller did a terrific job cuing the singers and leading the orchestra, which was a chamber ensemble of 23 professionals. He seems to have a real affinity for opera, and hopefully will get more opportunities to conduct from the pit.

The style of music for the Black Madonna , angels, and the chorus seemed inspired by the music of the Renaissance and Baroque with the Black Madonna getting several ornamented phrases. The passages for Adam, Mara, and Paul had a contemporary and slightly dissonant feel that conveyed the many turbulent parts of the story very well. The most moving segment came when Adam revealed what had happened to him and his contingent in Afghanistan.

Larry Larsen’s stage design put a modest living room on one side of the stage and an outdoor work area on the other. Towards the back and in the middle was a short set of stairs. Under the effective direction of Kristine McIntyre, the stairs were the realm of the Black Madonna while everyone else moved about the other parts of the set.

If there could be a way to give Paul’s character a little bit of quirkiness or some humor, then I think that it would have helped to break up the constant stream of seriousness that pervades the opera. Or perhaps there's a way to reduce some of the text of the chorus or the Black Madonna. It can be argued that other operas have little or no humor (for example, “Wozzeck”), but then the music has to carry more of the weight.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Kathleen Supové talks about her upcoming Exploding Piano concert

Photo credit: Robin Holland
Pianist Kathleen Supové, one of the nation's leading proponents of contemporary piano music, will be giving a performance of new music at the Brunish Theatre this Saturday, September 6th, at 8 pm. The concert, which is presented by the fEARnoMUSIC ensemble, will reflect New York City’s “Downtown School” of music with works by Missy Mazzoli, Randall Woolf (Supové’s husband), Matt Marks, Annie Gosfield, Mohammed Fairouz and Carolyn Yarnell. Some pieces are for the piano only while others will feature piano with soundtrack. By pushing the boundaries, Supové's recitals have inspired many concertgoers, including critic Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times, who wrote “What Ms. Supové is really exploding is the piano recital as we have known it, a mission more radical and arguably more needed.”

Besides the unusual music, this concert is of special note because Supové is a native of Portland. She earned her bachelor’s in music from California’s Pomona College and a master’s from The Juilliard School, Supové went on to win the top prize in the Gaudeamus International Competition for Interpretation of Contemporary Music and began her career as a guest artist at the prestigious Darmstadt Festival in Germany. She has championed works by so many contemporary composers (Frederic Rzewski, Louis Andriessen, Terry Riley, Chinary Ung, Giacinto Scelsi, Iannis Xenakis, Aaron Jay Kernis, Michael Daugherty, and John Adams are just a few to mention) that her name is synonymous with new music.

I talked with Supové over the phone about her upcoming concert. Here is part of our conversion:

What part of Portland was your neighborhood?

Supové: I was born at Emanuel Hospital and grew up around Northeast 70th between Halsey and Glisan and went to Madison High School. I went away to college but usually returned over the summer.

Who was your most influential piano teacher when you were growing up?

Supové: It was Elesa Scott Kenney. She was from a well-heeled historical family in Portland. Her grandfather was Harvey Scott, who was editor-in-chief of “The Oregonian” and has a grade school and a mountain named after him. She was kind of the renegade of the family, which had a Scottish heritage and was fairly regal in style. It was horror of horrors that she became a pianist. She did a lot of radio recording and hung out at the symphony when she was a kid. She knew the orchestra’s director Willem van Hoogstraten and got to meet Rachmaninoff when he came to Portland for a concert. Elesa’s teacher was composer and pianist Dent Mowrey. She was very big on teaching his music; so I grew up with it. That helped to develop my taste for contemporary music, and she instilled in me a love for the piano – enough to become a professional pianist.

To become a professional pianist with an emphasis on new music, you’ve taken a unique journey.

Supové: Sometimes I think that it would be great to be in such-and-such chamber ensemble or group, because you can draw on the group’s identity. But my career has allowed me to focus on new solo piano works, and I’ve been able to play them multiple times. It’s not like a person who tours with Beethoven, but it’s close! This has been terrific especially for the pieces that I’ve commissioned. They have their own identity, and I see my identity through them. It’s been real lucky, and I’ve been able to survive financially.

An article about you in the Wall Street Journal article stated that you’ve commissioned over 75 new piano pieces, but that was a few years ago. How many pieces have you commissioned now?

Supové: I think that it’s around 95 to 100.


Supové: Sometimes there is no money for these commissions, and when that happens, I try to make sure that the piece is performed a lot. So the piece gets some mileage, and the composer can at least get royalties from people who heard the piece and want to play it.

The husband and wife team of Kenji Bunch and Monica Ohuchi are the new artistic and executive directors of Portland’s fEARnoMUSIC ensemble, and they are taking the lead in presenting you in this concert. I assume that you met them in New York City? Did you meet Kenji first or Monica?

Supové: I met Kenji first. I think that it was here when he was playing with a quartet. I remember really liking his music and probably just introduced myself or met him through mutual friends. It was great to get to know him and his music. Later I curated a concert series at a theater in TriBeCa called the Flea Theater. I presented Monica, who played his piano etudes. That’s how I got to know her. Before they moved to Portland, they lived fairly near to where I live now.

So this is your professional debut in here?

Supové: Yes. I had tried to make it happen but there was always scheduling conflicts. So for this concert, Kenji wanted me to play a few things that are representative of life here: New York composers and pieces that I consider signature pieces of mine.

It would be great if you could talk about the pieces on the program.

Supové: The pieces on the program are very narrative. They tell stories about contemporary life. It’s related to today. Rather than feeling like it is music in a salon, a lot of the pieces have soundtracks with it. So the piano might be, for example, in the middle of a storm. One of the pieces has sound samples from Hurricane Sandy, which happened just a couple of years ago.

The first piece on the program is “The Body of Your Dreams” by Jacob ter Veldhuis. He is a Dutch composer and is also an honorary American because he has spent a lot of time here. Some of his music is based on American pop culture. This piece has sound samples from an infomercial for an Abtronic, which is an electrified belt that you wear around your stomach. It is supposed to crunch your abs when you are not even trying. Of course, it’s completely fraudulent. I actually own one, but I’m too scared to use it. The piece is sort of like Steve Reich with a speech sample and the rhythm of the music matching the speech. It’s a really hysterical piece, and I thought it would be a good way to start off the program, because it not only connects to contemporary life, but it has a humorous and hyperness that appeals to me. It has an autobiographical, confessional component for me, because my weight has always been topic on my mind. I was overweight as a kid. Weight is something I’m always fighting, a never ending struggle.

The next piece is by Missy Mazzoli, who is one of the rising stars in the composing world in New York. She writes very beautiful, melodic music that has a special appeal to young people – much in the same way of indie songwriters. She has a band called Victoire, and they really get around. “Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos” is a piece that she wrote for me back in 2007, and it became the basis for an opera that she wrote about Isabelle Eberhardt. Eberhardt was an explorer and writer who, at the beginning of the 20th century, abandoned a comfortable aristocratic life for a nomadic existence in North Africa. Mazzoli’s music is kind of looking back on her life, when she played piano. There’s a quote from Schubert in the piece. There’s also a soundtrack. We recorded some piano sounds in a gloomy practice room, and Mazzoli processed them. The soundtrack plays along with me and at some point sweeps over what I’m playing. It’s a beautiful piece.

I'll play two pieces from a collection of piano miniatures by Mohammed Fairouz, a young – still in his 20s – New York composer. They are acoustic pieces. I’ll play “Lullaby for a Chelsea Boy,” which was written for me. I’m the Chelsea Boy (laughs). It’s a very simple lullaby, a sweet folk song that has a shimmering right hand. The shimmering represents the memory of what happened the night before – the gay scene, staying out at night, going to a rave. “For Syria” is a more political piece. It is dedicated to innocent victims of the crisis there. A lot of Mohammed’s work is very political, and some of it is very crazy. Some of the miniatures are of The Rouges Gallery – the superhero cartoon characters. So it goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. There are 17 in all, and I've just recorded them. That recording should be released later this year.

“What Remains of a Rembrandt” is a piece for piano and soundtrack by Randall Woolf, who is my husband. He will be here for the performance. He’s a mid-stage New York composer, older than the other composers on the program. This piece is inspired by a short, essay by Jean Genet. It talks about what remains of a Rembrandt after all of the trappings are taken away and you are left with the raw emotion. This is a piece for my Digital Debussy project. What would happen if you took away all of the Romantic trappings of Debussy and were left with just the emotion. He took some material from “Pelléas and Mélisande” and processed it beyond recognition. He also has some Vietnamese gongs in there, and a kind of drumbeat that is actually the loading of a rife. And he has a cadenza that is layers of fragments from my favorite Debussy piano piece, which is “Hommage à Rameau.”

Annie Gosfield is, like Randy, a mid-career composer from New York. Her “Apparitions of the Western Wind,” which is for my Digital Debussy project, is based on the Debussy prelude “What the West Wind Saw.” The piece has samples of different kinds of keyboards and sample of Hurricane Sandy. It’s a very wild, Romantic piece in the middle of a hurricane. There’s a kind of sadness about it, too.

“Disney Remixes” is by Matt Marks. Marks is doing a lot of weird, wild operas, but before that he did these remixes of Disney things like “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.” This remix, “Ever Just as Sure,” is based on “Beauty and the Beast.” It adds a little bit of levity to the program, which is otherwise quite heavy. It’s a clever work. It’s as if Bach were on speed and living in the 21st Century and wrote a two-part invention. The title “Ever Just as Sure” is supposed to be as vacuous as it sounds. He told me that it is meaningless.

Carolyn Yarnell is a Los Angeles-based composer, and I’ve known her for quite a while. I commission her piece “The Same Sky,” and it is really wild. She is a free-spirited composer, and you could never imagine that she would write such heavy-emotional music. When she first presented me with this piece, I said that it would need about ten pianists to play it. It was so incredibly difficult. I told her that one person could not play it. She said okay and came back to me later with a version that one person could play. It’s still pretty impossible, but one person could attempt it (laughs). It’s a little like Ravel, but very much in the 21st Century. It comes with a soundtrack in which she over-dubbed all the other piano parts for it on a Yamaha synthesizer. It’s an orgy of piano sounds – a tremendously virtuosic vehicle for the piano. It also has a video that comes with it. The way that she conceived it is that the video is shown on the inside of the piano lid. It’s shows clouds passing by in the sky. As the music gets more furious, the clouds get redder. That’s just an example. What I like about the piece is that the video accompanies the piano. But the piece can stand on its own without the video.

There will be a special surprise at the end of the program, but I won’t say anything more about it.

Your father, Lawrence Supové, was an interesting fellow. He lost Portland’s mayoral primary to Terry Schrunk in 1964.

Supové: Yes and a little known thing about him was that he was obsessed with celebrities. When they came to Portland, he got their pictures: Elvis Presley , the Beatles, Jimmy Durante. He had a fake press pass and security was light in those days. Sometimes he posed me with them.

Would you mind if I posted a couple of them?

Supové: Sure, that would be just fine.

Jimmy Durante and Kathleen Supové
Kathleen Supové and Claude Frank
Lawrence Supové and Johnny Carson