Thursday, December 31, 2015

Portland Baroque Orchestra turns out stellar recording of Bach violin concertos

Even though it is the last day of the year, it’s not too late to take a look at the Portland Baroque Orchestra’s most recent recording, which is simply entitled “J. S. Bach Concertos for One, Two and Three Violins.” In this album, PBO artistic director Monica Huggett leads the period orchestra ensemble in sparkling interpretations of five concertos that Bach wrote during the time that he led the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. You might be tempted to think that Huggett is the featured artist in the Concerto for Violin in A minor (BWV 1041) and the Concerto for Violin in E Major (BWV 1042), but she yields the spotlight to Carla Moore in the first and to Rob Diggins in the latter. For the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor (BWV 1043), the soloists are Jolianne Einem and Adam LaMotte. For the Concerto in D minor (BWV 1063), Huggett joins Moore and Einem in the merry making, and finally in the Concerto for Three Violins in D major (BWV 1064R), Huggett marvelously collaborates with Moore and Diggins. So the full set of five concertos provides 75 minutes of music, an excellent value for anyone weighing cost against the amount of time of actual sound.

The CD kicks off with the Concerto in D minor (BWV 1063) in an arrangement for three violins by Huw Daniel. Right off the top you’ve got Hugget, Moore, and Einem creating a fast spinning thread of interwoven sound that will make you want to get out of our armchair and dance. It’s an excellent opener that is followed by the Concerto for Violin in A minor (BWV 1041), played outstandingly by Moore. Next comes one of the most famous of Bach’s creations, the Concerto for Violin in E major (BWV 1042) with lovely solos by Diggins. In the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor (BWV (1043), another of Bach’s stellar pieces, Einem and LaMotte perform their solos with seamless perfection. The Concerto for Three Violins in D major (BWV 1064R) is a reconstruction of BWV 1064, which was scored for three harpsichords in C major. The intertwined sound of Huggett, Moore, and Diggens performing is pure joy to the ears.

Throughout all five concertos the PBO ensemble supports the soloists superbly with inspired dynamics, including crisp articulation in the faster movements and a delightfully languid sound in the slower ones. Overall, “J. S. Bach Concertos for One, Two and Three Violins” is a terrific introduction for anyone who is interested in Bach’s instrumental music as well as a stellar addition for those with a Bach library.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Ensemble brings Christmas a little closer with "Ceremony of Carols" and other gems

Amidst the subsiding hubbub of Christmas, it was a real pleasure to hear The Ensemble perform a concert of new pieces mixed with others that were more familiar to the ear, but perhaps in a different way. The concert took place on Sunday afternoon, December 27th at the First Christian Church in downtown Portland. The church’s main sanctuary, with its clear and slightly warm acoustic, created an excellent space for The Ensemble, which consisted of sopranos Catherine van der Salm and Mel Downie Robinson, alto Kerry McCarthy, tenor Nicholas Ertsgaard, and bass Patrick McDonough, who is also the founding artistic director of the group.

The tour de force piece on the program was Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols,” an eleven movement piece that drew text from “The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems.” Accompanied deftly by harpist Kate Petak, the women of The Ensemble (van der Salm, Downie Robinson, and McCarthy) sang this piece superbly with excellent blend, pure tone, very little vibrato, and terrific diction that made the Middle English wonderfully alive. The “Procession” had a solemn, stately feel. “Wolcum Yole!” was light and exciting, and van der Salm gracefully touched the highest note at the end. “There is no Rose” sounded positively ethereal, and Downie Robinson delivered a genuinely plaintive “That younge child.” “Balulalow” lulled everyone sweetly, and “This little Babe” radiated with dramatic thrust – as did “Deo gracias!” a little later. “In Freezing Winter Night” and “Spring Carol” were also sung with intensity and the women gracefully exited the sanctuary with the lovely “Recession.”

The concert began with “The Shepherd and the King” by Brian Holmes (composed in 2000), a sprightly and joyous carol for voices and harp that tells of Mary’s song after the birth of Jesus. The text by Eleanor Farjeon is loaded with evocative lines like this one: “The Stars that are so old, The Grass that is so young, They listen in the cold to hear Sweet Mary’s tongue.”

It was followed by the hauntingly a cappella lines of “Northern Lights,” which was written by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo in 2008. The austere atmosphere of the music with notes that slowly shift at times and the anonymous Latin text wonderfully reflected the awesome beauty of the natural phenomenon

British composer Tarik O’Regan’s “Bring Rest, Sweet Dreaming Child” (2004) for chorus and harp offered a lot of tough dissonant structures for The Ensemble to climb, but the group handled the craggiest corners with aplomb, starting with the soaring and lovely voice of soprano Catherine van der Salm. The “Tmusic sets a poem by Mark Pryce, which speaks of the promise of Jesus’s birth.

The delicate sound of the harp played more of a major role in Steve Heitzig’s sensitive setting of the e. e. cummings poem “little tree.” The piece (composed in 1990) offered swathes of charm and innocence as if the notes and words were falling about like snowflakes, culminating in a soothing “Noel Noel.”

As an interlude before the final set of songs, Petak played Britten’s “Suite for Harp.” The bold opening statement of the “Overture” and oddly dreamy “Nocturne” impressed me the most, but the other three movements seemed somewhat disconnected.

The performance ended with the “Seven Joys of Christmas,” a lively re-arrangement of familiar Christmas carols for voices and harp that Kirke Mechem wrote in 1965. “This is the truth,” “Joseph dearest, Joseph mine,” and “New Year Song” were imbued with lovely sincerity and contrasted well with the bouncy and cute renditions of “Din don! merrily on high,” “Patapan,” and “Fum, fum, fum!” For reasons unexplained, the group chose to leave out the last number “God bless the master of this house.”

An unusual low-pitched noise – somewhat akin to a snore – came from one of the audience members, who seemed to become agitated by the some of the music. At one point, her minders took care to get her to the hallway (she was in a wheelchair), but then they wheeled her back in and she did it again. The performers must be commended for their professionalism despite the sonic interference, but I felt sorry for audience members who didn’t pay to hear that disturbance. There might have been a better way to position the audience member from another part of the sanctuary to mitigate the noise.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Cappella Romana's "Passion Week" a feast for the ears

Several months ago Cappella Romana released the world premiere recording of a composer whose sacred work, entitled “Passion Week,” was banned during Stalin’s reign and received only a few partial performances. The composer, Maximilian Steinberg, is known today primarily as the prized pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and rival of Igor Stravinsky. Steinberg was born in Lithuania to a Jewish family but, after studying music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and married Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter just before Rimsky-Korsakov died in 1908. Steinberg taught music at the St. Petersburg (later Leningrad) Conservatory from that point onward (Shostakovich was his most famous student), eventually taking over Rimsky-Korsakov’s chair, and wrote a variety of compositions, including five symphonies, ballets, vocal pieces, and chamber music.

Steinberg completed “Passion Week” in 1923, which was the same year that Stalin declared performances of Orthodox sacred music verboten. Consequently, the score had fallen into the dustbin of history until just a couple of years ago when a copy was given to Alexander Lingas, an international expert on Orthodox music. Lingas is also the founder and artistic director of Cappella Romana, the Portland-based vocal ensemble dedicated to Orthodox music from the earliest Byzantine Chant to new works by contemporary composers. Under his direction, Cappella Romana recorded Steinberg’s “Passion Week” and added Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Chant Arrangements for Holy Week.” The CD has been cited as one of the best recordings of the year by “Gramophone” magazine.

Steinberg’s “Passion Week,” commemorates the betrayal and Passion of Jesus, basing ten of the eleven movements on Russian Orthodox chants for Holy Week. In the recording, the 26 voices of Cappella Romana make the opening “Alleluia” blossom with the basses on a D two octaves below middle C, the sopranos ascending to a high G, and the baritones, tenors, and altos filling out a massive chord between those two poles. The purity of tone, intriguingly thick harmonic textures, soaring tonal contrasts, and incisive dynamics are hallmarks of this performance. The third movement, “Your bridal chamber,” (in which Christ is likened to the bridegroom in the parable from Matthew) creates an ethereal atmosphere that glistens. In some of the movements, the singers are divided into 12 parts, and often they are graced by evocative solos.

Although Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Chant Arrangements for Holy Week” features less the deep bass sound that many listeners associate with Russian music, it delivers a satisfying sense of the eternal in the space of five movements.

Kudos to Cappella Romana, mastering producer Steve Barnet and mastering engineer Preston Smith for making “Passion Week” (the ensemble’s 22nd recording) one of its finest.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

PSU Opera serves up delicious "Doctor Miracle" and "Bon Appétit"

Portland State Opera inaugurated its new fall term production with delightful performances of Georges Bizet’s “Doctor Miracle” and Lee Hoiby’s “Bon Appétit.” Presented before a packed house at the Studio Theater in Lincoln Hall on December 12th, both one-act productions admirably showed off the artistic and comic talents of the performers. “Doctor Miracle” was performed by a superb student cast, and “Bon Appétit” featured PSU Opera director Christine Meadows as Julia Child.

Back in 1856, composer Jacques Offenbach offered a competition to composers whose works had not been performed at the Paris Opera or Opera-Comique. They had to set a libretto based on a stereotypical comedy, and Bizet (at age 18) along with Charles Lecocq both won. Each had their respective works played eleven times at Offenbach’s theater in 1857.

The story concerns the town Mayor who doesn’t want his daughter, Laurette, to run off with a soldier, Captain Silvio. To that end, the Mayor hires a servant, Pasquin, who claims to hate soldiers, to fend off anyone remotely resembling Laurette’s suitor. Pasquin prepares an omelet that is so horrible that only the Mayor can force himself to eat it. While the Mayor and his wife, Veronique, go out for a walk, Pasquin reveals to Laurette that he is actually Captain Silvio in disguise. Before they can make their getaway to elope, the Mayor returns and banishes Silvio from the house. Suddenly, the Mayor’s wife is handed a telegram that the omelet was poisoned. Fortunately, Dr. Miracle is nearby and the family asks for him. He claims to have the cure but demands Laurette’s hand as payment. The Mayor and Laurette agree, and Silvio again reveals his identity. Veronique persuades her husband to accept the situation because he cannot prevent the inevitable. Everyone praises Dr. Miracle and true love.

Comely Madison Howard’s vocal prowess wonderfully complimented her formidable acting talent and fit the character of Laurette to a T. Darian Hutchinson impressively combined moral indignation with a flustery/buster demeanor as The Mayor. Emily Skeen’s Veronique acknowledged her husband’s fiery temperament as well as her step-daughter’s spirit. Alexander Trull’s exuberant Silvio had energy to spare but need a tad more vocal presence. Pianist Colin Shepard expertly accompanied the singers, and the cast was crisply directed by Nuckton.

The opera was sung in English and no supertitles were required because of the friendly confines of the studio space and the terrific diction of the singers. The libretto (translated by James Hampton with additional dialogue by Brenda Nuckton) offered some choice lines, such as when Mayor, who has be verbally pilloried by his wife and daughter, sings “Boy, I hate this song.” Later we find out that after the Mayor’s first wife died, he came into a ton of money; so he made sure that his second wife was much younger. Fostering the same scenario, the parents want their daughter to marry the elderly Mr. Bitcoin, because he would certainly die first and make Laurette a wealthy widow who can then do whatever she wants. In a wonderful bit of bombast, the telegram announcing that the Mayor had been poisoned proclaimed “Medical science can’t help you now!”

After intermission, the audience was treated to a second course, Hoiby’s “Bon Appétit,” which was adapted by Mark Shulgasser from transcripts of two episodes of Julia Child’s “The French Chef,” a popular TV show that ran from 1963 to 1973. In teaching the audience how to make a Le Gâteau au Chocolat L’Éminence Brune, a classic French chocolate cake, Meadows nailed the persona and gestures of Child so well that it was outrageously funny and sort of flabbergasting at one gulp. The way she would blithely toss a pan or another cooking implement to the side or fling flour all over the place caused buckets of laughter to erupt from the audience. At one point, after downing a glass of wine during a pause in the process, she would warn us that “You don’t want to go out and play croquet.” At another point, she can’t resist putting a chocolate-laden spatula into her mouth and giving us a tantalizing um!

Vocally, Meadows’s voice is still delicious to the ears, and she was supported with playful sensitivity by pianist Janet Coleman. Stage directions by Kristine McIntyre dished up platefuls of humor. It was a performance that Meadows should repeat at one of the hoity-toity restaurants in the Pearl. Seconds anyone?!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Scintillating orchestra delivers the goods in “Messiah” concert

Guest review by Nan Knight Haemer

When I attended the Oregon Symphony’s “Messiah” on Saturday evening (December 5), I expected the usual holiday highlights: Messiah Light. But lo, they tackled the entire work, no mean feat of endurance: three hours of concentration and beautiful playing. That meant an elegant, nimble and trimmer orchestra and one intermission. The only cuts were two of the da capo arias that left off the repeats.

Handel’s “Messiah” is essentially a vocal work that showcases the chorus and the soloists. Their task is to declaim beautifully and/or passionately the Biblical texts. But I was wowed primarily by the beauty of the orchestra’s sound. I was swept away by their elegant, graceful, tight and expressive playing.

The Oregon Symphony simply outshone the chorus and the soloists. In the best of all possible worlds, you get an equal partnership. If the strings hadn’t been so amazing, the orchestral ensemble so lithe and responsive, the choices of articulation at times so unexpected as to make me look up, I would be speaking more of the vocals. They were not on the same level as the orchestra, however

The PSU Chamber Choir showed itself best on the a cappella section “Since By Man Came Death”. They had their best blend and balance in this bare section and also in the lesser performed choruses, such as “Great Was The Company” and “But Thanks” where their voices were the most unified and beautiful. The chorus warmed to their performance as it progressed, and I thought they sounded their best in general in Part 3. But their opening chorus felt like they were not quite ready.

The soprano section was lovely and shimmering throughout, though 1 or 2 more sopranos would have helped balance, especially in Part 1. The alto section was amazing: consistent, lovely tone quality and elegant execution throughout. Those qualities were missing in the tenor section. The fast passages of a zillion notes (melismatic singing for us geeks) were just not accurate or beautiful: when they didn’t sing very high, they sounded warm and unified, but above F-4 (F above middle C), it fell apart into individual voices, a spread, inelegant sound and quite pitchy. An addition of a professional or two in the tenor section could have helped even that out. The bass section was at times lovely, at times woofy and swallowed, but more solid than the tenors. The basses sounded great on the blistering “Let Us Break Their Bonds.”

The soloists likewise were uneven. Soprano Shannon Mercer was the most consistent sounding and wow, her fast runs in “Rejoice Greatly” were super. Mercer has a large voice, but she can move it. Her trills were excellent. Her decrescendo into the end of “sleep” on “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” was excellent.

The countertenor, Michael Maniaci has a lovely, light and high instrument. The Schnitzer seemed too large a hall for his voice. Because Handel’s alto solos in the “Messiah” are written lower and not for a high countertenor, they did not favor the sparkle and sweetness of his voice in a hall so large. He sounded his best, lovely and poignant on “He Was Despised”.

Tenor Thomas Cooley had amazing moments of sweetness, a heady light sound that he could crescendo and decrescendo with ease. He took some risks as you’d expect in a Baroque work with ornaments, especially in “Every Valley”. His messa di voce ending “All They That See Him” was just awesome. At times Cooley pumped up the volume for dramatic effect, as on his recitative “He That Dwelleth in Heaven,” but sometimes he went a little too far, losing the previous effortless accuracy.

David John Pike has a lovely baritone voice, which showed best in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” with outstanding trills and ornaments and a good ring in his voice in the first half but choppier in the da capo section. At the ends of his solos, he looked out at the audience, and I just wish he’d done that as he sang. He got buried a little bit on lower parts due to that.

The continuo ensemble as a whole played very sensitively, adjusting well for each soloist. The harpsichordist/organist, Douglas Schneider, had fun with some answering flourishes of his own to the soloists in various airs and recitatives. Principal bassoonist Carin Miller Packwood especially rocked on “His Yoke Is Easy”. Jeffrey Work, Principal Trumpet, and the orchestra sparkled in “The Trumpet Shall Sound”. The trills and turns of the strings accompanying the soprano solo on “If God Be For Us” were amazingly tight and facile, contrasting beautifully with the very tender continuo section.

Leading all of these musicians was Music Director Carlos Kalmar. He clearly shaped the phrasing successfully with the orchestra to shining clarity for three hours. There are a lot of transitions in 53 movements, requiring a clear design and plan for each by the conductor. You could tell that Kalmar’s orchestra had that clarity, even if you didn’t necessarily agree with his choice. I bought most of the choices. Interesting tempi variations or articulations of phrases in the orchestra were well thought out.

There were some real surprises. Most worked, like having “And He Shall Purify” and “His Yoke” moderately paced enough for the choir to make it sound easy. Most of the “fast” choral movements in Part 1 were more moderate, which helped the choir. There was a surprising slowing at the end of “Glory To God”. I’ve heard it with a decrescendo, but never a ritard as well! “Behold The Lamb” was not intense enough, perhaps due to the extreme choppy articulation that was required. The end of “Why Do The Nations” bass solo got softer and softer, I assume per Carlos’ choice? I missed more dramatic moments: “Surely” was a bit lacking in energy also.

I have to say the performance offered the weirdest and most peculiar “Hallelujah” chorus ever. Ever! It started so slow and soft, and it just played awkwardly. It seemed like Kalmar was trying to sneak them all in, hoping that the audience wouldn’t stand up. It didn’t work. The double dotting of “Worthy Is The Lamb” woke me up and the ending wind up was exciting. And having the soloists join the very end in the sprightly paced “Amen” was lovely. The tenor soloist started like he almost couldn’t help it and that was nice to see.
Nan Knight Haemer is a professional singer and voice teacher who has sung with numerous Portland organizations, including the Portland Baroque Orchestra, Trinity Consort, Pocket Opera, Portland Symphonic Choir, and the Bach Cantata Choir.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

PSU Opera presents two one-act production for foodies

From PSU publicity:
Gourmet Menu: The PSU Opera program presents two one-act operas this month. George Bizet’s “Doctor Miracle,” written when he was 18, is a hilarious one-act operetta featuring the “Omelet Quartet.” The food theme continues with “Bon Appétit,” a short opera in which Julia Child (played by Christine Meadows, director of opera) teaches the recipe for a classic French chocolate cake – Le Gâteau au Chocolat L’Éminence Brune. Bonus: after the show, audience members get to eat the cake!

Performances December 9-12 at 7:30pm and December 13 at 2pm

Lincoln Hall Studio Theater

General Admission: $24
Students: $17
PSU faculty + staff: $17

Monday, December 7, 2015

Latest Oregon Symphony and Seattle Symphony CDs receive Grammy nomination

Both the Oregon Symphony and Seattle Symphony received Grammy nominations in the Best Orchestral Performance category. That means that the Pacific Northwest has a pretty good shot at winning. Here's the list of nominees from the Grammy web site:

74. Best Orchestral Performance

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4
Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
Label: Reference Recordings

Dutilleux: Métaboles; L'Arbre Des Songes; Symphony No. 2, 'Le Double'
Ludovic Morlot, conductor (Seattle Symphony)
Label: Seattle Symphony Media

Shostakovich: Under Stalin's Shadow - Symphony No. 10
Andris Nelsons, conductor (Boston Symphony Orchestra)
Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Spirit Of The American Range Carlos Kalmar, conductor (The Oregon Symphony)
Label: Pentatone

Zhou Long & Chen Yi: Symphony 'Humen 1839'
Darrell Ang, conductor (New Zealand Symphony Orchestra)
Label: Naxos

BTW: My review of The Spirit of the American Range is posted here.

Monday, November 30, 2015

PSU Steinway Paino Series launches this weekend with recital and master classes

Portland State University will unveil its new Steinway Piano Series Concert this weekend. Pianist Dr. Thomas Hecht, Steinway Artist and Head of Piano Studies at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore, will perform a recital entitled "The Art of the States: American Piano Classics" on Saturday evening, December 5, at 7:30 pm at Lincoln Recital Hall (Rm. 75). Master classes guided by Hecht and PSU's Susan Chan will also take place on the 4th and 6h.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Mousai to perform contemporary chamber music this Friday

From the press release:

The Mousai, is taking contemporary chamber music to the theater: 6 new pieces (all written in the last few years, by young and young at heart American composers), all of them nestled within scenes or accompanied by stories. Friday, December 4, 7:30pm at Portland State University’s Recital Hall - Lincoln 75 (1620 SW Park Avenue).

  • Ride our roller coaster as Sam Spade introduces the LA Confidential noir sounds of LA composer George Gianopoulos’s City Vignettes.
  • Hang on through the crazy turns when Brooklyn composer Daniel Schlosberg’s Two Remarks, first evokes Nabokov’s crazy piano player who refuses to die when shot in Lolita, retreating in the second Remark into hopeful/hopeless repentance.
  • Relax and celebrate the Hollywood genre with Variations, by Scott Pender.
  • Meet the dominatrix who tames Tony’s Tango — Antonio Celaya’s Chongos Morongos.
  • Cry with Portland State student, Thomas DeNicola’s Memories; how can someone so young be so wise?
  • And cheer with both arms waving as recent high school graduate and past principal percussionist for Portland Youth Philharmonic, Kaleb Davies, joins us for Bill Douglas’s jazz- influenced Quartet, careening us down the hill and to a marginally safe stop.

One hour/No intermission: In and out, nobody gets hurt.
Tickets: Pay what you can and/or what you think it’s worth after the show! 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

San Francisco Opera goes full-throttle with grand "Meistersinger"

Walther's Prize Song from "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" with Brandon Jovanovich (Walther)
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Fourteen years have gone by since “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” was last staged in the War Memorial Opera House; so San Francisco Opera filled in the gap with a full-throttle production, which I heard on Saturday, November 21st. That was an especially challenging undertaking, because no cuts were taken, resulting in a production that lasted (including intermissions) five and a half hours. When it comes to Wagner’s operas, there’s a tongue-in-cheek adage about suffering for art, but for anyone who loves glorious music, the performances at the War Memorial by the principals (17), chorus (90), and orchestra (76 in the pit and 14 backstage) was spectacular.

San Francisco Opera’s production of “Die Meistersinger,” envisaged by Sir David McVicar, received its premiere in 2011 at Glyndebourne and was revived at the Lyric Opera of Chicago before arriving at the War Memorial. Revival co-directors Marie Lambert and Ian Rutherford skillfully guided the huge undertaking so well that all of the action flowed smoothly even during the riot-scene when everyone filled the stage at the end of Act II. They topped that by adding jugglers on stilts to the fully-stuffed mix for the final scene of Act III when all of the townspeople turn out for the song competition.

Wagner’s comic tale about love, loss, civic pride, and the acceptance of new art hinges to a great degree on the complex character of Hans Sachs, the cobbler/poet/Mastersinger. English baritone James Rutherford gave Sach’s character plenty of depth without becoming mired in it (such as when he touched the portrait of his deceased wife and children). Rutherford’s voice was never rough around the edges, and his top notes were pure and lovely.

Making his debut in the role of Walther von Stolzing, tenor Brandon Jovanovich superbly conveyed the urgency of the young knight’s quest to win Eva’s hand. His singing brought out the legato lines so well that it caused one of the audience members to break into applause – a real no-no for Wagner operas – after the initial rendition of the prize song in Act II.

Another superb debut was Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Eva, the young woman who was the prize to be given to the winner of the Mastersinger’s song contest. Willis-Sørensen’s soprano sounded just a tad harsh in Act I, but it soared beautifully in the Acts II and III.

Alek Sharader’s energetic David brimmed with vim and vigor. Sasha Cooke created a comely Magdalena who was graced with pluck and understanding. Together with Sachs (Rutherford), von Stolzing (Jovanovich), and Eva (Willis-Sørensen) they exquisitely expressed the famous quintet in Act III, “Selig, wie die Sonne.”
Act III quintet "Selig, wie die Sonne" from "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg": Sasha Cooke (Magdalene), Alek Shrader (David), James Rutherford (Hans Sachs), Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Eva) and Brandon Jovanovich (Walther von Stolzing)
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Martin Gantner’s interpretation of rules-bound town clerk and Mastersinger, Sixtus Beckmesser, had oodles of nuance and spot on timing, including the untrusting way that he stepped onto the podium before making himself the laughingstock of the town during the prize song competition.
Martin Gantner (Sixtus Beckmesser) in "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg"
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Ain Anger’s portrayal of Veit Pogner (Eva’s father) was solid as a rock. Projecting his hauntingly distinct voice from the rear of the stage, basso profundo Andrea Silvestrelli’s proved just the right touch for the Night Watchman.

The San Francisco Opera Chorus, expertly prepared by Ian Robertson, sang with gusto, delivering one knock-out piece after the next until it all culminated in the final scene when everyone is thinking “how can they top this!”
Act II riot scene from "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg": Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Eva), Brandon Jovanovich (Walther), James Rutherford (Hans Sachs)
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
The acoustic of the War Memorial allowed the orchestra to sound boomy and at times the volume got a little too loud for some of the principals. Still, Sir Mark Elder conducted with passion and verve, sculpting a sound wave that erupted majestically at the very end.

Set in early Nineteenth-century Nuremberg, the scenery (designed by Vicki Mortimer) hinted at the art of German woodcuts. An elegant yet simple high-vaulted ceiling helped to frame each scene from the church, to Hans Sachs living room, the town square, and finally the meadow.

There are only two more performances of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” remaining (Wednesday, December 2nd and Sunday, December 6th) at the War Memorial Opera House. If you can endure so much terrific music (including an Act III that lasts 2 hours), then by all means get yourself a ticket, because it is a life-enhancing event.
Opening Scene from David McVicar's production of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg"
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Skrowaczewski (92) and Piemontesi (32) show that age doesn't matter at concert with Oregon Symphony (119)

Stanisław Skrowaczewski
Guest review by Phillip Ayers

As I listened to the Oregon Symphony and its guest conductor Stanisław Skrowaczewski (aged 92) and piano soloist Piemontesi (aged 32) on Sunday (November 22nd) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, I thought of a line from a hymn I remembered from my youth: "Bright youth and snow-crowned age … ". But sentimentality aside, observing the contrast in the ages of these sterling performers was a rarity and something to be savored for a long, long time to come. Concertgoers were treated to an evening of music, ranging from the Classical through the Romantic to 20th century edginess. And it was presided over by the phenomenal Skrowaczewski, conductor laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra and veteran of many other ensembles, including the Hallé Orchestra. He celebrated his 92nd birthday last month and I could not help but marvel as I read the program notes before the concert and then saw him make his way through the violin section before the first offering of the evening. Michael Anthony, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in an article on Skrowaczewski on his 90th birthday quotes him: "My health is poor, but my spirit is very high." He lives with a pacemaker and has had eye trouble for many years. Still, he goes on. "Off the podium, Skrowaczewski looks frail. On the other hand, standing in front of an orchestra, he seems to gain energy, as if drawing on currents of electricity from the musicians around him." This was evident in his debut with the Oregon Symphony!

Skrowaczewski walked slowly, yet deliberately to the podium, gingerly ascending onto its one step. But then, he lit into Witold Lutosławski's “Concerto for Orchestra,” with an energy that seemed a bit restrained but was not; this conductor was very much in command. A cynic might say this piece is noisy and showy, but I was struck with the composer's expert use of instrumentation highlighted by the shimmering middle movement and the academic passacaglia, toccata and the glorious chorale at the end. As the program notes explain, "The virtuosity of each section of the orchestra is highlighted in the exquisite layering of rhythms and colors that permeate its three movements." But I missed the massive "wall of sound" in spots in this piece, as well as in the Brahms later on, that I guess we Portlanders are used to with Carlos Kalmar's creation of that "wall." Still the Lutosławski work proved interesting, especially in its last movement that began with a barely discernible theme for the passacaglia, introduced by the contrabasses. It was delightful to hear the charming "corale" played mainly by the brass while a string quartet played an obbligato against it. Such subtleties could well have been lost, but Skrowaczewski made certain that they were prominent enough to be noticed.

My concert-companion (my spouse) remarked, as the piano was moved out for the Mozart concerto, quoting the old Monty Python phrase, "And now, for something completely different!" And it was different from the opener, not only from an earlier musical era and its use of a much-reduced orchestra (e.g., a tympani player in the Mozart and six percussionists in its predecessor), but in the artist who came onstage. Francesco Piemontesi, a 32-year-old Swiss pianist and possessor of an impressive list of performances, sat down to play Mozart's last piano concerto. "Doing the math," one could realize that Mozart himself was a little older than Piemontesi's age when he played this concerto, his last public appearance of his brief life. Here was "bright youth" - both the composer's and the performer's - at work in a fluid, non-bravado, subtle, even understated way.

This concerto - sunny, elegant and bright - did not reveal the many personal difficulties the composer/performer was enduring. The multiple cadenzas, rather unusual for a single concerto, as the notes remind us, were executed with great grace and skill by Piemontesi. In listening to other performances of this concerto, I noticed how heavy-handed some performers are, especially with the virtuosic passages. There was nothing of that showiness with this artist; it was straightforward and brilliant. Despite some intonation problems and an awkward entrance by a horn, this was a near-perfect performance of this gem in my estimation. At its end, as applause resounded, the pianist and the conductor greeted one another with the nonagenarian putting his hands on the shoulder of the 30-something as though to bless him and encourage him. Sixty years between these men were brought together in that tender and memorable moment.

After the intermission, Johannes Brahms' excellent third symphony was offered. "You can't go wrong with Brahms" might be a hackneyed expression, but it is so very true. I wondered how many times Skrowaczewski might have conducted this work (he has made a recording of it, according to the notes) so that he would not have to use a score. From where I sat, I noticed the score was on the podium but was never opened. Committing all the Brahmsian nuances to memory is no small feat for any conductor, much less one in his nineties! Michael Anthony, cited above, said that, with age and its limitations, the conductor uses small gestures. There are no wild movements of the arms or swooping around at the podium: just simple gestures. And it is amazing to me that much of the time the conductor did not look at certain sections of the orchestra, but trusted them to know - and play - their stuff.

Throughout its four movements - and the last in a minor key with which Brahms broke with symphonic custom - the listener was fully engaged and involved in the craft of the composer's skill, drawing from themes such richness and subtlety. Clara Schumann is said to have exclaimed in her thank-you note to Brahms when he presented her with the score to his Third Symphony, "What a work! What a poem! … I could not tell you which movement I loved most." This symphony is massive, but touches of sweetness and tenderness are always there. That such emerged from the pen of a somewhat cantankerous old bachelor is always endearing somehow.

In the third movement, the theme of which later became a popular song, "Goodbye Again," is played a number of times by different sections and soloists in the orchestra. Particularly beautiful was the horn solo by principal John Cox that was played with exquisite beauty. New members of the orchestra, Martha Long (principal flute) and James Shields (principal clarinet), while not beginning full-time until next fall, were present and in the orchestra for this concert.

Before the evening's concert began, OSO president Scott Showalter remarked that this concert is the first to be given after the treachery perpetrated in Paris, Beirut and Mali recently. Art will always provide us with a grace and a profundity, even in the worst of our public tragedies, he said, paraphrasing Leonard Bernstein 52 years ago on the occasion of John F. Kennedy's assassination before he conducted part of Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony on television. Sunday's concert helped many to get a perspective on tragedy redeemed by the art of music.

Phillip Ayers sings with the Portland Bach Cantata Choir and for ten years sang with the Portland Symphonic Choir. From 2001-2007 he produced and hosted "Choral Classics" on All Classical radio. A retired Episcopal priest, he and his spouse are former church organists and choir directors and now enjoy "sitting in the pew" at church and concerts.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Northwest Art Song ito debut with Bach to Bernstein concert this Sunday

From the press release:

Familiar Portland Voices Launch First-of-Its-Kind Concert Series

Soprano Arwen Myers & mezzo-soprano Laura Beckel Thoreson are both very well-known to Portland audiences. Between them, they have sung with virtually every chamber group in town: Cappella Romana, In Mulieribus, The Ensemble, Musica Maestrale, Bach Cantata Choir, and Resonance Ensemble, to name a few. But now these musicians are launching an ensemble of their own to address the surprising lack of an entire repertoire of vocal chamber music in Portland and, indeed, the United States—that is, the art song repertoire.

So what is art song? Traditionally, art song is defined as vocal music composed specifically to be sung in recital, and it often refers to poetry set to music. Since this repertoire is often used as a tool by voice teachers, it is most frequently heard in the collegiate degree recital. “There’s this entire body of incredible music that is almost never performed in a professional context,” explains Myers. “We wanted to find a way to bring art song into the spotlight in a way that’s only being done in a few cities in the country, so we decided to start our own series to really get this music out there.”

Their plans come to fruition this month with the inaugural concert of Northwest Art Song, a new organization dedicated to promoting the art of the song recital. Myers & Thoreson, along with pianist Susan McDaniel, resident pianist for All Classical Portland’s live radio show Thursdays @ Three, will present a “duet extravaganza” spanning the full range of the recital repertoire. The performance will be followed by a launch party with local beer, wine, and snacks, and admission to the party is included in the concert ticket price.

“We hope that people will help us celebrate the beginning of this exciting new chapter in Portland vocal music,” says Thoreson. “We feel very strongly about personally connecting with our audiences. Music has the power to bring people together, and we can’t wait to begin to build a community around this wonderful repertoire.”

Northwest Art Song: Bach to Bernstein
Sunday, November 22 at 5:00 p.m.
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Kempton Hall
147 NW 19th Ave. Portland, OR 97232
Tickets: $20 General / $10 Students / $5 Arts for All
Available at the door or in advance at

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

PYP celebrates 92nd season with Bates, Prokofiev, and Sibelius

The Portland Youth Philharmonic jump started the first concert of its season at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Saturday evening (November 14) with a program of firsts. First came Mason Bates’s techno-bleating “Warehouse Medicine,” followed by an exciting collaboration with teenage piano sensation Nathan Kim playing Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, and then the orchestra, under music director David Hattner, wrapped things up by charging in to Sibelius’s First Symphony. All three pieces were performed with verve by the young musicians, who left it all on the floor.

Although Nathan Kim is only a sophomore at Newberg High School, his command of the keyboard - combining finesse, technical mastery and artistic bravado – was astonishing. Fearless attacks, pinpoint entries and exits, and the ability to caress the keys with genuine feeling made the Prokofiev a pure joy to hear. I heard him play this piece incredibly well with the Vancouver Symphony (WA) a few months ago, but now I have to say that he has really made it his own. The orchestra accompanied him marvelously, and Hattner did an exceptional job of keeping the orchestra from overpowering the soloist at even the loudest passages.

The pulsating techno beat of “Warehouse Medicine” (which is one movement from a piece called “The B-Sides”) buzzed with raspy energy to open the concert. It was complimented by wah-wahing brass and accented interjections from various sections of the orchestra until the pattern of the beat changed. After the pattern became faster and looser, and the strings responded with an interwoven texture. At one point, the beat died away and the orchestral colors took on a cinematic quality. After the techno pulse returned, it seemed to urge the orchestra into a grand finale.

Perhaps “Warehouse Medicine” was another form of call and response with the electronic component doing the call. Hattner singled out a young orchestra member, who was sitting with a laptop in the cello section with a laptop. He took care of the electronica, and perhaps the orchestra will need him again if it does all of the movements from “The B-Sides.”

The PYP, playing Sibelius’s First Symphony for the first time in its 92 year history, sounded terrific. The solemn opening statement by the clarinet (Talia Dugan) and timpani (Sam Doby) deceptively set the stage for the emotional waves of music that followed. Gorgeous playing by the strings created dark somber melodies before surging ahead with spring-like ones. Choirs of horns and woodwinds added wonderfully to the atmosphere. The musicians negotiated the fleet passages at the beginning of the fourth movement with panache and made the finale a glorious triumph. Hattner and company deserved the kudos from all corners of the hall for the fine performance, which was espeically appropriate on the sesquicentennial of Sibelius’s birth.

After the enthusiastic applause subsided a bit, the orchestral strings gave a lovely and touching performance of Sibelius’s “Andante Festivo” in honor of one of its violists, Binyamin Klatchko, who died just short of his 17th birthday a few months ago. That's a sad note upon which to close a concert, but it was a fitting one that showed the maturity of the musicians.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Friedhoffs' performance makes Beethoven's "Triple Concerto" a family affair at Vancouver Symphony concert

Mark, Jolán, and Isaac Friedhoff
It’s a very rare thing to hear Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” featuring three members of the same family as the soloists, but that was the case at the Vancouver Symphony’s concert on Saturday afternoon (November 14) before a fairly full house at Skyview Concert Hall. Violinist Jolán Friedhoff, cellist Mark Friedhoff, and pianist Isaac Friedhoff gave a solid performance of that work before a large audience at the Skyview Concert Hall in Vancouver. Jólan and Mark are sister and brother who left Portland years ago to carve out their musical careers in Europe. While Jólan returned to the Sacramento area to play and teach, Mark continues to teach at two conservatories in Barcelona, Spain. In the meantime, Mark’s son Isaac is pursuing a doctorate in piano performance at USC.

In their performance of Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto,” the Friedhoff clan conveyed the sense of a convivial conversation. Phrases started by one soloist were passed seamlessly to the others, and sometimes they circulated around as a duet or a full-blown trio. When all three Friedhoffs were playing at the same time, it seemed that the cello got a little buried. The ensemble drew spontaneous applause after the rousing end of the first movement, and the cello solo at the beginning of the second movement had a beautiful cantabile quality. Overall, the trio created a light and amiable atmosphere, and their artistry, at times, had a luminosity that glowed.

In Barber’s “Second Essay for Orchestra,” which began the concert, the orchestra turned the opening statement into a bold theme. The woodwinds created a marvelous array of quick, bird-like sounds. The muscular fanfare towards the end of the piece featured excellent demonstrative brass and a robust ending. Principal timpanist Florian Conzetti weighed in well with some terrific blows, and the piece, overall gave a sense of assertive will-power.

With Music Director Salvador Brotons conducting from memory, the program closed with an uneven performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The first movement got off to a good start with strong contributions by the woodwinds and horns, and the orchestra delved into dynamic contrasts that made the piece exciting, but the closing cut off was squeaky. The low strings sounded better than ever in the second movement, and upper strings played well yet suffered at times from intonation problems. The third movement reveled in the presto momentum but was marred by a missed entry by the normally reliable woodwinds. Urged on by Brotons, who clearly loves this music so much that he pounced forward on the podium and actually moved it, the orchestra dug in con brio and delivered a satisfyingly vigorous dance-like conclusion for the fourth movement.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Oregon Symphony concert travels from light to dark in program of Schiff, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky

Photo by Marco Borggreve
Shifting from light to dark, the Oregon Symphony presented a program that went from effervescence to broody at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Saturday evening (November 7). Beginning with David Schiff’s short and bubbly “Infernal,” the concert also featured a scintillating exploration of Rachmaninoff’s beloved “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with guest artist Kirill Gerstein, and an incisive interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred Symphony.”

Inspired by “The Infernal Dance of Kachei’s Subjects” from Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” Schiff’s “Infernal” covered a lot of the same territory with a six-minute scattershot-montage that was snappy and witty. While Niel DePonte at the drum set laid down a peppy rhythm, the orchestra quickly got into the swing of things with every section getting a chance to handle one or more of the familiar phrases. Principal trumpeter Jeffrey Work and principal trombonist Daniel Cloutier got in some terrific licks to top it all off. One wonders what Schiff, who teaches music at Reed College, would do with the rest of the “Firebird.”

Gerstein’s sparkling pianism was crystal clear in the Rachmaninoff, but some of the music seemed to rush by too fast. If he and  Kalmar could have taken a more relaxed tempo occasionally, then the piece would have had more warmth. Still, Gerstein’s impeccable performance glowed, and the audience rewarded him with a standing ovation that brought him back to the stage several times. He responded with a breathtaking “Etude for the Left Hand” by Felix Blumenfeld, a Russian composer who was a friend of Rachmaninoff. If you closed your eyes, you could have sword that he was using both hands, and he had such control that the some of the lower tones would linger a bit while a breeze of notes in the upper octaves would dance by.

According to the program notes, 24 years have passed since the orchestra last played the “Manfred Symphony.” Its length (almost an hour) and the moody construct of the piece have made it one of the least-played of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works. But even a cursory search on the web shows that many orchestras in North America, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Toronto Symphony, and the Chicago Symphony, have programmed it in recently*.

Inspired by Byron's dramatic semi-autobiographical poem “Manfred,” Tchaikovsky’s symphonic work reflects the tortured emotional state of the hero, who wanders the Alps, filled with remorse over an unnamed tragic event. After encounters with an otherworldly spirits and a descent into a subterranean bacchanal, the hero dies.

Under Kalmar’s baton, the music never became turgid, even when the heavily melancholic theme from the first movement returned in the fourth movement. Right from the start, the bassoons and lower strings created a forbidding atmosphere, and all of the strings weighed in heavily. Throbbing brass choirs and raised French horns, the soulful bass clarinet (Todd Kuhns), explosive percussion with bass drum, cymbals, gong, and timpani highlighted the rest of the first movement. The woodwinds invoked a fairy-like lightness and lovely playing by guest principal flutist Martha Long and guest principal clarinetist William Amsel graced the sweet melody established by the strings in the second movement. The third began with an exquisite solo by principal oboist Martin Hébert and was capped the by the hunting calls from principal hornist John Cox. The tempestuous fourth movement ranged all over the place, and after the music sank into the depths, the organ suggested a sense of redemption with a stately passage.

(* By searching for program notes for the “Manfred Symphony, I found that the LA Phil did it in 2012, Tronto in 2014, and Chicago in June of this year.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Young virtuoso Christopher Houlihan to perform on the Rosales Organ this Friday

Christopher Houlihan will play the Rosales Organ at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral this Friday (November 13) at 7 pm in a concert that is sponsored by the Portland Chapter of the American Guild of Organists (donations will be accepted). This concert is part of a lengthy tour that has taken Houlihan across the US in a zig zag fashion through 20 states and cities. He already has two recordings under his belt and a group of admirers called the Houlifans. Not bad for a fellow who is only 28 years old. I talked with him over the phone a week ago. Here is part of our conversation.

Will this be your first time in Portland?

Houlihan:  Yes, it will be my first time to perform there and to visit the city.

It’s wonderful that you’ll be playing the Rosales, which is considered by many to be the best organ in the Pacific Northwest.

Houlihan:  For years, I have heard the Rosales Organ on recordings, and now I am really looking forward to playing it. It’s a very famous instrument and has a great reputation. I think that it will be a really good fit for the music that I’ll play in the concert.

I assume that you play piano as well as organ. How did you get attracted to the organ?

Houlihan:  I guess that happened when I was eleven. I had already been taking piano lessons for a few years, but I saw an organ in a church for the first time and was mesmerized by the sight and sound of it. I got hooked. I just caught the bug and eventually found an organ teacher and have been playing organ ever since.

At age eleven, did your feet touch the pedals?

Houlihan:  Yes. I was a tall kid!

Do you tour often?

Houlihan:  I give between 20 and 30 recitals a year. I have to get to the venue a day or two in advance and set up the music so that it will work on that organ, and get familiar with that organ. It’s kind of like being a conductor and coming in to work with a new ensemble. You have to re-rehearse all of these pieces that you already know but get them to work in this new situation, because every organ is so different from the next.

What do you do besides touring?

Houlihan:  Although touring is my primary thing, I am artist-in-residence at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. I am also an organist at Church of the Holy Apostles Church in downtown New York City. They give me a lot of flexibility to travel and perform.

The program that you’ll be playing on the Rosales includes the Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Major by Henry Martin.

Houlihan:  Henry Martin is a composer in New York who was commissioned by Michael Barone, who is the host of American Public Media’s Pipedreams, to write 24 new preludes and fugues for the organ. This is one of two that have been entrusted to me to premiere. I’ve been playing this one since this past summer. It’s a very cool piece – very American with a mix of styles with a little Gershwin and a little Marcel Dupré the French organ virtuoso.

You’ll also play the Fourth Symphony of Louis Vierne.

Houlihan:  Vierne was the blind French organist of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. He had congential cataracts; so he could see a little bit. He would write his music on enlarged staff paper with a pencil and magnifying glasses. As his eyesight became worse, he had someone else write the notes for him.

He wrote six symphonies for solo organ. Vierne’s Fourth Symphony is really an exciting piece. It’s very personal, and because his life was so tragic, a lot of that comes through. It has big contrasts of angst, depression, and frustration mixed in with a beautiful romance movement that has a gorgeous melody and a charming minuet. It’s a colorful, wild piece that will sound great on the Rosales organ.

Of course, you have to play some Bach. You’ll perform Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor.

Houlihan:  This is one of Bach’s more epic preludes and fugues. It is sometimes called “The Wedge” because of the fugue that starts on one note and splits out chromatically to an octave. So it’s like a wedge, starting in one place and then splits in half. Plus, it is like a fugue on steroids, because the fugue turns into a toccata fantasia. It’s a wild, enormous piece – totally Bach showing off everything that he could do.

The concert will begin with the Fantasy in E flat by Camille Saint-Saëns.

Houlihan:  It's a  fun, early Saint-Saëns piece that is an exciting and catchy way to begin the evening.

Do you have a photographic memory?

Houlihan:  No. I don’t have a photographic memory. It takes me a long time to memorize pieces. But it’s worth the effort for this beautiful music.

Do you live in a house with five organs that you get to experiment with?

Houlihan:  I wish that I did! I live in an apartment in Brooklyn. I practice at Holy Apostles in Manhattan and a couple of other places that let me use their organ. It’s tough to have a pipe organ in your apartment!

Do you have a new recording?

Houlihan:  I’ve got a Bach recording that is waiting to be released.

The organ is such a great instrument. It is great to know about the new preludes and fugues by Martin, but what is the situation of new compositions for organ?

Houlihan:  Composers are getting excited about it again. They can really explore a new frontier of sound. At Juilliard, a lot of the organists are working with composers in the composition department. They are writing a lot of new organ pieces.

The trickiest thing about writing for organ is that no two organs are the same, and that’s scary for a composer. You have to give the organist a bit of freedom to decide the colors and sounds.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Salem Chamber Orchestra moves toward Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

Yesterday's Statesman Journal reported that the Salem Chamber Orchestra will file for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy because the organization is too far in debt to survive financially. This is sad news for Oregon. The SCO has been giving concerts for 31 years, and they had an planned an excellent season.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

FearNoMusic’s Halloween concert raises spirits

From the score of "General Speech"
New music showed its lighter side on Halloween afternoon at Mississippi Studios. That’s where members of FearNoMusic donned special garb to play works by Robert Erickson, Michael Daugherty, and George Crumb. The hour-long program definitely had a tongue-in-cheek ambiance that was heightened by many audience members who were dressed for the occasion.

Decked out in a khaki army outfit, trombonist Robert Taylor walked stiffly to his appointed music stand to play Erickson’s “General Speech.” Based on the farewell speech given by General Douglas MacArthur at West Point Military Academy in 1962, “General Speech” allows the performer to replicate MacArthur’s speech with the trombone. Taylor placed all of the tones in the medium and low baritone range with some fading into the low bass. The patterns were deliberate and slow. Some glissandos slid into the basement. Along the way, he took a measured break to drink to water from a glass on a table that was positioned nearby. Taylor also delivered some hiccups, burbs, and coughs before ending the piece with a final blast. The piece had an odd yet solemn quality, and it made me wonder what a speech by Hillary Clinton or another famous female might sound like.

Daugherty’s “Sinatra Shag” was a lively sendup of a Las Vegas lounge act. The sight of lead-violinist Inés Voglar Belgique sporting a blonde wig with white boots and a leather-dress a la Nancy Sinatra was flat-out hilarious. Cellist Nancy Ives, flutist Amelia Lukas, and pianist Monica Ohuchi appeared in butterflies-are-free outfits while drummer Joel Bluestone and bass clarinetist Louis DeMartino opted not to participate in any kind of unusual getup. Musically speaking, Ives laid down the rhythmic substratum that was augmented by flute, percussion, and bass clarinet while Voglar Belgique shredded several licks in the upper register of the violin. Perhaps the playing could have been more loosey-goosey, but overall, it was an enjoyable contrast to the uptight Erickson number.

After a brief costume parade by Halloween-inspired members of the audience, Lukas, Ives, and Ouchi performed Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae” (“Voice of the Whale”), using electric flute, electric cello, and amplified piano. The half-black masks that the performers wore and the blue-lighting were a required by Crumb for performing the piece. Also necessary was a retuning of Ive’s cello that, I have to admit, created all sorts of sea-gull and whale-like sounds. She also rendered whistling tones, squiggly, wiggly sequences and slightly twangy tones. Lukas sang into her flute and made a number of piercing sforzando-like sounds. Ohouchi strummed the strings of the piano and played notes that were dampened down by objects placed on the strings. Some of her sounds seemed near and others from a great distance. The piece, with its eight movements – five of which are named after geologic periods like Mesozoic and Cenozoic – had a serious quality that was enhanced by the quiet, restful ending.

Hmm…. perhaps next year, FearNoMusic could do some spooky numbers.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

David Hattner talks about Portland Youth Philharmonic's 92nd season

Photo by Joe Cantrell

The Portland Youth Philharmonic will open its 92nd season with its annual Fall Concert on Saturday, November 14th, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. David Hattner returns to the podium for his eighth year as the orchestra’s music director, and he will also conduct the performances of the Camerata PYP, select, small ensembles that, like the orchestra, tackle a variety of challenging pieces.

What’s the big new thing about the orchestra this year?

Hattner: The string section is larger this year. Overall, we have 118 musicians in the orchestra this year. That’s an increase over the 105 that we had last year. 

That’s a lot of people to fit on the stage of the Schnitz! And you are kicking off your first concert with a piece for orchestra and electronica called “Warehouse Medicine” from “The B-Sides” by Mason Bates. Has the PYP worked with electronic music before?

Hattner: Many years ago, the orchestra did experimental pieces with analog tape by Vladimir Ussachevsky. He was one of the early exponents of mixing live orchestra with electronically manipulated sounds.

Bates wrote the piece that we will play about ten years ago for the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas. Bates originally did the electronic part live, but now that part is played by one of our cellists using precisely times keystrokes on a laptop.  We are doing just the one movement, “Warehouse Medicine,” from the piece, and it is similar to what you would hear in a techno-club: loud, rhythmic, boomy, and electronic-sounding.  With the other movements, there is more contrast.  The piece is so well crafted. I am determined to program the entire work in the future. 

The concert program will also feature Nathan Kim, who won the orchestra’s piano concerto competition, performing Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto.

Hattner: The Prokofiev is an excellent showcase for Nathan, who has already performed as soloist with other local orchestras.  The music is compact and challenging. It’s a through-composed piece although there are three distinct movements. Prokofiev wrote before he even graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He then played it for his graduation jury which did not endear him to the piano faculty, although they ended up awarding him a big prize including a grand piano. It has turned out to be a very popular concerto and a lot of pianists keep it in their repertoire. 

Another “first” on the program is Sibelius’s First Symphony, which is not done all that often.
Hattner: I was surprised that the PYP had not performed it before. It’s a standard work and also a standard for youth orchestras. But what is more surprising and shocking is that the orchestra hasn’t played a Sibelius symphony in over twenty years. The gap in performing Sibelius is understandable to a degree because has his symphonies matured, his orchestrations got smaller. He stopped writing for the tuba after the 2nd Symphony and this is his only symphony with percussion beyond timpani . So it becomes harder and harder for the PYP to do them, because I have to consider programming pieces that will keep everyone involved. Sibelius’s first symphony also has a wonderful harp part, an instrument he used rather sparingly later. It’s a beautiful, well-constructed piece., which we will play for thet 150th anniversary of his birth. 

For the orchestra’s annual concert at Christmas on December 26th at the Schnitz, the orchestra will play the Overture to Rossini’s “The Italian Girl in Algiers” and Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome”

Hattner: This is my first Rossini overture to conduct with PYP. Rossini’s music is brilliant but it is difficult to play well. It will be an excellent challenge to get our large orchestra to play it crisply. 

Respighi was a great orchestrator. He’s considered a direct descent of the Rimsky-Korsakov school of orchestration. He is underrated as a composer. His music is well-crafted and very influential. He always has a lot going on in his works, and it all sounds so glorious. This was the first in his famous trilogy of works on Roman themes, and it’s the least performed, perhaps because of its soft

On January 31st, the Camerata PYP will perform at Lincoln Hall in a concert that includes a world premiere of a piece by Tomas Svoboda. 

Hattner: Yes, you can hear the Camerata PYP play an unusual program that will be done in less than an hour.  The concert will be done in collaboration with the faculty members of Chamber Music Northwest who will be coaching these pieces, which includes works by Piston, Riegger, Griffes, and Svoboda.

I found Svoboda’s “Folk Concertino for Seven Instruments “ on his web site, and it had not been published. The orchestration fit within some of the other works on the program. A set of parts were made for us: piccolo, oboe, clarinet, two violins, viola, and bass. It’s great that we are doing the world premiere where he taught in the music department of Portland State University.

Walter Piston’s “Divertimento for Nine Instruments” involves four winds and five strings. It’s a neo-classical work influenced by Stravinsky. Charles Tomlinson Griffes was a New England composer who was influenced by French Impressionism. His “Three Tone Pictures” have a soft and gentle dynamic that will contrast well with the other works on the program.

Wallingford Riegger is an American whose “Study in Sonority” was scored for ten violins. It’s a piece that I’ve been obsessing over for a long time. It’s a unique piece that is virtually unknown. It was written in 1927 and was premiered by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. It is a fine composition with themes which are developed and played in counterpoint.  It has some ugly and horrifying sounds that certainly influenced later Hollywood composers who worked on horror films.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Bernard Herrmann knew this piece and borrowed some of its high, weird screechy tones and dissonances to manipulate audiences into feeling frightened or repulsed. We have some excellent musicians who can tear into this piece like you wouldn’t believe. 

The Winter Concert on March 5th will feature Marion Bauer’s “Sun Splendor.” Who is Marion Bauer?

Hattner: Marion Bauer was born in Walla Walla in 1882 and raised in Portland. She was a teacher in New York City at New York University and Juilliard. She was an advocate for new music and wrote a number of pieces. Sun Splendor is a piano work the she orchestrated for Stokowski who conducted it with the New York Philharmonic and then fell into obscurity. I heard it somewhere and found out that she had lived in Portland. I found the score and the parts in a library, which allowed us to use it. It’s only four minutes, but it is very well orchestrated. 

Our Winter Concert will also feature the winner of our concerto competition, Anna Larson, who will play the Vaughan Williams Oboe Concerto. We will conclude the concert with Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony.  It is one of his late, great works that is underplayed and neglected. It’s in three movements with an especially fascinating 2nd movement, which is both a slow movement and a scherzo. 

On April 24th, the Camerata PYP will return to the friendly confines of Wieden+Kennedy in the Pearl District.

Hattner: This concert is mostly an American program for strings, but we will do the “Spring” movement from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” in an attempt to lure more people who may be unfamiliar with the music of Henry Cowell, Kenji Bunch and James Stephenson. We will do Bunch’s “Nocturne for String Orchestra” and Stephenson’s “Printemps” along with Cowell’s “Hymn and Fuguing tune #2.”

Then you’ll wrap up the season with PYP’s annual Spring Concert at the Schnitz on May 1st.

Hattner: We will perform Anatol Liadov’s “Eight Russian Folk Songs.” They are intricate and beautiful miniatures.  As a side note, Liadov was the composer who turned down Sergei Diaghilev for a ballet and was replaced by Stravinsky who then wrote “The Firebird.” 

The orchestra will also perform Zoltán Kodály’s “Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song ‘The Peacock.’” It was written at a difficult time for the composer. Kodály had been living in exile. “The Peacock” is a folk tune that goes back a thousand years. It’s a simple tune about freedom. Kodály, takes that simple tune and uses his considerable abilities as composer and orchestrator to transform it into a true masterpiece. It has an intense, emotional ending that is unforgettable.