Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Talking with David Stabler who just retired from the arts journalism scene at The Oregonian

David Stabler, longtime classical music critic and arts feature writer for The Oregonian has officially retired from the newspaper. I caught up with him on his last day in the office, April 30th, to get some of his thoughts.

When did you start working for The Oregonian?

Stabler: I started in 1986; so it has been 29 years! I came here to be the music critic. I had never been a critic before. I was in Anchorage, Alaska, working for the Anchorage Daily News as an arts editor rather than as a critic. So in the role of a critic with The Oregonian, I was brand new, young, green. I didn’t know what I was doing.

Your music training was as a pianist?

Stabler: Right. I trained as a pianist all the way through school, including a couple of years in Europe doing piano. I am from Connecticut and got a masters from Eastman before studying at the Royal College of Music and then in Vienna because I wanted to learn German. Then I went back to London.

So why have you decided to retire from The Oregonian?

Stabler: It felt like time. Journalism has changed. We have lost a lot of staff, including all of our full-time performing arts critics. So a lot of that coverage fell to me: visual arts, music, dance, and theater. That has felt like a huge burden. It’s fun to do but difficult because you are never doing enough and able to respond well enough.

I have to be frank that the job changed. Posting online and getting hits, the stress of that is big. But I’d like to keep writing and pivot away from this full-time job. I will continue by freelancing back to The Oregonian and with other places as well.

It’s a real challenge to write about the performing arts today. We don’t get thousands of hits on a review; so they are hit-makers. But after talking with my fellow critics and arts writers in other publications, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to connect more on social media. I never thought that I would say that! I’m way past the idea of it being a distraction. I now think that the way we preview and review performances is not the best way to approach things. Instead of writing formulaic articles, we have to find something that is more compelling. For example, with a symphonic concert, we could find someone in the orchestra to whom a piece on the program means something. Or write about the music itself and what it means, and really think hard and translate that for people who may not think about the orchestra. Meet them on their level. It doesn’t mean dumbing down. It means working harder to connect to people.

I feel like I’ve done that a lot over the decades to make, for example, to make Schubert compelling. Or why does Beethoven’s music resonate with people.

So I’m leaving these thoughts behind with the arts editor as I leave.

Who is the arts editor who has to consider all of this?

Stabler: It’s Jillian Martin. She will continue to honcho the arts coverage.

There are more music making groups in Oregon than ever before. Do you see that as a good thing or a bad thing?

Stabler: I believe in the theory of abundance. The more the merrier. The Oregon Symphony is coming off of a record-breaking season. They have never sold more tickets. Portland Opera is on an upswing and are about to go into an amazing experiment with a compressed summer season.

Many arts groups want to make Portland a summer arts destination. That has never happened before. Outside of Chamber Music Northwest, which is the largest organization with concerts in Portland, the city almost shuts down during the summer. I’ve learned how many groups want to collaborate, use marketing, and work with tourism more effectively.

Fort Worth Opera is the only company that has gone to a summer season in the last ten years. They have hung in there and endured the recession, and they see the change as being a success.

Basically, you have to sell the experience of coming to Portland and experiencing a music event, along with the hiking in the great outdoors, the food, and other great things that you can experience in the summer in the Pacific Northwest.

What are some of the highlights that you have experience during your time at The Oregonian?

Stabler: Jimmy DePreist was always a great guy to talk to. He always had time for me and lots of stories. I met him in his apartment, in Aspen, Colorado, and in New York a couple of times. He was terrific.

Leontyne Price was a wonder person to interview. She was very funny on the phone. She has a high speaking voice. I think it was in the early 90s. She was very worried that the ash from Mount St. Helens would affect her voice – even though the eruption had occurred ten years earlier.

Itzhak Perlman has the world’s lowest voice – at least on the day that I talked to him. He was especially a good interview on the subjects of perseverance, longevity, and being on the road day after day – it’s not easy for him to travel because he is on crutches.

I spent a year out in Eastern Oregon writing about an incredibly gifted cellist, Sam Johnson. He was 16 years old and a fabulous talent. The first time I heard him, he was 13, at the Community Music Center, we all fell off of our chairs. He had just won a national music competition. So, when he was 16, I thought that I would spend a year with him. But the year just went backwards. Everything disintegrated. He had had enough of the cello. He was fighting his parents. They sent him to the desert during the winter for three weeks where he had to learn how to strike flint to make a fire just to keep warm.

One of the great things about the job was the access to all of these extraordinary people. It was a real privilege to meet them and write about them.

Have there been some concerts that you have considered the best that you’ve experienced?

Stabler: Yes! One concert was by the Hungarian pianist György Sebők in Lincoln Hall. It was one of those pivotal moments in which what you thought before was one thing, but after hearing him play, your thoughts about the piano and music are changed. It blew my mind. I’m sorry to use a cliché. His playing was so profound, so simple, unadorned, so honest. I used the word “sincere” in the review. It just shook me.

I would say that the Oregon Symphony’s Carnegie Hall concert will go down as a real milestone for the orchestra. Everybody here knew what Carlos Kalmar had done with the orchestra, but it showed people in New York what was happening here in Portland, and they were shocked.

Carlos Kalmar in the first season playing Beethoven’s Fifth – I had never heard it faster, and I had never heard the orchestra play it so keenly. It was extraordinary. I remember Nancy Ives and the cellos making… smoke. Smoke was coming off of their bows! It was great! That signaled that this guy could take the orchestra somewhere.

I think that one of the great privileges that we have as critics is sitting in a concert quietly in the dark and listening to some of the best music ever written. We are not distracted. It’s a chance to meditate and connect with the performer. The singleness of focus is rare in this day and age.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Oregon Symphony closes its classical season with Beethoven

Stephen Hough. Photo by Hiroyuki Ito
Monday May 18 saw the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall host the Oregon Symphony for the final night of the '14-'15 classical season. On tap was an orchestral suite by Tchaikovsky, one by contemporary composer Jörg Widmann and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1.

Widmann's piece, Con Brio, was intensely engaging from an aural standpoint. With musical little themes that began sounding much like Beethoven quickly evolving into soundpieces featuring weird, chuffing aspirations from the winds and the timpanist banging on what for all the world looked like an upside down copper kettle, it was an entertaining cacophony. It was an exercise in special effects for much of the orchestra, with the timpani tuning and detuning audibly as the timpanist pattered on the rim, huffing, wailing patterns by wind and brass players aspirating through various tubes and slapping the bells of their instruments, it was an immediate hit with the audience.

Beethoven was next, featuring soloist Stephen Hough. This being an earlier work by the master, it featured almost nothing by way of the deeply personal, harmonically dense and innovative sturm und drang of most of his more well-known piano works, so a different approach was required. Hough was keenly aware of this and his interpretation left nothing to be desired; rather the music was allowed to stand on its own merits. The orchestra opened with a rather extended, high Viennese classical theme so delightful it was easy to forget one was awaiting the start by the soloist. Hough's delicious cantabile reveled in the exposed, easy melody, highlighting the strength of this opening movement. His entrances were so natural that they seemed to come from the aethir, so that the whole first movement was an organic ebb and flow, with the soloist usually seeming part of the orchestra rather than a separate player.  Hough was never self-insisting, perfectly so since the music didn't have that character either. It would have been easy for this music to sound pedestrian in less capable hands than Hough's and the OSO's, but instead it was charming and arresting. If there was ever a soloist with a 'knack' for rendering this music in such a fashion, Hough seemed to be him.

The Tchaikovsy that comprised the second half was his Orchestral Suite No. 3. Glorious, languid Slavonic melodies were the highlight of the first movement, staggering themselves between the strings and winds. The rest of the piece had problematic moments. Imprecise entrances, not usually a bugbear for this orchestra, did stand out occasionally throughout the piece, with not all sections firing simultaneously when called for. The stentorian theme of the fourth movement was handled somewhat ham-handedly by the winds; not to say there was anything wrong per se, but there wasn't much there that was interesting to listen to either.  Usually the OSO excels with these orchestral show-ponies, but this didn't feel up to their usual par. Concertmaster Sarah Kwak's sultry violin solo was a bright spot--rich and warm, she sounded almost like a violist at times. Late in the game, the closing polonaise was where it seemed to finally come together for the whole ensemble.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Former Portland Opera Director Stefan Minde passes

I have just received email from Edith Minde that her husband, Stefan Minde, died on May 21st. He was 79 years old. Minde was the General Director and Conductor of Portland Opera from 1970 to 1984 during which time he did some amazing work for the company, including Richard Wagner's "Die Meistersinger," Ernst Krenek’s “Life of Orestes," and the world premiere of Bernard Hermann’s “Wuthering Heights." In her message, Edith mentioned that she and Stefan were married 54 years and he drew his last breath while listening to the last bars of Bach's "Christmas Oratorio," which was the last piece he conducted (with the Sinfonia Concertante Orchestra). My interview with the Mindes in 2011 for Oregon Music News gives a glimpse into their lives when Stefan was still healthy. For an excellent, longer obituary, please refer to Mark Mandel's piece in The Oregonian.

PS: I sang under Minde's direction with the Portland Opera chorus for productions of "Faust," "Fidelio," and "Il Trovatore" in Keller Auditorium, and "Die Fledermaus" and "Der Freischütz" in Washington Park. He was an inspirational, excellent conductor. RIP Stefan.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ken Selden talks about his "Octet" and upcoming concert at Marylhurst

Ken Selden's "Octet" will be one of the works performed this Friday at 7:30 at the Flavia Salon at Marylhurst University. The concert will also feature Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" in the version for thirteen instruments and "Chorale" (homage to Aaron Copland) by Tomas Svoboda, plus two student works. It's all part of Marylhurst's Composition Seriers, and the concert is free.

Instrumentalists featured in this concert, which will be conducted by Selden, are some of the best in the Northwest:

Zach Galatis, flute
David Hattner, clarinet
Adam Trussell, bassoon
Susan Smith, piano
Fritz Gearhart and Shin-young Kwon, first violins
Fumino Ando and Sarah Roth, second violins
Brian Quincy and Jen Arnold, violas
Hamilton Cheifetz and Valdine Mishkin, cellos
Ted Botsford, bass

Tomas Svoboda's "Chorale," a quintet for clarinet, piano and strings, is played without conductor.

Selden, who teaches music at Portland State University, is currently on sabbatical. I peppered him with a few questions:

Are you teaching music at Marylhurst as well as PSU?

Selden: I've never taught at Marylhurst, but each spring they bring professional musicians to perform for their Composition Series, and I've been the conductor all three years. John Paul and Bob Priest, who were the composition professors back then, came up with a great educational concept: the idea was to introduce students to a major work from the twentieth century, and then using the knowledge gained from analysis and study, the students would then develop their own compositions, featuring the same instrumentation. The conclusion of this project is for the student compositions to be placed on a program with the major work, performed by professional musicians.

The first year we did Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale," and last year we did Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire." In addition to the student compositions, we've also featured works by John Paul and Wynton Marsalis. This year, with the thirteen instrument version of "Appalachian Spring," it is our biggest event yet. We are performing in the Flavia Salon at the university, which is a rather informal and intimate space, with no space between audience and performers, so I am expecting it to be a rare and unusual experience. John Haek has been working with the composition students, and he has done a great job helping them organize their materials.

When did you write your octet piece? Did you write it during the summer when you don't have to teach?

Selden: I've been composing since I was a kid. I studied orchestration and composition quite intensely in college, but it's the one thing I haven't had time for since coming to Portland in 2006 to direct the PSU orchestra program. As you know, every ten years or so, we get a sabbatical from teaching (this is my first sabbatical, and it goes from January to September), so I decided to use this opportunity to travel, and to write some music. Now that I've started composing again, I'm finding it personally rewarding, which makes me think I will have to find a way to balance it with the requirements of my job as a conductor and teacher.

I tend to be one of those people who think about things for a long time before actually writing anything. I wrote my "Octet" in about a week, in January, but it was something I had been thinking about for a long time.

The "Octet" features a single improvisatory stream of unaccompanied eighth notes, in which both the harmonies and contrapuntal material are embedded into the intervallic structure. As a violinist, I often think this way, in the tradition of certain solo violin movements of J.S. Bach, where the arpeggiation of the line implies both harmony and counterpoint.

I composed my "Octet" with fragments of dance rhythms from "Appalachian Spring" in the back of my mind, but the basic musical concept (in which all pitches are played in unison) actually goes way back to my first experience with the music of John Cage when I was still a violin student. In 1992 Cage visited New England Conservatory, where students and faculty presented a series of concerts in a festival devoted to his music. One of the Cage pieces that I performed in was the ensemble version of his Cheap Imitation. The rhythmic material for "Cheap Imitation" is identical to Erik Satie’s "Socrates,: but Cage replaced Satie’s pitches with those he chose himself using a chance process, hence the title. Originally composed for solo piano in 1969, "Cheap Imitation is a quiet, meditative piece consisting of a single melodic line with no harmony or accompaniment. In the ensemble version, the melody is passed gently among the various instruments.

In the midst of that John Cage Festival, I had an idea of writing my own piece that would feature the distribution of a single line, but in terms of character it would be the opposite of "Cheap Imitation." I imagined an energetic, virtuosic piece in a toccata style, with sudden instrumental juxtapositions, unexpected doublings and octave displacements. I did not expect to wait this many years before finally writing the piece, but since the idea had been in my subconscious for so long, the actual compositional process was quite brief, taking about one week in January of 2015.

Do you intend to keep writing music? What is the next piece that you will be working on?

Selden: Two of my most recent compositions are being premiered this month. Momoko Muramatsu and Maria Garcia just performed my "Dialogues for piano four hands" last week, and my "Octet" is this week. Those are both short pieces, but at the moment, I'm also working on a full length ballet score called "Scandal in the Deep," as well as a large scale sacred work for string orchestra, "Tenebrae." Those are both major works that I'm hoping to complete during my sabbatical.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mercadal brothers make strong case for more double clarinet concertos

Tolo Mercadal and Juanjo Mercadal
Concertos for two clarinets are rare in the orchestral repertoire, but Juanjo and Tolo Mercadal, two virtuoso clarinetists from Spain, made a strong case for more of them by delivering an enchanting performance of Franz Krommer’s “Concerto in E-flat major for Two Clarinets and Orchestra” (Opus 91) with the Vancouver Symphony on Sunday evening (May 17) at Skyview Concert Hall. The terrific tonal balance between the two soloists was one of the main strengths of their playing. If you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t have been able to tell which one was playing at any given time. They also were exceptional when handing off phrases to each other. It was smooth as silk.

Perhaps some of the almost telepathic abilities of the soloists were due to the fact that they are brothers. Juanjo, the older brother, lives outside of Barcelona and is the soloist for the Symphony Orchestra of the Grand Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona’s opera house). Tolo lives on the island of Menorca (one of the Balearic Islands) and teaches clarinet at the music conservatory there. Juanjo and Tolo also happen to be the brothers-in-law of Salvador Brotons, music director of the VSO, giving this concert an ‘all in the family” moniker.

After receiving enthusiastic applause from all corners of the hall, the Mercadal brothers responded with an encore, Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” in an arrangement for two clarinets and orchestra. Through the Mercadal brothers ability to create a sultry mood and the image of two tango dancers entwined on the stage.

The infectious musicality of Brotons came to the fore with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in the second half of the program. This piece, with its emotional fluctuations, is one that plays to Brotons strengths. He used every inch of body language to coax huge dynamic contrasts from the orchestra, and the orchestra delivered them with panache. The cutoffs were crisp, runs from the violin section were almost always unified, the reoccurring fate motive had gravitas, the woodwinds created a sense of expansion and contraction that added color, and the fortes were electrifying. Even though the French horns had a blip or two that clouded things a bit, principal Allan Stromquist expertly conquered his solos in the second movement. Principal timpanist Florian Conzetti had a field day. His playing added tremendously to the overall effect of the piece.

It seemed that the musicians were very familiar with this work, and that allowed them to get out of their scores and respond to Brotons’s conducting. When that happens, wow, the music making climbs to a higher level and connects directly with the audience. In fact, in this concert, the audience started applauding right after the end of the first movement. Brotons had lit a fire, his hands were extended skyward, and listeners responded naturally. That’s a compliment for any orchestra.

Earlier in the concert program, Brotons conducted “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt.” This piece was the one that the audience selected from pieces that had been played earlier in the season. The gradual change in tempo was executed well, and the “prestissimo” finale whirled about wildly.

The concert actually began with a snappy rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” in an arrangement for orchestra. It was conducted by Kathy Grambsch, who won the chance at the orchestra’s gala fundraiser. Everyone seemed to be having fun with this piece, including stand-up opportunities for the piccolos, trumpets, and trombones.

Postscript: The Tchaikovsky was a late substitute for Richard Strauss's "Alpine Symphony." The orchestra couldn't afford the expense of the Strauss symphony, probably because it requires much larger forces. Hopefully, the Strauss will be done in the near future.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

James Carter brings bold sax sound to the fore – Orchestra excels with Rouse, Bernstein, and Barber

Saxophone virtuoso James Carter made a bold statement with both soprano and tenor saxophones on Saturday (May 9) with the Oregon Symphony. His playing of Roberto Sierra’s “Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra” created a panoply of sounds that showed off the versatility of each instrument and Carter’s supreme mastery. He made squeaks and squeals, full throttle basso growls, lovely burnished sounds, mellow tones, honks, and amusing pizzicato piercings. Carter knows the piece very well, since it was written for him by Sierra (completed in 2000 and premiered in 2002), and its improvisational character plays to Carter’s jazz-oriented virtuosity. But Carter chose to play most of the piece really loud. Except for a section of the lovely second movement, which he played quietly on the soprano saxophone, he pretty much ran over the orchestra. I am not sure why he chose to do that. The audience at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (which was very full) ate it all up anyway. To be sure, Carter’s performance was amazing, but it would’ve been more amazing if he had chosen to play piano and even mezzo forte once in a while.

Also on the program was Christopher Rouse’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” which he composed in 2008, making it one of the newest pieces that the Oregon Symphony has performed. Musically speaking, this one-movement piece was all over the map. It opened with a pulsating beat that came to a sudden stop, followed by glissando-ing trombones and a wild ride through the strings. Then the trombones proclaimed a series of fervid glissandos that went higher and higher as if climbing a pole. That led to a delightful racket from the entire orchestra, which died down to reveal muted, pulsating sounds from the trumpets and bells. The music then became motionless until the violins and double basses started to move in parallel with the violins near the top of their range and the double basses in the basement of their range. Against this strange pairing, the violas began a mournful commentary, followed by the cellos and later by chattering woodwinds.

The above description covers (inadequately) just a fragment of Rouse’s piece. It demanded virtuosity from everyone in the orchestra. The percussion battery had a field day with a huge assembly of instruments. Principal timpanist Jonathan Greeney had one absolutely wild passage in which he wailed the dickens on everything in his reach. Zachariah Galatis got a few exceptional licks with the piccolo before the finale, in which the orchestra created a raucous celebration.

The concert opened with the “Symphonic Dances” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” The orchestra, crisply directed by Kalmar, played each selection with pizzazz, starting with “The Prologue” in which you could picture gang members walking with a loping gait before Niel DePonte (on the drum set) got them to break into a run. “Somewhere” countered the tension with its sweet and wistful melody. “Mambo” rollicked the atmosphere with sharp accents from the trumpets and timpani. A quartet from the first violin section introduced the lovely “Maria” theme. Somewhere along the way, I noticed that DePonte was reading from a huge placard-sized score that he had to change by laying one placard carefully on the floor. Tender playing by guest principal flutist Michael Gordon during the “Rumble” section signaled the tragic outcome of the story.

Sandwiched between the peppy, louder works was Samuel Barber’s soothing “Adagio for Strings.” The strings of the orchestra played the piece with intensity and sensitivity, striking an excellent balance so that none of the phrases dripped into sentimentality. The one problem with this piece is that it is so often played by classical radio stations, but hearing the piece in a live performance with this caliber of orchestra made the music fresh and satisfying.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Seattle Opera's Ariadne auf Naxos sparkles

Kate Lindsey and Sarah Coburn. Photo: Elise Bakketun.
Seattle Opera's production of Ariadne auf Naxos began its run Friday, May 2nd at McCaw Hall in Seattle. Featuring Kate Lindsey as The Composer, Sarah Coburn as Zerbinetta and Christiane Libor as The Prima Donna (Ariadne),  there was marvelous singing to be heard.

The Prologue took place under a monolithic, austere gray arch like a concrete wall, and with costumes reminiscent of the mid-century or so it was a stylish setting. Lindsey gave an outstanding performance vocally speaking--she possesses an incredibly vibrant and nuanced voice, capable of shifting easily between timbres.  When she sang Mächtige gott it was immediately entrancing--she ranged from a clear, bell-like timbre, perfectly understandable even when whispering quiet, to a large, bold mezzo. As she and Zerbinetta discuss their competing visions of the Ariadne myth the whole process unfolds naturally, a slow, sinuous descent into a strange infatuation. Patrick Carfizzi as the harried Music Teacher also deserves special note for his expansive, inviting baritone.

The orchestra, under Lawrence Renes, rendered the overture to The Opera in a sentimental, homey way, like listening to an old crackling phonograph. The trio with Naiad, Dryad and Echo (Amanda Opuszynski, Maya Lahyani, Andrea Carroll) began the spellbinding of the myth--a languid discourse featuring fascinating blocking with an oddly hypnotic blue cloth simulating waves over and over and over...

Christiane Libor had an extremely difficult task with the lengthy, serious arias that Ariadne is tasked with singing. In Ein schönes war, in which she laments her lost love, it felt like something was lacking at times in the low end of her range. Still the overall effect was powerful--her careful, stylized acting, in which each gesture and facial expression carried added weight, only served to heighten the outcome.  She had to maintain her tragic mien and remain immune to the capering  during the bits of silliness and frippery when the harlequinade made forays subtle or bold onto the rock where she expounded her grief. She retained an air of complete sadness in the face of all efforts to cheer her up, and there was a sense of continuity to her performance despite the bits of comedy.

Christiane Libor as Ariadne. Photo by Alan Alabastro.

Coburn's Zerbinetta nearly stole the show with Grossmächtige Prinzessin. Her character seemed determined not to be outdone or drowned out in the face of Ariadne's grief, and she along with her entourage provided the much-needed counterpoint to Ariadne. Coburn's singing was magnificent--light when called for, yet with plenty of heft to back it up as needed. Her comedic styling was impeccable, and all this plus her charisma made her the center of attention whenever she was on stage. During the 'show within a show' staging of the opera, it was fun to watch see SO's iconic former general director Speight Jenkins as a member of the onstage audience, much to the delight of the actual audience at McCaw.

SO's production of Ariadne auf Naxos continues its run through May 16th at McCaw Hall.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Review of Portland Symphonic Choir: "Shakespeare in Song" with Portland Actors Ensemble

Guest review by Phil Ayers

A gorgeous early May afternoon (Sunday, May 3rd) beckoned most Portlanders to be outside in their yards and gardens, or taking kids and dogs to playgrounds, or taking a long stroll along many urban paths. But many of us found our way to St. Mary's Cathedral for a spring concert of word and song. Most of the words were provided by William Shakespeare and the music by a variety of 20th century composers. A new component to a Portland Symphonic Choir concert was introduced with four members of the Portland Actors Ensemble performing portions of plays and sonnets by the Bard. It was an afternoon well-spent, and even the desire to be outside abated. After all, one could, as this reviewer did as soon as he arrived home, remove layers of clothing and get outside as quickly as possible, remembering - and even singing - the delights just heard.

Central to the concert was Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music" that was originally composed for sixteen soloists and arranged by the composer for choir and four soloists, with an option of some of the solo passages sung by entire sections. It has a decidedly "chamber-ish" aspect to it, an intimacy, that I felt was captured well by this large choir at its best. While it would have been preferable that the choir be "up front," this performance forced the listener to truly listen, following the exquisite text from Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," Act V, Scene i. "Harmony" occurs three times in the text:

Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony (twice);

and later,

Such harmony is in immortal souls.

The rich voice of soprano Cameron Griffith Herbert and the lovely violin solo played by Janet George enhanced and highlighted throughout. But the real star (alongside conductor Zopfi and his excellent ensemble) was Douglas Schneider at the organ, playing a piano reduction made by the composer and edited by Michael Kennedy. While an organ is not imitative of a full orchestra, despite theatre organs and such stops on them as xylophone and snare drum and ophicleide, this arrangement worked fabulously well. Schneider is versatile, and at the conclusion of the program proved himself a more-than-adequate jazz pianist. He generously gave this reviewer an informal interview at the intermission, explaining the delightful Gerald Finzi organ piece (not in the program) that he played as the singers made their way to the gallery and the fact that the gallery organ, a refurbished 19th century instrument, "is a Vaughan Williams organ."

The concert opened with Vaughan Williams' settings of "Full Fathom Five," "The Cloud-Capp'd Towers," and "Over Hill, Over Dale." These are a capella choruses, the second for double-chorus, from "The Tempest" and "Midsummer Night's Dream." According to the program notes, the composer "… said that the entire set was based on the words 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on.'"

When I saw that George Shearing's music would be on this program, I thought of that marvelous blind English pianist, more noted for his jazz piano work, but recalling that a friend had programmed an organ piece by Shearing on a program once. So I knew that this composer was able to move from classically-wrought music to jazz and back again. The excellent diction in "Music to Hear" ("Sonnet #8") was notable and the piano and bass (played by Kevin Deitz) accompanied Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day with the familiar line "And summer's lease hath all too short a date." "Is It for Fear to Wet a Widow's Eye" ("Sonnet #9"), a chant-like episode by women choristers holding forth, concluded the first Shearing set.

The live actors' parts were interspersed between musical portions, often leading into them, as the part from "Richard II", Act II, Scene ii, with its many references to "harmony" that would re-appear in the Serenade that followed on its heels. This scene has the familiar ode to England, "This sceptered isle … this blessed plot … this England!"

As the Vaughan Williams "Serenade" concluded, a standing ovation finished the first part of the program, the audience obviously enchanted and thrilled with the artistry, subtlety and sheer glory of this work.

Four Shakespeare Songs by New York composer Matthew Harris (b. 1956) opened the second half of the program. His six-volume collection of Shakespeare's songs includes these four from books three and four, written in the nineties. They range in style from wistful and folk-like in "It Was a Lover and His Lass" to the raucous in "When Daffodils Begin to Peer" (program notes). In a few spots, a sense of ensemble was lacking in the chorus. These selections were conducted by Kathryn Lehmann, assistant conductor.

Emma Lou Diemer's "Three Madrigals" followed with no pauses between them. This is "accessible music," a term I've become fond of, and I use here to create an image of someone new to hearing this sort of music and liking Diemer's music in particular. They were accompanied by piano which provided a solid underpinning to the choral parts. Again, the listener could be reminded of memorized Shakespeare from school days, with "Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty!" from "Twelfth Night" and "Hey nonny, nonny" from "Sigh No More Ladies" ("Much Ado About Nothing"). Again, the actors provided a lead-in to these madrigals with a very lengthy selection from "Twelfth Night," I, v.

More from "Twelfth Night" was acted well by Olivia Shimkus, leading into a set of seven short, pithy songs "reminiscent of the renaissance genre of the madrigal in which the text and music were intimately intertwined" (program notes) by Ned Rorem that he composed in 1951 in Paris. Here were non-Shakespearean texts, except for the last "attributed" to the Bard; this included an excellent setting of the text that begins, "Crabbed age and youth cannot live together … Youth is nimble, age is lame … Age, I do defy thee: O, sweet shepherd, hie thee, / For methinks thou stay'st too long." Along the way, there were some slight intonation problems that were quickly righted.

A well-acted portion of "Troilus and Cressida" segued well into more George Shearing from his "Music to Hear", composed for the Dale Warland Singers in 1985 for chorus, piano and string bass. They were settings of the familiar "Blow, blow thou winter wind / Thou art not so unkind / As man's ingratitude" and "Sigh no more, ladies … men were deceivers ever … Then sigh not so, / But let them go / And be you blithe and bonny …". Heads nodded and toes tapped during these two!

I found myself saying as I left the Cathedral into the bright afternoon warm sun, "'Serenade to Music' and George Shearing were worth the price of admission!"

As far as I know, this is the first time Portland Symphonic Choir has teamed with four professional Shakespearean actors. Olivia Shimkus, Douglas Reynolds, Jen Elkington and Curt Hanson, directed by Asae Dean performed well and engaged the audience, as some of us craned our necks backward to grasp the words. How I yearned to have Shakespeare's texts in hand, or at least know the "canon" better. As noted above, many times the drama segued into the musical portions; at other times I wondered what, exactly, was going on. But it was all pleasurable and fun.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Show Boat steams ahead in Portland Opera production

Arthur Woodley | Photo credit: Cory Weaver
Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” steamed across the stage at a good clip and left lots of positive impressions in its wake on opening night, May 1st, at Keller Auditorium. The success of the show, produced by Portland Opera, was due in part to placing the orchestra at the back of the stage and extending the stage floor over the orchestra pit. That brought the action closer to the audience, and in a big hall like the Keller (with its seating capacity of 3,200), the show acquired a lot more intimacy and immediacy than had been present at previous musicals. It also gave lighter-singing voices a fighting chance to be heard without amplification. That was a real plus for this kind of show, which, because it was produced by an opera company, emphasizes non-amplified singing.

The one big number that everyone knows from this show is “Old Man River,” and I’m telling you that Arthur Woodley sang that number with heart, soul, power, and his emotion resonated into the farthest corners of the house. The audience responded with bravos and loud, sustained applause, and Woodley probably could have sung it again and received another round of ardent appreciation.

Lindsay Ohse and Liam Bonner | Photo credit: Cory Weaver
Woodley aptly created an amiable Joe and was well-matched with Angela Renée Simson’s down-to-earth yet fun-lovin’ Queenie. Lindsay Ohse created a lithe and charming Magnolia Hawks whose character turns resilient but not brittle later in the show as the wife of the gambling-man, Gaylord Ravenal. Liam Bonner sang with grace and a lovely focused tone in the role of Ravenal.

As Julie La Verne, Hannah S. Penn commanded the stage with a sultry mezzo when she sang “Bill.” Susannah Mars showed plenty of starch as the prim and proper Parthy Ann Hawks and Allen Nause was excellent counterweight as the exuberant and compromising husband Andy Hawks who just wanted everyone to get along like a “big happy family.”

Megan Misslin as Ellie May Chipley and Joe Grandy as Frank Schultz added humor, peppering the show with delightful vaudeville shticks that they made look easy peasy.

Hal France guided the orchestra with a huge palette of gestures and expressions, and it was easy to see that he knew every word of every song. The orchestra sounded fine from the back of the hall. They scaled the sound way back for the lighter voices (Mars and especially Nause). Nicholas Fox prepared two choruses, and each sang with verve.

The sets, created for the Central City Opera House Association, featured a wrought-iron façade at the top with the name “Cotton Blossom,” and that nicely mimicked the set of the original Ziegfeld production of which there was picture in the program. A footbridge, which came apart in the middle so that it could be easily moved and repositioned, was all that was needed to suggest rooms on the boat and a place for lovers to meet.

Director and co-choreographer ray Roderick teamed up with co-choreographer Becky Timms to keep the story moving at a smooth pace. The large cast moved about in a natural way and efficiently moved the pieces of the sets with no collisions.

Since “Show Boat” covers a 40-year span (1887-1927), and most of those years take place in the second half of the story, the production has to cover all of the bases in a timely and coherent manner. This performance did that in a tidy manner that tied a bow around the reconciliation between Magnolia and Gaylord.Overall, this was a satisfying production, but because the singing isn't amplified, the best seats are the expensive ones closer to the stage. The remaining shows are scheduled for May 7 and  9.

Before the show started, General Director Christopher Mattaliano came onto the stage to announce next season’s lineup – “The Magic Flute,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Eugen Onegin,” and “The Italian Girl in Algiers” – all of which will take place during the summer for the first time ever. Mattaliano was wearing a cast on one of his arms because he had broken an elbow in a bicycle accident.

Scene in Chicago | Photo credit: Cory Weaver

Monday, May 4, 2015

Third Angle teams up with Alex Ross to play and explain West Coast music

Guest review by Jeff Winslow

Music is sound first, then emotion. The partnership remained a largely unquestioned part of European music tradition until the early 20th century, when two massive wars and a variety of other traumatic social turmoils seemed to wear out interest in the emotional part. Some composers began to look back to the music of what they imagined were simpler and less fraught times. Others, particularly on America's west coast, simply imagined less fraught sounds. Third Angle New Music, last Friday evening (May 1) at a nearly full Alberta Rose Theatre, celebrated their 30th anniversary fittingly, with a season finale that featured the latter, back in a time before the whole idea of a musical "avant-garde" became worn out in turn.

Providing a low-key but engaging narrative for the evening was special guest Alex Ross, music critic for "The New Yorker" magazine, and writer on how we got to today's "classical" music, the most famous example being his award-winning book "The Rest is Noise". Ensconced at a mid-century modern chair and table (he made a point of letting us know just how comfortable the chair was), he introduced each number and drew it into a picture of the West Coast scene. This was especially intriguing because many if not most of the evening's composers achieved their eventual fame (or notoriety) in other parts of the country. Many people associate John Cage with the invention of the "prepared piano"; how many know he first "prepared" a piano in Seattle? Or that he was born in Los Angeles and spent his early creative life in California?

The scene was set by the only work with a recognizable European pedigree. California native Henry Cowell's "Quartet Euphometric" for strings, finished just after World War I and seven years after Arnold Schoenberg's seminal atonal "Pierrot Lunaire," came across as a mostly euphonious exercise in that style. Its supposed rhythmic difficulties have been so eclipsed by other music since that they were barely noticeable. Even more euphonious was the movement "Bowl Bells" from "Varied Trio," a later (1987) work by Portland's own Lou Harrison, given a relaxed performance by Third Angle artistic director Ron Blessinger on violin, Susan DeWitt Smith on piano, and percussionist Chris Whyte on... rice bowls.

Harrison and California composer, inventor and hobo Harry Partch shared an interest in unusual percussion instruments, but Partch was represented by a work that could hardly be more different. An excerpt from "Bitter Music: XX. November 15 – Leaving Santa Barbara" interspersed Ross's straight narration, a "piano enhanced" narration – Smith following the inflections of her voice on the keyboard – and hymns sung by Blessinger, who happens to have a fine voice in addition to his other talents.

The concert simply had to include generous helpings of Cage and pioneering 1960's minimalists LaMonte Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. (Reich was born in New York, but has deep roots in California too.) Idaho native Young's "Composition 1960 #7," just a couple of long-held notes – the title is almost longer than the score – ushered the arriving patrons to their seats. Californian Riley was represented by an excerpt from his free-form masterpiece "In C" that was unfortunately too short to get into the most fascinating parts, which are not actually in C. Reich fared somewhat better, in an excerpt from his tape loop work "It's Gonna Rain" and Blessinger performing "Violin Phase" as a solo against a taped "phased array" of the other violin parts. Possibly because of the time constraint, I got the impression "Violin Phase" was getting a bit of the bum's rush. Reich might have been better represented by that work only, in a longer, more gradually developed rendition.

I have to admit I don't have much use for Cage, outside of one or two ground-breaking concepts and earlier works such as his magnum opus "Sonatas and Interludes", but "Imaginary Landscapes no. 1" from 1939 was a pleasant surprise. A conversation seemed to develop between Smith, repeatedly diving down the strings on the inside of the piano and insinuating occasional muted ticking, Whyte playing a Chinese cymbal (even noisier than a typical Western one) in multifarious ways, and Nancy Ives and Charles Noble (normally on stage as fine string players) doing proto-scratches on two turntables loaded with test tone vinyl. Two themes which came to dominate Cage's work were clear: interplay of gestures' durations, and repression of the expressiveness of pitch content. But unlike most of his late work, I still felt a great interest in how it would all play out.

Aside from the early Cowell, however, there was little impetus for emotional response to any of these works, no matter how attractive or intriguing they were. (To be fair, when I first heard "In C", in full performance by Third Angle nearly 30 years ago, it was indeed a moving experience. And Harrison was a wide-ranging composer who wasn't shy about emotional expression.) So I looked forward to the final work of the evening, John Luther Adams' string quartet "The Wind in High Places", written in the present day, when composers are once again fully engaging the emotional sphere. The emotions in Adams' music tend toward subtle responses to nature, which isn't surprising, because he has spent most of his professional life in Alaska, a place where nature is very hard to avoid. Indeed, I sometimes think the emotion his music expresses best, paradoxically, is a kind of emptiness, a response not so much to the surrounding beauties of nature but the simple lack of human presence.

Unfortunately, at this climactic point, I have to say it – Third Angle stumbled. One thing composers have always been and probably will always be interested in is pushing the ever-expanding boundaries of virtuosity, and Adams in 2011 set string players a treacherous challenge. It doesn't sound complicated (check out the JACK Quartet tracks on YouTube), but the work is chock full of harmonics. Harmonics are tricky enough: fingers must not only be in exactly the right position along a string, but must also exert the right pressure or unwanted sounds will be added, usually in the most distracting, wobbly-sounding way. Even so, players of Third Angle's caliber have little problem with them, in moderation. The challenge here is that they must transition flawlessly between them, occasionally several in quick succession, for minutes at a time. For nearly 20 minutes, there is almost always at least one player walking the tightrope, and often all four. Even if each player is perfect most of the time, there's likely always going to be a distracting scratch or wobble somewhere. And so it went – human nature in this particular landscape was, ironically, all too present. It was a valiant effort, but it just didn't get the work across.

Still, this is the world of new music. It's much better to be ambitious and risk failure than plod along in the safety of the same old channels. Third Angle is nothing if not ambitious, and over their 30 year history they have usually succeeded in fine style, as indeed they did for the rest of the evening. I wish them all the best for the next 30 years.
Jeff Winslow is fourth-generation Oregonian who studied music and electronics at University of California-Berkeley, getting serious about composition in the mid-1990s as High Modernism finally relinquished its death grip on the world of art music. His work has been performed by fEARnoMUSIC, Portland Vocal Consort, and the Resonance Ensemble, and also at Cascadia Composers, Seventh Species, Cherry Blossom Musical Arts, and Oregon Bach Festival concerts, as well as several other locations around the region, often with the composer at the piano. A recent piano work, “Lied ohne Worte (lieber mit Ligeti)” received honorable mention from the Friends and Enemies of New Music, a New York-based composers’ group. He is a founding member of the Cascadia Composers, a chapter of NACUSA centered on the lower watershed of the Columbia River.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Book review of Orfeo - reviewed from a composer's perspective

Guest reviewer - Jack Gabel

When first studying music formally, I spent some time with Claudio Monteverdi's “L’Orfeo”. A non-music-specialist housemate, listening in one day, grew curious enough to study the LP liner notes and finally commented, “Wow, these guys were like scientists!” Some forty years later I encounter a novel that engages this notion head on.

I’m not offering a literary review of Powers’ compelling novel. Before authoring a single word, I searched out and read over two-dozen reviews — some linked at the end. Most fulfill the expectations of literary criticism. I see no need in retracing their largely well-plotted maps. I’m writing to offer what I couldn’t find in any other review: a composer’s perspective. This is pertinent because Powers’ contemporary Orfeo protagonist is 71-year-old composer, Peter Els.

Els develops his craft about the same time I and most of my colleagues did. This is probably why, from the hundreds of insightful lines — mostly Els’ thoughts: memories, associations, reflections — coursing through the work, I find this, from his first significant destination, while on the lam, Urbana-Champaign (Little Darmstadt on the Prairie he calls it), where he is mentored and steeped in the avant-garde, to be the most prescient: “He was safest now in crowds. And crowds of the young, who tend to look away, embarrassed, from anyone careless enough to have let himself get old.”

Composers working today in the classical art-music tradition are rarely written about at length, fictionally or otherwise. Power’s composer, Peter Els, nearing the end of his life, is no longer taken seriously, even to the marginal degree of recognition he momentarily achieves, then hastily tosses away, for one nobly convincing reason, or perhaps for another not so flattering one. I’ll get to that momentarily. .

When finally done with traditional musical expression, to exercise his genitive compulsion, Peter Els returns to his first interest, chemistry, from which he is seduced into the arts by his first lover and muse — a passionate cellist with four-feet of hair, who ultimately breaks his heart, launching him into his first phase as a serious composer. In time we learn his compulsion to be nothing less than immortality for his “unheard” music, both the laboriously scored and that only imagined. He attempts this by composing in DNA, in the genes of bacteria that will propagate worldwide.

Such a scheme may sound farfetched, but it’s a fait accompli, emerging field — BioArt, rendered through biochemistry. In fact Powers acknowledges in this interview that “Orfeo” is inspired by the bizarre story of NY-based, Steve Katz’s BioArt installations. Katz was arrested in 2004 by the FBI and prosecuted for four years as a bioterrorist — details here:

The reader is engaged by an artist whose career spans the hotly (if narrowly) contested battleground of mind-to-late-20th-century, art music in the western classical tradition. After his DIY bio-art lab is raided, Els takes flight across the continent, media-branded the “Bioterrorist Bach”. The virtual slapstick in the unfolding of his legend through cyberspace underlines his fascination and annoyance with the evermore, literal, cyber ubiquity of music, making it at once inescapable, invaluable, undeniable and worthless.

Els is certain of his ultimate arrest and imminent decades-long detention by the post-9/11 Security State. His “road trip” leads to places and people important in his life; not in search of shelter, rather to bid adieu. Along the way we get pertinent deconstructions of essential music that informs his life and work: Gustav Mahler, “Kindertotenlieder”; Olivier Messiaen, “Quartet for the End of Time”; Steve Reich, “Proverb”; Dmitri Shostakovich, “Fifth Symphony”; Harry Partch, “Barstow”; Peter Lieberson, “Neruda Songs”. These substantiate both his personal and the larger “battleground” — a poetic distillation (perhaps) of Alex Ross’ “The Rest is Noise”.

The novel’s apex is Els recalling his monumental opera — a commission from New York City Opera — titled “The Fowler’s Snare”, an elaborate, three-hour, multimedia rendering of the 16th Century Münster rebellion — arguably Europe’s first “religious/socialist” rebellion. The premiere happens to fall just days after the dreadfully fatal, fiery, FBI/ATF, siege on the Waco, Texas compound of the Branch Davidian cult, led by charismatic Matthysian, David Koresh. Els is shocked and reels from the inevitable, topical parallel. He fails at numerous attempts to cancel the show, which is then an immediate success. Reviews heap praise on the composer for his “artistic bravery”, with one exception, a New Music Review article by El’s former college mentor and career-long critic: “One stroke of luck has turned a nostalgic exercise into something electric.” “The Fowler’s Snare” NYCO run is extended. Calls come in from companies around the country, begging to stage it. Els returns to his hermit cabin in the mountains of New Hampshire. He refuses permission for any further performances. His long-time collaborator and stage director, alone responsible for the commission, drives up to persuade him to relent. It ends in a fistfight. We never learn if Els feels his career-ending decision is honorable or cowardly.

I cannot remember the review that spurred me to rush down to my corner bookseller to order “Orfeo”. I do recall being motivated by claims of its urgency in our hysterically charged post-9/11 epoch. I simply had to read it, especially in light of my own evening-length, dance theatre scores, of the last decade, aimed at the heart of the Global War OF Terror. After premiering those works, my principal collaborator and I sometimes worried about ending up on the No-Fly List, but having since taken a number of incident-free international flight, we’ve concluded that Security State apparatchiks have dismissed us as a threat, at least for now. Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” shouldn’t have been a threat to Stalin, whose little review was just so many words, but then Dimitri’s colleagues began disappearing in waves. Still, he found a way to work. Who among us can compare our work to the bravery of his? Maybe Steve Katz.


Jack Gabel is a composer and poet, living in Portland, Oregon. In addition to nearly one hundred musical compositions, he authored a 1996 comprehensive history of electronic music for All Music Guide (no longer posted), several articles for Sforzando Magazine (last published ca. 2000) and most recently the narration for TOMAS SVOBODA • HIS LIFE • HIS MUSIC (audio biography CD, produced for Tomas Svoboda’s 75th Anniversary Celebration by Agnieszka Laska Dancers, 2014).

 © 2015 Jack Gabel, all rights reserved

Richard Power’s “Orfeo” in other reviews:

Friday, May 1, 2015

EAR TRUMPET - Portland's new music calendar - May edition

May Concerts:

1 - Fri - 7:30 pm
“Hearing Voices” with Alex Ross
JL Adams, Cage, Cowell, Harrison, Partch & Reich
Alberta Rose Theatre

2 - Sat - 7:30 pm
Cd Release Party & Concert
Woodstock Wine & Deli

3 - Sun - 4 pm
Ani & Nia Sulkhanishvili
Chick Corea, Lutoslawski & Ravel
Newmark Theatre

3 - Sun - 8 pm
“Points of Departure”
Pauline Oliveros, Saariaho & Sciarrino
House of Bryce Caster

5 - Tue - 8 pm
Jimmy Mak’s

8 - Fri - 8 pm
solo guitar
Marylhurst University

9 - Sat - 2 pm
“Nothing With Wheels”
Paul Cowell, Jolivet, Parador, Reich & Snow
The Old Church

10 - Sun - 7:30 pm
“Sax & the Symphony”
Barber, Bernstein, Rouse & Sierra
Arlene Schnitzer Hall

<<< ET PICK >>>
12 - Tue - 8 pm
“Not Bitter”
Peter Brotzmann, William Parker & Hamid Drake
Mississippi Studios

14 - Thur - 7 pm
Ken Selden, Milhaud, Ravel & Stravinsky
The Old Church

16 - Sat - 7 pm
“New American Classics”
Golijov, Hartke & Joan Tower
Mississippi Pizza

17 - Sun - 2 pm
“From Darkness to Light”
Alfred Schnittke’s Penitential Verses
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral

17 - Sun - 4 pm
“The Little Match Girl Passion” by David Lang
St. Stephen’s Catholic Church

17 - Sun - 7 pm
Emerging Music Salon
The Waypost

22 - Fri - 7:30 pm
“An Appalachian Spring”
Copland, Selden & Svoboda
Marylhurst University

23 - Sat - 7:30 pm
“Modern Music: Mostly Winds”
Clarke, Beth Karp, Milhaud, Muczynski & Piston
St. David of Wales Episcopal Church

29 - Fri - 8 pm
The Who’s “Tommy”
Alberta Rose Theatre
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2/9/16/23/30 - Saturday: 8-10
All-Classical @ 89.9 FM

4/11/18/25 - Monday: 8-10
KBOO @ 90.7 FM
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ET Recording of the Month:

"Cor de Porc”
Justin Time Records, Canada
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ET West Coast Trail Concert of the Month:

1/2/3 - Fri/Sat/Sun - 8/8/2
Salonen conducts Salonen, Stravinsky & Ravel
Davies Symphony Hall
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