Oregon composers’ music highlights spring concerts of 20th and 21st century sounds.

As the last early evening summer sunlight streamed through the windows of Portland’s Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, the city’s most exciting current composer, Kenji Bunch, meandered around the main gallery, playing his viola, passing within inches of the several dozen people in folding chairs. As he orbited the two big pianos installed in the center of the space, Bunch’s New Orleans-accented 2010 viola solo “Etoufee” gradually heated to a crayfish-cooking boil.

After enthusiastic applause, Bunch’s wife Monica Ohuchi, an equally (at least) fine musician in her own right, followed with a brief blistering hurricane, Bunch’s 2010-11 Etude 4. Bunch then joined her for I Dream in Evergreen, a spare and melancholy 2008 “meditation on permanence and impermanence,” he said. In my imagination, the triptych formed a musical parable of New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Kenji Bunch played his own music at Blue Sky Gallery.

Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Kai-Win Ho brought Makrokosmos Project to Portland

The couple concluded one of the best sets of music I heard all season with a ferocious performance of his 1998 Suite for Viola and Piano, which began with a fervid, neb-romantic Rhapsody, a real joke of a Scherzo that alternated between plucked and bowed passages, then a yearning, heartfelt lament, interrupted by jagged sobs that lurched straight into a whizzing whirlwind that showed off the viola’s full range of expression, eliciting cheers and hollers from the crowd for a rousing performance that lived up to the set’s title, Unleashed.

Bunch’s set was the second of four in the June 25 inaugural edition of the Makrokosmos Project, the evening-long annual showcase perpetrated by duo pianists Stephanie and Saar. That concert, in turn was one of several this spring and summer that mixed contemporary Oregon compositions with other music, which we’re looking at here second installment in our three-part series covering Oregon contemporary classical music circa spring 2015. (The third and final episode covers several all-Oregon contemporary classical concerts that highlighted the spring music schedule.) While it’s always gratifying to see full concerts of music by Oregon composers like the one we looked at in the first episode of our spring survey, ghettoizing Oregon classical music (like any new music) may deny other listeners the opportunity to stumble across it. Many Oregon music lovers may not know they’ll like music composed by Oregonians, because they may not have heard much of it. Many of our major institutions, from orchestras to radio stations, implicitly signal its inferiority by devoting only a tiny percentage of their programming time to it. Mixing new and old, local and international, in concert programs, allows the audience for each to bolster the others — and listeners to discover new sounds that they might like as much as the music they came for.


To the Makrokosmos

Which brings us back to Makrokosmos, the five-hour gallery show that included Kenji Bunch’s Unleashed set, whose earthy dance beats sounded about as far removed as imaginable from this year’s project’s primary focus: the relatively abstract music of one of America’s most visionary and singular living composers, George Crumb, who over the course of a five decade long career has constructed a completely original and instantly recognizable sound world.

Pianist Deborah Cleaver shows audience members how to get that special Crumb sound.

Pianist Deborah Cleaver shows audience members how to get that special Crumb sound

Before the first set, devoted to volume I of Crumb’s 1972 masterpiece Makrokosmos, pianists Deborah Cleaver, Susan DeWitt Smith and Alexander Schwarzkopf enthusiastically elucidated the specialized techniques that help characterize Crumb’s music, and it was pretty fascinating to see where those weird sounds come from. They also made an insightful connection between Crumb’s music and Debussy’s, reminding us that even the most radical art grows out of historical sources.

In that first set, the pianists, especially Cleaver, really threw themselves into the drama of Crumb’s music, with extreme dynamics and total commitment. The gallery’s intimate space made the informal explanations feel relaxed, but also made Crumb’s explosive sounds almost frighteningly close. The only drawback for me was that so much of it felt nocturnal, but the sun was still streaming through the near sweltering gallery’s windows at 6 pm.

That crowd kept growing through Bunch’s 7 pm set and the 8 pm set, which began with Crumb’s 1973 Makrokosmos vol. II. Julia Hwakyu Lee really attacked Part I, with her piano sounding now like a harp, now a harpsichord, guitar, bass, thunder, even occasionally a piano. Harold Gray, assigned some of the night’s most colorful and extreme music in Part II, responded with a robust performance that drew some of the loudest applause of the long evening. After that apex, Third Angle pianist Smith played the night’s quietest music, applying delicate brush strokes that inevitably made us aware of passing police siren, squeaky chairs, and other audible realities. Cleaver delivered the final whispered pianistic prayer, ending the set on a hushed note.

The crowd began to dwindle during the intermission before hosts Stephanie & Saar took the benches for the evening’s fourth and final set. After Nikolai Kapustin’s Paraphrase on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca,” (“We have jazz envy,” Stephanie, a Portland native, admitted), they delivered the surprise of the night: University of Oregon prof David Crumb’s 1999 The Whisperer, which unlike its title, detonated dramatic, even explosive moments before calming into a nearly Arvo Pärt-like solace that felt earned. Although David, George’s son, was probably the least known composer on the program, his startling piece revealed a composer to be reckoned with on his own merits.

Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Kai-Win Ho brought Makrokosmos Project to Portland.

Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Kai-Win Ho brought Makrokosmos Project to Portland

Hallelujah Junction, a pulsating work that takes a robust idea and runs it past its driving radius, inevitably came off as a bit anticlimactic after the preceding emotional extremes. But this first experiment nevertheless proved a smashing success, with attendance so surprisingly strong that an exultant Saar Ahuvia announced that a second edition would follow next summer. It was one of 2015’s peak Oregon musical moments.