march music moderne comes in like a lion

Free Marz String Trio | Photo: Charles Noble

Just like its eponymous month, March Music Moderne came in like a lion last night with the opening salvo (not including the first Thursday opening at Polish Hall) at the Community Music Center last night. This was the Bob Priest (festival organizer) produced Free Marz Trio concert that is often the highlight of each year’s festival. It was a concert on the longish side (close to 2 1/2 hours), especially given the density of the material, but it proved, even then, to be more than the sum of its parts, and infinitely rewarding.

If you attend a recital or concert with a musician, and you hear them remark at the close that they feel like going home to practice, then they were very inspired by what transpired during the concert. I felt like going home to practice, especially in light of Joël Belgique’s seemingly effortless traversals of two of Garth Knox’s Viola Spaces etudes for solo viola. The concert opened with the Viola Space #4, entitled Pizzicato: Nine Finger, a pizzicato tour de force of nearly unparalleled virtuosity. The audience was rapt as Belgique produced an incredible variety of tone colors, rhythms, and implied melodies using just eight fingers and a thumb, culminating at the end with both hands turned opposite their normal directions and strumming at the peg box end of the fingerboard. None of us could believe what we were seeing and hearing!

The concert closed with Viola Space #8, entitled Bow Directions: “Up, down, sideways, round”. Whereas the first work of the evening was all about plucking the strings, this work was all about the use of the bow in just about every possible, but non-traditional, way. It was truly a frenzy of bowing possibilities. At times it was feared that the friction might cause a fire, boy scout style, but a blaze never materialized from this blazing performance. He earned the most hearty ovations of the evening.

The Free Marz Trio at Community Music Center tonight. Superb playing!
The Free Marz String Trio at Friday’s concert. | Photo: Charles Noble

Bob Priest commissioned 10 local composers to write 1 minute marches for string trio based upon whatever aspect of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring most spoke to them, in honor of the piece’s 100th anniversary. And indeed, there were 10 very different marches on display. The most memorable were those by Robert McBride, Michael Johanson, and Bonnie Miksch, though all were expertly crafted and well written for the forces at their disposal. All were played with aplomb by the Free Marz String Trio, with some vocal utterances of exasperation after the particularly thorny work by Johanson.

MMM founder Bob Priest | Photo: Chris Leck Photography
MMM founder Bob Priest | Photo: Chris Leck Photography

The eight hundred pound gorilla of the evening was Witold Lutoslawski’s sole String Quartet (1964). Clocking in a nearly 25 minutes, it is a piece of astonishing breadth and power. It is unique in that it is one of the first works to combine notated music with aleatoric music, i.e., music in which some of the elements of the music are left up to chance and the performers, with a framework provided by the composer. As Meyer-Eppler said at one of the infamous Darmstadt new music courses, “a process is said to be aleatoric … if its course is determined in general but depends on chance in detail”. As Bob Priest noted in his brief remarks before the performance, this work perhaps represents an inner monologue of the Polish mind, having lived through the horrors of the Second World War and the subsequent horrors of the Soviet regime. It was given a towering performance by the members of the Free Marz Trio, joined by violinist and fEarNoMusic artistic director Paloma Griffin. As I tweeted right after the performance, I found myself “between loving and hating the piece, but with absolutely no ambivalence”.

Two brief works of Stravinsky received deft arrangements by Bob Priest and Jeff Winslow, and correspondingly deft performances.

Justin Kagan, cellist, was joined by Jeannie Baldwin for a lovely and impassioned performance of the Elegy movement from Elliot Carter’s Cello Sonata (1948). Kagan prefaced the performance by reading a letter from Carter to Kagan’s parents (his father, a cellist and his mother, a pianist), thanking them for performing his Sonata with such dedication.

Shostakovich’s youthful Piano Trio, Op. 8 was played by Inés Voglar Belgique, Kagan, and Baldwin. It is one of those works which could fool many in a blind hearing, or ‘drop the needle’ test, as it is unabashedly romantic in its outlook, and not at all containing any the sardonic wit or biting sarcasm that would soon creep into the composer’s works. It was given an assured and beautiful performance.

It was a highly rewarding evening that was very well attended, though there were few under the age of 50 to be found in the audience, which was a shame, since admission was free of charge. This was music that everyone should have the chance to hear.

6 Replies to “march music moderne comes in like a lion”

  1. it is at times like this that I wish I was still living in the Portland area. I would have been one of the under-50 crowd ready to go home a practice.

  2. hey charles, thanx for your thoughtful & comprehensive review. aren’t those “marzians” out of this world? omg, i love ’em!

    soon it will be YOUR turn to slap us all upside the ears!



  3. Very inspiring concert! I kept thinking all evening what a wonderful community of authentic and eccentric performers and composers we have in Portland. Just one small correction Charles, my first name is “Bonnie”. Thanks!

    1. Many apologies! I didn’t take a program, and so was trying to remember everything from the concert. I’ll make the change. Heather said you were fantastic with the kids today!

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