The past two evenings I performed on a Third Angle New Music studio series concert called “A Family Affair”. It was a concert centered around one of my colleagues in the ensemble (and in the Oregon Symphony), cellist Marilyn De Oliveira. Marilyn is quite a remarkable human being. She is one of the few people I know who is almost relentlessly positive in her outlook, regardless of what is happening both inside her life and in the outside world. She describes herself – somewhat ruefully – as a pollyanna. She is also, perhaps because of this worldview, a tremendous advocate for music to everyone. She, as she put it at a Q&A session last night, was brought up with the view that music has an incredible capacity to bring joy to every single person who encounters it. She is, quite honestly, a musical evangelical. And she’s one of those advocates who doesn’t tell you why music is good for you, she just, by her way of being and inhabiting the music, makes you also want to hear more, do more, maybe even learn more about music.
It’s so admirable, what Marilyn embodies. The audience at the concerts this week were also completely rapt in their attention to what Marilyn and her band of friends and family presented. It’s a rare thing, to be on the receiving end of that sort of audience focus. There really was a give and take that one always hopes for, but seldom gets in larger scale performances in the concert hall. For chamber musicians it’s more common to encounter, but these shows were at a level of interchange between audience and musicians that was way up in the 99th percentile. I’ll close by saying a heartfelt thank you to Marilyn for her musical kinship and friendship these past few years, and for inviting me to perform with her this week. It was a career highlight for me.
CAROLINE SHAW | limestone & felt (2012) JOHN TAVENER | Akhmatova Songs (1993) ANDY AKIHO | 21 (2009) SVANTE HENRYSON | Off Pist (1996) KENJI BUNCH | Adventure Awaits (2017) Commissioned with support from The Collins Foundation GIOVANNI SOLLIMA | Lamentatio (1998)
Performers: Marilyn de Oliveira, cello Edlyn de Oliveira, soprano Trevor Fitzpatrick, cello Charles Noble, viola Michael Roberts, percussion James Shields, clarinet
This past Friday and Saturday nights, I, as part of the Third Angle String Quartet played all three of Steve Reich’s works for string quartet. Reich, regarded by some as this country’s greatest living composer, turns 80 years old on October 3rd, and ensembles across the world are paying tribute with myriad performances of his works. This is the latest in a series of remarkable concert experiences that I’ve been fortunate to have with Third Angle. Being able to immerse oneself in the music of a single composer for an extended period is always a rewarding experience – insights into the composer’s language come with increasing frequency, and the dividends paid accrue more quickly than playing a work in isolation. That’s why I’ve long suggested that any orchestral musician worth their salt should play chamber music by the major symphonists as part of their musical continuing education.
Triple the Quartet
The quartets we played – Triple Quartet (1998), WTC 9/11 (2010), and Different Trains (1988), each present different challenges to the performer. Triple is the most rhythmically challenging, and in spite of its fast-slow-fast movement tempo structure, really fells like a moto perpetuo all the way through. It demands so much concentration – it feels like a high wire (sans net) act for its entire duration. Playing with not just one, but two other pre-recorded quartet tracks presents a unique challenge to one used to playing a lot of chamber music – the reactive element is very much truncated, because there is a tiny bit of latitude with tempo. The pre-recorded tracks are implacable, immoveable, relentless. But there is so much vitality in this piece! It explodes off the starting block with tremendous energy, then subsiding into a slow, raga-esque burn in the second movement, and then catapulting itself the the end with a marvel of a gradual rhythmic and dynamic crescendo. In many ways, it’s the most conventional of the three quartets, one that Beethoven would probably understand at a basic level of construction.
Distilling the Horror
WTC 9/11 is such a difficult work. The subject matter, and the use of the archival recordings and interviews, and just the opening sound of the off-the-hook phone warning tones, places one firmly back in those horrible events of September 11, 2001. It was a work that was difficult to work on at home, playing with the soundtrack, on bright, early September days. So many images came to mind, unbidden, and lingered on. The phrases: “help me, I can’t breathe!”, “people – jumping from the building”, “Hashem yishmor tzaytcha uvoecha may atah va-ahd olahm” (Psalm 121:8 – The Eternal will guard your departure and your arrival from now till the end of time.) So appropriate that we performed this piece on the eve of Rosh Hashana. The first night, you could practically feel the air go out of the room as the piece began. The level of intensity from the audience was something that I’ve only experienced a few times in my performing career, and it was astonishing. The fact that we were in a large space (the Oregon Rail Heritage Center), with enormous locomotives surrounding us on all sides, and with the industrial smell of all the bits and lubricants that keep those huge beasts in running order, also provided a sensory echo of that day fifteen years ago – imagined cavernous spaces where wreckage and materials were stored and examined for years afterward. With a piece such as WTC 9/11, it’s hard to separate the musical work from the circumstances of its creation, and that seems entirely appropriate here. A work about one of the most terrible days in our modern history, written by a composer who lived four blocks from Ground Zero, and which melds the worst of humanity with a deeply-held religious faith in what is to come – is sheer genius, magical, even as it is evocative of horror beyond imagining. And the long minute of held-breath at the end before the audience allowed itself to reluctantly applaud, equally magical.
Trains (and trains)
The final work on the program, Different Trains, is one of Reich’s most famous pieces, and deservedly so. It is an unqualified masterpiece. Performing it in the midst of giant locomotives of exactly the type that may have propelled Reich on his childhood journeys across the US (from New York to Los Angeles and back again) was an unforgettable experience for us. For me, the echoes (foreshadowing?) of snippets from WTC 9/11 resonated as the rehearsal and performing periods went on: the shriek of the train whistles vs. the sounds of emergency sirens; the phrase “New York” used chillingly in both pieces; the plaintive cadences of the vocal samples “they shaved us”, “the bodies”. There were points in this piece that were so exhilarating, that I found it impossible not to grin. And there were places where it was so heartbreaking to play (and Reich gives some of the best vocal work to the viola in this quartet). People give ‘minimalism’ a bad rap, and I find it hard to understand why. Certainly, it is not all created equal, but Reich’s music has enormous emotional resonance and vitality that is undeniable, and which accounts for its great popularity. There really is nothing ‘minimal’ about it.
Supporting players in name only
I must give credit to the crew of “Team Third Angle”: the indefatigable Lisa Volle, executive director; Ron Blessinger, artistic director and violinist; Evan Lewis, communications coordinator – they made a technical and logistical nightmare seem trivial to navigate. And incredible kudos to Branic Howard, our incredible sound engineer for the concerts. Literally, the evening wouldn’t have been possible without his artistry and technical knowledge!
It’s right at the end of August, Portland has had temps at or above 100°F several times, the homegrown tomatoes are ripening, and the usual early bird maple trees are already starting to get some color on their leaves. That means that the fall arts season must be right around the corner.
Over at Third Angle New Music, we’re already hard at work on Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet (1999), which we’ll be playing at the Oregon Symphony’s day of local music performances at the site of the annual Waterfront Concert on Sept 1st. That will be a preview for our concert on Sept. 30/Oct. 1 at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center. Also on the program, two other quartets by Reich, his masterpiece Different Trains (1988), and his reaction to the events of September 11, WTC 9/11 (2010). It will be an amazing concert for all of us.
The evening of Sept 1, the Oregon Symphony takes to the outdoor stage at Tom McCall Waterfront Park to play our traditional Waterfront Concert. We’ll be playing a variety of light and serious classical works, partnered with Oregon Ballet Theatre, Portland Opera, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, Portland Youth Philharmonic, and Alpha Battery 218th Field Artillery of the Oregon National Guard. It will also be simulcast live on AllClassical Portland (89.9FM), hosted by Suzanne Nance and Robert McBride.
The season pretty much starts with a bang (literally, fireworks and canons), and keeps going like crazy for the first few months. Here are some of the highlights that I’m particularly looking forward to:
Renée Fleming sings Strauss’ Four Last Songs on our season opener, Sept. 10.
Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle with sets by glass artist Dale Chihuly, Sept. 24-26.
Music of David Bowie, Sept. 29.
Sibelius Symphony No. 3 and Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto, Oct. 8-10.
Ein Heldenleben and percussionist Colin Currie plays Andrew Norman, Oct. 22-24.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, Nov. 10.
Find out about these and all of the Oregon Symphony’s other concerts at www.orsymphony.org.
My quartet, the Arnica Quartet, is playing a midday concert at the University of Portland on Wednesday, November 2 at 12:30pm. We’ll be performing Webern’s early and Romantic Langsamer satz, and Beethoven’s Op. 131 quartet in C-sharp minor.
Definitely a lot going on this fall, I hope you can join me for at least some of what I’m doing!