summer catch-up

I can’t believe that it’s been nearly two months since my last post! Lots of stuff has been happening, musically. In early July I was at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene, Oregon. I played three orchestral concerts there, and two chamber music concerts. The orchestral concerts were a mixed bag of repertoire. The first concert consisted of the world premiere of The Passion of Yeshua by Richard Danielpour, conducted by JoAnn Falletta. The final orchestral concert was the Elijah oratorio by Felix Mendelssohn, conducted by John Nelson. In between was a hybrid orchestral-chamber music concert. It featured the music of JS Bach and Philip Glass. Our piano soloist in the Oregon premiere of Glass’ Third Piano Concerto and Bach’s G minor piano concerto was the incredible Simone Dinnerstein. We performed without a conductor per se, but with Simone leading as needed from the piano. The opening piece was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, also without a conductor, led by OBF orchestra (and OSO) concertmaster Sarah Kwak. Then, in our festival debut, was the Pyxis Quartet (part of the new 45th Parallel Universe collective) playing Glass’ String Quartet No. 5. Glass was in attendance at the concert, and was also generous enough to give us a bit of time to play through some parts of the quartet the afternoon before the concert. It was a fantastic experience – very much a once-in-a-lifetime sort of musical happening!

Post quartet selfie with Philip Glass: L-R: Marilyn De Oliveira, Charles Noble, Philip Glass, Ron Blessinger, and Ruby Chen.

Then, after a week off at home, I was off to Coos Bay, Oregon for the Oregon Coast Music Festival. This festival has been going strong for 40 years, and this was my first time taking part. James Paul is the music director, and the orchestra comes from all over the western U.S. It was a blast from the past for me, as many in the orchestra played in the Cascade Festival orchestra which I took part in in Bend, Oregon for several years back in the late 1990’s. It’s a large orchestra, and the repertoire was sized to match – Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Scheherazade, Brahms’ 4th Symphony, and Strauss’ Don Juan were the major works of the week’s classical concerts. It was a super fun and relaxed festival, and it was also much cooler than the nearly triple-digit temps that folks inland were dealing with during the week!

Now I’m home again, and getting ready for some chamber music concerts in the Oregon Wine Country. I’ll give you the low down on those later this week.

on goodness

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.

Obrigado, Marilyn!

Program:

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

three quartets, one steve reich

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.

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Violinist Greg Ewer gets ‘into’ his subject.

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.

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Cellist Marilyn De Oliveira and violist Charles Noble working the soundcheck on Friday afternoon.

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.

Steve Reich | Photo: Jeffrey Herman
Steve Reich | Photo: Jeffrey Herman

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!