my favorite performances of the decade

It’s 2020! Now, there is some debate as to whether the new decade starts this year or next, but humans like round numbers, so I’m going with 2020 for the new decade, (and it’s a random Roman’s fault that we have this conundrum, anyway). Will this one roar or suck? Who knows! Not me. But this past decade was an interesting one for me, I’ll say.

Between 2010 and 2020, I lost both of my parents, got divorced, got remarried, bought a house, and broke my collarbone. It was a real Dickens sort of situation, the best of times and the worst of times, all rolled into one.

Musically, it was a less mixed bag. I literally played so much music that I cannot even begin to remember all of it. But here are some things that come to mind from each year.

Me and Greg in our cowboy shirts. Wow, we look young!

In September 2010, I played my first concert with 45th Parallel, and took the show on the road with cowboy shirts to Pendleton, Oregon. It’s fun to look back at how young we were – and to think that the organization has grown into 45th Parallel Universe, and I’m one of the musician board members. Crazy!

Me and Joël onstage at Carnegie.

In May 2011, the Oregon Symphony made its first trip to Carnegie Hall in New York City. It was an amazing trip, see my blog post here, and was a huge publicity boon for the orchestra. In fact, our concert there made Alex Ross’ performances of the decade list in the New Yorker as well!

Rowena Hamill, me, Serena McKinney , and Elisa Barsten after a rockin’ Debussy Quartet.

In August 2012, I played my first concerts with the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival. I got to meet and play with some remarkable musicians, and to enjoy the spectacular scenery of the area. It was also my first two rehearsal Debussy quartet. Yikes!

In September 2013, the then Third Angle String Quartet played Georg Friedrich Haas’ Third Quartet – which is played from memory in total darkness – for the first time at the OMSI planetarium. It was a formative musical experience for me in my first full season with the group. We’ve gone on to play it several more times, most recently in Astoria this year as the Pyxis Quartet.

Arnica String Quartet

March 2014 brought a performance of the three string quartets of the great British composer Benjamin Britten at the Community Music Center. Three masterpieces, all played in one sitting. Exhausting, but also exhilarating!

Third Angle and Alex Ross

April 2015 featured a performance at the Alberta Rose Theater of Third Angle New Music with renowned author and critic Alex Ross. Works of Cage, John Luther Adams, Henry Cowell, Steve Reich, and Lou Harrison. Alex Ross has long been a hero of mine, and it was fantastic to share the stage with him.

James MacMillan

2016 had a lot going for it, but tops of that year for me was the US premiere of James MacMillan’s European Requiem at the Oregon Bach Festival, as well as a chamber orchestra concert under his direction that same week. The Requiem is and was a stunning masterpiece, and one that should be programmed in Oregon again soon. Hint, hint…

Cycle One class at the GLFCAM.

2017 brought the emergence of the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, and Third Angle and soprano Tony Arnold were the first artists to be invited to work with her slate of young composers. Musically, it was incredibly challenging and rewarding, but emotionally it was earth-shaking. What a joy it was to be involved with this project!

Colin Currie

2018 came with a collaboration with the Oregon Symphony Artist-in-Residence for that time period, percussionist Colin Currie. A string quartet of OSO musicians joined him for a mini tour to the University of Oregon and Oregon State University to play two works with him by Martland and Daugherty, as well as the String Quartet No. 2 by Quincy Porter.

Post Crumb mayhem with the Pyxis Quartet.

And, finally, 2019. There was so much to love about the projects I did in this year, but for me my first traversal of Crumb’s monumental and phantasmagorical Black Angels with the Pyxis Quartet (for the local micro-festival Makrokosmos) has to win the prize. I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it again!

Well, let’s see what the next ten years bring! Avanti!

two ground-breaking quartets

The Pyxis Quartet has just finished a month-long rehearsal and performance period that involved two of the most challenging pieces for modern string quartets (at least until we do an Elliot Carter or John Zorn cycle, that is) – Georg Friedrich Haas’ Third String Quartet and George Crumb’s Black Angels. The Haas was a reboot for us, with the quartet having performed it for two sets of concerts in prior years (the first time just about five years ago). Black Angels was a partial reboot, with Ron and Greg having performed it before (on an Asian tour as the Third Angle String Quartet), and with Marilyn and I having never laid eyes on it before this performance.

These two works are masterpieces of quartet composition. The Crumb is simply mind-bending. I’ve never had the occasion to take hallucinogenic drugs before, but I’m willing to bet that if I had, and listened to a mix tape of Bartok, Led Zeppelin, and Frank Zappa, this quartet is what would end up swooping around my swollen synapses. Playing the viola, held like a viol, bowing between my left hand and the scroll, and fingering backwards; bowing tuned glasses of water; yelling numbers in several different languages; and creating subsonic, croaking notes with the bow. These are all a part of bringing this sprawling, exotic piece to life. There are some pieces that you perform that are so much of the time in which they were written that they’re like period-piece dramas. I found that to be the case with John Corigliano’s First Symphony. It didn’t take too much away from its power, but it never succeeded in having its mechanics disappear behind its message. The Crumb, however, seems remarkably ‘modern’ to me. Even if I overlook my first (profoundly moving) experience of hearing it played by the Kronos Quartet in the mid-80’s when I was an undergraduate music student, it still seems incredibly imaginative and relevant today in its depiction of the horror and despair of modern warfare mixed with a drug-fueled counter-cultural explosion of the most traditional of musical formations, the string quartet.

Haas’ quartet is astounding through its use of darkness as a component of the musical experience. The piece simply wouldn’t work if it were performed in anything but total darkness. The expansion of the sense of hearing afforded by the lack of visual stimulus, both for the performers and the audience, makes for a heightened experience that is truly unique. In addition, the need for the performers to perform the piece – lasting roughly an hour – from memory is freeing, it allows us to be open to the aleatoric possibilities of the piece, and to luxuriate in its just tuning chords and eerie sound effects.

Both Crumb and Haas took a form that had been explored at length by the greatest composers of the previous two and a half plus centuries and saw what hadn’t been done before, and executed to perfection, relying on performers to complete their vision – in Crumb’s case with a spectacularly detailed and beautifully engraved score, and in Haas’ with a detailed (but sometimes frustratingly vague and contradictory) set of performance instructions.

So, it was very gratifying to read a review by Matthew Neil Andrews at Oregon Arts Watch of our recent performance of the Crumb as part of the Makrokosmos Project V festival marathon last Thursday, which said this:

“… That’s what it felt like last night walking in on the intrepid, inimitable Pyxis String Quartet playing George Crumb’s gnarly, wrathful, uncompromising Black Angels in the lobby of the vanilla-white Vestas building at NW 14th and Everett. Black Angels: “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”—an alarming 1970 musical screed against the war in Vietnam which provided the bit of oyster grit around which Kronos Quartet coagulated—modestly and misleadingly claims to be scored for “electric string quartet” but is in actuality a monstrosity of deconstructed chants and songs and drones and noises and large helpings of frankly gorgeous music, all of it performed, on this rainy night, by an ensemble comprised of Portland’s best string quartet (there, we’ve admitted it) making sounds on a wide variety of instruments, some of which include strings.

A pair of tam-tams (the kind of big, flat, untuned gongs used in most orchestras) hung behind violinist Greg Ewer and cellist Marylin de Oliveira, who both got up every so often to strike them or evoke screeching, warbling harmonics using their bows. Everybody chanted numbers periodically—sinister whisper counting, not cute Einstein on a Beach counting. Maracas periodically stirred, dusty rattlesnakes in a clean lobby full of sleepy New Music Nuts.

Ewer, along with violist Charles Noble and violinist Ron Blessinger, also had wine glasses partly full of water on little tables in front of them, all marked with pitches (“C#,” “B”), like they’re getting ready for dinner at Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig’s house.

Those tuned wine glasses provided the one-day festival’s most enduring, haunting moment—the “God Music” movement—an outrageously beautiful recurring theme on bowed glasses, bizarre chord sequences across which de Oliveira played a melancholy, morbid cello line with a creepy, broken theremin panache. The fine balance and blend and the subtle separations between parts, and the way everyone articulated all this eldritch math music together so precisely, with apparently no need to even look at each other—it all got me thinking about hearing this lot do the same thing with Reichand Glass back when I fell for them in the first place. And it’s got me crazy for next May, when they’ll play Gabriella Smith’s difficult, poppy Carrot Revolution (heard at CMNW two summers back) and Andy Akiho’s quintet for strings and piano, Prospects of a Misplaced Year.

Oh, and the rest of Makrokosmos V was stellar—by turns pensive and contemplative (Takemitsu), outrageous and catchy (Frank), and above all superbly played and well-suited to a rainy June afternoon. We’ll tell you all about it in a couple weeks, after we’ve recovered.”

We worked long and hard on these pieces, and it was truly gratifying to see recognition of that hard work in this thoughtful review. We’re taking a break for summer festivals and vacations, but we’ll be back in the upcoming season, raring to go for season two of 45th Parallel Universe.

Pyxis Plays Black Angels

 

9:15 PM Performance

George Crumb: Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land for Electric String Quartet
Pyxis Quartet – Ron Blessinger, violin  Greg Ewer, violin  Charles Noble, viola  Marilyn de Oliveira, cello

Date: Thursday, June 27, 2019, 5PM-10PM

Venue: Vestas, 1417 NW Everett St, Portland, OR 97209

Pianos: Generously provided by the PHENOMENAL Portland Piano Company.  The BEST in the business.

Food + Wine: The best Oregon has to offer!

Tickets:  $15 advance, $20 day of show, $10 students and seniors.  Ticket price includes complimentary food and wine!

Advance ticket sales here.