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!

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!