Chamber music revival

Portland should rock out with its Bach out
By BEN MEIKLEJOHN  |  January 3, 2007


Classical and rock ‘n roll music suffer the same identity crisis. Both are genres representing broader definitions than originally intended. To your average layperson, classical music, the rightful domain of Mozart and Haydn, now includes Baroque composer J.S. Bach and the 20th century’s Philip Glass. Likewise, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry’s rock ‘n roll is home to Anthrax and the Bee Gees. Distinctions become unclear as musical material piles up through time.

In 2007, we grapple with our identities, seeking definition for a new century. How can we escape stale categorizations with something uniquely “ours?” Can Portland, like Vienna, or Liverpool, be the pioneer of something “else?” This depends on you, my friends of Portland, and my idea for 2007 is for you to pony up with innovation.

Firstly, “classical” music need not be restricted to large-scale institutions like the Portland Symphony Orchestra or academic settings like a school of music. The city is plentiful in both classical musicians and performance venues, but each needs to commit to expanding their realities. It would be nice to sip on wine, nibble, and listen to a wind ensemble, string quartet, or flute duo without the formalities of a concert hall, wouldn’t it? Portland’s 2007 will usher in a chamber music revival.

Chamber music in Portland’s night life? Most clubs that provide entertainment stick to a prescribed theme — usually DJs or rock, and experimentation otherwise is deemed risky. Cameron Reed, the new owner of Una’s Wine Bar for example, tries “keeping the futuristic beats of house music” the prevailing entertainment, but will have salsa-influenced jazz chamber music on Wednesdays and Thursdays to see how it goes.

Some entertainment venues will give classical chamber musicians a stage, yet haven’t been approached for it. At Blue, Barry Martin “would love it” and requests inquiries Garry Bowcott of Local 188 is also “very interested,” seeking Sunday and Monday performances Steve Williams of Goats Head Soup (formerly Acoustic Coffee) once had jazz on Saturdays but “it didn’t really take off.” Classical performers can nab themselves a Saturday to show up the jazzers Eric Coulombe,, says Bull Feeney’s is “open to experimenting with any new music that enriches the arts community.”

Daniel Sonenberg, professor of composition at USM’s School of Music, says Portland is “definitely ripe” for such enrichment to complement its visual arts, rock, and theater scenes. “One thing missing is contemporary classical art music. It’s the one part of the arts that is undeveloped.”

Which leads to my next idea — that more performances of local and contemporary composers be included in concerts of classical musicians. With a new wave of chamber musicians hitting the Portland weekend and night life, public access to new compositions will be greater.

Mark Piszczek, a local composer and USM graduate, has thought about having his recent piece, Syngensophobic Night, performed in a club. It’s a holiday aleatoric avant-garde performance art piece for electronics, saxophone, percussion, and actor, where the actor makes a cell-phone call to a backdrop of music that interacts with the conversation. “It would be great to have people from the audience come up and make phone calls and run it through the speaker system. Anybody looking to break up with someone?”

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