On Portland’s Vibrant Music Scene, New Is Nourished Everywhere

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The Kenari Quartet performed at Chamber Music Northwest in 2018. (Photo by Tom Emerson)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland has become a very busy hub for new music. The city supports chamber ensembles dedicated to contemporary music, an orchestra that plays and commissions more and more new works, an active composers’ guild, companies that explore the latest operas, periodic festivals of new music, and composition programs for young students. In addition, nationally known composers like Grammy-nominated Andy Akiho and Gabriel Kahane have moved to Portland, joining Esperanza Spalding, Damien Geter, Kenji Bunch, Darrell Grant, Tomáš Svoboda, David Schiff, and many other vibrant artists. The place is jumping! What is going on in the City of Roses?

Chamber ensembles lay the groundwork

Actually, new music has been part of the scene in Portland for quite some time. The founding of Third Angle New Music Ensemble in 1985 and Fear No Music in 1992 put contemporary chamber music front and center. Both organizations are noted for their adventurous programming with electronics, dance, and local poets. 

Third Angle has presented 125 programs, underwritten 66 new pieces, and released 12 CDs to date. They have performed in the Bang on a Can Marathon, in Beijing, and in Thailand, where they made a recording of Narong Prangcharoen’s music. Recently, 3A produced Darrell Grant’s jazz opera Sanctuaries as a multi-media extravaganza.

With 150 performances, 50 premieres, and four albums, Fear No Music, led by artistic director Kenji Bunch, has collaborated with video artists, taiko drummers, and performers of zheng, didgeridu, shakuhachi, theremin, and other non-Western or unusual instruments. Its laudatory Young Composers Project, founded by pianist Jeffrey Payne, has mentored students grades 5 to 12 in workshops and performances.

Fear No Music has given 150 performances, offered 50 premieres, and made four albums.

Chamber Music Northwest has steadily included more new music in its programing since its founding in 1971. It has sponsored 114 original works, some of which have been heard on its New@Noon series, which is being discontinued, during its nationally renowned summer music festival, which was led for many years by clarinetist David Shifrin. Its recordings on the Delos label feature pieces by Aaron J. Kernis, Valerie Coleman, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and other national luminaries. CMNW has even ventured into opera, co-commissioning with Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and presenting MacArthur Fellow Bright Sheng’s The Silver River in 2018.

With the launching of 45th Parallel Universe in 2009, the new-music scene has become even more robust. In fact, this consortium of ensembles was not slowed down by the pandemic as it quickly pivoted to creating high-quality online concerts for 54 weeks in a row. According to Ron Blessinger, executive director and violinist, the organization has also distributed over $70,000 in fees to musicians who were financially strapped by COVID.

Other organizations sprinkling recently written music into their programs include Portland Piano International and Friends of Chamber Music. FOCM has a Not So Classic Series that frequently offers works by living composers.

In the academic arena, the Portland State University Symphony, led by its visionary conductor Ken Selden, has received three awards for adventurous programming by ASCAP and the League of American Orchestras.

Singer-songwriter, pianist, and composer Gabriel Kahane, shown performing in Luxembourg, is a frequent presence in Portland. (Photo by Eric Engel)

Choral reverberations

The Resonance Ensemble, one of Portland’s premiere choirs, has commissioned and presented thought-provoking songs that emphasize social justice issues and demographics that have been underrepresented onstage. Over the past year, it held concerts outdoors, several of which took place in good acoustical spaces under the bridges that cross the Willamette River.

Cappella Romana has trumpeted the vocal works of Ivan Moody, Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and others. In Mulieribus released a CD of new gems for women singers. The Oregon Repertory Singers produced an album of songs by Morten Lauridsen and composers from the Pacific Northwest.

Orchestras flex new music muscles

With 66 commissioned pieces and six in the hopper, the Oregon Symphony has serious new-music credentials, which it has strengthen with its Creative Alliance. This constellation of artists includes director Gabriel Kahane, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Nathalie Joachim. They have offered meet-the-composer events and intend to stir listeners with music that addresses contemporary issues.

What could be more relevant today than a big choral and symphonic opus dealing with the history of violence against Blacks in the United States? That’s the central theme of Damien Geter’s An African-American Requiem, co-produced by the Resonance Ensemble and the Oregon Symphony. Its world premiere on May 7 will be broadcast live on All Classical Portland (89.9 FM KQAC) and WQXR New York (105.9 FM).

Clarinetist David Shifrin served as long-time artistic director of Chamber Music Northwest.

Forum for today’s composers

Many Northwest composers share their ideas through Cascadia Composers, the largest and most active chapter of the National Association of Composers/USA. Founded by David Bernstein in 2008, Cascadia Composers has grown to 80-plus members and featured performances of 500 works, including 100 world premieres — often in alternative venues.

Also, you can experience the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, which promotes original pieces and sponsors workshops with youth.

Opera leans forward

Portland Opera is addressing vital concerns of our time with the U.S. premiere Jan. 28 of Leslie Uyeda’s When the Sun Comes Out. Commissioned by the Queer Arts Festival in Vancouver and premiered in Canada in 2013, the opera tells of two women who express their love for each other in a futuristic country where that is forbidden. In March, the company will mount Anthony Davis’ The Central Park Five, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2020. The National Endowment for the Arts recently granted $30,000 to Portland Opera to support the Davis opera.

Local composer-conductor Justin Ralls’ Sacagawea will be produced in the near future by the small but enthusiastic Opera Theater Oregon. This worthy project is a collaboration with descendants of the indigenous woman who helped to guide the Lewis and Clark expedition.

More eclectic offerings

March Music Moderne, an independent festival that focuses primarily on new music and often pairs pieces with film, dance, theater, and visual arts, intends to reboot after a two-year COVID-induced hiatus.

ARCO-PDX (Amplified Chamber Orchestra of Portland), Classical Revolution PDX, Portland Cello Project, and the Creative Music Guild bring eclectic chamber jams to bars and other non-conventional venues.

Getting the word out

All Classical Portland’s Club Mod show broadcasts new music to the airwaves every Saturday. Then on Monday evenings, you can hear experimental and offbeat sounds on KBOO radio’s long-running A Different Nature series. Even further afield for more intrepid listeners is XRAY.FM’s Double Bummer program.

Portland native Esperanza Spalding is leading a project to build a sanctuary-creative-incubator for artists who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

Artist enclaves in the making

Four-time Grammy winner and Portland native Esperanza Spalding, a jazz bassist, singer, songwriter, and composer, is leading a project to purchase property in the city’s St. Johns neighborhood to build a sanctuary creative incubator for artists who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Her successful GoFundMe page has already exceeded the $300,000 needed by June 3.

Composer and jazz pianist Darrell Grant is guiding an effort to create a salon as a gathering place in the Albina Arts Center, which is Portland’s historical African-American neighborhood. This vision for the salon honors communal history with performances of music, movement, spoken word, and images.

The tone roads ahead

Portland is apparently just remote enough to attract a fresh new gaggle of composers and musicians, allowing more freedom for adventurous programming and cross-pollination with other art forms.

“Portland’s signature ‘maker mindset’ carries over into the way we approach music,” says Amelia Lukas, Fear No Music flutist and founder of Aligned Artistry public relations. “All kinds of talented groups here in Portland are energized by creating something new, not only in terms of the music itself, but also with regard to the models through which we experience it. By creatively responding to relevant and timely issues with meaningful music within the context of modernized concert experiences, Portlanders have tapped into a great strategy for attracting new audiences, deepening those relationships, and creating a vibrant new music scene.”

Considering all of that is going on in Portland, the city has become a true destination for new-music lovers.