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American Voices

Spring brings vocal music by 20th- and 21st-century American composers

Although America seems like a scary place at the moment, we can draw strength and solace from the music of American composers of our own time.

One of them, Eugene’s Jon Sutton (1927-2004), created music performed by Kronos Quartet, Eugene Ballet, Very Little Theatre and Eugene Vocal Arts. On Friday, April 7, at the University of Oregon’s Beall Hall, EVA and Eugene Concert Orchestra perform Sutton’s Silent Space, Your Blue Eyes and the cantata The Family of Man (inspired by Edward Steichen’s world famous photography exhibit of that name), which sets familiar texts by Chief Seathl, Carl Sandburg, Shakespeare and Kahlil Gibran. The splendid program also includes some of the finest 20th-century American choral music by Aaron Copland, Randall Thompson, Samuel Barber and others.

Speaking of silent spaces, American composer David Lang left plenty in his The Little Match Girl Passion, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. Using short, spare, almost simplistic chants, the founder of New York’s Bang on a Can composers collective, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, gave a suitably stark setting to Hans Christian Andersen’s poignant parable, in which “a poor young girl, whose father beats her, tries unsuccessfully to sell matches on the street, is ignored, and freezes to death,” Lang wrote.

“The girl’s bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories … drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus. The girl suffers, is scorned by the crowd, dies, and is transfigured.” 

The Little Match Girl seems increasingly relevant amid 21st-century America’s rising homelessness and inequality. Lang set the story the same way J.S. Bach set his great Passions: interpolating into the narrative choruses that reflect the response to and commentary on it by the crowd — which includes the audience.

“Bach broke down the wall between the audience and the performers by making them the crowd in the chorales,” Lang told a Portland State University class during a 2011 visit. Accordingly, The Ensemble, which brings four of Portland’s finest singers to perform this original intimate version of what’s becoming a 21st-century classic on April 8 at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church, 1857 Potter Street, will also intersperse chorales from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion into the other piece on its program: Leonhard Lechner’s 1593 Passion

You can hear more early vocal music this Sunday, April 9, at Church of the Resurrection, 3925 Hilyard Street, when renowned Baroque music expert and UO prof Marc Vanscheeuwijck leads Oregon Bach Collegium in one of the great sacred works of the 18th century, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, plus other Easter music from Naples.

More American voices ring at The Shedd’s 2017 Vocal Arts Festival, which this time includes a community vocal workshop (emphasizing shape-note singing and body percussion) on Friday, April 13; Honey Whiskey Trio singing bluegrass and other folk music on Friday, April 14; and an April 15 show that includes the University of Oregon Gospel Singers, Divisi, Mind The Gap, UO Euphonics and Sforzando.

One of the greatest American musical voices famously spoke in a hoarse whisper (thanks to a shouting match after undergoing throat surgery), but Miles Davis’s trumpet could sure sing, and maybe no other musician’s music evolved so much, and so influentially, throughout his career.

Yet only fairly recently has a crucial period in Davis’s development been fully appreciated: his response to pop music’s burgeoning mid-1960s artistic sophistication. Always seeking broader audiences, Davis began exploring rock beats and electric instrumentation, even adding that quintessential rock instrument, the electric guitar, to his 1967-68 studio experiments.

But because little of that music was released on record until a series of much later compilations, when mesmerizing extended cuts like Circle in the Round began drawing renewed attention to this crucial transitional period, Davis’s pioneering jazz-rock fusion efforts, like In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson and associated live albums with guitarist John McLaughlin, seemed a much more sudden emergence than they really were.

This Thursday, April 6, at The Shedd, saxophonist Carl Woideck, trumpeter Tony Glausi, guitarist Michael Radliff, keyboardist Torrey Newhart, bassist Sean Peterson and drummer Adam Carlson revisit some of those still-underappreciated mid-’60s Miles masterpieces.

Finally, Chamber Music Amici welcomes one more new American compositional voice. Zachary Gulaboff Davis, now studying at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory, won the ensemble’s composition contest, and on April 17 at Springfield’s Wildish Theater, Amici will play his new piano quintet along with Mozart’s lilting Clarinet Trio and Beethoven’s exuberant Op. 18 No. 3 string quartet. As with Eugene Vocal Arts, it’s a treat to see our local musicians playing the music of our own composers, old and new.