Eugene Weekly : Music : 6.26.08

Beauty From a Land of Tragedy
by Brett Campbell

Mawungira Enharira

Zimbabwe appears to be completing its long slide into outright totalitarian brutality under the evil long-ruling dictator Robert Mugabe, who’s again stealing a presidential election from the long-suffering people of this once-promising and prosperous southern African nation. One of the few lifelines left for Zimbabweans is its amazing artists. This month, thanks to the country’s connections with Eugene’s Kutsinhira Cultural Arts Center (a non-profit organization dedicated to studying and sharing the music of Zimbabwe), some of the country’s master musicians are visiting Eugene and holding workshops and performances of traditional dance and music of the nation’s Shona people. Mawungira Enharira comprises six masters of the mbira, the metal, gourd-encased so-called “thumb piano” that produces such mesmerizing showers of interlocking melodies and rhythms. The group’s charismatic performances, which also involve hosho shakers, ngoma drum, dance and singing, have sparked a revival of interest in traditional Shona music among younger listeners and made the group (based in the town of Norton, an hour from Harare) unexpected pop stars. On June 26, the group will hold a public workshop in dance, singing, hosho and drumming at Tamarack  Wellness Center, 3575 Donald. And on June 27, they’ll perform (dressed in traditional animal skin costumes) at Cozmic Pizza in one of the most compelling world music shows of the year. 

On July 6, Cozmic Pizza also hosts the last show of the young Celtic band Tonn Nua, whose teenage members are scattering off to college, and it has the up-and-coming Detrick/Swigart Jazz Orchestra on June 30. This free show offers a chance to hear original compositions by the group’s namesake founders and Justin Morrell, all of whom write in a fresh style that appeals to a wide variety of jazz fans. In another free show, you can hear trio sonatas by the early classical composer J.J. Quantz peformed by Heartwood at the Atrium on June 28.

Two things about Taarka: They cross boundaries with abandon, and they never stand still. Since 2001, the erstwhile Portlanders now based in Colorado have frequently impressed Eugene with their “seismic Gypsy hypno jazz” — an appealing admixture of David Grisman/Bela Fleck newgrass, Grappelli/Reinhardt gypsy swing and prominent percussion that even won them a jam band audience. Led by mandolinist/guitarist David Tiller and violinist Enion Pelta-Tiller, the band has undergone a series of lineup changes (for awhile they performed in different lineups — duo, trio, quartet), with consequent evolution in the group’s sound. Their genial new album, The Martian Picture Soundtrack, adds more vocals to what was hitherto a mostly instrumental act, and the disk generally has a simpler and more straightforward, folkier and bluegrassier feel. Taarka’s evolution continues; the quartet that’ll perform at Cozmic Pizza on July 2 includes percussionist Dale Largent and new cellist Daniel Plane, which broadens their palette even further, allowing a more orchestrated sound. The group’s live shows have never disappointed, and it’ll be fascinating to hear their newest direction.

Last issue’s guide to the Oregon Bach Festival tells you most everything you need to know about the summer’s most important music event. But I can’t resist adding a few of my own recommendations for this year’s edition of one of Eugene’s most beloved institutions. First, kudos to the festival for presenting a new work by a fine local composer, Rebecca Oswald. Her “Bowerman: Man of Oregon,” a tribute to the great UO track coach and Nike co-founder, will debut July 1 at Silva Hall. The usual masterpieces — J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and B Minor Mass (two of the pinnacles of human artistic achievement), Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Mendelssoh’s astonishing Octet — will delight those who’ve never or seldom experienced them live and played by such stellar musicians, but may be a little creaky for festival veterans. The Discovery Series, this year featuring Bach’s magnificent violin and oboe concertos, “Orchestral Suite #2” and St. John Passion, is always rewarding, and the engaging pianistic siblings the Five Browns will no doubt pack the house again. By inviting renowned period instrument specialist Nicholas McGegan in for a few showcases, the festival may finally be getting HIP to Historically Informed Performance style, which has largely superseded — everywhere but here —  founding music director Helmuth Rilling’s outdated approach. (Alas, we’ll have to wait until next year to hear actual authentic instruments, courtesy of the Portland Baroque Orchestra.) 

My top recommendations: July 8’s French fest featuring some of the festival’s finest musicians and the terrific Shanghai Quartet in three of the 20th century’s greatest chamber masterpieces: Claude Debussy’s ravishing Sacred and Secular Dances, Maurice Ravel’s dazzling Introduction and Allegro and Francis Poulenc’s piano and winds Sextet, along with fine music by Darius Milhaud and others. The Shanghai’s July 7 show with their arrangements of Chinese folk songs also boasts two more of the century’s greatest classics — Samuel Barber’s quartet and its omnipresent adagio, plus Ravel’s incomparably beautiful quartet. The jazzy July 12 concert with pianist/composer Pablo Ziegler (music director for the great new tango master Astor Piazzolla) at the Shedd looks splendid, too. It’s gratifying to see the festival beginning to refresh its vision.