Rounding up recent Northwest releases
by Brett Campbell
Byzantium in Rome (bcdistribution.com), the ninth release from Portland’s internationally acclaimed vocal ensemble Cappella Romana, explores the little heard yet immensely powerful 13th century music chanted by expatriate Greek monks in the Italian Byzantine abbey of Grottaferrata. The stentorian cantor Ioannis Arvanitis and Steve Barnett’s sensitive production channel the cathedral atmosphere of the group’s extraordinary concerts. For some complementary distaff vocals, try the sublime new CD by another superb Portland early music ensemble, In Mulieribus (“among women”), whose Notre Dame de Grace (inmulieribus.org) covers sweeping 12th and 13th century music from Paris and northern France in the polyphonic style called conductus.
Does the world really need another recording of Vivaldi’s omnipresent Four Seasons? If so, you can’t do better than Portland Baroque Orchestra’s sparkling new version featuring one of the world’s leading Baroque violinists, longtime music director Monica Huggett. The group’s brisk, dramatic period instrument performance does full justice to these colorful masterpieces, making us hear them afresh. The handsome release is worth the price for its bonus disk alone: Vivaldi’s Opus 11 oboe concerti (featuring superb soloist Gonzalo X. Ruiz) and a couple more from the composer’s inexhaustible trove. Another superb period instrument album, Ouvertures-Concerti, by a much more obscure Baroque composer, Johann Christoph Pez, features the Belgian ensemble Les Muffatti conducted by Peter van Heyghen, with UO music prof Marc Vanscheeuwijck on bass violin. Fans of Handel and Telemann will appreciate this unjustly neglected composer’s synthesis of Italian and French styles. Another local guest star, stalwart Eugene Symphony clarinet master Michael Anderson, helped make the Smithsonian Chamber Players’ adroit recording of Mahler’s Song of the Earth (Dorian) a deserved Grammy nominee.
Northwesterners continue to innovate in postclassical music as well as the old stuff. Young UO trumpet prof Brian McWhorter has revitalized New York’s renowned Meridian Arts Ensemble, the Kronos Quartet of horn groups, whose sensational ninth CD, Timbrando (Channel Classics), brilliantly covers contemporary and 20th century south-of-the-border sounds from leading jazz and postclassical composers such as Silvestre Revueltas, Astor Piazzolla, Caetano Veloso, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Tania Leon and more. Their phenomenal power and exquisite dynamic control, musicality and precision always astonish. UO grad and former Portland State music prof Joseph Waters, now teaching in San Diego, continues his ambitious, wide-range explorations on Swarmius (Aleppo), also the name of his violin-sax-percussion-laptop ensemble. Thoughtfully yet effortlessly combining European art music, American pop, African and other world music influences, and electronica, he creates fascinating 21st century soundscapes.
Most Oregonians know Bryan Johanson as a master guitarist who’s taught at Portland State for three decades, but for the Northwest’s leading new ensemble, Third Angle, he composed an ambitious cycle of string quartets. Each of his Four Quartets (Gagliano) has a character much like each movement of a typical quartet, with the final five-part entry bringing them all together. The general mood is tense and ruminative, punctuated by urgent, even dramatic passages, and the cycle merits close attention.
The Portland Cello Project, one of the city’s several classical-hits-the-streets ensembles, deploys up to 16 performers on that most voluptuous of instruments. Founded by Bright Red Paper’s Doug Jenkins, a UO alum who discovered the cello in college while renting a room from a Eugene Symphony cellist, the group covers everything from Beethoven to Britney. Their wide-ranging debut CD mostly enlists stars from the city’s indie rock scene to powerful (and happily non-lugubrious) effect, especially on guest shots by Weinland (“Gold”), 3 Leg Torso and Nick Jaina (“Power”) and on sensitive originals by PCPers Heather Broderick and Gideon Freudmann.
Fans of the legendary world jazz band Oregon (which was born at the UO) will find much to admire in Doug Scheuerell’s evocative Communion (dougsch at uoregon dot edu), featuring a starry lineup of Oregon musicians (percussion master Charles Dowd, composer Jeff Defty, harpist Laura Zaerr, Oregon bassist and oboist Glen Moore and Paul McCandless, and Scheurell himself on tabla, which he teaches at the UO). From a long raga featuring sarodist Ben Kunin to Frank Proto’s “Fantasy for Double Bass, Tabla and Orchestra” featuring the UO Symphony, this is one of the most diverse and accomplished albums released by a Eugene musician.
Drummer Dave Storrs has been energizing Oregon jazz for decades now, and Spontaneous Compositions (Louie), a splendid new compilation of his work with various bands and musicians, including Tom Bergeron, Reed Wallsmith, Mike Curtis and many other Oregon jazz masters, provides an excellent overview of the work of this essential Northwest artist. The amiable keyboard sequencer grooves on Favs (Louie), in his Techno Lodge guise, are a lot of fun, too.
Finally, Eugene will see Peter Aksim next month conducting musicals at the Oregon Festival of American Music, but the Los Angeles bassist is also an astute composer. His engaging Moving, Still (peteraskim.com) spotlights the double bass in concerto, solo and chamber settings, but the other orchestral works and even a pensive work for shakuhachi flute and koto zither are just as effective.