Music Today, Music Tomorrow

From the contemporary Music Today Festival to a John Williams’ score

Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis

Of all the music events happening in Eugene this month, perhaps none is more valuable than the University of Oregon’s Music Today Festival. In contrast to most classical music institutions, which over the past century have turned into moldering antiquities, endlessly recycling well-known works by long dead Europeans, the Music Today Festival is devoted to incubating the creative work of Oregon’s next generation of composers.

Created by UO music professor Robert Kyr, the festival, which runs Monday, Jan. 19, through Jan. 31 at various locations in the UO’s Beall Hall, involves more than 100 student composers and performers, includes 40 world premieres during six concerts (counting one in Portland) and stars one of today’s most inspirational young classical musicians. A member of New York’s Grammy-winning Roomful of Teeth, soprano Esteli Gomez has in several residencies at the UO showed young musicians how to forge a creative life in the living tradition of classical music, helping composers connect their innovative ideas with audiences’ need for musical beauty and freshness.

Gomez’s Jan. 19 concert features premieres by eight emerging UO composers. Another star in the new music firmament, UO faculty member Molly Barth spearheads a Jan. 25 concert of flute music by a half dozen UO composers. On Jan. 28, Tai Hei Ensemble, one of the school’s many student-run groups dedicated to new music, plays improvised music by UO composers and others from around the world. The next night, sonos domum Ensemble explores new sonic structures, some improvised in collaboration with performers and audience members. Both concerts are free, as is the Jan. 31 Oregon Composers Forum Chamber Orchestra concert featuring new music for larger performing forces.

Speaking of contemporary sounds, the Eugene Symphony’s excellent Jan. 22 concert at the Hult Center features mostly 20th-century music drawn from staged sources, including a work by the dean of film composers, John Williams, whose “Escapades for Alto Saxaphone” comes from his score to Steven Spielberg’s 2002 caper Catch Me if You Can. The soloist in both that piece and French composer Jacques Ibert’s breezy 1935 “Chamber Concertino for Alto Saxophone” is none other than jazz great Branford Marsalis, who’s worked often with classical orchestras and will also be working with young musicians while he’s here — another investment in music’s future.

The dreamy 2007 piece “Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos” by another acclaimed young American composer, Brooklyn’s Missy Mazzoli, has been performed so often (three times in the past few months in Oregon alone) that it’s becoming a modern standard, and you can hear it at the terrific pianist Shai Wosner’s Jan. 25 Chamber Music@Beall Hall recital. Mazzoli’s piano-and-tape piece preceded her later opera about the short-lived, early 20th-century Swiss adventuress and feminist idol. Wosner will also play some lovely impromptus and a great sonata by Schubert, whose music actually floats through Mazzoli’s drifting composition. At Beall on Jan. 20, pianist Jon Jang plays original music that combines jazz, classical and traditional Chinese folk music forms, while the next day, another well-regarded young pianist, Sang Woo Kang, plays classics.

Finally, for some really old proto-feminism, on Thursday, Jan. 15, at the UO’s Lawrence Hall, you can hear storyteller Dolores Hydock recount a medieval courtly romance (with cross dressing!) in which a young girl raised as a boy becomes a knight and faces betrayal, all accompanied by music of the period on ancient instruments like lute, viol, harp and hurdy-gurdy.

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