‘The Territory’

Bach Festival brings music confronting beauty and darkness from Darrell Grant

When Chamber Music America commissioned Darrell Grant to compose an hour-long piece for a jazz nonet in 2012, the acclaimed pianist, composer and all-round icon decided to write about Oregon. Grant had fallen in love with the state after leaving a stellar career in New York as top sideman and leader of his own acclaimed ensemble to join the Portland State University faculty in 1996.

Grant’s nine-movement suite The Territory, which the Oregon Bach Festival brings to the Hult Center on July 12, naturally included the state’s physical attractions — rivers (the pre-historic Missoula Flood that carved northern Oregon’s landscape), volcanoes and vistas.

But to his great credit, Grant also confronted the dark side of our history: imprisonment of Japanese Americans in World War II concentration camps, genocidal treatment of Native Americans, erasure of African American communities and massacres of Chinese miners. Drawing on jazz, Nez Perce chants, classical music, pop, soul and more, the ambitious composition bursts with the vitality of the state that inspired it — and ultimately, especially in the final movement, “The New Land,” the ebullience of the fine musician who created it.

One of Oregon’s richest 21st-century musical achievements features some of Portland’s finest musicians on vibraphone, cello, saxophones, flute, trumpet, bass, drums and bass clarinet along with scintillating singer Marilyn Keller and Grant himself on piano. He’ll also have a pre-show talk at Soreng Theater.

While Baroque will always be the Bach festival’s bread and butter, The Territory demonstrates that its programming usually stretches forward by a century or three. This time, it’s also looking backward — to the Renaissance, thanks to the acclaimed vocal ensemble New York Polyphony, which, not coincidentally, includes bass baritone Craig Phillips, who joined the UO faculty last year.

On July 11 at the UO’s Beall Hall they’ll sing Lamentations of Jeremiah by Spanish Renaissance master Francisco de Peñalosa and another rarity, the solemn Officium de Cruce, an early example of multimedia art that Flemish composer Loyset Compère created to be sung while the patron who commissioned it absorbed the words and drawings in an illuminated prayer book.

The festival’s closing stretch also includes a family friendly show, Princess Elise, with songs by Schumann, Schubert and Beethoven, on the morning of July 13 at Springfield’s Wildish Theater. The festival closes that evening back at the Hult with a big choral-orchestral masterpiece. But instead of Bach, it’s an early Romantic classic: Berlioz’s dramatic 1839 choral symphony, Romeo & Juliet, with a genuine star, bass Eric Owens, in the central role of Friar Laurence.

Next year marks the Oregon Bach Festival’s 50th anniversary. Let’s hope that momentous occasion inspires its parent, the University of Oregon, to find the new leadership and resources one of Oregon’s most important artistic institutions needs to regain — maybe even surpass — its earlier heights.

Speaking of jazz pianists from New York, as we were a moment ago, Broadway House Concerts presents virtuosic young New York City keyboardist and composer Ben Rosenblum and his trio on Sunday, June 16, at the little bungalow at Broadway & Monroe. To reserve seats, contact Paul Bodin at pbodin@uoregon.edu.

It’s not only festival season — we’re also smack in the middle of baseball season, which makes the Oregon Festival of American Music’s opening show, Damn Yankees, doubly appropriate. It runs July 12 through July 21 at The Shedd.

Richard Adler, Jerry Ross, George Abbott and Douglas Wallop’s 1955 musical ran for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway, became a hit film and made a star of the divine Gwen Verdon — who, as you might have seen recently on an FX mini-series, met her future husband Bob Fosse in that production, which he choreographed.

As leggy Lola, the would-be seductress with a heart of gold, Verdon, one of the greatest dancers in Broadway history, also commanded stage and screen with her acting and singing.

The age-old Faustian bargain this time involves a middle-aged schlub wagering his soul to help his favorite team, the Washington Senators (predecessors of today’s Nationals), bring down the hated Bronx Bombers (think of the current Warriors basketball dynasty times 10). But what if it also costs him his shot at lasting love?

While the hardy perennial has had its successful runs and hits (“Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets,” “You Gotta Have Heart”), today’s audiences might wince at some errors — the era’s occasional sexist and racist moments, which later revivals and tours often try to minimize. But its themes of temptation and true love remain timeless.

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