Symphonic Groove

Eugene Symphony’s got contemporary music on the program. That’s great! We want more.

If you only heard him play and sing in his bluegrass band, you’d peg him as a folkie/Americana musician. If you spotted him in the viola section of the Oregon Symphony or in his Thunderegg Consort, you’d see an orchestral or chamber music violist.

And if you heard any of the dozens of original works he’s created over the last quarter century for orchestra, chamber ensemble, solo instrumentalists and singers, you’d think of him as one of the leading American composers of his generation, best known for amalgamating traditional American musical forms like the blues and European-based classical music.

Kenji Bunch is all those things. He’s also a Portland native, a Juilliard School graduate and 22-year New Yorker — and, since 2013, a Portlander again. Since moving back home to be closer to family and raise their two young children, Bunch and his wife, the accomplished classical pianist Monica Ohuchi, quickly became mainstays of Oregon’s blossoming contemporary classical music scene.

His music has been performed by Eugene Ballet (his full length original score for 2017’s The Snow Queen), Oregon Symphony, Portland Youth Philharmonic, FearNoMusic (the new music ensemble he directs), Chamber Music Northwest, Chintimini Chamber Music Festival and more, and that’s just in Oregon. He also teaches at Reed College and Portland State University, and is the composer in residence for 45th Parallel and head music theory teacher for his old band, PYP. 

On Sept. 26 Eugene Symphony joins the distinguished roster of Bunch performers with the opening work of its 2019-20 season. Bunch’s “Groovebox Fantasy” is a fond tribute to the great American film composer, record producer/arranger/executive and jazz musician Quincy Jones, who spent much of his youth in Seattle.

Bunch had long admired the genius behind Michael Jackson’s classic Thriller and Off The Wall albums. Jones’ distinguished career also includes the classic 1962 Big Band Bossa Nova album that heavily influenced Bunch’s own first symphony. Along with Jones’ “driving, infectious rhythmic grooves,” Bunch says, Groovebox Fantasy also draws on American composer Morton Feldman’s abstract minimalism and the sound of a digital music module. 

Bunch’s piece takes up only nine minutes of the two-hour concert, which also boasts a couple of 19th century orchestral warhorses, Max Bruch’s scenic “Scottish Fantasy,” featuring the excellent Bulgarian violin soloist Bella Hristova, and Tchaikovsky’s grand Symphony No. 5.

Someday I hope symphony programs will reverse the tired century-old ratio of music by long dead Europeans to living Americans — even Oregonians — transforming a musical historical museum with a tiny contemporary wing to a vital 21st century institution whose music speaks mainly in modern terms to today’s listeners.

Until then, it’s a sign of marginal progress that most of this year’s ESO programs devote at least a few minutes to the music of our time — and, at least in this case, our place. 

Bruch’s sorta-violin concerto may summon the stark majesty of the Scottish highlands, but you can hear actual Scottish traditional music when the great Tannahill Weavers bring their bagpipes to Tsunami Books Tuesday, Sept. 24. They’ve been one of the great exponents of the Celtic music revival that started in the 1970s, and it’s a real treat to be able to hear them in such an intimate space.

Speaking of mixing old and new music, the free afternoon concert on Sunday, Sept. 22, by Música Eugenia at United Lutheran Church, 2230 Washington Street, spans seven centuries of sounds. Long before Van Morrison or Gnarls Barkley, people were singing about love and madness, the theme of this concert that includes music from medieval Galicia’s Martín Codax, Spanish Renaissance composer Luys Milán, Baroque composers José Marín, Henry du Bailly and Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Spanish guitar classics by 19th-century composer Fernando Sor and by 20th-century master Federico Torroba.

Also on Saturday afternoon, you can hear luminous classical music from Java and maybe even some contemporary Oregon-composed music when Gamelan Sari Pandhawa unleashes its beautiful bronze set of tuned gongs, mallet-caressed keyboards, strings, bamboo flute and more — a Eugene treasure — to downtown’s Atrium Building. 

Vocal music fans will want to check out Portland jazz singer Paula Byrne’s quartet at The Jazz Station Sept. 28. And don’t forget The Shedd’s revival of the 1976 Broadway smash Annie, directed by Ron Daum with music direction by Robert Ashens and Shedd newcomer Ellen Poulsen in the title role. It runs through Sept. 29.