Homegrown Classical

Beethoven’s birthday, contemporary classical, channeling Barbra Streisand and more this month in Eugene

When we think of “classical composers,” the image that generally springs to mind is some long-dead Euro dude, like the one whose birth a quarter millennium ago is being commemorated this year (see below).

Actually, people are composing in the classical tradition right now, every day, maybe right in your neighborhood. Two of Eugene’s best composers are teaming up for a concert of their 21st-century music Saturday night, Feb. 22, at Unity of the Valley Church, 3912 Dillard Road.

Eugeneans know Paul Safar thanks to the many shows produced by Cherry Blossom, the production company run by Safar and his partner, the sublime singer Nancy Wood. Like many Northwest composers, he’s often inspired by nature, which you’ll hear in his swampy saxophone quartet “Frogs at Dusk,” stimulated by amphibious sounds he heard in the Mount Shasta wilderness.

Emerald City Saxos, comprising some of the UO’s hottest young saxophonists, all students of Idit Shner, will play it at Unity of the Valley. Eugene’s own ace Delgani String Quartet will perform another four-piece composition at the concert, Safar’s jazzy “Quartet in Red, Black, and Blue.” It also stars chanteuse Wood and sets her own poetry. Safar, a superbly sensitive and expressive pianist, will play “Three Bird Intermezzi,” each inspired by the work of individual 20th-century composers. 

Daniel Heila’s music, while enriched by his own classical composition training at the University of Oregon, also draws on American roots music, a combo we’re seeing more of recently in music by Sam Amidon, Nico Muhly and other contemporary composers.

Along with his classical compositions, Heila has also played singer-guitarist-songwriter club gigs featuring classic and original folk tunes in the American roots tradition. Those two streams, classical and folk, converge in his two new quartets “Crooked River, Strings” and “Branches at the Window, Saxophones,” which he describes as “based on American old-timey style fiddle tunes that I plucked out on a dime-store mandolin I bought at a consignment shop.”

His compositions aim to “explode the tunes, stretch them out over time, spread out their fibers, discover their inner secrets.” Pianist Matthew Pavilanis will also play Heila’s “Eleven Nights,” inspired by a tune from the English folk song tradition of the Southern Appalachians called “The Elvin Knight.” This Cascadia Composers concert offers an excellent opportunity to cultivate your locavore taste in made-in-Eugene classical music. 

More contemporary classical sounds waft from the Beall Concert Stage March 1, borne on the breath of Zéphyros Winds. The prize-winning wind quintet plays music for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn by two of America’s leading composers, Jennifer Higdon (who just won another Grammy for a new work this year) and John Harbison, plus a new work the ensemble commissioned from David Sanford, Samuel Barber’s beautifully breezy 20th century classic “Summer Music,” and more.

For centuries, pervasive societal sexism prevented most women from forging musical careers like Higdon is today. But some women were occasionally able to carve out their own creative spaces. In late 16th-century Italy, music fans flocked to Ferrara to hear the famed Consort of Ladies recite poetry and sing florid, expressive music — with plenty of improvisation — by leading late Renaissance composers. Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23, at United Lutheran Church, you can hear a trio of early vocal music experts from Oregon Bach Collegium sing lush sounds of the Three Sopranos of their day, accompanied by harpsichordist Margret Gries and lutenist Anson Brown.

The UO brings more contemporary classical music to Aasen-Hull Hall Sunday, Feb. 23, from the hands, or rather gloves, of Laetitia Sonami, the French-born, California-based electronic composer performer best known for her elbow-length “Lady’s Glove,” whose sensor array tracks the slightest motion of her hand and body and generates sounds accordingly. 

That Beethoven Birthday Bash happens Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23, at the Hult Center’s Silva Hall, when Eugene Concert Choir and friends perform a refreshingly atypical smorgasbord of the grumpy genius’s masterworks: selections from his only opera, Fidelio, and only oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, plus his splendid “Choral Fantasy” and, OK, one certified Greatest Hit: the “Ode to Joy” from his Symphony No. 9. Commendably, the choir also sings a new but related work by one of today’s hottest young choral composers: Jake Runestad’s “A Silence Haunts Me,” a modern poetic setting of Ludwig Van’s letter to his brothers, despairing over his encroaching deafness.

From the most formidable of composers to the king of instruments: Next Sunday afternoon, March 1, renowned organist Richard Elliott gives a recital on the mighty Brombaugh organ at Central Lutheran Church. The longtime principal organist for the Salt Lake Tabernacle has teamed with everyone from Canadian Brass to Kristin Chenoweth, Renée Fleming, James Taylor, the King’s Singers and even the Muppets.

It’s showbiz time at both the Hult and The Shedd this week. At 5 pm next Saturday, Feb. 29, the Tony and Grammy-award winning singer who played the title protagonist’s nemesis in Hamilton joins Eugene Symphony. Leslie Odom Jr. has built a Burr-illiant post-Hamilton career with three hit albums (including a Christmas record and another that debuted at No. 1 on the jazz chart), a book, film and TV appearances, and orchestra appearances — including this Eugene debut. Backed by the big band, he’ll sing Broadway faves, jazz standards and American songbook standards.

You could zoom down the street after Odom’s performance and catch Eugene’s own Shirley Andress’s tribute to an earlier show tune legend, Barbra Streisand, at The Shedd next Saturday night. Or you could wait till the next day’s matinee performance on Sunday, March 1. It’s the second round of Andress’s tour, begun in a Shedd cabaret show last year, of Streisand’s rise from Brooklyn to Broadway and beyond. It includes new material, in case you saw it last year. Along with reprising some of her club and concert hits, Andress and her septet will add a new set of songs from Streisand’s TV specials.