Classical music is often rightly accused of ignoring the here and now. Fortunately, many younger composers are using classical and postclassical forms to help us understand the sometimes-unpleasant realities of the world we live in. UO grad student and award-winning composer Ethan Gans-Morse directs the Ambrosia Ensemble, which will perform the world premiere of his new opera-oratorio, The Canticle of the Black Madonna, at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall in a free performance Feb. 16. With its combination of original music, masks and movement, this major creative event reminds me of the late Catherine Vandertuin’s Eugene Chamber Theater a decade ago, or Seattle composer Garrett Fisher’s original, myth-influenced operas. Librettist and artistic designer Tiziana DellaRovere’s book tells the story of a PTSD-afflicted American soldier returning to Louisiana from combat in Afghanistan during the catastrophic 2010 BP oil spill, and how he and his wife recover from the devastating wounds inflicted by environmental and military violence. Using six operatic soloists, a chorus and chamber orchestra, original poetry, masks, costumes, paintings and music, the production draws on ancient Greek drama, Jungian psychology and current events to tell a story of healing.
Canticle serves as a sort of overture to the UO’s biennial showcase of contemporary sounds: the Music Today Festival, which begins next week with a pair of free concerts featuring new works on Monday, Feb. 25, (the Oregon Composers Forum at Aasen-Hull hall) and Tuesday, Feb. 26 (Ova Novi Ensemble).
The UO also has equally exciting old music on tap this month, beginning with a major concert at Beall Sunday, Feb. 17, when the Portland Baroque Orchestra, led by the great violinist Monica Huggett, brings acclaimed Nigerian-Irish double bass virtuoso Chi-chi Nwanoku for a program featuring her throaty instrument of late 18th-century Viennese music by Mozart, Haydn, an elegant quintet by Boccherini and more. Sunday, Feb. 24, Beall welcomes the Oregon String Quartet’s next installment of its complete cycle of Beethoven’s magnificent string quartets. Feb. 25, the Eugene early music explosion continues at the UO’s intimate Collier House with a distinguished early music pioneer from the generation before Huggett’s, the venerable Dutch violinist Jaap Schröder, who’ll join UO faculty member Marc Vanscheeuwijck in a free concert of 17th-century Italian music for violin and cello. Feb. 26, the pair head over to Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church to perform Mozart’s lovely Clarinet Quintet in A Major, and a string quartet by Luigi Boccherini with a dream team of Eugene classical music all-stars: clarinetist Michael Anderson, violinist Alice Blankenship and violist Kathryn Lucktenberg.
Make the historically informed musical weekend complete by attending the Feb. 24 concert of lutenist and Baroque guitarist David Rogers at United Lutheran Church. The first half features lute and vihuela music from the Renaissance by rarely performed (except for the great, ever-melancholy John Dowland) composers, while the second set jumps ahead three centuries and adds fortepianist Margret Gries for a set of 19th-century duets and contemporary pieces.
The biggest classical concert of the month is the Eugene Symphony’s Valentine’s night performance of an especially attractive, chorus-enhanced program: Gustav Holst’s popular, rousing suite The Planets, Debussy’s spellbindingly beautiful Nocturnes and 20th-century composer Gyorgy Ligeti’s popular breakthrough; the trippy Atmospheres that graced Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It’s also a great week for jazz. Feb. 16, the Shedd brings the Afro-Cuban All Stars — a dozen crack Cuban-born expatriate musicians who performed with the original BVSC members or other stars (e.g. James Brown) — to play danceable Cuban classics and contemporary Cuban-influenced jazz. Thursday, Feb. 21, KLCC deejay and UO prof Carl Woideck continues his jazz heritage project with jazz versions of the great TV and film music of Henry Mancini (who wrote the immortal “Moon River,” the themes for Peter Gunn, The Pink Panther and many more cinema classics). On Feb. 24, the aptly named International String Trio (boasting members form Japan, Russia and England) plays jazzy versions of famous film score themes at The Jazz Station. Feb. 25, the UO Jazz Ensembles’ Winter Concert stars saxophonist Seamus Blake at Beall.