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Kenji Bunch and his dog, Coffee
Kenji Bunch and his dog, Coffee

Portland composer Kenji Bunch and a summer full of premieres

BY JAMES BASH // Bunch's Ralph's Old Records was recently premiered at Chamber Music Northwest

by James Bash

At age 41, composer Kenji Bunch is at full stride. This summer, his latest chamber workRalph’s Old Records was performed by Chamber Music Northwest on July 6th and 7th.

Earlier, on June 19th and 20, his Symphony No. 3, Dream Songs, for chorus and orchestra was given its world premiere at the Grant Park Music Festival under the direction of Carlos Kalmar.  Even earlier, on June 7th, the Chicago Philharmonic performed Bunch’s Symphony No. 1,Lichtenstein Triptych.

Born in Portland, Bunch has had a lot of success with orchestras and ensembles around the world playing his music. In fact, his music is regularly broadcast on national radio, including NPR, BBC, and NHK, and has been recorded on labels including Sony/BMG, EMI Classics, Koch, Kleos Classics, RCA, Naxos, Pony Canyon, GENUIN, Capstone, MSR Classics, Innova, ARS, and Crystal. That sounds pretty swell for a fellow who graduated from Wilson High School and then from Julliard with a Bachelor’s in viola performance and a Master’s in viola and composition.

Bunch is also the Artistic Director of fEARnoMUSIC, a Portland-based new music ensemble that is also led by Monica Ohuchi as its Executive Director.  Ohuchi is an acclaimed pianist and Bunch’s wife. They make their home in SW Portland near Tryon Creek State Park. That’s where I stopped by to interview Bunch. I found him in his composing hut, which is just a few feet to the side of his home, in the backyard, with his dog, Coffee.

Since the title of your piece for the Chamber Music Northwest concert is Ralph’s Old Records, is there a Ralph in your background?

Ralph is my dad. He literally has a box of old 78s that he gave to me. He’s a native Oregonian, born in Baker City in 1927, and he moved to Portland as a young boy and grew up during the Depression. He listened to a lot of jazz and popular music from that era.

I remember when I was a kid that he put a lot of his old records onto cassette tape, which he labeled “Ralph’s Old Records.” I loved to listen to that tape. I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music when I was growing up. I went to my first opera when I was three.

That’s pretty young for opera!

When my dad was on sabbatical from Portland State University, where he taught political science, he took my family on a big trip to Europe. My mom is a big opera enthusiast. She wanted to hit some of the operas. We went to Macbeth in Scotland.

So as a three-year-old you heard Verdi’s Macbeth and you kept quiet?

Apparently we sat still for the whole thing. I don’t remember anything. But we also went to La Scala and saw Otello there. In fact, we still have a program from that performance. We just stumbled on La Scala. My parents didn’t plan ahead for that. Years later I looked at that program, and it was Domingo playing Otello with Carlos Kleiber conducting.

What a fantastic collaboration to hear – even for a three-year-old!

Yep! But I have always enjoyed a variety of music, like opera as well as jazz and popular music. I didn’t make any distinctions in my mind in terms of hierarchy – what’s more serious and what wasn’t. It all ended up influencing my work.

For this piece, I knew that I wanted to write something fun and revisit that old music that I used to listen to. So, I thought why not call it “Ralph’s Old Records.” It has a double meaning in that it is influence by my dad’s collection of music, and it reflects the history of my dad’s youth.

My dad got a record player for me recently so that I could hear each one again, but I didn’t listen to them too carefully. I kind of like the impressions in my memory of what it meant to me at that time. I think that I can be more creative with the material if I don’t study those pieces too carefully.

What instruments will be playing on Ralph’s Old Records?

This will use a Pierrot ensemble: clarinet, flute, violin/viola – I’ll be doing that part, cello and piano. It will be about 15 minutes long.

How long have you been working on it?

I still have to finish it. This year has been nuts – in a good way! It’s all stuff that I want to be doing. This last season, I had a one-year contract with the Oregon Symphony as a member of the viola section. That gave me the experience of being a full-time professional musician. It was an amazing, invaluable experience – especially looking at it as a composer.

I grew up playing in orchestras. I played in the Portland Youth Philharmonic, and in my college orchestra, and I used to freelance with ensembles in New York. But to be with a profession group for an entire season – there’s nothing quite like that. I learned a ton. I have enormous respect for orchestra musicians. Just the physical abilities that they have are really impressive. By the end of the season, I was a wreck! The endurance of those players is amazing! They know how to deal with that.

With a symphony gig, you must have found it difficult to find time to write Ralph’s Old Records.

I had planned on spending most of the spring working on it, but in September, Carlos Kalmar gave me a call. He asked if I could write something for the Grant Park Music Festival.  One can’t say no to that kind of opportunity.  So that piece turned into a 30-minute-plus work for orchestra and chorus.  But writing it threw my schedule off.

Yes, you do the artistic direction for fEARnoMUSIC.

I also teach at Portland Youth Philharmonic, and my wife and I just had another baby.


The piece for Grant Park ended up being my Third Symphony. It’s called Dream Songs. It’s based on some texts that I found in the Smithsonian archives: translations of Native American song texts and poems. It has some powerful imagery. I organized it into three sections: the first could loosely be called ambivalence, the second is songs of war and violence, and the third is a prayer of healing.

Do you have more commissions coming up?

Yes, I have a big project for the Eugene Ballet.

Sounds great! Good luck!

Thanks! It’s great to be busy!

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