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Cait Nishimura
Cait Nishimura

“In Dreams” Featuring Composer Cait Nishimura: University of Portland Wind Symphony and Women’s Chorale Saturday, November 27th, 2018 / Review

By MICHAEL CONLEY // A world premiere on Saturday afternoon in a performance by the University of Portland Wind Symphony conducted by Dr. Patrick Murphy of “In Dreams”, by Cait Nishimura.

Portland got a world premiere on Saturday afternoon in a performance by the University of Portland Wind Symphony conducted by Dr. Patrick Murphy of “In Dreams”, by Cait Nishimura. The young Canadian composer, who could easily pass for a student, addressed the audience with charm and poise before the performance, explaining that the piece reflected the realization of her personal dream of being a full-time composer, and the value of encouraging others to go after their own dreams in spite of inherent professional risk.

The evocative “In Dreams” started with some droning woodwinds disrupted by short exchanges from the brass across the orchestra before settling into an easy 4/4 time. Repeated groups of eighth notes in the upper woodwinds outlined the harmony while the percussion brought the piece to a happy place with a subtle 2/3 clave, creating an optimistic feeling. This broke into a mixed-meter section before returning to a calmer sound reintroducing the earlier patterns, followed by a drone, ending with a single held note on bass clarinet, the composer’s own principal instrument.

Nishimura also had a piece on the program sung by the Women's Chorale, directed by Katherine Briggs. Titled “Athabasca”, the piece was inspired by a trip that the composer took into the wilds of Canada, and much of it was composed in the field. The piece proceeded in a gentle 3/4 time with a pastoral feeling, the composer’s optimism and sunny outlook shining through in an earnest and adroit reading by this student ensemble.

The Women's Chorale also sang a playful work by Japanese composer Ro Ogura called “Hotaru Koi”, referring to fireflies. The arrangement, based on a children's song, started off with a repeated series of percussive eighth notes answered by short yet sweeping phrases of longer notes in response. The Chorale displayed skill and precision in executing this light-hearted piece of music.

The Chamber Players, a small subset of the Wind Symphony, performed the “Good Soldier Schweik Suite” a 1956 composition by Robert Kurka in three movements, directed by Peary Webster. Based on a satire by Czech novelist Jaroslav Hasek, this piece was definitely in a mid-century modern classical style. A bit strident at first, the ensemble of two clarinets, two flutes, two trumpets, French horn, bassoon, trombone, string bass, tympani and snare drum seemed a little thin at the outset. Later on in this movement the blend became a little warmer and some more exciting dynamics kicked in before ending with a curt bang. What appeared to be the beginning of the second movement (“Lament”) was actually the tympanist tuning her drums! 

When the conductor’s baton actually started, there was a pretty trio section with clarinet, flute and bassoon with pizzicato bass, then a bit of wobbly French horn and trombone came in followed by some lovely long notes in the clarion register of the first clarinet. There was a surging crescendo before the movement concluded with a nice trio of two clarinets and French horn. The third movement, “War Dance” was again strident and jarring, yet jocular, utilizing this small unit to create an impressive amount of sound. Overall I really enjoyed this piece by Kurka and it was a nice interlude between the Women's Chorale and the large band.

Other pieces performed by the Wind Symphony included “Twilight of the Gods”, a challenging 2010 work by Andrew Boysen with visual art by Erik Evensen projected on screens behind the orchestra.  The artwork was akin to panels from a graphic novel and fit the music very well. Starting off with glockenspiel and oboe, the glock tapping out a figure like a streetcar bell, the visuals began with an image of a verdant tree, followed by some wintry scenes of snow falling on mountains and forest before cutting to a village scene and a rustic inn, where angry-looking men appeared to be arguing and outfitting themselves for battle.

The music was thrilling and episodic, giving life to the illustrations of fearsome nature gods from the sea and mountains doing battle on one level while human warriors struggled on another, leaving the world in ruins. This story of natural destruction and rebirth of the entire establishment of humanity and the gods that rule over it came to a rather sudden and triumphant resolution with the visuals cycling back to the original image of a lone tree. The band did a fine job with this technically demanding music.

“Lux Aurumque” was composed by Eric Whitacre in 2000. The title refers to light and gold. This number was led by associate conductor Mike Cleary, a student of Dr. Murphy, who played bass on other pieces. The piece began with long-note chords with a breathy feeling of inhalation and exhalation, or like waves lapping at a beach. From there it unspooled in a slow four/four with pleasant susurrations in the woodwinds, building a bit before reprising the long breath-like chords from the beginning, with some expertly staggered breathing from the winds to conclude.

Rounding out the program was “Ára ´Batur”, an arrangement by David Vickerman of a piece by the Scandinavian rock group Sigur Rós. This was a feature for the soprano saxophone of Dr. Don Norton, another professor at the U of P.  The piece began with piano and electric bass and an interesting effect played by one of the percussionists rubbing the rims of two goblets filled with water. The dynamic level dropped down a little bit and the chorale joined in, making way for slow-moving, subtle voicings in the saxophones.

There was almost a Christmas carol vibe in the saxophone melody as the winds built intensity with long notes. I felt the soloist needed a mic during the loudest, densest part with the full ensemble as he played the melody, which was doubled by other members of the group. After this intense section there was a brief recap of the initial theme. Norton maintained a fine tone and tuning throughout all dynamic levels on the challenging straight saxophone. Perhaps a bit static overall, “Ára ´Batur” maintained interest with it’s combination of the singers with the full band and sax soloist.

The final piece on today's program was a selection of Joe Hisaishi’s music from the 2001 animated feature film “Spirited Away”, arranged by Kazuhiro Morita. This piece got right down to business with the tympani making itself heard and bringing plenty of excitement to the opening section. The arrangement made use of the full capabilities of the band, with lots of dramatic flourishes, including sudden cut-offs, ominous low voices, reassuring vibraphone, and a looming danger present in the winds. Throughout the piece the tympani and the cymbals kept us on our toes as the winds provided brash ostinati. After a grand pause the piano returned in a gentle duet with the glockenspiel in 3/4, which was then almost rudely overridden by the band, still in 3, with some nice oboe notes peeking out, and more very effective cymbal crashes.

This was a well-programmed and nicely executed musical offering by the U of P ensembles, presented free-of-charge at the Buckley Center on the North Portland campus. There are concerts programmed throughout the academic year, and I would recommend checking the university’s website for information about coming shows.

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