Rebel Music: UO plays Zappa, Schoenberg and other avant gardians

Eugene Weekly, 11/22/2005 [original]

In 1950, Look magazine ran a review of a recording of avant garde composer Edgard Varese’s 1931 percussion classic, “Ionisation,” which somehow transformed the sounds of various drums and other clanging and banging instruments, sirens and piano into an evocative exploration of musical texture. A 10-year-old aspiring musician in California read the review, and was so intrigued by Varese’s photo that he bought the record, loved it, and a few years later tracked down Varese’s New York phone number and called him long distance.

That kid, Frank Zappa, later won fame as a satirical rock musician but never forgot his earliest influence. He eventually conducted Varese’s music and, just before he died, recorded an album of it. On Monday, Nov. 26, the Oregon Percussion Ensemble will pay tribute to Frank Zappa in a Beall Hall concert featuring guest musicians from the Eugene Symphony, 10 marimbas, six drumsets, electric violins, bass and a partridge in a pear tree. They’ll play versions of Zappa’s The Black Page, the world premiere of OPE director Charles Dowd’s “Magnesium Zapp No. 11” (influenced by Zappa’s “Yellow Shark”), Christopher Deane’s ethereal “Vespertine Formations” and, of course, “Ionisation.”

Varese’s orchestra gave the American premiere of another landmark work by another 20th century musical rebel: Arnold Schoenberg’s (in)famous song cycle, Pierrot Lunaire. One of the first large scale works to slip the bounds of conventional tonality, it used strange half-singing, half speaking technique to convey the story of a sad commedia del’arte clown who sings to the moon and torments the stupid clown Cassander. A metaphor for the crazy suffering artist’s relationship to his audience, it’s a wild piece that influenced, for better and worse, a great deal of 20th century art music. And you can hear it for free at 5:30 pm on Saturday, Dec. 3 when the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (a new student group dedicated to rarely heard music from the 20th and 21st centuries) plays it and other Schoenbergiana at Beall Hall.

Other recommended UO shows include the Oregon Wind Ensemble on Nov. 29 (Mozart, Copland and more) and University Symphony on Nov. 30 (more Mozart, Vivaldi, et al). A few holiday shows also deserve a mention. The Collegium Musicum sings and plays medieval English carols in a free show at Collier House on Nov. 29. And four UO choral groups will play 20th century music, including Francis Poulenc’s lovely “O Magnum Mysterium” and Peter (PDQ) Schickele’s “Three Choruses” setting e.e. cummings poems to music with an audience sing-along.

Eugene composer/pianist and UO music alum Rebecca Oswald will perform some of her lush, neo-romantic piano music (in the tradition of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words”) at a CD release party at DIVA on Nov. 25; fans of George Winston and his musical kin should check this out. And Zappa himself might approve of the eccentric Gothic cello rock (not to mention the way-back vintage costumes) of Rasputina, who can swoop from a Pink Floyd cover to wry punky pop to postclassical cello duets in the same set. They’re at the WOW Hall on Dec. 4.

— Brett Campbell

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