Angela Allen

Fear No Music’s“Asian Resilience and Joy” concert May 9 at The Old Church in downtown Portland was partly about the surprising happiness that occurs when we open our ears to more than Western sounds and rhythms. What a shame only 50 or so concert-goers settled into the pews, especially considering that Fear No Music doesn’t charge for tickets (donations only). Portland State University is a hop and skip away; music-lovers with small bank accounts should have been all over this concert.

Artistic director Kenji Bunch–celebrating FNM’s 30th anniversary season and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month–did a spectacular job of curating contemporary music from three generations of seven composers, four of them women, all with roots in various parts of Asia: Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, China. What Bunch did best was find pieces—none more than 10 minutes long—that expressed exuberance and high spirits rather than ones that plunged into trauma and tragedy.

Where to start? Maybe at the beginning, where Bunch made the gutsy choice of putting a snare drum center stage until Michael Roberts played it—not with sticks and brushes, but with a credit card and a comb. The aptly-named 7.5-minute Well-Groomed by 31-year-old Vietnamese-American Viet Cuong (praised by Washington Post music critics for being one of those composers “who sounds like tomorrow”) was a lot of fun. It was an inventive and impish soundscape to behold, sonically and visually. Wow, so much a good drummer can do with a comb and credit card.

Flutists Amelia Lukas and Adam Eccleston played the intricately paced Haiku by prolific Japanese concert and film score composer Paul Chihara. The 8.5-minute piece was rhythmically complex, with shades of jazz and folk music, but if it had the 5-7-5  motif (haikus are three-line poems made up of a five-syllable first line, seven-syllable second line and five-syllable final line), I could not fathom that pattern despite the crystalline playing. Haikus, a traditional form of Japanese poetry, are so compact and intense, like flowers distilled into perfume, that the end result is far bigger than the parts—just as in this piece. The flutists climbed and descended a mountain of notes at the end of the piece, and landed together. (Lukas played both the alto flute and standard C flute; Eccleston, only the C flute). “With all the note-bending and air sounds, there are lots of references to shakuhachi-style playing,” which focuses on bamboo flutes, Lukas explained by email after the concert.

My favorite piece was Japanese-born composer/pianist Hiromi Uehara’s BQE performed by Monica Ohuchi, who has the fastest fingers and surest piano hands around. She is such a virtuoso.

Uehara, now in her early 40s with quite a jazz following, met the late great pianist Chick Corea when she was a teenager in Japan. She eventually studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston and worked with such jazz musicians as Ahmad Jamal and Stanley Clarke. So no wonder her BQE–which stands for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which plows over and through Manhattan with stunning views of the skyline–was imbued with the non-stop frenetic feel of jazz.

The only composer present at the concert was South Korean Jiyoun Chung, now living in Seattle and teaching composition at Central Washington University. Her Freestyle Battle was an energetic back and forth, reflecting “b-boy dancing,” described as a style of acrobatic dancing that combines intricate footwork with spinning and tumbling, usually to funk or hip-hop music. Musicians keeping up with the fast pace included clarinetist James Shields, violinist Inés Voglar Belgique, cellist Pansy Chang, and Ohuchi, again, on the piano. Shields is a master clarinetist who can perform on five types of clarinets, as he did in a Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival concert in 2021 playing Osvaldo Golijov’s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Not to single out Shields; each Fear No Music musician, several of whom play with the Oregon Symphony, is superb and dedicated to bringing new music, often never-heard-before pieces, to the world.

Other works included Ke-Chia Chen’s whimsical four-movement Taiwanese Children’s Games (performed by pianists Ohuchi and Jeff Payne at the same piano) and Chinese composer Wu Man’s Glimpses of Muqam Chebiyat, which fused traditional pipa influences with Western motifs—among other things (this stuff is complicated!) Pianist Payne played Japanese-born Dai Fujikara’s Akiko’s Piano, a touching 4-minute piece centered on a Baldwin piano that survived the atom bomb in Hiroshima and its 19-year-old player who didn’t. As Fujikara wrote, “there must be similar stories to that of this 19-year-old girl in every war in history and in every country in the world. Every war will have had an ‘Akiko.’”

Let’s hope FNM continues for at least another 30 years, bringing us cutting-edge contemporary music and sustaining the courage to introduce us to such wildly off-beat pieces as Well-Groomed, brought to life with a single snare, a drummer,  a comb and a credit card.

This concert, available to livestream online May 23, was sponsored by Oregon Rises Above Hate, Anne Naito-Campbell and Ronni Lacroute.