A Portland festival for pianoheads

This annual gathering of students and teachers is unique in America, and another example of Portland's distinctive musical culture.
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Jon Nakamatsu.

This annual gathering of students and teachers is unique in America, and another example of Portland's distinctive musical culture.

Portland has two summer music festivals: the acclaimed Chamber Music Northwest for five weeks at Reed College and Catlin Gable School (ending July 27), and the Portland Piano International Summer Festival at the World Forestry Center. The Piano Festival this year spanned nine days in the middle of July, and offered recitals, master classes, lectures, films, and art exhibits. More than 3,400 pianoheads, mostly piano teachers and students, arrived from all over the world. It's the only one of its kind in the nation.

Artistic Director Harold Gray and Executive Director Pat Zagelow originated the idea for the festival. Gray joined Portland State University's music faculty in 1977 and soon started the PSU Piano Recital Series, still going strong. Over the next two decades the success of the piano recital series caused Gray, Zagelow, and the series board of directors to establish the organization as an independent non-profit that has no official ties with Portland State University.

So, in March of 2005, Portland Piano International was created and moved its recital series from Lincoln Hall at Portland State to the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland. The Newmark's main occupants, Portland Center Stage, had just moved to its own, new performance space in the Pearl District. Meanwhile, this summer, Portland State has begun a seismic upgrade of Lincoln Hall that will last at least two years, moving most of its concerts to Reed College during the renovations.

This year's summer festival featured sold-out recitals by Jon Nakamatsu, Simone Dinnerstein, and cross-disciplinarian Frederic Chiu. Nakamatsu began his July 13 concert with an impeccable and finely honed performance of Haydn, Liszt, Beethoven, and Chopin. Most memorable were the hauntingly beautiful "Five Dances" by Loris Tjeknavorian, a prolific Armenian-Iranian composer and conductor whose music is virtually unknown in the United States.

Anthony de Mare and Steven Mayer collaborated on a program that reflected the influence of jazz, blues, and ragtime on piano music. Pieces by Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, and Billy Strayhorn shared the stage with works by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, George Antheil, Arnold Schoenberg, Frederic Rzewiski, and Leonard Bernstein. Sometimes the influence went the other way as with Tatum's rendition of Anton's Dvorak's "Humoresque," which was magically played by Mayer.

There was plenty of adventurous music. Simone Dinnerstein's concert moved seamlessly from the atonal variations for piano by Copland and 12-tone variations by Webern to music by Bach and Beethoven. All of the pieces mirrored a program that Dinnerstein played in Berlin last November, to be released by Telarc in August.


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