Portugal in July

What do you get when you combine a fabulous orchestra, a fearless conductor, an architectural wonder, and a city flowing with Port wine? One of the coolest shows I’ve ever encountered.

Maestro Edwin Outwater, whose life has intersected with mine in both San Francisco and Chicago, recently made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: curate an evening of symphonic music at the Casa da Musica in Portugal, then spin a late-night DJ set in the sprawling outdoor plaza. And there would be quite a bit of Port tasting involved, it being the city of Porto and all.
Short answer: yes. Long answer: hell yes.

But what to program? Summertime concerts tend towards lightness and accessibility, yet I thought we could offer something more substantive and still be engaging. We both wanted to open with Mothership, which Edwin experienced first-hand at its premiere by Michael Tilson Thomas and the YouTube Symphony at the Sydney Opera House. It invites an orchestra’s best soloists to ‘dock’ with a techno-driven orchestra, and the electronic element certainly offers something new and unusual in the symphonic space.

So that took care of the opening, but we had to work out the heart of the program. And that’s when we threw the curveballs.
Ever since I composed The B-Sides, a suite of brief landings on five surreal planets, I dreamed of pairing it with one of the classics of modernism: Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. While the two sound very different, they share a formal similarity (five short pieces) and a laser-like focus on fluorescent orchestral sonorities. Quite a departure for a summertime show to present a modernist classic alongside two contemporary works — but we were confident the program would both challenge and delight.

Luckily, the orchestra was up for the challenge. When I arrived in Porto a few weeks ago, I encountered a very strong band from top to bottom. The players weren’t phased by the electro-acoustic elements of my music or the hyper-complexity of Schoenberg’s. And their concert hall is mind-blowing: a giant cube balanced on its corner, with a beautiful main hall and lots of surprising, odd-shaped spaces sprinkled throughout. There’s an entire room covered in cork and foam padding; one decorated with 18th-century Portugese tiles; and even a tiny one with a half-size door à la Being John Malcovich.

In between rehearsals in that beautifully intriguing space, Edwin and I explored Porto. Some of the beast seafood I’ve encountered was served to us that week, including a massive seabass accompanied by Porto’s signatue ‘green’ wine (a light, almost evervescent white that has a greenish hue). We wandered the ancient cobbled streets of the Ribiera district, surfed in the chilly Atlantic, and sampled delicious old ports with the orchestra’s charming executive director, Andrew Bennett.

When showtime arrived, I had the pleasure of watching one of the great young American conductors bring my music to life. Edwin leads Canada’s Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony — another place where he offers imaginative programming — and he conducts with the confidence and restraint of a true maestro. I especially enjoyed his interpretations of the acoustic movements of The B-Sides, especially “Aerosol Melody Hanalei” (about the beachside psyche). After an afternoon of surfing with this native Californian, I loved watching him recreate the northshore of Kauai right there onstage.

Porto being a Latin city, it is filled with people up for a late-night DJ set. I spun everything from ambient downtempo to minimal techno, moving gradually up the tempo dial in front of an outdoor plaza filled with grooving bodies. At one point I looked up and saw the full moon rising above the edge of the giant cube of the Casa. A cool wind blew through the square as I dropped the needle on my last record.

By the time I joined Edwin and Andrew for dinner (and, yes, some beautiful 20-year tawny), midnight had arrived. We strolled out onto the rooftop patio to admire the evening. Porto stretch out beneath us, bathed in the bright moonlight, with the Atlantic hiding under a light fog. What a city, what an orchestra. And what a damn fine glass of port to cap it all off.