George Li review: Miracles aplenty

Stellar Portland Piano International recitals reveal classical piano's next star


I could hardly believe my eyes. At intermission, the audience members were calmly milling around the Lincoln Hall lobby, chatting and buying refreshments and talking on their phones, as if they had just seen the first half of any old concert. Didn’t they realize what they’d just heard? I wanted to shake them out of their nonchalance and yell in their faces, “Don’t you have ears? This kid is great!”

George Li. Photo: Christian Steiner.

To call pianist George Li a kid is no exaggeration. But although short and baby-faced at 21 years of age, he’s nevertheless elaborately experienced, having given his professional debut at age 10 in Boston and won the silver medal at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition, among other honors. His onstage aplomb at his Portland Piano International recital on Saturday afternoon, February 11, at Portland State University, was immaculate. Before beginning each piece, Li paused over the keys as if meditating, raised his hands very slowly, and then plunged immediately into the rhythm of the music. Once underway, he looked as if he were concentrating intensely while also dreaming; his hands never stopped.

During the opener, Josef Haydn’s Sonata in B Minor, Mr. Li showed technique to spare and seemed to negotiate the music with no real effort. Fast and slow music alike emerged under his fingers with exemplary clarity. And with his phrasing and expression, he succeeded in making each of the three movements a little mini-sonata of its own, and this in a piece that although programmed more frequently than most of Haydn’s other five dozen sonatas, is not especially memorable. I thought to myself, if he can make this Haydn piece sing like this, what miracles might he produce with Chopin’s Second Sonata, the next piece on the program?


ArtsWatch Weekly: enemies of the people

Plus: ceramics shows all over town, Brontës and Carnage onstage, Shakespeare on Avenue Q, madrigals and music from the Holocaust

I’ve been thinking about my new status as an enemy of the people, which, because I am a longtime member of the press, the leader of the nation has declared I am. I’m not sure what this means (Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic has a few ideas), but I suspect that while we’re all getting hot and bothered about the president’s use of the term “enemy” – a word that, in this construction, implies the harsher “traitor” – we might also be thinking long and hard about what he means when he says “people.”

As I have never considered myself an enemy of the many categories of people who make up this nation (although I have certainly resisted the ideas and actions of some, particularly those of an autocratic, opportunistic, violent, or rigidly ideological bent) I inevitably wonder which people these are to whom I am an enemy. And the conclusion I draw, at least tentatively, is that they must be the people who adamantly declare “my country (or my president) right or wrong,” those whose modes of thought and belief are primarily binary, who see a white and a black in every situation with no recognition of the vast shadings and illuminations between. And although I don’t deny I am not fond of their hard-line ideas, it is less true that I am their enemy than that they consider me theirs.

In Ibsen’s play the newspaper editor is a collaborator and the “enemy” is a whistleblower.

This is a far, far smaller definition of the American people than my own old-fashioned idea of a populace enriched by its multitude of backgrounds, talents, experiences, expressions, and beliefs. The president’s declaration, it seems to me, is a siren song to know-nothing insularity, a constricted, self-defeating, fear-driven, and exclusivist view of the American ideal of what a “people” is (or are). Under its sway a belief in a middle ground of understanding over ideology, even when the understanding must come by asking hard questions and seeking answers from alternative sources when the primary ones hide or lie about what they know, becomes a ground of treason. It is thinking that divides the country into “real” Americans – the true believers – and, well, enemies. Including those members of the press who point such things out.


Arvo Pärt Festival: When meaning and music collide

At Cappella Romana's exploration of the great Estonian composer's music, one listener finds that sacred sounds and secular listeners don't always connect


Music serves meaning and that meaning can be embedded in a text. It can deliver that meaning as forcefully or more forcefully than speech or writing. It can be used for all purposes benign or malignant, it can lead listeners to a transcendent experience, highly dependent on their own associations. And, in a sense, the music is completed by listeners from within their sphere of meaningful associations regardless of whether a text is understood.

At Cappella Romana’s February 5-12 Arvo Pärt Festival, that physical sphere was various Portland cathedrals and churches and Kaul Auditorium at Reed College: the former, places to pursue divinity, the latter a place to pursue reason and scientific and intellectual truth.

Cappella Romana performed throughout the Arvo Part festival. Photo: Ted Jack.

I came face to face with a conundrum: having questioned the validity of labeling Pärt’s music mystical, spiritual, or sacred I found myself questioning the meaning of my appreciation of the music and the intent of the texts.


James Baldwin: Fighting white supremacy

James Baldwin understood that capitalism lurked behind slavery and white supremacy in America, even if that side doesn't quite emerge from 'I Am Not Your Negro'

James Baldwin’s great project, as I might derive it from Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” was to try to understand the African American experience. That involved some specific questions: why the catastrophe of slavery fell on black people in America; what it did to them psychologically; how the culture of white supremacy that it bred continues to oppress them; how they might cope constructively with this history and this present, and how things might change.

Baldwin’s project was deeply serious, his conclusions generated by personal anguish and anguished thought, and his words are majestic, still. “I Am Not Your Negro” (which has begun runs at Cinema-21, the Hollywood Theatre and Kiggins Theatre, after playing the Portland International Film Festival and the Portland Black Film Festival) is awash in those words, those descriptions, those insights, that anguish.

The film does other things, too. It tracks the intersection of Baldwin with other black leaders of the ‘60s—Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. It shows how Baldwin’s reading of the media around him, specifically Hollywood movies, changed as he began to become aware of the deep racism that infected the system. And it shows how Baldwin came to place the blame for America’s “race problem” squarely where it belonged.

James Baldwin, center, is the subject of “I Am Not Your Negro”/Magnolia Films

“But the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country,” Baldwin says in the film. “It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives—it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long.” African Americans, of course, are the stranger, and “maligned” is a rather tepid word for the evil that white people visited on them.

He continues: “What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”

“You need it…” Peck’s film leaves the talking to Baldwin, his descriptions and explanations of our racial history, of the crimes white people committed, the lives they distorted, because they “needed it.” It’s a powerful film because Baldwin’s truth is so powerful.


Portland Opera and The Ensemble reviews: Sacred and secular Venice

Two programs show very different sides of 17th century Italian music


Patrick McDonough’s vocal group The Ensemble has proven, in more than a dozen concerts over the past several years, that it is an invaluable part of musical life in the Northwest. By itself and in collaboration with other groups vocal and instrumental, it invariably presents concerts that not only offer familiar music of the 18th and earlier centuries but also bring the names of unjustly forgotten composers to our attention. Its latest series of concerts, on January 20-22 in Tacoma, Eugene, and Portland, illustrate this mission brilliantly.

In a program called Venetian Vespers: Vespers for Saint Agnes — Virgin & Martyr, The Ensemble teamed up with singers from Anne Lyman’s Tacoma group Canonici and Hideki Yamaya’s Portland instrumental ensemble Musica Maestrale to present an elaborate Vespers service in concert without intermission, consisting of Gregorian chant, expertly sung by alto Kerry McCarthy, and large and small motets for from one to ten singers.

The Ensemble and friends performed the Venetian Vespers program in Eugene, Portland, and Vancouver.

The composers represented ranged from the famous (Claudio Monteverdi, 1567-1643) and less famous (Alessandro Grandi, 1586-1630) to the relatively obscure (Dario Castello, c.1590-c.1658) to the virtually unknown (Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, 1602-1678), with special emphasis given to Cozzolani. She had four substantial pieces on the program, all of them featuring homophony (all voices singing together) and antiphony (voices separated into two choirs doing call and response), and her music was the surprise of the evening because it was so accomplished and unknown.

Turns out she was one of the nuns, in fact the abbess, of a convent that was famous for its musicians in the middle of the 17th century. A contemporary writer found that “the nuns of Santa Radegonda of Milan are gifted with such rare and exquisite talents in music that they are acknowledged to be the best singers of Italy. They wear the Cassinese habits of St. Benedict, but they seem to any listener to be white and melodious swans, who fill hearts with wonder, and spirit away tongues in their praise. Among these sisters, Donna Chiara Margarita Cozzolani merits the highest praise, Chiara in name but even more so in merit, and Margarita for her unusual and excellent nobility of invention.”

Although I had never heard or heard of Cozzolani before this concert, I couldn’t agree more. Her music deserves to be performed as frequently as that of other 17th-century masters.


Marjorie, in her prime

Jordan Harrison's futuristic fantasy about the blurry line between people and artificial intelligence gets a sterling run at Artists Rep

Walter has a curious affect, in more ways than one. As he talks with Marjorie, an 85-year-old woman whose mind isn’t what it used to be, he’s gently inquisitive, apparently eager to learn about her and, somewhat paradoxically, about himself as well. As the “Prime” in Jordan Harrison’s stimulating play Marjorie Prime continuing through March 5 at Artists Repertory Theatre, he speaks with an odd mixture of intimacy and detachment, and a patience that seems at first professional, then preternatural. He tells stories in a way that sounds casual yet somehow rote. And when he’s stumped by something, instead of shrugging or saying, “I dunno,” he replies stiffly, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information.”

Then too, there’s just something about the way he looks. He’s clean-cut and handsome, yet unremarkably so. That is, until you notice the faint sparkle that shimmers about his plain brown sportcoat and neatly trimmed hair. It’s as though he’s the image of an ideal man, ever-so-slightly pixelated.

O’Brien and Harder: memories lost and gained. Photo: John Rudoff

And though he looks a half-century younger than Marjorie, he’s not just Walter, he’s her Walter, her late husband Walter. Or at least he’s learning to be.


PDX Jazz Festival reviews: Hearing the home folks

Portland's own jazz stars shine at annual national jazz showcase


In addition to presenting big national names, an appealing aspect of the 2017 Biamp PDX Portland Jazz Festival is that it taps into the deep reservoir of talent in the Pacific Northwest. Two cases in point: the Mile 22 Octet led by pianist, composer and arranger Mike Van Liew and Ezra Weiss’s Monday Night Big Band.

In an afternoon concert, Van Liew’s eight-piece ensemble filled downtown Portland’s Art Bar with tightly constructed arrangements of original music that ranged from tone poems to a piece whose Klezmer orientation called for exacting musicianship. With zeal and meticulous execution the players met the demands of the 9/8 time signature and Van Liew’s intersecting lines.

Dick Titterington.

The Klezmer piece and others featured notable work from Dick Titterington, one of a cluster of first-rate trumpeters who grew up in Portland or moved here over the past few years. In the course of the afternoon, everyone on the band soloed impressively.

We see Mary-Sue Tobin holding an alto saxophone in the photograph to the right, but in the Art Bar concert her muscular soloing and voluminous sound were on tenor sax. The other members of the octet were Tim Jensen, alto saxophone; Tom Hill, trombone; John Butler, guitar; Mark Schneider, bass; and Jason Palmer, drums.

Mary-Sue Tobin.

Pianist Ezra Weiss has generated favorable notice in The New York Times, Down Beat, Jazz Times and other national publications. Down Beat’s Josef Woodard called him, “a bold, inspired figure in the contemporary jazz arranging scene.” At the Portland festival, Weiss led his Monday Night Big Band in the cozy confines of Lola’s Room, a listening space in the building that also houses Portland’s venerable Crystal Ballroom. Weiss, who teaches music at Portland State University, concentrated on conducting and left the piano playing to the talented young Dan Gaynor.

The trumpet section was made up of four players who, like Titterington, choose to remain in Portland despite gifts that would keep them busy in New York or Los Angeles. Tom Barber’s solo on the opening number, whose title I didn’t hear, established that, as did Derek Sims, Conte Bennett and Charlie Porter in later solos. Tenor saxophonist Renato Caranto followed with the first of several solo spots that he filled with passion and evident satisfaction in taking chances.

Ezra Weiss. Photo: Vanished Twin.

Tim Jensen, heard earlier in the Mile 22 Octet, was applauded by fellow members of the saxophone section for his solo on “It’s You Or No One,” Julie Styne’s 1948 hit for Doris Day. Weiss featured Gaynor on piano in “Jessie,” Weiss’s piece named for his wife. The veteran tenor saxophonist John Gross took over for one of his solos in which he manages to be almost outrageously unorthodox at the same time that he’s being lyrical.

John Gross.

To this point in the Weiss concert, I had been longing to hear the band settle into a 4/4 groove but broken time — not necessarily a bad thing — had seemed to be the rule. Then, with alto saxophonist John Nastos moving straight ahead in Weiss’s “The Promise,” the band was swinging in the foot-tapping sense, even though bassist Eric Gruber maintained an uneven line.

Weiss made a medley of his arrangement of the Hebrew hymn “We Limit Not The Wrath Of God” and his own “Fanfare For a Newborn.” Following another John Gross tenor sax adventure in the medley, Weiss brought the band to an abrupt and surprising halt that made a few listeners gasp. Using his dramatic conducting style, he immediately cranked the band up again, and people laughed.

Marilyn Keller.

The first of two guest singers, Marilyn Keller, joined the band for a dramatic version of the folk classic “Wayfaring Stranger.” Her section of vocalese improvisation included an astonishing sequence of high notes. Weiss’s arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” featured Nastos on soprano saxophone, then a trumpet solo in which Charlie Porter invented harmonies so unorthodox and sophisticated that the musicians around him were shaking their heads.

Weiss brought on recording artist Jeff Baker, a Portland resident, for “Amazing Grace,” sung in a clear and pleasant voice. The piece also included a Porter flugelhorn solo that, while rewarding, did not equal the ingenuity he showed on “Footprints.”

Mieke Bruggeman.

Weiss’s composition “Rise And Fall” included solos by Barber on both flugelhorn and trumpet and the only solo appearance of the evening by Mieke Bruggeman. Her huge baritone saxophone sound had anchored the band all evening. She soloed as if to relieve tension that built while she waited for her shot at self-expression. The audience reaction let her know that it was worth waiting for.

As I headed for the door in order to catch the last streetcar back to my hotel, Weiss announced a piece whose title sounded like “Koom Len Getit,” I was compelled to pause and listen to trombonist John Moak deliver the final solo word. It’s always a pleasure to hear Moak. It had been a satisfying concert.

The 2017 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival continues through February 26 at various Portland venues. Tickets available online. Read ArtsWatch’s preview and Ramsey’s first set of reviews.

One of America’s most esteemed jazz journalists, former Portland resident Doug Ramsey is a recipient of the lifetime achievement award of the Jazz Journalists Association and two ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. Ramsey is the author of Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul DesmondJazz Matters:Reflections on the Music and Some of its Makers, and the novel Poodie James, and co-editor (With Dale Shaps) of Journalism Ethics: Why Change? His articles, reviews and op-ed pieces on music and on free press and First Amendment issues have appeared in Downbeat, Jazz Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Seattle Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Oregonian, and Congressional Quarterly, among other publications. His excellent blog, Rifftides, where these reviews (reprinted with his permission) originally appeared, is essential reading for anyone interested in jazz today.

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