Pops Goes the Oregon Symphony

Orchestra's steadily expanding non-classical performances aim for more diverse audiences


The current Oregon Symphony pops season started for me with the crowd-pleasing Storm Large belting out jazz standards—and tossing off her trademark, foul-mouthed jests. I could’ve done with way less of the latter. Then there were the affectionate cougar-referenced jabs at good-sport conductor Norman Huynh. Her insistence on perpetuating her bad-girl persona, though, only detracts from her strong, powerful singing voice and warm stage presence, both of which live up to her name.

Storm Large sang Kurt Weill with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: John Rudoff.

Next up for me was The Music of Prince, the tribute band and the Oregon Symphony wowing people out of their seats and dancing at the stage. But it sent this Prince fan out the door at intermission, irritated by the muddied sound system doing impersonator Marshall Charloff no favor, and only making me wish for the real thing.

Portland’s Tango Pacifico made up for these disappointments. Joining in, the Symphony expanded on the group’s chamber music roots, while the evening’s dance duo stunned the audience with their dips and splits and the bandoneón player, Héctor del Curto, even solo sounded like five of them up there. The three came all the way from Argentina. Tango Pacifico’s vocalist Pepe Raphael lives in Portland, as does founder and leader Erin Furbee, who is also a violinist with the Oregon Symphony. What a mix of tango, from the 1920s to the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla.

The Symphony’s diverse programming continued in March with the latest of its big-screen films accompanied by a live, orchestral soundtrack: E.T. and John Williams’s score. Next came the Grammy-winning Indigo Girls, who joined the Symphony in loyal followers’ favorites. It was part of the Symphony’s pop/jazz-singer series, which recently has featured names like Ben Folds, Gregory Alan Isakov, Bela Fleck, and Large; and tributes to Prince, Glenn Frey and David Bowie. This weekend is Patti Austin’s Homage to Ella Fitzgerald, followed by May 5’s Disney in Concert: A Dream is a Wish. And on May 23, ukulele marvel Jake Shimabukuro transforms the Hawaiian folk instrument into a four-string wonder with the Oregon Symphony, playing Beatles and Queen covers plus his own compositions.

Patti Austin celebrates Ella Fitzgerald Saturday and Sunday with the Oregon Symphony.

These concerts and more this season add up to eight performances of four Pops Concerts programs (subscription) and 34 performances of 28 Oregon Symphony Presents (Special Concerts) programs (non-subscription), the latter including three classical. (The orchestra divides its concerts into four categories: Classical, Pops, Special, and Kids.  This story broadly covers all but classical. Here’s a complete listing of the Oregon Symphony’s concerts this season.) The lineup this season carries on North America’s 132-year-old pops-symphony tradition, while pushing its evolution into a larger, more varied element of the orchestra’s programming.

“If you look at other orchestras in our budget range, we probably do more than most,” says Scott Showalter, President and CEO of the Oregon Symphony. “We’re trying to provide more kinds of concerts to appeal to the wide and diverse audience we have here in Portland.”


‘Suor Angelica’ & ‘Gianni Schicchi’ review: tearful tragedy and family farce

Portland State University Opera’s spring Puccini double-bill strikes a fine and fun balance


PSU Opera always surprises me with the high quality of its productions and the skill of its young singers, many of them undergraduates. This is not professional opera (though advisors and directors are professionals), but it can reach impressive heights, and does in this double bill of two very different, very short Giacomo Puccini one-acts.

The first is a sentimental tragedy that takes place in a convent’s courtyard; the second is a better known opera buffo crowded into a Florentine bedroom. The operas, each about 40 minutes, are expansive and efficient: They provide numerous roles for up-and-coming singers and designer Carey Wong’s clever set is deployed for both operas – an outside setting for Suor Angelica and an inside one for Gianni Schicci.

Sung in Italian with English supertitles, the performance continues April 25-30 at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

Saori Erickson in PSU’s ‘Suor Angelica.’

Puccini wrote the operas with librettist Giovacchino Forzano in 1917-1918 and they were first performed with a third, Il Tabarro, at the Met in 1918. Like many opera composers, Puccini has a thing for vulnerable tragic heroines (think Cio-Cio San in Butterfly, La Boheme’s Mimi, etc.) and for sucking us into their dilemmas. But so what? Opera is about excess.

Sister Angelica was shuttled off to the convent seven years earlier for having an illegitimate child. Her haughty aunt, the Princess, sung and acted with requisite harshness by mezzo Grace Skinner, visits the convent and tells Angelica that her son has died. Devastated, Sister Angelica decides to kill herself – and does. At the end, there is a scene with Giotto-tinged-blue skies, floating clouds, and a Madonna in swirling white garb. The Madonna greets Angelica, and Angelica’s son joins her as she enters the pearly gates.

OK. It’s corny. It’s Puccini with a penchant for the syrupy, the over-the-top dramatic, the hopeless moments tinged with hope. But that’s our beloved Puccini.

As Sister Angelica, soprano Saori Erickson throws every inch of herself into Suor Angelica’s only aria, “Senza Mamma,” a fierce lament and love song to her dead child, Erickson makes the final part of the opera soar and fill Lincoln Hall with the help of a very competent student orchestra led by Ken Selden.

Erickson is a gifted singer mentored by professional soprano Pamela South, who has sung her share of Puccini roles with major opera companies. South’s other high-profile pupil of the night, soprano Hope McCaffrey, sings Lauretta in Gianni, the evening’s second opera. She shows her pipes and poise with the oft sung “O Mio Babbino Caro.” McCaffrey sings a bold and touching rendition of the popular aria, but her small role doesn’t dominate Gianni as Sister Angelica does the first tragic opera.

South is doing something right. These women seem to be going places. In 2016, Erickson won the “audience favorite” award at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and several others over recent years.

PSU Opera’s ‘Gianni Schicci.’

Gianni is crowded and crazy with a big cast who portrays the disorganized family of the dying Buoso, a rich uncle of this greedy brood. The handsome Rinuccio (tenor Alex Trull) cooks up the plan to introduce the arrivist Gianni Schicchi to his family to solve the problems with the uncle’s will – Buoso has left everything to the friars – if he, Rinuccio, is allowed to marry Gianni’s daughter, the lovely Lauretta. When the arrivist arrives, he puts everything in motion, replacing the uncle on his deathbed and dictating a new will to the notary, where of course, Gianni ends up with the cream of the wealth.

The zany family’s antics zigzag over the stage and they’re funny, especially those of Shainy Manuel who sings bawdy bewigged redhead Zita. She wriggles her red-ruffled rear at the audience at crucial moments; she has excellent timing.

The music and libretto are sublimely matched in hilariousness, and baritone Darian Hutchinson, who sings Gianni with flair, puts the glue into this opera. Hutchinson graduates this spring from PSU’s music program; this is his sixth PSU role (he sang Figaro and the mayor in Doctor Miracle, among others). He has a future in opera if he wants to grab it.

The ensemble singing is roaring fun with each of the cast members staying in distinctive character. Some critics claim that Puccini lost an opportunity when he never produced a full-length comic opera with such an excellent piece like Gianni showcasing his proclivity for the ridiculous.

Be sure you stick around for both operas. PSU’s singers, instrumentalists and music faculty should feel pretty proud about producing this level of Puccini.

Portland State University Opera’s ‘Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi’ continues at 7:30 p.m. April 25, 28 and 29 and at 3 p.m. on April 30 at Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave. Portland.  Tickets are $30 adults, $27 seniors and $15 students at the PSU box office in Lincoln Hall, online, or call the PSU Box Office: 503-725-3307.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.  

Want to read more about Oregon opera? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Tear down (or build) that wall

Robert Schenkkan's political provocation "Building the Wall" at Triangle pokes into the Trump Effect and a possible American future

Building the Wall, Robert Schenkkan’s quick-out-of-the-gate stage response to the American political and cultural shift of the past year, is a well-timed last-minute addition to the current season at Triangle Productions. A protest play that questions whose America this will be in the wake of the Trumpian political revolution, it runs for a brief engagement through April 29 at The Sanctuary.

On the surface Building the Wall, which is directed at Triangle by company leader Donald Hornis a conversation between two people who seem like polar opposites. One man sits in an orange prison jumpsuit. Opposite him is a history professor, who is also a black woman. The prisoner dropped out of school, got a GED and entered the military. The professor is a liberal. The prisoner is a modern-day Republican.

Gavin Hoffman and Andrea Vernae: over the wall. David Kinder/Kinderpics

But the conversation isn’t just between this unlikely pair. It’s the conversations we’ve been having at the dinner table with family, on the bus with strangers, in our social media feeds, in an explosive era of journalism, overflowing town halls, and packed activist meetings. The conversation between Rick and Gloria is also with us.


‘Snow Queen’ review: Frozen journey

Though some tweaks are needed, premiere performance of Eugene Ballet's dazzling new original production of H.C. Andersen’s classic tale shows promise


After years of dreaming and ideation, Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen premiered last weekend, a dazzling spectacle of stagecraft that was most compelling in its moments of pure, unadorned dance.

Yuki Beppu as Gerda in Eugene Ballet’s ‘The Snow Queen.’

It’s the largest production in Eugene Ballet Company’s 38 years, featuring the longest commissioned score — by Portland composer Kenji Bunch — in Oregon’s history. Every bit of the artistic effort, from sets to costumes, props to animations, was labored over by more than 150 artists and designers from the Eugene community, under the vision of inimitable EBC Artistic Director Toni Pimble.

EBC clearly has poured its heart into this story about a girl name Gerda, whose friend Kay disappears one day, inspiring her to go on a mission to find him.


DanceWatch Weekly: A ballet that might change your mind about ballet

Oregon Ballet Theatre closes its season with "Terra," White Bird's Che Malambo, Le Chic Le Freak and so much more

I had a realization on Saturday night at the Newmark Theatre while watching Helen Pickett’s ultra-bright, Gerbera daisy-inspired Petal, performed by the dancers of Oregon Ballet Theatre. Ballet, like modern or contemporary dance, is experimental, too. And what I was seeing was Pickett’s experiment with time, space, form, color, sound, etc., within the context of classical ballet. She was making choreographic choices different from ballets norm. Depending on your own dance experience, that may sound strange or obvious, but all I’ve ever known of ballet was the classics like Swan Lake and Giselle, works that are tried, true, and proven to be “good” because they have withstood the test of time. Anything outside of those seemed to be considered “other” or “not-ballet.”

I realized that I expect perfection from ballet because that’s what ballet is, an embodiment of perfection and control over the body and its surroundings. Because of that, there is little room for imperfection and experimentation in the form, at least that’s what I’ve come to think, which isn’t really fair to ballet, is it? And where does that leave today’s classical ballet choreographers?

I also realized that I am attached to the formula of classical ballet, the linear storytelling, the gender stereotypes, the patriarchy, the unrealistic happy ending, etc. Even though I don’t love it, it’s what I’ve come to expect, it’s familiar, and yet I claim to be a liberal, modern woman. Go figure. I drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago. Seeing Pickett’s work on the program, both Petal and Terra, completely disrupted my belief system surrounding classical ballet, and have in turn jump-started a series of internal questions that I would like to share with you here.

What defines classical ballet? Are the dancers still classical dancers even though they are performing contemporary work? Is that idea fluid? Can a dancer be both a classical and contemporary dancer? Is contemporary work changed by being performed by a classical company and vice versa? Will the definition of classical ballet change as we get further away from its inception, and more and more new ballets are created? How much has it already changed? Why is it so important for ballet companies to define what kind of ballet they do, when almost all of the ballet companies do both classical and contemporary work? Why do people have to define themselves against what they are not? Why does anyone try to define themselves at all? When do new classics get created? What will audiences in 100 years consider classical ballets? Will there be ballets created now that will be added to that roster? Was I seeing work this weekend that will stand the test of time and be considered a classic someday?

ArtsWatcher Martha Ullman West was at Terra opening night and gives her review here.

Terra, the final program of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 2016-2017 Season of Giants concludes this weekend with three more performances, closing on Saturday night.

Other experimental works happening around Portland this weekend, include the touring production of the Jersey Boys, new works by XPOSED choreographers Robert Guitron, M’Liss Quinnly, Gerard Regot, Barbara Lima, and Jess Zoller at Polaris Dance Theatre, Butoh with Mari Osanai from Japan through the Butoh College Performance Series at The Headwaters Theatre, student performance at Oregon Ballet Theatre, Le Chic Le Freak (an ode to the Disco era by Ecdysiast Pole Dance Company), collaborations between dancers and musicians at Reed College and at New Expressive Works, and Che Malambo, the dancing Argentinian cowboys presented by White Bird.

Performances this week

Photo courtesy of Jersey Boys.

Jersey Boys
Presented by U.S. Bank Broadway in Portland
April 18-23
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St
You can’t have musical theatre without dance, and Jersey Boys, with choreography by Sergio Trujillo, is no exception to that rule. This dancin’ in the aisles, sing-a-long trip down memory lane story follows the quick rise to fame of the 1960’s rock band, The Fours Seasons and includes familiar songs such as Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry,  Oh What a Night and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.

Pacific Dance Ensemble. Photo courtesy of Pacific University Department of Theatre & Dance.

DanceWorks XIV
Pacific Dance Ensemble
Pacific University Department of Theatre & Dance
April 20-22
Tom Miles Theatre at Warner Hall, 2043 College Way, Forest Grove
Celebrating its 14th season, Pacific Dance Ensemble will feature choreography by dance department faculty members James Healey, Mary Hunt, Anita Mitchell, and artistic Director, Jennifer Camp and student choreographer Annalise Nilson.

Martina Chavez and Colby Parsons in Duacho’s “Jardi Tancat.” Photo: Emily Nash

Oregon Ballet Theatre
April 20-22
Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway
Celebrating the warmth and earthiness of Mediterranean culture, ritualistic dance, and the return of spring, Oregon Ballet Theatre concludes its 2016-2017 Season of Giants with Terra, a program that features a world premiere by former William Forsythe dancer Helen Pickett, itself called Terra, and two dances by Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato; Jardí Tancat, Duato’s first choreographed work from 1983 and El Naranjo (The Orange Tree), a sensuous pas de deux from a larger work called Gnawa.

Mysticism, Modernity, and Motion
Reed College Performing Arts
7 pm April 21
Reed College Performing Arts, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd
Exploring themes of minimalism and pandiatonicism, the Reed College Chorus and Collegium Musicum, in collaboration with the Reed Dance Department, presents an evening of music and dance conducted by John K. Cox. The program includes music by by Arvo Pärt, Eric Whitacre, Erik Esenvalds, Philip Glass, Olivier Messiaen, David Lang, and Gustav Holst.

Ecdysiast Pole Dance Company in Le Chic Le Freak.

Le Chic Le Freak
Ecdysiast Pole Dance Company
April 21-22
Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St
Celebrating the birth and evolution of Disco, Ecdysiast Pole Dance Company presents Le Chic Le Freak, a comedic and thought-provoking work that combines pole dancing, acrobatics, and dance in the vision of artistic director and company dancer Shannon Gee.

Photo courtesy of Polaris Dance Theatre.

Robert Guitron, M’Liss Quinnly, Gerard Regot, (Spain), Barbara Lima (Brazil), and Jess Zoller.
Polaris Dance Theatre
April 21-29
Polaris Dance Theatre, 1826 NW 18th Ave
Polaris Dance Theatre presents new dance works from choreographers Barbara Lima from Brazil, Spanish dance artists and current company member Gerard Regot, founding company member M’Liss Quinnly and artistic director of Polaris’s Junior and Neo companies, current company member Jessica Zoller, as well as two new works by artistic director Robert Guitron.

The works consider ideas of community, individualism against universalism, and politics, playing with energy, group dynamics and the architecture of the body and bodies.

Butoh dancer Mari Osanai. Photo courtesy of Mari Osanai.

Mari Osanai
Butoh College Performance Series
April 22
The Headwaters Theatre, 55 NW Farragut St
Influenced by Tai Chi, Western dance methods, and traditional folk dances of Japan, Butoh dance artist Mari Osanai, from Aomori, Japan, finds connections between the mind, gravity’s influence on the body, and the body’s connection to the earth, in her dance research and performance.

Annual School Performance
The School of Oregon Ballet Theatre
Choreography by George Balanchine, Nicolo Fonte, Alison Roper, and Anthony Jones
April 22-23
Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway
The annual showcase of The School of Oregon Ballet will feature Oregon Ballet School students and OBT2 dancers in works by George Balanchine, Oregon Ballet Theatre resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte, former OBT dancer Alison Roper, and school director, Anthony Jones.

Jazz Collaborations at New Expressive Works.

Jazz Collaborations
Dayna Stephens, Tom Sandahl, Okropong, and Shape Theory Project
Co-produced by New Expressive Works (N.E.W.) and Loose Wig Jazz
7:30 pm April 23
New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont St (in the WYSE Building)
A collaborative evening between jazz tenor saxophonists and composer Dayna Stephens, guitarist Tom Sandahl, and musicians from the Obo Addy Legacy Project alongside dancers Amanda Morse, Kelly Koltiska, Ivy Farrell, Jana Zahler and Ruth Nelson from the Shape Theory Project led by Ruth Nelson.

Che Malambo presented by White Bird/Photo by Diane Smithers

Che Malambo
Presented by White Bird
April 25-26
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway
Che Malambo is an all-male, Argentinian dance company that has adapted the dance style of the gaucho, or South American cowboy of the pampas, for the contemporary stage. Movements that were originally designed to emphasize agility, strength, and dexterity among the gauchos is now high-energy choreography featuring rhythmic footwork, drums, singing, and musical accompaniment.

Upcoming Performances

April 27-29, Jefferson Dancers Spring Concert, Hosted by the Jefferson Dancers
April 27-29, Contact Dance Film Festival, Presented by BodyVox and NW Film Center
April 29, Yuko Kaseki, Butoh College Performance Series
April 28-29, Appalachian Spring Break, Scotty Heron and Brendan Connelly, Presented by Performance Works NW / Linda Austin Dance
April 29, Yuko Kaseki (Berlin), Butoh College Performance Series
May 4-7, Direct Path To Detour, Taka Yamamoto, Produced by Portland Institute for Contemporary Art
May 5, Spring Dance Concert, The Reed College Dance Department
May 5, Alice Gosti showing and reception, Hosted by Performance Works NW/Linda Austin Dance
May 6, Place, Vitality Dance Collective
May 5-7, In Close Proximity, The Tempos Contemporary Circus
May 5-7, Chickens and Cheese Pizza, Inclusive Arts Vibe Annual Performance, Disability Arts and Culture Project
May 10, Critical Engagement Series with Lu Yim, hosted by Flock Dance Center/Tahni Holt
May 10, Martha Graham Dance Company, Presented by White Bird
May 13, Feria de Portland, hosted by Espacio Flamenco Portland and La Peña Flamenca de Portland
May 13, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Anjali School of Dance
May 16-21, An American in Paris, Presented by U.S. Bank Broadway in Portland
May 20-21, The Future is Female, Mixed Dance Company
May 26-28, N.E.W. Residency performance, Dora Gaskill, Jessica Kelley, Stephanie Schaaf, and Michael Galen
May 26, PDX Choreographers Showcase, PDX Dance Collective
May 26 – 27, Spring Concert – Tribute to the Ballet Russes, Featuring work by Michel Fokine, Tom Gold, George Balanchine, and Lane Hunter, The Portland Ballet
June 2-4, Interum Echos, PDX Contemporary Ballet
June 2-17, The Goblin King, A David Bowie and Labyrinth, Trip the Dark Dance Company
June 8-10, Summer Splendors, NW Dance Project
June 23-24, Risk/Reward Festival Of New Performance
June 27-July 2, Cabaret, Presented by U.S. Bank Broadway in Portland
July 15, Pretty Creatives Showing, NW Dance Project
August 24-September 6, Portland Dance Film Fest, Directed by Kailee McMurran, Tia Palomino, and Jess Evans

Blake Shell arrived in Portland about nine years ago. Her background included an M.F.A. in Photography from Savannah College of Art and Design and work as gallery curator/director at the University of Arizona. She soon became director of the Archer Gallery at Clark College (2009-2012) and then succeeded founding director Terri Hopkins at The Art Gym in 2013. She is now the new Executive Director at Disjecta (www.disjectaarts.org), one of the most adventurous art spaces in Portland.

This conversation occurred in April 12, on her second day at Disjecta.

You are the Executive Director. What do you see as your job, and what do you have other people doing?

I’ll be overseeing the team and all aspects of the organization. I’m really in a place of thinking about strategic moves forward, the growth of the organization and working with the board to increase fundraising that can increase programming support for artists and all the things I’ve been interested in—as well as just making sure that things are happening in a strong way. There’s a great staff here already.

“Oh Time Your Gilded Pages,” Disjecta, curated by curator-in-residence Michele Fiedler, artists Adriana Minoliti and Bobbi Woods/Photos by Mario Gallucci

The organization already has awesome programming. It already has things like the Curator-in-Residence program, which is really interesting—bringing a curator in to create an entire season of programs every year. We are currently in the sixth season of bringing in different curatorial voices from outside of the region to interact with artists and the arts community. The seventh season will start in the fall.

To bring programming here and to share information out to other areas about what’s happening here is a really important thing for any arts community, but particularly at this point in Portland’s history. Portland and Oregon artists are engaged in a national and international way.


‘A Maze’ goes the extra mile

Theatre Vertigo's latest show wants extra credit for illustrations, a concept album and more—but in the end, it's all about the story

In a maze, there are bound to be some dead ends. In fact, that’s what you sign up for. Whether there are just enough or too many is open to interpretation, but one thing’s for sure: in Theatre Vertigo’s production of Rob Handel’s A Maze, there are none too few.

“Creating the world of this play has been a gargantuan feat,” writes Nate Cohen in his Director’s Note. “Our team has composed over a dozen original songs, generated more than 50 pieces of visual and projection art, and written a computer algorithm that has generated over 1000 unique mazes.”

Did they? Because the presence of multimedia works within the play is significantly subtler than those metrics suggest.

“This play demands this level of creative output…”

Does it? An apter word might be “inspires.” This cast and crew may have decided to do a few extra laps of legwork, but their process hasn’t drastically changed the outcome. More on that later.

Kidnap victim Jessica (Kaia Maarja Hillier) leads a complex life in the dual realms of captivity and fantasy at the center of “A Maze”. Photo: James Krane

At the end of the day, the make-or-break elements of this play are story and acting— particularly between the two characters whose relationship is the most bizarre and fraught. Kaia Maarja Hillier plays Jessica, a kidnapped teen, and Nathan Dunkin plays her longtime captor. He’s using her as his muse in a Dungeons & Dragons-like role-playing game, which she obliges and guiltily enjoys. As she teeters on the cusp of sexual maturity and he grapples with the imminent consequences of his crime, holy Stockholm, does their situation get sticky. Their dynamic is riveting, really, and it forms the core of the story.