Portland theater: victimizing women

Well intentioned adaptations of Greek theater classics undermine the originals’ dramatic power

by MARIA CHOBAN

Once upon a time, a spoiled sorceress, the apple of her father’s eye, fell in lust with an equally self-absorbed foreigner. The beautiful brat paid no attention to her father — the king’s — warnings. The foreigner, on a quest to steal treasure from their kingdom, seduced her with the cunning of a Greek. The barbarian sorceress cast magic spells on the dragon guarding the treasure, allowing the cad to steal the Golden Fleece and flee. The besotted sorceress joined him, securing their escape by murdering her own brother. She sprinkled his fingers and toes into the ocean, slowing the pursuers to pick up the pieces to bury.

Fast forward ten years and two kids later. Now no longer a princess but a mistrusted stranger in a Greek land, Medea thinks Jason will worship her just as her father did. But the middle-aged status seeker, tired of the “skila’s” (bitch’s) shrill tirades, pulls off one more cunning trick. He convinces the king of Corinth to allow him to marry his beautiful young daughter. 

Anne Sorce as Medea: a family tragedy. Photo: John Rudoff/Polaris Images.

My Greek grandmother pauses. Kerchief tied around her head, kitchen apron, thick black grandma shoes. Ankle-less squat feet. We’re sitting on the back stairs of her house, her black olive eyes as crazy as Medea’s. She tortures me with anticipation.

That’s the Medea telling her story in my Greek grandmother’s crazy eyes. That’s the Medea Euripides brought to the playgoers in 431 b.c.

That’s the Medea you read about in the news, like Diane Downs who shot her own kids.

We hate her, we fear her, but we reverberate because she’s buried in each of us.

The Medea we got in Imago Theater’s recent production of Medea is NOT that frenzied vibrant living Greek murderess. Imago gave us static lines that thudded through the continual andante pace. I knew we were off to a bad start when the Nurse trudged in ritualistically. Euripides starts the play like a gunshot. The nurse in a tizzy, wringing her hands, worries that her mistress will do something really really awful SOON! Greeks don’t trudge. We wring our hands, fret and talk fast!

This Medea isn’t the only example of modern productions and adaptations sapping the originals’ artistic vitality in a misguided attempt to bring a modern feminist angle to ancient classics. Last year, Shaking the Tree Theatre used Edna O’Brien’s adaptation of Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis, which turns Iphigenia into a sacrificial victim by deleting lines where she admonishes her mother to suck it up, and that show Iphigenia as headstrong an outlier as is her father, Agamemnon.

I haven’t seen it, but I’m worried about what I’ve heard of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Medea adaptation (Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, continuing in the Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland through July 6) with playwright Luis Alfaro’s script telling an immigrant’s story.

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Oregon Symphony review: a ‘Persephone’ redeemed by puppetry

Non musical elements help flawed Stravinsky music drama succeed

by BRUCE BROWNE

Persephone lends itself wonderfully to interdisciplinary artistic collaboration. Called a “melodrama” by its composer, Igor Stravinsky, it is a ballet, with a tenor soloist, a choir, an orchestra and a grandiose mythological melodrama out of which visual effects can spring.

Persephone was the final production in the three-part SoundSights series mounted by the Oregon Symphony this year, the previous two being the Bartok opera Bluebeard’s Castle and Messiaen’s Turangalila (click titles for Oregon Arts Watch reviews).

Saturday evening’s supersensorium included fabulous optics, impeccable singing, a superb orchestra, solid acting and imaginative and colorful costumes and puppetry. For this gesamtkunstwerk, the best were engaged: Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony, Pauline Cheviler (Persephone the narrator), Anna Marra (Persephone the dancer) and the choirs (Portland State University Chamber Choir and Pacific Youth Choir). The visual concept was handed over to Oregon theatrical designer Michael Curry.

Michael Curry’s puppetry enhanced ‘Persephone.’

In choosing Curry to join Washington glass master Dale Chihuly and Portland media artist Rose Bond as the third SoundSights collaborator, the orchestra again nurtured the tremendous pool of talent in the Pacific Northwest.

Curry’s bold theatrical designs have been captivating audiences worldwide at Olympic events, in theaters, at the Metropolitan Opera and in Disney productions. He and his team toiled in their studio facility in Scappoose, Oregon to offer visual genius to the production.

It’s clear that the SoundSight initiative has drawn many new ears and eyes to the concerts, a generous portion of them younger, as we saw lots of children Saturday night, buzzing about upcoming sightings of flying goddesses, animated trees, a graceful deer and a Brobdingnagian, roseate King of Hades. Ghostly kites, tree human roots morphing into hairdos, and eerily human puppets were stunning, bringing the mythology to life.

And thank the Greek gods, because the non musical elements are absolutely essential to making Stravinsky’s Persephone relatable and digestible.

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A new way to ask “what if”

The Armory's latest play "Constellations" makes "the multiverse" more accessible by adding an age-old element, romance.

Marianne tries to chat up Roland, but he’s married.

Marianne tries to chat up Roland, and he’s available, but he’s not into her.

Marianne tries to chat up Roland, and he’s available, and he’s into her, and their relationship begins. What are the odds?

Nick Payne’s Constellations might be a heartwarming rom-com if it weren’t for the play’s extremely unusual setting—a series of parallel universes that contain potentially-infinite variations of the lovers’ story.

The “multiverse,” as it’s often called, is a trending theory of physics that proposes that the reality we’re living in is basically just one in a stack of non-identical, concurrently unfolding copies of reality, wherein different circumstances play out among the same participants. And musing about the multiverse seems to be hot right now. Science broaches the discussion with The Large Hadron Collider in Cern, created to seek the “god particle”; with Schroedinger’s ill-fated feline; and with Einstein’s theory of relativity. Science fiction (or as some scholars rightfully prefer to call it, “speculative fiction” or spec-fic) uses the theory to buoy its overarching “what-ifs”: What if the world were different than it is? What if the world is different than we think?

A sci-fi state of mind is emphasized—nay, maximized—by the set in this production. A giant raised grid of perfectly-spaced squares (think Tron, The Matrix, or even a honeycomb) curves artfully from backdrop to foreground, from ceiling to floor, waterfalling off the front edge of the stage. A few of its squares function as cubbyholes that offer up props (for instance, pairs of shoes) at appropriate moments, then reabsorb any matter the actors throw into them, like so many scrambled eggs materializing from nowhere in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Sound, too, is a crucial component. Each new scenario is cued by a sort of “whoosh, clank,” as if the cubbyholes of the grid are being invisibly realigned and locked into place, opening and closing pathways so new stimuli can enter the space.

Dana Greene and Silas Weir Mitchell in “Constelations”: many possibilities. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye

Standing against this epic gridscape symbolizing the universe’s unseen pattern and flow, Marianne and Roland look strikingly small. But gradually, magnetically, they draw us into their sympathies, and hurtle us toward a heartbreaking conclusion that we keep hoping they can somehow—maybe through a glitch in the matrix?—manage to avoid.

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The importance of being Earnestine

Artists Rep's all-woman cast of "Earnest" rides the currents of Oscar Wilde's arch comedy without rippling the gender waves

“A little sincerity is a dangerous thing,” the painted lettering at the edge of the stage in Artists Repertory Theatre’s spritzy new production of The Importance of Being Earnest reads, “and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

The quote gets to the heart of Oscar Wilde’s enduring appeal: his wit, his archness, his talent to titillate, his sly defiance of received morality and social conventions, his eager embrace of artificiality as the sane person’s antidote to the grinding boredom of the merely real. Earnest was a smash when it opened in London in 1895, and it also led indirectly to Wilde’s conviction for gross indecency (code words for “homosexual acts”) and two years of hard labor in Reading Gaol, a scandal that did much to assure his place in history and also largely ruined his life. In a 21st century culture far less cloistered than late Victorian England’s the play no longer really shocks, if it ever truly did. But it continues to be enormously popular for its brilliant structure and bubbling wit.

Woman power, from left: Rhodes, Alper, Muñoz, Berkshire. Photo: David Kinder

Or is our current culture less cloistered? In another dimension Artists Rep might’ve called this production, which features an all-female cast, The Importance of Being Earnestine. And in light of the Edward Albee estate’s recent case of the heebie-jeebies over Portland producer Michael Streeter’s proposal to cast a black actor, Damien Geter, as Nick in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (the estate denied production rights unless the role was recast with a white actor, which Streeter refused to do), an all-woman Earnest might seem fraught with cultural implications heavier than the play can bear. But Earnest isn’t Virginia, and Wilde isn’t the Albee estate, and the artistic culture, if not always the political one, has largely moved on from controversies that once seemed to matter very much. Although Algernon, Jack, Reverend Chasuble, both manservants, and every interpolation of the elusive Ernest are played at Artists Rep by women actors, the show doesn’t come off as Gender-bender Earnest or any other sort of a “statement” production. On the contrary, it’s very straightforward and traditional-feeling: Just do the play and let it bubble along, working its magic. Director Michael Mendelson hasn’t changed a word in the script, at least as far as I could tell, and he’s given the show a fluid buoyancy, an almost musical flow, that allows the play’s caprices to slide easily forward and carry the audience mostly happily with them.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Tap, flamenco, modern and Tom Gold on ballet

Choreographer Tom Gold talks about Twyla Tharp, ballet marketing and his work for The Portland Ballet

I recently sat down with choreographer and former New York City Ballet soloist Tom Gold to talk about his work Festival Russe for The Portland Ballet’s upcoming Spring show, which opens Friday.

The evening features four works representing the stylistic changes in classical ballet from 1909 to today. They are Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides; excerpts from George Balanchine’s Who Cares?, staged by John Clifford; Festival Russe by Gold; and Abandon All Plans, a commissioned world premiere by former BodyVox dancer Lane Hunter.

Gold and I discuss everything from his choreographic process, to working with renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp, to politics in the ballet world. That conversation unfolds below.

But first, in other Portland dance news…

Dancing In The Rain!, a multigenerational performance directed by Harriet Cuttler in collaboration with the Hollywood Senior Center’s Funky Grooves dance class, uses movement to engage in ideas of release, resilience, and resistance in the body over time, opens Friday.

Also opening Friday is the New Expressive Work’s residency performance, a program that takes place twice yearly, showcasing the work of four new choreographers each time, directed by Subashini Ganesan. This round will feature choreographers Dora Gaskill, Jessica Kelley, Stephanie Schaaf and Michael Galen.

The N.E.W. residency is an invaluable component to our community and the support of dance making. I wrote about it extensively in December 2016, and you can read all about it here.

PDX Dance Collective, a revolving collective of dance artists ongoing since 2009, presents an evening of dance works by six of its company members alongside six guest artists from Portland’s larger dance community. The artists showing work will be: April MacKay, Hannah Downs, Ismael Soñanes, Katelyn Kollinzas, Rachael Singer, Zahra Garrett , Alicia Cutaia, Amelia Unsicker, Dar Vejon Jones, Kya Bliss, Olivia Camfield and Vitality Dance Collective.

The Portland Tap Dance Festival, founded in 2015 by Pamela Allen, Erin Lee, and Kelsey Leonard, will feature classes and a performance by faculty members and leading names in tap from Portland and beyond. The faculty—Dianne “Lady Di” Walker, Brenda Bufalino, Ted Louis Levy, Terry Brock, Derick Grant, Joseph Webb, Sarah Reich, Karida Griffith, Jessie Sawyers, Danny Nielsen, and Charles Renato—will be accompanied by the Josh Rawling Trio and Farnell Newton.

And lastly, Espacio Flamenco Portland and La Peña Flamenca de Portland finish out their season with La Peña: ¡Baila, Canta, Toca!, features dancing from Portland flamenco dancer Brenna McDonald with guest guitarist Jed Miley (Seattle), piquant cantaor Pepe Raphael, and Espacio Flamenco Portland’s Christina Lorentz, Lillie Last, and Nick Hutcheson.

It’s going to be a marvelous weekend. Enjoy!

Performances this week

Dancing In The Rain!
Hosted by Portland State University Art and Social Practice
6:30 pm May 26
Hollywood Senior Center, 1820 NE 40th Ave.

6×6: A PDX Choreographers Showcase hosted by PDX Dance Collective, May 26-28. Photo of Vitality Dance Collective, courtesy of PDX Dance Collective.

6×6: A PDX Choreographers Showcase
PDX Dance Collective
May 26-28
The Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St.
An evening of dance works by April MacKay, Hannah Downs, Ismael Soñanes, Katelyn Kollinzas, Rachael Singer, Zahra Garrett, Alicia Cutaia, Amelia Unsicker, Dar Vejon Jones, Kya Bliss, Olivia Camfield and Vitality Dance Collective.

Who Cares?
Spring Concert – Tribute to the Ballets Russes
The Portland Ballet
Featuring work by Michel Fokine, George Balanchine, Tom Gold, and Lane Hunter
May 26-27
Portland State University, Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave.

Untitled Work in Progress by Jessica Kelley, performed by Suniti Dernovsek and Noelle Stiles. N.E.W. Residency performance, May 26-28. Photo courtesy of N.E.W.

N.E.W. Residency performance
Dora Gaskill, Jessica Kelley, Stephanie Schaaf, and Michael Galen
Directed by Subashini Ganesan
Fieldwork sessions facilitated by Katherine Longstreth
May 26-28
New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont St.

Portland Tap Dance Festival
Presented by the Portland Tap Alliance
Faculty Performance
8 pm May 28
Lewis & Clark-Evans Music Hall Auditorium, 0615 SW Palatine Hill Rd.

La Peña: ¡Baila, Canta, Toca!, 8 pm May 27. Photo of Nela McGuire, courtesy of La Peña Flamenca de Portland.

La Peña: ¡Baila, Canta, Toca!
Hosted by Espacio Flamenco Portland and La Peña Flamenca de Portland
8 pm May 27
Artichoke Music, 3130 SE Hawthorne Blvd.

Interview with Tom Gold

My conversation with Tom Gold began with learning about his connection to Portland, which began in 1999 when then-Oregon Ballet Theatre artistic director James Canfield invited him to guest in “Romeo and Juliet.” When Christopher Stowell took over the company Gold was invited back to create a piece on the second company and stage a Twyla Tharp work. This is when he met Anne Mueller, who now directs The Portland Ballet alongside co-founder Nancy Davis.

I was immediately curious about what his experience had been like working with Twyla Tharp. Gold said that he danced with Tharp when he had free time from New York City Ballet. “Mostly I just liked to go into the studio with her and have her make new material on me cause that was fun.”

What was that like?

Crazy, insane. Really exciting because it’s more cerebral than actual pleasure. I don’t know if that’s the right word. Basically, you’ll go into the studio and she won’t speak and she’ll just start moving and go…( Tom is wildly gesticulating at different body parts) like mime, look at my feet, look at my head, no, you’re not doing it right. And then she’ll be like, “What did you think of that” after three hours of no speaking. And you’re like, “Yeah, I like this, and I like that.” And she’s like, “Come back tomorrow.” And she just starts creating these pieces.

I always had a good relationship with her because I think she’s really funny, she’s really smart. [ ]… She’s a very demanding person and not always the easiest to work for. But I always just enjoyed the work, and pleasure, and never got caught up in the other stuff. And also it wasn’t my primary job, so I wasn’t depending on her for my main salary. So I think that took a little of the pressure off.

Twyla has always loved classical ballet. That’s always been her interest, her love, her passion. Her first company, which was very contemporary, ballet was the basis for what became the Twyla Tharp movement. Where she took all of that movement and started putting it all on pointe and adding more ballet vocabulary within it. She was building ballet pieces on us for other companies or for her to sell or for her group, because we went on tour a couple of times. Whenever she needed bodies to create on, I was always available. It was really fun, we had a great time.

Could you tell me about your new work for Portland Ballet?

This piece, “Festival Russe,” was created originally for Ballet Academy East in New York. They had a program called “To Russia With Love,” and all the pieces had to have a Russian theme.

My process is that I usually start with the music, so I basically Googled Russian composers and all of this glorious classical Russian music came up and that inspired me to make a piece as an homage to the original Ballets Russes with my own contemporary movement in it. So each movement is kind of reminiscent of some old classical warhorse ballet that you’ll see but with more syncopation and some jazzier movements and some kind of modern ballet steps in there.

What is your ballet-making process?

Usually I look at who I have in front of me, and I try and create a piece for them because in the end they are going to be up there on the stage and they have to be comfortable but it also has to be something that the audience is going to connect with and engage them. First and foremost, what we do is entertainment, and if you are not entertaining an audience, whether that’s making them laugh or cry, I think your mission is kind of gone. So, I take all of this into consideration and then my voice is in there, too, the kind of movement I like, the kind of dancing I like, the kind of dancers I like to see do it, so it’s those three components come together. So when I go into the studio, I have an idea of what I want to see, but I never really know until I start working with the dancers to see what they are capable of and what they can do.

What is classical ballet? Why do ballet companies differentiate between contemporary work and classical work?

In the end it’s a gimmick, it’s a selling point really. It’s all classical ballet. Whether you are moving to contemporary music or you’re doing more contemporary movements on point, it’s still classical ballet vocabulary and steps. I think it does make it easier when someone is sorting through a program—“oh, this is going to be classical, Swan Lake, “oh this is going to be contemporary Billy Forsythe”—to help you if you maybe don’t know a lot about dance and what your particular taste is or what you might be geared towards. You could say classical is more narrative and contemporary is more abstract, but that doesn’t really hold up either. It’s just ballet in the end, it really is. We’re all doing the same steps, we are all speaking the same languages. And that’s why ballet dancers can do all of these different styles because there is that basis of language and vocabulary to work from.

Ballet companies are trying to perform a broad range of styles which includes ideas from modern dance, but the dancers don’t train in modern dance, and it makes the pieces look less authentic to me. What do you think about this?

That’s a very good question. At City Ballet I think I worked with every contemporary modern choreographer because modern and contemporary choreographers are drawn to ballet: one, because you can make more money working with these companies because there’s more money in classical ballet, but two, the technique is so strong and different. It’s not that I want to downplay modern or contemporary dance because they have such beautiful movement qualities, but with ballet you get those shapes as well, the pointed toes, the articulation of the legs. Where I do see a difference—and it’s not all modern, because Cunningham wasn’t like this,—but a large part of modern contemporary is more about the movement and feeling, and they’re not so concerned with what your feet look like or what your arms are doing. It’s really about expressing a feeling along with the movement.

I do think a big important thing is the choreographer themselves. When they come into the room, they need to show the dancer the style that they are working in. A lot of times it can be very intimidating going to these ballet companies, if you are a contemporary modern choreographer, and just bring something you would do for your company and put it on a ballet company. And I think that’s kind of wrong, too, because what does it have to do with ballet? Where is your voice in this experience? The process should be about you doing something new, and the dancers doing something new. Instead of going “I’m just going to slap this onto you.”

That happened a lot at City Ballet. These modern choreographers would makes pieces and just set them on us. And then there’s this whole part that’s missing where you don’t even get to really experience what it’s like working with that choreographer or them making something in their style and taking your style into consideration, too. I am always aware of that when I’m working with people because that’s why I want it to be about them and express who they are as well as expressing my voice.

Yeah, I do think that’s what missing a lot of times. It’s exciting to get a Forsythe, or a Martha Graham or a Cunningham or some of these great things, but if there’s not someone there to work with the dancers to make it look the way it should, then it’s kind of a wasted experience. And I think the audience goes, “Well, I think this kind of looks fraudulent, it doesn’t feel authentic to me.” I mean, they get that.

The dancers are so hungry they want to work with these legends and these people, and then when they miss out, it’s kind of like they go, “Then why am I doing this?” And then their energy is bad and then you see that on the stage because their not really committing the way they should. It’s like a circle.

How do you feel about the ideas in the classical ballets that are no longer accepted in society?

That’s why people like Matthew Bourne are making an all-male “Swan Lake” or they’re taking contemporary themes and incorporating them into these old standard warhorse ballets—because we do live in a different time. And you know women are empowered, they’re not swans, they’re not sylphs anymore; they have a voice and we need to express what’s happening in the world, on the stage as well.

What are your thoughts on the lack of women choreographers in Ballet?

It’s true; there really are no female ballet choreographers. I think they do need to encourage more. But, also, if you look at a woman who is going to become a ballerina, she focuses on that 100 perfect. She’s not thinking, Oh I’ve got 5 minutes; I’m going to go choreograph something. Until that kind of mentality changes…

I would say 90 percent of the women that work in ballet world are coming from the modern contemporary field. Like Twyla, Pam Tanowitz, Molissa Fenley, Aszure Barton, Crystal Pite, she’s the big one, they are all coming from the contemporary field because they don’t have that “I’m a ballerina and this is what I do.” You know?

I don’t know why that is, I don’t know why these companies aren’t pushing them more or trying to find those voices because it is a strong voice and it is nice to see that side. Because women have different perspectives and different views, it should be out there. I think about this a lot because people ask it all the time about the whole sexism (in dance) thing. […] It’s all about marketing, and money and business. Nobody’s thinking, I want to encourage and nurture this. That’s kind of the last thing. How are we going to make the most money. What can we exploit and market. You know, it’s frustrating. It’s about the art, but without the money you can’t have the art.

How did you become a choreographer?

I was fortunate enough to go to a high school for the performing arts [in Chicago]. There were classes in dance composition. I was very fortunate to have that kind of experience— dance history, dance theory, dance composition—where I was able to explore at a very early age, improvisation, different styles of movement. Having that freedom without having a mass critical audience coming at you. And then I came to New York, I put that on the back burner because I wanted to focus on my dancing. And then I started picking it up again because it was a strong voice in my head. I would see things, I would hear music and I would have a response, and I thought, “I want to express this through music.”

So in 1998-99, I would start to make small pieces, and that grew into more experiences and people started to hear about it and I got little opportunities here and there. And then when I left NYCB[..] I thought, just make your own company then you can make the work you want and you can work with the kind of dancers you want and have the environment you want. It’s very nurturing and loving and wonderful and serious.

I’ve been really lucky. People have given me great opportunities. I’ve choreographed some operas, some theater, some television. I do love having all of these vehicles to do choreography in. I think it makes me a more well-rounded choreographer. Especially working with people who are not trained dancers, because you have to think in a different way about how they move, and that’s really interesting to me.

Performances next week

June 1, Jefferson Dancers Spring Recital, Jefferson Dancers
June 2-4, Interum Echos, PDX Contemporary Ballet
June 2-17, The Goblin King, A David Bowie and Labyrinth Tribute, Trip the Dark Dance Company

Upcoming Performances

June
June 8-10, Summer Splendors, NW Dance Project
June 9, Kúkátónón 2017 Showcase!, Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe
June 9-11, Jazz Around the World, Presented by Wild Rumpus Jazz Co
June 10-11, Dance Out Loud Choreographers Showcase, Directed by Oluyinka Akinjiola and Donna Mation
June 14-15, SHUT DOWN: The Final Performance from PSU Dance Students
June 23-24, Risk/Reward Festival Of New Performance, Produced by Jerry Tischleder
June 27-July 2, Cabaret, Presented by U.S. Bank Broadway in Portland
June 29-30, Choreography XX, Oregon Ballet Theatre
July
July 8, Ten Tiny Dances, Beaverton Farmers Market, Directed by Mike Barber
July 14-16, Apparatus, by Danielle Ross
July 15, Pretty Creatives Showing, NW Dance Project
July 29, Hafla, Portland Bellydance Guild
August
August 3-5, Galaxy Dance Festival, Hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre
August 11-13, JamBallah Northwest ’17, Hosted by JamBallah NW
August 24-September 6, Portland Dance Film Fest, Directed by Kailee McMurran, Tia Palomino, and Jess Evans
August 24-October 8, Kurios: Cabinet Of Curiosities, Cirque Du Soleil

45th Parallel, Bach Cantata Choir reviews: new music, old strings; old music, new strings

A pair of Portland concerts present new music on ancient instruments, and vice versa

by TERRY ROSS

The players of 45th Parallel don’t recognize musical boundaries. They’re as likely to play Beethoven or Mozart as they are to tackle music written yesterday.

On May 12th in the cozy confines of Portland’s Grace Memorial Church, an excellent venue for chamber music, they borrowed a leaf from the Portland Baroque Orchestra’s playbook and presented a string quartet concert using old-fashioned strings: Quartets with Guts. Two of the players — violist Adam LaMotte and cellist Joanna Blendulf — are regular members of the PBO, and therefore well used to gut, rather than steel, strings. The two violinists — 45th Parallel leader Greg Ewer (a onetime PBO player) and Sam Park — play with the Oregon Symphony on modern steel strings.

45th Parallel played Haydn, Beethoven and Bunch on period instruments. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Of the three pieces on the program, two lend themselves naturally and historically to being played on period instruments, because they would have been played on such instruments when they were conceived of and written. Josef Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 76, No. 5, a mature work written in 1797 by this 18th-century inventor (or at least popularizer) of the string quartet, was an excellent opener, with just the right amount of heft in the three fast movements. The 45th Parallel quartet presented the lovely second-movement Largo with extremely delicate and apposite playing, suitably cantabile e meso (“singing and melancholy”).

The other “old” piece, which ended the program, was Beethoven’s familiar, very early String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 1 from 1800, in which the young man, with his mentor Haydn still active as a composer, began to push the relatively new form of the string quartet in unexplored directions. The 45th Parallel players demonstrated the advantage of gut strings in the second-movement Adagio affettuoso ed passionato with a very smooth and warm beginning, sans vibrato, and all the more lovely for it.

Between these two classics came the world premiere of a new piece by 45th Parallel composer-in-residence Kenji Bunch, a violist and composer much honored in Portland, his native city. Apocryphal Dances is an apt title for this five-movement suite in an “old” style, which is to say each of the movements, two to three minutes long, is presented with a baroque title and structure. Both the first two (Entrée Grave and Rigaudon), in the same key, end with a pizzicato pluck from all four instruments. The third-movement Pasacaille sports a wonderful glissando upwards. The Musette that follows emulates its title by evoking a bagpipe-like drone, and the closing Tambourin obliges with Mr. LaMotte tapping on the back of his viola as if it were a drum. Although Mr. Bunch has referred to his piece as a “love letter to the 18th and 19th centuries,” the amour resides mainly in the forms. The musical harmonic language, tonal throughout, is thoroughly modern. Apocryphal Dances is a small (12 minutes) but potent addition to a very impressive oeuvre.

Who knows? Perhaps someday composers will write for instruments with gut strings because they like the comparatively mellow sound, not because they want to imitate Baroque or early Romantic music. If they do, they may help change or at least modify the current taste for fat, heavy, and wide vibrato on steel strings that to some listeners mars the beauty of so much contemporary playing. Players use vibrato on modern strings because it warms the tone and because they can; vibrato is far less noticeable on already-warm gut strings.

Gutless Bach

With his 48th Bach Cantata Choir concert, Artistic Director Ralph Nelson has now performed 66 of the master’s cantatas since 2006; he aims to do all 200 of them over a 30-year period. He is hardly alone in this quest. John Eliot Gardiner performed and recorded — on 56 CDs! — all of the extant cantatas (of some 500 that Bach wrote) in 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. Other “superstars” have accomplished the same feat over a longer period, and uncounted less-known choir directors worldwide have set themselves the same task. John Eliot Gardiner, Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and others have recorded the “cycle” using period instruments; others, like Helmuth Rilling, have done the deed on modern instruments. Nelson falls into this latter category.

In a Mother’s Day Concert on May 14 at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, Mr. Nelson and his Bach Cantata Choir saved the familiar Cantata No. 4 Christ lag in Todesbanden (“Christ Lay in Death’s Bonds”) for last and opened their program with a fistful of non-Bach selections, none frequently programmed. A short cantata by Bach’s contemporary Georg Philipp Telemann, Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (“Praise the Lord, All Nations”), got the choir, chamber orchestra (eight strings plus organ), and audience warmed up. A little Sonata for Flute and Continuo  in D Minor by King Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786), an avid amateur flutist and composer, was ably played by flutist Abby Mages and cellist David Tolliver, with Mr. Nelson on piano.

Bach Cantata Choir

The rarity of the program came next, the Magnificat in G Major by the Italian Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704), one of the most productive female composers of her time. This eleven-minute piece featured vocal soloists Arwen Myers, soprano, Laura Beckel Thoreson, alto, Brian Tierney, tenor, and Jacob Herbert, bass, plus orchestra and choir, all conducted in a very lively fashion by Bach Cantata Choir assistant conductor Emma Mildred Riggle. The lady soloists were, as these two always are, extremely good, and Mr. Tierney seemed to enjoy his lovely duet with Ms. Thoreson. The piece ended with a brisk choral fugue ending on the word “alleluia,” which also ended every other piece on this Easter-tide program, including all of the movements of Bach’s piece.

Bach’s Cantata No. 4, written when the composer was just 22 years old for an Easter Sunday service, is based on a hymn by Martin Luther that animates the entire piece, which runs about 23 minutes. Luther’s seven stanzas take the form of seven movements for chorus and soloists. After a very brief (one-minute) opening orchestral sinfonia, the choir launched into the best music of the cantata, an elaborate five-minute contrapuntal chorus setting of the first verse of the hymn. The choir’s sopranos and altos then sang the serene music of the grim second verse (all about death’s hold over us before the arrival of the Savior) by way of introducing the short tenor aria, nicely sung by Mr. Tierney, in which Jesus Christ comes. Another chorus follows in which the miracle of the Resurrection is celebrated, which leads to a bass solo by Mr. Herbert, all about blood and “burning love,” which would have been more effective if the singer had the requisite basso low notes. Choir soprano Nan Haemer and Mr. Tierney gave us the seventh of Luther’s verses (“Thus we celebrate the high feast”), and then it was time for Luther’s hymn as chorale, sung first by the choir and then again with the audience joining in, as is customary with Cantata Choir concerts, emulating the participation of the congregation in Bach’s time.

Two African-American spirituals framed the concert, stylistically out of place but both on message (“I Hear the Harps Eternal” and “Saints Bound for Heaven”) and both arranged by the prolific Alice Parker, still working at age 92.

This was a free concert, as are all five of the shows in each of the Cantata Choir’s seasons, with the exception of their annual Christmas Oratorio concert. All featured cantatas are performed on dates connected to the Lutheran church calendar for which they were originally written. So this concert was another labor of love and worship through music — the 65 members of the choir, except for four section leaders, pay annual dues of $150 per person. These funds and foundation and individual donations pay for the instrumentalists and soloists, and Mr. Nelson is to be commended for furnishing Portland with a healthy annual dose of this splendid music, whatever kind of strings his players use.

Recommended recordings

• Haydn
Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 76 Nos. 1-6 (complete), Takács Quartet (Decca 4756213), 2004.

• Bunch
Bunch, K.: String Circle / Drift / 26.1 / Luminaria / Boiling Point, Alias Chamber Ensemble (Delos DE3430), 2012.

• Beethoven
Beethoven: The Early String Quartets, Budapest String Quartet (Bridge BRIDGE9342A/B), 1943-1962.

• Telemann
YouTube: Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden.

• Frederick the Great
YouTube: Frederick the Great, Flute Sonata in D Minor Presto.

• Leonarda
Isabella Leonarda: Vespro a cappella della Beata Vergine, Nova Ars Cantandi, Giovanni Acciai conducting (Tactus TC623702), 2012.

• Bach
English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner conducting (Apex 749754), 2006.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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‘Oregonophony’ review: turning place into sound

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble concerts feature original music incorporating recorded sounds of Oregon -- but not necessarily the sounds you’d expect

By  CHRISTINA RUSNAK

What does Oregon sound like? For its spring 2017 concert, the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE) sought proposals from Oregon composers for music that would incorporate recorded sounds from Oregon. The music selected for Oregonophony evolved from the diverse auditory inspirations of two experienced professionals and three emerging jazz composers.

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble performed ‘Oregonophony’ in Salem and Portland. Photo: Lynn Darroch.

Assimilating sounds of Oregon into the five musical pieces underscored the presence and importance of external sounds as part of our contemporary musical palette and of our lives. For me, this concert also reflected in music the way Oregon is changing.

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