Risk/Reward Festival review: value proposition

Annual showcase takes audiences on the journey from artistic concept to realization

Here’s the deal with Portland’s annual Risk/Reward Festival. Artists take a risk by trying something new, often a segment of a work in progress, in a forum where audiences expect various levels of development. Audiences take a risk on new, unvetted work. The reward for the artists: audience feedback, a deadline to get work going, some ideas about how to proceed. For audiences: the thrill of seeing new, sometimes experimental work aborning — and this year, at whatever price they want to pay. More than ever, that deal is a real bargain.

Now in its 10th year, this year’s festival risked one filmed and five staged contributions, and produced as many different outcomes: a concept that seemed promising but the execution shaky, or simply incomplete; another that felt conceptually underdeveloped; another that seemed overextended — and one glorious creation that brought together a powerful concept with an exceptionally moving performance.

Linda Austin Dance’s ‘A world, a world.’ Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

You could spot the driving concept for Linda Austin’s A world, a world on the floor, in the music, even on the dancers’ bodies: collage. Both costumes and floor design resembled a scattering of fragments, and the dancers “produce a constant low-level, barely or sporadically decipherable humming, mumbling, and singing of a textual collage from news headlines, songs & poetry, periodically going to headphones mounted on a movable step unit, to receive and channel sound bites referencing the worlds of politics, pop culture, ‘high’ culture, science and philosophy, riffing on these sound bites until they need another ‘hit.’” Austin’s program note explains. What showed up on stage was strolling dancers forming then abandoning various groupings and formations, gestures falling in and out of group coordination, while chanting random snippets of songs and other pop culture ephemera that elicited occasional chuckles of recognition.


Ambrose Akinmusire review: embracing risk

Acclaimed young trumpeter’s artistic fearlessness sets an example that transcends music


In a solo introduction to a piece he played at his quartet’s June 17 show at Portland’s Mission Theatre, Ambrose Akinmusire began in the lowest register on the trumpet. His sound on those notes is warm, breathy, even fuzzy, but he manages to leap up to brilliant high notes and back down easily. He was doing this, stringing together flurries of notes, and then finished the phrase with a long sweep into a high note, but instead of the note he intended to hit, the sound just stopped.

Akinmusire took a deep breath and restarted the phrase, starting on the high note I assume he meant to play, winding his way back down to the bottom of the horn, sticking the dismount like Simone Biles.

There’s nothing remarkable about that on its own—all musicians make mistakes all the time. In a PDX Jazz concert where this trumpeter played thousands of notes, at nearly every pitch, volume and timbre possible on the instrument, this moment was an outlier in an otherwise brilliant performance, but it revealed much about Akinmusire. The way he handled it made it sound like he’d dealt with that situation many times before. And that moment told me that this artist has embraced risk. He runs towards the difficulty, rather than avoiding it. That he made so few mistakes like that while attempting some of the most challenging things you can do on the instrument is a testament to how good he actually is.

Ambrose Akinmusire performed at Portland’s Mission Theater.

When a young musician has been praised as much as Akinmusire, you can be forgiven for wanting to hear if he deserves it. This concert showed that he’s earned all of it, and provided a powerful example of how a jazz musician can make meaningful music amidst the forces that constantly rip our culture apart and put it back together. Those fissures don’t heal themselves—it takes artists of uncommon vision to mend them, and Akinmusire achieves that by inviting risk into his music as a fundamental building block of his musical worldview.


Islamabad, on common ground

From Pakistan to Portland, an international project brings an insightful slice of life to Artists Rep's stage

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in an upstairs rehearsal hall at Artists Repertory Theatre, a sitarist and a tabla player were sitting in a far corner, practicing a song that sounded strangely familiar, if not usually from that particular instrumentation. The sitarist, Wajih Ull Hussnain Hamid, motioned to a young singer in a hijab, Razia Abrar, who began to slice the air with a crystalline, mournful tone. “Halleluja,” she sang, to Irfan Masih’s circling tabla rhythm and Hamid’s version of Leonard Cohen’s secret chord. “Halleluja.”

In most ways it was just another familiar scene from another familiar rehearsal hall: people milling about a floor spattered with tape marks, slowly taking their places after break, grabbing quick conversations along the way. This one, though, was a little different considering the who and the where: The performers were from Theatre Wallay, in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, and they were rehearsing a play created specifically for American audiences, On Common Ground. Considering that they had landed in Portland 37 hours earlier after a 36-hour flight, and then rehearsed for several hours on Saturday, the performers seemed surprisingly fresh – even, sometimes, chipper. “Thank goodness they’re young,” Linda Alper said with a wry laugh.

The cast of Theatre Wallay’s “On Common Ground,” rehearsing at Artists Rep on Sunday afternoon. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

Alper, an Artists Rep veteran and company member, is one of a team of American theater artists who traveled (three times, in her case) to Islamabad to work with Theatre Wallay on creating a show to bring to the United States. On Common Ground will perform twice at Artists Rep – a sold-out show tonight, Monday, and again on Wednesday, June 28. (That show is sold out, too, but a first-come first-served waiting list will give you a chance.) Then it moves on to Ashland for Green Show performances June 30 and July 2 and 4. In the fall Theatre Wallay will present a workshop at Ithaca College, one of the co-sponsors, in Upstate New York, and finally do a tour and workshops back home in Pakistan.


PAMTAs: a night for song & dance

On the hottest night of the year, Portland's musical-theater crowd puts on a sizzling show of its own. Topping the list: a beauty and a beast

On the hottest night of the year (so far) on Sunday, the Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards set off a little steam heat of their own in the Winningstad Theatre, where the dapper and funny Darius Pierce hosted the 10th annual awards ceremony.

Beauty and the Beast took home the hardware for best production, 1776 for best ensemble, and The Tail of Sleeping Beauty for outstanding original musical. The second big theater awards ceremony, the 39th annual Drammys, follows on Monday night in Smith Memorial Center at Portland State University.

Emcee Darius Pierce running the show. Photo: David Kinder

Here’s a full list of this season’s PAMTA nominees. The list of winners, supplied by PAMTA producer Corey Brunish:


Chamber Music Northwest preview: women’s work

Portland's annual summer classical music festival throws the spotlight on female composers past and present


Since 1971, Chamber Music Northwest has brought world-class musicians and a deep (mostly) classical repertoire to Portland’s summer-hungry listeners. This year marks the first that women composers take center stage during the five-week festival from June 26 through July 30.

It’s about time. About a quarter of the programing, including lectures, rehearsals and concerts, is devoted to women composers.

There is “a fairly equal number of men and women composing great music today,” said longtime CMNW artistic director David Shifrin. Over the years, CMNW has occasionally presented pieces by leading female composers including Chen Yi, Joan Tower, Ellen Zwilich, Valerie Coleman and Portland State University’s Bonnie Miksch. But this season, artists will play works by more than a handful of women.

Composer Kati Agócs.

Women composers from the 12th century (Hildegard von Bingen) through today headline concerts and lectures. This summer’s program includes 19th and early 20th century music by Clara Schumann, Fannie Mendelssohn and Amy Beach, while Hannah Lash, Tower, Zwilich, Coleman, Gabriella Smith, Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Caroline Shaw, Portland’s own Bonnie Miksch, Gabriela Lena Frank and Kati Agócs fill out the contemporary roster. Some will speak on a 2 p.m. panel July 15 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium where they’ll discuss their works and the challenges involved in gaining attention and respect in today’s music world.

“It will take another generation or two before we establish something analogous to literary women’s canon in music composition,” Agócs emailed from Boston where she lives and teaches composition at New England Conservatory of Music. “There are many fierce women working now, but it will be a long road. Commissioning new works and mentoring young women are ways to bring about a female canon in music.”


Portland Mini Musical festival: a hoot amid the heat

Debut production of six short musicals adds a valuable new institution to Portland's theatrical landscape

Yes, it’s sizzling, bare skinned bike riders abound, and even for those who dare to venture outside, Oregon’s summer natural beauty beckons. Yet if you’re seeking (mostly) comic relief from the heat, the ongoing catastrophe in the nation’s capital, or the usual early summer theater doldrums, consider a visit to a warmish, air conditioned southeast Portland theatre for the debut Portland Mini Musical Festival. Despite minimal publicity, Thursday’s opening show sold out; the final performances run this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Milagro Theater. It’s an unqualified success — the theatrical equivalent of a fun summer beach read.

Although this is the festival’s first year, the producing company, Live On Stage, earlier presented, as part of Fertile Ground Festival, 4X4=8 Musicals in 2012 at CoHo Theater and 2013 at Brunish Hall, each featuring original 10-minute musicals presented on a 4′ by 4′ stage. The company has also produced full length musicals Falsettos, Rocky Horror Show, and Spring Awakening in Portland’s World Trade Center.

PMMF uses only Portland writers, composers, directors, actors and designers, ranging from veterans like Jessica Wallenfels, Eric Nordin and Margie Boule to less-familiar names. Some of the 17 performers appear in more than one of the six segments, which average about 15 minutes each. The length and musical forces (Nordin and veteran Oregon classical cellist Dale Tolliver, who played splendidly throughout) were the only specified constraints. Each segment differed dramatically in theme, tone (although most displayed knowing humor), and subject. One constant pervaded though: a surprisingly high quality of performance and writing that made this one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences of the year so far.

Thompson, Freitas and Castillo in ’11th & Couch.’

Despite a signature song that urges happiness through lowering the bar of expectations, Marianna Thielen’s opening 11th and Couch set a vertiginously high standard for the rest of the show. Anyone who’s spent any time around a college campus will recognize the trio of signature gatherers for worthy causes, smartly played here by Michel Castillo, Madison Thompson and Matthew Freitas, who also displayed outstanding vocal chops. The audiences guffawed at the witty lyrics by Reece Marshburn and Thielen, and the vignette managed to distinguish each character’s underlying motivations. Fast paced and funny, it got the show off to scintillating start.

Gus, the Lonely Polar Bear’s music essentially consisted of variations on a song by Titaya Sinutoke and Naomi Matlow. “I’m a boring polar bear,” sings Joel Walker as he swims (actually rollerblades) back and forth in his zoo pool, before finding connection with Naomi Matlow’s new zookeeper. Walker’s sweetly lovelorn performance had the audience ready to treat him to peanut butter covered ice cubes.

With its (sometimes literal) skewering of classical music, conductor (played perfectly by Joey Cote) egotism and gratuitous John Cage reference, the longest piece, Third Chair, will especially entertain anyone (like me) who’s spent anytime around a string quartet or orchestra. Essentially a silly shaggy dog story concocted by Brett Vail, Kurt Misar and Brad Beaver, it benefited from the terrific acting and singing that graced the entire show, especially the first half. The deftly comic facial and body language displayed by the miming string quartet (Leah Yorkston, Adam Davis, Doug Zimmerman, Joan Freed) alone could have carried the show. I’d love to see it reprised at Chamber Music Northwest someday.


A chat with the pianist of Willesden Lane

In a break from her busy career and performances at Portland Center Stage, Mona Golabek tells the tale of her mother's extraordinary tale


Anyone who loves music, fine acting, or just a good story, must be sure to see The Pianist of Willesden Lane, running through June 29 at Portland Center Stage. People who saw it a year ago are coming back to get another dose of heroism set to Grieg, Chopin, and Rachmaninov, in a one-woman show expertly played and acted by Mona Golabek.

I had recently read Golabek’s book and I was eager to interview her for Oregon Arts Watch. Her book, The Children of Willesden Lane, tells the story of her mother, Lisa Jura, who, as a 14 year-old, escaped the terrors of Nazism and managed to develop her musical career despite incredible obstacles. Children like Lisa fled Hitler on the Kindertransport — trains that carried Jewish children from Germany and Austria to safety in England. The English, especially the Quakers, were very kind to the children, but were suffering their own deprivations and could not offer them much beyond subsistence. Lisa Jura’s story and her daughter’s portrayal of it provide inspiration in an otherwise gloomy time.

Mona Golabek in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

I caught Golabek at a momentary lull in her busy schedule. I turned on the speaker- phone and propped up my digital recorder, acknowledging that we’d be fine as long as my cat didn’t knock them over. (I knew she had a soft spot for animals.)