Francesco Lecce-Chong: at home in Oregon

Eugene Symphony's new music director, who conducts the orchestra's season-opening concert this week, begins by engaging with his new community

Not every orchestra music director lives in the city where they conduct. Most have multiple gigs and spend much of their time on airplanes and in hotel rooms. But newly appointed Eugene Symphony music director Francesco Lecce-Chong decided to move to Eugene — during July’s 107 degree heat wave, no less.

“You travel so much as a conductor anyway that you can pick your spot,” he explains. “It’s such a beautiful place, and when you’re starting a new job in a new place, you want to invest in it.”

Francesco Lecce-Chong conducted the ESO last spring at Eugene’s Hult Center.

Besides, it already feels like home. After a decade at East Coast conservatories (Mannes College of Music and Curtis Institute) and orchestras (assistant conductor at Milwaukee and Pittsburg Symphonies), Eugene reminds him of another outdoor-friendly college where he was born and raised — Boulder, Colorado — where he started conducting youth orchestra at age 16. Even then, Lecce-Chong admired how Eugene Symphony music director Marin Alsop took her other orchestra, the Colorado Symphony, from community ensemble to professional orchestra.

As a student, he encountered both of Alsop’s successors, Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Giancarlo Guerrero, who like Alsop went on to conduct prestigious orchestras. Both told him how how valuable the ESO position had been for their development. “They said that back before it was cool, Eugene was only orchestra in US that was was taking risks and picking young, first-time music directors and giving them space and support to grow,” Lecce-Chong remembered. That put the ESO on his radar, and when Danail Rachev’s contract expired last year and the job opened up, he went for it, beating out more than 250 other applicants. Read Tom Manoff’s ArtsWatch story about his audition concert. (He’ll keep his current assignments as assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, with whom he’s currently on a big European tour, and principal conductor of its youth orchestra, for the rest of this season.)

Lecce-Chong arrived to find the Eugene Symphony’s current season already set (orchestras plan way ahead), so this season doesn’t really represent his own vision. However, he was able to make a few tweaks that reflect his own priorities and give insights into what lies ahead.

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Spinning into Butter review:  white noise

Bag & Baggage Productions' season opener should spark needed conversations about race

“It is a play,” writes Bag & Baggage Productions Artistic Director Scott Palmer in the program notes, “that deals with well-meaning, liberally minded, white people dealing with issues of racism in a way that I think is hugely relevant to me personally and to the community of Hillsboro.”

I’d go further: Spinning into Butter, playing through September 24 at Bag & Baggage’s cool, cozy new home The Vault, is a production that should be seen by anyone in the greater Portland community who’s at all interested in one of the most pressing issues of our time and place. Especially if you’re willing to set your own preconceptions aside for a couple of hours.

Carlos Trujillo and Kymberli Colbourne in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Spinning into Butter.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

To say it’s important is not to say it’s a great play, though. Dramatically flawed and somewhat dated, Spinning may be more important for the conversations it sparks than for what happens onstage. However, one thing that actually does happen onstage — Kymberli Colbourne’s fully realized, yet understated leading performance — should also start a conversation, about the best performance on a Portland stage in this young theater season.

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Tess Gallagher on Raymond Carver

The celebrated poet, who'll be in Portland for Imago's Carver stage adaptation "Human Noise," talks about life with and after Carver

It’s difficult to imagine a question that has not been asked of the poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright and teacher Tess Gallagher. As one-half of the legendary literary partnership with the revered, Oregon-born poet and short story writer, Raymond Carver, there was a time when Gallagher, well-published on her own, was one of the world’s most interviewed artists. If you’re familiar with her writing, you are not surprised.

Gallagher’s been generating poetry and prose for decades that shocks and moves with its vast range of expression. All of her work, even the most emotionally raw, seems to be guided by a steadfast intelligence and relentlessly penetrating vision.

Tess Gallagher: writing a life.

She’s published and taught extensively while also being the devoted steward of Carver’s work since he died in 1988. After reading Gallagher’s Moon Crossing Bridge and seeing the invaluable Carver collections that Gallagher shepherded to posthumous publication, one gets a sense that the communication between the two never really stopped.

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Urban Renewal Project review: genre blenders

Los Angeles big band’s danceable fusion of jazz, hip hop and other musical genres heralds a multifaceted musical future

by PATRICK MCCULLEY

Take a trip to downtown Portland’s Rialto Poolroom, walk to the back and down a flight of stairs, and you will find one of Oregon’s newest music venues. The Jack London Revue, formerly just the basement section of the Rialto Poolroom, is everything you might imagine an old school jazz club might have looked like. Long and rectangular, low ceilinged, dimly lit, a half dozen tables with chairs upfront, crimson curtains hanging from one wall, it’s almost like being thrown back to the golden age of jazz.  One could easily imagine the likes of Charlie Parker or Ella Fitzgerald taking to the small stage upfront while patrons crowd for drinks in the back at the bar.

Urban Renewal Project performed at Portland’s Jack London Revue. Photo: Patrick McCulley.

But the Jack London Revue, considered the heir to Jimmy Mak’s jazz club that closed at the beginning of this year, offers a much wider range of music than those historical names and even the legendary Jimmy’s. The people doing the bookings might be taking on a lot of the local jazz scene that was left without a flagship venue due to the closing of Jimmy Mak’s, but also inviting performers and audiences who are open to branching out beyond jazz and into soul, hip hop, and more uncategorizable genres of music. And it was that spirit of openness and experimentation that helped bring the Urban Renewal Project to Portland on August 11.

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Takahiro Yamamoto’s direct path

TBA: In the premiere of the final section of the trilogy "Direct Path to Detour, Single Focus," the focus often goes to the detours

For Friday evening’s premiere in the TBA Festival of the third part of Takahiro Yamamoto’s Direct Path to Detour, Single Focus trilogy, the exhibition space at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s West End location has been separated from the offices by tall curtains, making for a focused, intimate space that seems well-suited to Yamamoto’s one-man show. There’s a ceremonial feeling to the circular stage, which is ringed with purple pillows and remote-controlled LED lights in the shape of tea candles. Yamamoto mills casually among the crowd until the soundtrack, controlled by sidony o’neal, starts up.

The first passage, as Yamamoto takes the stage, cuts between samples, sound effects, and a sudden, brief emergence of the Doogie Howser theme song (more on that later). This soundtrack, like the performance, never really comes together, but that experience of disharmony seems to be at the core of the piece. Considering the name literally, or as a koan-like algorithm, can be useful for getting one’s bearings. In the sense that a choreographed show, meant to be watched, takes a direct path to a state of performance, this piece does what it says by detouring at almost any point where it might solidify.

The project description in the program says:

Direct Path to Detour seeks to evoke various mental and physical states that arise at the intersection of multiple value systems, social pressure, expectation, personal experiences, and body memory.”

Takahiro Yamamoto at TBA. Photo courtesy Robin Cone-Murakami

The first system Yamamoto engages, striding into the center of the stage, is the finicky world of a yoyo. Though he’s in control of it, he regards the toy at times like a strange animal that’s wandered onto the stage with him. He doesn’t perform tricks as much as he just responds to and moves with the yoyo. But already there is some sort of internal tension, and a mismatch of energies, as if his performance is in two places at once. The yoyo, with its own rules of momentum, acts as an indicator of these mismatches. The halting duet ends with Yamamoto muttering at screwing up an exchange with the yoyo, laughing and walking off stage.

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Bach Fest: the $90,000 solution

After the University of Oregon fires Matthew Halls, it pays him $90,000 – but only if he keeps his mouth shut. And the crisis remains.

And then the lawyers swept in.

The first clue arrived on Tuesday in the form of a statement from the University of Oregon, signed by provost and senior vice president Jayanth Banavar, that the university was “disappointed and saddened that Matthew Halls’ relationship with the Oregon Bach Festival … has drawn to a close.”

Matthew Halls. Photo: Jon Christopher Meyers/OBF

The wording was smooth and soothing and just a little sorrowful – “We appreciate Mr. Hall’s (sic) many positive contributions to the festival … Everyone at the University and OBF sincerely wish nothing but continued success for Mr. Halls” – with no mention that the university had, in fact, fired the festival’s artistic director on August 24, with no stated cause, a mere two months after extending his contract, with a raise, for four years. It was a broken prophylactic of a statement, a reassurance after the unfortunate fact, a monument of untethered platitudes, and it had all the earmarks of having been vetted within an inch of its life by a squadron of administrators and lawyers.

Then, on Thursday, the lawyers’ work ambled into full view in the headline to Saul Hubbard’s news story in Eugene’s Register-Guard: “University of Oregon agrees to pay Matthew Halls $90,000; Halls agrees not to disparage UO.” Translation: You shut up; we’ll pay up. It is a very lawyerly deal, designed to solve an immediate crisis, avoid the courtroom, and let the players move on. With the pay-not-to-play solution, you might almost have thought Halls was a football coach.

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In Ghost Rings, which opened Wednesday evening in the TBA Festival and repeats Thursday, Sept. 14, in Lincoln Performance Hall, Tina Satter, Erin Markey, Jo Lampert, and Chris Giarmo of the Obie-winning Brooklyn troupe Half Straddle take the stage clad in sparkles, lamé, Spandex, and the bright synthetic fabric of ’80s hair bands and pop stars. The lights and rigging are generous and close-in, giving it the feel of a life-size diorama of a rock show.

Artistic director Satter makes two announcements as the music and the show start revving up:

  • First, she’s been making plays about her sister for eight years.
  • Second, Ghost Rings are a candy that she made up a really long time ago, in “2009, do the math.”

We’re left to imagine what they might be until a later reference to light, sugary, purple candy rings brings their image into focus. They’re the namesake of the show, and an artifact of the glittery, mythical world built by Satter and her characters through epic rock ballads and conversations with “internal spirit beings,” but they’re never shown to the audience. We’re told that they exist, and brought into a world where they are obviously real things, and our imaginations are insistently tugged along, like a child leading us by the hand to a fort they’ve built.

The show never waits for us to catch up. The defiantly self-important, improvisational world-spinning of co-imagining children is somehow perfectly fit into the mythos of rock and roll and presented in the format of contemporary performance art. By the time Markey and Lampert announce their characters, Stephanie and Shawna, it’s clear that the dreamy world where they live, which includes places like the Haunted Canoe, is vast and private and full of wonders and perils.

Half Straddle’s “Ghost Rings.” Photo courtesy PICA

At one point, Satter tells us that as children, when she and her sister imagined themselves as adults, they imagined living in neighboring, corner apartments, raising their children together. Their children would be best friends. Husbands were not involved. Like the Ghost Rings, the rest of what she gradually tells us about her sister does’t give us a description of her presence, or their relationship. Rather it just declares things about her, placing her at the center of this world that’s being built on stage, but proving her deep absence as well. Her presence in absentia cuts through the many shifting layers of mythology and private language.

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