MusicWatch Weekly: still burning

Spontaneous Combustion festival continues to light a fire under the West Coast's new music scene

The Oregon portion of the valuable new Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival isn’t even half over and already it’s produced a pair of the finest contemporary classical concerts in recent memory: a spectacular performance of music by Gyorgy Ligeti and one-time Oregonians Lou Harrison and Benjamin Krause by Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet, and a sublime and varied solo recital by Boston flutist Orlando Cela that revealed some gems by young, lesser known composers (a welcome hallmark of the festival so far) as well as Astor Piazzolla and others. Oregon rarely gets performances by rising young national performers who play this music full time, with adequate rehearsal.

One of the most exciting recent additions to Oregon’s new music scene, the festival continues through Feb. 2 with major new music performers including daring New York cellist Ashley Bathgate and City of Tomorrow wind quintet. Tonight (Wednesday) at Portland’s Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie Ave., New York’s Iktus Duo plays flute and percussion music by Oregon’s Lou Harrison and less well known composers including Joseph Pereira, Adam Vidiksis, James Romig, Bruce Hamilton and more.

On Friday, at The Old Church, 1422 S.W. 11th Ave., New York’s Sandbox Percussion (which has premiered many new compositions, performed at prestigious festivals, collaborated with LA’s visionary The Industry opera company, and includes young percussion phenom Ian Rosenbaum, who so impressed Chamber Music Northwest audiences with his sensational performances of electrifying music by the fabulous rising young composer Andy Akiho) plays his music, works by American composing eminence Steve Reich and more.

The Delgani Quartet reprises the most dazzling of the pieces they played so brilliantly in Portland in their hometown at United Lutheran Church, 2230 Washington St. on Sunday afternoon January 28 and Tuesday night January 30. The great late 20th century avant garde composer Georgy Ligeti’s Métamorphoses Nocturnes takes off from where his countryman Bartok’s magnificent masterpieces left off — but turns into an impish, kaleidoscopic carnival ride (complete with drunken waltz) that had the Portland audience both chuckling and cheering. The other quartet on the program, Beethoven’s op. 131 from 1826, was considered as avant garde in his time as was Ligeti’s at its birth in 1954. It’s now deservedly regarded as one of the greatest compositions ever written, and one of Beethoven’s own personal favorites.

Isata Kanneh-Mason performs Friday and Saturday in Portland Piano International’s Rising Star series.

New music by an Oregon composer — and one of Portland’s most valuable musicians, pianist/ composer/ educator Darrell Grant, tops the program at Isata Kanneh-Mason’s recital Friday at Friday, Jan 26: 7:00pm at Portland Piano Company, 8700 NE Columbia Blvd. and Saturday at Community Music Center, 3350 SE Francis St. Grant’s Darker Angels: Reflections on Hiawatha, (commissioned through Portland Piano International’s admirable Rising Star program that pairs new music by Oregonians with emerging young piano talents) draws on source material from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s 24 Negro Melodies, which in turn was based on Negro spirituals, West African folk themes, and the composer’s own encounters with W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Appropriately, the multiple-prize- winning 21 year old British prodigy, part of a distinguished family of acclaimed young musicians, also plays music by that late-19th century fellow Afro-British musician, as well as Prokofiev’s short, early third sonata, Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata and Ravel stately, melancholy Pavane for a Dead Princess.

Amplified Repertory Chamber Orchestra of Portland has galvanized Portland’s classical music scene by using well-designed sound amplification and state-of-the-art lighting effects to enhance its performances of classical music in ways most other concert goers have come to expect. Their performances Friday at Eugene’s Whirled Pies and Saturday at Portland’s Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., ArcoPDX unveil a couple of firsts for the band: vocals and classically enhanced arrangements of non-classical works, three songs by Depeche Mode, the ‘80s synth lords whose music ruled dance clubs and eventually stadiums, and whose recent tour was one of the biggest of the year. The shows also include dark classics by J.S. Bach, Dmitri Shostakovich, Arvo Part and more.

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Fin de Cinema’s “Beauty and the Beast”: spirit of discovery

Latest mix of classic film and Portland contemporary music captures Cocteau creation's mix of beauty and grit

by DOUGLAS DETRICK

Seeing a film with a new score played by live musicians — who, just like the audience, have their eyes on the screen as they play — is a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. A musician working in service of a film changes the currency being traded — the artist gives up some creative freedom, and in exchange the film offers a narrative that the audience would normally need to imagine on its own. In some ways the job for both is harder, since the audience must take in a film and new music at the same time, but the rewards can be great when both parties take the deal in the spirit of discovery.

That’s what happened at the January 11 screening of the film in the ongoing Fin de Cinema series curated by Gina Altamura at Portland club Holocene. Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film Beauty and the Beast floats like a cotton candy cloud through a dream world that is both strikingly gorgeous and alarmingly fragile. But for all the astounding visuals and innocent love between the two title characters, the film is driven by the greed and jealousy of the rest of the colorful cast of characters.

Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

This screening divided the film into three parts, with different musicians scoring each section in live performance: EDM-inspired loops and beats by Patricia Wolf, Like a Villain’s voice and effects pedals, and an ad hoc grouping of John Niekrasz on drums, Amenta Abioto on voice and mbira, Jonathan Sielaff on bass clarinet, and Noah Bernstein on alto saxophone. Each soloist and group captured both the film’s beauty and its underlying grit, without overplaying either element. Though the music had a sharp contemporary edge, the film still landed softly, like snowflakes on the eyelashes of its charmed audience like the filmmaker might have intended, more than half a century after it was made.

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“Cosi fan Tutte” review: identity crisis

Seattle Opera's production reveals that Mozart's comic opera is about more than sex

by ANGELA ALLEN

In Seattle Opera’s production of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, the stage’s main prop, aside from an inviting pile of mattresses, is a tall mirror. Each character pauses in front of it at some time, checking out his or her current reflection, or identity. The mirror is a throwback symbol in this thoroughly contemporary production, but it says more than a selfie, which catches only a moment and can be edited ad infinitum.

Promoted by the company as “Mozart’s comedy about sex. Sort of,” this Cosi, which closes January 27,  is certainly sort of. In fact, this Jonathan Miller production, staged over and over since the 1995 Covent Garden debut that dressed the cast in Armani instead of period costumes and substituted bikers for Albanians, is about more than sex, bad manners and faithlessness. The opera is usually categorized as buffo, or comic, yet Miller argues in several interviews that a thin line separates comedy from tragedy. This piece is more complex than one running joke of mixed-up identities in the bumbling pursuit of love.

Hanna Hipp (Dorabella), Marjukka Tepponen (Fiordiligi), Kevin Burdette (Don Alfonso), Ben Bliss (Ferrando), and Michael Adams (Guglielmo) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Cosi fan Tutte.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

As that prominent mirror suggests, Cosi is more explicitly about identity rather than sex and lust, claims Miller, the distinguished 83-year-old British playwright/director/author/medical doctor. The more the characters switch roles, the more they try on different people (or clothes and makeup), the more they discover who they are, and the more they learn about about love and life. Cosi’s subtitle is the “School of Love,” after all.

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Rennie Harris, moving pure

The hip-hop dance legend talks about his roots, black dance, and his group Puremovement's four shows this week at White Bird

By RACHAEL CARNES

According to Lorenzo “Rennie” Harris, the three laws of hip-hop culture are “innovation, individuality and creativity.”

“Hip hop comes from the word ‘hippie,’ which means to either open your eyes or re-open your eyes — to be aware,” Harris says.

Kickstarted in the South Bronx as early as ’72 — at jams in parks, schools, community centers and clubs — and led by DJ Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell, Afrika Bambaataa and Pete DJ Jones, the global phenomenon we’ve come to appreciate as hip hop has many progenitors, each adding his or her own original spin to graffiti, deejaying, b-boying and emceeing.

Harris is one of them.

Rennie Harris Puremovement’s “Lifted.” Photo courtesy Brian Mengini

Harris founded his dance company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, in 1992, and in ’96 I spent a week driving Harris and his entourage to outreach events around Seattle. Twenty years later, it’s fun to catch up with him by phone all the way from Japan, where he’s currently in artistic residence.

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Art among the plants: a lament

Across the globe, botanical gardens are luring crowds with sculpture. An artist asks: Is the art undermining the mission of the gardens?

By FRIDERIKE HEUER

What’s wrong with this picture?

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables, Florida

“Nothing?” the astute observer might reply. “I see some pretty glass in beautiful surroundings. Say, don’t you like Chihuly?”

Let’s try again: What’s wrong with this picture?

San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas, California

“A version of ‘Is that art, or just something that got tossed in the flower bed’?” the discerning viewer wonders. “Give me some context!”

Context it shall be: Have you set foot into a botanic garden lately? Not a sculpture park, not a designated area for environmental or land art, not a private or semi-private garden, but a botanical garden? I dare you to find one that has not been invaded – or graced, depending on perspective – by frequent, ever-changing sculpture shows. Just try to google “Botanic Garden” and you’ll find a list of famous sculptors for the big ones and less familiar names for all the others, advertised as their new visitor attractions. The gamut runs from celebrated Segals to melancholic simians.

San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas, California

Atlanta, New York, Denver, Tuscon, Phoenix, to name just a few botanic gardens, have succumbed to the “Wow” factor. As Sabina Carr, Atlanta Botanical Garden’s vice president for marketing, succinctly put it: “Wow, you have to see this.” Ever-changing attractions are aimed at getting people to attend on a recurrent basis.

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Kellen Chasuk: Inventiveness triumphs over gloom

Kellen Chasuk's lively exhibition at Stephanie Chalfas Projects is full of the still lifes of our time

By PAUL MAZIAR

One of my favorite things about art-making, in any medium, is that the initial subject matter can be totally incidental—without prescribed meaning whatsoever—and yet deeper implications are invariably discovered, by both the artist and whomever is there to experience the thing they’ve made. I love the indeterminacy that creativity can entertain, and the comfort to be found in not knowing—for both artist and viewer.

Taking a couple of separate walks through Plastic Flowers, the new exhibition of Kellen Chasuk’s paintings at Stephanie Chefas Projects through January 27, I find an unmistakable joy in Chasuk’s paintings, an inventiveness. Taken as a whole, the show exemplifies the protean aspects of meaning and experience in contemporary life—related to joy, sorrow, boredom, and anxiety for anyone alive today in these confounding times—and it entertains the concerns and tropes of artists and art history. The readily accessible, familiar passions seen in her tableaus—living, growing things—the bright hues and lighthearted forms, the playful modelling of Kellen’s paint, all of these belie a story of gloom. That’s not quite it—a kind of story opens up, shown in its variation, like life. Here, it’s a relatable gloom, for sure, and given the year we just had, such a lively exhibition is also a triumph.

Elements of Kellen Chasuk’s “Plastic Flowers” exhibition at Stephanie Chefas Projects, through January 27, 2018

Chasuk’s work is palatable in its simplicity and strangeness. You have, on the one hand, all these vivid, humorous interior (i.e., indoors) scenes that show the simplicity of playing around with paint and the rendering of space and form; and on the other, these personal or metaphysical (i.e. the person’s inner life) aspects that are gently implied by the very same means. It’s interesting to me the way that these things become interchangeable, with the possibility of even more depth of meaning through the familiar, simplified forms devoid of pretension, and in many cases even verity.

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Spotlight on: E.M. Lewis and ‘Magellanica’

As Artists Rep embarks on an epic journey to Antarctica, an Oregon playwright talks about the epic journey that brings her tale to the stage

“Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the globe, one of those early sea-farers, named everything after either his queen or himself. In very, very old maps, the kind with sea monsters at the bottom, of the period immediately following his circumnavigation of the globe, the whole bottom southern hemisphere is called ‘Magellanica’.”

— E.M. Lewis

When you meet E.M. Lewis, you don’t necessarily think “epic.” She’s more like your favorite librarian, excited about every subject you ask for help on, and and nothing makes her happier than when she recommends a book that you enjoy. She’s friendly, bordering on bubbly, and laughs a lot. You wouldn’t necessarily look at E.M. Lewis and think risk-taker, rule-breaker, fire-starter.

But she is.

Once you start talking to her, you feel it. Simmering underneath, barely contained, sometimes so close to the surface she’s almost shaking, is a drive, a passion, an intensity that is pushing her, pushing her, pushing her. “I’m always a person who has lots of pots bubbling on a stove,” she says, and you not only believe her, you’re also struck by how apt a metaphor that is. This relatively quiet woman would, during the course of our conversation, all of a sudden smack the table with authority to punctuate a story or drive home a point. And that’s when you see it. That’s when you feel it. Epic.

E.M. Lewis, author of “Megellanica.” Photo: Russell J Young

Lewis is the author of Magellanica, an ambitious, five-act, five-and-a-half-hour odyssey to the end of the world. In this world premiere at Artists Repertory Theatre (it begins previews on Saturday, Jan. 20, opens on Jan. 27, and runs through Feb. 18) eight intrepid trekkers from different nations, different races, and at different stages in their lives’ journeys to the South Pole, ostensibly for science. But for most, if not all of them, the journey is about much more than that. You can be a scientist anywhere. There is a reason why certain people choose to go to the most extreme climate on Earth in their pursuit of knowledge, and that reason can be very, very personal. As Morgan Halsted, Magellanica’s atmospheric scientist, puts it: “No one goes to Antarctica accidentally. … We all have our reasons for being here.” Or, as Lewis says during the course of our conversation: “The more I read about the people who go to Antarctica, the more I began to understand that there are a lot of psychological reasons why people feel the need to go to a place of such great extremity and hardship.” Or, more succinctly: “Sometimes, you need to go far to bring back a piece of yourself.”

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