Walnut City Music Festival closes out summer on a high note

Six years ago, a newspaper editor decided his hometown of McMinnville needed an indie, folk, rock festival to call its own. Now bands are calling him.

It’s probably not accurate to say that Yamhill County is in the midst of a “renaissance” of live entertainment, because definitions of the word (beyond the obvious historical reference to Europe in the 1300-1600s) typically rely on synonyms like “renewal,” “rebirth,” “revival” — implying a thriving cultural scene that vanished.

But it’s surely a healthy measure of the area’s cultural growth that in the past eight years, three successful summer music festivals have been launched and appear fixed to stay. Opera-centric Aquilon roared to life this summer (and has already held some encore performances) and Wildwood MusicFest in Willamina has been going since 2011.

That leaves the Walnut City Music Festival, a two-day late-summer blast of indie, folk and pop rock, to close out Oregon’s smoky August in the heart of wine country. The sixth annual family-friendly party begins Friday in McMinnville’s Lower City Park, at the west end of the restaurant-packed downtown district just beyond the library.

Ossie Bladine, founder and organizer of the Walnut City
Music Festival, says the event fits into a plan to develop a larger music venue in McMinnville. Photo courtesy: Walnut City Music Festival.

The festival was founded in 2013 by Ossie Bladine, and here we must pause for a moment of disclosure: My orbit intersected with Ossie’s when he was in high school in the late 1990s. I’d come to work at the local newspaper owned by his family, and he was in the office regularly along with his sister, Chelsey. In 2014, 29-year-old Ossie became editor of the News-Register, taking over from his father, Jeb, and representing the fourth generation of the Bladine family to run McMinnville’s locally owned newspaper.

Given that I freelance for the News-Register, this article puts me in the unusual position of writing about someone who signs my paycheck. Rest assured, it’s not an effort to curry favor with my editor by featuring his festival at the top of the column this week; on the final weekend of summer vacation, it’s unquestionably the hottest ticket in town.

The festival started with a literal bang six years ago. Many bangs, in fact. The Hill Dogs were playing in the Granary District when it happened: A thunderstorm worthy of an over-produced King Lear landed right on top of the stage. Bladine explained:

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Makrokosmos IV review: screwy, spiritual music for a summer evening

Portland summer modern music marathon’s ‘Dadapalooza’ mixes Cage, Zappa, Crumb, piano, percussion, even cactus into a meditative musical experience

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Photography by Masataka Suemitsu

Summer evening, Northwest Portland’s Vestas building, next to the Lego wind turbine. A box truck’s worth of vibraphone and xylophone and timpani and chimes and cymbals and crotales and tam-tams and on and on; two grand pianos, interlaced, lidless, ready for anything; a table full of cacti and branches and wires and shit.

Across the lobby, on the other side of the elevators, past the wine and cheese, over by the windows onto a bright sunny NW Everett, sat the other piano. The prepared piano. Tastefully roped off like a museum piece, prepared with screws and tacks and whatnot inserted between the strings to vary the sound, according to the instructions developed by famed American musical theorist / composer John Cage.

DUO Stephanie & Saar performed and directed Makrokosmos IV.

On the back wall, behind the tam-tams, a projection of various visual schemata. Slabs of Sanskrit and Chinese writing. The Makrokosmos Project logo, George Crumb’s iconic “Spiral Galaxy” score (suitable for framing!) The score and preparation instructions for Cage’s 20th century milestone Sonatas & Interludes, which would ultimately close the concert.

Musicians and enthusiasts gather. Chris Whyte and Paul Owen from Portland Percussion Group, sleeves already rolled up like proper percussionists. Oregon Symphony violinist and 45th Parallel Executive Director Ron Blessinger makes his customary cameo. No fewer than six of Oregon’s most adventurous pianists tumble in, ready to play some John Cage: Alexander Schwarzkopf, Deborah Cleaver, Susan Smith, Jeff Payne, Julia Lee, Lydia Chung. I spot audio electronics whiz (and fellow Bonnie Miksch acolyte) Branic Howard running sound and such. Then Miksch herself, then local classical music celebrity Robert McBride, the former classical radio host and Club Mod president, both apparently enjoying their summery freedom to do nothing but compose music and go to concerts. Before too long the whole gamut of Cascadians and Arts Journalists and New Music Weirdos I always see at these concerts has arrived.

It’s Makrokosmos IV: Dadapalooza—five-odd (if not exactly dadaist, as far as I could tell) hours of piano and percussion music by modern and contemporary composers, perpetrated for the fourth year by the New York based piano Duo Saar & Stephanie. Last time, this happened. Here we go.

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Neil Simon, 1927-2018

America's most successful playwright, whose nervous comedies defined an era and helped make a golden age of entertainment, has died at 91

Neil Simon, maybe the most successful playwright in American history, died today at 91, leaving behind a little piece of who we are and how we got this way. Not quite a year ago, in a piece on the Portland Civic Theatre Guild (the old PCT, like the old Mark Allen Players, had often thrived on Simon’s plays), I tried to give Simon and his singular approach to theater and comedy a little context:

“On Tuesday the object of their affections was I Ought To Be in Pictures, the 1979 sentimental comedy by Neil Simon, who is considered something of a ghost of theater past these days but not so many decades ago was the toast of Broadway, and the movies, too, a figure who so dominated the Broadway real estate that younger writers and audiences rebelled against virtually everything about him – his jokiness, his eagerness to please, his devotion to craftsmanship, his middlebrow-ness, his upper-middle-class-ness, his self-congratulatory sentimentality, his sometimes clueless maleness, his unseemly success, his belief that maybe the theater was entertainment and not so much art.

“Well, those battles have been fought, and now, maybe, it’s possible to consider Simon’s plays the way we think of other works from a specific style and period: like Restoration comedies, for instance, in which the artificiality and reliance on coincidence were part of the joke. It’s all artificial, from Shakespeare to Ibsen to Mamet to Shepard to Lynn Nottage to Lisa Kron to Suzan-Lori Parks to Lin-Manuel Miranda and beyond. That’s why they’re called ‘plays,’ not ‘life.’

“Simon was a crown prince in a golden age of American entertainment, especially comedy, when Jewish writers and performers, calling on their recent-immigrant family status and their urban identities and the awful astonishment of having emerged on the other side of the Holocaust, recast the American idea of humor in their own image: Mel Brooks, Mort Sahl, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Elaine May. It was a takeover of sorts of the WASPish mainstream, and it cracked the culture open for further change.”

The full piece, Tuesdays at the Theatre Guild, is here.

 

Alfred Walker and Angel Blue: stars on the rise

Winning acclaim this summer in Portland's Opera's "Faust" and Seattle Opera’s "Porgy and Bess," the two stars move on to other roles at the Met and in Europe.

by ANGELA ALLEN

More often than not, he plays the villains (Méphistophélès in Faust) and the weirdos (Bluebeard in Bluebeard’s Castle). She portrays the vulnerable tragic heroines (Violetta, Mimi, Marguerite).

Certainly those aren’t the only roles rising opera stars Alfred Walker and Angel Blue perform. But these parts have given them access to the world’s best stages. Both will sing at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2018-19 season – she reprising Musetta in La bohème, he as the Speaker in The Magic Flute. And more is in view: Blue will sing Violetta in La Traviata in her Covent Garden debut and Walker takes on Jochanaan in Salome at  Oper Köln and Thoas in Iphigenie en Tauride at Oper Stuttgart.

Walker is singing Porgy to her Bess at Seattle Opera through Saturday. (Read my ArtsWatch review.) They met when she sang Clara and he was Porgy in a 2012 Boston Symphony Orchestra concert version of the opera. “Alfred was a great Porgy then and he’s even better now,” said Blue. “He makes the job easier by simply being who he is: talented, fun-loving, and very creative. It is rewarding to work with someone who is open to his colleagues’ ideas and opinions. He is also a great singer with his very strong and supported sound. We blend well together.”


Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

Barrel-chested and imposing in stature, Walker owns a voice loaded with depth and color. Opera News, commenting on his performance in the title role of The Flying Dutchman, called his bass-baritone “inky with clear projection.” Daryl and Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch review of Portland Opera’s recent Faust said Walker “brought an appropriately dark and threatening lustre to his role” of Méphistophélès.

Walker also is gifted with a huge range, from low E to high A-flat. He can reach baritone heights or descend to intimidating lows. With a facial expressiveness that can light up a stage or transport an audience to hell, he is as fine an actor as singer. And his flexible instrument allows him to play a range of characters. “I love my voice for that reason,” he said in a recent phone interview from Seattle between rehearsals of Francesca Zambello’s production of Porgy and Bess. “It keeps the repertoire constantly flowing.”

Recently, Walker was hired for a bass role, but the directors decided the baritone part would be the better fit. Which opera? He can’t say; it hasn’t been announced. But he’s been caught in the bass-baritone change-up more than once.

Blue, who has been compared to the legendary Leontyne Price (Blue calls herself the diva’s “No. 1 fan” and modestly rebuffs the comparison), sings with a bright, vibrant soprano – her stunning timbre has been noted often – and acts with a stage demeanor that can melt hearts.

“The singing was opulent, sturdy, glowing,” the Brownes wrote about her performance in Faust. “Leading soprano Angel Blue (Marguerite) has a perfect voice for this role, and many others to come. Not a light little soubrette voice, this is a three-tool singer: great tensile strength and flexibility (much needed for the famous ‘Jewel Song’) and ravishing high notes.”

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Art on the Road: Slovenia

In Ljiubliana, the nation's capitol, monuments reflect historic strife and a contemporary art museum shows work that comments on the past

At first glance Ljublijana, the capital of Slovenia, appears to be one of the most picturesque, hospitable and laid-back places to be found in the Balkans. Situated near beautiful mountains, divided by a clean and slow-flowing river, the award-winning city prides itself for being “green,” both in the sense that it is shaded by trees and offers a vast number of parks and green spaces, but also in the sense that it has car-free zones all over the place, runs its buses on methane and has devised an underground system of garbage collection that leaves streets clean and encourages recycling (at one of the highest rates in Europe.)

The architecture is stunning for the perfectly restored blocks of art deco houses right next to baroque churches, all situated below a majestic medieval castle. The city owes much of its uniqueness to architect and city planner Joze Plečnik, who was given free reign in the 1920s to create a homogenous, distinct look for many of the city’s public buildings, squares, bridges, and market halls, their bright materials reflective of light and providing clean lines and a certain calmness against the huddle of the 17th century buildings. He also implemented sustainable solutions before anybody else talked about them. He was known to walk the city streets to create designs that focused on pedestrians – something the city’s current Vision 2025 plan is still following up on.

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Are you ready?

The new era at Portland Center Stage is set to begin next month with the arrival of Marissa Wolf as artistic director.

The theater announced Wolf’s hiring on Wednesday afternoon, concluding an eight-month search for a successor to Chris Coleman, who left earlier this year to take over the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company, having made a huge impact on PCS and its community over his 17-year tenure.

Wolf will come to PCS from Kansas City Rep, where she’s spent the past three years as an associate artistic director in charge of developing and producing plays through the OriginKC: New Works Festival. She’ll start her new post on Sept. 15.

Marissa Wolf, Portland Center Stage’s incoming artistic director, brings “a dazzling spirit, spectacular taste, and a fierce vision” to the task. Photo: Tess Mayer/The Interval-NY

The PCS press release featured a laudatory comment about Wolf from one of the leading figures in the field, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater in New York and a producer who has worked with Wolf over the years: “Marissa Wolf is a rising star of the American theater. She has a dazzling spirit, spectacular taste, and a fierce vision which she imparts with grace and wit. Her institutional and artistic brilliance has led her to this moment. Portland Center Stage is lucky to have nabbed her just as her talent is fully exploding.”

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Cult of Orpheus: lyrical music

Saturday concert offers a five-year retrospective of Portland composer Christopher Corbell's creative reboot

About a decade ago, after his last band finally called it a day, Christopher Corbell, who’d played punk, folk, and other pop music for a couple of decades, faced a turning point. “I finally got to the point that I felt too constrained by the verse-chorus format,” the Portland singer/songwriter/guitarist remembers, “and once that group wound down, I decided I’d had this notion in my head for awhile that I wanted to write an opera.”

In 2015, he did. Corbell’s one-act opera Viva’s Holiday, which set to music a scene from the memoir of famed Portland stripper/author Viva Las Vegas, drew enthusiastic crowds to Old Town’s decidedly non-operatic Star Theater. It was one of many projects emerging from Cult of Orpheus, a production vehicle Corbell created to bring his new, poetically focused music to Portland audiences, which staged its first concert at northeast Portland’s The Waypost club in 2013.

On Saturday, Corbell and various local classical musicians and singers celebrate the Cult’s fifth anniversary with a retrospective concert featuring music from Viva’s Holiday and other poetic songs he’s composed over this five-year stretch.

Christopher Corbell conducts Cult of Orpheus musicians at this summer’s album release concert at Portland’s TaborSpace.

Even while creating non-classical music, “There was never a time I wasn’t doing something with notated music on the side, [like] writing classical guitar pieces,” Corbell remembers, “but it was never my main focus.” Now he wanted to make music in which the words shaped the musical form. “I was really drawn to the lyrical architecture of music that flows out of poetic utterance,” Corbell explains. “I wanted to start with art song as kind of a training ground” before embarking on an opera.

Creative Barriers

But he felt stymied — not by classical music itself but by the apparatus around it. Corbell had studied music in college but, coming from a lower-income background, felt he didn’t fit in what seemed to him the classical establishment’s elitist, hierarchical system. “Classical music has a tendency to still be a white supremacist patriarchal institution,” he says.

Not that classical music is unique in that respect. The music-industrial complex in Nashville, where Corbell spent his adolescence and began performing music, he discovered, had its own hierarchies and gatekeepers that seemed more oriented toward commercial success than non-standardized personal expression or social concerns.

“Studies of social dominance show that every culture that’s ever had an economic surplus has established social dominance groups based on [factors like] gender, race, national origin,” he explains. Those hierarchies, Corbell believes, have produced competitive, cynical social structures that suppress the universal artistic urge to make something beautiful and share it.

“There’s this notion that art is either about selling stuff or a hierarchy of credentials and achievement,” he says. “That’s not why I do art. I do it to grow, to share meaning, to be part of a community.”

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