Choral Arts Ensemble: celebrating past, present, and future

Portland choir's winter concert focuses on 20th and 21st century seasonal sounds, including new music by Northwest composers

By BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Portland’s Choral Arts Ensemble is celebrating its 50th season. Congratulations to the organization. It’s a milestone that prompts reflection and appreciation. This past weekend’s concert, the second of CAE’s four-concert season, wound a long garland around songs of the winter season and the holiday, reigniting for their audience the memories of holidays past and suggesting those yet to come.

Dr. David De Lyser offered pieces written or arranged within the years of our living families. Our grandparents might have sung Britten’s newly composed Ceremony of Carols at Christmas in the 1940s. Our friends had sung the music of Stephen Chapman and Morten Lauridsen, in particular, in college. And our children might well perform in years to come the music of two of the Northwest resident Cascadia Composers on the program, Lisa Neher and William Whitley.

Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland

A sweet and gentle arrangement of an English melody “A Winter Carol” opened the program and was immediately followed by two well-known choruses from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, “There Is No Rose” and “This Little Babe.” The first was very well done and allowed the serenity of the season to settle over the audience. The second, a driving, very close set canon, was disadvantaged rhythmically because of the distance between the soprano and alto sections. (Sopranos were in row four, altos in row one.) The program then continued to the great mystery of Christmas.

Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium written in 1994, was a commission from the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Programmed often, including in several previous CAE performances, it is deceptively challenging in keeping the intervals of the 4th tuned against open held notes. Dr. De Lyser conducted a sensitive performance. The phrases were elastic, with growth through each, all building to the intimate climax so expertly scored by Lauridsen, a Northwest native who grew up in the Beaverton area.

Born in the 1980s, Jake Runestad (given a full concert by CAE last year) and Joshua Shank are contemporaries, both composing primarily for voices (chorus, opera and choral orchestral). Their “Sleep Little Babe, Sleep” and “Gabriel’s Message,” respectively, rounded out the first half.

But a little elfish humor snuck in right before the intermission with “The Sleigh” (a La Russe) of “Woody Woodpecker” cartoon fame (yes, as in Walter Lantz). It’s a favorite CAE holiday offering. Woody and choir exit stage left.

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Portland embraces Odissi Indian dance at first festival

One of India’s eight classical dance forms, Odissi is not often performed locally. Extraordinary performances made the case for changing that.

This fall, Portland, Oregon, saw its first-ever Odissi dance festival, and it was extraordinary. The 8th Kelucharan Guna Keertanam (it has been offered previously in major Indian and U.S. cities), was produced as a fundraiser for, and in partnership with, the Pratham Education Foundation. Directed by Odissi dancer and choreographer Aparupa Chatterjee, it paid homage to the late Shri Kelucharan Mohapatra, the legendary Indian classical dancer, guru, and exponent of Odissi dance, credited with helping revive and popularize this ancient form in the 20th century. The festival, held Sept. 23, featured Mohapatra’s son, Ratikant Mohapatra; Chatterjee and her Texas-based ensemble, the Odissi Dance Company; and Washington State’s Urvasi Dance Ensemble, directed by Ratna Roy.

Because Odissi is deeply rooted in Jagannath culture and Hindu religious practices, using a church as a performance venue made sense. The Portland program took place downtown in the First Congregational United Church of Christ. This beautiful, 1800s-era Venetian Gothic church has stained glass windows, a bell tower, and an elaborate pipe organ, encased in finely carved dark wood, that reaches up toward the domed ceiling. This backdrop rivaled the majesty of the Odissi dance tradition itself.

Odissi Dance Conpany’s Artistic Director Aparupa Chatterjee with Tanvi Prasad, Divya Srinivasa, Divya Chowdhary, Swati Yarlagadda, and Ramyani Roy. Photo by Sarathy Jayakumar.

One of India’s eight classical dance forms, Odissi originated in India’s eastern state of Odisha and draws from the Mahari temple dance tradition, the Gotipua tradition (male dancers who dress as women), and the Bandha Nritya and Chau martial arts traditions. It also draws on information gleaned from the relief sculptures on temple walls and from Natya Shastra, a Sanskrit text on the performing arts written by Bharata Muni sometime between 200 BCE and 500 CE.

After India’s independence from Great Britain in 1947, there was a movement to revive Indian cultural traditions that had been suppressed and even criminalized by the British during their reign. Although Odissi had existed long before, it was formalized in the 1950s by a group of Orissan artists called the Jayantika.

Odissi as we now know it combines emotional expression with intricate footwork, sculptural poses, and storytelling. In Odissi, every part of the body is involved in the dance, from the eyes to the toes, and all the parts move independently. Odissi has two stances, chaukha and tribhangi, upon which all of the dances are built. Chauka is a wide, deeply bent, turned-out position, very similar to ballet’s second position. Tribhangi means “three parts break” and consists of bends at the neck, waist and knee, creating an S curve in the body. There are 10 steps each in chauka and tribhangi that correspond to the number of beats in each step.

ODC presented six dances, performed by Chatterjee and dancers Aswati Nandakumar, Divya Chowdhary, Divya Srinivasa, Ramyani Roy, Sadrita Mondal, Swati Yarlagadda, Tanvi Prasad, Veena Surya, and Yashaswini Raghuram. Dances included two works by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra: Dashavatar, a depiction of Lord Vishnu’s ten avatars, and Vande Mataram, an invocation and tribute to mother India. Ratikant Mohapatra’s Patadeep Pallavi and Natangi were both pure technical dance without narrative. Chatterjee’s Jo bajhe Hari Ko Sada described Krishna or god as the ultimate goal of one’s life, and her work with Ratikant Mohapatra, Ye Ho Vithala, described Krishna’s beauty.

Odissi Dance Company dancers Divya Srinivasa, Yashaswini Raghuram, Swati Yarlagadda, Ramyani Roy, Tanvi Prasad, Aswati Nandakumar, and Veena Surya. Photo by Sarathy Jayakumar.

Because of the synchronicity in their movements and form, you might assume that the ODC dancers live near each other and practice together often. But they all live in different states around the U.S. They learn from Chatterjee, practice daily on their own, and rehearse together several times a week online. Considering that most Odissi dance is performed solo, it’s a powerful experience to see an idea multiplied by a full company: it makes statements and ideas that much stronger. The choreography, which felt fresh and new but stayed true to traditional Odissi vocabulary, is a credit to the continued efforts of Chatterjee and Ratikant Mohapatra to contemporize Odissi. It played with patterns, formations, and relationships, creating tableaux that brought to life the stories and personalities of Hindu mythology.

ODC performed together seamlessly as a company; the choreography, in fact, isn’t intended to draw attention to any one individual. But I will say that my eye was often drawn to Chatterjee, an exceptional dancer and mesmerizing performer. She fully embodies the form and expresses an array of emotions while she dances. For her, performing seems as natural as breathing. I also enjoyed Chowdhary, whose serene facial expressions and soft lyrical movements, juxtaposed with her grounded presence, made for a dynamic performance. Raghuram is also an exceptional performer whose movements are quick and strong as well as soft and lyrical, sometimes reminding me of a hummingbird.

Odissi dancer Ratikant Mohapatra in “Shabari.” Photo by Sarathy Jayakumar.

Ratikant Mohapatra choreographed and performed the solo Shabari, about a woman who, after a lifetime of waiting, finally meets Lord Rama. Mohapatra’s quiet, introspective, unadorned performance moved me to tears. His expressions and gestures very clearly depicted Shabari’s longing and love for Lord Rama. I was amazed that such a “simple” dance could so powerfully transcend time and geography to communicate so effectively.

The Urvasi Dance Ensemble performed two works; Bandha Thali Sthayi, which combines three Odissi dance styles (Sthayi, Bandha, Thali), and Shakti, a depiction of primal female power inspired by Roy’s research of the Yogini and Shakti temples in Odisha. The choreography is by Roy and Guru Pankaj Charan Das, and is derived from the Mahari temple dancer tradition. Guru Pankaj Charan Das was the adopted son of an original mahari and was one of the dance gurus who helped reconstruct and popularize Odissi. The performers–Marissa Betz-Zall, Moria Chappell, Sukanya Nanda, Douglas Ridings, Jamie Lynn Colley, Ashlesha Mishra, Megha Mishra, and Suma Mondal–wore red-and-black Odissi costumes, a nice visual counterbalance to ODC’s brighter, jeweled-toned costumes.

Urvasi Dance Ensemble’s Moria Chappell, Douglas Ridings and Marissa Betz-Zall. Photo by Sarathy Jayakumar.

Toward the end of Bandha Thali Sthayi, the Urvasi dancers broke from the dancing and collected the medium-sized brass plates they had entered with; these held two smaller plates and two candles. After splitting into two lines, the three dancers in the back row balanced the smaller plates on their hands while spinning on their knees. Ridings and Chappell, in the front row, performed headstands on the plates while slowly moving their legs in and out of splits in the air. Viewers were so wowed by Urvasi’s acrobatic skills that they jumped out of their seats and rushed toward the stage to take pictures.

Shakti was no less resplendent, with intense energy, spinning knee crawls, yogic hand balances, dramatic backbends, and a tableau depicting the multi-armed warrior goddess Durga; another form of the goddess Shakti. In a dramatic moment, Ridings, lying with his back on the floor, held Chappell above him by her shoulders and hips in a flying warrior yoga pose, her arms outstretched, back arched, and legs pointed toward the sky in a diamond.

Urvasi Dance Ensemble’s  Moria Chappell and Douglas Ridings. Photo by Sarathy Jayakumar.

Odissi dance demands athletic rigor, grace, emotional and spiritual investment, and strong technique. (Full disclosure: I study Odissi dance with ODC member Yashaswini Raghuram). In Odissi, the dancer is the personification of the music. Whenever I watch an Odissi dancer, I imagine that I am seeing the sounds of the instruments emanating from the movements of the dancer’s body. I see the drum when the dancer’s feet strike the floor; the softer, more melodic sounds of the flute and the tanpura when the torso and arms move; and the metallic ding of the rhythmic brass cymbals when a dancer’s head moves side to side, causing the jhumka earrings to sway.

I hope this festival will continue here in Portland, grow to include more styles of Odissi dance, partner with other cultural organizations to create new audiences, and match the variety and popularity of established Indian dance festivals like New York’s Erasing Borders and Drive East.

State of the art, art of the state

2018 in Review, Part 2: From Ashland to Astoria to Bend and beyond, twenty terrific tales about art and culture around Oregon

In 2018 ArtsWatch writers spent a lot of time out and about the state, putting the “Oregon” into “Oregon ArtsWatch.” Theater in Ashland and Salem. Green spaces and Maori clay artists in Astoria. A carousel in Albany. Aztec dancing in Newberg. Music in Eugene, Springfield, Bend, the Rogue Valley, McMinnville, Lincoln City, Florence, Willamette Valley wine country. Museum and cultural center art exhibits in Coos Bay and Newberg and Newport and Salem. Art banners in Nye Beach. A 363-mile art trail along the coast.

In 2018 we added to our team of writers in Eugene and elsewhere weekly columnists David Bates in Yamhill County and Lori Tobias on the Oregon Coast, plus regional editor Karen Pate. We expect to have even more from around Oregon in 2019.

Twenty terrific tales from around the state in 2018:

 



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The Original Tesla

“Tesla”: The wireless joint is jumpin’.

Jan. 11: “Clean energy. Wireless charging. A world connected by invisible communication technology. For many,” Brett Campbell writes,” they’re today’s reality, tomorrow’s hope — but they were first realistically envisioned more than a century ago by a a Serbian-American immigrant whose name most of us only know because a new car is named after him. … ‘He’s an unsung hero,” Brad Garner, who choreographed and directs Tesla: Light, Sound, Color, a multidisciplinary show about the technological genius Nikola Tesla that played in Eugene, Bend, and Portland, tells Campbell. ‘We wouldn’t have cell phones and power in our homes without his work. He was an immigrant with an American dream who changed the world.”

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“Bell, Book, & Candle”: bewitched, bothered, bewildered

Bag & Baggage brews up a cauldron of comic fun and theatrical magic but underplays the dark currents of a story about social outsiders.

When I was a kid watching sitcom reruns, I had a major crush on Samantha Stevens, the good witch played by Elizabeth Montgomery in the long running ‘60s TV series Bewitched. I was even more, er, enchanted by her crazy supernatural family, including Paul Lynde’s goofy Uncle Arthur and Sam’s sly mom, Endora, perfectly overplayed with delicious wink and bite (and glorious caftans) by the great Agnes Moorhead.

Bewitched’s story grew directly from its primary inspiration: British-American playwright John Van Druten’s popular 1950 play Bell, Book and Candle, turned into a smash 1958 film starring sometime Oregonian Kim Novak, James Stewart, and Jack Lemmon.  Van Druten’s original, in a spiffy Bag & Baggage production, adds a welcome dose of theatrical magic to this holiday season; it even has a first act set at Christmas, in a stylishly rendered mid-century New York.

The uses of enchantment: Norman Wilson (from left), Jessi Walters and Kymberli Colbourne in the Bag & Baggage production of “Bell, Book & Candle.” Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Yet I suspect director Scott Palmer shared my infatuation with Samantha’s crazy magical family members because this production portrays them more like the TV show’s zany characters than the nastier counterparts in Van Druten’s play script. Bell Book & Candle isn’t Bewitched, and this production’s direction — however, er, bewitching — sometimes clashes with the darker story Van Druten tells.

Spellbound

When SWF (Single Witch Female) Gillian learns that Shep, a publisher she’s crushing on who moved in to her building recently, is about to marry her childhood school nemesis, Gillian sees her chance for revenge. In the twinkle of a nose (actually a cat-assisted spell), Shep is ensorcelled into unbounded ardor for Gillian.

Complications arrive in the characters of an author who’s investigating witchery for a book, and one of his primary sources, who happens to be Gillian’s decadent brother, Nicky. Fearing Shep, who might publish it, will learn of her witchy powers — and that their love is based on magical rather than mutual attraction — Gillian squares off with Nicky, with his book and her relationship with Shep in the balance. The familiar (to any Bewitched fan) battle between her desire for human love, and her family and heritage, is on.

But BB&C is no frothy sitcom story. Beneath the urban fantasy facade lies a surprisingly deep and occasionally dark drama about family conflict, self-determination, and regret. Can love won under false pretenses ever be real? Gaining traction in the second act, the play proceeds entertainingly and ultimately movingly to provide some hard-earned, and heart-tugging answers in the touching third act. Though it avoids Hallmark sentimentality, BB&C is a holiday gift that resonates today more deeply than much holiday fare.

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Fresh, vibrant, still the ‘Nutcracker’

Oregon Ballet Theatre brings a sparkling musical vitality to its newest run of "The Nutcracker." Now, let's talk about Tea and Coffee.

Oregon Ballet Theatre has opened its current run of George Balanchine’s ®The Nutcracker at the Keller Auditorium with a meticulously detailed, swiftly paced, high-energy performance of a ballet that can be a chore for people like me to watch. And I say that as a critic, but also as a grandmother, dedicated to instilling in my grandchildren the notion that live performance is much more exciting than anything they might see on their ubiquitous screens. Which means I’ve seen more Nutcrackers than I can count, never mind remember, in forty years of watching dance professionally; this particular production at least a dozen times.

Much of the energy of Saturday afternoon’s unofficial opening of this 19-performance run—the official opening was Saturday night, with a different, and I daresay equally good, cast—can be attributed to the orchestra. Under the experienced baton of OBT Music Director Niel De Ponte it played Tchaikovsky’s complex if familiar score with new freshness, and an accelerated tempo for the ballet’s Christmas Eve festivities that made them as effervescent as a glass of Veuve Clicquot.

Chauncey Parsons as Cavalier and Xuan Cheng as Sugarplum Fairy in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 2017 “Nutcracker.” Cheng will dance Sugar Plum to Brian Simcoe’s Cavalier in performances this year. Parsons is dancing his final Cavalier with Ansa Capizzi as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Photo: James McGrew

This is far from always the case: When Balanchine premiered his Nutcracker in a slightly different version in 1954, an unnamed poet commented that the party scene was “so deliciously boring [I] could see it again and again.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: American holidays

Along with abundant traditional European Christmas music, Oregon concerts offer American angles on holiday music, music mixed with theater, film, dance, and more

Millions of Americans celebrate Christmas, but let’s face it, the Yuletide is hardly an American original. Sometimes it seems that about all we’ve contributed to a story that began in the Middle East and was St. Nicked by Europeans, is our characteristic commercialization of what was once a spiritual occasion.

Actually, Americans have over the years made the mid-winter holiday — like so many other cultural artifacts that originated elsewhere — our own through music, and you can hear some of it on Oregon stages this week.

• Based on the memoir by iconic Portland stripper / author Viva Las Vegas, Viva’s Holiday scored a surprisingly young and diverse audience in its 2015 and 2016 performances. Set in her family’s Minnesota home during a Christmas visit, Portland composer Christopher Corbell’s intimate, one-act Christmas opera recounts Viva’s declaration of independence from family expectations, socially approved careers, and occasionally clothing — a perfect Portland-style twist on standard holiday themes. Already revived once, Corbell’s lyrical music, which embraces both classical traditions and his own singer-songwriter background, has now received a splendid recording by a twelve-piece orchestra and four opera singers conducted by former Opera Theater Oregon artistic director Erica Melton. This Cult of Orpheus concert (i.e. unstaged) performance includes all the music, minus costumes, sets and stage action, plus a set by Portland’s early French sex music trio Bergerette (which has a close connection to Viva), plus a chance to buy the newly released CD. Let’s hope Santa brings a full re-staging during a future holiday season. Read ArtsWatch’s review and feature story about the original production.
Saturday, Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland.

• Violin deity Mark O’Connor, who’s developed an entire music ed curriculum that introduces American kids to music using our own folk traditions rather than centuries-old European pedagogy. Possibly the world’s greatest fiddler, the Seattle-born star brings the sound of his popular “Appalachia Waltz” combo to holiday music when his crack band and singer Brandy Clark perform the music from his hit 2011 album An Appalachian Christmas this week in Portland and Eugene. The Grammy-winning fiddle virtuoso (who’s also won major awards for his guitar and mandolin skill) composer (nine concertos, two symphonies, three string quartets and counting), studio musician, and educator may have worked with some of the world’s most renowned musicians, from Yo Yo Ma to Earl Scruggs to Wynton Marsalis, but he really enjoys playing with his family and friends. What better time to do that during the holidays? His O’Connor Band features his wife and fellow fiddler/ singer Peggy, champion mandolinist son Forrest, national flatpack champ guitarist Joe Smart, banjoist/bassist Geoff Saunders giving carols and other holiday standards given a warm, all American bluegrass/folk inflection.
Wednesday, McDonald Theatre, Eugene, and Friday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

Mark O’Connor Family Band performs “An Appalachian Christmas” Wednesday in Eugene and Friday in Portland. Photo: All Classical Portland

Music & Theater & More

Along with Viva’s Holiday and Portland annual Christmas Revels, which is more theatrical than musical though worth seeing on both counts, on Sunday, Eugene Concert Choir presents its fully staged musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A Dickens of a Christmas includes plenty of seasonally appropriate sounds that you nevertheless don’t hear ad nauseam in stores and commercials everywhere this time of year. ECC artistic director Diane Retallack has placed the ghost of Christmas Past’s setting in a Renaissance Feast, with appropriate madrigals and carols performed by the costumed “Lords and Ladies” of Eugene Vocal Arts in Elizabethan attire and accompanied by Byrdsong Consort. The ghost of Christmas Present inhabits Dickens’s mid-19th century Britain, with English carols and other music of the period, including Arthur Sullivan’s (of Gilbert &) Handelian Festival Te Deum, accompanied by Eugene Concert Orchestra. The ghost of Christmas Future appears in a “raucous, kitschy look at contemporary culture” with flash mob, break dancing, circusy acrobatics, an Elvis impersonator, and Churchill High School’s Concert Choir. This colorful experience is more than just a concert, featuring costumes, sets, theatrical lighting and sound, action, pageantry, choreography and of course Dickens’s immortal story of Scrooge and the rest.

Eugene Vocal Arts members don Renaissance garb at Eugene Concert Choir’s ‘A Dickens of a Christmas.’

And don’t forget about this weekend’s concluding concerts in a couple other music-meets-theater runs we’ve told you about in earlier MusicWatches:

• Portland Opera to Go’s kid-friendly, bilingual production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, at Portland’s Hampton Opera Center, 211 SE Caruthers Street, and

 The Shedd’s production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, at Eugene’s Jaqua Concert Hall, 285 E Broadway.

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Processing Loss at Lewis & Clark

Mark R. Smith and Maria T.D. Inocencio's Loss of Material Evidence

Mark R. Smith and Maria T.D. Inocencio’s exhibition, Loss of Material Evidence, closed on Sunday, December 9th. The works in the show successfully take on one of art’s highest callings: to make visible the unspeakable, here an exploration of grief. The irony of course is that this exhibition about loss also marks the end of an era for the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art at Lewis & Clark. Only a few days prior to the closing of this exhibition, it was announced that the long-time gallery director and curator, Linda Tesner, had been let go. So the end of the show coincides with the end of the gallery, one loss merging with the other.

It would be a mistake, however, to let sadness over the loss of Tesner and concern over the future fate of the Hoffman Gallery to overshadow the achievements of Smith and Inocencio. The show was beautiful in concept and in execution. Inspired by the aging and inevitable loss of the artists’ parents, the works in the show are a meditation on death and the accumulation of things. The lament is tempered by a hopeful note of celebration of the power of family and community. Grief is felt and processed and then, ultimately, transformative.

Maria T.D. Inocencio and Mark R. Smith, “Time Tunnel” (2017). Reclaimed textiles, thread, glue, canvas.

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