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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MusicWatch Weekly: Music Notes

Rounding up spring and summer news in Oregon music

The annual summer slowdown in Oregon’s live music season gives us a chance to catch up on some recent news. Do check out other events this week we’ve already previewed elsewhere, including a pair of vintage shows: an encore of a Aquilon Music Festival opera Thursday in Dundee, and Willamette Valley Music Festival’s closing weekend concerts (Saturday’s is sold out but Sunday’s has tickets available) featuring a string quartet by Rebecca Clarke, cello and violin duets by Philip Glass (from his Double Concerto), and one of the pinnacles of 19th century chamber music, Schubert’s Cello Quintet. Read Angela Allen’s ArtsWatch preview.

Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival concludes Sunday.

Arrivals

Third Angle New Music has selected Sarah Tiedemann as its fifth artistic director. After a national search, the Portland flutist, educator and arts administrator, who’s been interim artistic director since the organization abruptly parted ways with longtime AD Ron Blessinger (who quickly landed at 45th Parallel Universe), won the position over a couple dozen well qualified applicants. In addition to several performances with the 33-year-old Portland new music ensemble, Tiedemann has played with the Oregon Symphony, Oregon Ballet Theatre Orchestra, Chamber Music Northwest and Salem Chamber Orchestra. Read my ArtsWatch story about Third Angle’s future, including an interview with Tiedemann.

Sarah Tiedemann performed on a different instrument at a Third Angle concert. Photo: Jacob Wade.

PDX Jazz, Portland’s jazz music presenting organization, has named Christopher Doss its first executive director. A former managing director of Monterey Jazz Festival founding marketing executive of Dallas’s AT&T Performing Arts Center, Doss has worked in performing arts for two decades, and will work alongside veteran artistic director Don Lucoff.

Laurels

• Oregon composer Andrea Reinkemeyer was one of only three American composers to receive $15,000 Women Composers Commissions from the League of American Orchestras. (The Linfield College music professor’s fellow honorees, Stacy Garrop and Robin Holcomb, are well known in contemporary classical music circles.) Reinkemeyer’s new composition will be premiered by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in January 2019. Let’s hope an Oregon orchestra performs it soon. What we’ve heard of her music in Oregon makes her one of the state’s most promising compositional voices.

Composer Andrea Reinkemeyer.

• Speaking of prestigious premieres, Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, one of the great East Coast classical music summer events, featured the world premiere of a new commissioned work (his second for the festival) from Oregon composer Kenji Bunch at its August 5 concert in the Hamptons. The festival teems with Chamber Music Northwest regulars; maybe we’ll get to hear it there someday.

• Another rising young Portland composer, Justin Ralls, won third place in the American Prize student composition competition for his Tree Ride.

Cult of Orpheus composer Christopher Corbell has been awarded a Career Opportunity Grant from the Oregon Arts Commission and Oregon Community Foundation to support the recording of a full-length album of original vocal works by Corbell, featuring Cult of Orpheus troupe singers and chamber musicians. Read my ArtsWatch story about the Cult and preview of its Saturday show, a five-year retrospective of Corbell’s music at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre.

• University of Oregon alum Huck Hodge, who now teaches at the University of Washington, won the $200,000 Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Chosen by a panel of distinguished American composers, the award aims “to free a promising American composer from the need to devote his or her time to any employment other than music composition.”

Michael Harrison

• Still another UO alumnus, the great New York composer Michael Harrison, received a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship to create a new work for the terrific new music band Alarm Will Sound. Harrison, who grew up in Eugene, won the UO’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2014. Read my Oregon Quarterly profile.

• More Third Angle news: the organization has received a $90,000 grant from the Creative Heights Initiative of the Oregon Community Foundation to produce Sanctuaries, an original contemporary chamber opera composed by Portland composer/educator/pianist Darrell Grant set to the rhythms of jazz and slam poetry, which explores gentrification and the displacement of residents of color in Portland’s historically African-American Albina district.

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MusicWatch Weekly: festival season

Summer festivals bring old and new sounds to Oregon -- including music by Oregon composers

It’s not just the thermometer that’s heating up — summer music festival season is officially underway, bringing with it music by Oregon composers.

Wednesday’s Astoria Music Festival concert at Astoria’s Clatsop Community College Performing Arts Center, 588 16th Street, features a dozen works by Cascadia Composers, including David Bernstein, Daniel Brugh, Paul Safar, Jennifer Wright, ArtsWatch’s own Jeff Winslow and Matthew Andrews, and more. Some of the performers — including Delgani String Quartet, pianist Asya Gulua, singer Catherine Olson and more — are among Oregon’s finest.

Monica Huggett and Adam LaMotte headline Astoria Music Festival’s baroque concert.

Other Astoria shows feature a whole lotta Bach, including Saturday’s highly recommended all-Bach concert featuring Portland Baroque Orchestra violinist and director Monica Huggett, fellow PBO violinist Adam LaMotte, star baroque flutist Janet See, and excellent keyboardist Janet Coleman on harpsichord. Chopin Competition gold medalist Ilya Kazantsev and award winning cellist Sergey Antonov play more Bach Saturday, with live painting by Astoria’s own Darren Orange. Antonov and pianist Cary Lewis perform Bach’s viola da gamba and harpsichord sonatas on equal tempered cello and piano Tuesday. Kazantsev plays a Rachmaninoff recital Thursday, and joins other festival stars in Shostakovich and Schubert Friday. Puccini’s classic opera Tosca Sunday afternoon at lovely Liberty Theatre features several Met soloists including Richard Keller and Angela Brown.

The other major highly recommended, locally sourced concert this week is Saturday night’s Cult of Orpheus album release at southeast Portland’s TaborSpace. The new album from one of Oregon’s most distinctive musical voices, Portland composer Christopher Corbell’s splendid new Sacred Works I: The Emerald Tablet touches on subjects from Sufi song cycle to medieval mystery cults and more. Check out some tracks at the Cult’s YouTube channel.

Resonance Ensemble brings to a close a fascinating season that squarely and obliquely addressed some of today’s most pressing issues with “BODIES” Sunday afternoon at northeast Portland’s Cerimon House, 5131 NE 23rd Ave. An official event of Pride Northwest, the program includes selections from a major recent work Considering Matthew Shepard, by Craig Hella Johnson, who directs the superb Austin-based vocal ensemble Conspirare. Other highlights include music from Dominick DiOrio’s The Visible World, a composition about marriage equality from diverse historical perspectives and from composer Laura Kaminsky’s As One. Along with the top-notch Resonance regulars, guests include erstwhile Portlander Stephen Marc Beaudoin back on a visit to sing pieces by gay composers, pianist David Saffert, and Resonance poet in residence S. Renee Mitchell performing an original work written for this show.

Resonance Ensemble performs Sunday afternoon at Portland’s Cerimon House.

Astoria isn’t the only coastal musical extravaganza. Siletz Bay Music Festival tees off at Lincoln City Cultural Center with a Wednesday recital featuring violinist Asi Matathias and pianist Victor Stanislavsky in sonatas by Grieg, Mendelssohn, Saint Saens and more. Tuesday’s show offers Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata and Oregon Symphony concertmaster Sarah Kwak with pianist Mei-Ting Sun in Cesar Franck’s ever-popular Violin Sonata. Sun returns for Friday’s all-Beethoven piano recital and Sunday’s chamber music concert featuring 20th century sounds by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Francis Poulenc’s sparkling Clarinet Sonata featuring the great jazz clarinetist Ken Peplowski. Kwak then joins the fun for Schumann’s famous Piano Quintet.

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’The Emerald Tablet’ and ‘Nonsense’ reviews: from playground to pulpit

A pair of Portland composer showcases range from the delightfully ridiculous to the seriously sublime

Last month saw two concerts of new, made-in-Portland music, each entirely devoted to a single Portland composer. Both create contemporary classical music music influenced by music from outside the classical realm.

And that’s about the only similarity between the music of Dan Brugh and Christopher Corbell. The former trained at a prestigious music academy (Interlochen) before matriculating at the University of Oregon, while the latter is mostly self taught. Brugh’s music incorporates electronic elements including synthesizers more commonly used in pop music, while Corbell, a folk-rock singer songwriter before embarking on the study and creation of contemporary art music, draws on ancient and modern folk and classical influences.

The music reflected the two composers’ divergent personalities too. Attending Brugh’s show was like jumping into his personal musical playground, a Brian Wilson sandbox of diverse musical and optical colors, cool synthesizers, imaginative sounds, absurdist verse, even giant mechanical flying fish.

Brugh, Wright and unidentified flying fish in “Nonsense.” Photo: Matias Brecher.

Corbell is as outwardly focused as Brugh looks inward. The former Classical Revolution PDX leader thinks and feels a lot about contemporary political and social issues, and passionately expresses his beliefs in his music and writings.

Both concerts mostly succeeded in reaching beyond their inventive creators’ own fertile imaginations and connecting with audiences. While Brugh’s was mostly about the wild, sometimes wacky world in his own head, Corbell’s looked outward, to the equally tumultuous world around him, and us.

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MusicWatch Weekly: gratitunes

Oregon music to be grateful for during Thanksgiving week

Even on this traditionally home-focused Thanksgiving week, several attractive concerts, like Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends, and Friday’s Portland Cellohead Project show have already sold out, but if you’re craving a euphonic dessert after Thursday’s feasting (assuming you’re one of the lucky ones who are able to feast at this time of surging Oregon homelessness), here’s some recommendations from Oregon’s musical menus. If you have other recommendations, please list in the comments section below. And enjoy this holiday devoted to gratitude. We ArtsWatchers are certainly grateful to our readers and supporters for helping us bring Oregon arts to you all year. If you’d like to express your gratitude in a tangible way that will help us do that, here’s how.

Christopher Corbell’s music is showcased at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall Tuesday. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

Mannheim Steamroller
Oregon Symphony members join the long-running synth-stoked holiday music show (actually born not in Germany but in Omaha) that’s so popular it’s performing in two cities hundreds of miles apart on the same night during this tour.
Friday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, and Sunday, Hult Center, Eugene.

Portland Cello Project
Friday’s show is sold out, but you can catch the celloriffic ensemble’s tribute to OK Computer — still my fave Radiohead album — that requires a full band, winds and brass to even attempt to capture its dark richness.
Saturday, Revolution Hall, Portland.

FearNoMusic
Classical composers including Brahms, the French composers known as Les Six, and others have occasionally teamed up to write a collaborative composition, and that’s what Portland’s fearless new music ensemble asked four of Portland’s best (and very different) composers to do for them. Renee Favand-See, Texu Kim, Mike Hsu, and Jay Derderian have each written a movement for flute, viola and piano based on material from a famous Franz Liszt bagatelle. The show also includes separate music by another Portlander, Ryan Francis, and two acclaimed non Oregonians, Armenian-American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian and Israeli-American composer Shulamit Ran.
Monday, The Old Church, Portland.

Paquito d’Rivera performs at Portland State Monday.

Paquito D’Rivera
The jazz show — make that shows — of the week features a fourteen-time Grammy-winner who also boasts an NEA Jazz Masters Award, National Medal of the Arts and more. The Havana-born composer, saxophonist and clarinet virtuoso plays his music and arrangements in three different settings: with the PSU Jazz Ensemble; with a chamber ensemble featuring PSU faculty artists Hamilton Cheifetz, Julia Lee and Darrell Grant; and with a quintet led by one of Oregon’s own finest jazz artists, keyboard master/composer/PSU prof George Colligan.
Monday, Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

Cult of Orpheus
Ace Portland composer Christopher Corbell follows his 2015 hit local opera Viva’s Holiday, with Daphne, a mythological opera miniature; The Emerald Tablet, a new work for vocal quartet and string quartet inspired by an influential alchemic text and informed by baroque and earlier influences; his new string quartet Give them space, commissioned for Keller Auditorium’s centennial; and music from his forthcoming two-act opera, Antigone and Haimon, for chorus, winds, and percussion, all performed by top Portland musicians. Corbell’s imaginative evolutions out of classic forms like opera and art song, enriched by his earlier singer-songwriter expertise, into a cohesive, compelling 21st century art music (or as he puts it, “poetic utterance and organic melody-based composition”) constitute one of Oregon music’s most fascinating ongoing developments. The former Classical Revolution PDX leader’s determination to glean the best from ancient forms born in aristocratic or otherwise anti-democratic contexts and infuse them with his original, contemporary artistic sensibility and progressive ideals is especially welcome in this (temporary, we hope) reactionary moment.
Tuesday, The Old Church Concert Hall, Portland.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

MusicWatch Weekly: autumn bounty

This week's Oregon music highlights

In one of the peak weeks in the fall season of Oregon music, terling sopranos sing old and new songs, and other highlights include contemporary electronica, jazz, choral music, and sounds from Argentina, Mali, Japan, Europe, and beyond — including Oregon composers. Please add your recommendations in the comments section below.

BallakŽe Sissoko and Vincent Segal perform Tuesday at Portland’s Old Church concert hall. Photo: Claude Gassian.

Julianne Baird and Marcia Hadjimarkos
The superb early music soprano and the acclaimed Portland-born pianist, long based in Europe, perform music from Jane Austen’s world. The immortal writer was also a musician who practiced pop tunes of her time on fortepiano (which Hadjimarkos will, appropriately, play here) daily before breakfast, and filled her room with sheet music and her books and letters with references to public and private music events. Along with music by Haydn, Handel, Gluck, and more, including female songwriters, the show features songs about country life, drinking, and love, plus Turkish and Moorish motifs, female character pieces, and songs about naval victories and the French Revolution. A pair of narrators interpolate readings from Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and more.
Wednesday, Hudson Hall, Willamette University, Salem.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith performs Thursday in Portland.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
The Orcas Island native, now based in LA, has moved from the contemporary classical niche to broader acclaim and audiences in electronic music, including opening for Animal Collective and collaborating Suzanne Ciani. The synth-savvy sound sculptor is releasing three albums this year to go with five earlier releases, numerous film scores, and more.
Thursday, Doug Fir Lounge. Portland.

Eugene Symphony
When the rising young pianist Conrad Tao appeared at the University of Oregon’s Beall Hall in 2011, he was a 17-year-old prodigy who could seemingly almost play masterpieces with one hand tied behind his back. Having grown both a beard and a reputation as a solid performer and composer, he’ll almost get the chance in Maurice Ravel’s dramatic 1931 piano concerto written for the great Austrian virtuoso Paul Wittgenstein, who’d lost his right arm to a Russian bullet in World War I. He’ll also solo in Liszt’s wild, colorful 1838 Dance of Death (Totentanz), and the orchestra will play a Mozart symphony about which its composer wrote, “I hope that even these idiots will find something in it to like.” He was talking about Parisians, not Oregonians, who’ll find plenty to enjoy in Mozart’s so-nicknamed Paris Symphony.
Thursday, Hult Center, Eugene.

Marquis Hill’s Blacktet plays two shows in Portland.

Marquis Hill Blacktet
The 2014 Thelonious Monk competition winner earned further notice with his gig in Joe Lovano’s band, and the sweet toned trumpeter has become a fine bandleader himself with this group that integrates bop, hip hop and R&B. Two shows.
Thursday, Fremont Theater, Portland.

Third Angle New Music & Tony Arnold
The Portland new music string quartet and New York new music soprano team up in music by the fine California composer Gabriela Lena Frank, colorful Australian composer Brett Dean, Greek-French composer Georges Aperghis, and midcentury Italian modernist Luciano Berio. Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch preview of the same team’s Creative Academy of Music concert Saturday.
Thursday and Friday, Studio 2 @ N.E.W. Portland.

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble
The plucky organization dedicated to cultivating 21st century music by Portland composers and improvisers celebrates its tenth anniversary with a a TED-style talk from Executive Director Douglas Detrick, silent auction with some really enticing offers, and three pieces of music that tell the PJCE story—by PJCE founding Executive Director Andrew Oliver, former Grasshoppers (the young composers mentored by established Portland jazz musicians via PJCE’s admirable program) mentee Andres Moreno, and the world premiere of a new piece by one of Portland’s busiest and most inventive musicians, drummer/composer/improviser Barra Brown.
Friday, Fremont Theater, Portland.

Sound of Late
The exciting Portland/Seattle ensemble gives the West Coast premieres of music by youngish British composer Anna Clyne (former composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony and other orchestras) and Sarah Kirkland Snider, plus works by by Japanese composer Somei Satoh, Italian modernist Giacinto Scelsi, and the world premiere of a new piece by young Seattle composer Noel Kennon. The show is enhanced by video art by Seattle artist Stefan Gonzales.
Saturday, N.E.W. Expressive Works, Portland.

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Theater for Barbarians

Portland productions of Greek theater classics tell us more about contemporary America than ancient Greece

by MARIA CHOBAN

In the midst of her Medea-like rage, I attempted to calm the beautiful, passionate Greek mother of my teen-aged piano student. “Stella!” I snapped, “I am trying to keep you from killing your son and feeding him to his father for dinner tonight!”

We laughed. But we also acknowledged the unfettered emotional intensity impossible for Greeks to suppress. Family killings in retribution for other family killings (and curses) come alive in Greek mythology and Greek drama because Greeks feel viscerally/violently, and express it to each other cleanly, graphically, without shame. There are no hidden meanings, there is no irony. There are consequences for our unmitigated impulsive behaviors and in Greek theater they play out Quentin Tarantino brutal and David Mamet blunt.

We probably can’t replicate the inside of another time and culture’s heads. That’s okay, because for me, it’s fascinating insight into our own when we try. This season, I’ve seen several Portland adaptations of Greek classics that revealed insights into 20th and 21st century American culture via their contrast with the approaches and emotions of the Greek originators of theater as we know it. And last week, I finally found one that gets closer to the Greeks!

Antigone 2.0

In last fall’s The Antigone Project, Profile Theater gave us five contemporary writers’ skits inspired by Sophocles’s Antigone story.

1. Hang Ten by Karen Hartman — a fun fast opener with lots of energy about surfer girls and guy falling in love. Kind of like early Aaron Sorkin dialogue.

2. Medallion by Tanya Barfield — A mother seeks some sort of remembrance for her dead son’s sacrifice from an angst-ridden Colonel Klink.

3. Antigone Arke by Caridad Svich — Cool rope trick. The concept of setting the story as a virtual experience — watching an actress hologramming Antigone imprisoned, left to die — with a 21st century docent guiding us was fun. Maybe that’s all it had to be. Too long.

4. A Stone’s Throw by Lynn Nottage — Village woman makes the choice to believe in a stranger’s love, overriding her own good sense. He disappears. She’s condemned to die by stoning. Her horrified friend presses her to run away.

5. Red Again by Chiori Miyagawa — Future meets past as the dead Antigone in Hades reads about our world in unfinished books that update continuously while her sister, who chose life over an ideal cause to die for, lives the catastrophes Antigone reads….

Profile Theatre’s ‘The Antigone Project.’

Sophocles’s Antigone, one of his earliest plays, is a ham-fisted Tarantino extravaganza that accelerates to cataclysmic catharsis. It’s a summer blockbuster, perfect for audiences looking for surly, comic-book lines flung back and forth by two-dimensional characters and death. Lots of death. Plot: Antigone tries to convince her uncle Creon, ruler of Thebes, to overlook her killed brother-turned-traitor’s attack on Thebes and to give him a proper burial. Uncle won’t relent so it all ends in tears death.

When I lived in Greece during Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, all hell broke in America over this misuse of power — an older male superior over a younger bimbo. Greece laughed at us, pointing to her own prime minister who on television exited planes with his hand held up to help his young bimbo mistress down the stairs, his American wife left at home. The two cultures could not understand what the other culture saw, felt, reacted to.

Ditto Antigone. Greeks forged a kind of hyper-realistic drama that hinges on capturing character in depth. We’ve been practicing this ability for as long as we’ve gathered with our Greek friends for gossip; greeting the coffee klatch with Pion thavoume simera?”  (“Who are we burying today?) We bury our friends and enemies with insightful malicious character assassination, we psychoanalyze, we spill our guts. And then we write a play about it. (Something we never do is ostracize those we gossip about; they still remain within the family.)

The difference between a gathering of Greek friends in Athens and a gathering of American friends here is the difference between 4Chan and Facebook. Like 4Chan, Greeks will rip you apart if you’re emotionally insincere, articulate-but-stupid, spineless.

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