Oregon ArtsWatch

 

‘The Woman of Salt’ preview: from trauma to opera

Her family sundered by homophobia, a Eugene composer confronts a painful moment from her past by creating a new opera

by RACHAEL CARNES

It was at Anice Thigpen’s lowest emotional point that the protagonist in her new opera The Woman of Salt came to her.

“I was walking in the woods. And she took the wind out of the firs and made that the voice for the first song,” she says.

The Woman of Salt — Thigpen’s first opera — was born from deep trauma.

“I was there, in the childhoods of my children — flooded — and I turned around, and there, floating in space, is an oversized, feminine figure,” Thigpen says. “I recognized her as Lot’s wife. She telepathed to me, ‘Look back!’”

But before she could write the opera, which premieres June 23 at Springfield’s Wildish Theater, a part of Thigpen had to die.

‘It Didn’t Have to Be This Way’

When Thigpen looked back, here’s what she saw, and how she tells it.

She was in her late 20s and married with two young daughters when she came out to her family as gay. “We were living in rural Arkansas,” Thigpen says. “My oldest daughter, Erin Lee, was 5, and my youngest, Paige, was 2.”

Thigpen’s then-husband, 16 years her elder, at first took the news in stride. “Initially, he wasn’t so upset, nor surprised,” Thigpen says. “When he and I got married, I was already attracted to women, but I believed I could choose to be heterosexual.”

While her kids were little, Thigpen was a stay-at-home mom, a job she adored. She tried to be straight. “I made a go of it, but it wasn’t on my choice list,” she says.

Thigpen divorced her husband and, at first, the pair shared joint custody of their daughters.

Then things changed.

Anice Thigpen speaks to the audience at a preview performance of ‘Woman of Salt.’ Photo: Kelli Matthews.

In a suit brought against her after the initial divorce and custody hearings, the state of Arkansas awarded full custody of Thigpen’s girls to their father, based largely on Thigpen’s sexual orientation while questioning her emotional stability and referencing a distant attempt at self harm.

“He realized the power that my sexual orientation afforded him,” Thigpen says. “But I don’t want to villainize him.”

Thigpen flips through the score she’s written for The Woman of Salt and sips a bit of water. “They got a homophobic lawyer. The judge is a deacon in the Southern Baptist Church,” Thigpen says. “I got an original judgment and took it to the state Supreme Court, where I also got the shit kicked out of me.”

Thigpen half-smiles, shaking her head. Then she looks at me, almost as if I’m a foreigner. “How can I explain the Deep South?” she says. “My own parents were instrumental in leading the charge against me.”

Thigpen grows quiet, her eyes focused. “My parents were, and are, supporters of David Duke. My dad had a colleague who wrote his master’s thesis on the disproportionately small size of the Negro brain. They were — we were — steeped in racism, homophobia. It’s an illness and a blight — culturally, spiritually. I’m totally estranged from my parents and brothers.”

In the courtroom, Thigpen’s mother and father testified against her. Claiming that she was unfit, Thigpen’s parents encouraged the court to terminate their daughter’s rights to her own children.

“There is no immunity from that kind of assault,” Thigpen says. “No defense.”

In an instant, Thigpen’s role as primary caregiver was reduced to dust. “The court order limited my access to the girls and said I couldn’t take them out of state,” Thigpen says. “I was shunned, criminalized and impoverished.”

I Cannot Tell You Why’

Thigpen turned 60 this year. She grew up in a tiny town — Lecompte, Louisiana — where she learned to play the piano from Miss Martha Faye White, “who was classically trained and offered lessons out of her home,” Thigpen says. “I studied from the age of 8 or 9 right through high school. And I’ve never moved anywhere without my piano.”

Thigpen’s father taught English when she was growing up, and her mother stayed home. She has two siblings, an older brother and a younger one. She has no contact with any of them. “Family estrangement is probably much more prevalent than we are willing to talk about,” she says. “It’s like a collective secret.”

Laura Wayte and Anice Thigpen rehearsing ‘The Woman of Salt’ in Thigpen’s home. Photo: Todd Cooper.

Though wounded by her family’s betrayal, for the sake of her girls, Thigpen persisted. After the court tore her daughters from her, Thigpen moved to Austin, Texas, to pursue a doctorate. And every two to three weeks, for years, she made the 500-mile one-way drive from Austin to Little Rock and back to see her girls for a few precious hours.

“Every time I could, I got in my beat-up truck and drove to Arkansas,” she says. “I think this opera was being written on the drives home. My blood was a caustic sludge of rage.”

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Northwest Piano Trio review: three, four, five

Augmented threesome shines in music by Mozart, Schubert and Dvorak

by TERRY ROSS

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) started writing a piano trio in the last year or so of his brief life, but he used the slow adagio movement as a stand-alone piece, which he thought of as Adagio and his publisher called Notturno, presumably because of its peaceful nature. The violin and cello play its sinuous and mesmeric melody to a plucked accompaniment in the treble and bass, both played on the piano imitating a harp.

In their most recent concert, on June 10 in Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, the Northwest Piano Trio — pianist Susan McDaniel, violinist Heather Mastel-Lipson, and cellist Hillebrand — gave a dreamy, easy-sounding rendition, with the cellist often playing in the viola range, leaving the low notes to the piano. It was a beautiful nine-minute piece beautifully done.

Although Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G Minor from 1785 (the first piece ever written for the ensemble of piano, violin, viola, and cello) was commissioned for amateurs, it immediately proved too difficult, and was left to professional players. In the hands of the Northwest Piano Trio, abetted by violist Hillary Oseas, its 25 minutes emerged smoothly, culminating in a lovely third-movement Rondeau.

Northwest Piano Trio added a pair of guests for its performance of Dvorak’s famous quintet. Photo: Logan Brown.

After the intermission came the main event. Dvorak was in his prime when he wrote his second piano quintet in 1888, with his two great symphonies (No. 8 and No. 9 “From the New World”) coming in 1889 and 1893. His Opus 81 was instantly acclaimed upon its premiere and was soon grouped with the piano quintets of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms as the best of its genre. Dmitri Shostakovich’s quintet joined this trio later.

Dvorak’s five-hander announces itself immediately with all the instruments playing loudly. And here one can already notice one of its defining features: all five instruments participate more or less equally, without the piano doubling the strings overmuch and the string quartet an independent force. In the first-movement, the cello states a beguiling tune that later turns up several times wearing different clothing. In the second movement “Dumka” (a form, beloved of Dvorak, in which somber, slow music alternates with lively dance music), the viola steps up with its own soulful music in the slow sections. The third movement Scherzo, furiant, marked molto vivace (very lively) is a five-minute dose of Slavic energy, leading into the allegro Finale, in which a Mendelssohnian chorale near the end surprises and pleases before an energetic ending.

It’s always a treat to hear Dvorak’s chamber music, with its abundance of melodies and brilliant part-writing, performed well. Cellist Hillebrand played with exceptional warmth and forthright expression. Pianist McDaniel seemed to execute her not infrequently challenging part effortlessly. Second violinist Nelly Kovalev, who plays in the Portland Opera Orchestra, played with great assurance and rose to the occasion in her brief solo passages, and violist Oseas, who plays with the Portland Baroque Orchestra, was especially good in her solo passages, which contain some of Dvorak’s most elegant melodic writing. First violinist Mastel-Lipson, a Portland Opera member and co-concertmaster of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, played accurately and in perfect tune, but I could have used a much heavier right hand; her solo passages did not stand out as they should.

But this is a mere cavil; the Northwest Piano Trio is superb. Committed to “the performance of traditional classical music while also exploring the music of 20th and 21st century composers,“ they have yet to announce their 2017-18 season, but perhaps before they do they’ll put their heads together and find themselves a much catchier name.

Recommended recordings

• Schubert Notturno

Florestan Trio (Hyperion CDA67273), 2001.

• Mozart Piano Quartet in G Minor

Mozart: Piano Quartets: Emanuel Ax, Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo, and Yo-Yo Ma (Sony 88875070972), 1994.

Dvorak Quintet in A Major

Dvorak — Piano Quintets: Sviatoslav Richter with the Borodin Quartet (Philips E4757560), 2006.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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Sound of Late review: free to have fun

Northwest new music ensemble delights in music by star composer Missy Mazzoli and more

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

There is a certain liberation in the post-tonal, post-post-tonal, post-modern, post-post music Sound of Late specializes in. Music can be chromatic without being serial; it can be complex without being acrobatic. Academic classical music took a long strange turn to the ridiculously hypercomplex from about 1950 onward, and although a few notable rebels found ways to break away from all the Babbittness and Boulezerie the stench of ivory tower still leaves a bad odor in some noses. So it’s something of a relief when a virtuosic, experimental musician like SoL ensemble director Andrew Stiefel says something like “it’s okay to be rhythmic, it’s okay to be melodic, it’s okay to have fun.”

As one of the Pacific Northwest’s newest new music ensembles, Sound of Late has been carving out a nice young niche for themselves here and in Seattle, celebrating living composers, putting on 48-hour composition competitions, and generally behaving like the bunch of brash young academy trained badasses they are. They’re just as experimental as Creative Music Guild’s Extradition Series, though perhaps less sparse and quite a bit poppier. Their usual line-up consists of flutist Sarah Pyle, clarinetist Colleen White, horn player Rebecca Olason, violinist Bryce Caster, violist Stiefel, cellist Elizabeth Gergel, and bassist Milo Fultz—not all of whom play every piece or even every concert—plus various guests and substitutes. I’ve written about them before and expect to do so again next season.

Violinist Thao Huynh, cellist Keith Thomas and violist Andrew Stiefel played music by Missy Mazzoli in Portland and Seattle.

Violist Stiefel, exhausted from playing Seattle and driving back down for this show, introduced SoL’s Magic with Everyday Objects, the last concert of their first season as a group. Stiefel talked a bit about the first piece of the evening, Mazzoli’s 2006 trio Lies You Can Believe In: “Lies in this piece are not so much a falsehood as embellishing a story.” How right he was. Cellist Keith Thomas and guest violinist Thao Huynh joined Stiefel for lots of dissonant drones, complex meters played against open strings, tightly sculpted dynamics, talea-color interplay a la Messiaen and Harrison, and a recurring ascending theme that reminded me of Masada String Trio’s The Circle Maker or King Crimson’s “Talking Drum.”

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Morehshin Allahyari at Upfor: Flux, ambiguity, the unknown

Morehshin Allahyari exhibition at Upfor Gallery explores the jinn tradition for help in understanding the present

By LAUREL REED PAVIC

Female figures in the Western mythological tradition tend to end up filling one of two roles: either they are benevolent earth mothers or they are evil seductresses who exist only to trip up male heroes. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground or even the possibility of duality. Through video and sculpture, Morehshin Allahyari introduces two jinn that defy this dichotomy in She Who Sees the Unknown at Upfor Gallery through June 24. While the jinn, Huma and Ya’Jooj Ma’Jooj, are fearful monsters, they are necessary to survival. Allahyari proposes the rejection of easy notions of “good” or “evil” in favor of flux, ambiguity, and the unknown. Contemporary maladies demand reimagined spirits.

In the pre-Islamic and Islamic traditions, jinn are non-human spirits who have the power to affect both humans and the earth. Jinn can be invoked through talismans—written and figurative supplications. Allahyari has included reproductions of three talismans from historical texts in the gallery: one to summon jinn, another to “treat fever” and a third to “treat hallucination and madness”.

Morehshin Allahyari’s ‘Huma’, 3D printed resin/Courtesy of Upfor Gallery, photograph by Mario Gallucci

Huma is the namesake jinn of the exhibition. Immediately opposite the gallery entrance is a figure of Huma and three abbreviated talismans. All are products of a 3D printer. The three-headed female figure is made of black resin; she looks menacing and dangerous. The talismans are clear resin arched shapes with intertwined symbols and script: an alpaca of sorts, a figure with a magic square body, a head with outstretched arms.

Two video works help to explain Huma: one shows Allahyari’s formulation of the figure, and the other the digital construction that resulted in the physical object in the gallery. The video She Who Sees the Unknown: Huma incorporates images of the figure with a spoken account of Huma’s appearance, raison d’etre, and areas of expertise. Allahyari’s version of Huma is an anti-earth mother. She is responsible for fever and madness, both of humans and of the planet. To the left of the narrative video is a 3d Scanning Screen Capture Performance of the technical process Allahyari used to model and digitally manifest the figure. This is identified as a performance because it is a record of the digital scanning process.

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The Shrinking Oregon Bach Festival

Declining ticket sales and choices accompany University of Oregon festival's shift in focus and leadership

by TOM MANOFF

Editor’s note: this post has been updated to reflect corrections provided by the Oregon Bach Festival. ArtsWatch invited the festival to respond to the story when it was published and will publish a response if provided.

JUDGING by its 2017 program, the Oregon Bach Festival has made substantial cutbacks in programing in the post-Helmuth Rilling era. The German conductor, who co-founded the festival with the University of Oregon’s Royce Saltzman in 1971, retired in 2013. He was succeeded by the highly regarded conductor Matthew Halls.

The most pressing concerns are a decline in ticket sales, a reduction in the number of performances at the city’s major concert venue, and a substantial cut in the number of performances by professional musicians. It’s hard to know which of these developments are cause and which are effect. But either way, this year’s scaled-back schedule offers fewer choices for patrons and also raises questions about the festival’s future.

Matthew Halls conducted Brahms’s ‘A German Requiem’ at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Josh Green.

The festival has faced some dire financial situations over the years according to former executive John Evans (2007–2014). Evans, who died last year, had the festival mostly in the black during his leadership, but saw the downturn coming. In a report first made public by Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer, Evans suggested that Rilling’s retirement was a core reason:

Oregon Bach Festival Director Emeritus Helmuth Rilling. Photo: Michael Latz/ Interationale Bachakademie.

“Helmuth Rilling wasn’t the only individual who retired in 2013, so too did many of his most loyal and passionate supporters,” Evans wrote. “And the donor, corporate, foundation, audience, and ticket revenue figures bear this out.”

During the transition from Rilling to Halls, OBF paid ticket sales dropped by 21 percent: 2011 had 14,502; 2014 counted 11,360. Overall attendance dropped by over 50 percent : 2011 had 44,148; 2014 had approximately 20,000. Attendance last year remained at 20,000. 

While Halls’s musical leadership is one component in reviving the festival, important decisions are also now made by Janelle McCoy, the executive director who came to the festival in 2015. McCoy inherited a festival already in the midst of audience and funding decline, and her decisions  will play a central role in the festival’s future. However, McCoy seems relatively inexperienced for OBF, an internationally-known festival with a budget of approximately 2.8 million. After all, she replaced John Evans, who was music director of the BBC, a world expert on Benjamin Britten, and, like his predecessor Saltzman, an acute judge of talent with extensive connections within the classical music world.

Oregon Bach Festival artistic director Matthew Halls and former executive director John Evans.

This year, McCoy has cut back concerts by professional musicians by half — a questionable strategy, considering the opportunities for many additional concerts at reasonable costs. Changes of venue also reflect OBF’s efforts to downsize the festival, apparent from this year’s opening night.

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Portland Youth Philharmonic, Metropolitan Youth Symphony reviews: among the young stars

Season ending concerts from Portland youth orchestras showcase the area's young classical musicians

by TERRY ROSS

They’re perhaps the second-best orchestra in Portland. And that’s saying something, considering that, unlike the Oregon Symphony, they’re all amateurs — everyone, including the first-chair players.

Plus they’re all college age or younger (sometimes much younger).

David Hattner led PYP’s spring concert at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Photo: Brian Clark.

The Portland Youth Philharmonic, the oldest young musicians’ band in the country, founded in 1924, is coming up on its centenary. Known as the Portland Junior Symphony for the first 54 years of its existence, it has flourished for 92 years with only five conductors. Formed by schoolteacher Mary Dodge at the Irvington School, the band soon secured the services of the Russian emigré Jacques Gershkovitch as its first conductor. The maestro served until 1953, when an alumnus of his orchestra, Jacob Avshalomov, took over and ruled the roost for another 42 (!) years. During Avshalomov’s tenure, the band enjoyed such illustrious guest conductors as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland.

Welshman Huw Edwards assumed control when “Mr. A.,” as he was called, retired in 1995. When Edwards left in 2002, Mei-Ann Chen became conductor, and she yielded the baton in 2008 to the current leader, David Hattner, who has led the group for the past nine years, having been chosen from a field of 112 candidates.

Hattner may be the best yet at the PYP. An accomplished clarinetist, he came relatively late to conducting but has compiled an impressive list of credits, including performances in Brooklyn, Eugene, Cincinnati and with the Oregon Symphony. He has instituted a chamber orchestra series to supplement PYP’s orchestra offerings, and to hear him talk about his job is to realize how committed he is to the mission of bringing talented kids and classical music together.

The Portland Youth Philharmonic that played on Sunday, May 7 in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was large: more than 100 young musicians, including an enormous string section and very generous winds (eight horns, four clarinets, four bassoons, four flutes, three oboes), plus a superb and charismatic timpanist, Colin Crandal, who seemed to be an inspiration for the whole band. With such forces, the orchestra succeeded in making itself heard clearly in the Schnitz’s wretched acoustics.

Composer Debra Kaye. Photo: Genevieve Spielberg.

This was very welcome in the program’s first selection, Ikarus Among the Stars, by New York composer Debra Kaye, a piece commissioned by the parents of former PYP violist Benjamin Yaphet Klatchko, who died in 2015 at age 16. Kaye’s 16-minute score balances the full orchestra’s sound against chamber music-like passages and electro-acoustic material recorded by Binya, as Mr. Klatchko was known. These include rhythm tracks, keyboard riffs, and even snatches of a song called “Among the Stars.” Their inclusion, especially the song’s, yield a somber but uplifting tone, a moving addition to Ms. Kaye’s sensitive and elegiac orchestration, which balanced the aspirations and fate of the mythological Ikarus’s attempt to escape earth’s clutches.

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‘Extradition’ review: difficult on purpose

Creative Music Guild concert embraces experimental, aleatoric, multiphonic, ritualistic, electronic and ultimately rewarding sounds

Story, photos and video by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Below you’ll find an extended video recap of some highlights of this show. Read this before watching the video, or afterwards, or both, or at the same time, or not at all. In case of confusion, consult the I Ching, the Tarot, a sack of runes, or your pineal gland—whichever is closer at hand.

When John Cage is the most mainstream composer on the program, you know you’re in for something out of the ordinary. When Creative Music Guild is putting on the show, you know it’s really going to be something you haven’t heard before. And when it’s Portland percussionist and experimental music impresario Matt Hannafin’s Extradition Series doing their quarterly show, then it’s time to put away all your expectations, get comfortable, take whatever drugs or do whatever meditation exercises you need to, and open your ears for the most exigent listening experience you’re likely to have this season.

Last time I covered an Extradition concert, Hannafin and his crew ended a two and a half hour concert with rocks in their hands, rubbing and clacking them periodically with sine tone and pink noise accompaniment over the course of something like 30 minutes (Michael Pisaro’s Six Stones)… and this was the conclusion of a concert already overflowing with very slow, sparse music. It was mesmerizing, and haunting, and to be honest it was a little hard to sit through (or stand through, in my case, since I was filming). Ultimately, though, it was totally worth it.

Extradition’s April 22 concert was just as demanding and even more rewarding, as the community of CMG regulars and guest artists worked their way through experimental works by Cage, Alvin Lucier (the second-most “mainstream” name on the bill), G. Douglas Barrett, and two Japanese composers: Takehisa Kosugi and Toshi Ichiyanagi.

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