Oregon ArtsWatch


The Radically Mused: Improvisation Summit of Portland

Creative Music Guild's annual convocation presents a broad spectrum of spontaneous creativity


No one comes to a Creative Music Guild show to hear a familiar tune or a classic work. CMG concerts are places where joyful noises erupt and drone on, where genres are fused and exploded, where everyday objects become artistic tools, where risks are taken—a space is made in which anything and everything is welcome. And if you step into this space and join the performers, attending to the free flow of their intuitions, then you might just find some revelations—artistic, personal or otherwise. The first night’s performance of this year’s edition of the organizations’s annual Improvisation Summit of Portland exemplified CMG’s mission and what it continues to offer the Portland community.

Pure Surface Collective at Improvisation Summit of Portland

Pure Surface Collective at Improvisation Summit of Portland

For over 20 years CMG has championed spontaneous creativity and experimentalism through concerts bringing together local and international artists. A non-profit, volunteer organization, currently directed by Brandon Conway, Ben Kates, and John Savage, CMG is one of the greatest and longer-standing landmarks in Portland’s artscape, though it seldom gets the attention it deserves. CMG’S annual Improvisation Summit is not only a good introduction to the organization, but also to Portland’s more radically mused artists. The 2016 ISP took place on June 2, 3, and 4 at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center in the Kenton neighborhood of NE Portland.


At the Drammys: a voice for equity

Portland's Age & Gender Equity for the Arts is fighting for equal opportunities in the performing arts – and awarding $30,000 at the Drammys for the cause

“A theater that is missing women is missing half the story, half the canon, half the life of our time.” That quote from playwright Marsha Norman sits atop the home page of Age & Gender Equity in the Arts, a young and thriving organization based in Portland that promotes equal opportunity in the theater in age, gender, race, and identity. And it’s putting its money where its mouth is: At this year’s Drammy theater-awards celebration in the Newmark Theatre on Monday evening, June 27, AGE will present $30,000 in awards to theater companies taking steps to achieve equity. That’s a significant commitment. ArtsWatch asked actor and activist Jane Vogel, who founded AGE in 2014 and is its board president, to write about the group and its goals.


Jane Vogel, center, taking part in a “Brave New World” panel sponsored by Oregon Humanities and Profile Theatre, with, from left, Kimberly Howard, Adriana Baer, S. Renee Mitchell, and Pat Zagelow. Photo: Lorelei Culbertson

Jane Vogel, center, taking part in a “Brave New World” panel sponsored by Oregon Humanities and Profile Theatre, with, from left, Kimberly Howard, Adriana Baer, S. Renee Mitchell, and Pat Zagelow. Photo: Lorelei Culbertson


Women make up 51 percent of the United States population, yet women are significantly underrepresented in the arts. Women of color, women with disabilities, trans women, and older women experience added layers of marginalization and discrimination.

To help the performing arts reflect the actual makeup of the culture and break through longstanding barriers, I founded Age & Gender Equity in the Arts (AGE) as a nonprofit organization in 2014. AGE advocates for equity, diversity, and inclusion. Our mission is to promote the visibility of women across the lifespan in the performing arts, effecting a paradigm shift in the culture. Veteran actor Karla Mason Smith is our executive director and Lorelei Culbertson is our operations associate. We have an active advisory council and cadre of volunteers.

As an actor, a clinical psychologist, an immigrant, and an activist, I have always been an advocate for social justice. I fought equity battles as a young woman in the 1970s. But the progress my generation made in the ’60s and ’70s has lost ground. The objectification of younger women and the marginalization of older women is still commonplace in theater and across industries.

Maya Jagannathan of Anjali School of Dance, from an AGE showcase performance. Photo: Jason Bruderlin

Maya Jagannathan of Anjali School of Dance, from an AGE showcase benefit show at Artists Repertory Theatre in January 2016. Photo: Jason Bruderlin

Stella Adler said that theater is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation. The current theater landscape is rife with gender and age bias, and thus is lacking in truth. My passion and determination are even greater than they were in the 1970s. The stakes are higher now that I’m in my sixties. I want the generations that follow to be the beneficiaries of our work. I believe that together we can create conditions where a woman’s opportunities to achieve her full potential are not compromised because of her gender or her age. I am proud of Portland theater for embracing AGE’s efforts to make this happen.


Mentoring a community of 21st-century composers

Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium brings new music to Oregon listeners and prepares composers for a life in music

Story and photos by GARY FERRINGTON

The Oregon Bach Festival, as its name implies, primarily concentrates on music of the past. But every other year, it also adds a focus on the present and the future, via the biannual Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium (OBFCS).

From June 26-July 7, new music fans can hear a selection from the 30 or more new works written by symposium participants in the five-part New Pathways concert series at the University of Oregon School of Music. Performers include  soprano Estelí Gomez, former Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, and Duo Damiana (guitarist Dieter Hennings and flutist Molly Barth) among many others.

Composers Symposium to premier new music in Eugene.

Composers Symposium to premier new music in Eugene.

The symposium’s primary value, though, is helping foster tomorrow’s music. Every two years some 90 international composers and visiting artists gather at the UO School of Music and Dance to form a collaborative and creative community for writing and performing contemporary music for instrumental and vocal ensembles. The intensive symposium offers seminars, master classes, rehearsals, public concerts, mentoring by guest composers-in-residence and visiting artists, a film music festival, attendance at selected OBF rehearsals and concerts and, if not entirely exhausted by day’s end, nightly social gatherings that sometimes last into the wee morning hours. The symposium provides abundant opportunity for composer/performer networking and collaboration now and in the future.


Pow, Bam, Love, M*therf!$&er!

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Vietgone" tells a decidedly modern tale about the war, and what came after


ASHLAND – When laudatory tweets and reviews started rolling in from South Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of Vietgone in October of 2015, I tried to figure out how to fly to Southern California to see it. Then I checked the schedule for the 2016 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I cheered.

That was the correct reaction: Vietgone is worthy of cheering.

The play opened in Ashland in the Thomas Theatre (formerly the New Theatre) on March 30 to pleased reviews from the Siskyou Daily, Ashland Daily Tidings, and Medford Mail-Tribune.

Quang (James Ryen) and Nhan (Will Dao) have a run-in with a redneck biker (Paco Tolson). Photo :Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Quang (James Ryen) and Nhan (Will Dao) have a run-in with a redneck biker (Paco Tolson). Photo :Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Vietgone mixes graphic novel sensibilities, flashbacks, a stylized motorcycle quest, hip hop and rap, sexy (I’m tempted to write sexaaaaay) pop songs of the 1960s and 1970s, movie references to everything from Ghost to Say Anything, and a dramatically powerful ending, all in a two-act format that bounces around in time from 1975 to 2015.

Playwright Qui Ngyuen describes the play as “a sex comedy about my parents, about how they got together at a refugee camp in Arkansas.” (You can watch a comprehensive and fascinating OSF video with Nguyen and director May Adrales on the festival’s YouTube channel.)

That’s true; Vietgone has its sex comedy moments, one in particular involving a parent and a shower bucket, but the play is much more than that.


Makrokosmos 2 preview: Musicians in the Midst

Piano-propelled contemporary music festival returns to Portland and Eugene


“I don’t know where to stand,” Portland composer, violist and violinist Kenji Bunch confessed to the crowd crammed into Blue Sky Gallery last June. There was after all no stage, and the audience sat in folding chairs arrayed around the downtown Portland art and photography space. Bunch finally decided to start his set of original music with pianist Monica Ohuchi by not standing at all, instead walking around the pianos as he played.

Changing the usual “rules” of classical performance is part of what made Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia’s Makrokosmos Project so successful last year, and why the New York-based duo pianists are bringing it back next week. For one thing, there’s no prescribed duration to the musical “happening” featuring work by living American composers and leading local performers; audience members are welcome to come and go, catching as few or as many of the 40 minute sets as they like.


Kenji Bunch’s walking performance. Photo: Saar Ahuvia.

Moreover, the event, whose second annual performance occurs this month in Portland and Eugene, pretty much obliterates the distinction between the performers’ stage and the audience’s space.

The project strives for “a performance atmosphere that breaks the barriers of traditional concert halls by putting the audience in an intimate space, close to the performers and the music performed,” according to Ahuvia. In a genre that’s too often distanced itself from its audience, it may seem a little crazy; no wonder this year’s theme is American Berserk.

The Makrokosmos Project, which OAW called “one of 2015’s peak Oregon musical moments,” again takes listeners to the acoustic edge at Blue Sky on Thursday, June 23 and then travels up river to Eugene for a festive evening at Oveissi & Co. on the 26th.

Like last year, the program begins at 5 pm with a wine social and the first of a series of short sets each about 40 minutes long.

The absence of a stage brings artist and audience together. Photo: Saar Ahuvia.

The absence of a stage brings artist and audience together. Photo: Saar Ahuvia.

“This is something that we have been experiencing more and more in our own performing as classical music tries to reinvent itself in public spaces, clubs and other non-traditional venues,” Ahuvia suggests. “We hope to attract a diverse audience, some who are new to contemporary music, by giving them an option to commit to as much or as little music as they desire. A 40-minute set is something most people can handle and having some delicious food and wine helps to spark the conversation afterwards! And having tickets from $10-20 also makes it affordable.”

This year’s featured work, a 40th anniversary performance of Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never be Defeated, includes 36 variations based on the song “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” by Chilean composer Sergio Ortega with text by the popular vocal group Quilapayún. The composition has been divided among a team of six pianists, which is not typically done, but seems to work well for this festival, according to pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf. Despite the apparent connection between Rzewski’s famous radical composition and this year’s overheated political rhetoric, “no strong political statement was planned beyond the poignancy of ’uniting the pianists,’” Ahuvia explains. “That being said, we love the spirit of contemporary music being political and relevant to our time.”

John Adams’s six-minute American Berserk!, a title suggested by a phrase in Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, resonates with earlier American piano music of Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow, the composer notes. “This is a piece that we have always liked,” Ahuvia recalled, “and were happy to hear that Lydia Chung had it in her repertoire. Lydia, who we know from Baltimore and our Peabody days, had just relocated to Portland and when asking her about possible repertoire for this summer she mentioned American Berserk. We had an ‘Ah-ha!’ moment, and this year’s festival theme fell into place.”

Audience and performers at intermission of last year's Makrokosmos Project.

Deborah Cleaver demonstrated George Crumb’s techniques at last year’s Makrokosmos Project.

“We’ve constructed the festival with music that is super edgy, infused with virtuosity, urbanity and jazz,” Ahuvia says. “Nikolai Kapustin, Portland-based Ryan Anthony Francis and especially John Zorn’s Carny all have elements of ‘berserkness.’ There are plenty of ’berserk’ elements in the Rzewski as well.”

DUO Stephanie & Saar will open the festival with music by contemporary American composers influenced by Eastern philosophies and sounds. “Philip Glass brings both drama and meditations to Four Movements for Two Pianos,” Ahuvia notes about the minimalist pioneer whose music owes much to his 1960s work with Ravi Shankar and study of Indian music’s rhythmic structures. “Gerald Levinson’s new piece Ragamalika: Ringing Changes uses actual Indian and invented ragas infused with rigorous contemporary compositional techniques,” Ahuvia explains.

In addition to DUO Stephanie and Saar, performers include Oregon musicians Angela Niederloh (a prominent opera singer and Portland State University professor who was a classmate of Ho’s at Portland’s Wilson High School), Lydia Chung, Julia Hwakyu Lee, former Florestan Trio pianist and Portland Piano International founder and director Harold Gray, Third Angle New Music’s Susan Smith, Reed College professor Deborah Cleaver, FearNoMusic’s Jeff Payne, and Eugene pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf. The Portland second set features mezzo-soprano Niederloh and Stephanie Ho in three early songs by George Crumb and selections from Jake Heggie’s Winter Roses. “The music provides a chilling, lyrical respite from the otherwise high octane music presented throughout the evening,” Ahuvia says.

Third Angle pianist Susan Smith played George Crumb's music at last year's Makrokosmos Project. Photot: Aaron Brethorst.

Third Angle pianist Susan Smith played George Crumb’s music at last year’s Makrokosmos Project. Photo: Aaron Brethorst.

Niederloh and Payne can’t make the Eugene show, so Alexander Schwarzkopf will play his own new composition, Perspectives (2016) instead of the Zorn piece Payne plays in Portland, and Stephanie & Saar replace Niederloh’s set with their own performance of music by Pulitzer Prize winning American composers from two generations, George Crumb (whose music they hope to program every year in the festival named after one of his major compositions) and David Lang.

“Our message to the audience,” Ahuvia says, “is to come open-minded, have a glass of wine on us, and immerse themselves in new sounds in new settings.”

Makrokosmos Project 2: American Berserk! Thursday, June 23, 5pm-10pm at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Avenue, Portland. Sunday, June 26, 5 pm-10 pm at Oveissi and Company, 22 West Seventh Avenue, Eugene. Ticket prices are $15 advance, $20 day of show and $10 students and seniors. Tickets and more information online.

Read ArtsWatch’s interview last year with Stephanie & Saar and review of last year’s inaugural Makrokosmos Project.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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

Skiing the mountain of Hamlet

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Danforth Comins talks about the Elizabethan Theatre, playing his third Danish prince, and this production’s aural soundscape


ASHLAND – If you’ve been to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at all in the past decade, you’ve likely seen Danforth Comins in a starring or other major role. From Orlando in As You Like It to Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, from Mark Antony in Julius Caesar to Coriolanus in, well, Coriolanus, Comins has played many a Shakespearean role – and he utterly dominated the role of Brick in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as well, coincidentally in the same year that the last Hamlet ran at the festival.

This year, Comins, playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek, lays some hilarious hurt on boy-costumed Viola in Twelfth Night, where his dueling prowess is about as magnificent as hers. But he’s also playing the tortured Danish prince in an outdoor Hamlet, opening in the Elizabethan Theatre tonight: Friday, June 17. At some point among all of his fight rehearsals, scene-running and prep work for the Hamlet opening, Comins took the time for an interview with ArtsWatch. The edited Q&A is below.

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) confronts Gertrude (Robin Goodrin Nordli) about her marriage to his uncle, Claudius. Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) confronts Gertrude (Robin Goodrin Nordli) about her marriage to his uncle, Claudius. Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Suzi Steffen: You’ve played many a Shakespeare role, including Benedick and Coriolanus and Bertram and Orlando and Mark Anthony. And this is your third time playing Hamlet, though your first time at the OSF. What’s different or special about playing Hamlet?

Danforth Comins: Hamlet stands apart from many of the other plays in the canon because of its cultural significance and impact over the centuries, Coriolanus, great as it is, isn’t done very often, and the protagonist is not a knight in shining armor by any stretch of the imagination. Hamlet has succeeded through the centuries, maybe because it grapples with death and the afterlife. Those are topics that still elude us as society and a culture to this day; we’re fascinated.


Mock’s Crest’s ‘Ruddigore’: Over the Top

Gilbert & Sullivan melodrama offers solid singing but dramatic excess


An enigmatic plot set amidst Victorian atmosphere, rife with ensembles, solos and chorus work. Sound familiar? Yeah, plus this one has ghosts, cursed baronets, and professional bridesmaids, with a kind of “Miss Havisham” to boot. Ruddigore is the name, Gilbert and Sullivan are the creators and Mock’s Crest Productions on the University of Portland campus is the company.

Neither opera nor operetta nor musical, Ruddigore is a melodrama, “a dramatic or literary work in which the plot, typically sensational and designed to appeal to the emotions, takes precedence over detailed characterization,” writes stage director Bruce Hostetler, quoting the Wikipedia definition, in his program notes. And that form posed a challenge for composer and performers.

Mock's Crest Opera's 'Ruddigore' at University of Portland.

L to R: Joshua Randall as Richard Dauntless, Kelliann Wright as Rose Maybud, and Bobby Instead as Sir Ruthven Ruddigore in Mock’s Crest Productions’ ‘Ruddigore’ at University of Portland. Photo: Steve Hambuchen.

Before writing the music for Ruddigore, Sir Arthur Sullivan was already enjoying recognition as one of the crown’s most prolific composers in the 1880s, producing a body of orchestral, song and choral works including popular songs like “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Lost Chord” and the acclaimed 1886 cantata The Golden Legend, becoming a favorite of the public and knighted by Queen Victoria in 1883. His librettist partner W.S. Gilbert’s body of work varied in genre and theme – plays, short stories, poetry both serious and comedic. Some would be recycled – portraits coming to life – in his collaborations with Sullivan. In 1885, they teamed up (to our everlasting joy) on The Mikado (672 performances).

On the heels of Mikado, then, came Ruddigore (1887), originally Ruddygore, a return to comedic melodrama and to Gilbert’s thematic fascination with the supernatural, in this case the ancestral portraits come to life. This plot treatment is used by J. K. Rowling to good effect in the Harry Potter series, but it did not signal great success for Ruddigore. The show ran only nine months, and was roundly criticized from its debut forward. I think there’s a reason: it does not stand easily beside Pinafore (performed at Mock’s Crest last year); Pirates of Penzance, or The Mikado. Yes, there are some pretty tunes by Arthur Sullivan, and excellent examples of Gilbert’s famous “topsy-turvy” brilliance. But there’s altogether too much patter — a specialty of Gilbert, but used more sporadically, and thus more effectively, in the previous shows.

Perhaps, then, like other melodramas, staging Ruddigore requires going to extremes to garner audience appreciation. That’s the weak hand Mock’s Crest was dealt here, and despite some aces, at times, this production overplayed it.


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