Oregon ArtsWatch


Race and reading: The white echo chamber

A Delve seminar exploring James Baldwin's "A Fire Next Time" and Jesmyn Ward's "A Fire This Time" creates some heat


I want to write about a dead elephant.

Late last year, my tuition was comped for the sold-out Delve Readers Seminar, “One Nation Still on Fire,” in return for a written reflection—the only way I could have afforded to attend. But even though this Delve gathering started on November 20, 2017, and ended on January 20, 2018—on the one year anniversary of the presidential inauguration of a demagogue—it has taken me months to process, a flight to a different country, and the space and distance from Portland for me to even begin. After three months—and missed deadline after missed deadline—I offer this painstaking reflection and these thoughts faltering, unfinished, heavy, and loaded…

In the change between fall and winter, the 18 of us in the seminar, a program of Literary Arts, bridged the turning of a year by reading and discussing two books: James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Jesmyn Ward’s curated and edited essay collection, The Fire This Time. We also attended Ward’s Portland Arts & Lectures event on January 18.

Published in 1962, Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time contains two letters, one to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook,” and the other about his crisis of faith, “Down at the Cross.” Even after 50 years, Baldwin’s observations around race relations remain all too relevant, as if he penned them yesterday. In 2015, Jesmyn Ward in response to George Zimmerman’s slaying of baby-faced teen Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013, edited the book The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Contemporary Black scholars, authors, and poets joined the omnipresent conversation that Baldwin and so many others started, lived, still live, and still suffer because race remains a harbinger of so many other social ills, inequities, and human injustices in this country.

A conversation, it seems, that many white folks are still coming to the table to join—late.

James Baldwin in Hyde Park, London/Photo by Allan Warren – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22305867

My frustration was compounded by my experience in the seminar as a person of color unpacking and talking about race in a room that was 77% occupied by highly-educated and well-meaning white people. A frustration that was visceral. Trying to convince others of a reality backed by history is a crazy-making feat. Hearing the same thing or having the same conversations about race with different and multiple white people, can do that—it can make you feel like you’re a broken record. And then it can make you feel broken. Who is the famous person who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results?

In Isabel Wilkerson’s essay “Where Do We Go from Here?” she writes:

We may have lulled ourselves into believing that the struggle was over, that it has all been taken care of back in 1964, that the marching and the bloodshed had established, once and for all, the basic rights of people who had been at the bottom for centuries. We may have believed that, if nothing else, the civil rights movement had defined a bar beneath which we could not fall.

But history tells us otherwise. We seem to be in a continuing feedback loop of repeating a past that our country has yet to address.

In Claudia Rankine’s essay, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” she observes succinctly, “The American imagination has never been able to fully recover from its white-supremacist beginnings.”

The dead elephant isn’t just about America’s racist founding. Nor is it just about the delusion of a post-racial America. The dead elephant isn’t even about how white Portland is, despite the growing racial and ethnic diversity in the country.

The dead elephant is the burden that people of color bear, in varying degrees, for being non-white in America—and which white people do not.


White people are still able to choose when and how they decide to talk about race, and when and how they decide to care. It’s important that the seminar was offered. It’s important that the seminar was sold-out. It was important that we delved into both these texts, together. But Literary Arts is an incredibly safe place for white people to wax poetic about race. It’s a space designed and reinforced to make white people feel smart, as if their minimal intellectual efforts to have these “talks” and to read these “texts” is somehow enough.

The room at Literary Arts reminds me of what one of my white friends said upon moving from Portland to Los Angeles. He said, “Even though the people in LA seem more intellectually dim, the people are far more racially and ethnically diverse compared to Portland.” To him the cultural diversity was much more valuable in expanding his perspective. In a world that already centers whiteness first and foremost, he said, “It’s much more dangerous for a white person to only be surrounded by other white people.”

I wonder how many people left that room changed. I wonder how many people left more aware of their whiteness and their complicity in this racist country we’ve all inherited. I wonder how deep the texts and our conversations seeped; if the words of Baldwin, Ward, Wilkerson, Rankine, Anderson, Young, and many others found root in the tissues of their bodies; or if everything just stayed on the surface of their intellects. I wonder how many people left still thinking about, and most importantly, feeling what we had discussed together. Whether those white people chose to bear the load, or whether they left defending their innocence more stubbornly than ever, preserving their own comfort, leaving the burden where it’s always been: on the shoulders and backs of people of color.

As Baldwin so eloquently asserted, “…whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Blackness and whiteness are inextricably intertwined in this country. One does not exist without the other, and the inability for white folks to acknowledge this is what Baldwin called “…the innocence which constitutes the crime.”


Before I go much further, I am not black and I am not white. I do not have the experiences of either. Though the way that the hierarchy of race works I am much closer to the experiences of white people than I am to black people. I am a Chinese-American woman raised by immigrant parents in a white suburb in Oregon. I grew up in Portland’s particular brand of whiteness – which is polite, microaggressive, and indirect. I have navigated whiteness expertly, because there was a period of time when I had so much internalized racism that I thought I was white. Being a lighter-skinned Asian aided by the model minority myth has provided me with specific opportunities and access compared to other people of color—and it is my responsibility when moving this conversation of race and racism forward to acknowledge this privilege. I have not suffered in the same way as other people of color, but all people of color have suffered under white supremacy. After years of assimilating, feeling ashamed of being Asian, losing my language, compromising and minimizing myself to fit into whiteness, which often meant being an ornament, a sidekick awkward and ugly, and then suddenly inappropriately sexualized, othered, fetishized, and tokenized all these years—I know absolutely, I am not white.

It could also be argued that good white people suffer under white supremacy. It’s dehumanizing: what kind of white savages have time and time again oppressed and re-oppressed others for their own selfish gain?

This post is not about hating white people. Though in my most immature moments, the frustrations are hard to tweeze out. I still have a lot of friends who are white, who I love and have loved, learned and lived with. For some, I have shepherded them into the awareness of their whiteness, have gone through the painful dismantling of their perceived innocence, and have helped them into the understanding of what their whiteness means in the context of this unjust country—and this has always been a deep labor of love.

However, my labor of love and patience for other white people to understand all of this weighted history and how it frames our present is not infinite, nor is it indiscriminate. I am human. I have a threshold.


When I entered the seminar space that first night on November 20, into a room full and eager to discuss the “literature,” I was already dealing with my disillusionment and anger at the rigidity and self-righteousness of individuals. After recent eruptions in the social justice community, I had started questioning the effectiveness of my resistance work. I was constantly being confronted with the same circular, nearsighted, and myopic conversations, the vernacular of social justice speak, the rhetoric, the infighting, the hubris—I was losing my faith that we would ever succeed in this fight against white supremacy. And to the degree that my fellow Delvers were unaware: their whiteness, and their naive ignorance about their own whiteness and their well-meaningness around the literature and about race in particular, all but confirmed my despair and hopelessness that things would ever change.

It was pointed out by our guide Béalleka Makau, that only three of the 19 essays in The Fire This Time talked about the future. Another Delver recounted author Ta-nehisi Coates’s comment at the most recent Wordstock Book Festival about how difficult it was for him to have hope or to imagine a future when the present looks so much like the past.

It was either our first or second session together when Béalleka asked us what Ward meant by the words, “I burn, and I hope.”

I have been seeking an answer inadequately since that question was breathed into that room. But I know it has something to do with the dead elephant.

The dead elephant makes up the scaffolds in which we exist, and which bodies are ordered socioeconomically, socially, professionally, and politically. The United States is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, but the wealth and income gap is becoming more unequal. According to a 2015 Forbes article, a typical white household has 16 times the wealth of a black household. Portland is not much different. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey (ACS) 81% of Portland residents are white, and with the exception of Asians, people of color face higher unemployment rates and lower wages than white workers, and are employed in lower-paying industries.

White supremacy is not just the KKK, or lynchings, or police shootings, or extreme violence, but that is part of its monstrous history and its present. White supremacy, in its silent form is insidious. It’s economic. It’s social. It’s in policies and redrawn district lines. It’s how resources are allocated. Who gets infrastructure and well-paved roads and who doesn’t. It takes the form of the faces we frequently see in film or on TV, and the faces that are omitted. It determines who gets published and who our literary gatekeepers are (in an independent study that Lee & Low Books released in 2015 about 80% of folks that worked in publishing identified as white). It defines who gets to teach our ethnic studies courses. It’s in curriculum. It’s in how culture is defined. It’s in who gets the job; who gets to keep their jobs; who gets to own a home and who gets to accumulate wealth and equity to pass onto future generations.

As Carol Anderson in her essay “White Rage” affirms: “It goes virtually unnoticed, however, because white rage doesn’t have to take to the streets to face rubber bullets to be heard. Instead, white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures, and governors, who cast its efforts as noble…”

In addition to the large institutional and cultural structures that shape our lives undetectably, it’s deeply personal. Our identities are tied to our ability to know and access our ancestry. The stories that are told and shared and passed on, is a privilege. It requires an undisrupted lineage, one that isn’t peppered with displacement, war, slavery, rape, destitution, poverty. Some of us don’t know our pasts because they’ve been suppressed or erased or unknown. This is a direct relationship of whether you were a victor or a victim in this white-supremacist history.


Inspired by Jesmyn Ward’s essay “Cracking the Code” about her search for identity, we started one of our sessions with a writing prompt asking us to trace our ancestral history as far back as we could remember. I didn’t have much. My mom was a refugee during the Vietnam—or American—War, depending on which direction you’re looking. My family history is one of dark unending holes. The traumas of my mom’s past have resulted in many consequences including my little brother’s generalized anxiety and my depression, among other things that reach deep into the dark.

Ward notes, “It’s impossible for most black Americans to construct full family trees. Official census records, used by so many genealogy enthusiasts to piece together their families’ pasts, don’t include our non-European ancestors.”

After we were done writing our memories down, our guide Béalleka asked us to share our histories with the person sitting next to us. My partner was a very kind and well-meaning man, who traced his entire family back to a single patch of land in Ireland. It was impressive. I shared mine, and after I was done he responded with, “Well, that’s very sad, Jenny.” He meant well, I know. But all of a sudden, just like that, I had felt unseen and pitied. I wasn’t looking for sympathy. My history, as incomplete and pockmarked as it was—was still mine. It was my mother’s, my brother’s, my aunties and uncles. I felt a pang of shame. Then anger.

In the essay, Ward takes the 23andMe DNA mail-in test to confirm her blackness, but she finds something else:

I had thought that my genetic makeup would confirm the identity that I’d grown up with—one that located Africa as my ancestors’ primary point of origin, and that allowed me to claim a legacy of black resistance and strength.

So it was discomfiting to find that my ancestry was 40 percent European[…]and less than 1 percent North African. For a few days after I received my results, I looked into the mirror and didn’t know how to understand myself.

After our pairs, our guide opened up the discussion to the group. A well-meaning and engaged white woman raised her hand excitedly to share. She said that she had also been inspired by Ward’s essay to take the 23andMe test. She nearly squealed as she continued her story. She mentioned the dark skin and dark hair of her great grandmother and grandfather. She used the word, “olive.” She used the word, “black.” Then theatrically she dropped her shoulders and said, “But when I got the results back, I’m all white.” She deflated into a caricature of herself.

Béalleka asked, “Well, what was so disappointing about that for you?” And this woman replied, “Oh, I guess I was just hoping for some Indian or African blood.” Then Béalleka probed further, “Why wouldn’t you use this opportunity to investigate your whiteness?” Then this white woman, as well-meaning as them all, responded, “I guess I just wanted something more exotic.”

A friend once said to me, “The reason why race is so hard to talk about, and to talk about rationally is because it’s in the body. It’s literally our DNA.”

Something unhinged in me that evening. There were a few other comments that were made, and the conversation continued until I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer. I interrupted the 77% white room and said to this woman, “I’m really sorry, but in full transparency I have to admit that I really bristled at your use of the word ‘exotic.’ That word has been used to other me, fetishize, and sexualize me my whole entire life.”

I was furious. For the rest of the evening I couldn’t focus. I thought of colonialism. I equated every single white person in that room as a colonizer. All it took was one person’s seemingly innocent and playful gesture in thinking that they could turn race into something that they could just have. As if race were something a white person could adorn themselves in, like a pair of earrings for a special occasion. I thought of gold. I thought of Christopher Columbus. I thought of all the violent things between.


In Kevin Young’s essay, “Blacker than Thou,” about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who posed as a black woman and was fired from her job as president of the NAACP of Spokane, Wash., after her identity was exposed, investigates how her deception is a direct indication of her whiteness and privilege. Young says:

[…] an array of attempts to be not just someone else as anyone might, but to be exotic, even in her birth (which she said was in a teepee or tipi). When asked directly on the teevee if she was born in a teepee, she answered, “I wasn’t born in a teepee,” emphasis allowing that maybe, just maybe, she could later say she was born near or under one. The hoaxer is always leaving the pretend teepee door ajar.

Language is slippery. When white people want something or they want to escape their culpability around race, it is like watching them construct the slip n’ slide of racism—oh, isn’t racism fun for me. Of course, no white person actually thinks this. But their ignorance does not take away from the facts or statistics that mark them the historical benefactors and perpetrators of white supremacy.

Part of the frustrations with a well-meaning white person is that their intentions are in the right place, but a well-meaning white person obstructs our greater need for change. At worse, they siphon our attention and energy from the issues that really matter. For people of color that exist in this white-supremacist reality, who struggle against it, who work to tilt the scales back toward justice, we don’t have time for the well-meaningness of white folks. We need white people to ask the same probing questions. We need white people to be just as suspicious of these systems. We need white people to challenge racism in every corner of their lives, because it’s often where it’s most prevalent and self-reinforcing. We need white people to care more about the common good than they do about their own comfort, shame, or guilt.

I’ve been thinking about why white people are so resistant or defensive when confronted with their own whiteness, and I think Baldwin observes this in his essay, “Down at the Cross”:

Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror.

I assume, despite a white person’s wealth or position in life, that they recognize on some deep fundamental level that white supremacy challenges their basic sense of what it means to be a good person. I would argue that the gravest thing at stake for a white person in ignoring history and how their whiteness is complicit in this history, is the one thing that money or power can’t buy: their humanity.


On the evening of January 18, I came alone to Jesmyn Ward’s Portland Arts & Lectures event. I saw some of the Delvers in a nearby row. The lights in the great hall dimmed. A beautiful and gentle Ward walked up to the podium under the spotlight. She spoke about her children. She talked first about her daughter’s birth, and how she came out lighter-skinned than she had hoped. Then she talked about how she cried when she found out that she was having a boy. In the 2,776-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall occupied by a mostly white audience, I heard echoes of suppressed laughter and chuckling.

Jesmyn Ward

I assume that the white mothers in the audience must have thought that they were in on the joke: that little boys are harder to raise than little girls because they’re rascals. But Ward, a Black woman, a Black mother bearing a Black son, was not speaking about that. She spoke about mourning his mortality as soon as he was conceived. When would she have “the talk” with him? When he was 17, the age that Trayvon Martin was shot and killed? Or at 14, the age Emmett Till was beaten and lynched. Or at 12 years old, when Tamir Rice was killed by police officers? No, she said. She would have the “talk” with him much younger than that.

The dead elephant is the burden that black people bear in America—and which white people do not.

These issues are large, historical, pervasive, and insidious. They bleed out from our cells. They affect how we live, how we relate, how we love, who makes it into a literary space to discuss race intellectually, safely in a temperature-controlled and warmly-lit room. It determines who fills the auditorium to hear the first woman and the first person of color to be awarded the National Book Award twice, speak. It determines the safety and voyeurism of a white audience watching a Black woman talk about her Black babies. These systems make the reality of a white-dominant space still possible in contemporary literary Portland. The weight of these realities and inequities are felt, rippled out from the center and from the invisibility of white privilege, in white ignorance, in the well-meaningness of white people thinking that they’re always the center of every human experience.

Claudia Rankine in her essay, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” shares an exchange between her and a friend:

It’s extraordinary how ordinary our grief sits inside this fact. One friend said, “I am so afraid, every day.” Her son’s childhood feels impossible, because he will have to be—has to be—so much more careful. There is not life outside of our reality here. Is this something that can be seen and known by parents of white children?

This isn’t about sympathy, or pity. Pity is a subtle way of separating yourself from another person’s plight, because to feel sorry for someone you have to feel that you are better than them. What this is about is genuinely caring about another human being. Rankine continues her thought:

This is the question that nags me. National mourning, as advocated by Black Lives Matter, is a mode of intervention and interruption that might itself be assimilated into the category of public annoyance. This is altogether possible; but also possible is the recognition that it’s a lack of feeling for another that is our problem. Grief, then, for these deceased others might align some of us, for the first time, with the living.


It’s not that some of the white Delvers didn’t try, or that some weren’t intelligent and sensitive. A very small percentage of the 77% in the room were deeply aware of their whiteness, while most were well-meaning, and another small percentage were resistant and deeply ignorant.

There were moments in the seminar when I felt I was swirling. I read the words of Ward, Wilkerson, Rankine, Anderson, Young, and many others, and was met by the whiteness of the room. I watched, felt, and experienced these authors’ observations about whiteness unfold in real life, right before my eyes with the well-meaning white people. Where Baldwin’s words, written more than 50 years ago, were a prognosis of a reality we were all currently living—but a reality that was only shared by a small percentage of us. I was consumed with the fissures and dysfunctions of society, which spilled over into my ever-eroding faith in humanity. I felt demoralized, how many more words and convincing do we need before things will ever change? We were trapped in a vortex.

One evening I said out loud, “I’m losing hope.” And another person of color fiercely interrupted me and jabbed her finger on the table emphasizing, “I expect change in my lifetime.”

I go back to the dead elephant. I’m also aware of how dogmatic and self-righteous the secularism of social justice work can become—how pedantic even this blog post is. I recognize how the social justice rhetoric reduces all of our humanity into pure ideology, which can make us ruthless to each other. When at the heart all we want is to be human to and with one another. As Baldwin said, “Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations…”

But where these words fail, they also wrestle. They are a desperate plea, an angry shout for understanding. Being human to one another is impossible without white people bearing the burden of this shared reality—there cannot be reconciliation without recognition.

And maybe the reason this reflection has taken me so long to struggle through is because this is my community. It is mine, with all the infuriatingly well-meaning white people and all of the incendiary, self-righteous social justice warriors. I am a Chinese-American child who has been equally reared by my immigrant parents as I have been by Portland’s particular brand of racism. The role of intermediary is a natural one for a person of my background and race—but it’s tiring. And I’ve labored here, and it might be compulsory, and maybe that is an expression of my love—I’m not sure. But as a writer, I know that somewhere the rhetoric and the hubris that comes with it will have to die for us to see each other, even if my compassion is worn thin.

Baldwin says, “I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

In Ward’s intro to the collection The Fire This Time, she writes, “I believe there is power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words. That sharing our stories confirms our humanity. That it creates community, both within our own and beyond it. Maybe someone who didn’t perceive us as human will think differently […]


After Ward’s lecture, we returned to meet one last time on January 20. It was a smaller and caring group, lit by the afternoon light. We shared how touched we were by Ward’s story about her son. A white woman shared her own guilt about not being more active in resisting racism. She shared that she felt that reading alone or listening to podcasts about race was barely anything, but that she was listening, “I know it’s not enough, but I feel like I’m getting as close as I can to understanding.”

James Baldwin, center, in “I Am Not Your Negro”/Magnolia Films

In Baldwin’s essay he pleads:

Everything now, we must assume is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.

That afternoon, something shifted ever so slightly…and still not enough…but a hint…

And in the words of Ward, “I burn, and I hope.”

Urban Tellers’ immigrant tales

A new life in words: Portland Story Theater's immigrant and refugee storytellers weave tales about leaving there and coming here


The power of stories is undeniable. Every time period has had a popular form of storytelling at least from the time of Cro-Magnon man, his hands filthy with iron oxide and black manganese after smearing mineral pigments along cave walls to communicate a message, or sitting with his tribe, their faces illuminated by firelight as they traded information.

One night last month at The Old Church Concert Hall, Portland Story Theater’s Urban Tellers series hosted its third installment featuring immigrant and refugee storytellers. (A fourth installment is scheduled for fall 2018.) The evening was powerful and no doubt reshaped how some of the people in the audience view people who fall into those categories.

Preethi Srinivas performing “Pretty Young Thing” at Urban Tellers. Photo: Kelly Nissl

And for some, it might have been surprising. Popular media often frame immigrants and refugees through a generalized trope fraught with heartbreak, loneliness, and rejection. But at The Old Church, that wasn’t the case at all. “It’s just like a regular Urban Tellers show,” Portland Story Theater co-founder Lynne Duddy notes, “except the people happen to be self-identified as first-generation immigrant or refugee.”


‘Israel in Egypt’ review: full-blooded Handel

Oregon Repertory Singers, orchestra and soloists deliver a performance that matches the great baroque oratorio's epic scale


It’s a plague, it’s a pestilence, it’s a flood, a conflagration. Is it a Camus play, a new video game or first run science fiction flick? No, it’s the dramatic unfolding of the Old Testament of the Bible and the 290-year-old oratorio Israel in Egypt.

For George Frideric Handel, the late 1730s were a period of upheaval. He suffered and recovered from a neurological event while living in London on the up side of his forties and down side of his opera successes. But Handel dug in and evolved. He stepped back from Italian opera and, by the end of the decade, he was composing and mounting his new favorite musical genre, the oratorio, which is like opera without elaborate costumes, props, theatrical character interaction or secular subject matter. (If you’ve seen Handel’s later Messiah, you’ve seen an oratorio.) Israel in Egypt, one of his first enduring oratorios, was premiered in 1739.

Oregon Repertory Singers performed Handel’s ‘Israel in Egypt’ at Portland’s First United Methodist Church. Photo: Allison Silverberg.

In the Oregon Repertory Singers‘ performance at First United Methodist Church last weekend, music director Dr. Ethan Sperry presented Israel in Egypt, as it is most often, in the two-act version created by Handel after a less than enthusiastic response to his three-act premiere. Thankfully, Handel retained the exquisitely virtuosic single and double choruses and several lovely arias presented by director Sperry, choir, orchestra and soloists.


Portland Baroque Orchestra & Trinity Cathedral Choir review: wise compromises

Performance of J.S. Bach’s immortal Mass in b minor deftly balanced historical authenticity with practical necessity


There are a few works of art whose merit is not debatable. J.S. Bach’s b minor Mass is one of these.

Yet this masterpiece is rarely performed as its composer probably intended. Various factors — choice of venue, availability of historically accurate performers and instruments, etc. — often require today’s performers to make compromises between original intention and modern practicality. Armed with best practices, conscientious performers pursue historically informed performance, not re-enactments. We then must concede the possibility of resolving difficulties of balance, nuance and tempi.

Under the lucid leadership of distinguished British conductor David Hill last weekend, the combined forces of the Trinity Cathedral Choir, the Portland Baroque Orchestra and five excellent soloists made the right choices. (See my interview with Mr. Hill below.) The value of this performance in the Trinity Music series – to singers, audience, the preservation of the choral arts and to the glory of God through music – was manifold.

Trinity Cathedral Choir and Portland Baroque Orchestra performed J.S. Bach’s ‘Mass in b Minor.’ Photo: Howard Luce.

The arias and duets were something special. Mr. Hill had at his disposal a stellar counter tenor, Daniel Moody; stentorian baritone Jesse Blumberg; the jewel-voiced local soprano Arwen Myers; German-born tenor Nils Neubert; and versatile soprano Estelí Gomez. Each of these singers carries a lengthy resumé of wide-ranging credentials, nationally and internationally.

In the aria “Quoniuam tu solus sanctus” (For you alone are holy), Mr. Blumberg was fulsome in tone, his voice cutting through the cathedral with well honed vowels. His principal Quoniam partner, horn player Andrew Clark, was quite simply the best I’ve heard in this piece, playing his part flawlessly, and without score.

Countertenor Moody possesses a refulgent tone, and was irresistible in his aria “Qui Sedes ad dexteram Patris” (You who sit at the right hand of the Father). This is a major talent; I was grateful that a real countertenor (as opposed to female alto) was Hill’s choice. More about that in a bit.

Ms. Myers sang with a sterling silver patina throughout, especially effective in the duets “Christe eleison” (Christ have mercy), with Ms. Gomez, and later “Domine Deus” (Lord God, King of Heaven) with Mr. Neubert. The latter pair were well matched, along with flutist Janet See, in phrasing and articulation. Mr. Neubert was also effective in the penultimate aria, “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord). In the “Laudamus te” (We praise you) Ms. Gomez confronted the challenges of matching the sparkling crisp 32nd-note duplets and runs in the violin, played expertly by Carla Moore.


Out & About: ACMA Elevated

At Beaverton's innovative arts magnet academy, the dancing never stops. Photographer Joe Cantrell catches the invigorating whirl of it all.


One of the happier open secrets in the Oregon cultural world is the high-quality incubator of talent that is ACMA, the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. Part of the Beaverton School District, it’s a rigorous public school for students in grades 6-12 that specializes in pre-professional training in dance, music, theater, visual arts, electronic arts, and creative writing. Its graduates routinely go on to top college programs and, often, professional careers.

ACMA’s advanced dance company, Dance West, will perform its spring program, Walk With Me, Thursday through Sunday, April 26-29, at the school’s Visual and Performing Arts Center, 11375 S.W. Center Street, Beaverton, with special performances Saturday night and Sunday afternoon by the Pacific Youth Choir. If track records mean anything at all, there’s going to be some good dancing and singing going on.

What will the program look like? We can’t say, exactly. But photographer Joe Cantrell was on hand in late January for Elevated, the ACMA dance program’s student choreography concert, with dancers from all levels, and he had his camera in overdrive. The program was inventive and exhilarating. There were solo dances, small-group dances, guest choreography from faculty member Kemba Shannon and ACMA alum Nick Jurica, now a student at The Juilliard School in New York. Some of the action whirled on and around a giant box, in one piece as several dancer/artists painted scenes on it.

We’ve selected eleven of Joe’s photos from that showcase to give you a sense of the verve and style of the school’s dance program and the work its students and teachers do.


Dancers Anna Williams, Olivia Frank, and Courtney Nunn in student choreographer Bridget Derville-Teer’s “Strange.”


Friday Night Flute Fight

Champion French flutist loses in a TKO decision with an unprepared Oregon accompanist


I went to the Friday night fights and a flute recital broke out. Julien Beaudiment, on the left, wielding tone and dynamics with roundhouse and rabbit punches. As light on his feet as Muhammad Ali, the renowned French flutist danced around Portland accompanist Cary Lewis’s unpracticed, overpedaled, flabby playing, trying to give the audience the show it expected to hear.

A former principal at the Los Angeles Philharmonic who tours, teaches and is principal flute of the Orchestre de l’Opera National de Lyon, the 40 year old flutist, Beaudiment was the centerpiece of this year’s Greater Portland Flute Society Flute Fair: a Saturday seven hour extravaganza that takes place every year at Aloha High School featuring masterclasses, ongoing flute choir performances, competitions, and flute vendors.

Beaudiment giving a master class.

Sadly, this concert, the Friday night before the Saturday Fair, showed just one example of a much larger problem in our classical music culture. While the rest of the city has grown more sophisticated and accomplished thanks to the influx of new blood, too often, its classical music performances are weighed down by deadwood — by musicians who are unwilling or unable to devote adequate time to prepare their performances and consistently sound awful.

Lincoln Hall at Portland State University was full of flutists who were focused on Beaudiment’s technically strong performance, with all the right dynamics, textures, phrasing. But the non-flutists who paid to see the show couldn’t miss the accompanist dragging down the performance as a whole. Beaudiment spent the match — er, concert — jousting or step-dancing over Lewis’s limp, bodiless playing, and late attacks.

Too many of the performers who dominate the scene here habitually deliver embarrassingly unprepared performances like this one. What’s really sad is that he’ll never know that Portland actually does have plenty of fine musicians who he would have enjoyed playing with instead of tussling against. Here are five stellar pianists that should have been on stage with Julien Beaudiment (in alphabetical order): Colleen Adent, Janet Coleman, Asya Gulua, Monica Ohuchi, Doug Schneider. There are probably others. Everytime I hear these five pianists they are practiced, well rehearsed with their ensemble, and they bring their own unique personality and musicality to the performance.

Instead, we got a fight.


Grownup stories; Mercury rising

Courtney Freed's tribute to Freddie Mercury and Rosalinde Block's "grownup" tales explore the possibilities of the solo show


Something poignant resonated from the one-woman musicals Don’t Stop Me Now and Drama of the Gifted Grownup that appeared recently in Portland.

The shows’ stars—Courtney Freed in Don’t Stop Me Now and Rosalinde Block of Drama of the Gifted Grownup — never took breaks during their breathless 90-minutes cabaret performances. They were so immersed and invested in material that they had created, and in Block’s case, lived through, that they risked others not finding these close-to-their-hearts shows as interesting as they did. And though touching, their pieces were far from Broadway productions (as were the $20 ticket prices).

But these two performers, if not megastars like Barbra Streisand or Carole King, were talented and utterly sincere, and they exuberantly conveyed those values to their small audiences.

Courtney Freed, cutting loose on Freddie Mercury songs.


Don’t Stop Me Now

Freed, the Portland creator and center-stage performer of Don’t Stop Me Now: The Freddie Mercury Experience that played April 4-8 at the 95-seat wraparound Coho Theater, loves the late and great Queen performer. Freddie Mercury tops her list of voice role models though she doesn’t quite have his three-plus-octave range. You couldn’t have stopped Freed’s admiration for the rocker during the show any more than you could have stopped the slick, sweet Mercury from aching about love a few decades ago.