Oregon ArtsWatch

 

Caballito Negro: embracing the void

Ashland-based flute and percussion duo strives to ‘connect with the world as it is’

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

I almost don’t want to tell you about Abbie Weisenbloom House in southeast Portland, where Ms. Weisenbloom has been hosting living room potluck shows for most of a decade. Like surfers and brunch enthusiasts, I don’t want to give up a sweet secret spot, lest it become overcrowded. This is, of course, an exquisitely Portlandian problem, and a bullshit one, which is why I’ve decided to tell you all about the intense, intimate concert I attended there on a dark, windy night in February. The stars of the evening: flutist Tessa Brinckman and percussionist Terry Longshore, a pair of accomplished Ashland-based musicians who compose, record and tour together as Caballito Negro.

I spoke with Brinckman and Longshore after the show, and later by phone; their answers have been edited for flow and clarity.

On “Caballito Negro” and Why They Do It

Longshore: We have played [George Crumb’s Madrigals] together with a wonderful vocalist, Christine Williams. And we found that that really spoke to us on the idea of both our modern music and our influence of musics of the world, traditional music of India, Spain, etc., and that cross-pollination of influence just there, hanging out for us to take.

Brinckman: I like also the translation: you can say “little black horse” or “little dark horse,” the English expression of being a dark horse. I like that. The idea of going where music is not nice but meaningful and necessary is something we are both quite fond of.

Longshore & Brinckman

There is always that moment, right before you’re about to go do performance and you’ve worked so hard and there is so much stuff and so many bits and pieces that can go wrong, and you think “what the hell was I thinking?” There is always that moment, and then the opposite of that is this ridiculous enthusiasm for music that is a visceral addiction. I can’t not do it.

Longshore: It’s the same thing for me. Once I started doing it, I couldn’t stop. It’s the combination of physical, mental, emotional, spiritual reward I get from doing it. And I know what it feels like when I am inspired by someone else’s art. And I always aspire to do that myself. I think some of the most rewarding things are when you know you’ve been moved by a performance you’ve given and it has moved someone. That you connected with someone at that level is a very special feeling.

Brinckman: I feel also that what we are doing is connecting with the world as it is. It’s not sticking our faces towards the wall and being separate from the world. It’s not ignoring the pain in what’s going on. And to really get mixed up in it is a worthy thing. I don’t want to be the kind of artist that is separate from it. Because I would feel ashamed. I feel a responsibility to connect with what is going on and not ignore something. So all the issues that are hot, getting hotter, there is always a way to react with it artistically.

My favorite art of anybody’s engages who we are. Using our privilege for good deeds. The good witches. Using our powers for good.

A Music Salon in Southeast Portland

An assortment of percussion instruments covered the little stage area, toy pianos and various flutes filling the rest of the space, a rug on the floor for Brinckman and Longshore to sit and play on. Chairs lined the living room, spilling over into the den, where I huddled under maps and books and tchotchkes and other souvenirs from Weisenbloom’s travels. An old upright piano anchored one wall, bookcases framed the others, a busy back kitchen buzzed with popping wine corks and potluck leftovers and audience chatter.

Upstage, the musicians were flanked by a drawing of Pan on the left and some Rothko-esque miniature to the right. Appropriate in myriad ways, that pair, Pan’s divine chthonic flute and Rothko’s divine foursquare order indicative of the Apollonian-Dionysian spirit in the house, classically trained musicians performing wildly personal intercultural modern music for a tribe of tipsy enthusiasts passing around hand-folded programs in a dimly lit living room.

It turns out Brinckman once lived in this same neighborhood, had in fact known Weisenbloom when she first turned her home into a music venue.

On Playing Weisenbloom House

Brinckman: Abbie was a neighbor of mine. I used to live right in that block. She has done an amazing job making a series of it work. She’s dedicated. She’s truly created a Parisian salon—she used to live in France, so she knows what she is doing. And she really wants to bring the world, as she says, to her house. What is beautiful about it is she gets people communing—eating and drinking—especially in the drinking before the concert, they’re in a space where they just want to connect. They’re not inhibited or wondering how comfortable they feel. They’re in it with us.

And that’s what we long for as musicians—that we’re not just kind of objects on stage. People crave things from us, demand things from us, and there is this kind of loop of energy that goes along. It’s always a competition going on with the audience, and you absolutely need that, otherwise you might as well stick on a CD and leave.

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‘Tango of the White Gardenia’: dance lessons

New Oregon opera about bullying and self-esteem premieres in Lincoln City, part of a coastal classical music surge

by GARY FERRINGTON

Although well known for its coastal attractions and the location of one of the world’s shortest rivers, Lincoln City has never been thought of as a destination for opera — let alone a world premiere. That changes this weekend when Cascadia Chamber Opera performs Southern Oregon composer Ethan Gans-Morse and librettist Tiziana DellaRovere’s two-act opera, Tango of the White Gardenia, at the vibrant Lincoln City Cultural Center on September 8-9, followed by a tour to other Oregon cities.

‘White Gardenia’ cast members perform at LCCC fundraising event. Photo: Rudy Salci.

Previously known as Cascadia Concert Opera, the recently renamed Cascadia Chamber Opera performs full-length and/or abridged operas sung in English by local and regional artists, often staged in “underserved communities using non-traditional and community-friendly venues” like schools, galleries, churches, homes and other spaces, sometimes at “little or no cost to the general public,” according to the Oregon Cultural Trust.

Gans-Morse and CCO’s co-founders Artistic Director Bereniece Jones-Centeno and Music Director Vincent Centeno have all been friends since since they were graduate students at the University of Oregon. Their shared interest in making opera accessible, affordable, approachable, relevant, and fun for audiences — particularly those whose circumstances might otherwise prevent them from enjoying opera — was an important reason that CCO, with help from an Oregon Arts Commission Career Grant, commissioned Gans-Morse and DellaRovere to compose a new opera to celebrate the non-profit organization’s 10th anniversary season.

Long time friends bring a new opera to underserved Oregon communities. From left: Centeno, Jones-Centeno, DellaRovere, Gans-Morse. Photo: Deane Ingram.

Gans-Morse and DellaRovere and their Anima Mundi Productions are best known for their first opera, Canticle of the Black Madonna, staged at Portland’s Newmark Theatre in 2014, which Oregon ArtsWatch called “one of the most exciting developments of the arts season.” This year, the Rogue Valley Symphony celebrated its 50th anniversary by commissioning the husband and wife team to compose a program symphony, How Can You Own The Sky? Both works reflect their interest in representing marginalized populations and addressing societal wounds through the creation of new works.

This time, the social challenges DellaRovere wanted to address revolved around bullying, self-esteem, and body image. And she wanted to base the opera on Argentine tango.

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Oregon Symphony 2018: bridging divides

Orchestra’s 2018 concerts, past and future, appeal to broader audiences than the stereotype suggests

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

I went and heard the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi perform live six times during the first half of this year, from January’s Brahms v. Radiohead mashup to May’s season-closing Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. That’s more than once a month. By comparison, I have seen my favorite living rock band—Santa Cruz ikons Secret Chiefs 3—seven times ever. This regular attendance at the concerts of a single performing group is one of the things that sets classical music apart from its eternal sibling rival, popular music. You’ve got to talk to Deadheads and Phish fans to find that level of devotion in the pop world.

Zoo-bound: Conductor Carlos Kalmar with the Oregon Symphony.

I’ve come to have a few favorite OSO players. Timpanist Jon Greeney is a damn superstar, always in tune, always in rhythm, never too loud (important) but never too soft either (even more important). The cello section is anchored by a dynamite principal and assistant principal duo: Fear No Music’s Nancy Ives and Pyxis Quartet’s Marilyn de Oliveira. The brass section never fails to delight, especially the trumpet-trombone-tuba contingent, playing proudly from their risers behind the basses. I’ve come to expect something amazing from that crew every time: by turns bold and morbid in their February performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, gorgeously operatic all through Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in May (gotta keep up with that tenorhorn soloist!), and downright revelatory in January’s performance of the brass-heavy Rite of Spring.

3D Sound & Star Attractions

The Rite demonstrated another important aspect of the orchestral concert experience: that huge, 3-dimensional sound, vastly varied timbres emerging from all across the stage (in visually identifiable ways) as the band’s 100-odd instruments and occasional voices interweave their solos and duos and tuttis and come together for big polychoral reverberations around the concert hall’s acoustically ornate cathedral of sound. All that makes even a good home stereo system sound like a pair of crappy used earbuds from the Goodwill bins. In the Rite, the brass section’s heralds and hunting calls resounded across the orchestra, trumpets tossing their call over the strings towards the horn section, buried down behind the other winds, harrumphing out their primeval wails in response. Glorious!

And then there’s the guest stars, and I don’t just mean big name soloists like Joshua Bell (blissing out on Bernstein’s beautiful Symposium in May), Natasha Paremski (thunderingly catlike on Prokofiev’s weird, playful Piano Concerto No. 2—another one with some fantastic brassin February), and Elina Vähälä (whose heroic, melancholy performance of Bartok’s brasstastically  anti-fascist Violin Concerto No. 2 left me stirred and genuinely terrified in January).

Colin Currie and the Oregon Symphony’s percussionists teamed up in a John Corigliano piece last spring.

In April, percussion whiz and artist in residence Colin Currie returned for an amusing and impressive take on a too-long Corigliano concerto. A parade of local choirs ran all through the season, from the various impeccable groups Portland State churns out with perplexing regularity (I could listen to them sing Daphnis and Chloe forever) to emergency shelter intake form’s Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics and Maybelle Community Singers.

There’s also the extra-musical collaborations, something the OSO has gone out of its way to cultivate the last several years, culminating in grand experiences like the superprofusion of Rose Bond’s Turangalila in 2016 and Matthew Haber’s less overwhelming but still exciting video projections for the Rite.

And, of course, there’s all the popular music.

Popularity Contest: Apollo and Dionysus in the Concert Hall

Florida Man and famed humorist Dave Barry defined classical music as “music that is not popular.” It’s hard to say he’s wrong, in the sense that raving fans don’t generally scream and holler when Kalmar gets off a plane—at least not the way they do for, say, “Weird Al” Yankovic. But Kalmar does get his cheers, as does the rest of his band, every time they play, every time they come on stage, sometimes several times in one concert.

And the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall is usually packed tight with enthusiastic followers, some of them veteran audients who’ve been following the group for decades. Get there a half hour before showtime and you’ll see a line for tickets stretched up SW Broadway, scalpers and buskers animating the street, OSO’s usual mixed-income crowd of well-dressed patrons rubbing elbows with shabby college students like your humble reviewer, a general atmosphere of metropolitan congeniality, more egalitarian than most symphony orchestras.

Name another band that routinely sells out the same 2,700-seat venue, three weekend performances at a time, a couple dozen times a year, to audiences all across the various spectra of generation and gender and class and so on. They seem pretty goddamn popular to me.

At the same time, Barry (and more serious critics of the problem of classical music) has a point. It’s not just the stuffiness, perceived or otherwise; I’ll admit to belonging squarely in the “please don’t clap between movements camp” (for reasons we will come to), but that oh-so-familiar sense of shame and stifled enthusiasm can definitely make the concert hall feel a lot like the worst kind of pharisaical church service. Not a very welcoming environment, especially if you think the point of a concert is to enjoy yourself.

No, the issue is much deeper than clapping etiquette and the like: we’re deep into the Apollonian-Dionysian realm mapped by son-of-a-preacher-man Friedrich Nietzsche in his The Birth of Tragedy. The basic idea, in elevator friendly terms, is that human creativity springs from the interaction of two primary sources: the wild, earthy, chaotic Dionysian element and the formalized, transcendent, ordered Apollonian element. All the usual dichotomies can be hung on this (admittedly simplified) framework: emotion and intellect, intuition and reason, the Dog and God in Man, etc.

Carlos Kalmar conducted the Oregon Symphony’s projection-enhanced ‘Rite of Spring.’

What the hell does this mean in the real world? I’ll illustrate using the Appropriate Applause example. Part of the reason clapping between movements is frowned upon—in favor of clapping after the whole symphony is over—lies in how these two energy circuits operate. We build up a charge of Dionysian energy when we get excited, and when we get too excited that energy overflows into applause (or laughter, tears, etcetera, depending on the situation). Clapping disperses the energy, releases it, keeps it from building up.

This is where the Apollonian circuit comes in: its function is to keep us focused on the excitement, to keep it contained, to organize it, to let it build up. The more you can exercise your Apollo spirit, the more you can expand your Dionysus consciousness; the restraints of reason and concentration allow you to stoke that fire even hotter before letting it tip over the horizon of experience to set your soul ablaze with ecstatic delirium. That’s one of the secrets behind all this long-form classical stuff, from well before Bach to well after Wagner: we classical enthusiasts train ourselves to experience this exquisitely elongated art form precisely because of its massive payoff.

Of course, I’m not saying you shouldn’t clap when you want to. Haydn wanted you to clap, and so did Mozart. I clapped all the way through that technicolor Turangalila last year, because it was that kind of show (I also wanted to see how many times we could get Carlos to shush us with his hair). Clap whenever the hell you like, and if anyone judges you for it I’ll fight them in the park out back. I only wish to draw attention to the different modes of consciousness available to us in varied settings.

Messiaen Plus: “Turangalila” with Rose Bond’s projections. Photo: Jacob Wade

For example, it’s revealing that we music enthusiasts typically sit down at classical concerts and stand up at pop shows. This has become institutionalized: there are chairs in the Schnitz, even when we don’t want them (the seats were, for instance, a definite handicap at last year’s Black Violin concert). This is a result of—and, conversely, a contributing factor to—our habit of rarely listening to the two art forms in anything like the same way.

There’s something to that, of course. We sit at classical concerts for the same reason we sit when we meditate or drop acid: the experience is too intense to let physical concerns impede what is fundamentally an internal process. Classical music is not a party drug, at least not most of the time.

And the opposite is generally true at pop concerts: we drink our little drinks, we smoke our little smokes, and we stand up and shake our assess in order to partake of the music’s Dionysian physicality, to participate in the orgiastic ritual of spectacle and celebration. To sit down in this space is unusual, heretical, spoilersporty. To breach the etiquette of either situation is to disrupt the ritual. Try dancing during the Rite of Spring, if you dare. Try sitting down next time you’re at Dante’s for a metal show.

But maybe we should be dancing to the Rite of Spring. One of the things I like most about OSO is how good they are at problematizing and bridging this whole questionable divide. And it’s a good thing they do: for the last few decades, symphony orchestras have been partnering with film composers, pop bands, puppeteers, playwrights, video game makers, and so on, all in a so-far-successful attempt to stay relevant and thus alive. The OSO excels at this, last year bringing in the likes of Rick Springfield and Johnny Mathis (I skipped both of those, sorry) and performing pop-classical mashups like Steve Hackman’s overtly syncretic and totally satisfying Brahms v. Radiohead (omfug there’s a Bartók v. Björk) and Gabriel Kahane’s considerably more organic emergency shelter intake form.

Steve Hackman led the OSO in ‘Brahms vs. Radiohead.’

At all these concerts it’s perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to clap and laugh and sing, to stand or move around, to dance in the aisles if the ushers are hip enough to partner with you. One charming aspect of a group like ARCO-PDX: when they play Fratres in a bar instead of Lincoln Hall, no one cares if you sing along. Frankly I’d like to see a little more of this at the symphony.

Coming Soon

This weekend, the orchestra puts on a Boston Pops Orchestra style concert, playing popular selections by Wagner, Bizet, Gershwin, Tchaikovsky, Williams, and a few others at the Oregon Zoo; next weekend they’re back at the Schnitz playing, at long last, the first, the original, Star Wars.

Renée Fleming joins the Oregon Symphony for its opening night concert.

The season to come promises more of the same. Renée Fleming will be here for opening night later this month, singing her usual assortment of hits and classics along with Letters from Georgia, a setting of Georgia O’Keeffe letters by Pulitzer-winning composer Kevin Puts. Then it’s Brahms again, straddling September and October, bracketed by Copland’s obligingly jazzy Piano Concerto, another of Haydn’s million symphonies (which, admittedly, the OSO always plays with wit and elegance, as evidenced on last year’s recording), and—be still my heart!—a premiere of another new work, this one by a composer younger than I am, Katherine Balch.

Karen Gomyo plays Sibelius with the OSO this fall.

I’ll probably go check out the Star Trek concert in October, even though I prefer a lightsaber to a phaser, and I’ll almost certainly go check out former Contemporary Christian Music singer Tony Vincent performing a bunch of orchestrated U2 songs (I haven’t heard Vincent perform live since I saw him open for Newsboys in 1995).

I will definitely be there later in October to hear Karen Gomyo perform the Sibelius Violin Concerto, although I have to admit I’m more excited about the pair of short pieces by Polish composers (Kilar, Lutosławski) and the prospect of hearing that magnificent brass section play Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9.

October closes with more Tchaikovsky and another monosyllabically titled Andrew Norman concerto, this one composed for a more familiar percussion instrument—the piano. After that we’re into November’s SoundStories Petrushka puppet show and the return of Hackman with Tchaikovsky v. Drake—but that’s a story for another time.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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End of Summer: Absorbing Oregon in August

Matt Jay's August residency program brings Japanese artists to Oregon to work and connect

By BRIAN LIBBY

Yale Union’s End of Summer artist residency concluded on Sunday with open artist’s studios for the six Japanese artists who participated in the program in August. Throughout the massive old building’s three floors, each of the visiting artists seemed to stake out a different corner.

Filmmaker Shu Isaka made use of Yale Union’s cavernous basement, for example, where catwalks extend over a subterranean creek that peeks through the surface. In Isaka’s mockumentary, called “Sprout” and made during the residency, the unique circle-and-squares layout of the nearby Ladd’s Addition neighborhood and the primal geology of Mount St. Helens (which the artists visited earlier this month) combine to provide evidence of some cosmic plan—a disaster or revelation waiting to happen.

A still from Shu Osaka’s film, “Sprout,” made in Oregon during the End of Summer residency/Photo by Brian Libby

Isaka’s film felt like a way of coping with the fact that Oregon and Japan are united by their seismically active zones. The landscape in its beauty and violence always rules.

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Gabriel Kahane’s new oratorio confronts America’s empathy deficit

Commissioned, performed and recorded this week by the Oregon Symphony, 'emergency shelter intake form' humanizes homelessness

Interview by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Since attending its premiere in May, I’ve been thinking a lot about Gabriel Kahane’s latest pop-classical whatsit—not the album that came out last Friday, though we’ll get to that when he returns next year, but his emergency shelter intake form, which the Oregon Symphony performs for the fourth time this year at Friday’s live recording project. (Get your tickets now!) It was also performed last month at Jacksonville’s Britt Festival, which co-commissioned it with the OSO.

The oratorio, I’ve come to realize, is largely a story—told from several angles—about the experience and impact of becoming homeless, a story about how society frames (and thereby misunderstands) the homeless experience, and a story of how we as a society can understand and begin to heal the broken systems of inequality that cause America’s continuing housing and homelessness crises. It is also, incidentally, a very fine orchestral song cycle, in the BrittenBernstein tradition.

Gabriel Kahane performs in his ’emergency shelter intake form’ with the Oregon Symphony./Photo by Yi Yin

We cannot overstate the impact of the juxtaposition between the glorious Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, on Southwest Broadway where the Symphony performs, and the South Park Blocks behind it, often populated by people experiencing the sort of unsheltered homelessness which dominates our attention on the subjects Kahane’s song cycle addresses. Kahane was, of course, well aware of all this, and initially hesitated to take on the project — a co-commission from the Oregon Symphony, part of a series purporting to address pressing social issues — at all. Once he did, he worked at a Manhattan shelter for six months—SOP for Kahane, whose latest album emerged from a similarly immersive experience interviewing fellow Amtrak riders over the course of some two weeks on dining cars.

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Makrokosmos IV review: screwy, spiritual music for a summer evening

Portland summer modern music marathon’s ‘Dadapalooza’ mixes Cage, Zappa, Crumb, piano, percussion, even cactus into a meditative musical experience

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Photography by Masataka Suemitsu

Summer evening, Northwest Portland’s Vestas building, next to the Lego wind turbine. A box truck’s worth of vibraphone and xylophone and timpani and chimes and cymbals and crotales and tam-tams and on and on; two grand pianos, interlaced, lidless, ready for anything; a table full of cacti and branches and wires and shit.

Across the lobby, on the other side of the elevators, past the wine and cheese, over by the windows onto a bright sunny NW Everett, sat the other piano. The prepared piano. Tastefully roped off like a museum piece, prepared with screws and tacks and whatnot inserted between the strings to vary the sound, according to the instructions developed by famed American musical theorist / composer John Cage.

DUO Stephanie & Saar performed and directed Makrokosmos IV.

On the back wall, behind the tam-tams, a projection of various visual schemata. Slabs of Sanskrit and Chinese writing. The Makrokosmos Project logo, George Crumb’s iconic “Spiral Galaxy” score (suitable for framing!) The score and preparation instructions for Cage’s 20th century milestone Sonatas & Interludes, which would ultimately close the concert.

Musicians and enthusiasts gather. Chris Whyte and Paul Owen from Portland Percussion Group, sleeves already rolled up like proper percussionists. Oregon Symphony violinist and 45th Parallel Executive Director Ron Blessinger makes his customary cameo. No fewer than six of Oregon’s most adventurous pianists tumble in, ready to play some John Cage: Alexander Schwarzkopf, Deborah Cleaver, Susan Smith, Jeff Payne, Julia Lee, Lydia Chung. I spot audio electronics whiz (and fellow Bonnie Miksch acolyte) Branic Howard running sound and such. Then Miksch herself, then local classical music celebrity Robert McBride, the former classical radio host and Club Mod president, both apparently enjoying their summery freedom to do nothing but compose music and go to concerts. Before too long the whole gamut of Cascadians and Arts Journalists and New Music Weirdos I always see at these concerts has arrived.

It’s Makrokosmos IV: Dadapalooza—five-odd (if not exactly dadaist, as far as I could tell) hours of piano and percussion music by modern and contemporary composers, perpetrated for the fourth year by the New York based piano Duo Saar & Stephanie. Last time, this happened. Here we go.

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Uday Bhawalkar review: a quick primer on Indian music appreciation

Legendary singer's transcendent Portland concert provides a gateway to understanding the sophisticated beauty of Indian classical music

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

You’ve probably heard Indian classical music before. Perhaps you’ve listened to a Ravi Shankar tape or watched videos of his daughter Anoushka, or maybe you’ve encountered its distinctive sounds in a Bollywood movie. If you’re extra lucky, you might live in a region blessed with an arts organization like Kalakendra, as Portland is. The performing arts society produces several concerts a year, and the last one I went to—starring vocalist Uday Bhawalkar, at PCC Rock Creek in Washington County in May—changed my life. But then, they’ve all changed my life.

Kalakendra presented Pratap Awad, Uday Bhawalkar and Michael Stirling.

It’s true! I know it sounds like a gross exaggeration (surely every concert can’t be a life-altering event), but that’s the way it is with Indian music: a raga performance is like an initiatory experience, soul-stirring and spiritually transformative in the way church is supposed to be. This was the third time I’ve heard Bhawalkar sing in concert, and each time I’ve come away shaken, invigorated, and possessed of a deeper understanding of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

To really appreciate what makes concerts like these so powerful, it helps to understand a little about Indian classical music. For the next few minutes, before returning to Bhawalkar’s performance, indulge me in a brief primer that may, in combination with the next Kalakendra or Rasika concert, repay you with hours of transcendent bliss. If you’d like to listen to Indian classical music and get more out of it than “wow, that was cool,” read on.

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