Oregon ArtsWatch

 

‘Orfeo’ review: a contract for excellence

Stephen Stubbs leads Pacific MusicWorks's masterful authentic concert reading of Monteverdi's pioneering opera based on the Orpheus myth

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Pacts with the Devil rarely work out. The decks are usually stacked in the devil’s favor. Joe Boyd (Damn Yankees) yearns for the return of his youth. Jabez Stone (The Devil and Daniel Webster) just wants some good luck for a change. Keanu Reeves’s character in Devil’s Advocate wants professional success. Those Faustian characters, and the needy protagonist Faust himself, want more than the earthly pleasures currently offer.

Then there is Orfeo, title character of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera performed last weekend by Pacific MusicWorks. In this concert version presented by Portland Baroque Orchestra at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, the performing forces were a composite of early music experts: cornetto, trombones and recorders of Dark Horse Consort, eight soloists/choristers, and the Pacific MusicWorks Orchestra, led by Grammy Award winning Seattle-based music theorbo artist Stephen Stubbs.

Stephen Stubbs led Portland Baroque Orchestra’s performance of Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Photo:

In Greek mythology, Orpheus (Orfeo in Italian) is a dude to rally round. He embraces only the “good,” uses music to charm the flora and fauna and to even soften the most hardened heart. There is something about Orfeo that makes him more palatable than Faust, more endearing. In this segment of the Orphic saga, he is at one moment ecstatic over his coming wedding to Eurydice, then plunged headlong into despair over her sudden death by serpent. In quintessential Orphic style – heroic, confident – he sets out to find and work his charms on Plutone (Pluto), the God of, you know, down there. He will bring Eurydice back to life. But alas, because of his passion, his pact does not end as well as he had hoped. Yet somehow we applaud his effort.

All of the above enticed the 40-something Claudio Monteverdi to set Orfeo to music. Further inspired by the libretto of Alessandro Striggio the Younger, his colleague at the court of Mantua, Monteverdi wrote emotional, picturesque, complex and riveting music which was, like caramel sauce on a latte, cast and staged – to a degree anyway.

This is an important operatic work. First opera? Fact check: FALSE. No, not even the first Orphic opera. Florentine composer Jacopo Peri preceded it with his own L’Euridice. But it was a ground breaking and landmark work. It was written on his way toward Monteverdi’s professional apex, the position of Maestro di Capella, at San Marco in Venice.

Monteverdi was interested in pursuing the innovative idea of drama being sung on stage. It is important to understand this as a gradual evolution of the genre when we see Orfeo. Those anticipating a fully costumed, staged with scenery and developed musical drama might be underwhelmed by Orfeo. But on Friday evening, there were so many things about which to be overwhelmed.

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Northwest Art Song, Susan Graham reviews: women in and out of love

The Ensemble and Friends of Chamber Music present two vocal concerts featuring old and new songs about the female experience of love

by JEFF WINSLOW

Of all the ways composers scoop up gulps of whatever universal river of music flows through the human soul and shape them into works, my favorite is probably the art song. At its best, an art song is a miraculous thing, a happy ménage à trois of compelling soundscape, absorbing lyrics – and not least, beautiful singing, something that depends on the composer and all the other musicians in on the game as well as the singer. (This does not in any way exclude the work of people who prefer to think of themselves as songwriters. A hit doesn’t need much art, and art doesn’t need to be a hit, but at wonderful times they do indeed come in the same package.)

In recent years, Portland has attracted a welcome stream of excellent singers, who fill the ranks of, and even direct, organizations devoted to art song as well as choral music. Two singers who recently commanded my delighted attention, soprano Arwen Myers and mezzo Laura Beckel Thoreson, happen to be the artistic directors of Northwest Art Song. They also perform regularly with top local vocal groups such as The Ensemble of Oregon. For the opening concert of The Ensemble’s season, “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” which I caught two weeks ago last Sunday afternoon at downtown Portland’s First Christian Church (repeated from the previous evening in Eugene), they put together an absorbing show exploring many kinds of love, exclusively from a woman’s point of view: all music and lyrics were written and performed entirely by women. Not only that, the music was utterly of our time, mostly written in the last two years, the oldest written at the cusp of the millennium.

Northwest Art Song performed women’s music in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Cory Niedfeldt.

Naturally with any collection of new work, there were misses as well as hits, but they opened with a stunner, Hyacinth Curl by Kati Agócs, who visited Portland last summer when her piano trio Queen of Hearts was performed at Chamber Music Northwest. Agócs put the lyrics together from Sufi devotional poetry (possibly written around 1830) by early 19th century Iranian noblewoman and mystic Bibi Hayati. As with claims that the Song of Solomon expresses religious devotion, you could have fooled me. Myers’s and Thoreson’s sinuous lines wrapped around each other, aptly expressing the lyrics’ barely concealed eroticism, with only an occasional handbell for punctuation. At the most charged moments, the women’s duet trailed off into silence, and after almost unbearable anticipation, the next stroke of the handbell was perfectly placed (that is, pitched) for maximum (aural) pleasure.

There was probably no way Abbie Betinis’s The Clan of the Lichens, on the equally mystical but almost asexual nature-loving texts of Opal Whiteley, could keep up this kind of interest, but the five-song set showed off Myers’s abilities to great advantage, and at their best were engaging and effective. “All Things Live” was one standout, with Myers ripping out fast, digitally precise scales and other vocal fireworks, popping off a couple of high D’s as if they were the easiest thing in the world. Even more attractive was the off-kilter, halting waltz “A Tale for Children and Taller Ones,” which dusted the cleverest lyrics and most colorful piano writing of the set with another dash of delicious musical acrobatics from Myers.

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‘Appropriate’ review: all in the family

University of Portland production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins drama shows love and racism through the generations

by MARIA CHOBAN & BRETT CAMPBELL

Appropriate racism: “I was like, ‘How invisible can I make it?’” – Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Exasperated, Rachel grabs a huge orange photo album, hands it to her young hyperactive son, pushes him to the couch telling him to shut up or else. The huge 2’X2′ orange photo album contains photos of broken necked victims of lynchings. Which Rachel quickly discovers by glancing down at her suddenly quiet kid.

This is not the spoiler.

Two teens descend from upstairs with mason jars of souvenirs: body parts from the lynched victims. All this in an Arkansas plantation house where three siblings and their families combust, cleaning up the estate.

Nor is this the spoiler.

The five-year-old breaks up a full family brawl— by appearing in Klan-wear. The teenage girl tenderly shares her pilfered lynching pics with the cousin she’s crushing on.

Unbelievably, not even all these incidents are the spoiler. The audience is laughing as the horror ratchets. Racism — the gift that keeps on giving. One of us is stifling the guilt and inAppropriateness of our guffaws as Candide meets Whack-A-Mole.

University of Portland staged Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate (2013) October 4 – 8. Enroute to her MFA, director Jessica Wallenfels led her college-student actors through a madcap dark comedy. With wild cartoon exaggerations and furious forward motion, Wallenfels and BJJ gave us a great ride, right up to near the end where the oldest sibling, Toni, suddenly switches gears and delivers an unconvincing paean to her dear, departed daddy.

University of Portland’s ‘Appropriate’ L-R Joe Flory, Kaylie Haas, Sammie VanNorstrand, Pat Johnson, Brandon Chadney, Patrick Holland, Emma Pace, Rebby Foster. Photo: Gary Norman.

Two ArtsWatch writers both enjoyed the show, but for slightly different reasons.

MC: I walked out of the show happily flummoxed, processing the difference between Appropriate (2013) and An Octoroon (2010). This production was wicked fast. BJJ writes furiously and Wallenfels directed her cast to accelerate into and on top of each other.

In contrast, Octoroon’s tedious script (written when BJJ was 26) and Artists Repertory Theatre’s production put me to sleep. This was not due to BJJ’s writing, as “BJJ’s” “therapist” noted on ArtsWatch, but because BJJ relied on copy / pasting too much of a 150-year-old melodrama — The Octoroon (1859) — written by a second rate playwright, Dion Boucicault.

Nevertheless, I loved BJJ’s ability to draw emotion with his own minimal unsentimental lines, particularly in the opening monologue. In fact, it was BJJ’s writing that pushed me to take a chance on a student production to check out how he has evolved as a playwright. Over three years from 2010’s Octoroon (which he wrote when he was 26) to Appropriate (2013), BJJ matured lifetimes.

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‘Queer Horror’ preview: season of the witch

Halloween installment in Hollywood Theatre's film series celebrates the infernal feminine

by ANTHONY HUDSON

The witches are coming. No longer are they meeting just in thunder, lightning, or in rain, dancing at the Sabbat’s fire and clothed only by its flickering glow. No longer do they tap their claws against bedroom windows hungry for a feast, tethered to the pagan holidays of old or the worship of Yahweh’s prosecutor-turned-nemesis. Witches today emerge from the dirt and the swamps, from your schools and grocery stores and homes; no longer green and hooknosed, they approach in all shapes, sizes, and colors. From Lady Gaga’s sorceress in American Horror Story to Kristen J. Sollee’s sociological text Witches, Sluts, and Feminists and a whole canon of modern women-centric horror films, the witches are here, and they are legion.

Lady Gaga in ‘American Horror Story.’

These witches aren’t exactly the “perfect love and perfect trust” neopagans who combine ceremonial magic with New Age appropriations like smudging while protesting “negative” stereotypes of witches. No, these are satanic feminist witches – and yet not entirely capital-S Satanists, either. Just as the horror genre is experiencing a retro-throwback in media like ItIt Followsand Stranger Things, so too is witchcraft – the satanic feminist earth witch is a resurrection of the classic witch-used-against-women, the haggard crone thrown to the fire and dropped from the gallows.

W.I.T.C.H. PDX at the PDX Women’s March. Photo: Leigh Richards.

The witches are even making their way to Portland, and they’re ready for justice. Recently the whitest city in America has been treated to pop-up rituals and protests by W.I.T.C.H. (or the Witches’ International Troublemaker Conspiracy from Hell), itself a reboot of a 1960s feminist protest group of the same name. First appearing at the Portland Women’s March in January, Portland’s W.I.T.C.H. chapter has spawned a resurgence of similar covens across the country, all acting anonymously and championing an intersectional feminist code of protest from behind black veils. And on October 27, Portland’s Hollywood Theatre and its bimonthly program Queer Horror will launch a short-film festival of satanic feminist films as a Halloween tribute to these wild women and a new order of witchcraft.

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‘Jane Austen’s Songbook’ review: Unpersuasive

Singer Julianne Baird and pianist Marcia Hadjimarkos can’t redeem justifiably forgotten songs from the novelist’s world

by ALICE HARDESTY

Combine the rarefied world of the English Regency with a celebrated contemporary soprano and a talented fortepianist and you get “Jane Austen’s Songbook,” presented on October 18 in Hudson Concert Hall at Willamette University. The great diva/Baroque musicologist Julianne Baird partnered with Portland native Marcia Hadjimarkos. In between musical numbers, students Eliza Buchanan and Max Sherman read music-related passages from Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. Jane Austen, a pianist herself, had hand-copied many of her favorites into her own songbook.

Although the program included selections from composers well known to us, like Handel, Haydn, and Gluck, most of the pieces were known mainly to Jane Austen and her friends — songs about country life and love, drinking songs, and laments about war. The narrators provided a literary backdrop to each set of pieces, exposing the affectations of the day and Austen’s wit.

Hadjimarkos and Baird take their bows at Willamette in 2012.

While these selections provided good examples of the period’s taste, they were not a particularly good showcase for Ms. Baird’s glorious Baroque voice. She has issued over 130 solo CDs and is famous for her interpretations of Bach, Handel, and other Baroque composers as well as some modern Americans. She’s also a renowned musicologist with a Ph.D. in music history from Stanford. Perhaps that explains her enthusiasm for these little known 18th Century works.

Unfortunately, the pieces in this program, while amusing, turned out to be pretty bland fare. The first, “Chastity,” from Handel’s Susanna, is a sweet though relatively tame song, and not the best vehicle for Ms. Baird’s flexible and inspiring voice. In later numbers by William Reve and Samuel Webbe, she was better able to show off her runs, trills, and other embellishments, especially in the higher registers.

There was no need for lyrics printed in the program notes since Baird’s diction was flawless. But throughout her performance I missed the glorious Baroque voice I had heard in recordings. While her high notes rang out clearly, she seemed to lack energy in the mid-range and below.

The performance was not helped by the room acoustics. One of the adjustable fabric shades was broken, so all the shades had to be in the closed position, maximizing the room’s absorption and producing a muffled sound. This kind of intimate performance would have been much better suited to a smaller venue rather than such a large, impersonal, and sparsely populated hall — there were only about 50-60 attendees in a hall that seats 440.

Playing on a honey-colored fortepiano, Marcia Hadijmarkos provided artful and sensitive accompaniment  throughout. In addition, she played a pair of solos: a charming Haydn Sonata in C major, Hob XVI:35 and quite a vigorous (to the extent possible on the dainty fortepiano) rendition of the “Battle of Prague” by Frantisek Kotzwara. During the latter number, Ms. Baird barked out commentary in the form of single words and phrases, like trumpet, cannons, horses galloping, cries of the wounded, and victory!  The audience was a bit mystified at first, but at the end of the piece, everyone laughed and applauded.

The final number was “The Soldier Tir’d” by Thomas Arne, a favorite of divas like Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland. In it, Ms. Baird let loose her virtuosic coloratura and dazzled us all until she was interrupted by a plant in the audience playing the part of Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennett, saying, “You have delighted us long enough.” And that was the end!

I left feeling amused but not exactly satisfied. Back home, I put on my Julianne Baird CDs so I could wallow in the sublime Baroque sound that I had hoped for. And I felt a pang of regret that I had given away all my Jane Austen books the last time I’d moved. Maybe I’ll check the library for Sense and Sensibility.

Alice Hardesty is a Portland poet, writer, and music enthusiast. Her book An Uncommon Cancer Journey is published by Bacho Press http://bachopress.com

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Delgani Quartet preview: Cascadian perspectives

Eugene ensemble premieres Benjamin Krause’s celebration of Cascade mountainscape

by GARY FERRINGTON

Delgani String Quartet artistic director Wyatt True and composer Benjamin Krause have a natural history. The violinist had performed Krause’s Uv’Chein Variations for violin and piano (2012) while both were students at the University of Oregon, and True later commissioned him to compose The Activity of Sand and Movie Music for Portland as part of his 2015 Oregon Multimedia Project.

So when the Eugene quartet received a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation’s Creative Heights Initiative to provide the score to a video documentary inspired by the towering mountain peaks visible from the Dee Wright Observatory atop the Mckenzie Pass, True suggested that Krause, currently visiting professor of music at Indiana’s Valparaiso University, was a natural choice. The other ensemble members — violinist Jannie Wei, violist Kimberlee Uwate and cellist Eric Alterman —agreed.

Oregon’s Cascade Peaks. Photo: Terry Kneen.

“We wanted it to result in something tangible that could be enjoyed by people throughout the state who would otherwise not be able to hear the music in concert,” True explains, “perhaps by people more interested in nature than string quartets, or students learning about the Cascades in school.” That was natural, too: actively engaged in performances throughout the Pacific Northwest, the ensemble frequently commissions new works for string quartet and has developed an extensive educational program.

Krause’s new String Quartet No. 1 “Cascades,” which premieres this month, supplies the musical component to Delgani’s Cascade Quartet Project, which connects music to landscape through composition, performance, and documentation. The quartet premieres the four-movement, 25 minute piece in Salem October 29, followed by November performances in Eugene and Portland.

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NW Dance Project: Darkness falls, great dancing continues

The company's fall program was full of dances on the dark side, but the dancing met their considerable technical demands

By HEATHER WISNER

There were echoes of George Orwell’s 1984 in Felix Landerer’s Post-Traumatic Monster, the opener of NW Dance Project’s fall season concert, which played Lincoln Hall over the weekend. The piece felt industrial, edgy, dark; a little European, a little dystopian—a feeling that suffused the whole evening.

In his Monster program note, Landerer, a German choreographer, gave viewers this to chew on: “What stands between two parties or people can be described as an organism that at some point might develop a dynamic of its own. So what we intend to form and build might eventually turn into something that gets out of control and shapes us instead.” (Before we go on, for a bit of grim fun, take a minute to apply that idea to any number of historical events in the last century.)

Franco Nieto and Ching Ching Wong in Felix Landerer’s “Post-Traumatic-Monster”, NW Dance Project/Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

Landerer’s vision of fractured dynamics was built around two groups of dancers dressed in utilitarian black, save the two leads, Franco Nieto and Ching Ching Wong, who wore more flesh-and-blood tones of red and tan. Propelled by an electronic score punctuated with clicks, clangs and breaths, the two groups seethed and heaved en masse, lifting and manipulating Nieto and Wong as puppeteers might. The pair ultimately got their moment alone in a sinewy duet, but the group dynamic tended to dominate. There were only occasional moments of individualism—memorably, when Andrea Parson bent back to lean against something that wasn’t there, then slowly dissolved to the floor, unnoticed by the others swirling around her.

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