Brett Campbell

 

‘Gypsy’ preview: one thorny Rose

The Shedd revives a classic midcentury musical that shows the dark side of celebrity ambition

The overture to Gypsy kicks off the show with one of those rousing, familiar tunes that practically bellows “classic American musical.” And a classic the 1959 show (created by writer Arthur Laurents, composer Jule Styne, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and young lyricist Stephen Sondheim, just off his breakthrough with West Side Story) certainly is. But if it’s most famous for “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” they’re more like the blossoms the Rolling Stones sang about in “Dead Flowers.” Like the music, the story turns darker, more complicated, more real than its splashy opening number suggests.

Closing this weekend at Eugene’s Shedd Center for the Performing Arts in a production directed by Peg Major, with music directed by Robert Ashens and choreography by Caitlin Christopher, Gypsy delivers the memorable Big Tunes and production numbers that fans of musicals crave — while also limning the depth of character and even darkness rarely found in musical theater to that time, and too seldom since.

‘Gypsy’ closes this weekend at The Shedd in Eugene.

Set in 1920s vaudeville, the story is propelled by an aging, wannabe burlesque queen, “a pioneer woman without a frontier… born too soon and started too late.” It’s at heart a family drama pitting the manipulative stage monster, er, mother’s stifled ambitions and fears against her daughters’ independence and self-esteem as she labors to vault them to the vicarious stage stardom she never achieved herself. In the process, we come to understand the pain that underlies her craving for recognition.

One indicator of any classic’s greatness (whether a play, a composition, a dance) is the variety of interpretations it allows, and in frequent revivals on Broadway and beyond, Momma Rose has been successfully played by a wide variety of acclaimed musical actresses. Though all inevitably stand in the formidable shadow of the original Momma Rose, the volcanic-voiced Ethel Merman (who actually initiated the project after reading the memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee), the fact that stars as diverse as Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler, Tyne Daly, Rosalind Russell, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone have successfully played the role in frequent revivals demonstrates the character’s depth. In Eugene, Shirley Andress reportedly presents a more vulnerable interpretation of a still-steely character in transition.

So too, do different productions vary the import of the ambiguous ending. More than most works of musical theater including opera, Gypsy catches the complexity of real life — and conveys it in unforgettable songs like “Together Wherever We Go,” “You Gotta Get A Gimmick,” “Let Me Entertain You” and of course “Everything’s Coming up Roses.” And that complexity, signaled by an unexpected turn from opening exuberance to eventual disappointment, helped spark a similar transformation in the American musical itself, opening it to an unprecedented kind of psychological complexity that Sondheim and others would continue to develop.

That makes Gypsy a timeless creation, frequently staged. Maybe in this age of “American Idol,” “The Voice,” and a burlesque revival that recently produced a made-in-Portland opera that told the story of Portland striptease artist/author Viva Las Vegas, the time is again ripe for Rose’s demented dreams of ecdysiastic elevation. The notion that you can cure your psychic damage and find glory — or at least self-esteem — by riding the public revelation of superficial parts of yourself to stardom didn’t disappear with vaudeville strippers.

Featuring Shirley Andress as Rose, Clarae Smith, Ward Fairbairn, and Kenady Conforth, Gypsy runs for six performances at the Shedd’s Jaqua Concert Hall. 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $22 to $38, available at the box office at 868 High St. Eugene, 541-434-7000, or online. A version of this story appears in Eugene Weekly.

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CeLOUbration preview: Lou Harrison’s Portland origins

PSU throws a 100th birthday party for Oregon's greatest composer featuring Harrison's chamber, gamelan, and percussion music and new music by Oregon composers, plus a free academic salon

One of the 20th century’s greatest composers, Lou Harrison (1917-2003) pioneered alluring fusions of Asian and Western classical music as well as creating a startling variety of sounds and helping restore danceable melody to classical music over a seven decade career. That journey began with his birth in Portland, where the young Harrison discovered the Asian art that would inspire his rich creative career. This weekend — appropriately during Pride Week, as he was early on one of America’s out-est and proudest gay composers and worked for equal rights — Portland State University celebrates Harrison’s centennial in three concerts, a musical salon and academic symposium. See below for more details.

This excerpt adapted from the new biography, Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press) by California composer and music professor Bill Alves and me describes Harrison’s Portland beginnings. Read more about Harrison’s lifelong Oregon connections here

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Whenever Lou Harrison came home, it was like stepping into another culture. From as early in childhood as he could remember, wherever he looked in his family’s apartment in Portland, Oregon’s Silver Court Apartments, young Lou saw colorful paintings from various Asian cultures mounted on walls covered by Japanese grass wallpaper. Chinese carved teak furniture perched on Persian rugs, colorful Japanese lanterns dangled from the ceiling, cloisonné objects filled the mantel, and the rooms boasted other artifacts from Asia and the Middle East. Compared to the prosaic furnishings and fixtures of the rest of the young Harrison’s post-World War I Pacific Northwest life, his home was an almost magical place.

The exotic decor sprang from the ambitions of his mother. Born in Seattle in 1890, Calline Silver grew up in the Alaskan frontier with her sister, Lounette. Despite these rough circumstances, their father saw to it that both girls had music lessons, at a time when music was an important marker of good breeding and refinement for young women. After her father died and Cal raised herself from this rustic beginning to a middle-class ideal, she became a woman of strong will and determination, qualities that her son would inherit. She married affable, fair-skinned Clarence Harrison, a first-generation American born in 1882, whose Norwegian father had, like many immigrants, changed his surname from exotic (de Nësja) to blend-in conventional: Harrison.

Like many upwardly mobile West Coasters, Cal Harrison was attracted to the allure of Asia and regarded exotic artifacts as exemplars of refined taste. Such decorations were common in Portland homes since the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair. Japan alone spent a million dollars on its exhibit, which featured exotic (to American eyes) arts and crafts, sparking a local infatuation with Asian art and culture. Many middle- and upper-class houses boasted “Oriental Rooms” festooned with Asian and Middle Eastern furniture and art, “Turkish corners,” and other symbols of what many Americans still regarded as the mysterious East.

That Pacific exoticism also manifested in music. When Lou was born on May 14, 1917, Hawaiian music was the most popular genre in America. Radio broadcasts of Hawaiian slide guitars and the clacks of his mother’s mah-jongg tiles supplied the soundtrack to some of his earliest memories—and inspired one of his last compositions eight decades later.

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Cascadia Composers preview: From Cascadia to Cuba… and back

Culminating a cultural and musical exchange, weekend concerts feature contemporary music by composers from Oregon and Cuba

In July 2015, when President Obama announced that the United States would begin normalizing relations with Cuba, Portland composer David Bernstein thought about music. Not the usual suspects when talking about one of the Western hemisphere’s most important musical traditions — jazz, Buena Vista Social Club, Desi Arnaz — but contemporary classical music.

It was a natural for Bernstein, who’d helped found Cascadia Composers almost a decade ago to provide performance, promotion, networking and other opportunities for composers in the Pacific Northwest. Since then, the organization had become one of the nation’s largest (60 members) and most successful, staging dozens of concerts featuring over 300 homegrown compositions in Portland and Eugene.

Cascadia Composers (l-r) Ted Clifford, Paul Safar, David Bernstein, Jennifer Wright, Dan Brugh in Havana last November. Photo: Nadia Reyes.

But they’d never attempted anything as ambitious as what Bernstein had in mind: sending Oregon composers to Cuba to have their music performed by Cuban musicians, and reciprocating with a Portland concert featuring American musicians playing works by today’s Cuban composers. Neither had anyone else.

“I’d known music of some Cuban composers like Leo Brouwer,” Bernstein explains. “I’d hear it played at various contemporary music festivals. I wanted to get to know what it was like now, and I wanted to get to know them.”

FearNoMusic performs music from Cuba on Friday.

This Friday, Bernstein’s vision becomes reality when Cascadia enlists the veteran Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic to perform eight pieces by leading Cuban composers, with two in attendance, at its “New Pearls from the Antilles” concert. The following evening, they’ll hear new music inspired by Oregon at a second Cascadia Composers concert.

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Lou Harrison at 100: a global musical legacy, born in Oregon

Portland classical music groups have shamefully ignored the music of Oregon's greatest composer in his centennial year — but that's about to change

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John Cage: “Many Happy Returns” for Lou Harrison

One hundred years ago Sunday, one of America’s greatest and most influential composers was born in Portland. This spring, concerts around the world are honoring the colorful musical legacy of Lou Harrison, who spent the first decade of his life here, and returned often after creating some of the 20th century’s most seductive and trailblazing sounds.

Lou Harrison (l) and his life partner and fellow Oregonian Bill Colvig.

During this birthday week alone, over a dozen tribute shows will be performed in California, where Harrison lived most of his long and fruitful life until his death at 85 in 2003. Other concerts have happened or will occur in New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and many other places — including Lapland! Yet so far as we’re aware, not a single Portland classical orchestra or ensemble has bothered to program any of the music of the greatest composer to emerge from Portland during his centennial year. After all, Harrison’s significance is widely recognized elsewhere (as for example in a recent article by The New Yorker magazine classical music critic Alex Ross (the magazine ran a long feature profile of Harrison before he died), and a segment on National Public Radio) as a major figure in American music.

More important, Lou Harrison’s music matters now. We shouldn’t listen today merely because he was born in Portland, but because so much is simply beautiful: melodic, danceable, global in its influences and impact, played and danced to all around the country. He was an emotional guy, and his music bristles with emotion — sometimes angry, sometimes melancholy, often joyful, and all colors in between. That’s why it’ll always connect with listeners who come to music for an emotional, not just an intellectual experience.

Fortunately, an important Harrison event is happening here in June. We’ll get to that in a moment, along with information on how ArtsWatch can help Oregon musicians who want to delight listeners with the pioneering, tuneful, forward-looking music of Oregon’s greatest composer during the remainder of this centennial year — and beyond.

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‘Fire and Ice’ preview: accessible adventure

New Portland composers' collective's debut performance includes aerial dance, sculpture, poetry, icy instruments — and a close connection to audiences

Though their music differed from each other’s, Portland composers Stacey Philipps, Jennifer Wright and Lisa Ann Marsh had a lot in common. All three were accomplished members of the composers groups Cascadia Composers and Crazy Jane Composers. Unlike too many 20th century classical composers, all three cared as much about what the audience experienced as what the creators wanted to express.

“We all appreciated each other’s music but also each other’s ability to make concerts engaging for audiences as well as esthetically appealing for all of us,” Philipps recalls. And they shared one more thing.

Burn After Listening’s Philipps, Marsh, Wright.

“We’re all up for anything,” Wright says. “We found each other because we wanted to do things that don’t look like the traditional thing.”

They decided to form a group called Burn After Listening. This weekend’s debut multimedia performances, Fire and Ice, promise to look nothing like a traditional classical music concert.

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Third Angle preview: Natural sounds

New music ensemble's 'Solo Hikes' shows feature nature-inspired commissions from Oregon composers

Oregonians love nature as much as they love music, so to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Third Angle New Music artistic director Ron Blessinger commissioned three Oregon composers to write solo pieces for members of the ensemble. “I told them that the subject was nature,” he says, “and they could take that word and run with it in any direction they wanted.”

A hallmark of nature is its diversity, so it’s appropriate that for Third Angle’s “Solo Hikes” concerts Thursday and Friday, the trio chose divergent paths. Portland composer Christina Rusnak, who has participated in various programs that put composers into national parks and other natural spaces, might equip her backpack with staff paper or a digital recorder to help her recall sounds she encounters on a hike. But rather than directly imitating the crackle of a campfire, she’s likelier to write music that conveys “the feeling of the fire… more like the sound of the experience” rather than the fire itself,” she explains. “As artists, we interpret the landscape.” Read Rusnak’s ArtsWatch story on landscape music.

Composer Christina Rusnak.

Rusnak’s Glacier Blue opens by evoking the feeling of approaching the mountains of Glacier National Park earlier this year, “a trip I’ve been wanting to take for at least 10 years, so there’s a lot of anticipation in the first movement,” she explains. The second movement uses plucked strings to suggest twinkling stars in the night sky over the mountains. Her composition’s emphasis on the highest and lowest ranges of the cello, performed by Marilyn de Oliveira, reflects the mountains’ soaring heights and the depths of the park’s waters.

The common element, she later realized: “the idea that mountains look blue, glacial ice looks blue, the waters can be teal or aquamarine.” When she would visit Oregon from Texas, Rusnak noticed that “Most places don’t have skies this blue. And in Glacier, they’re even bluer. So I decided to write about the night sky.”

Two nocturnal movements from Mahler’s seventh symphony proved inspirational, as did advice from a cellist friend in Pennsylvania — and substantial input from Third Angle’s cellist herself. “I told her, ‘Make it your own.’ How you communicate the feeling, the essence of the piece to the audience is more important than getting that dotted eight note perfect. It’s been great to work with her. She’s a tremendous musician.”

Weaving a Web

Even before he left Portland for graduate study in 2008, Matt Marble’s music followed an ancient tradition of music influenced by nature’s patterns, drawing inspiration from botany (such as the ways leaves grow on stems), geometry, crystallography, village design, and Western esoteric traditions like alchemy.

A page from Marble’s graphic score for ‘Arachnomancy.’

“A lot of the music I was doing before I left here was so rooted in Portland’s natural environment,” like using natural objects for instruments and performing outdoors, recalls Marble, who, like Rusnak, has contributed to ArtsWatch. “I stopped doing that once I got to Princeton. As soon as I moved back here last year, I was drawn to doing that again,” as well as frequenting Mount Tabor and other Oregon natural spaces. “It’s been great to reunite with that.”

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Music News & Notes: Operatic evolutions

Opera transitions, jazz laurels, music education, and other news in Oregon music

We went months without rounding up Oregon music news before last month’s N&N — and now, so much keeps happening that we need to do it again! Remember that we often slip news about Oregon music in Bob Hicks’s weekly newsletter and on our Facebook page, and we’re always looking for news about Oregon arts to share with our readers, so please keep us posted.

Opera Theater Oregon’s next stage

Opera Theater Oregon Producing Artistic Director Katie Taylor announced that she’s tossing the keys to the next generation of Oregon upstart opera makers: a collective including composers Justin Ralls and Anne Polyakov, baritone Nicholas Meyer and new music advocate Lisa Lipton. OTO Music Director Erica Melton and Film Director Jen Wechsler will remain with the company. Taylor approached Ralls about assuming leadership of the Portland indie opera company’s during development of an upcoming OTO production of his opera, Two Yosemites, opening this summer.

Meyer (l) and Ralls at a Portland preview recital for Ralls’s upcoming opera, ‘Two Yosemites,’ co-produced by Opera Theater Oregon.

The new leaders intend to “step up to meet the demands of reinvigorating opera in today’s artistic climate,” their press announcement declares. “With fresh ideas, relevant social commentary, and a love of accessible chamber music these new provocateurs plan to make their first opera with OTO a new and engaging experience geared to make an impact. Their first performance will feature a new outdoor opera in late summer. Look out for their newsletters, updates, and performance dates in the next few weeks.”

The transition marks the next step in OTO’s evolution since its 2005 founding by Angela Niederloh and Amy Russell. Under Taylor’s two terms of leadership (2006 to 2011 and 2015–17), the company enlivened the Portland music scene by producing or co-sponsoring visionary, often playful productions of both classic and new operas, often with inventive arrangements and scripts by Taylor (who’ll now turn to finishing up a book and short experimental opers in progress) and Melton. Stay tuned to ArtsWatch for more information on OTO’s new direction. With relatively new arrivals Cult of Orpheus, Ping & Woof, Opera on Tap, Opera Wildwood Concert Series, and (as we’ve noted in previous stories) new directions for Portland State University’s opera program, Eugene Opera (see below) and Portland Opera, it’s an exciting time for Oregon opera.

Grant prize winner

The national Jazz Journalist Association has named Portland pianist, composer, and professor Darrell Grant as one of its 2017 Jazz Heroes, an award given to people who further the art form of jazz in their communities. Longtime Portland jazz writer Lynn Darroch will present Grant with the award at the Portland Art Museum on April 30 — International Jazz Day. The event includes PDX Jazz’s Incredible Journey of Jazz program and a performance by Grant’s MJ New Quartet, which is touring the Northwest this month.

Pianist and composer Darrell Grant.

Q&A

Speaking of one of Oregon’s most valuable musicians, you can read a fascinating interview with Grant in Chamber Music America magazine. And there’s another informative new interview with a Portland composer, Dan Senn, in asymmetry music magazine, which will particularly interest fans of the influential Fluxus movement of the 1960s. And while we’re linking to good stories about Oregon music, check out long-time Portland classical music writer James Bash’s comprehensive overview of places to catch classical music for little or no cost — a welcome antidote to a problem ArtsWatch has long bemoaned.

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