Brett Campbell

 

Light amid darkness

Oregon Repertory Singers perform Portland composer Joan Szymko’s oratorio inspired by people confronting Alzheimer’s dementia

This is what we fear…
Nothing to think with
Nothing to love or link with

From “Aubade” by Philip Larkin, excerpted in Shadow & Light.

When Eugene Concert Choir and Vocal Arts director Diane Retallack approached Joan Szymko in 2014 to write a new piece for choir about Alzheimer’s dementia, the Portland composer faced three challenges. First, she had no friends or close family members with the disease. Second, though she was an award-winning composer who’d written more than 100 choral works, it would be a much bigger piece than she’d ever attempted. Finally, she worried that it would be a depressing work — “a horror story.” 

But after spending two years researching and composing music and libretto about the heartbreaking subject, Szymko discovered a way to cope with the epic scale it demanded. And she also found that it’s possible to find hope and even peace at the end of an Alzheimer’s journey.

Shadow and Light is a touching and hopeful look at the effects of Alzheimer’s,” says Christine Meadows, who sings one of the central solo parts in Oregon Repertory Singers’ Portland premiere of Szymko’s 2016 work this weekend. “[Szymko] captures the huge range of emotions and experiences that many of us have journeyed through with our loved ones.”

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Hearing injustice

Monday’s FearNoMusic concert features new music composed in response to last year’s Supreme Court confirmation battle over alleged sexual harassment

As Portland composer Kenji Bunch watched last year’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which included accusations of sexual assault, he “had this weird idea of a concert” based on the hearings.

“It was such a fraught moment, a watershed event,” Bunch recalled. “Something about the theatricality of that hearing just seemed to me that it could work for this kind of artistic exploration.”

Violinist and composer Kenji Bunch. Photo: Bob Keefer.

Bunch, artistic director of Portland new music ensemble Fear No Music, mused about the notion on Facebook. Immediately, New York composer Daniel Felsenfeld endorsed the idea. So did others, including fellow Oregon composer Andrea Reinkemeyer.

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Temporary balms for darker times

Brian Wilson and The Zombies make America '68 again

In 1968, the world seemed to be coming apart. A bloody, increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, political assassinations, urban riots, generation gap, conservative backlash against civil rights and other progressive movements…. Even pop music grew darker than the sunny Summer of Love psychedelia of a year earlier, from the Beatles’ so-called White Album to grittier turns by stars like the Rolling Stones and various Motowners, to the rise of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and other heavier sounds supplanting the gentler flower-powered folk and classical music influenced pop of the preceding two years.

In that fraught year, several pop bands released new music overlooked at the time. Then regarded as flops, they later came to be recognized as masterpieces. Two are came to Portland Tuesday, Sept. 17, under the misleading banner “Something Great from ‘68.” For while the music that Brian Wilson and The Zombies released that year has outlasted much of its dated-sounding contemporaries, it was utterly out of step with the spirit of the new, dark age.

In 1968, the Zombies and the Beach Boys were also falling apart. Both had been hitmakers earlier, with the Zombies British Invasion pop and the BBs multiple hits mostly (at least superficially) about surf, cars, and ‘girls.’ Musically, Wilson’s family band was making music as radiant as anything after WWII, but by 1968, their tours featuring surfin’ sounds with striped shirts and white pants seemed increasingly tone deaf in a world coming apart. While psychedelia soared and violence raged, songs about surfing and cruising seemed passe, and the Beach Boys plummeted from pop hitmakers to culturally irrelevant.

Ironically, the band members’ non-musical lives actually represented what was going down in America as much as any other: Carl Wilson was a draft dodger (his status kept them from what would have been a culturally significant appearance at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival), Mike Love had accompanied the Beatles to study with TM guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and became a lifelong devotee of the mind-expanding practice, Dennis Wilson indulged in abundant free love and drugs. And songwriter Brian Wilson‘s own mind expansion with psychedelics had fueled transcendent visions in their long gestating album Smile — as well as his own pre-existing emotional instability.

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PHAME and friends rock out

PHAME Academy and Portland Opera collaborate on original rock opera

Photos by Friderike Heuer

Two summers ago, Portland Opera Manager of Education and Outreach Alexis Hamilton attended an original musical performed by artists from Portland’s PHAME Academy, which serves adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She hoped the 35-year-old organization might help her make the Portland Opera To Go program more accessible to people with disabilities. But she was so impressed by PHAME’s 2017 production that she imagined a bigger project.

“After I saw that,” Hamilton recalled, “I was really on fire” to collaborate with PHAME.

PHAME dancers in rehearsal.
PHAME “movers” in rehearsal.

That production coincided with the arrival of PHAME’s new executive director, Jenny Stadler, who was looking for ways “to overcome the invisibility” that separated many people with disabilities from the rest of society. One method: give PHAME students opportunities to tell their own stories to the larger public. After Hamilton approached her about collaborating, Stadler woke up with a “middle-of-the-night epiphany: we help them become inclusive, and they teach our students how to create an opera.” 

This weekend and next, 18 months of groundbreaking work by PHAME and Portland Opera staff — and above all the students themselves — culminate in what Stadler calls ‘the biggest project we’ve ever done.” PHAME’s original new rock opera, The Poet’s Shadow, runs for seven performances this weekend and next at Portland Opera’s Hampton Opera Center. 

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Double Divas

China Forbes & Storm Large make a dream team of co-lead singers for Pink Martini at Edgefield this weekend

Put two great male singers in a band–Lennon and McCartney, say, or Henley and Frey–and what do you call it? Supergroup! But try it with two females, and to some, it’s a catfight.

That’s what a few haters snarked when, in 2011, one of Portland’s best known vocal stars, Storm Large, joined one of its most beloved bands, Pink Martini–whose lead singer since its 1994 inception had been China Forbes. When she was sidelined by vocal cord surgery, Storm (better known at that point for hard rock swagger than PM’s retro global lounge sound) blew in, replacing her on a tour that summer and winning raves. 

“I always hoped we could find a way to collaborate,” he said when Large first joined. “She is a brilliant, beautiful, charismatic and seductive star who would give Jayne Mansfield a run for her money.”

While Forbes healed, comparisons and questions inevitably arose, and some wondered: did the band’s future lie in China, or with Storm?

The answer will be clear when the band performs Friday at Troutdale’s Edgefield Concerts on the Lawn.

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Beloved Festival: decolonizing music

Oregon music festival includes music from many cultures, addresses issues ranging from terminology to privilege

For eleven years, Oregon’s Beloved Festival has embraced multicultural musical diversity, environmental sustainability, a peace-and-love vibe. In a sylvan setting on private forestland in the Coast Range, about 3,000 attendees could dance, meditate, practice yoga, eat vegan, and celebrate secular spirituality in a “spontaneous village.” But while many of its invited performers were musicians of color, its audiences were overwhelmingly white.

It’s an issue common to blues, jazz concerts and so-called “world music” concerts. (Oregon has other events that feature music from many cultures, most notably the Salem World Beat Festival.) Beloved founder/director Elliott Rasenick decided to do something about it — “to really ask why is it mostly white people here? And to take responsibility. The lazy way is to say ‘we’re in Oregon.’” Last year, he led a discussion from the main stage and promised changes. This year’s festival, which runs August 9-12, shows the festival beginning to respond. 

The reform effort got off to a rough start. “Last year I really wanted to start to talk about racism and white supremacy,” Rasenick recalled, envisioning an on-stage discussion between him and an activist of color. “I started asking black women who did anti racist work and kept getting these subtle ‘I’m not comfortable with that’ vibes.” Finally, Portland activist Teressa Raiford “made me understand how difficult that is — to ask a black person to teach white people about white supremacy, and to ask someone I haven’t worked with to build trust to work with me. That showed me that I need to show up and demonstrate I’m worthy of trust before I ask for things that require trust.”

Photo by Jess Stewart Maize.
Trust demonstrated at Beloved Festival 2018. Photo by Jess Stewart Maize.

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Are we what we hoard? Anti consumerist phenomena like the minimalist living movement warn us of the dangers of our stuff. Our desire for it can keep us from finding our own meaning, or at least enjoying the things that really matter. 

In their crisp, moving show Tonight Nothing,which enjoyed a brief run at Portland’s CoHo Theater the last weekend in July, creator/performers Merideth Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis see the stuff we can’t let go of as symbols, even talismans, of our past experiences and personalities. (Read Marty Hughley’s ArtsWatch preview.) The question for their characters, Kaye and Em, is whether they hold us back, or help us figure out who we really are. It’s not about the stuff — it’s about the people who carry it with them.

Clark & Lewis in ‘Tonight Nothing.’ Photo: Steve Brian.

In a series of vignettes interspersed with letters spoken aloud to the audience by each actor to each other, we see Kaye and Em’s close friendship evolve, from college through various  life changes — marriages, birth, love affairs. As their decade-long conversation proceeds through periods together and apart, both physically and emotionally, we see how very different these friends are — and how their friendship abides those differences.

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