Brett Campbell


William Byrd Festival preview: auspicious anniversary

As the summer Renaissance music festival celebrates its 20th edition, it continues to expand its scope and audience

Most people know the greatest writer of England’s Renaissance — Shakespeare, of course — but far fewer can name the greatest composer of that time and place. One Portlander who knows all about William Byrd and reveres his music’s artistry and spirituality is Dean Applegate, founder of Portland choir Cantores in Ecclesia. “It’s very spiritually powerful music because of Byrd’s ability to perfectly set the sacred text — word painting,” he says. Considered among the finest of all Renaissance sacred music, it also fit Cantores’ voices perfectly.

Byrd Festival founders Dean Applegate and the late Richard Marlow, at an early planning session.

So in 1998, Applegate decided to put on a couple of concerts featuring Byrd’s “calm, deliberate, gorgeously dense” (in the words of former Oregonian classical music writer David Stabler) music. Consulting pre-eminent Byrd scholar Philip Brett for advice, he enlisted as conductor Richard Marlow, a famous choral conductor from England’s Trinity College, who’d earlier guest-directed Cantores in Ecclesia. Over two days, Cantores and Renaissance music fans imbibed all three of Byrd’s magnificent masses and other sacred music, a guest lecture by Byrd expert and Stanford professor William Mahrt, and the wine at the post-concert reception. They enjoyed it so much that Applegate and Marlow decided to do it again the following summer.

“I was just drawn to Byrd’s music, and because there’s so much of it, it just made sense to do a festival,” in which they could eventually sing all of it, Applegate says. They’ve repeated and expanded the William Byrd Festival each summer since. “I can’t imagine August without the Byrd Festival,” says Portland singer and Byrd scholar Kerry McCarthy, who joined Cantores while a student at Reed College and wrote the first concert’s program notes.

Mark Williams directs Cantores in Ecclesia at the William Byrd Festival.

On Friday, the twentieth edition of the festival opens with a concert of Byrd’s secular music, the first of a dozen events culminating in Cantores’s big closing choral concert August 27.


‘The Other Mozart’ review: sister act 2

Sylvia Milo's one-sister show at Chamber Music Northwest gives Mozart's talented older sibling Nannerl, her music stifled by sexism, her own voice at last

Unlike the previous night’s Chamber Music Northwest music-theater combination, Ordo VirtutumSylvia Milo’s The Other Mozart, performed July 11 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, ran about 75 minutes with no intermission, and I doubt anyone in the audience felt shorted. It’s an audience-broadening treat to see the festival pursuing these mixed theater and music performances, as with last year’s festival’s Brahms/Muhlfeld show.

In truth, unlike Hildegard, there’s not a lot more to say about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sister Maria Anna, nicknamed Nannerl, at least not that would make interesting stage drama. (She’s been the subject of a film and novels.) That’s because even though she lived more than twice as long as her brother, we know far less about her life, and the patriarchal world she lived in never permitted equivalent opportunities to make it more interesting. Which is part of the point of Milo’s monodrama, which has been running off-Broadway and touring the world since 2014.

Sylvia Milo in ‘The Other Mozart.’

Engagingly narrated (in, for no discernible reason, German-accented English) by Nannerl herself, the story entertainingly tells (not whines) a tragic tale of a talented musician who at almost every turn is denied the opportunities her similarly skilled brother receives, merely because of her gender and her society’s invidious discrimination against it.

Even most classical music fans probably know little of the brat’s big sis beyond the fact that he wrote delightful duets for them to play on keyboards together, and that she was regarded in her time as an excellent player. In The Other Mozart, we learn much about Nannerl’s life from letters she saved  from family members, including her admiring brother himself, and reviews, some praising her youthful keyboard virtuosity. (Most of her own have disappeared — she was only a woman, after all.)

Milo’s narration in Nannerl’s persona gleefully captures the personalities of her brother, father, sister, and other characters she encounters, especially on the European tours arranged by their father Leopold for her and her brother, hoping to turn the performing pre-teen prodigies into money making attractions. Some considered her at least as talented a performer as her brother, who himself thought her the best performer of his keyboard music; she sometimes received top billing.


‘Ordo Virtutum’ review: sister act 1

In Mulieribus's mix of theater, music and explanation at Chamber Music Northwest proved too much of a good thing

Last month, I went to a concert, and a college lecture broke out. In Mulieribus’s Chamber Music Northwest performance of music by Hildegard of Bingen and other composers at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium contained some glorious singing, intermittently compelling theater, and informative talk. Unfortunately, all those tasty ingredients made for an indigestible stew. Here’s how it went down. (All timings approximate.)

In Mulieribus sang music by Hildegard of Bingen and other composers at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

7:30 pm. Concert scheduled to start.

7:40 pm. CMNW executive director Peter Bilotta gives his usual affable introduction, and introduces In Mulieribus and IM board member and Portland conductor and music prof Scott Tuomi. Instead of singing, In Mulieribus members take their seats in chairs on stage while Tuomi reads from prepared text a biography of Hildegard of Bingen, and information about an Italian Renaissance composer, one Giaocomo Fogliano.

7:50 pm. In Mulieribus at last rises and sings a three-minute piece by Fogliano chosen in part because it uses the words “In Mulieribus” (“among women”). The singers return to their seats.

7:53 pm. Tuomi talks — or rather reads — more about Hildegard and about the music of the next composer, Seattle choral director Karen Thomas.

7:59 pm. In Mulieribus rises and sings Thomas’s Hildegard-inspired O virtus sapientiae. Its spiraling melodies provided recognizable references to Hildegard’s own music, while its slightly astringent harmonies and irregular rhythms placed it firmly in the present.

They sit.

8:03 pm. Tuomi expatiates on the featured composer, Hildegard.

8:08 pm. In Mulieribus sings Hildegard’s Caritas abundant. They return to their chairs.

8:12 pm. Tuomi talks about the next composer on the program, Britain’s Tarik O’Regan, one of today’s most important and engaging young choral composers.

8:16 pm. In Mulieribus sings O’Regan’s Columba aspexit, which like Thomas’s work sets Hildegard’s words. They exit.

8:20 pm. Tuomi talks about the main course, Hildegard’s morality play Ordo Virtutum.

8:30 pm. Actors Isaac Lamb, Chantal DeGroat, Dana Green, Maureen Porter and Alex Ramirez de Cruz give a staged reading, in English, of Ordo Virtutum.


‘Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun)’ review: fertile fusion

Bag & Baggage Productions' new mashup of Shakespearean drama and Persian epic brings the best of both worlds

In Romeo and Juliet’s famous balcony scene, Juliet implores Romeo to “refuse thy name / Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, And I’ll no longer be a Capulet….Romeo, doff thy name, And for that name which is no part of thee Take all myself.”

And he replies “Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized / Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”

Those lines also appear in Bag & Baggage Productions’ new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, playing through August 5 at Hillsboro’s Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza. But the identity crisis starts even earlier.

“Call me not Romeo,” he insists to his friends. “My name is Majnun.”

They call him Romeo anyway, and Majnun, because here, he’s both. Just like the play they’re in, many of the characters Bag and Baggage Productions’s new Romeo and Juliet (Layla and Majnun) go by two names.

Arianne Jacques as Juliet and Nicholas Granato as Romeo in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Majnun/Romeo’s beloved, too, has another name.

All the radiance of the morning was Juliet. She was the most beautiful garden, Majnun a torch of longing.
She planted the rose-bush,
He watered it with his tears.
What can we say of Juliet?
As dark as night the color of her hair
And her eyes like an Arabian moon.
The night we call Layl, so we can call her Layla. Slender as a cypress tree,
Her eyes could pierce a thousand hearts
With a single glance, with one flicker
Of her eyelashes, she could have slain the world.

She was a jasmin-bush in spring,
Majnun a meadow in autumn.
She was a glass of wine, scented with musk. Majnun had not touched the wine,
Yet he was drunk with its sweet smell.

It would have been easy for B&B artistic director Scott Palmer’s new original adaptation to use the Persian names from Layla and Majnun, the epic poem he’s melded with Romeo and Juliet, as mere aliases that give Shakespeare’s ardent teens exactly what they’re asking for: new identities.

But like the doomed lovers portrayed in both Shakespeare’s play and one of its primary sources, Persian poet Nizami’s half a millennium older epic,  Romeo/Layla is a mashup of both stories, not a substitution of one for the other. (For more background on the show, read ArtsWatch’s preview.)

The big question with any kind of artistic fusion is: will the two elements interfere with or amplify each other? No one is better qualified to pull this kind of thing off than Palmer, a research nerd, particularly with Shakespeare, to whose work he’s devoted years of study and staging. Palmer also has experience with Shakespearean fusion, like Bag & Baggage’s masterful 2012 Kabuki Titus, which used a traditional Japanese drama form to turn one of Shakespeare’s weakest creations into something far more compelling than it had any right to be.

Here, he wisely drew on the expertise of scholars and community members knowledgeable about the cultural, religious and historical context this show embraces. The result: a production that benefits from the best of both its sources — the lush beauty and dramatic depth of Nizami’s poetic setting, and the equally lyrical words and page-turning plot that has always made Romeo & Juliet so popular. In finding success by smartly incorporating so many outside influences, including in its cast and creative team, the show also offers a lesson in the value of cultural pluralism that transcends theater.


David Lang: from iconoclast to eminence

Pulitzer Prize winning composer and Bang on a Can founder's music will be performed at Portland Opera and Chamber Music Northwest this week

When David Lang was a Stanford University undergraduate, he once staged a famous avant garde work by American composer Lamont Young that required the performer to “feed” the onstage piano with a bale of hay. The result: Lang was formally banned from performing onstage at Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium again.

That experience typified Lang’s college years, and, in a way, his career. Now 60, the New York based composer has spent a lifetime challenging the rules and institutions of contemporary classical music, finding success on his own terms. A member of the faculty at both Yale University and Oberlin College, Lang reached the pinnacle of establishment cred when he received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music for his vocal quartet composition Little Match Girl Passion, which has been performed in Portland in the last two  years by Portland State University Chamber Choir and The Ensemble in its choral and original versions, respectively. One of America’s most performed and prolific composers, he’s also collected an Oscar, Musical America’s Composer of the Year award, Rome Prize, and other major grants, fellowships and honors.

Composer David Lang. Photo: Peter Serling.

Since its founding in 1987, Lang’s one-time insurgent organization, Bang on a Can, has grown from an annual music festival for non-establishment composers to a permanent and valuable institution of American music. His music is regularly performed at festivals and in concerts, dance performances, even films (YouthThe Woodmans). World renowned Eugene flutist Molly Barth this year recorded a new album of Lang’s music.

This Thursday and Friday, Chamber Music Northwest performs two concerts featuring three Lang compositions, followed by his appearance in a panel discussion Friday afternoon. And opening July 28 for four performances, Portland Opera stages two Lang creations: his 2002 chamber opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field and an original operatic setting of Little Match Girl, both designed by Portland’s own theatrical visionary, Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theater. The iconoclast has prevailed.


‘Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun)’: cross cultural combination

Bag and Baggage's new theatrical mashup of Shakespearean and Persian classic tales involved collaboration across cultures

Scott Palmer was stuck. The Bag & Baggage Productions artistic director had just auctioned off the choice of its annual summer Shakespeare production to a patron, and this year’s choice was… Romeo and Juliet.

Palmer silently groaned. They’d staged the popular perennial ten years earlier and Palmer, an expert on the Bard of Avon’s work, didn’t want to revisit it so soon. Now he had no choice. How could he do it differently than before?

Lawrence Siulagi as the Sayyed in Bag & Baggage Productions’ “Romeo & Juliet/ Layla & Majnun.” Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Palmer, an inveterate Shakespeare nerd whose MO involves plunging deeply into historical and dramaturgical research, started investigating the play’s provenance. He and learned that one of the most famous plays in Western literature was actually based on a 12th century epic poem by one of the most famous Muslim writers in history. He got a translation of Layla and Majnun by Persian poet Nizami (1141-1209), read it — and was instantly hooked. He knew he wanted to produce it.

But Palmer quickly realized that couldn’t do it alone. “It’s the greatest epic piece of Muslim literature. I immediately realized I was in over my head,” Palmer recalls. “I had no clue about 12th century Persian culture.” He needed help.

And he found much of it in a surprising place — his theater’s own home of Hillsboro. Both onstage and in creation, Palmer’s brand new mashup of Romeo and Juliet and Layla and Majnun, which opens this weekend, represents a cultural combination — and cross cultural collaboration.


Chamber Music Northwest: the sound of glass ceilings shattering

Festival's focus on female composers reveals institutions changing and opportunities for women growing, though barriers remain

It might seem like a good time to be female and a composer. All three of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music finalists were women, several have won the award over the years (including four of the past seven) and names like Kaija Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon, Julia Wolfe, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Chen Yi and many, many more are regularly recognized as among the finest living composers regardless of gender.

And yet, a widely cited Baltimore Symphony survey revealed that of the music performed this past season by 85 American orchestras, only a little over 1 percent was written by women. No women occupy the top ten slots of most performed orchestra composers, living or dead. Two of the most acclaimed young male American composers, Andrew Norman and Mohammed Fairouz, recently asked music organizations to consider awarding commissions to female composers even over their own music, all other things being equal. Clearly barriers remain to women in classical music.

But those obstacles haven’t deterred this summer’s Chamber Music Northwest festival from scheduling scores by a score of women among its five weeks of concerts, including commissioning — that is, paying for — a trio of world premieres by rising young female composers. The repertoire ranges from one of the earliest composers we know by name — the medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen — to Romantic composers Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann to some of today’s composers, including award winners Joan Tower and Ellen Taafe Zwilich and Portland’s own Bonnie Miksch, who’ll also participate in a panel discussion with other top female American composers, six of whom will be in town for the festival. Several report that while some obstacles remain to full gender equality, even the hidebound world of classical music is changing for the better.

Some obstacles remain. “There’s been pressure placed on more established opera houses and chamber music societies whether they accept this notion that women composers can be part o their vernacular,” says Imani Winds flutist and composer Valerie Coleman. “And rightly so.”

The problem is especially acute with composers of color, she says. “In general composers of color face the same obstacles as woman — but it’s a double negative punch. There is a tone of frustration with composers of color now over the futility in writing music, knowing that their works may not be performed in more notable chamber music series. The big struggle that all institutions face now is with building audiences and donor bases, breaking that glass wall that prevents folks of color from coming into the concert series.”

Valerie Coleman (second from left) performs her music and more with Imani Winds at this summer’s Chamber Music Northwest festival.

Coleman worries that young women composers of color aren’t finding their way into classical music, in part because they don’t see people like them represented in programs and performances. “The big discussion among women composers of color is this huge elephant in room: why does it appear to be fewer and fewer composers emerging?”

Coleman’s answer: “There’s a lack of African American women composers not because of opportunity but because of the lack of outreach being made.”