Brett Campbell

 

“Bell, Book, & Candle”: bewitched, bothered, bewildered

Bag & Baggage brews up a cauldron of comic fun and theatrical magic but underplays the dark currents of a story about social outsiders.

When I was a kid watching sitcom reruns, I had a major crush on Samantha Stevens, the good witch played by Elizabeth Montgomery in the long running ‘60s TV series Bewitched. I was even more, er, enchanted by her crazy supernatural family, including Paul Lynde’s goofy Uncle Arthur and Sam’s sly mom, Endora, perfectly overplayed with delicious wink and bite (and glorious caftans) by the great Agnes Moorhead.

Bewitched’s story grew directly from its primary inspiration: British-American playwright John Van Druten’s popular 1950 play Bell, Book and Candle, turned into a smash 1958 film starring sometime Oregonian Kim Novak, James Stewart, and Jack Lemmon.  Van Druten’s original, in a spiffy Bag & Baggage production, adds a welcome dose of theatrical magic to this holiday season; it even has a first act set at Christmas, in a stylishly rendered mid-century New York.

The uses of enchantment: Norman Wilson (from left), Jessi Walters and Kymberli Colbourne in the Bag & Baggage production of “Bell, Book & Candle.” Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Yet I suspect director Scott Palmer shared my infatuation with Samantha’s crazy magical family members because this production portrays them more like the TV show’s zany characters than the nastier counterparts in Van Druten’s play script. Bell Book & Candle isn’t Bewitched, and this production’s direction — however, er, bewitching — sometimes clashes with the darker story Van Druten tells.

Spellbound

When SWF (Single Witch Female) Gillian learns that Shep, a publisher she’s crushing on who moved in to her building recently, is about to marry her childhood school nemesis, Gillian sees her chance for revenge. In the twinkle of a nose (actually a cat-assisted spell), Shep is ensorcelled into unbounded ardor for Gillian.

Complications arrive in the characters of an author who’s investigating witchery for a book, and one of his primary sources, who happens to be Gillian’s decadent brother, Nicky. Fearing Shep, who might publish it, will learn of her witchy powers — and that their love is based on magical rather than mutual attraction — Gillian squares off with Nicky, with his book and her relationship with Shep in the balance. The familiar (to any Bewitched fan) battle between her desire for human love, and her family and heritage, is on.

But BB&C is no frothy sitcom story. Beneath the urban fantasy facade lies a surprisingly deep and occasionally dark drama about family conflict, self-determination, and regret. Can love won under false pretenses ever be real? Gaining traction in the second act, the play proceeds entertainingly and ultimately movingly to provide some hard-earned, and heart-tugging answers in the touching third act. Though it avoids Hallmark sentimentality, BB&C is a holiday gift that resonates today more deeply than much holiday fare.

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MusicWatch Weekly: American holidays

Along with abundant traditional European Christmas music, Oregon concerts offer American angles on holiday music, music mixed with theater, film, dance, and more

Millions of Americans celebrate Christmas, but let’s face it, the Yuletide is hardly an American original. Sometimes it seems that about all we’ve contributed to a story that began in the Middle East and was St. Nicked by Europeans, is our characteristic commercialization of what was once a spiritual occasion.

Actually, Americans have over the years made the mid-winter holiday — like so many other cultural artifacts that originated elsewhere — our own through music, and you can hear some of it on Oregon stages this week.

• Based on the memoir by iconic Portland stripper / author Viva Las Vegas, Viva’s Holiday scored a surprisingly young and diverse audience in its 2015 and 2016 performances. Set in her family’s Minnesota home during a Christmas visit, Portland composer Christopher Corbell’s intimate, one-act Christmas opera recounts Viva’s declaration of independence from family expectations, socially approved careers, and occasionally clothing — a perfect Portland-style twist on standard holiday themes. Already revived once, Corbell’s lyrical music, which embraces both classical traditions and his own singer-songwriter background, has now received a splendid recording by a twelve-piece orchestra and four opera singers conducted by former Opera Theater Oregon artistic director Erica Melton. This Cult of Orpheus concert (i.e. unstaged) performance includes all the music, minus costumes, sets and stage action, plus a set by Portland’s early French sex music trio Bergerette (which has a close connection to Viva), plus a chance to buy the newly released CD. Let’s hope Santa brings a full re-staging during a future holiday season. Read ArtsWatch’s review and feature story about the original production.
Saturday, Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland.

• Violin deity Mark O’Connor, who’s developed an entire music ed curriculum that introduces American kids to music using our own folk traditions rather than centuries-old European pedagogy. Possibly the world’s greatest fiddler, the Seattle-born star brings the sound of his popular “Appalachia Waltz” combo to holiday music when his crack band and singer Brandy Clark perform the music from his hit 2011 album An Appalachian Christmas this week in Portland and Eugene. The Grammy-winning fiddle virtuoso (who’s also won major awards for his guitar and mandolin skill) composer (nine concertos, two symphonies, three string quartets and counting), studio musician, and educator may have worked with some of the world’s most renowned musicians, from Yo Yo Ma to Earl Scruggs to Wynton Marsalis, but he really enjoys playing with his family and friends. What better time to do that during the holidays? His O’Connor Band features his wife and fellow fiddler/ singer Peggy, champion mandolinist son Forrest, national flatpack champ guitarist Joe Smart, banjoist/bassist Geoff Saunders giving carols and other holiday standards given a warm, all American bluegrass/folk inflection.
Wednesday, McDonald Theatre, Eugene, and Friday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

Mark O’Connor Family Band performs “An Appalachian Christmas” Wednesday in Eugene and Friday in Portland. Photo: All Classical Portland

Music & Theater & More

Along with Viva’s Holiday and Portland annual Christmas Revels, which is more theatrical than musical though worth seeing on both counts, on Sunday, Eugene Concert Choir presents its fully staged musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A Dickens of a Christmas includes plenty of seasonally appropriate sounds that you nevertheless don’t hear ad nauseam in stores and commercials everywhere this time of year. ECC artistic director Diane Retallack has placed the ghost of Christmas Past’s setting in a Renaissance Feast, with appropriate madrigals and carols performed by the costumed “Lords and Ladies” of Eugene Vocal Arts in Elizabethan attire and accompanied by Byrdsong Consort. The ghost of Christmas Present inhabits Dickens’s mid-19th century Britain, with English carols and other music of the period, including Arthur Sullivan’s (of Gilbert &) Handelian Festival Te Deum, accompanied by Eugene Concert Orchestra. The ghost of Christmas Future appears in a “raucous, kitschy look at contemporary culture” with flash mob, break dancing, circusy acrobatics, an Elvis impersonator, and Churchill High School’s Concert Choir. This colorful experience is more than just a concert, featuring costumes, sets, theatrical lighting and sound, action, pageantry, choreography and of course Dickens’s immortal story of Scrooge and the rest.

Eugene Vocal Arts members don Renaissance garb at Eugene Concert Choir’s ‘A Dickens of a Christmas.’

And don’t forget about this weekend’s concluding concerts in a couple other music-meets-theater runs we’ve told you about in earlier MusicWatches:

• Portland Opera to Go’s kid-friendly, bilingual production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, at Portland’s Hampton Opera Center, 211 SE Caruthers Street, and

 The Shedd’s production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, at Eugene’s Jaqua Concert Hall, 285 E Broadway.

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MusicWatch Weekly: for the children

Music inspired by children lead this week's Oregon concert lineup

The Christmas season celebrates a child’s birth and delights kids all over the world. But there’s little comfort and joy for many children today. Even before little Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on that Turkish beach three years ago, children were bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis and so many other catastrophes. Fear No Music’s “All of the Future: In Celebration of Children” features chamber music on subjects especially significant to children, including gun violence (Larry Bell’s Newtown Variations, responding to the 2013 massacre), homophobia (Pulitzer Prize winner David Del Tredici’s Matthew Shepard), migration (Mary Kouyoumdjian’s A Boy And A Makeshift Toy, inspired by the 1990s Bosnian conflict), bullying (Barbara White’s Registering My Oppositions) and, yes, the plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean (Nadir Vassena’s child lost at sea). The young musicians of Portland’s BRAVO Youth Orchestras contribute a collective compositional response to the new ICE crackdown on immigrants.
Monday. The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave. Portland.

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus’s annual holiday concert happens this weekend.

• Like so many parents today, jazz pianist Ezra Weiss, the father of two young sons, worries about the turn the world has taken recently and what it means for his children’s future. And as one of Portland’s most esteemed jazz composers and arrangers, Weiss channeled those concerns when he created his latest and one of his most ambitious compositions. This concert, a fundraiser for the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, features the premiere and live recording of Weiss’s new jazz suite We Limit Not the Truth of God, featuring many of the city’s top players (John Nastos, John Savage, Renato Caranto, Stan Bock, Alan Jones, Carlton Jackson, Thomas Barber and more, plus the Camas High School Choir. This new creation follows a string of successes, including his score for Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s multimedia concert and recording earlier this year, From Maxville To Vanport; three original musicals for Northwest Children’s Theater; three ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award, half a dozen CDs, and a host of arrangements and compositions for various Portland jazz veterans. But fair warning: although inspired by concern for children, some of the themes in Weiss’s new composition may not be appropriate for all of them. Such is the state of our world.
Saturday. Alberta Abbey, Portland.

• The impressive Portland composer Renée Favand-See dedicated her new solo piano work Growing to her first son Owen, and suggests that its premiere performance would be a good one for adults and kids. It’s part of award winning rising star pianist Zhenni Li’s free, one-hour, no intermission recital presented by Portland Piano International, which commissioned it. Along with Growing (based on Britten’s folk song arrangement “The trees they grow so high,” which will be sung by Arwen Myers in Portland), the recital includes music by Beethoven, Bortkiewicz, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures of an Exhibition.
Friday, St. Paul’s Episcopal, 1444 Liberty Street SE, Salem, and Saturday, Portland Piano Company, 8700 NE Columbia Blvd, Portland.

Choral Concerts

• Children from ORS’s own youth choirs and student choristers from local middle and high schools join in some selections in Oregon Repertory Singers’ Glory of Christmas concert, annually one of the best bets of the holiday music season. The 20th and 21st century program includes excerpts from contemporary Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s Northern Lights and Benjamin Britten’s enchanting Ceremony of Carols, Beaverton native Morten Lauridsen’s moving O Magnum Mysterium, Portland composer Naomi LaViolette’s Angel in the Snow, contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Bogoroditse Devo and Magnificat, contemporary Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds’s Stars, Franz Biebl’s perennial Ave Maria, and more.
Friday (tickets available) & Sunday (sold out, call ahead), First United Methodist Church, 1838 SW Jefferson St, Portland.

Oregon Repertory Singers perform at Portland’s First United Methodist Church.

• Some of the same composers and even compositions appear on Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland’s CAE Yuletide: To Friends Old & New this weekend. The choir teams up with composers from our own time and place to perform new Northwest seasonal works created by members of Cascadia Composers, plus old favorites by other renowned contemporary choral composers (Gjeilo, Lauridsen, Stephen Chatman, Pärt), new works by rising young composers (Jake Runestad, Joshua Shank, Martin Åsander) and classics by Mozart, Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Tavener, Elgar, and more. Portland composer Lisa Neher’s Three Basho Haiku includes ”harvest moon,” which conjures the image of a large, orange moon rising in the autumn sky; “first winter rain,” which likens the ending of the year with the waning of life, prompting the search for the comfort of companionship and “this fragrance,” which relates the experience of a particular scent awakening emotions and memories. Bill Whitley‘s Ecclesia is a tribute to the great Portland architect Pietro Beluschi. Read ArtsWatch’s interview with CAE artistic director David De Lyser.
Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, 2408 SE 16th Ave. Portland.

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MusicWatch Weekly: winter’s tales

Operas and other musical stories enliven Oregon music stages

Remember when opera lovers despaired of experiencing their favorite art form during Oregon’s indoor seasons? Well, after switching to a summer festival schedule last year, Portland Opera has added back a fall performance and December brings several other operatic opportunities. Opera Theater Oregon returns this weekend with The Little Prince,  British composer Rachel Portman’s operatic, family friendly English-language adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s beloved classic tale. The plucky independent opera company features new management and old favorites, including Portland Opera singers Hannah Penn and Anton Belov, local stars Damien Geter and Catherine Olson, and more. Stay tuned for Matthew Andrews’s ArtsWatch preview.
Friday-Sunday at Portland5 Winningstad Theatre.

Opera Theater Oregon’s ‘The Little Prince’ runs this weekend at Portland’s Winningstad Theatre. Photo: Theodore Sweeney

• An earlier French fantasy furnishes the story for another opera onstage in Portland this weekend and next. Imagine the government dictating women’s reproductive choices. Crazy notion, I know, but after the massacres of the first World War (and other times too), nationalist rulers encouraged the women in some combatant countries to deploy their uteri to replenish the depleted ranks of cannon fodder, and crank out babies like so many production-line tanks. French poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1903 surrealist drama The Breasts of Tirésias (Les Mamelles de Tirésias) imagined what would happen if a French woman refused to do her patriotic duty, delegating the task to her husband — who in an outburst of patriotic fervor delivers — to the tune of 40,049 babies in a single day, all of whom have successful careers in the arts, of course.

Actually, the tunes belong to French composer Francis Poulenc, who in 1947 turned his buddy Apollinaire’s crazy farce into his own breezy first opera. This full staging with piano and percussion is the big event in one of the year’s most appealing classical music programs: Portland State’s fab Poulenc@PSU series, bringing deserved local prominence to one of those composers I always recommend to classical music fans who mistakenly believe that the 20th century produced little music of charm and tunefulness. Like Poulenc himself, the opera bursts with both humor and seriousness. And the gender-bendy story, such as it is, remains resonant.
Friday through December 9. Studio Theater, Lincoln Hall 1620 SW Park Ave. Portland.

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This week is more about connecting with friends and family, contemplating gratitude, and consuming vittles than imbibing music, but Oregon nevertheless offers its usual bounty of concerts this week if you know where to look.

Lucas Pitts stars in the Portland Ballet’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

One place is in a dance performance: the Portland Ballet’s annual live-music enhanced Thanksgiving show this time features John Clifford’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Friday-Sunday at Portland State’s Lincoln Performance Hall. Ken Selden leads the PSU Orchestra and opera singers in Mendelssohn’s ever-sparkling score, accompanying an 80+ member cast in one of the season’s most reliably entertaining events.

An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas features Chicago/Broadway musical star Evan Tyrone Martin reminding us why Cole was one of the last century’s finest singers. Friday-Sunday at Portland’s Winningstad Theatre.

Evan Tyrone Martin covers Nat King Cole this weekend.

Speaking of Portland State, a free recital Tuesday at Lincoln Hall celebrating the PSU String Scholarship Fund features some of the city’s finest classical musicians, including cellist Hamilton Cheifetz, violinist Tomas Cotik, pianist Julia Lee and PSU students playing Vivaldi, Bach, Gliere, Handel, Popper, Granados, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven.

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Black Violin: busting musical stereotypes

Violin & viola duo blends classical music with pop and hip-hop

“We’ve been stereotyped from the moment we picked up the instruments,”Black Violin violist Wil Baptiste Jr. told me in 2016. “Every time we step on stage, we shatter every stereotype, every perception — violin, classical music, black man, whatever.” Baptiste and his high school classmate and violinist Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester will be demolishing stereotypes again Friday at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and Sunday at Hult Center’s Silva Hall in Eugene with their barrier-busting combo of classical, hip hop and pop music.

Black Violin performs Friday in Eugene and Sunday in Portland.

After practicing viola in his Florida high school music classes two decades ago, Baptiste would “put my headphones on and listen to whatever record was happening at the time,” he recalled. “We started off with hip hop before we even picked up an instrument.” When he and Marcus reconnected after college, they started adding beats to classical tunes like concertos by Vivaldi and JS Bach, and also adding their strings to covers of hits by Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa and other pop stars. “We understand both worlds,” Baptiste said. “So we couldn’t help but to try to put them together; it was really natural to blend the two.”

In 2004, the duo brought their act to the toughest audience in America: Harlem’s renowned Apollo Theater. “Everyone else before us got booed, we got these violins, what’s gonna happen?” Baptiste wondered. “The crowd went crazy. That’s validation. That’s all we needed right there.” Alicia Keys’s manager happened to be there, and soon BV was performing with her, Wu-Tang Clan, Wyclef Jean, and more, opening for Aerosmith and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, even playing President Obama’s second inauguration. More Apollo appearances followed, along with TED Talks, SXSW, collaborations with symphony orchestras, national tours. 

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Palmer’s got a brand new bag

Set to depart for Sun Valley, the Bag & Baggage founder leaves a legacy of adventurous art and passionate advocacy for suburban culture.

Some years ago, Bag & Baggage Productions founding artistic director Scott Palmer was registering at a national theater conference and a staffer asked for his name. Palmer told him. “Palmer, Palmer,” the man said, trying to place him. “Oh yeah, you’re that annoying guy from Hillsboro!”

“That’s exactly who I am,” Palmer cheerfully admits. “I am an advocate for suburban and regional theater. I’m not afraid to be vocal in that essential role.”

But after 15 years of pushing in Oregon, Palmer is taking his advocacy — and his art — elsewhere. He’s been named producing artistic director of Company of Fools, an ambitious professional theater company in Sun Valley, Idaho. But though he leaves B&B and Oregon March 1, Palmer isn’t leaving behind his advocacy for the arts outside the usual urban centers. With his track record of artistic accomplishment, Palmer could easily land a plum job anywhere, but in his new job, he’ll continue to push his vision of bringing arts to everyone where they live — on a larger scale.

Having built Bag & Baggage into one of the most respected theater in the region, founder Scott Palmer will take a new post in Sun Valley, Idaho. File photo.

Having grown up in what’s now Oregon’s fourth largest city, and nurtured (with a lot of help from dedicated staff and board members, he notes often) B&B into becoming its leading arts institution and one of the state’s most vital theater companies, Palmer has often had to be annoying, or at least persistent, to get support and recognition.

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