Brett Campbell

 

‘Notes of a Native Song’ review: beguiled by Baldwin

In admiring yet refusing to canonize James Baldwin, Stew and The Negro Problem's music theater work reveals the writer's legacy of resistance to simple definition

“This ain’t your mama’s Baldwin country,” Stew glowered at the audience at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall at the outset of his September 2017 Time Based Arts Festival performance. Actually, even before the performance technically started, he’d warned us that “this is not a safe space,” and asked those who might be easily offended by art to move close to the aisles so they could flee if necessary.

With a challenge like that, it was a little disappointing to encounter nothing so scary in the singer-songwriter’s James Baldwin-inspired Notes of a Native Song. No doubt the line, and Stew’s (probably tongue in cheek) concern, stemmed from the show’s debut last year in Baldwin’s old home territory of Harlem, in front of people who knew the great mid-20th century American writer.

Stew and The Negro Problem performed ‘Notes of a Native Song’ at TBA ’17.

When his teenage daughter encountered Baldwin’s landmark semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain in school, Stew re-read it for the first time since he was also a young adolescent — and suddenly realized how deeply Baldwin’s life had affected his own creative path since then. When a coincident opportunity arose to produce a show at a Harlem theater space as part of a Baldwin celebration, Stew and his longtime creative (and one-time personal) partner Heidi Rodewald created Notes on a Native Song, punning on the title of Baldwin’s celebrated essay collection Notes of a Native Son.

As he was careful to promise well in advance, the performance turned out to be more about Stew than Baldwin, more current events than history. And there’s never anything wrong with that, but actually, I left the show wanting to know more about Stew’s own Baldwin inspiration, as well as more about Baldwin himself.

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Francesco Lecce-Chong: at home in Oregon

Eugene Symphony's new music director, who conducts the orchestra's season-opening concert this week, begins by engaging with his new community

Not every orchestra music director lives in the city where they conduct. Most have multiple gigs and spend much of their time on airplanes and in hotel rooms. But newly appointed Eugene Symphony music director Francesco Lecce-Chong decided to move to Eugene — during July’s 107 degree heat wave, no less.

“You travel so much as a conductor anyway that you can pick your spot,” he explains. “It’s such a beautiful place, and when you’re starting a new job in a new place, you want to invest in it.”

Francesco Lecce-Chong conducted the ESO last spring at Eugene’s Hult Center.

Besides, it already feels like home. After a decade at East Coast conservatories (Mannes College of Music and Curtis Institute) and orchestras (assistant conductor at Milwaukee and Pittsburg Symphonies), Eugene reminds him of another outdoor-friendly college where he was born and raised — Boulder, Colorado — where he started conducting youth orchestra at age 16. Even then, Lecce-Chong admired how Eugene Symphony music director Marin Alsop took her other orchestra, the Colorado Symphony, from community ensemble to professional orchestra.

As a student, he encountered both of Alsop’s successors, Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Giancarlo Guerrero, who like Alsop went on to conduct prestigious orchestras. Both told him how how valuable the ESO position had been for their development. “They said that back before it was cool, Eugene was only orchestra in US that was was taking risks and picking young, first-time music directors and giving them space and support to grow,” Lecce-Chong remembered. That put the ESO on his radar, and when Danail Rachev’s contract expired last year and the job opened up, he went for it, beating out more than 250 other applicants. Read Tom Manoff’s ArtsWatch story about his audition concert. (He’ll keep his current assignments as assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, with whom he’s currently on a big European tour, and principal conductor of its youth orchestra, for the rest of this season.)

Lecce-Chong arrived to find the Eugene Symphony’s current season already set (orchestras plan way ahead), so this season doesn’t really represent his own vision. However, he was able to make a few tweaks that reflect his own priorities and give insights into what lies ahead.

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Spinning into Butter review:  white noise

Bag & Baggage Productions' season opener should spark needed conversations about race

“It is a play,” writes Bag & Baggage Productions Artistic Director Scott Palmer in the program notes, “that deals with well-meaning, liberally minded, white people dealing with issues of racism in a way that I think is hugely relevant to me personally and to the community of Hillsboro.”

I’d go further: Spinning into Butter, playing through September 24 at Bag & Baggage’s cool, cozy new home The Vault, is a production that should be seen by anyone in the greater Portland community who’s at all interested in one of the most pressing issues of our time and place. Especially if you’re willing to set your own preconceptions aside for a couple of hours.

Carlos Trujillo and Kymberli Colbourne in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Spinning into Butter.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

To say it’s important is not to say it’s a great play, though. Dramatically flawed and somewhat dated, Spinning may be more important for the conversations it sparks than for what happens onstage. However, one thing that actually does happen onstage — Kymberli Colbourne’s fully realized, yet understated leading performance — should also start a conversation, about the best performance on a Portland stage in this young theater season.

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MusicWatch Weekly: in- and outdoor sounds

It's worth venturing outside, smoke and all, to catch some late summer sounds this week, and indoor music is available too

Our weekly music listings, having recently moved back in with the parents over the summer, as so many graduates are doing these days, are pleased to announce that they’ve found their own place again and are busily furnishing it with shiny new previews of a select few music events around the state — many of them alfresco. There is no truth to the rumor that the Music listings were jealous that their Drama siblings just got their own place too….

Tia Fuller performs two shows with her quartet in Portland Friday.

Portland SummerFest

The annual summer music festival temporarily relocates from Washington Park (thanks to construction) to downtown Portland’s so-called “Halprin Sequence,” the lovely if sometimes overlooked public spaces designed by famed architect Lawrence Halprin to restore a few human-scale spaces to a downtown Portland neighborhood ravaged by ‘60s-style car centric urban renewal. As you stroll among Lovejoy and Keller Fountains, Pettygrove Park and the little Source Fountain from 5–9 pm, hear urban soundscapes, music by inventive Cascadia composers Jennifer Wright and Daniel Brugh, local opera singers accompanied by pianist Chuck Dillard, and more.

Wednesday, SW Lincoln and SW Market Streets, Portland.

Hunter Noack performs in three outdoor Oregon settings this week.

“In a Landscape”

Portland pianist Hunter Noack has embarked on a second September series of outdoor performances around Oregon. (Read my ArtsWatch story about the first one.) This time, he’s put a nine-foot Steinway on a trailer, and is toting it to Astoria, Pendleton, Eugene, and ten other towns from the coast to the Steens. He’s also bringing wireless headphones to distribute to listeners so they can experience the music without alfresco acoustical limitations, and various guest artists, from singer and former Miss America Katie Harman Ebner, Pink Martini founder/pianist Thomas Lauderdale and members of various Oregon orchestras. Check the website for who’s playing what and where and other details on individual performances (and probably fire/weather related updates) through September 30.

Wednesday, Agate Beach Golf Course, Newport; Thursday, Mount Pisgah Arboretum, Eugene; Saturday, Suttle Lodge & Boathouse, Sisters.

Al Di Meola shreds on Wednesday in Portland. Photo: Alessio Belloni.

Al Di Meola

The paragon of jazz fusion guitar returns, augmented by a quintet that includes electric violin, on a 40th anniversary tour that features both electric and acoustic axes and tight, tuneful jazz influenced by various global traditions, from Middle Eastern to flamenco.

Wednesday. Revolution Hall, Portland.

Sam Hong plays Oregon music and more this weekend.

Sahun “Sam” Hong

Portland Piano International kicks off its next admirable (and free of charge!) Rising Star series with the young prize winning pianist playing Beethoven and Chopin sonatas, Brahms’s lovely Op. 119 pieces, and a pair of intermezzi by the fine Oregon composer Brent Weaver.

Thursday, George Fox University, Bauman Auditorium, Newberg; Friday, Terwilliger Plaza and Monday, Classic Pianos, Portland.

Tia Fuller Quartet (early and late shows)

The rising jazz alto/soprano sax star is probably best known for her work in Beyonce’s band and other pop star gigs (Aretha, Jay Z, et al), but jazz heads and critics have long admired her supple, energetic work with her own quartet over four albums.

Friday, Fremont Theater, Portland.

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Bag & Baggage Vaults into the Future

Theater company’s new venue provides new opportunities and signals new directions

At 9:30 pm last November 5 — which happened to be Guy Fawkes Day, commemorating the planned bombing of the British Parliament — Bag&Baggage Productions’ artistic director Scott Palmer got the phone call he’d been dreading for years. the Venetian Theatre, the company’s downtown Hillsboro home, had been sold, forcing the company to move its penultimate show of the season to a small venue and to cancel its big season-ending moneymaker, the ever-popular Noises Off.

The resulting $80,000-plus loss stunned a company that had always run in the black — a rarity in Portland-area theater. But after an intensely stressful winter, which Palmer said he might not have survived without other company members stepping up to take on new roles, the company survived — barely — because Palmer, aware that a sale could happen, had already taken steps to secure a new venue much better suited to the plucky company’s style and audience.

The Vault theater opens this week in downtown Hillsboro.

Just steps down Main Street from the Venetian and purpose-built for 21st century theater, the former Wells Fargo building, now called The Vault Theater & Event Space, officially opens this week with an open house celebration Saturday afternoon featuring tours, discussions and more. The company’s first show there, which opened this week, demonstrates just what a tremendous transformation the new space will spark in a company that, despite its hitherto untrendy location, is among Oregon’s most artistically accomplished.

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Composer Justin Ralls: inspired by nature

Oregon composer's environmental chamber opera 'Two Yosemites' represents new direction for Opera Theater Oregon

In 2012, composer Justin Ralls was camping with his father and brother in Yosemite National Park, 12,000 feet up in the Sierras, when a lighting storm erupted above them. “I’d hear that thunder crack, and feel this primal fear,” he remembers. “Experiences like that make you change. My experience reminded me how small I am, how inconsequential we are” compared to nature’s vast scale and power. “Yosemite is a place of creative energy — I feel like music is dripping from the pine needles. I feel inspired by the soundscape and fully alive.”

Justin Ralls in Oregon’s H.J. Andrews National forst.

The California national park is famous as a place of transformation for visitors — including another nature lover: Theodore Roosevelt. Ralls’s new opera, Two Yosemites, which opens this weekend at Lewis & Clark College, tells the story of the 26th President’s 1903 Yosemite camping trip in the company of another American legend, Sierra Club founder John Muir, that inspired him to create the National Park System that preserved Yosemite and other crown jewels of America’s natural legacy. And if Ralls has his way, it will be the first in a series of new chamber orchestras produced by Opera Theater Oregon, the plucky insurgent opera company he and his colleagues now lead.

Inspired by Nature

Making music influenced by the environment is nothing new for Ralls, now a University of Oregon doctoral student whose compositions have been performed around the country, including by Portland’s Third Angle New Music. “The outdoors has always been part of my life,” he says. “I grew up in Oregon and spent every summer camping and hiking all over the state.” He even considered careers in zoology or paleontology before music gradually took precedence in high school, where he drummed in musicals and jazz bands and composed and conducted in Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Orchestra.

But when Ralls went off to prestigious urban music conservatories in Boston and San Francisco, he experienced “cognitive dissonance,” he recalls. “How do I engage this sophisticated culture with the outdoorsy experiences I identify with? Composing these [nature-inspired] pieces bridged that gap. I feel most alive when I’m composing and when I’m out in the natural environment.”

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