Astoria Music Festival’s St. John Passion: Dramatic effect

Performance of J.S. Bach’s choral-orchestral masterpiece takes an opera-worthy approach.


If you haven’t been to Astoria in while, you’ve missed some things. No, not the Goonies, but the changes all over the city and environs. Boutique hotels and vintage kitsch, fabulous restaurants and a riverwalk. And then there is passionate music.

Star-studded with nationally and internationally known singers and instrumentalists, the Astoria Music Festival has grown from its founding in 2003, with just a single work (The Marriage of Figaro) featuring university students, to this year’s cornucopia of diverse offerings over a period of 17 days. The total cast includes Northwest singers such as Amy Hansen, Richard Zeller and Angela Meade, and players Sarah Kwak (concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra), organist Henry Lebedinsky, and stellar lutenist Hideki Yamaya.

Keith Clark led the Astoria Music Festival's performance of Bach's St. John Passion. Photo: Dwight Caswell.

Keith Clark led the Astoria Music Festival’s performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. Photo: Dwight Caswell.

Last Saturday night featured the first choral work of the Festival: J.S. Bach’s Johannes Passion (St. John Passion). Keith Clark, co-founder and artistic director of the Festival, staged the sacred offering for full dramatic effect and the overall effect was stirring.

This is one of Bach’s greatest “operas.” That is to say, the four Passions of Christ (only two of the four are left to us: St. John and St. Matthew) were written to use all the tools of an opera (aria, recitative, arioso, chorus) to portray the drama in the Passion story. They’re called Passions, because that genre is specifically from one of the synoptic gospels narrating the “Passion week,” leading to the crucifixion of Jesus. They are as dramatic as any opera.


Astoria Music Festival taps Linda Magee as consultant

The longtime leader of Chamber Music Northwest will help the festival prepare for a new executive director

Every time someone at ArtsWatch slipped and said that Linda Magee had “retired” from her job as executive director at Chamber Music Northwest, she was quick to correct us. No, she hadn’t retired, she would assert, she was just moving on to something else after 33 years at CMNW.

Just to put an exclamation point on that distinction, Magee will has been hired to consult with the Astoria Music Festival to help the festival prepare to hire a new executive director, as The Daily Astorian reported yesterday. The report included this quote from artistic director Keith Clark:

“We are fortunate that Linda Magee has offered to join our festival team,” said founding Artistic Director Keith Clark. “Our performing artists include many leading musicians in the country, and in Linda we now have a virtuoso arts administer to guide us to a new level of organization.”

“I think she will be really great for them, because she’s so good at growing small organizations and is so well connected,” said one music insider we talked to, and that sounds right. During Magee’s long tenure at CMNW, the organization grew dramatically into one of the most solid arts groups in Portland, and the group’s reach was national and international in scope, meaning, yes, her rolodex is undoubtedly loaded with interesting names.
The Astoria festival has been growing, too, both in size and stature, which makes Magee’s commitment to them understandable. It just completed its 10th season, and seems poised for more growth in the future. Its 2013 season included a mix of chamber and orchestral music and opera. The 2014 festival will be June 13-29.

We’ve reached out to Magee to talk a little bit more about the move, and we’ll keep you, um, posted when we learn more.


Magee did get back to us and pointed out that we’d completely misread what was going on. She will NOT be the new executive director herself: She’s going to help the festival prepare to hire that executive director. Our apologies to Magee, the festival, and to you, our readers!


One more quick classical music note: As Brett Campbell noted on our ArtsWatch Facebook Page, one worthy Oregon music institution’s loss is another gain. Oregon Repertory Singers executive director Jed Shay will moves over to the same position at Portland Youth Philharmonic. Shay replaces Kevin Lefohn, who resigned last summer.

Last Rite

The summer's final performance of Agnieszka Laska Dancers' "Rite of Spring" at the Astoria Music Festival Saturday.

Lauren Michelle Redmond as The Chosen One and the  AL Dancers/Chris Leck

Lauren Michelle Richmond as The Chosen One and the AL Dancers/Chris Leck


History is coming to Astoria on Saturday. Not through books covered in dust, or even keyboards covered in fingerprints, but with crazy pulse-pounding music and dance! It’ll be a riot!

There was a riot, a century and a month ago to the day, the most famous riot in the history of classical music, when Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, “The Rite of Spring” premiered in Paris in 1913. Admittedly there isn’t a lot of competition in that specialized category, but it was a doozy. No one died and nothing was burned down, but fists flew, clothes were ripped, and the screaming and shouting nearly drowned out the music. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company delivered on a triple threat of outrageous dance, costumes and music, and the scandalous result lived up to his wildest dreams.

These days of course, we have seen much more shocking things, and Astorians are unlikely to riot when the curtain goes up at 7:30 pm June 29 at the Liberty Theater and the exuberant cacophony of a Russian spring thaw begins to spread over them. However, two things that they will experience in this production of “The Rite” will evoke its tumultuous history. While they won’t hear Stravinsky’s colorful orchestration, decried at the time as violent and bizarre, the infamous dissonances are if anything sharper when heard in the piano four-hand version, which will be performed by top Portland pianists (and “Rite” veterans) Jeffrey Payne and Susan Smith of the new music ensembles FearNoMusic and Third Angle, respectively.

And Portland choreographer Agnieszka Laska, who like Diaghilev has never been afraid of controversy, has leapt to a new stage in her artistic development, creating a show which inventively combines distinctive elements of her choreographic repertoire with moves inspired by classic ballet and the landmark 1987 Joffrey Ballet “Rite” reconstruction (Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography has been largely lost). And then, just when you think you’ve seen it all, she tops it off with an unflinching gaze at the work’s barbaric denouement.

I was one of the fortunate who got into the sold-out Portland State University performance of this show on June 7th. It started innocently enough, with a group of girlfriends doing girlfriend things, while in the orchestra, winter’s ice melted away underneath. There is no hint that one of them will have danced to her death before an hour has passed.


Keith Clark leads the orchestra at the Astoria Music Festival.

Keith Clark leads the orchestra at the Astoria Music Festival.

If the state seems to be tilting a bit to the left this weekend, that’s because of all the classical music fans heading coastward, where most of the action is. The Astoria Music Festival, directed by Keith Clark, kicks off Saturday afternoon at Astoria’s Liberty Theater with a chamber music matinee featuring a stellar lineup (Los Angeles Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour, Oregon Symphony concertmaster Sarah Kwak, charismatic Russian cellist Sergey Antonov, and ubiquitous Portland keyboard master Cary Lewis) for pair of splendid chamber works: Dvorak’s evocative “Bagatelles” and Mendelssohn’s first piano trio.

Saturday evening’s orchestra concert celebrates the bicentenary of that most influential of composers and incorrigible of anti-Semites, Richard Wagner, with music from his Ring operas (featuring top notch opera singers from around the country) and the ever lilting “Siegried Idyll.” The festival is offering a buy-one, get-one-free deal for this concert only; call 503.325.9896.

Sunday’s all-Russian matinee enlists the same forces to perform Glazunov’s Violin Concerto (featuring Chalifour), plus the suite drawn from Stravinsky’s glorious breakthrough ballet score, “The Firebird.” On Tuesday, Astoria’s historic Grace Episcopal Church hosts a candlelight Baroque music concert led by Musica Maestrale lutenist Hideki Yamaya and harpsichordist Gwendolyn Toth, of New York’s Artek Baroque Ensemble; they’ll play Italian and German Baroque music by Corelli, Buxtehude and more. Wednesday’s concert is an all-tango affair featuring Oregon Symphony/FearNoMusic string players Joel Belgique and Ines Voglar and other singers and musicians playing music by Piazzolla, Lou Harrison and other composers from several Latin American composers.

Also on the edge of the continent, at Lincoln City Community College, the Siletz Bay Music Festival continues with pianist Gerald Robbins playing a passel of those marvelous miniatures Domenico Scarlatti composed for Baroque keyboards, plus a Violin Sonata (with violinist Haroutune Bedelian) and a Schubert Duo Sonata (with fellow pianist Lorna Griffitt). Saturday’s chamber music concert features Louise Farrenc’s Piano Quintet #1 and Mendelssohn’s Piano Sextet.

Sunday afternoon’s casual chamber concert at Eden Hall features works by contemporary American composer William Bolcom, Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein, Massenet, Claude Bolling (remember those popular jazz-classical albums he did in the 1970s?) and much more. Back at LCCC, Monday night’s free chamber music concert offers Ravel’s great violin and piano sonata along with Richard Strauss’s Sextet from his opera, “Capriccio,” and then one of the all-time pinnacles of chamber music, Schubert’s String Quintet. Wednesday night’s chamber concert features still more Schubert, plus music by Brahms, Gordon Jacob and more.


Bartow in his Newport studio with Raven and Bear: next stop Washington, D.C. Photo: Laura Grimes

“OK,” Rick Bartow says, putting a chisel and mallet in my hands. “Now, you make your mark.”

I reach across the smoothed round of old-growth fine grain softwood, bending my back toward the spot that I’m about to hollow out. “You’ll be on the Raven pole, up near the top,” Bartow tells me. “People look up there, they’ll see what you did.”

The chisel is light, even in my unsteady hand, and the wood gouges easily. Chop-chop-chop, like skimming the surface from a gallon of rocky road with an ice cream scoop. Just like that, I carve my notch for future generations to see on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Come September 21st, when the two 20-foot-tall carved poles now lying in pieces in Bartow’s Oregon coastal studio are installed and dedicated on the National Mall outside the National Museum of the American Indian, my mark – and many other people’s, but mostly Bartow’s own, because he’s the mastermind and primary carver – will be standing sentinel about a block from the White House, a small piece of artistic democracy in the shadows of political power. And it’ll be there for a long time to come.

The poles, laid out for working. Photo: Laura Grimes

Soon the carving, We Were Always Here, will be trucked cross-country for the equinox dedication. The twin figures – one pole a raven, the other Grandmother Bear ­– will rise at the back entrance of the museum, where there’s a pool. “They’ll be standing there with their arms open,” Bartow says, “welcoming people on the water side.”

A lot’s shifted in the nine-plus months that Bartow and his team have been working on what might be the most prominent project of his career: an emblematic sculpture that consists of two pole carvings fashioned from wood roughly 300 and 1,200 years old. They are not, he takes pains to point out, totem poles. Totem poles come from the traditions of people to the north. When the museum asked him to create poles for the mall, “Patently I said, ‘I don’t want anything at all akin to Northwest Coast. This is ours. It’s from here, not there.’ And they said, ‘We just want you.’”

Now, amid the construction-site clutter of this concrete-floored room, the end’s in sight.

The project’s gone remarkably well, if you discount the numerous design changes, the struggles to align art with engineering for the permanent installation, the steep learning curve, and the occasional flareup of vision problems from Bartow’s unexpected stroke about a year and a half ago. Originally each pole was to feature a big glass disc – sun on one, moon on the other – designed by Bartow’s partner, glass artist Nancy Blair. That changed when Corning Glass scientists looked the plans over and declared that at some point the constant stress of sun, rain and wind would cause the discs to burst. Government engineers, not surprisingly, blanched at the prospect of glass showering over tourists on the mall below.

So, things have shifted as the project’s moved along. To satisfy demands for permanence and safety, for instance, the poles have been carved out and will be fitted around huge steel rods rooted into the ground. In Bartow’s world the vision is sure but the process is provisional. Think about it, fool around with it, make a mark here, move a piece there, invite a few friends, see what happens. An element of chance and a large slice of make-do enter the equation, and the math seems to work. “Everything’s a lick and a whistle,” he says wryly. “Don’t buy green bananas but eat ’em if you got ’em.”

Bartow is Wiyot and Yurok as well as European American, and he’s admired internationally for his drawings, paintings and wood sculptures rooted in Native American transformation tales. His influences range from Maori and Japanese traditional art to his fellow Northwest Indian contemporary artists and such important European figures as Chagall, Odilon Redon, Francis Bacon, and Horst Janssen. His hometown, where he’s a popular fixture when he’s not on the road, plays a role in the making of his art, too. Born in Newport in 1946, he still lives on the family homestead at South Beach, just across the Yaquina Bay Bridge from downtown.

Mask and tools: They are always here. Photo: Laura Grimes

He’s had success in galleries (Froelick Gallery represents him in Portland) and has work in several museum collections, including the prestigious Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis. He’s had a solo show at the New York City branch of the National Museum of the American Indian, and his carving The Cedar Mill Pole spent a year in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden at the White House in the late 1990s. The prominence of the current commission is a kind of confirmation, at least officially, of his importance as an artist. “The best thing is, they came to me,” he says. “God, after 65 years, that’s a good thing.”

We’re standing among the hand tools and shaved-wood smell of Bartow’s rented studio, a simple industrial space just off the Corvallis highway near its conjunction with U.S. 101 in Newport, around the corner from the Eagles Lodge and not much more than a spit and a whistle above the Pacific Ocean. My wife, Laura Grimes, the photographer for this story, and Bartow’s low-key and blessedly competent assistant, Jon Paden, are here, too. Other people wander in and out, among them Evan Peterson, the young drummer in Bartow’s folk/blues band, which played the night before at Nye Beach’s venerable Café Mundo. It’s a pretty big space, and other artists are using it for small projects, too.

The studio, Bartow observes, is too big for his taste. After the warren of small shack-sized studios he uses on his South Beach property, he’s not sure what to do with it all. He likes to be cocooned when he’s working. But with those big slabs of wood he needed a big space, and now it has all sorts of stuff in it, from his own wooden side projects such as a series of masks to pieces by friends to his collection of hand tools, several with distinctive handles he’s carved, for working the wood. For a while sweeping up the wood chips was a daily chore, but now they lie there like a slightly spongy turf. This way, he explains, if a blade slips out of his hand and falls to the floor, it’s cushioned and doesn’t chip.

Almost three months before the poles are due for delivery, things are in good shape. The pieces will need to have a finish applied, but that’s easy. One stretch of pole where the wood was flawed will need some epoxy filling. But the parts have been calibrated well. “The animals all go together and everything fits right,” Bartow says. “There’s just minor problems to fix up.”


One thing to understand about Bartow is that, yes, he’s an important American contemporary artist, but he’s also a part of his place. He fits in Newport, and Newport fits him. He has the freedom here to just be who he is, and that includes making music. In some circles around here he’s better known for that than for his artwork. And that seems just fine with him.

On a Saturday night at the organically topsy turvy Cafe Mundo, he seems nobbled into the woodwork. Bartow’s been playing here, sometimes every Saturday night, for years, back to the days when the band played outside on the patio while a series of fires burned around the tables and the rain might drizzle down onto the musicians’ necks. A Bartow piece hangs above the balcony bar here, and he’s done paintings on a few of the tabletops. Most people don’t know, or stop to think, that they’re setting their beer glasses down on a surface worth thousands of dollars.

Get-down boogie: at Cafe Mundo. Photo: Laura Grimes

To Bartow, Mundo is part of the community, part of home. Once somebody came in and offered to buy one of his paintings off the wall for $4,000. The café wouldn’t sell it, because Rick had given it to them. “I told ’em, ‘You shoulda sold it!’” he recalls with a grin. “I can always do you another one!”

Bartow and keyboardist Leon Forrest have been playing together for more than 30 years, or about as long, he likes to point out, as Bartow’s been sober. The most recent iteration of the band is called Rick Bartow and the Backseat Drivers, and with his hawk nose, blue jeans, white T-shirt, black leather jacket and baseball cap Bartow sits in the driver’s seat, leaning into the microphone and playing an electric guitar that’s as shocking pink as a Mary Kay Cadillac. His voice is sharp, like a high-pitched knife, and it drives.

The driving’s easy, like a fishing town’s groove, breaking into an occasional yowl. “Used to ride on a Greyhound when I was young,” he sings. “Got me a bird that whistles, got a bird that sings.” “Well if you ain’t comin’ then your sister will.” “I got a rocket in my pocket and baby, it’s aimed at you.”

In the tiny space between the tables and the stage, a toddler gets up and twirls. Later a young couple in lust gets up and slow-dances, closely, to whatever music the band’s playing, uptempo or down. Just another Saturday night in Newport. And Bartow, the artist, is the soundtrack, too.


In the studio on Sunday morning, Bartow runs his hand across the straight vertical grain of one of the main logs, a marvel of old-growth tightness that he knows is disappearing from the woods. “We’ll never see the likes of this again in our lifetime,” he says.

The vision, always in mind. Photo: Laura Grimes

The logs come from the S’Klallam Tribe on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington state. The prominent carver Duane Pasco, who did most of the prep work for the carvings, had the wood for 15 years. He and master carver Loren White worked the logs’ backs, which are heavily patterned, rather like an owl’s feathers or an alligator’s skin. “Suffice it to say, those two guys are masters,” Bartow says. “They’re just incredible carvers.”

They’re also evidence of the interweaving of communities that is central to Bartow’s art and his view of the world. His poles pointedly aren’t totems. But he knows and learns from the people who keep the totem traditions. The links are close. Joe David, Bartow says, “roughed out the salmon and then I carved ’er up.” Joe David is the son of Hyacinth David Jr., also an artist friend of Bartow’s, who is a British Columbia carver of the Clayoquot Band. Hyacinth studied with carver Pasco, who supplied the logs. Pasco and White, elders in the form, are non-native. Hyacinth David Jr., from a Nootka band, learned part of his traditional craft from White. Bartow is Wyot, Yurok, European. It all comes together in the work.

Although carving and small wooden figures have become important parts of his work in recent years, Bartow still thinks of himself as primarily a flat-surface artist. Most of his carvings are for indoor display, and because they don’t get whipped by the weather, structural integrity isn’t a big issue. Twenty-foot-tall poles in a crowded outdoor space are a very different story. For those, you need not just a wing and a prayer but also a good deal of experienced help. “It’s an act of faith from top to bottom,” Bartow says. “You tell somebody, ‘Sure, I can do that,’ and they say, ‘OK.’ And then the wood shows up and you say … ‘Now what?’”

“Now what” is, Jon Paden shows up.

“He just came out of nowhere,” Bartow says with a smile.

Actually, Paden, 30, arrived in the Northwest from South Carolina through Ohio. He’d been working at Pilchuck Glass, the school that Dale Chihuly founded, and had done a little curating of glass art in Seattle. A practical guy with an artist’s eye, he understands Bartow’s vision and helps make it work. His father was an auctioneer, and from an early age Paden learned to be thoroughly comfortable with valuable objects, holding them up for display while the bidding was going on. When Bartow met Paden he knew him as a master printer, and didn’t know he also did woodwork. But Paden had worked with Bartow’s friend Joe David, the pole carver. On this project Paden’s been the go-between with the federal engineers, the guy who figures out, literally, how all the pieces fit and come apart, how to make it work structurally. Come September, he’ll also be the guy trucking the poles cross-country to Washington for the installation.

Bartow and mask: transformations. Photo: Laura Grimes

Bartow paces around the studio, eagerly pointing out how Paden has devised ways to fit the various sections together Lincoln Log style, so they interlock securely yet can also be broken down easily for transport. “My stuff is just all knocked together and crazy and stuff, y’know, and all of a sudden we’re lookin’ at longevity, at being outside,” he says. “He’s figured all this stuff out like a giant puzzle. It slides together and locks.”

Paden made his entrance theatrically, just when he was needed. Bartow had the commission and found the logs, but he didn’t have any money yet to pay for them and he didn’t know how to get them from the Kitsap Peninsula to Newport.

“We started with a lick and a promise until the money came in,” Bartow says. “Jon just showed up on Day Two of the job and told us he could move it. So he used his own money to get it down here to us, because we didn’t have a dime. He had two dimes. He rented a U-Haul truck, stuck in the poles, and showed up here at 2 in the morning. And Nancy (Blair) said, ‘Well, here we go.’”


A commission like the National Mall piece is very different from the flat-surface drawings and paintings, often created three at a time as he moves from sheet to sheet on the studio wall, that make up Bartow’s best-known work. The pole carvings are big and complex, and like most pieces of public art they come with strict requirements.

At times the process has been frustrating for an artist used to working on his own, doing what he likes. When he’s feeling a little committeed up, he likes to remind himself of just who’s boss. Scrawled in pencil on a studio wall, over a chalk drawing of what looks like a bear’s head, is this reminder:


Them rip this job

from the living cloth




Here in the studio, among the clutter and the carved creatures, the living cloth seems alive and healthy. The carvings, even unfinished, are potent with energy. Raven suggests the trickster and also water, “which is a huge concern” to Oregon tribes. A friend donated pristine Port Orford cedar to use for the wings. Grandmother Bear is a protective and healing force, and suggests motherhood. The poles and ancillary pieces are swiftly taking on the form of preliminary sketches tacked to the walls. Bartow’s carved masks sit to the side, observing, providing ambiance.

The reality check on the studio wall. Photo: Laura Grimes

All is going well, even though Bartow’s been dealing for the past year and a half with the vision problems that arrived with his stroke. “Woke up blind, basically,” he recalls. “Never had Symptom One. So I laid around for a few days and sorta got the eyesight back in my left eye. I still got these things going on. But I feel good. Change your diet, change your life, get rid of stress as much as you can. … With stroke, you use what you lost, and the more you can use it the better it is. So. My eyesight is changing. … There are holes in my visual field. I notice now that things are not disappearing. I used to sit at the house and watch birds go across the sky and then just disappear. It was kind of fun for the first few days but then it got boring.”

Fortunately, artists don’t see only with their eyes. Bartow’s eye remains superb, and part of what makes it so distinctive is that it attaches to a spirit that encompasses many things, including the broad swath of people he thinks of as his community. He’s the boss, but he looks on Blair and Paden as crucial partners in the enterprise. And a lot of other people have made their notches in this wood – often, as in my case, literally. “People thought I was nuts,” he says, playing a toothpick absently around his jaw. “But I’m in love with stuff like that. The whole community’s been so supportive of me over the years.”

Laura sets down her camera and picks up the chisel and mallet. Her hand has always been surer than mine, and she chips at the wooden flesh confidently, laying down a neat row of ripples. Bartow smiles approvingly. My own row is a little more tentative, sloshing over a bit, wandering uncertainly outside of what ought to be a straight line. Bartow grins. “Don’t worry,” he says with a hint of sideways humor. “Anything you mess up, Jon can fix.”

That’s the genius of the thing.

The end of the story. Photo: Laura Grimes

This weekend, the Astoria Music Festival opens at the Liberty Theater with a performance of Bellini’s opera Norma. Portland composer Jack Gabel, who’s handling publicity for the festival, talked to conductor Keith Clark about the festival and the production.

What a big project.

This is the tenth anniversary of the Astoria Music Festival. What started as a modest opera project with Oregonʼs great voice teacher Ruth Dobson and a group of young singers has grown like kudzu, and this summer features 23 concerts and two operas. We have eclectic tastes, so this summer mixes familiar symphonic and operatic repertoire with shows ranging from early 17th century Italian music of Monteverdi to HD music video created live by Academy Award-wining technical wizard artist J-Walt.

And isnʼt it bigger this year?

Yes, weʼve added a third weekend this summer which includes two fully staged performances of The Magic Flute and “Two Ways of Hearing Bach” – two performances of J.S. Bachʼs “Goldberg” Variations: the original keyboard version featuring pianist Andrew Brownell and a string orchestra arrangement with Monica Huggett and the Portland Baroque Orchestra. Andrew is a Portland native, now based in London, who is a winner of the International Bach Competition in Leipzig, and Monica and the PBO are the Dream Team for this repertoire.

Astoria Music Festival artistic director
Keith Clark

What are your initial thoughts about Norma?
Norma is called the greatest Italian bel canto opera. But itʼs much more than that — this is a different universe than even the finest of Rossini and Donizettiʼs mannered comedies or historic tragedies. On one hand, it is the culmination of the Baroque opera seria tradition, a position it shares with Mozartʼs Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito or Rossiniʼs Tancredi. On the other, itʼs among the first Romantic operas that opened the door for Wagner and influenced his arch rival Meyerbeer.

Wagner and Bellini – whatʼs with that?

Wagner adored Norma and conducted it just six years after its premiere. He defended Bellini against intense German criticism of Italian opera with a must-read essay about the importance of melody. He even wrote a little-known aria, “Norma il predisse, o Druidi,” for Oroveso and menʼs chorus that he inserted into his Norma production – itʼs totally Italianate and would stump anyone on a “name the composer” quiz. He composed Rienzi at that same time, and you certainly hear Bellini lurking in the shadows of that grand opera, and I canʼt listen to the Act I Walküre love music without thinking of Bellini.

I see a pile of books and scores on your piano. How do you go about preparing something like Norma?
[The great British conductor] Colin Davis said that a conductorʼs job is to read, and thatʼs the best part of our job. Another great conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, wrote an important book called The Composerʼs Advocate, and that really sums it up: our task as performers is to try to uncover the composerʼs intent and present it to the public.

In the case of Norma, this means going back to the original score and scraping off barnacles that have latched on since 1831. Musicology is just catching up with Italian opera, and much work is being done these days to correct misconceptions that have become accepted as “tradition.” As Mahler said, “Tradition ist Schlamperiei,” an untranslatable Viennese word that means far more then “sloppiness.” It implies being too lazy to tidy up and just muddling through. Itʼs certainly important to honor tradition, but not at the expense of a composerʼs original intentions.

Whatʼs on your reading list?

An important American authority of this repertoire is Philip Gosset, and his writings are indispensible, especially the book Divas and Scholars, terms not often found in the same sentence. But the most authoritative Bellini expert is Bellini himself, and weʼre fortunate to have his original manuscript, which is the foundation of my preparation. There are revelations on every page.

Angela Meade sings in the Astoria Music Festival’s
2011 production of Il Trovatore.
Photo: Dwight Caswell

Youʼve assembled quite a cast.Thatʼs an understatement! Angela Meade has taken the world by storm and is fast becoming the dramatic coloratura of our time. She burst onto the stage as Norma, and the role is now her calling card. She was stunning in Astoriaʼs Il Trovatore last summer and we are honored to have her back.

Normaʼs deceitful lover Pollione will be Cuban-born tenor Raul Melo, for many years a Metropolitan Opera stalwart. Portlandʼs own Richard Zeller, another Met veteran and a regular member of the Astoria team, will sing the role of Normaʼs father Oroveso. And itʼs truly luxury casting to have the magnificent American soprano Ruth Ann Swenson as Adalgisa.

But Iʼve always thought the role of Adalgisa was for mezzo-soprano.

Youʼre right, thatʼs the way itʼs usually performed. But hereʼs where scholarship comes in. Bellini composed the part of this young, love-smitten virgin for a lyric soprano. His original Adalgisa, Giulia Grisi, went on to become one of the most celebrated singers of the 19th Century. She was one of Rossiniʼs favorites, sang the first Nonina in Donizettiʼs Don Pasquale and Elvira in Belliniʼs I Puritani, and won fame for her own interpretation as Norma. Clearly she was no mezzo!

Bellini knew what he was doing in casting Adalgisa as a high light voice. Sheʼs the younger mirror image of Norma: each has betrayed her sacred vows and lost her heart (and probably more) to a dashing Roman officer. Norma recalls her own joys of forbidden love and rejoices with the young girl in their sensational first duet. Of course the plot thickens when Norma discovers that the guy is the same Roman as her own secret lover and the father of her kids. Adalgisa is young, fragile, and vulnerable. Her singing range is identical to Normaʼs, and their beautiful duets entwine two equal voices. And, look: the composer wrote “soprano” in his score.


Practicality is often the mother of bad habits. The term “mezzo-soprano” is relatively new and the mezzo repertoire is limited, so theyʼve inherited parts originally labeled simply “soprano.” Mozartʼs Dorabella or Cherubino are good examples of soprano roles almost always sung by mezzos now, but a look at original cast lists often reveals the composersʼ different intentions. When such “traditions” are repeated over time until “everybody does it that way,” the composerʼs intentions are forgotten, and Adalgisa ends up as a mezzo. But a darker, lower voice is inappropriate for the sweet young girl, and when the Act II duet is transposed down for the mezzo, weʼre denied the thrill of hearing Norma and Adalgisa each soaring to high “C”s.

The Astoria Music Festival begins this weekend with a “celebrity recital” on Saturday afternoon, June 16th, with the same program featured at Portland’s Old Church on Thursday, June 14th, starring Los Angeles Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalfour cellist Sergey Antonov, and Portland pianist Cary Lewis playing music of Poulenc, Smetana and a rarity by long time Oregon Coast resident Ernest Bloch. Bellini’s Norma hits the stage Saturday evening, followed by an orchestral concert on Sunday. The festival continues through July 1, with 22 events in 17 days, most held in Astoria’s Liberty Theater. Complete schedule is available here, and information about tickets, directions and more is at the festival website.

By Angela Allen

Angela Meade was originally approached to sing the title role of Vincenzo Bellini’s tragic opera Norma for the 2010 Caramoor Festival in New York’s Westchester County. The Northwest native knew it would pose an immense challenge. The role “requires so much of a singer vocally, technically, emotionally,” Meade said. “Norma is consumed with so many different emotions. She’s betrayed by her best friend who is sleeping with the father of her children. She has so much anger that she wants to kill her children. She has a crazy amount of emotional demands.”

Moreover, Norma’s vocal range and dynamics are immense. Meade would have to sing loudly and quietly. She would have to focus on her legato and coloratura runs. And, of course, she sets herself on fire.

“I thought it was slightly insane, but then again, I prefer a challenge,” Meade told Oregon ArtsWatch. “I tried it on to see how it fit.”

It fit fine.

After her debut performance, reviews were over the top. “A brilliant new interpreter of Norma” the New York Post review gushed, adding “as a first attempt at this Mount Everest of a role, it’s simply a miracle.” Opera News was as effusive: It called her “Casta Diva” aria “nothing less than a revelation.”

And for the 34-year-old winner of the 2012 Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Artist Award, a plum prize that came with $50,000, Norma shines the brightest in her growing opera repertoire, says the rising star.

This weekend, Meade, whose soprano voice has been wildly praised as astounding, electrifying, powerful and plush by such New York heavyweight critics as Alex Ross and Anthony Tommasini, returns to her Northwest home as the darling and diva of this month’s Astoria Music Festival, where she’ll sing her favorite role at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 16, at Astoria’s Liberty Theater.