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Chamber Music Northwest preview: women’s work

Portland's annual summer classical music festival throws the spotlight on female composers past and present

by ANGELA ALLEN

Since 1971, Chamber Music Northwest has brought world-class musicians and a deep (mostly) classical repertoire to Portland’s summer-hungry listeners. This year marks the first that women composers take center stage during the five-week festival from June 26 through July 30.

It’s about time. About a quarter of the programing, including lectures, rehearsals and and concerts, is devoted to women composers.

There is “a fairly equal number of men and women composing great music today,” said longtime CMNW artistic director David Shifrin. Over the years, CMNW has occasionally presented pieces by leading female composers including Chen Yi, Joan Tower, Ellen Zwilich, Valerie Coleman and Portland State University’s Bonnie Miksch. But this season, artists will play works by more than a handful of women.

Composer Kati Agócs.

Women composers from the 12th century (Hildegard von Bingen) through today headline concerts and lectures. This summer’s program includes 19th and early 20th century music by Clara Schumann, Fannie Mendelssohn and Amy Beach, while Hannah Lash, Tower, Zwilich, Coleman, Gabriella Smith, Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Caroline Shaw, Portland’s own Bonnie Miksch, Gabriela Lena Frank and Kati Agócs fill out the contemporary roster. Some will speak on a 2 p.m. panel July 15 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium where they’ll discuss their works and the challenges involved in gaining attention and respect in today’s music world.

“It will take another generation or two before we establish something analogous to literary women’s canon in music composition,” Agócs emailed from Boston where she lives and teaches composition at New England Conservatory of Music. “There are many fierce women working now, but it will be a long road. Commissioning new works and mentoring young women are ways to bring about a female canon in music.”

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Portland Mini Musical festival: a hoot amid the heat

Debut production of six short musicals adds a valuable new institution to Portland's theatrical landscape

Yes, it’s sizzling, bare skinned bike riders abound, and even for those who dare to venture outside, Oregon’s summer natural beauty beckons. Yet if you’re seeking (mostly) comic relief from the heat, the ongoing catastrophe in the nation’s capital, or the usual early summer theater doldrums, consider a visit to a warmish, air conditioned southeast Portland theatre for the debut Portland Mini Musical Festival. Despite minimal publicity, Thursday’s opening show sold out; the final performances run this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Milagro Theater. It’s an unqualified success — the theatrical equivalent of a fun summer beach read.

Although this is the festival’s first year, the producing company, Live On Stage, earlier presented, as part of Fertile Ground Festival, 4X4=8 Musicals in 2012 at CoHo Theater and 2013 at Brunish Hall, each featuring original 10-minute musicals presented on a 4′ by 4′ stage. The company has also produced full length musicals Falsettos, Rocky Horror Show, and Spring Awakening in Portland’s World Trade Center.

PMMF uses only Portland writers, composers, directors, actors and designers, ranging from veterans like Jessica Wallenfels, Eric Nordin and Margie Boule to less-familiar names. Some of the 17 performers appear in more than one of the six segments, which average about 15 minutes each. The length and musical forces (Nordin and veteran Oregon classical cellist Dale Tolliver, who played splendidly throughout) were the only specified constraints. Each segment differed dramatically in theme, tone (although most displayed knowing humor), and subject. One constant pervaded though: a surprisingly high quality of performance and writing that made this one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences of the year so far.

Thompson, Freitas and Castillo in ’11th & Couch.’

Despite a signature song that urges happiness through lowering the bar of expectations, Marianna Thielen’s opening 11th and Couch set a vertiginously high standard for the rest of the show. Anyone who’s spent any time around a college campus will recognize the trio of signature gatherers for worthy causes, smartly played here by Michel Castillo, Madison Thompson and Matthew Freitas, who also displayed outstanding vocal chops. The audiences guffawed at the witty lyrics by Reece Marshburn and Thielen, and the vignette managed to distinguish each character’s underlying motivations. Fast paced and funny, it got the show off to scintillating start.

Gus, the Lonely Polar Bear’s music essentially consisted of variations on a song by Titaya Sinutoke and Naomi Matlow. “I’m a boring polar bear,” sings Joel Walker as he swims (actually rollerblades) back and forth in his zoo pool, before finding connection with Naomi Matlow’s new zookeeper. Walker’s sweetly lovelorn performance had the audience ready to treat him to peanut butter covered ice cubes.

With its (sometimes literal) skewering of classical music, conductor (played perfectly by Joey Cote) egotism and gratuitous John Cage reference, the longest piece, Third Chair, will especially entertain anyone (like me) who’s spent anytime around a string quartet or orchestra. Essentially a silly shaggy dog story concocted by Brett Vail, Kurt Misar and Brad Beaver, it benefited from the terrific acting and singing that graced the entire show, especially the first half. The deftly comic facial and body language displayed by the miming string quartet (Leah Yorkston, Adam Davis, Doug Zimmerman, Joan Freed) alone could have carried the show. I’d love to see it reprised at Chamber Music Northwest someday.

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A chat with the pianist of Willesden Lane

In a break from her busy career and performances at Portland Center Stage, Mona Golabek tells the tale of her mother's extraordinary tale

By ALICE HARDESTY

Anyone who loves music, fine acting, or just a good story, must be sure to see The Pianist of Willesden Lane, running through June 29 at Portland Center Stage. People who saw it a year ago are coming back to get another dose of heroism set to Grieg, Chopin, and Rachmaninov, in a one-woman show expertly played and acted by Mona Golabek.

I had recently read Golabek’s book and I was eager to interview her for Oregon Arts Watch. Her book, The Children of Willesden Lane, tells the story of her mother, Lisa Jura, who, as a 14 year-old, escaped the terrors of Nazism and managed to develop her musical career despite incredible obstacles. Children like Lisa fled Hitler on the Kindertransport — trains that carried Jewish children from Germany and Austria to safety in England. The English, especially the Quakers, were very kind to the children, but were suffering their own deprivations and could not offer them much beyond subsistence. Lisa Jura’s story and her daughter’s portrayal of it provide inspiration in an otherwise gloomy time.

Mona Golabek in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

I caught Golabek at a momentary lull in her busy schedule. I turned on the speaker- phone and propped up my digital recorder, acknowledging that we’d be fine as long as my cat didn’t knock them over. (I knew she had a soft spot for animals.)

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Moon Hooch review: danceable complexity

New York trio combines jazz/experimental music techniques with pop accessibility

by PATRICK MCCULLEY

As a saxophonist, I am immensely grateful for the amount of respect brought to the saxophone by its resurgence in popularity through pop music. But in pop and rock music, the saxophone usually plays a very small and limited part, one that could easily be taken up by many other wind instruments. It’s a very small facet of a very large gem.

Is there a band that effectively combines masterful techniques and tones usually associated with jazz, classical, and experimental styles of the saxophone with the form, style, and danceability, of popular music? There’s a two word answer to that question: Moon Hooch.

Moon Hooch’s name doesn’t sound like a band with saxophonists in it as much as it sounds like a old-timey bluegrass band from Appalachia, but these guys are full of surprises. The New York-based trio (saxophonists Mike Wilbur and Wenzi McGowen and drummer James Muschler) has married many of the technical complexities found in jazz saxophone approaches with the form and function of pop and electronic dance music. They’ve taken advantage of the peculiar times we live in, where popular audiences are willing to take unusual instrumentations seriously, and operate as trio of drum set and saxophones.

Moon Hooch, which performed in Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge last month, has effectively reverse- engineered EDM (electronic dance music) from a primarily electronic format into an acoustic one. There’s even a word for this genre that combines percussion and brass instruments to effectively translate EDM to the acoustic world: brasshouse. (Another well-known band in this genre is Too Many Zooz.) Through that creative mashup of saxophones, drum set, musical skill, and dance music, they’ve brought together audiences that range from academic saxophonists to danceaholics.

Moon Hooch. Photo: Kenneth Kearney.

What sets saxophonists Wilbur and McGowen apart from the usual is their use of multiphonics, altissimo, honks, squeaks, growls, and screams while playing. Often more associated the intensely idiomatic improvisations of free jazz or the carefully constructed noise of modern chamber music, these techniques, when given rhythmic context and structure in Moon Hooch’s playing, convey a staggering emotional intensity. They mix and match instruments often; sometimes both on tenor saxophone, but often on a combination of tenor and bari or contrabass clarinet.

All this is underpinned by drummer James Muschler’s dynamic, unceasing drive into rhythmic glory. Seriously, I think the guy stopped playing once in the entire one and a half hour set, effectively turning his musical art into a physical one as well.

You can tell the band tours a lot. This is the second time that they’ve been to Portland at the Doug Fir Lounge in less than as many months, and they’ve been performing like this for a while. Most of the songs they played in their set were off their albums Moon Hooch, This is Cave Music, and Red Sky. I strongly suspect that there were more than a few songs they played that are as yet unrecorded. They’ve crafted their set into an unstoppable machine with tremendous momentum. Song after song blends one into the other until you’re not sure where endings and beginnings are anymore.

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‘Gypsy’ preview: one thorny Rose

The Shedd revives a classic midcentury musical that shows the dark side of celebrity ambition

The overture to Gypsy kicks off the show with one of those rousing, familiar tunes that practically bellows “classic American musical.” And a classic the 1959 show (created by writer Arthur Laurents, composer Jule Styne, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and young lyricist Stephen Sondheim, just off his breakthrough with West Side Story) certainly is. But if it’s most famous for “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” they’re more like the blossoms the Rolling Stones sang about in “Dead Flowers.” Like the music, the story turns darker, more complicated, more real than its splashy opening number suggests.

Closing this weekend at Eugene’s Shedd Center for the Performing Arts in a production directed by Peg Major, with music directed by Robert Ashens and choreography by Caitlin Christopher, Gypsy delivers the memorable Big Tunes and production numbers that fans of musicals crave — while also limning the depth of character and even darkness rarely found in musical theater to that time, and too seldom since.

‘Gypsy’ closes this weekend at The Shedd in Eugene.

Set in 1920s vaudeville, the story is propelled by an aging, wannabe burlesque queen, “a pioneer woman without a frontier… born too soon and started too late.” It’s at heart a family drama pitting the manipulative stage monster, er, mother’s stifled ambitions and fears against her daughters’ independence and self-esteem as she labors to vault them to the vicarious stage stardom she never achieved herself. In the process, we come to understand the pain that underlies her craving for recognition.

One indicator of any classic’s greatness (whether a play, a composition, a dance) is the variety of interpretations it allows, and in frequent revivals on Broadway and beyond, Momma Rose has been successfully played by a wide variety of acclaimed musical actresses. Though all inevitably stand in the formidable shadow of the original Momma Rose, the volcanic-voiced Ethel Merman (who actually initiated the project after reading the memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee), the fact that stars as diverse as Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler, Tyne Daly, Rosalind Russell, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone have successfully played the role in frequent revivals demonstrates the character’s depth. In Eugene, Shirley Andress reportedly presents a more vulnerable interpretation of a still-steely character in transition.

So too, do different productions vary the import of the ambiguous ending. More than most works of musical theater including opera, Gypsy catches the complexity of real life — and conveys it in unforgettable songs like “Together Wherever We Go,” “You Gotta Get A Gimmick,” “Let Me Entertain You” and of course “Everything’s Coming up Roses.” And that complexity, signaled by an unexpected turn from opening exuberance to eventual disappointment, helped spark a similar transformation in the American musical itself, opening it to an unprecedented kind of psychological complexity that Sondheim and others would continue to develop.

That makes Gypsy a timeless creation, frequently staged. Maybe in this age of “American Idol,” “The Voice,” and a burlesque revival that recently produced a made-in-Portland opera that told the story of Portland striptease artist/author Viva Las Vegas, the time is again ripe for Rose’s demented dreams of ecdysiastic elevation. The notion that you can cure your psychic damage and find glory — or at least self-esteem — by riding the public revelation of superficial parts of yourself to stardom didn’t disappear with vaudeville strippers.

Featuring Shirley Andress as Rose, Clarae Smith, Ward Fairbairn, and Kenady Conforth, Gypsy runs for six performances at the Shedd’s Jaqua Concert Hall. 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $22 to $38, available at the box office at 868 High St. Eugene, 541-434-7000, or online. A version of this story appears in Eugene Weekly.

Want to read more about Oregon musicals? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

‘The Woman of Salt’ preview: from trauma to opera

Her family sundered by homophobia, a Eugene composer confronts a painful moment from her past by creating a new opera

by RACHAEL CARNES

It was at Anice Thigpen’s lowest emotional point that the protagonist in her new opera The Woman of Salt came to her.

“I was walking in the woods. And she took the wind out of the firs and made that the voice for the first song,” she says.

The Woman of Salt — Thigpen’s first opera — was born from deep trauma.

“I was there, in the childhoods of my children — flooded — and I turned around, and there, floating in space, is an oversized, feminine figure,” Thigpen says. “I recognized her as Lot’s wife. She telepathed to me, ‘Look back!’”

But before she could write the opera, which premieres June 23 at Springfield’s Wildish Theater, a part of Thigpen had to die.

‘It Didn’t Have to Be This Way’

When Thigpen looked back, here’s what she saw, and how she tells it.

She was in her late 20s and married with two young daughters when she came out to her family as gay. “We were living in rural Arkansas,” Thigpen says. “My oldest daughter, Erin Lee, was 5, and my youngest, Paige, was 2.”

Thigpen’s then-husband, 16 years her elder, at first took the news in stride. “Initially, he wasn’t so upset, nor surprised,” Thigpen says. “When he and I got married, I was already attracted to women, but I believed I could choose to be heterosexual.”

While her kids were little, Thigpen was a stay-at-home mom, a job she adored. She tried to be straight. “I made a go of it, but it wasn’t on my choice list,” she says.

Thigpen divorced her husband and, at first, the pair shared joint custody of their daughters.

Then things changed.

Anice Thigpen speaks to the audience at a preview performance of ‘Woman of Salt.’ Photo: Kelli Matthews.

In a suit brought against her after the initial divorce and custody hearings, the state of Arkansas awarded full custody of Thigpen’s girls to their father, based largely on Thigpen’s sexual orientation while questioning her emotional stability and referencing a distant attempt at self harm.

“He realized the power that my sexual orientation afforded him,” Thigpen says. “But I don’t want to villainize him.”

Thigpen flips through the score she’s written for The Woman of Salt and sips a bit of water. “They got a homophobic lawyer. The judge is a deacon in the Southern Baptist Church,” Thigpen says. “I got an original judgment and took it to the state Supreme Court, where I also got the shit kicked out of me.”

Thigpen half-smiles, shaking her head. Then she looks at me, almost as if I’m a foreigner. “How can I explain the Deep South?” she says. “My own parents were instrumental in leading the charge against me.”

Thigpen grows quiet, her eyes focused. “My parents were, and are, supporters of David Duke. My dad had a colleague who wrote his master’s thesis on the disproportionately small size of the Negro brain. They were — we were — steeped in racism, homophobia. It’s an illness and a blight — culturally, spiritually. I’m totally estranged from my parents and brothers.”

In the courtroom, Thigpen’s mother and father testified against her. Claiming that she was unfit, Thigpen’s parents encouraged the court to terminate their daughter’s rights to her own children.

“There is no immunity from that kind of assault,” Thigpen says. “No defense.”

In an instant, Thigpen’s role as primary caregiver was reduced to dust. “The court order limited my access to the girls and said I couldn’t take them out of state,” Thigpen says. “I was shunned, criminalized and impoverished.”

I Cannot Tell You Why’

Thigpen turned 60 this year. She grew up in a tiny town — Lecompte, Louisiana — where she learned to play the piano from Miss Martha Faye White, “who was classically trained and offered lessons out of her home,” Thigpen says. “I studied from the age of 8 or 9 right through high school. And I’ve never moved anywhere without my piano.”

Thigpen’s father taught English when she was growing up, and her mother stayed home. She has two siblings, an older brother and a younger one. She has no contact with any of them. “Family estrangement is probably much more prevalent than we are willing to talk about,” she says. “It’s like a collective secret.”

Laura Wayte and Anice Thigpen rehearsing ‘The Woman of Salt’ in Thigpen’s home. Photo: Todd Cooper.

Though wounded by her family’s betrayal, for the sake of her girls, Thigpen persisted. After the court tore her daughters from her, Thigpen moved to Austin, Texas, to pursue a doctorate. And every two to three weeks, for years, she made the 500-mile one-way drive from Austin to Little Rock and back to see her girls for a few precious hours.

“Every time I could, I got in my beat-up truck and drove to Arkansas,” she says. “I think this opera was being written on the drives home. My blood was a caustic sludge of rage.”

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Northwest Piano Trio review: three, four, five

Augmented threesome shines in music by Mozart, Schubert and Dvorak

by TERRY ROSS

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) started writing a piano trio in the last year or so of his brief life, but he used the slow adagio movement as a stand-alone piece, which he thought of as Adagio and his publisher called Notturno, presumably because of its peaceful nature. The violin and cello play its sinuous and mesmeric melody to a plucked accompaniment in the treble and bass, both played on the piano imitating a harp.

In their most recent concert, on June 10 in Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, the Northwest Piano Trio — pianist Susan McDaniel, violinist Heather Mastel-Lipson, and cellist Hillebrand — gave a dreamy, easy-sounding rendition, with the cellist often playing in the viola range, leaving the low notes to the piano. It was a beautiful nine-minute piece beautifully done.

Although Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G Minor from 1785 (the first piece ever written for the ensemble of piano, violin, viola, and cello) was commissioned for amateurs, it immediately proved too difficult, and was left to professional players. In the hands of the Northwest Piano Trio, abetted by violist Hillary Oseas, its 25 minutes emerged smoothly, culminating in a lovely third-movement Rondeau.

Northwest Piano Trio added a pair of guests for its performance of Dvorak’s famous quintet. Photo: Logan Brown.

After the intermission came the main event. Dvorak was in his prime when he wrote his second piano quintet in 1888, with his two great symphonies (No. 8 and No. 9 “From the New World”) coming in 1889 and 1893. His Opus 81 was instantly acclaimed upon its premiere and was soon grouped with the piano quintets of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms as the best of its genre. Dmitri Shostakovich’s quintet joined this trio later.

Dvorak’s five-hander announces itself immediately with all the instruments playing loudly. And here one can already notice one of its defining features: all five instruments participate more or less equally, without the piano doubling the strings overmuch and the string quartet an independent force. In the first-movement, the cello states a beguiling tune that later turns up several times wearing different clothing. In the second movement “Dumka” (a form, beloved of Dvorak, in which somber, slow music alternates with lively dance music), the viola steps up with its own soulful music in the slow sections. The third movement Scherzo, furiant, marked molto vivace (very lively) is a five-minute dose of Slavic energy, leading into the allegro Finale, in which a Mendelssohnian chorale near the end surprises and pleases before an energetic ending.

It’s always a treat to hear Dvorak’s chamber music, with its abundance of melodies and brilliant part-writing, performed well. Cellist Hillebrand played with exceptional warmth and forthright expression. Pianist McDaniel seemed to execute her not infrequently challenging part effortlessly. Second violinist Nelly Kovalev, who plays in the Portland Opera Orchestra, played with great assurance and rose to the occasion in her brief solo passages, and violist Oseas, who plays with the Portland Baroque Orchestra, was especially good in her solo passages, which contain some of Dvorak’s most elegant melodic writing. First violinist Mastel-Lipson, a Portland Opera member and co-concertmaster of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, played accurately and in perfect tune, but I could have used a much heavier right hand; her solo passages did not stand out as they should.

But this is a mere cavil; the Northwest Piano Trio is superb. Committed to “the performance of traditional classical music while also exploring the music of 20th and 21st century composers,“ they have yet to announce their 2017-18 season, but perhaps before they do they’ll put their heads together and find themselves a much catchier name.

Recommended recordings

• Schubert Notturno

Florestan Trio (Hyperion CDA67273), 2001.

• Mozart Piano Quartet in G Minor

Mozart: Piano Quartets: Emanuel Ax, Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo, and Yo-Yo Ma (Sony 88875070972), 1994.

Dvorak Quintet in A Major

Dvorak — Piano Quintets: Sviatoslav Richter with the Borodin Quartet (Philips E4757560), 2006.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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