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Imago Theatre’s ‘La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton’

Imaginative version of Beauty and the Beast presented the imaginative Portland theater company's biggest challenge yet

Imago Theatre is at a turning point. For 35 years, Portland’s most original theater company has specialized in making something beautiful out of not much: some masks, some movement, some music, often using no words or sets at all. The result: the long-running, enormously popular mask shows Frogz and ZooZoo, and dozens of other magical theatrical creations.

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“La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton.” Imago photo

But after more than three decades, Imago founders Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad decided the time had to retire those warhorses. Last summer, the couple announced they were selling the former Southeast Portland Masonic lodge that’s long served as Imago’s headquarters, performing and rehearsal space, and prop and costume shop. This weekend, Imago opens its biggest, riskiest venture ever. Given Imago’s flair for dazzling visual imagery and movement, La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton, which runs December 9-January 8, is likely to be a beauty. But for its  creators, it’s been a bit of a beast.

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Obsidian Animals preview: Jazz journey

Art and nature inspire young Eugene keyboardist Torrey Newhart's musical philosophy and his band's diverse new album

by GARY FERRINGTON

When seven year old Torrey Newhart purchased a small hand carved obsidian kitty while visiting Mexico’s Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, it was just a simple toy. Like many items of childhood, it was eventually put away and forgotten.

Almost two decades later, that rediscovered souvenir has taken on new meaning. Newhart, now a jazz composer, musician, and educator, has snapped Facebook selfies of it wherever he has performed: France, Switzerland, Italy, South Korea, and beyond. The obsidian kitty has come to represent a journey of change.

Because Newhart’s recent creation of a band and its first album release, Sound In-Sight, represents a major transition in his career, it seemed appropriate to him to name the group Obsidian Animals — with the iconic kitty prominently displayed on its album cover. On Sunday, December 11, the band makes its Portland debut at Turn! Turn!Turn!

1 - Header Photo 681px width. Caption: The Obsidian Animals at Roaring Rapids Pizza, Springfield. Photo: Adam Carlson.

The Obsidian Animals at Roaring Rapids Pizza, Springfield. Photo: Adam Carlson.

Obsidian Animals made their live debut at the Jazz Station in Eugene and at the Old Stone Church in Bend, Newhart’s home town, this past June. Its members include some of Eugene’s finest young musicians: Eddie Bond (guitar/effects), Adam Carlson (drums), Tony Glausi (trumpet), Joshua Hettwer (tenor sax/clarinet), Sean Peterson (bass), and Jessika Smith (alto sax/flute), with Newhart on piano. The ensemble performs original material to which it adds rare pieces from various jazz periods and traditions.

Sound In-Sight includes 18 musical “scenes” with performances by the seven member Obsidian Animals with guest artists Ken Mastrogiovanni (drums), Jim Olsen (flute/alto-flute), Halie Loren (voice), Matt Hettwer (trombone), Stephen Young (tuba) and Andy Armer (piano). Newhart, in an ArtsWatch interview, describes the group’s debut album as a “playlist of sorts” reflecting his multifarious musical interests over the past several years. In addition to Newhart’s own pieces, it includes music he enjoys by bebop trumpeter Booker Little, the late legendary pianist/vocalist Nina Simone, and Tony Glausi. The Bend Bulletin’s Go Magazine praised the album’s “adventurous spirit, blending avant-jazz melodies, R&B grooves and shifting-on-a-dime dynamics.”

Newhart says his goal is to present a broad “diverse palette of music (listeners) might not always hear together,” he says. “I’ve always loved jobs where I get to do lots of different things and I think my musical preferences are the same. There are so many wonderful sounds being combined to create new sounds, why not share them all?”

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Maciej Grzybowski review: Interpretive insights

Exceptionally talented Polish pianist brings unexpected perspectives to classic and contemporary music

by TERRY ROSS

Only 24 folding chairs had been provided in rows; three round tables at the back held eight or nine of us. I counted a total of 22 people in the hall, including the concert organizer and the man doing the audio recording. That’s how many people had come to hear a pianist of exceptional talent and genuine interpretational genius. A shame.

Polish Hall, in north Portland on Interstate Ave. in St. Stanislaus parish, is a modest structure; adjoining it are a one-room library of Polish books and a small bar/dining room. Across the street is the modest church of St. Stanislaus itself, a Catholic center for locals of Polish and Croatian descent. These buildings are unassuming, to put it mildly. Polish pianist Maciej Grzybowski (mah-CHAY zh-BAWV-skee), born in 1968 and a resident of Warsaw, deserved a grand concert hall and at least a small cathedral next door.

Mr. Grzybowski was in town as part of a small performance series, in which the main events are a Polish Festival in September and occasional musical events; the hall also offers swing dance classes. The concert space in Polish Hall has a tiny stage with a shiny baby grand, at which Mr. Grzybowski sat for his adventurous program of old and new music.

Maciej Grzybowski performed in the Polish Music series at Portland's Polish Hall/

Maciej Grzybowski performed in the Polish Music series at Portland’s Polish Hall/

He began with a selection of six Inventions and Sinfonias by Johann Sebastian Bach, to which he devoted rapt attention. His phrasing and tempos were roughly the opposite of the infamously fast versions by Glenn Gould, although his intensity was the same. For the listener, at these slow tempos it was almost as if hearing these familiar pieces for the first time, so strange did they seem.

This proved to be the pianist’s method with music written by composers who were not alive during his lifetime. A set of three intermezzi, designated Opus 117, by Johannes Brahms were similarly treated: slow, with free tempos. Brahms wrote these pieces, along with the intermezzi of Opuses 118 and 119, near the end of his life, and he referred to at least some of them as portraits of his anguish at growing old alone and ill. So Grzybowski’s interpretation made some sense. Most noticeable at this level of microscopic investigation, Brahms’s harmonies seemed at the very edge of tonality, as if the aging composer were leaning toward the new musical language just then (in the 1890s) being explored by such younger composers as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. But this was a momentary illusion brought on by the pianist’s unique interpretation; in fact, the intermezzi, although soulful and introspective, lie well within the boundaries of late Romantic harmony.

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Oregon Symphony ‘SoundSight’ series: Music to our eyes

This weekend's production of Olivier Messiaen's 'Turangalila' symphony features complementary video projections

For centuries, orchestras have been expensive vehicles for presenting sophisticated symphonic sounds. But as non-classical shows have added visual elements from projections to smoke to colorful lighting, even classical music audiences increasingly expect to see something onstage besides tuxedoed musicians staring at music stands and sawing away on their strings. This weekend’s Oregon Symphony program shows the orchestra committing to appealing to its audience’s eyes as well as ears.

The orchestra’s performance of 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen’s massive Turangalila symphony features video art by Rose Bond, an animator and media artist at Pacific Northwest College of Art. The concert is the second in this season’s new SoundSight series, part of Oregon Symphony President Scott Showalter’s effort to venture beyond standard repertory.

The Oregon Symphony's "Turangalila" will include projections created by Portland video artist Rose Bond.

The Oregon Symphony’s “Turangalila” will include projections created by Portland video artist Rose Bond.

“It’s not enough anymore to have cookie-cutter programs with an overture, concerto with guest artist, then a symphony on the second half,” Showalter says. He aims to both broaden (with the recent upsurge in concerts featuring pop stars from various generations to live performances with video game and film soundtracks) and deepen (with seldom performed classical works) the symphony’s programming.

With the SoundSight series, “we asked, ‘How can we reimagine core symphonic works in a way that advances the composer’s vision,” using visual arts. Showalter says. “It’s not just a gimmick.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: It’s beginning to look a lot like…

Jazz, musicals and modernists confound the Oregon music calendar this week

… spring? It’s not exactly Christmas in June, more like March in December, as one of Portland’s most valuable music musical explorations, March Music Moderne, moves to December to coincide with the Oregon Symphony’s celebration of one of MMM’s patron saint, the great 20th century French mystic composer Olivier Messiaen, with its name temporarily changed accordingly.

It also looks a little like February in December, as some excellent jazz worthy of that month’s annual PDX Jazz Festival comes to town. And several non-holiday oriented theatrical shows have music at their hearts. Feel free to supply more musical recommendations in the comments section below.

Portland Gay Men's Chorus performs December 14-16

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus performs December 2-3.

Orchestra Becomes Radicalized
November 30
Holocene, Portland.
Read Nim Wunnan’s ArtsWatch preview of what’s becoming that rarest of creatures: an avant-garde tradition.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
November 30-December 30
Portland Center Stage.
Musical biography of the eminent American songwriter. Stay tuned for ArtsWatch’s review.

Locksmith Isidore
December 1
MODA Center, Portland.
Wow, free jazz at the Moda Center — clearly avant garde jazz has hit the big time at last! The Chicago trio blends acoustic and electronic instrumentation with free jazz and even prog rock influences. And — so much for sibling rivalry — how admirable of bass clarinetist Jason Stein to nepotistically give his younger sister, Amy Schumer, a break and ride his coattails as the band’s closing act.

Liberace and Liza: together again at Coho Theater! Photo: Gary Norman.

Liberace and Liza: together again at Coho Theater! Photo: Gary Norman.

A Liberace and Liza Christmas
December 1-11
CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh St. Portland.
Longtime Liberace impersonator David Saffert joins Jillian Snow Harris as Liza Minnelli Liberace’s own former music director (and Saffert’s coach) Bo Ayars in this throwback to TV’s holiday variety shows.

Dmitri Matheny
December 1
Alberta Abbey, 126 NE Alberta Street, Portland.
Read my Willamette Week preview of the fine Bay Area-based flugelhornist’s tribute to cool jazz icon Chet Baker.

Kamasi Washington
December 1
Roseland Theater, 8 N.W. Sixth Ave., Portland.
Read Angela Allen’s ArtsWatch preview of one of jazz’s brightest new stars, as musically maximalist in his genre as Olivier Messiaen (see below) was in classical music.

Blake Applegate leads Cantores in Ecclesia.

Blake Applegate leads Cantores in Ecclesia.

Cantores in Ecclesia
December 2
St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, 1623 N.W. 19th Ave., Portland.
Read my Willamette Week preview of the excellent choir’s Advent concert.

The Gothard Sisters
December 2
The Old Church Concert Hall, SW Clay Street at 11th Ave. Portland.
The Northwest sibling act sings Celtic-inspired arrangements of Christmas favorites, ancient carols re-imagined, and adds storytelling and step dancing to the show.

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus
December 2-3
Newmark Theatre, Portland.
The big gay chorus’s annual ever popular holiday event returns with seasonal songs from around the world.

Messiaen Mélange de Musique
December 2-5
Community Music Center,  Portland.
The former March Music Moderne has moved, for the nonce, to December, to coincide with the Oregon Symphony’s performances of the biggest music of one of its patron saints: Olivier Messiaen’s massive Turangalila symphony.  The December 2 concert includes a song cycle setting the composer’s own surrealist poems and more, while December 4’s show features string trios by Messiaen, Debussy, Gorecki and other composers, including visionary MMMpresario and Portland composer Bob Priest, whose generosity makes the community concerts free for all, and also funded commissions of new music for the occasion by Oregon composers.

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Kamasi Washington preview: Epic jazz

Expansive album vaults Los Angeles jazz saxophonist and bandleader to wider fame, but he's more concerned with spirituality than celebrity

by ANGELA ALLEN

Kamasi Washington has so charmed and befuddled music writers that some rely on the word “celebrity” to describe him. And a celebrity is rare thing in the tiny jazz world.

Named for the capital of Ashanti, the West African pre-colonial kingdom that is now Ghana, Washington hasn’t won a Grammy yet, but he’s taken the scene by storm in the last 18 months. He won DownBeat’s Jazz Artist of the Year for 2016. Rolling Stone called him “the most audacious player in a movement transforming the electric flurry of Seventies fusion jazz into something bold, lush and new” and the New York Times said his music was “uncategorizable” – in a good way.

Washington performs in Portland on Thursday at the Roseland Theater, which holds 1,400 people, most in standing-room ‘‘seats” (the balcony is sold out). As of this writing, there was some standing room left.

Kamasi Washington performs in Portland Thursday.

Kamasi Washington performs in Portland Thursday.

The celebrity stuff, he said from his home in Los Angeles earlier this week, hasn’t quite sunk in. Sure, he’s a well-known figure on the LA scene; he’s been playing music since high school, and his core band, The Next Step, is easily recognized in southern California. He’s toured with Snoop Dogg, worked with the late bandleader Gerald Wilson, the great pianist McCoy Tyner (who played in the classic quartet led by the musician who most inspired Washington’s spiritual approach to jazz, John Coltrane) and the late trumpet titan Freddie Hubbard, and arranged songs for Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning album To Pimp a Butterfly.

Even so, the saxophonist’s circle has widened considerably since his almost-three-hour, three-CD album The Epic came out in mid-2015. Featuring 17 songs culled from 45, almost all arranged and composed by Washington, The Epic is a long narrative music poem about Washington’s life, with tributes to his grandmother, to Malcolm X, to friends. It’s “about who I am,” he explains. “My father’s generation lived their life in music but never made a true representation of who they are.”

The Epic has strains of Debussy, ragtime, straight-ahead jazz, fusion, soul, hip-hop, Bach, bebop, gamelan, gospel, rap, Star Wars, otherworldliness – you name it. It is genre-less and all genres.

“It doesn’t fit into one place (or genre), but it brings people together,” said Washington, 35, who studied Ethnomusicology at UCLA.

The Epic landed on a number of 2015’s best-of albums lists, including those of National Public Radio, Pitchfork and the Guardian. It debuted as No. 1 on iTunes Jazz charts in the United States, Canada, Russia, Australia and the United Kingdom. This year it won the 2016 American Music Prize for best debut album.

kamasi-and-band

With violins, cellos and a 15-voice choir, along with the usual jazz instruments and two drum kits, the music is fit for a new-wave big band. The concert won’t be all about Washington; his bass player Miles Mosley has a CD in the pipeline, so expect to hear work other than The Epic. And instead of bringing strings and a full chorus – the collective band that performed on the CD – he’ll keep the Portland show “small” with two drummers, three horns, a pianist, a bassist and one singer. His father, Rickey Washington, also a saxophonist, will be among them.

Spiritual Source

Rickey, or “Pops” as Kamasi calls him, taught and played music throughout Los Angeles when Kamasi was a kid. At 12, Kamasi was playing the clarinet and itching to switch to sax. To make his son prove his musical commitment, Rickey challenged him to sing a Charlie Parker tune, and he did. When a little later, Kamasi picked up his father’s saxophone (“he left it out by mistake”) and out poured a Wayne Shorter tune, note for perfect note. He knew he’d found his horn, his musical partner.

“My dad didn’t want me to play the saxophone unless I was really serious about music,” Kamasi says. “You can play music as a hobby or pursue it fiercely. He wanted to make sure I was serious.”

His doggedness, determination and self-discipline won his father’s support. Kamasi then joined a band in his uncle’s church. It was then, and a few years later when he became immersed in John Coltrane’s work, that he understood that music came from “a spiritual place,” he says. “Music speaks to us on that level, and Coltrane realized that. I’m reaching for that spiritual connection. I’m trying to get to the other side of our consciousness. I’m trying to tap into that.”

PDX Jazz brings Kamasi Washington to Roseland Theater, 8 N.W. Sixth Ave., Portland. Tickets available online

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.  

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Portland Taiko, Portland Baroque, collectif9: Home field advantage

Stellar local performers match the musical radiance of visiting stars

Artistic centers seem to go through phases. At the outset, they predominantly host performances by local amateurs. As more ambition and money arrive, they worshipfully import Big Names from artistic capitals, often neglecting homegrown talents who might be equally talented (and more original) in favor of the imprimatur of NYC cred — a sure sign of provincial insecurity. Sometimes, like my hometown of Austin, a city’s artistic culture develops to the extent that its local artists realize that they don’t need to move elsewhere to make vanguard art (not to mention a living), and in fact, the city becomes a magnet for others in the region and then the world.

Los Angeles's TaikoProject and Portland Taiko joined forces at the end of their joint concert, 'Sound in Motion.' Photo: Brian Sweeney.

Los Angeles’s TaikoProject and Portland Taiko joined forces in their joint concert, ‘Sound in Motion.’ Photo: Brian Sweeney.

Although some of Oregon’s artistic institutions and their insecure audiences still haven’t quite realized that many arts lovers are looking to us for inspiration than vice versa, Portland in particular and Oregon in general are reaching that third phase. A trio of autumn concerts involving both visiting and locally cultivated musicians showed the value of learning from outsiders — and also just how good our locavore music has become.

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