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Purple is the color of hard-won joy

Portland Center Stage delivers a jubilant production of "The Color Purple," the musical adapted from Alice Walker's famed novel of struggle and transformation.

The Color Purple looms large in America’s literary (and cinematic) canon. Beloved and controversial, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an African American woman living in the early 1900’s has touched millions. Unsurprisingly, it’s not an easy story. The hardships that the women in the story endure are appalling and it wouldn’t seem like material prime for a musical adaptation. But Marsha Norman did it, staying true to the source material while using the medium to bring the joy and hope of the story to the forefront. Portland Center Stage opens its season with this jubilant experience.

For those unfamiliar with The Color Purple: 14-year-old Celie (Felicia Boswell) lives with her much-loved sister and monstrous father in rural Georgia. Abused and neglected Celie is separated from her sister and given to Mister (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), an abusive widower, to raise his unruly children. As she grows up Celie begins to draw inspiration and strength from other women in her life, especially Mister’s lover Shug (Lana Gordon) a fiercely independent jazz singer.

Drawing on gospel, ragtime, jazz, and blues, the score grounds the musical in its time period and creates an emotional counterpoint to the seriousness of the story. Where there is hardship there is hope. Where there is oppression there is defiance. Celie’s first lesson in independence comes from her daughter-in-law Sofia (Maiesha McQueen), who implores her to stand up for herself in the explosive blues number “Hell No!” This is a high-energy production, but McQueen’s commanding performance takes it to a new level, earning whooping applause from the audience.

Make ya wanna holla!: Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd as Harpo and Maiesha McQueen as Sofia in “The Color Purple.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

While The Color Purple centers the lives of African American women and the strength they draw from each other, it’s impossible to ignore the abuse they suffer. Consideration is given to Mister, but only as to how he’s internalized toxic masculinity and his own realization around that. Walker’s novel is unsparing in how it critiqued patriarchy and racism and though this adaptation is pared down Norman keeps this idea at the forefront of the script.

The current national dialogue about racism and sexual assault, cracked open by movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too, make this show feel all too timely.

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‘Ann’: sketchy portrait

One-woman show about the feisty Texas governor misses what made Ann Richards great

Holland Taylor’s one-woman tribute, Ann, which Triangle Productions is staging through September 29, brought back memories of a politician I both criticized and admired. I covered Ann Richards and Texas politics during her last term as elected state treasurer and through her successful campaign for governor, writing and editing at Texas’s leading progressive magazine, The Texas Observer, probably best known here as the launching pad and lifelong forum for one of my predecessors, Molly Ivins.

Because I saw a preview performance, I can’t really review Triangle’s production, as star Margie Boule, who’s been getting raves, was understandably still settling into the part. But no production can save a scattered script that fundamentally lacks a story, real conflict (beyond the family drama of who gets paired with whom in the family game of Charades), dramatic structure or tension. It goes on too long and tries to end three times — none satisfactory and the last drearily bathetic, with Richards joining her mom and pop at the great ranch in the sky. The first and only play written by Taylor (an Emmy-winning TV actor best known for her roles in sitcoms Bosom Buddies and Two and a Half Men) to perform herself, it’s more like a character sketch an actor might prepare than an actual drama.

Ann gives us little understanding or even discussion of her life’s work or what motivated her not-politically correct (for most of Texas of her time) liberalism. After an expositional opening scene relaying her history through a college graduation address, Richards spends the next hour or so in a tedious series of phone calls: making travel arrangements, chatting with her old buddy Bill Clinton, micromanaging the family holiday gathering, dealing with reporters, reserving boats for a fishing trip, pondering a stay of execution for a developmentally disabled death row inmate, etc. Taylor’s apparent strategy is to show how Richards juggles the business of state as well as family duties through the multitasking that moms know so well.

“In fact, motherhood is splendid training for politics,” her friend and my colleague Ivins wrote in her obituary in our magazine. “All good mothers know what to do when there’s two kids and one cookie, and all good mothers know what to do when there are two kids in the back seat hitting each other, each one of them claiming the other one started it. All political problems are merely variations of those two situations.”

But the multitasking takes up most of the play. My date, who’s not from Texas, was mystified by what was at stake, why it mattered, and/or what obstacles and choices Richards faced. Such context is crucial to Taylor’s goal: imparting a sense of Richards’s character.

Originally subtitled “an affectionate portrait,” Ann comes off as shallow fangirl worship, unworthy of Richards’s substantive achievements political and personal. The script, which Taylor intended to praise Richards, winds up burying her greatness in trivialities. Instead of the powerful political leader she actually was, we get the kind of wisecracking celebrity she might have looked like from Hollywood. 

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More than a feeling of “Ordinary Days”

Subtle emotions bloom in the Broadway Rose production of the touching Adam Gwon musical about city dwellers seeking connection.

Feelings can be sneaky things.

For instance, as I sat through the Broadway Rose production of Adam Gwon’s musical Ordinary Days, the first tear that came coursing down the side of my nose took me entirely by surprise. Nothing tragic or especially melancholy had happened onstage, nor for that matter had the show reached any moment of sweetly happy release. I do recall feeling a tightening high in my chest, but in retrospect I can’t say whether that came before or after I had to wipe my eye. Clearly I was feeling something, but exactly what or why wasn’t immediately obvious.

Ordinary Dayswhich plays through Oct. 14 at the Broadway Rose New Stage in Tigard, isn’t what you’d call a tearjerker. It’s bright, energetic, poppy, full of cute, wry observations and offhand humor. But its take on the quotidian challenges facing four young New Yorkers builds a subtle strength — through both the accretion of tiny narrative details and the inevitable tensions of characters seeking connections — until deep, multifaceted feelings come pushing through the surface simplicity.

Moving and touching: “Ordinary Days” features Benjamin Tissell (left) as Jason and Kailey Rhodes as Claire, a young couple trying to unpack what’s in the way of a better connection. Photo: Sam Ortega.

That surface is appealing in its own right. The show consists of almost entirely of 20 songs that introduce us to the four characters — all trying to find themselves and their futures in the big city — and sketch the arc of their relationships over a brief but impactful time, perhaps a week or two. Gwon’s tunes sound a bit too much alike after a while, either nervously upbeat or twinklingly reflective, but they’re catchy, never saccharine, and the lyrics are loaded with clever rhymes that somehow still feel conversational.

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Oregon Symphony’s diversity deficit

Orchestra’s 2018-19 classical programming fails to reflect its hometown’s inclusive values

by DAMIEN GETER

The Oregon Symphony opens its 2018-19 Classical Series Sunday with a musically diverse program and a glittering star — Renee Fleming. As varied as the concert selections are, though, they all have one thing in common: they were all written by white people. In fact, in the orchestra’s entire main classical subscription series this season, only one composer of color, out of about 46, is programmed – Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto.

This is not a phenomenon happening only with the Oregon Symphony, or only among Oregon orchestras. African American composer Evan Williams noted that he considers himself among the lucky after landing a commission with the Cincinnati Symphony. That piece, however, was not recorded — and was performed only on a children’s concert.

Composer Evan Williams

“There isn’t a lot of music by black composers being played, and often when it is, it’s in February [for black history month].” Williams says, “It feels like an afterthought.” Unfortunately, no one in the League of American Orchestras, the member organization that supports the nation’s symphony orchestras, or the Oregon Symphony keeps track of the statistics surrounding programming composers of color.

Narrow Expectations

Granted, other special concerts feature a variety of performers and composers of color targeted toward a very specific audience, like gospel Christmas. “The classical subscription series makes up less than half of our total programming,” says Natasha Kautsky, vice president of marketing and strategic engagement for the Oregon Symphony. “Through a wide variety of musical offerings, we target virtually every demographic across economic and social groups. While other larger orchestras may have a majority of classical concerts, our mix is much more diverse.”

Carlos Kalmar led the Oregon Symphony’s season-ending concerts.

But those “special” concerts are not led by the music director, meaning the regular patrons of the Oregon Symphony are not exposed to the music of this under-represented group of composers in its regular, sixteen week classical subscription series — the largest source of revenue for the orchestra, which plays for a mainly white demographic. Orchestra decision makers, like any business operators, work to keep their customers, or in this case, audience happy. And that audience has been trained by many decades of demographically narrow programming to expect a certain product. Continuously programming mostly music from the popular Viennese composers and other 18th and 19th century Europeans has resulted in an audience that wants more Beethoven, and Brahms. That also means, in Portland, Tchaikovsky is sure to make an appearance each season. But not composers of color.

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Imani Winds: unapologetically bold

Adventurous ensemble’s residency at Chamber Music Northwest culminates in accessible, original music that embraces change and American culture

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

What’s special about Imani Winds, besides their overall badassery as a woodwind quintet, is that the group boasts two composers—horn player Jeff Scott and flutist Valerie Coleman. Although Coleman is taking a break from performing with the group, her presence (physical and spiritual) added considerably to the joy the group brought to their recently concluded residency with Chamber Music Northwest.

Over the last year and a half, the quintet performed a whole slew of bold, intimate concerts around Portland, in the usual venues (Lincoln Hall, Kaul Auditorium) as well as less conventional spots like Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium, Revolution Hall, and the OMSI Planetarium. They’ve even routinely hosted an instrument petting zoo, where children can come play with the group’s flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon.

Imani Winds: Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017-18 artists in residence

The group also got better from the beginning of their residency to the end, as their usual repertoire (arrangements of Rite of Spring and The Planets, commissioned works by Simon Shaheen and Reena Esmail) gradually gave way to a lovely collaboration with local dance troupe BodyVox in April: a delirious evening of film and dance set to arrangements of Chopin and Brahms (and Scott’s Homage to Duke), Imani performing right there on stage with all the dancers. Finally we came to this summer’s festival and the large-scale compositions they were all talking about last year: Scott’s Passion for Bach and Coltrane and Coleman’s Muhammad Ali portrait Shot Gun Houses.

After all that, I was sorry to see them go.

Great Scott

Imani has always had several Jeff Scott compositions in its repertoire, but his Passion for Bach and Coltrane—premiered a few years back and performed at Kaul Auditorium on July 5th—marked the apotheosis of his time as a composer during the group’s CMNW residency. His other compositions have been good, sure (last year’s performance of his “Titilayo” in Whitsell Auditorium being a high point), but this was something else altogether, a real highlight of the entire fest.

Sadly, it’s relatively rare for important music to also be good music, and it’s especially rare for referential music to have any real originality, but Scott handled his interpolations of Bach and Coltrane with grace, confidence, and a unique compositional voice which seems to have matured just in the couple years since I started listening to him. I felt his original music was the Passion’s best feature, the more overt references functioning mainly as contextualizing brackets and launching points for the pure joy of playing with other people’s music—a joy that classical musicians can sometimes lose sight of, since they’re almost always playing other people’s music.

Composer Jeff Scott and poet A.B. Spellman chat during pre-concert CMNW Musical Conversation. Photo: Judy Blankenship

“I wanted to combine the two arts I love the most: classical music and jazz,” Scott said in a pre-concert talk with poet A.B. Spellman. Bach and Coltrane made an ideal meeting point, as both were engaged with the search “for oneness with spirituality.” Though Spellman had doubts about classical and jazz meldings, saying they are “very seldom accomplished, though many have tried,” he praised Scott’s music, saying the composer “does both forms with integrity, with a bona fide jazz trio and two classical groups.”

The two classical groups were Imani Winds and the Harlem Quartet, and the bona fide jazz trio consisted of pianist Alex Brown, bassist Zach Brown, and drummer Neal Smith (all but Imani playing their CMNW premieres). The poet himself was on stage too, nestled in with the band, reading his poetry, weaving it in and out of the music. “Through beauty, past knowledge, here I am, Dear John, back at the beginning, better.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: time of the season

As autumn approaches, Oregon orchestras and ensembles play seasonal sounds and more

Yes, the Zombies no doubt played their iconic 1967 hit at Monday’s show at Revolution Hall, but there’s more seasonal music in the air this week. One of those iconic Portland fall traditions is to bring the family and some blankets and marvel at the annual cyclonic return of the migratory Vaux’s Swifts to that chimney at Northwest Portland’s Chapman Elementary School. In their season-opening Song of the Swifts shows, FearNoMusic brings one of New York’s best known new music pianists, Kathleen Supové to play music that touches on themes of migration — and not just by birds.

Kathleen Supové.

Musicians and other artists have joined the response to Republican politicization of immigration, which turned human suffering into human tragedy. For the last year or so, the Portland new music ensemble has been programming contemporary classical music that squarely or obliquely addresses some of today’s most pressing social issues. This time it’s migration. Supové, who grew up in Portland, plays three world premieres (by Portland’s own Jay Derderian, her partner and well known composer Randall Woolf, and Paula Matthusen), composed for Sunday’s pop up concert, which happens a few blocks from the Chapman School chimney that has long been a gathering place for the birds, and for Portlanders who love watching them circle, cavort and finally take the plunge. The performance also features video and visual art.

Those three premieres repeat at Monday’s concert at the Old Church, which also pairs Supové with FNM musicians in migration and/or bird-related music by young Portland composer Katie Palka, the great Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, Michi Wiancko, and Takashi Yoshimatsu.

Tomas Cotik performs with Portland Chamber Orchestra.

• As we head into fall, Portland Chamber Orchestra combines the most famous Four Seasons (Vivaldi’s familiar violin concertos) with an equally colorful 20th century successor. In The Eight Seasons, Portland State prof and Astor Piazzolla expert Tomas Cotik joins the ensemble in his fellow Argentine’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, which uses Vivaldi’s model and Piazzolla’s own pulsating nuevo tango music to paint a vibrant musical portrait of his bustling hometown. The Sunday afternoon show at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel also features longtime Oregon coast resident Ernest Bloch’s moving Prayer for Cello and Strings (with more Bloch coming next week) and Edvard Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies.

• The Oregon Symphony opens its classical season Sunday with maybe the world’s starriest soprano, Renée Fleming, and it’s a credit to both that instead of the usual familiar arias, the concert presents an attractive, substantive program of 20th century classical and theater music along with Richard Strauss’s 1888 tone poem Don Juan. The big news is Kevin Puts’s orchestral song cycle, Letters from Georgia, composed for Fleming in 2016. Puts, a Pulitzer Prize winner who’s one of the most listener friendly of contemporary classical composers, sets five letters the great American painter Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her future husband Alfred Stieglitz or her close friend Anita Politzer that describe New Mexican desert beauty, her own feelings about love and music, and more. What I’ve heard would certainly appeal to Aaron Copland fans, and there’s actual Copland (tunes from his opera The Tender Land) on the program too, as well as a pair of stirring American overtures: Samuel Barber’s 1931 overture to The School for Scandal, and Leonard Bernstein’s inevitable, and irresistible, Candide overture, plus show tunes from Sting, Kander & Ebb, Meredith Willson, Stephen Sondheim, and more — that rare star program that would be almost as appealing even without the star’s celebrity name and talent.

Renée Fleming and Oregon Symphony conductor Carlos Kalmar take their bows.

• While the Oregon Symphony goes mostly American, Portland Columbia Symphony trends Russian in its Friday and Sunday shows at Portland’s First United Methodist Church and Gresham’s Mt. Hood Community College Theater. There’s yet another seasonal number, “Autumn” from Glazunov’s The Seasons, Rachmaninoff’s big second piano concerto starring Robert Henry, and a suite from Stravinsky’s enchanting The Firebird ballet score.

• Rachmaninoff takes center stage — or is that altar? — at this weekend’s Cappella Romana concerts Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, respectively. The superb choir sings one of the 20th century’s choral masterpieces, All-Night Vigil, (sometimes called Vespers) along with psalms and hymn settings by Rachmaninoff’s Russian predecessors, placing the composer’s music in the context of a more complete Orthodox Vigil.

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Accessible Arts 1: restrictions may apply

Despite good intentions, affordability and disability still pose obstacles to enjoying Oregon arts

By DAVID MACLAINE

The system finally caught up with us, right when we were getting comfortable. “Sorry, no seats in that section,” the helpful fellow at Portland’s Newmark Theatre box office told me. The moment we had finally gotten over our anxiety over the uncertainties built into securing affordable tickets in the disabled seating area, we had just wasted a trip.

We had taken the long journey into town on bus and MAX, and had arrived an hour early. That schedule had worked nicely just the week before when we had shown up seeking opera tickets on a Saturday night. Lulled by our earlier success, I had neglected the precaution of calling Portland Opera just to make sure that seats were still available for this performance. They were available for a popular Rossini opera on Saturday: how on earth could they be sold out for a comparative rarity (Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice) on a Thursday?

But there it was: no seats to be had in the wheelchair section, not for ready money. No Gluck for you!

A scene from Portland Opera’s production of Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice.’; Photo: Cory Weaver/ Portland Opera.

During the last seven years, my partner Konnie and I had been slowly getting used to the ins and outs of the wonderful Arts for All program that allows those of us with an Oregon Trail Card, that handy replacement for the old awkward food stamps, to flash said card and purchase tickets to fine arts events for the very good price of $5 a ticket. But of course, as ads for almost anything tend to point out in the fine print, “Some rules and restrictions may apply.” And when you complicate the task of working past the restrictions each arts organization imposes on poor folks who want an affordable crack at what they offer, and then add the equally daunting challenges of wheelchair seating, your degree of difficulty certainly rises.

But we had learned not to be discouraged by the hurdles, and had been slowly adding one more organization or one more venue to the list of those we had successfully tackled. The process had its ups and downs, but never before with a letdown quite so sharp. As we’ll see, it’s since been fixed, but I’m sharing the story, and this new ArtsWatch series on accessible arts, in hopes that knowing some of the pitfalls will let others steer a somewhat smoother path, and that these issues are solvable.

Over the next few weeks here on Oregon ArtsWatch, I’ll provide a guide to making the arts accessible in an increasingly unaffordable city. This series covers three issues: this one on the Arts for All program, then a more detailed look at the specific challenges faced by those seeking seats reserved for people with disabilities. The third and final installment considers the siren song of a torrent of free music, available free in the home from our public library, a serious temptation when the process of taking in a live show starts to feel like its too much trouble, and a wonderful supplement when you want to prepare for an upcoming event. As our culture erodes around us in visible and disheartening ways, few battles are as well worth fighting as that to make great art truly accessible to all.

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