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Delgani String Quartet preview: crimes of passion

Portland and Springfield concerts combine theatrical readings with music by Shostakovich, Janacek and a premiere by Oregon composer Paul Safar 

by GARY FERRINGTON

“True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?

Those words from Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story, The Tell-Tale Heart, grabbed Paul Safar when the Eugene composer and pianist and Delgani String Quartet artistic director Wyatt True heard them read by Eugene actor Rickie Birran in a meeting last year. The Delganis had asked Birran, of the Man of Words Theatre Company, to suggest possible literary-themed works that might work for their April 20-21 concerts. When Safar heard Birran’s reading of Poe’s tale, the themes of sanity, guilt, and fear in the voice of the narrator/murderer transfixed the composer. “I was immediately interested in setting it to music right from those first few words,” Safar says.

Delgani String Quartet performs with Man of Word Theatre Company’s Rickie Birran.

Birran’s readings and Delgani’s premiere of Safar’s The Tell-Tale Heart highlight the Saturday and Sunday Murder and Madness concerts of spoken word and music in Springfield and Portland, which dramatizes crimes of passion and human insanity in celebrated texts by Edgar Allan Poe, Leo Tolstoy, and Mary Shelley.

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“Lean on Pete”: Horses and heartbreak in film version of Willy Vlautin’s novel

British filmmaker Andrew Haigh keeps true to the spirit of Vlautin's story about a horse and his boy

Willy Vlautin is a Portland institution, the author of five novels and the lead singer and primary songwriter for the band Richmond Fontaine.  Andrew Haigh is a rapidly rising figure in international cinema, having made a splash with his debut feature “Weekend,” in 2001, and steered Charlotte Rampling to an Oscar nomination in 2015’s “45 Years.”

For his third feature, Haigh has adapted Vlautin’s third novel, “Lean on Pete,” which centers on Charley Thompson, a teenager living in Portland with his less-than-perfect dad. Charley gets a part-time job at the Portland Meadows horse track, helping out a grizzled, ethically suspect trainer (Steve Buscemi) and befriending a jockey (Chloe Sevigny). When his home life grows intolerable, Charley takes off with Pete, a played-out old horse he’s taken a shine to, on a trip across the American West in search of family and stability.

Charlie Plummer in “Lean on Pete”

“Lean on Pete,” the book, is, like much of Vlautin’s writing, spare, heartbreaking, and utterly human, sparing neither its characters nor its audience from the cruel realities of life. It’s this stringent unsentimentality, though, that makes their hard-earned, potentially trivial triumphs so emotionally potent. Charley Thompson is played by Charlie Plummer, the young actor who also recently starred in Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World,” and the relatively inexperienced Plummer handles a difficult role with astonishing skill. “Lean on Pete,” the movie, which is currently playing at Portland’s Living Room Theaters, captures the clear-eyed empathy that makes the book so impactful.

Haigh and Vlautin sat down recently for a wide-ranging discussion about the making of “Lean on Pete,” the experience of shooting in Oregon, and why there won’t be a sequel.

Andrew, you recently did a list of your top ten films from The Criterion Collection, and there were a couple titles that seemed particularly appropriate or influential in relation to “Lean On Pete.” One was Lynne Ramsay’s “Ratcatcher” and the other was Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces.”
Andrew Haigh: “Ratcatcher” is one of my inspirations for wanting to make films to start with. It’s pretty grim and depressing, but really lyrical and tender, sweetly emotional without being sentimental. And I think Bob Rafelson is an oddly underrated director. I suppose there’s something about both of those films and their unsentimental depiction of the world, especially “Five Easy Pieces.” It’s set in the American landscape—I think some of it was even filmed in Oregon—but it’s about a person’s struggle to make their way through that landscape and understand themselves within that landscape without being overpowered by that landscape.

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MusicWatch Weekly: out of the past

Oregon conference and concerts explore historical sounds, and there's new music onstage too

We sometimes imagine the past as a frozen portrait, but the early music movement that began accelerating a couple generations ago has revealed that our understanding of how music was performed and perceived in centuries past is ever evolving, thanks to the hard work of scholars around the world, including at the University of Oregon. Next week, the UO hosts a major recurring conference devoted to the continuing rediscovery of ancient music.

But unlike many such academic confabs, this week’s “Musicking: Cultural Considerations” has plenty to offer non academic music lovers, including concerts, theater showcases, masterclasses, lectures, panel discussions, even a Saturday family event where kids and their families can dress in costume and learn baroque dance basics — all free and open to the public. Unlike the recent American Choral Directors Association conference in Portland that, ArtsWatch’s Bruce Browne noted, missed a tremendous opportunity to bring new and old choral music to its host city by not publicizing its splendid concerts, Musicking provides a splendid example of how academia can connect to and enrich its supporting community.

Thursday’s Musicking concert, when world-renowned early music singer and recorder master Peter Van Heyghen comes from Belgium to perform early 17th century music from the Netherlands and Belgium with the UO’s own super-scholar/performer, baroque cellist Marc Vanscheeuwijck at the Oregon Bach Festival’s new Tykeson Concert Hall. Van Heyghen will also lead Saturday’s Beall Hall performance of a world premiere version of Mozart’s magnificent Requiem like you’ve never heard it before — because, well, you haven’t. There’s way too much more to chronicle here, so hie thee to the Musicking website and check out all the free music and knowledge emanating all week.

Portland Baroque Orchestra and Trinity Cathedral Choir play Bach Friday and Saturday.

Evolution of performance styles will also be on display in Portland Baroque Orchestra’s performances of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor Friday and Saturday at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Much-recorded English conductor David Hill leads a masterpiece of human artistic achievement, which the composer made a kind of compendium of some of his finest choral-orchestral music. It wasn’t performed until a century after his death, and even then and for decades later, those performances buried most of its beauty beneath bloated, Romantic-style choirs and orchestras and anachronistic tunings that obscured Bach’s magnificent music. Now you can hear one of music’s most magnificent monuments performed on the authentic instruments and in the tunings the composer himself envisioned, and by historically informed musicians who know how to play it in period style. Though in order to fill the capacious Trinity Cathedral, the 60-member Trinity choir will be much larger than what Bach probably envisioned, with a 24-piece orchestra to match, it’s still a lot closer to Bach than the bad old days.

The Byrd Ensemble: travelers in time.

Speaking of baroque masterpieces, PBO violinist Adam LaMotte (with his 1730 Italian fiddle), classical guitarist Aaron Larget-Caplan, and string players from the Astoria Festival Orchestra play Bach, Vivaldi and Boccherini faves, plus later music by John Cage and Vineet Shende, at Astoria’s Grace Episcopal Church Sunday afternoon. Even older music is on the program at the Byrd Ensemble’s concert Sunday afternoon at Portland’s St. Stephen Catholic Church. But along with music by medieval (Hildegard of Bingen) and English Renaissance (Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, John Sheppard) masters, the excellent Seattle based choir also sings contemporary sounds by Arvo Part (plenty more of his music coming next week, BTW), Eric Whitacre, and John Tavener — all influenced by the oldest form of music, chant.

Marilyn Keller performs with Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble.

Old events come alive through new music in From Maxville to Vanport: A Celebration of Oregon’s Black History, the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s concert of original songs and video inspired by the stories of the multicultural populations of two 20th century Oregon cities. PJCE’s artistic team interviewed  people connected to those African American communities in constructing their artistic representation of this under-represented aspect of Oregon history. This collection of songs by Portland composer Ezra Weiss with lyricist S. Renee Mitchell and vocalist Marilyn Keller performing with the PJCE is accompanied by short films by filmmaker Kalimah Abioto Thursday at Eastern Oregon University’s Groth Hall, Friday at Enterprise’s OK Theater, and Saturday at Baker Heritage Museum.

Video by Takafumi Uehara accompanies Jack Gabel’s ‘Oregon Bird Sketches’ at AL Dancers’ Portland concerts Saturday and Sunday.

Those of us craving new music this week have a few options, like Third Angle’s shows Thursday and Friday and Bright Moments’s performance with Camas High Choir, both described in my ArtsWatch preview. Another opportunity appears at, of all things, a dance performance: Agnieszka Laska Dancers 15th anniversary shows Saturday and Sunday at Portland’s St. Mary’s Academy, 1615 SW 5th Ave. Along with music by the great 20th century Polish composers Gorecki and Lutoslawski and more, the concert features Jack Gabel’s Oregon Bird Sketches, inspired by our local avians. The two I’ve heard at Cascadia Composers concerts have been as charming and attractive as anything veteran Portland composer written in years, and this performance augments the music with video by Takafumi Uehara. Along with the dancers, performers include Resonance Ensemble singing Gorecki and two earlier Gabel compositions and the excellent Eugene piano-vocal team of Paul Safar and Nancy Wood.

Jaap Blonk performs Tuesday in Portland. Photo: Etang Chen.

Vocal Music

The fascinating Dutch sound poet, composer, and improviser Jaap Blonk returns to Oregon to perform his unique sound poetry as well as classic works by Kurt Schwitters, Hugo Ball, and others Tuesday at Portland’s Passages Bookshop, 1223 NE ML King Blvd.

Shi Li sings at a pair of Portland Opera performances this week.

Much more conventional vocal music is on Keller Auditorium stage Saturday at Portland Opera’s Big Night Concert. Director George Manahan, known elsewhere for helming performances of exciting new music, instead here leads soloists, orchestra, and chorus in opera’s greatest hits by Verdi, Wagner, Mozart, Rossini, and Bizet, plus a few Broadway favorites.

One of those resident artists, bass Shi Li, sings more unusual fare in his solo recital Tuesday at Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium. Pianist Nicholas Fox accompanies the rising young singer in lots of Schubert, plus music by Chinese composers and by Barber, Copland, Faure, Gluck, Stradella, Giordani, Rachmaninoff and more.

Music and Film

The Vancouver Symphony plays music from science fiction and fantasy films Saturday and Sunday at Skyview Hall. And three short silent films by Stacey Steers (all involving early 20th century celebrities) mix with new, live music composed and performed by Ashland percussion duo Caballito Negro Saturday night’s Ashland Independent Film Festival performance.

Chamber music fans have several choices. Beaverton Symphony goes back to its small-band roots by breaking up into a series of chamber ensembles for Sunday afternoon’s concert at Village Baptist Church. Trio Adrato (veteran Oregon musicians oboist Victoria Racz, cellist Dale Tolliver, pianist Colleen Adent) plays chamber music by Haydn, Frank Bridge and more Sunday at Vancouver’s Magenta Theater. Famed French flutist Julien Beaudiment plays a recital Friday night at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall.
Got any other musical recommendations for this week, old or new? Tell us all about them in the comments section below.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

Third Angle/Hand2Mouth, Bright Moments previews: pop goes classical

Music by Portland pop musicians Elliott Smith and Kelly Pratt meet classical and choral performers in Portland concerts this week

Portlanders of a certain vintage still swoon over the music of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, a leader of Portland’s ‘90s indie-pop insurgency before he moved to LA and died too young just after achieving national fame, not least because of his whispery 1998 performance of Oscar-nominated ballad “Miss Misery” at the Academy Awards.

Smith’s renown has steadily grown since his death in 2003. Hand2Mouth Theatre director Jonathan Walters recently heard about a New York show in which classical musicians treated some of Smith’s compositions as so-called “art songs,” and thought: we could totally do something like that in Portland. 

He approached Third Angle New Music about collaborating on such a project, and, naturally, the project became much more than mere arrangements. The Portland ensemble enlisted a half dozen rising Brooklyn-identified composers (ringleader Robert Honstein, Jacob Cooper, Christopher Cerrone, Ted Hearne, Scott Wollschleger and LJ White) to transform their Smith faves into bona fide contemporary classical music, ranging from recognizable arrangements to stranger derangements, even some interludes. The composers cabal then conspired on a unifying concept that Walters & Co. transmogrified into a theatrical presentation, complete with choreographed movement, costumes, lighting and more. 

Elliott Smith

“It’s basically one work composed of many works,” explains Third Angle interim artistic director Sarah Tiedemann. “They came up with the feeling of the show and how it ebbs and flows, and choreographed the movement. They had some lighting designs in mind from the get go. It’s not like a process where one thing happened first. Everything was happening simultaneously.”

You can see the results Thursday and Friday at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre when singers Sam Adams, Hannah Penn, Chloe Payne and Daniel Buchanan join Digitus XX Duo keyboardist Maria Garcia, string players Valdine Mishkin and Holland Phillips, and Oregon Symphony clarinetist James Shields in the hour-long performance piece A Fond Farewell. Singer and Smithophile Amit Erez a/k/a The Secret Sea, will open with Smith songs. 

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Eugene Ballet preview: dance of the mountain king

Company's new full-length 'Peer Gynt' ballet transforms drama into dance

By GARY FERRINGTON

When Eugene Ballet  artistic director Toni Pimble decided to stage Peer Gynt, she faced a daunting challenge: transforming poetry into dance. The company had already proven it could dream big when it comes to creating major new works for the professional stage. Last season’s The Snow Queen featured an original score by Portland composer Kenji Bunch. But now, Pimble had to find a way to tell Henrik Ibsen’s classic verse story of a young Norwegian farm lad and prodigal son whose careless and reckless life harms those who love him and ultimately himself — all without words.

Eugene Ballet premieres new full-length ‘Peer Gynt’ ballet. Photo: Eugene Ballet Company.

Over the last two years, Pimble created new choreography and even costumes herself. Her company also crafted original projected visual art and collaborated with its musical partner OrchestraNext  to fashion a live score, set to the famous music of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. On April 14-15, the company closes its season at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts with its new full-length original ballet. “It is an emotional work of love, intrigue, loss, despair and redemption,” Pimble observes.

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ACDA Conference: choral camaraderie

Convocation of choral excellence in Portland features diverse music and a strong bracket, but ignores larger community

by BRUCE BROWNE

Think of it as March Madness. No rankings, no betting on outcomes, but this (approximately) “Sweet 16” of choirs from all over the Northwest who converged in Portland last month for the Northwest Regional American Choral Directors conference was no less a bunch of winning teams.

Like the storied Dukes, Kentuckies, and UConns, our representative choirs consisted, too, of nationally known programs of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska. Pacific Lutheran University, directed by Richard Nance, for example, has been a choral face on the national scene for some 50 years, since the great Maurice Skones put it on the map. The Marian singers of St. Mary’s Catholic School in Portland have established themselves as leaders in their school division. But there were some new kids on the block as well — University of Wyoming Women’s Choir and Graham-Kapowsin high school from Bethel, Washington.

St. Mary’s Academy Women’s Choir performed at the ACDA conference in Portland. Photo: Howard Meharg.

Middle school through college choirs and community choirs are selected to participate through a blind submission process in various categories including higher and lower voices, youth and adult. The quality demonstrated at concerts and workshops was a great testimony to choral education programs’ keeping the art alive. Only the aforementioned Marian Singers and Portland State University choirs represented the hometown scene. Three Salem choral programs did make the trip.

More Gown than Town

Although the ACDA conference is geared toward the professional conductor/singer – mostly in education – most of these concerts would have been very attractive to the choral aficionados of Portland and environs; this is a strong choral town. The public is welcome to these concerts but they may not know they are. Sadly, I saw very few, if any, non-ACDA members at these concerts. Perhaps ACDA leadership can explore this for future gatherings.

Those who did attend were rewarded with a wide variety of choral music. There were the standard classic composers: Monteverdi, Jannequin; Debussy; Rheinberger. Contemporary composers: Seattle’s John Muehleisen, Alberto Ginastera, Maryam Sameer Faheem Khoury, Portland’s Joan Szymko, Jaakko Montyjarvi, Libby Larsen. There were many different cultural flavors: Estonian; Japanese; Sami, Inuit.

Following is a roundup of as many choirs as I could hear in the four-day period. It was not possible to hear all the presentations at one convention, so the omission of a choir or conductor is no sign of their not being worthy of mention on another occasion.

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Aaron Katz on his new thriller “Gemini” and popcorn problematics

Katz's fifth feature stars Lola Kirke and Zoe Kravitz in a Hollywood-set mystery

“Gemini” is a sleek, entertaining new thriller set in the glamorous world of Hollywood and drenched in celebrity culture. It’s also directed by Portland-raised Aaron Katz, and for anyone familiar with Katz’s previous work, that synopsis might come as a shock. “Sleek,” “glamorous,” and “celebrity” are not words one would typically associate with Katz’s films, which include the “mumblecore” (more on that loaded term later) landmarks “Dance Party USA” (2005) and “Quiet City” (2006) and the quirky Iceland-set buddy film “Land Ho” (2014, co-directed with Martha Stephens).

Katz experimented with the thriller form, sort of, in 2010’s “Cold Weather,” a reserved, Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery that was also the last film Katz shot in Portland. Relocated to Los Angeles, he’s made the city, as so many filmmakers do, a major character in “Gemini.” Without giving too much away, “Gemini” centers on Jill (Lola Kirke), the devoted personal assistant to movie star Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz). After Heather backs out of a big role at the last minute, she suddenly has plenty of enemies. It’s Jill, though, who becomes the prime suspect after stumbling upon a violent crime scene at Heather’s mansion. It’s up to the intrepid but somewhat hapless Jill to clear her own name and dodge the suspicions of a detective (John Cho) full of wry insinuation.

Lola Kirke in “Gemini”

I interviewed Katz at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival when “Land Ho” screened there, but I didn’t have to go nearly as far when he returned to his hometown for “Gemini”’s screenings during February’s Portland International Film Festival. We chatted at a Southeast Portland coffee shop about the evolution of his filmmaking, life in L.A., and the evils of movie snacks.

You’ve been in Los Angeles for five years now. Is it mandatory for a director to make an “L.A. movie” and address the city as a subject once they’ve lived there for a certain amount of time?

I felt that way, for sure. I didn’t know what I’d think of the city when I moved there. Once we’d been there for about three years, it began to feel like I was going to write something about Los Angeles.

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