MUSIC

The ultimate gift for your family

Upcoming Coast events include a workshop on writing your own obituary, as well as "It’s a Wonderful Life," Irish fiddler Kevin Carr, and the Gearhart Art Walk

Aging and dying may not usually be considered art, but you could argue that aging well – and perhaps dying, too — calls for a creative touch. And there’s no doubt that writing an obituary — at least an engaging, memorable obituary — is clearly an art. That’s the topic Wednesday afternoon at Manzanita’s Hoffman Center for the Arts in the ongoing The Art of Aging & Dying series.

Writer Kathie Hightower will lead the two-hour workshop beginning at 3 p.m. Nov. 14. Like many of us, Hightower likes to read obits.

Writer Kathie Hightower will teach a workshop on obit writing in Manzanita.

“No, not to be morbid, but as an honoring and out of curiosity,” Hightower said in a press release, which continues: “You know there is a wide variety. Many are pretty darn boring, just the facts in response to the template most funeral parlors ask you to fill in. Others capture the life and spirit of the individual, the true person who lived between the lines of roles like career, parenting, volunteer work. Which would you rather have represent you when you are gone? Boring or spirited?”

Hightower will share advice from professional obituary writers, as well as examples to inspire your own obit, and get you started writing it. It can be your gift to those who will write your obit when it’s time. (Or your way of ensuring it’s already done to your liking.)

“This exercise can be a true celebration of your life,” Hightower’s release adds. Participants should bring pen and paper or a laptop. They’ll leave with a start and questions to fill in additional details after the session, Hightower notes, as well as an assignment of choosing a favorite photo they’d want attached to their obit.

The Art of Aging & Dying series is held the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month, alternating topics on aging and dying. The Nov. 28 program features a conversation on the humor and wisdom of spiritual teacher Ram Dass. Admission is $5. Check out future programs here.

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Devilish Doings

Director, dancers, choreographer and conductor offer perspectives on this weekend’s University of Oregon staging of Stravinsky’s ‘The Soldier’s Story’

by GARY FERRINGTON

A young enlistee trades his fiddle to the devil in return for unlimited riches, a princess — and ultimately loss and grief. The Russian folk tale The Runaway Soldier and the Devil, which Igor Stravinsky and Swiss writer C.F Ramuz adapted and premiered during the brutality of World War I, is a metaphor for its time as a struggle between good and evil. The Soldier’s Story (L’histoire du soldatwas first performed in Switzerland 100 years ago on September 28, 1918 at the Theatre Lausanne. This weekend, a century later, a cadre of students and faculty at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance, will stage a theatrical revival of the Faustian tale that retains the original’s scale while providing contemporary approaches.

The Soldier’s Story has been staged in many different ways over the years, including jazz, ballet, orchestral, and even Inuit versions. But when PAC Artistic Director Bronson York approached Associate Professor of Dance Shannon Mockli about a possible production of Stravinsky’s chamber musical theater piece, he wanted to make it much like it was originally conceived: a simple and transportable hour-long theatrical work that moved from village to village, and not necessarily performed on a stage or in a theater. “So with that in mind I really brought it back to the essentials,” York says. “It has no backdrops or even really a set, with one exception in the second act.”

Minimal set design with trio of dancers in the role of soldier, devil and princess. Photo: Luke Smith

The ensemble includes a story narrator, musicians, three actors, and three dancer-characters —a soldier, a devil and a princess who, Mockli says, are “not relegated to acting these parts. Rather, they all participate in each of the dance sections, sometimes representing their characters and sometimes more poetically expressing an image or idea [or] the emotion … of a scene.”

Mockli notes that “a trio in dance always expresses a kind of dynamic tension in its asymmetry.” The dancers interweave with one another and change partnerships throughout, each affecting the shifting experiences of the others and creating dynamic tension in the narrative. Ultimately, the trio of characters are implicated by each other’s changing actions and choices, as they are “woven in a kind of eternal web,” Mockli says. “The choreography lives in this sort of liminal space of being purely poetic or impressionistic.”

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Choral Arts Ensemble & Cappella Romana: many ways of being many 

Portland choirs sing music programmed and created by diverse and unified voices

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

Portland’s choral scene is so abundant it has its own calendar. With such an bounty of choirs, it’s no surprise that they represent many different ways of singing together. Two concerts in October—Choral Arts Ensemble’s season opener on October 13 at Rose City Park United Methodist Church, Cappella Romana’s Heaven and Earth on October 14 at St. Stephen Catholic Church—showcased two quite distinct approaches to creating choral music.

For CAE, it was their varied assortment of choral works, chosen collaboratively from their vast repertoire as a celebration of the ensemble’s long history of singing together; most of the selections, from Bach and Brahms to Ēriks Ešenvalds and Randall Thompson, were comfortably familiar, in a Western classical sort of way.

Cappella Romana performed ‘Heaven & Earth’ at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

For Cappella Romana, on the other hand, the collaborative element was a matter of composers and singers working together within a unique and unified spiritual musical tradition—Orthodox Christianity and Byzantine Chant, traditions which are neither overly familiar (at least to Westerners) nor especially comfortable. Both approaches are valid, of course, but more importantly both demonstrate a crucial sense of unity-in-diversity, spiritual-musical solidarity, e pluribus unum, many voices coming together as one voice, seeking spiritual solace and satisfaction.

Choral Arts Ensemble: Fifty Years of Singing Together

In the opening performance of the the first concert of their fiftieth season, I was immediately struck by Choral Arts Ensemble’s brilliant tuning of even the simplest chords. This would emerge as their forte, a vertical sense of intonation, melodies and chords integrated in a way totally distinct from, say, Franco-Flemish Renaissance polyphony. It’s easy to hear a connection between the group’s democratic vibe and their approach to style, tuning, repertoire, and tradition. It probably wouldn’t be going too far to call it a distinctly Protestant attitude.

Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland opened its 50th anniversary season with a concert at Rose City Park United Methodist Church.

That big, resonant, vertical sound carried all through the concert, from the opening work—Schubert’s Gloria, its reverberant opening cadences turning on finely-tuned leading-tones—down through the full sound of English composer Colin Mawby’s 1995 Ave Verum. On Joshua Shank’s 2007 Sleeping out Full Moon, on a text by poet and WWI veteran Rupert Brooke, colorful Whitacrey harmony illuminated the lines “to all glory, to all gladness, to the infinite height.”

The chords got all melty and romantic on Josef Rheinberger’s 1855 Abendlied (Evening Song), and although their handful of Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzer (Love Song Waltzes) were perhaps not as lucid in this full choir setting as the quartet version we heard from The Ensemble a few seasons back, they were instead all lush and brimming with sehnsucht. In Ēriks Ešenvalds’s Only in Sleep, on a text by the Pulitzer-winning American poet Sara Teasdale, choir and soloists sang major thirds to make your eyes water. Offsetting Ešenvalds and Teasdale’s melancholy, the choir brought out a bright, poppy, Swingle Singers sound for Jake Runestad’s jolly John Muir song, Come to the Woods.

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‘La Traviata’: fallen woman rises again

Sterling singing and strong direction distinguish Portland Opera's latest production of Verdi's tragic perennial

by BRUCE BROWNE

It is 1840s Paris and the population is booming. Just outside the gaslight’s glow, the new urban lady of the evening offers her talents. She is a courtesan and her life will become a fascination in the literary, visual and performing arts.

“La Traviata” translates as “The Fallen Woman,” hardly royalty or swashbuckler. Giuseppe Verdi put her center stage, and opera goers continue to enjoy her life of glorious highs and tragic lows.

Verdi fast-tracked Alexander Dumas’s La Dame aux Camélias, taking the 1848 novel/1852 stage play to an operatic premiere in March of 1853. It was not well received. Fortunately for Verdi, however, his hugely successful Il Trovatore (which premiered two months earlier) provided a cushion. Verdi was able to regroup, recast the anti-heroine Violetta and the now-beloved opera was off and running by 1855.

Dumas’ novel, with the fictional “lady of the camellias” Marguerite, was based on his own love affair with Marie Duplessis (alias), a respected courtesan in the Paris society of the early 1840s. The legitimizing – the humanizing – of this courtesan has spawned dozens of “Camille” movies (e.g. Theda Bera, 1917, and Greta Garbo, 1936) and ballets. Julia Roberts launched her career as a “Pretty Woman” of New York. Dumas wrote a good story and both it and its protagonist have survived and thrived.

Aurelia Florian as Violetta in Portland Opera’s production of Verdi’s ‘La Traviata.’ Photo: Cory Weaver

Verdi’s (and librettist Piave’s) operatic version of the drama is expertly sculpted. The emotional highs and lows, the hypocrisy, the social/political landscape, the tension and ecstasy of young love… it’s all there – along with Verdi’s marvelous music, of course – and last Sunday afternoon, Portland Opera Association staged and performed all aspects of the epic work to full effect. Scenery and costumes were scintillating; orchestra and chorus were joined at the hip, and the solo roles, fervently and beautifully sung. Every solo singer was in fabulous voice; it was as balanced a total cast as I have ever heard in a Portland Opera performance.

Romanian soprano Aurelia Florian, in the role of Violetta, sings with a flexible, vibrant voice, capable of a variety of nuances in dynamics and color. After a few fluttery vocal moments in the first Act, she settled into the persona of Violetta. She was captivating in the entire aria “È Strano” (It is strange) and the succeeding “dialog” with Alfredo, her potential lover, by taking on a Scarlett O’Hara-like naiveté. Such a lovable coquette.

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MusicWatch Weekly: generation next

Music by and for young Oregonians highlights this week's concerts

It’s probably too late for the next generations to save our planet from the greed and selfishness of their elders, but at least they’ll have music to console them. Young musicians, like young Americans in general, do give me what little hope remains for our future. This month offers numerous opportunities to hear music by and for young Oregonians.

Metropolitan Youth Symphony plays new and old music this weekend.

• Metropolitan Youth Symphony teams up with Fear No Music’s valuable Young Composers Project in the inaugural performance of its new series of student commissions called “The Authentic Voice,” presented and performed by MYS. Sunday’s concert at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall features Tone Poem No. 1: Orpheus and Eurydice, a brand new piece composed and conducted by high school senior Jake Safirstein, one of three composers who this year receive supportive training in a series of private lessons and small group workshops led by Fear No Music’s master musicians in addition to orchestral readings with MYS’s Symphony Orchestra. The program also includes Italian-themed music by Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Berlioz, plus music that’s delighted kids for decades when it appeared in Fantasia: Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda.

• Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Saturday concert in the same venue offers a rare opportunity to hear music by the dean of African American classical composers, William Grant Still, whose still-appealing music, often drawing on folk traditions, was underplayed in his lifetime because of racism, orchestras’ snobbish disdain for American composers, and mid-century trend-setters’ fear of music that could be enjoyed by broad audiences. That included Still’s 1957 American Scene: Five Suites for Young Americans, one of those worthy but neglected works by African American composers that Damien Geter wrote about in his ArtsWatch story last month. Along with its The Far West section, PYP will play the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with soloist 17-year-old violinist Aaron Greene, winner of PYP’s 2018-19 Soloist Competition, and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6. Next month, we’ll tell you about FNM’s own concert pertaining to children and our future.

Violinist Aaron Greene performs with Portland Youth Philharmonic. Photo: Brian Clark

• We’re getting an early jump on next Wednesday’s BRAVO Youth Orchestras Breaking the Cage, a multi-media event at Portland’s Old Church featuring collective compositions by the young BRAVO musicians (some with personal connections to immigration) responding to the cruel detentions and family separations perpetrated by the government at America’s southwestern border. Along with ashort documentary film about the project, the show also features engaging Portland looping violinist and songwriter Joe Kye.

• Audiences should also look a lot younger than usual at the Oregon Symphony’s Tchaikovsky vs. Drake concert at Schnitzer Thursday night. Guest conductor Steve Hackman, perpetrator of last season’s similarly conceived “Brahms vs. Radiohead” program, this time brings three singers and a rapper to mashup a dozen hits by Drake (whose Scorpion is the year’s biggest album so far) with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, with help from Dance West and Pacific Youth Choir.

• Also note another kid-friendly Tchaikovsky/hip hip mashup Tuesday and next Wednesday at Portland’s Keller Auditorium: Hip Hop Nutcracker, and Black Violin heads back to Portland November 18. Read Maria Choban’s ArtsWatch review of their last appearance.

Steve Hackman, who led the Oregon Symphony in ‘Brahms vs. Radiohead,’ returns for ‘Tchaikovsky vs. Drake.’

• The Oregon Symphony continues its family friendly month with Sunday afternoon’s “Pirates” concert, which again includes Dance West and Pacific Youth Choir. Narrator Pam Mahon fashions a story around bite-sized classics by Korngold, Mendelssohn, Handel, Wagner, Rimsky-Korsakov, Verdi and the inevitable The Little Mermaid score.

Oregon Originals

• Oregon’s finest chamber ensemble, Delgani String Quartet, and one of its top pianists, Asya Gulua, star in Saturday’s celebration of Polish independence at Portland’s Polish Hall (3832 N. Interstate). The program includes four premieres of new music by members of Cascadia Composers inspired by the centennial of Polish independence. Jay Derderian’s multimedia string quartet Begin Again is inspired by Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony, one of the most popular late 20th century classical compositions. Liz Nedela’s Tone Portrait of Poland is based on Polish national dances and its national anthem. Paul Safar’s Incantation was inspired by poetry of one of the 20th century’s finest poets, Czeslaw Milosz. And the inspiration for Stephen Lewis’s Citizen/Subject is right there in its subtitle: “eating pierogis in America.” The program includes a 20th century masterpiece, Karol Szymanowski’s 1927 String Quartet no. 2.

Orchestral

• The Polish party continues Sunday at Milwaukie High School Auditorium, where Willamette Falls Symphony performs rarely heard orchestral works by Henryk Wieniawski, Emil Szymon Młynarski, and Zygmunt Noskowski.

• There’s more original Oregon music on the bill, as well as more Tchaikovsky, at Beaverton Symphony’s fall concerts Friday and Sunday at Village Baptist Church.  Christina Rusnak continues her series of landscape oriented music with The Mountain Within, inspired by a hiking journey through Denali wilderness and its effect on the humans who explore it. Portland violinist Tomas Cotik continues his traversal of 20th century Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla’s colorful Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, and we get yet another chance to hear Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony.

Portland composer Christina Rusnak at Composing in the Wilderness 2017.

• “I like that last piece you played,” President Eisenhower once told Leonard Bernstein. “It’s got a theme. I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles.(The first word refers to the solo songs in operas, the second to music in the style of the folk songs crooned by Venetian gondoliers to match their paddle strokes.) Amused, America’s greatest man of music never forgot Ike’s remark, and nearly three decades later, used it as the title of his charming last major work. Ranging in styles from Broadway to Bartok to Mahler and compiled from compositions over several decades, the eclectic Arias and Barcarolles does have a theme — marriage — and Oregon Mozart Players perform it Saturday night at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall with, appropriately, a husband and wife team of soloists, Paul Scholten and Kathryn Leemhuis.

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Byrd Ensemble review: corona of sound

Seattle vocal ensemble bathes Portland audience in clear, clean choral singing

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

When a choral tone bath is washing over me, I smile broadly, sometimes even giggle. Can’t help it. It’s a visceral reaction to a corona of sound. It envelops the audience, draws us in.

I smiled a lot Sunday afternoon, October 28 at Portland’s St. Stephens Catholic Church. The Byrd Ensemble, using just 10 singers, poured a program of motets that was clear and balanced in every way. The Seattle-based choir’s sound is clear, clean, never manufactured, without a wayward wobble in the pitch. The singers collectively exploit a brighter part of the color palette, enabling perfect intonation and balance.

Seattle’s Byrd Ensemble sang Renaissance and contemporary music in Portland.

This is clearly conductor Markdavin Obenza’s sound ideal. The sound is not an accident. It is cultivated. Several of these artists, including Mr. Obenza, had their start in the Northwest Boy Choir, and that, much like the English boychoirs in cathedrals over the years, is formative in their listening and the sound production they bring us.

Not to say they are trying to sing “like” a boy choir. This is an adult sound with a boy choir temperament. When excellent singers sing with their ears, sing into the mini acoustic among their colleagues, something magical can happen. A macro acoustic like St. Stephens is the perfect venue for a small group like this. And so, at the beginning tones of William Byrd’s Ne Irascaris Domine, I nearly giggled. At the end of the motet, the audience gave this opening piece a 30-40 second ovation.

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Oregon Symphony preview: puppety ‘Petrushka’

Creative director Doug Fitch enhances Stravinsky score with puppets and other theatrical elements

This weekend, in the season’s first batch of SoundStories concerts, the Oregon Symphony Orchestra performs Petrushka in a puppety production directed by visual artist Doug Fitch. The OSO excels at this “classical-plus” sort of thing: classical music plus movies, classical music plus theater, classical music plus rock music, classical music plus animated light show. And it’s funny how the last time OSO brought in puppets, that was a Stravinsky show too: last year’s Perséphone.

Doug Fitch’s puppetry enhances Oregon Symphony’s ‘Petrushka’ this weekend.

Igor Stravinsky’s musical score for Petrushka is endearing and entertaining, but pretty bland compared to the composer’s best stuff; that’s what makes it an ideal candidate for the classical-plus treatment (same goes for the Perséphone score, for that matter). It’s far from Stravinsky’s most boring score (that would of course be Pulcinella), but sitting as it does between the backward-looking genius of 1910’s Firebird and the forward-looking genius of 1913’s Rite of Spring, Petrushka (composed 1910-11) is often remembered—at least by music nerds—as “the one where Stravinsky discovered polytonality.”

It has no moments as memorable as Firebird’s “Berceuse” and “Infernal Dance,” nor anything as thrilling as Rite’s thunderously morbid dance rhythms and oh-so-catchy primitivistic earworms. But none of that is really a fair criticism, because despite the music’s genesis as a sort of battle between piano and orchestra, Petrushka is (as Diaghilev correctly intuited when he first heard it) primarily theater music. We are not meant to sit passively in a concert hall (or on the sofa) and simply take it in through our lazy ear holes. We are meant to watch it. We are meant to feel it.

It’s also important to remember that Petrushka is not really about Stravinsky anyways: as Fitch points out in this sound-buggy video, the original ballet was a collaboration between artists working in varied disciplines—most importantly librettist slash set- & costume-designer Alexandre Benois and choreographer Michel Fokine—and that interdisciplinary complexity carries forward into his integrative production with the OSO.

Because Fitch’s Petrushka, originally developed at the University of Maryland and since streamlined for travel, is more than a puppet show. His production (presumably even in the reconfigured touring version he’s bringing to the Schnitz this weekend) retains the theatrical ballet vibe by directing the musicians to get up and move around, stand up for solos, dance and scream, put on silly hats. All of this also adds to the story’s carnival spirit; the action takes place at the fair, after all. The OSO is hardly a staid and uptight orchestra in the Old World tradition, but they’re still considerably more formal than, say, The Polyphonic Spree. It’ll be amusing to watch them put on costumes and fake beards to get all (belatedly) Halloweeny and celebratory.

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