Black Nativity: dignity and joy

PassinArt's production of the Langston Hughes gospel cantata is a bright and shining star of the holiday firmament

On Sunday afternoon inside The Greater St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church in Northeast Portland, a man led an older woman named Glenda Pullem slowly up the aisle and helped her onto the stage. She stood there firmly, facing the audience, and, in a gliding, roaming, authoritative voice somewhere along the river where gospel, jazz, and blues meet, started to sing: “There’s a leak in this old building.” That’s when the good chill began to build, starting somewhere around my lower back and radiating upward and outward, elevating everything around me. The feeling punched into overdrive when a chorus a dozen-odd voices strong, gathering behind me where I couldn’t see them in the rows between the pews, broke into vibrant, beautifully calibrated, full-volume response. Ah, my nerve ends told me happily. So this is what it’s going to be like.

Langston Hughes's "Black Nativity": a bright and shining star. PassinArt photo

Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity”: a bright and shining star. PassinArt photo

I’d gone to St. Stephen, a small frame church just north of Fremont and a couple of blocks west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, to see and hear Black Nativity, a show I’d long been curious about but never seen before. It’s a gospel-music retelling of the nativity story, assembled by the great American poet and writer Langston Hughes, who brought together a lot of traditional songs and a few new ones, took some lines from the King James narrative, and added some of his own sharp, deep poetry to create a version of the story with deep roots in African American culture and a broad, resounding appeal beyond. The miracle, if you will, of his version is that it makes the story feel less like a ritual or a dogma and more like a current event, something happening right now in real time. The hour-plus play, which subtly connects the hardships and determination of the biblical characters with the experiences and spirit of black Americans, is much like a cantata, telling an extended story through music. It debuted Off-Broadway with a cast of 160 singers in 1961, fairly late in the life of Hughes, one of the giants of the Harlem Renaissance.


Obsidian Animals preview: Jazz journey

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


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?”


Berlin stories: the making of an American legend

Portland Center Stage's "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin" sings and tells the story of the outsider who became the deeply driven voice of the nation

For all of the great American songwriter Irving Berlin’s genuine patriotism and genius for tapping the vitality of the nation’s popular spirit, he comes across in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin as something of a dyspeptic old coot.

Then again, when we meet him (in a clever bit of stagecraft, as the invisible inhabitant of a wheelchair that sits stage right on the Mainstage at Portland Center Stage) he’s a disgruntled centenarian, crushed by the recent loss of his wife of more than sixty years, haunted by the feeling that the popular culture he did so much to help create has passed him by, and, mostly, just tired of life.

Fortunately his younger self, in the person of singer, pianist, playwright, and solo performer Felder, is on hand to speak for him, act as an intermediary between the very private Berlin and his adoring audience, and explain the personal and cultural context of the extraordinary book of roughly 1,500 songs for which the man born Israel Isidore Beilin (or Baline) wrote both music and lyrics, altering forever the landscape of American popular music.

Felder at the keyboard as Berlin. Photo: Eighty Eight Entertainment

Felder at the keyboard as Berlin. Photo: Eighty Eight Entertainment

In Friday night’s opening performance at Center Stage, Felder was a brash and pounding presence, attacking Berlin’s songs with dominating passion and the piano keyboard with emphatic fury, as if he were afraid some fugitive modern reinterpretation might escape and misrepresent Berlin’s original intentions. It seemed apt. Felder’s delivery of this bounty of songs was distinguished by a fidelity to the periods in which the music was composed, reaching back in spirit to the straightforwardness of Berlin’s hero Stephen Foster and for the most part (although he began his career writing tunes for the dance crazes that swept the nation in the early years of the 20th century) avoiding the syncopations of the swing and jazz revolutions that came to represent and in many ways reinvigorate the Great American Songbook. If Berlin’s songs were simple compared to Porter’s or Gershwin’s, they also had the power of directness. They were essentially American statements of optimistic populism, with a potent blend of honest sentimentality and the hard nut of basic truths. They were songs you could hum. Songs you did hum.


Maciej Grzybowski review: Interpretive insights

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


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.


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.”


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.


Orchestra Becomes Radicalized reassembles for a new composition

Composer and drummer John Niekrasz presents a second installment of Portland avant-garde supergroup Orchestra Becomes Radicalized playing 'Five Hundred and Two'

This Wednesday night, a veritable supergroup of members of Portland’s avant-garde music scene will form for one night at Holocene.

Instigated and composed by drummer, writer, and composer John Niekrasz, Five Hundred and Two unites a fantastic roster of many of the leading musicians and artists producing experimental and new music in Portland.

That orchestra includes Luke Wyland on keyboards, coming from rave reviews for leading the Camas High School Choir collaboration with AU at this year’s TBA Festival; violinist Maddy Villano, the newest member of Smegma, an outsider sound institution performing since 1973; Sage Fisher, on harp and voice, performs as Dolphin Midwives and directs the 26-member Dröna Choir, and singer Holland Andrews has just returned from a European and US tour with her solo project “Like a Villain.” They’re joined by Brian Mumford on guitar, Jonathan Sielaff on bass clarinet, Andrew Jones on the double bass, and Ben Kates on alto sax. And if that wasn’t enough, the accompanying video was done by Portland institution Vanessa Renwick, recipient of RACC’s 2016 Fellowship Award. Niekrasz will, of course, be on drums. In addition to the Orchestra, the Ian Christensen Quartet and Visible Cloaks (formerly just “Cloaks”) will be opening the night.

John Niekrasz, center with drum sticks, has assembled another edition of Orchestra Becomes Radicalized, playing at Holocene on Wednesday.

John Niekrasz, center with drum sticks, has assembled another edition of Orchestra Becomes Radicalized, playing at Holocene on Wednesday.

This is the second installment in Niekrasz’s Orchestra Becomes Radicalized project. The series premiered at Holocene last December 8 with /Reward Cycle/. Conceived and composed while Niekrasz was living in Paris just blocks away from the Charlie Hebdo mass shooting, that piece was a cacophonous, energetic response to the climate of violence and political uncertainty surrounding the attacks. The piece drew inspiration from political texts as well as the “macabre palette of sirens and church bells” Niekrasz heard in Paris while writing it.


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