MUSIC

Mr. Shaw’s Profession

How a celebrated 20th century British playwright and critic is just what Oregon arts need today

by MARIA CHOBAN

I must honestly warn the reader that what he is about to study is not a series of judgements aimed at impartiality, but a siege laid to the theatre of the XIXth Century by an author who had to cut his own way into it at the point of the pen, and throw some of its defenders into the moat. (1)

George Bernard Shaw is back onstage in Oregon. I haven’t seen Portland Center Stage’s production of Major Barbara, which closes this weekend, but ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley has. But I’m glad Shaw is back because Oregon needs his badass role-modeling as a theater, music, film, book, graphic arts reviewer right now!

Portrait of the arts journalist as a young man.

Portland has reached a stage in its artistic evolution comparable to London’s when Shaw arrived on the scene there in 1876.

The St James’s Hall players have been allowed to fix their own standard of excellence for a long time past; and they have certainly not abused their monopoly: their standard is fairly high. But considering their position in London, London’s position in England, and England’s position in Europe, a fairly high standard is not high enough. The best string quartet in London ought to be one of the wonders of the world. (2)

A devoted advocate of socialism, while his sometimes Swiftian stances on social issues could be controversial, his prescience could extend to politics:

From the beginning the useless people set up a shriek for “practical business men.” By this they meant men who had become rich by placing their personal interests before those of the country, and measuring the success of every activity by the pecuniary profit it brought to them and to those on whom they depended for their supplies of capital. (3)

Over the next six decades, Shaw built his reputation as the greatest music critic past, present and future, as declared by Punch and is also acknowledged as one of the greatest drama critics. In America, Broadway theaters and Times Square blacked out the lights for a minute of reverent silence when he died in 1950 at 94—from complications of a fall while pruning trees in his garden.

By then, he’d written thousands of reviews, letters and other articles about concerts, plays, art, film, books and more that changed English theater and music dramatically—and for the better.

Stalking Shaw (mostly) chronologically, I am concurrently reading my way through three volumes of his complete music writings, three volumes of his own compiled theater reviews, four volumes of letters, two volumes of diaries, four volumes of Michael Holroyd’s biography. Why? Because I believe London became the cultural capital he believed it could become, mostly because he fought unceasingly with his critic’s pen to make it so. And in seeing how his London before he laid siege looks so like our Portland (and all of Oregon) today, with plenty of talent and potential, I believe that if we fight like Shaw, we will live to see Oregon reach those same heights.

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Cappella Romana review: drones, overtones and unknowns

Portland vocal ensemble's 'Venice in the East' concert offered splendid singing and rare repertoire -- but needed more variety

by BRUCE BROWNE

Choral music is as much poetry and word recognition as it is melody, harmony and the sonic elements of the human voice. We listeners engage in both spheres, sometimes aware of the relationship, sometimes just focusing on one aspect, then the other. Amidst musical perfection, the total engagement was missing last weekend at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral in Cappella Romana’s concert, Venice in the East.

Cappella Romana performed ‘Venice in the East’ at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Present were exquisite moments of choral artistry, impeccable tuning, bravura singing by all and thoughtful phrasing, especially by Michael John Boyer and Mark Powell, who together stood at the pinnacle of the solo work, especially many of the delicious priestly intonations. And, Dr. Lingas (who often multitasked in a singing role) and some of the singers, such as Boyer and tenor Spyridon Antonopoulos (a welcome new tenor voice) certainly displayed emotional engagement, encouraging the listener to join in at that level.

But except for the historically fascinating “Christ is Risen” from the Codex Faenza 117, which wove Greek and Latin traditions in music and language, and three other Latin selections from Liber sacerdotalis, the texts were all Greek – to me, inaccessible. More on this shortly.

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MusicWatch Weekly: a river runs through it

New music inspired by the Columbia River, Chekhov stories, homelessness, and other sources highlight this week's Oregon concerts

The biggest reasons many of us live here ultimately trace back to the rivers that course through this beautiful land. Much of Oregon’s prosperity stems from our proximity to the Columbia River and its watershed, so it’s appropriate for our artists to draw inspiration from the big river — and from the indigenous Oregonians who have so long strived to protect it. Cascadia Composers’ “Our Waters: Big River to the Pacific” concert Saturday at Portland State’s Native American Student and Community Center, 710 SW Jackson St., features works for chamber instruments and voice by Northwest composers Jack Gabel, Theresa Koon, Brent Lawrence, Liz Nedela, Dawn Sonntag and Jennifer Wright that honor the history and culture of the Columbia River watershed. The multifaceted show also includes performances by Native storytellers Ed Edmo and Will Hornyak and visual art by Bonnie Meltzer.

Another new music concert at Portland State Tuesday (Lincoln Hall Studio Theater, LH115) and the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall Monday returns to a theme that’s popped up in other recent contemporary classical shows: mixing music and theater. New York’s Elsewhere Ensemble, a theater-music group whose members hail from the USA, UK, France, Belgium, Russia, Switzerland, Japan and beyond, sports a recent Oregon arrival: newly appointed UO viola prof Arnaud Ghillebaert, who joins the distinguished ranks of Oregon new music violists that includes Kenji Bunch, Joel Belgique, Charles Noble, Sound of Late’s Andrew Stiefel and more. Various configurations converge on different projects. Chekhov Triptych, which revolves around three stories by the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, features award winning Broadway actors and a new original score for string trio composed by the ensemble’s violinist, Colin Pip Dixon.

Elsewhere Ensemble performs new music with Chekov stories Monday and Tuesday in Portland and Eugene. Photo: A. Blasberg.

Another recurring theme in recent Oregon music: tango. Not only did Eugene Opera just stage Astor Piazzolla’s 1968 tango operita, Maria de Buenos Aires, but on Wednesday at Portland’s Old Church, two of Argentina’s finest tango masters, Pablo Estigarribia & Adrian Jost join a pair of Portland tango veterans in a concert that celebrates both traditional and new tango music. Pianist Estigarribia has won awards for his performances, arrangements, and original tango compositions. Jost, who co-founded San Francisco’s Trio Garufa tango band, plays the traditional tango instrument, the bandoneón button accordion. Along with Oregon Symphony bassist Jeff Johnson and violinist Erin Furbee of Portland’s Tango Pacifico, they’ll play traditional tangos, nuevo tangos by Piazzolla, and originals. And with Portland State faculty violinist Tomas Cotik, a Piazzolla specialist, ensconced here, look for more tango treats soon.

Pablo Estigarribia and Adrian Jost perform Wednesday at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall.

A recurring theme I’m happy to see suspended: bring to Oregon a Famous Soloist, even one who performs or commissions new music — and assign them an over-played European Romantic perennial that they could (and sometimes seem to) play in their sleep, so often have they performed it. Thankfully that’s not the case, for once, when the great American violinist Joshua Bell & Oregon Symphony team up this weekend at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on one of 20th century America’s most delightful concertos: Leonard Bernstein’s 1954 Serenade. Inspired by, of all things, Plato’s Symposium, the violin concerto’s five movements evoke the different moods and personalities involved in each dialogue, but it’s far from academic — joyous, playful, boisterous and even inebriated.

Gabriel Kahane. Photo: Josh Goleman.

Even better: the show sports the world premiere of emergency shelter intake form, commissioned by the symphony from New York’s Gabriel Kahane, one of the most appealing of the rising generation of 30-something composers. It’s the final installment of the symphony’s Sounds of Home series that purports to respond to current issues here and now. In this case, the issue is homelessness, and Kahane drew on interviews with people who’d endured it. He’ll join Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, Portland singers Holcombe Waller and Holland Andrews (a/k/a Like a Villain) and Portland’s Maybelle Community Singers in the OSO performance. It’ll be played at Jacksonville’s Britt Festival in July, too.

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‘Aida’ and ‘Rigoletto’: lush Verdi

Portland and Seattle productions' opulence and timelessness overcome oft-staged operas’ overfamiliarity

Two stunning Giuseppe Verdi operas in one West Coast weekend are a treat, unless grandeur is not your thing.

Portland Opera’s Rigoletto, which opened May 4 at Keller Auditorium and continues with performances on May 10 and 12, and Seattle Opera’s Aida, with a two-week run through May 19 at Seattle’s McCaw Hall, were full-blown triumphs. If we’ve seen and heard them time and time again, and though they’re weighted down with sexism and un-fluid gender roles, as the trendy phrase goes, these productions showed frequently staged operas can remain exciting.

Seattle Opera presents Verdi’s ‘Aida’ featuring design by the street and studio artist RETNA. Photo: Philip Newton.

Remember, this music, written by Italians, was first performed in the mid-19th century. Today, the operas can inspire us to discuss and sort out sex roles and gender traps more honestly than in the old days. If we’re willing to suspend imagination, they can challenge rather than frustrate us.

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Cécile (McLorin Salvant) review: first-name basis

Rising jazz vocalist draws deep admiration and girl crushes from female Portland jazz singers

by ANGELA ALLEN

Ella and Bessie and Billie (and Cher and Pink and Prince and Madonna). But let’s stick to jazz.

Now there’s Cécile. She has two other names (McLorin Salvant) but she earns the first-name-only tag.

She is the It Girl among jazz vocalists. Her singing has it all: perfect pitch, a range from tenor to high soprano, precise articulation, full-on emotion, playfulness, varying timbres. As well as improvising on standards, Cécile composes and arranges many of her songs, distinguished by clever lyrics, a wry dark view of romance, an unflinching look at the pressures of female beauty standards and behavior, a funny dead-on assessment of male chauvinism, a lack of sentimentality, a timelessness.

Cécile performed at Portland’s Revolution Hall. Photo: Mark Fitton.

She sang at Portland’s Revolution Hall in late April with pianist Sullivan Fortner accompanying — and she was magnifique, as was the subtle touch of the ever-modest Fortner. These two should stick together on stage and in the recording studio; their chemistry works like magic, and they riff off of one another as if they’ve been performing together for decades rather than several years.

Cécile is fluent in French and studied in Aix-en-Provence. Her father, a physician, is Haitian, her mother French, so “magnifique” fits her versatile voice and her large expressive hands like a glove. She broke into big-time jazz as a teen-ager when she won the Thelonious Monk Competition. Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling, Patti Austin and Al Jarreau chose her in 2010 for her “remarkable voice and striking ability to inhabit the emotional space of every song she heard and turn it into a compelling statement.” The 28 year old has already won two Grammys for the best Vocal Jazz Album: 2016’s For One To Love and this year’s double CD Dreams and Daggers.

That CD supplied many of the tunes in Cécile’s hour and 45-minute Portland performance (“Nothing Like You,” “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty,” “J’etais Blanche”). She filled out the set with such oldies as “Lush Life,” “Stepsisters’ Lament” and the touching “John Lewis,” an a cappella encore. Wearing a satiny tent-like aquamarine dress, plain flat sandals, and large signature glasses that framed her restless, animated eyes, she stayed on task with little fanfare, a few jokes and no froufrou.

Instead of my celebrating Cécile alone, I asked several Portland jazz vocalists familiar with her to give me their takes on her singing.

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MusicWatch Weekly: nevertheless, she persisted

This week's Oregon concerts include music by and about women, Italian opera, piano powerhouses, and more

“Born on a day God was drunk,” Maria inhabits a Buenos Aires demimonde populated by ghosts, criminals, marionettes, pasta makers, psychoanalysts and and other shady characters. She’s seduced by tango, becomes a prostitute, is murdered — and then things get really weird.

Eugene Opera performs ‘Maria de Buenos Aires’ this weekend.

That’s just act one of Astor Piazzolla’s surreal, melancholy Maria de Buenos Aires, which Eugene Opera brings to the Hult Center’s Soreng Theater this Friday and Sunday. The great 20th century Argentine composer’s 1968 “tango operita” been performed often all over the world, including by Portland’s Third Angle. Set mostly in a shadowy Argentine night club, this production, this production features Colombian-born soprano Catalina Cuervo, who claims to have starred in the title role (with multiple opera companies) more often than anyone else, and also features experienced American baritone Paul La Rosa, Argentine born actor Milton Loayza, renowned Argentine tango dancers Fernanda Ghi and Guillermo Merlo, and a quartet of local dancers.

Piazzolla’s tango-tinged music is as dramatically seductive as poet/lyricist/editor/musician Horacio Ferrer’s story is strange. In act two, Maria goes to hell — yet still she persisted. Among other adventures, she bears a child who may be herself, maybe a metaphorical parallel to Eugene Opera’s own recent financial collapse and rebirth? It’s good to have both the company, contemporary opera, and, on her 50th birthday, Maria de Buenos Aires back from the brink.
On Monday at Portland’s Old Church, FearNoMusic closes its season devoted to music that responds to today’s troubled times with “Hope In The Dark,” a concert that, like the Rebecca Solnit book it draws its title from, offers more than just sonic despair. Quartets by Kevin Puts (Dark Vigil) and Arvo Part (Da Pacem Domine) were composed in the wake of the 1999 Columbine school slaughter and 2004 Madrid train bombings, respectively. Chinary Ung’s intense cello solo Khse Buon and Eve Beglarian’s haunting I will not be sad in this world arose from genocides that claimed the composers’ ancestors or family — the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Turkey’s massacres of Armenians. But hope as well as haunt emerge in Chen Yi’s Night Thoughts, inspired by her youth in China’s notorious Cultural Revolution-era labor camps, and in the title of Georges Lifermann’s “Ça ira mieux demain” (Tomorrow Will Be Better). The French-born composer, whose parents died in Auschwitz, survived World War II German-imposed childhood labor duty, became a popular songwriter in France, and lived happily for decades in Corvallis until his death in March at age 95.

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‘Israel in Egypt’ review: full-blooded Handel

Oregon Repertory Singers, orchestra and soloists deliver a performance that matches the great baroque oratorio's epic scale

by BRUCE BROWNE

It’s a plague, it’s a pestilence, it’s a flood, a conflagration. Is it a Camus play, a new video game or first run science fiction flick? No, it’s the dramatic unfolding of the Old Testament of the Bible and the 290-year-old oratorio Israel in Egypt.

For George Frideric Handel, the late 1730s were a period of upheaval. He suffered and recovered from a neurological event while living in London on the up side of his forties and down side of his opera successes. But Handel dug in and evolved. He stepped back from Italian opera and, by the end of the decade, he was composing and mounting his new favorite musical genre, the oratorio, which is like opera without elaborate costumes, props, theatrical character interaction or secular subject matter. (If you’ve seen Handel’s later Messiah, you’ve seen an oratorio.) Israel in Egypt, one of his first enduring oratorios, was premiered in 1739.

Oregon Repertory Singers performed Handel’s ‘Israel in Egypt’ at Portland’s First United Methodist Church. Photo: Allison Silverberg.

In the Oregon Repertory Singers‘ performance at First United Methodist Church last weekend, music director Dr. Ethan Sperry presented Israel in Egypt, as it is most often, in the two-act version created by Handel after a less than enthusiastic response to his three-act premiere. Thankfully, Handel retained the exquisitely virtuosic single and double choruses and several lovely arias presented by director Sperry, choir, orchestra and soloists.

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