Oregon ArtsBitch

#//< EMBEDDED >//# review: con job

Pratik Motwani’s addictive, surprising solo show at Coho Summerfest is a metaphor for today’s social media malevolence

by MARIA CHOBAN

“Want some candy, little girl?”

Any good con job, whether hooking a future junkie or a theater audience depends on great acting. I said “Yes,” grabbed the candy, then allowed Pratik Motwani to roller-coaster me through his 75-minute short course on how to become an addict in his latest creation — #//<EMBEDDED>//#, playing through this Sunday at CoHo’s Summerfest. Only two performances left — run, don’t walk. This is a terrific con job.

It’s the sly story of a nebbish mama’s boy recently moved to America from India. For his birthday his mommy, who lives in India, sends him a card, an orange shirt, and a cell phone. Probably among the three worst things to send a lonely 20-something unsupervised male. In lieu of connecting with the real world, the ugly duckling with huge buck teeth creates an online virtual version of himself and throws this upgraded swan on the virtual wall to see if it sticks.

Pratik Motwani stars in ‘Embedded’ at Coho Summerfest.

Motwani portrays both roles in this solo show. Cinnamon 1 is the living, breathing, lonely mama’s boy videorecorded and projected on the center screen above the stage, with whom Cinnamon 2 interacts. Motwani performs live the role of Cinnamon 2, the avatar, interacting with impeccable timing with the video. (Think about how much rehearsal this required to memorize the pauses and inflections in the video.) Motwani pongs between hip strings of naughty emanating from the declaiming Cinnamon 2 (“Ice Ice Icicles, spec spec spectacles, test test testicles. Woah, this mic is turned on!”) and searing lonely decresendoing salutations to his mom, unable to hang up: “Bye mommy. Bye. Bye bye bye bye?”

Sound design frames this multimedia extravaganza of lighting, projections, mime, dance, acting. From the beginning scrapings heard in the dark to the iconic cell phone rings or Super Mario Brothers theme or “likes” racking up, we’re conditioned to respond as with Wagner’s leitmotifs. When the phone rings it’s mommy so get offline! When the bell dings, it’s an adoring fan! So happy! Stay online! All this in addition to dance music like the “Bidet Mambo.”

Motwani, a wiry, Mumbai-born California theater artist who has appeared in Imago Theatre’s Frogz and ZooZoo, is a precise, exuberant dancer. He looks a lot like Pivot Animator figures in motion when learning how to move as a virtual creation. Trippy projections corkscrewing us down a hole into virtual hell or escalating us back up to mommy’s phone call abetted the sound. Lights going up in the audience when the show went LIVE or the shadow images of Cinnamon 2 behind a screen mimicking Cinnamon one in the real world weren’t just cool effects. This was intelligent theater that kept us hooked, addicted… conned.

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Portland Wind Symphony review: free is a very good price

Growing orchestra's strong performance gave the audience greater value than many paid concerts

by MARIA CHOBAN

Musician: Oh my gosh, it’s been too long since we last saw each other! I’m retired!!

Me: That’s fantastic! You must be filling up all your time with playing.

Musician: (Sheepishly) Yeah, but it’s all free stuff now.

Me: Why are you apologizing?! This free concert is better than the last ten concerts I attended that charged admission!

Free is a very good price. But a free concert might also come with reservations. The show might not be quite ready for prime time, right? When I recommend a show or a band, I’m aware of how little free time folks have. I am just as likely to answer the uninitiated who ask for my recommendation with “No! Do not go to this overpriced under-rehearsed show” as I am to shepherd them away from many free and reasonably priced events — because it’s not just about money anymore. Is it worth their most precious commodity — time?

Chris Chapman leading Portland Wind Symphony. Photo: Phil Pasteris.

What particularly thrills me, though, is when I can exuberantly recommend a great free show like the one last week, where the above conversation took place at intermission of a concert of the Portland Wind Symphony at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall.

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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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Friday Night Flute Fight

Champion French flutist loses in a TKO decision with an unprepared Oregon accompanist

By MARIA CHOBAN

I went to the Friday night fights and a flute recital broke out. Julien Beaudiment, on the left, wielding tone and dynamics with roundhouse and rabbit punches. As light on his feet as Muhammad Ali, the renowned French flutist danced around Portland accompanist Cary Lewis’s unpracticed, overpedaled, flabby playing, trying to give the audience the show it expected to hear.

A former principal at the Los Angeles Philharmonic who tours, teaches and is principal flute of the Orchestre de l’Opera National de Lyon, the 40 year old flutist, Beaudiment was the centerpiece of this year’s Greater Portland Flute Society Flute Fair: a Saturday seven hour extravaganza that takes place every year at Aloha High School featuring masterclasses, ongoing flute choir performances, competitions, and flute vendors.

Beaudiment giving a master class.

Sadly, this concert, the Friday night before the Saturday Fair, showed just one example of a much larger problem in our classical music culture. While the rest of the city has grown more sophisticated and accomplished thanks to the influx of new blood, too often, its classical music performances are weighed down by deadwood — by musicians who are unwilling or unable to devote adequate time to prepare their performances and consistently sound awful.

Lincoln Hall at Portland State University was full of flutists who were focused on Beaudiment’s technically strong performance, with all the right dynamics, textures, phrasing. But the non-flutists who paid to see the show couldn’t miss the accompanist dragging down the performance as a whole. Beaudiment spent the match — er, concert — jousting or step-dancing over Lewis’s limp, bodiless playing, and late attacks.

Too many of the performers who dominate the scene here habitually deliver embarrassingly unprepared performances like this one. What’s really sad is that he’ll never know that Portland actually does have plenty of fine musicians who he would have enjoyed playing with instead of tussling against. Here are five stellar pianists that should have been on stage with Julien Beaudiment (in alphabetical order): Colleen Adent, Janet Coleman, Asya Gulua, Monica Ohuchi, Doug Schneider. There are probably others. Everytime I hear these five pianists they are practiced, well rehearsed with their ensemble, and they bring their own unique personality and musicality to the performance.

Instead, we got a fight.

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Black Violin review: black & white

At the classical/hip-hop duo's latest Portland shows, the action happened as much in the seats as on the stage

by MARIA CHOBAN

Commotion at the corner of my right eye. People standing in the rows of the concert hall. No, wait. Grey and white haired women pushing to get to the aisle. Eyes follow to…

MOSH PIT!!!

Only a few feet away the aisle is bopping to Telemann-like riffs thumping from Black Violin. Playing the posh Schnitzer concert hall, full of older white classical music appreciators and younger African Americans, the classical violin-meets-hip-hop band returned to Portland to promote their album Stereotypes. And oh boy did the mosh pit break ‘em!

Black Violin performed at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

From the stage, violist Wil Baptiste exhorts me to “Put Your Hands Up and Wave Them Like THIS!” His partner, violinist Kev Marcus, nods appreciatively, in rhythm, continuing to plow through noodly passages perfectly in tune. Nat Stokes, Black Violin’s secret weapon on drums, builds a propulsive engaging and LOUD narrative under the flashy strings.

Meanwhile, DJ SPS turned this whole weird juxtaposition between straightahead rock-tight drumming and manic baroque strings into glass, dropping in today’s beats and disembodied vocals. Add columns of colored lights and a fog machine and you’d have to be dead or a snob to not giggle along with the infectious enthusiasm.

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“From Piraeus to Portland”: Scenes, sounds and stories from a lost cosmopolis

Event commemorates the destruction of Smyrna, and celebrates the birth of the Greek Blues

By MARIA CHOBAN

America: The land many of us, our parents, grandparents, ancestors fled to or sought out, to start a new life. At my family’s restaurant, Greeks worked side-by-side with Japanese, Turks, Norwegians, Romanians, all of us striving for the American dream of owning a house, a car and shopping at Costco.

November 8, 2016: fear replaced hope for Mexicans, Syrians and others seeking a better life or fleeing death in their own fractured countries.

Smyrna: The cosmopolitan Turkish coastal city where a quarter million Turks, Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Americans, Brits and others lived, worked and played side-by-side.

Smyrna's busy wharf during its multicultural heyday.

Smyrna’s busy wharf during its multicultural heyday.

September 9, 1922: The Nationalist Turkish army enters Smyrna, beginning an ethnic purge of half its population — the Christian half. Arson fires set on September 13 level the city and suburbs killing from 10,000 to 100,000 people. This in addition to thousands of Christians and other non-Muslims tortured, raped and killed by Turkish soldiers.

It took only two weeks to accomplish two things: 1. Eradicate the fairy tale cosmopolitan city that was Smyrna. 2. Eradicate “infidel Izmir” (how the Muslim Turks referred to Smyrna).

As part of a two-day event featuring music, film, and food from Asia Minor, this Friday, November 18 at Portland’s’ Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, the Hellenic-American Cultural Center and Museum (HACCM) will show the movie Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City, which chronicles the years 1900 through the fire and evacuation in 1922. Released in 2012, the film tells the story of a 20th century horror that few Oregonians or Americans have even heard of, a story that has special timeliness at a moment when incoming American political leadership and some of its more rabid supporters advocate the kind of anti immigrant ethnic monoculture that helped lead to the flames of Smyrna a century ago. With refugees’ lives being sacrificed to geopolitics again, many in the same region, the tragedy of Smyrna offers both context and warning to us today.

The next day, November 19, the event showcases a happier cultural consequence of this catastrophe: a performance of a powerful music that emerged in its wake.

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Glenn Frey’s Ghost

The Eagles leader has more to offer classical music than just an Oregon Symphony tribute

by MARIA CHOBAN

Knoxville Tennessee, June 1977. The Eagles are seven grueling months into an 11-month non-stop tour. They finish the concert and prepare for the encores. It’s bass player Randy Meisner’s turn to thrill the crowd with his massive hit “Take it to the Limit” from the Eagles fourth album, One of these Nights (1975). Meisner is miserable, suffering from stomach ulcers that are acting up, nervous about hitting the famously high notes in that song. He’s been lobbying to retire this song for awhile. This evening he stands up to Glenn Frey, co-founder of the Eagles (along with Don Henley). He’s not going to sing the encore.

The Oregon Symphony pays tribute to Glenn Frey on Monday.

The Oregon Symphony pays tribute to Glenn Frey on Monday.

Frey, who has dealt with ulcerative colitis most of his life, wheels around to the shyest, most anxiety ridden beta-male in the Eagles and spits

[T]here’s thousands of people waiting for you to sing that song. You just can’t say “Fuck ’em, I don’t feel like it.” Do you think I like singing “Take It Easy” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” every night? I’m tired of those songs. But there’s people in the audience who’ve been waiting YEARS to see us do those songs. (from Alison Ellison and Alex Gibney’s documentary “History of the Eagles, part one)

An asshole, no doubt. But he’s The People’s Asshole! Fighting for the right of the audience to get its hard earned money’s worth. Fighting to make their evening memorable.

This Monday, May 9, the Oregon Symphony honors Glenn Frey, who died last January, with a show of Eagles tunes. Like many pops concerts, this one will boost the bottom line for an orchestra that probably can’t survive without them. But Frey’s legacy has so much more to offer classical music than just one of those nights.

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