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‘The Clearing’ review: European present, American absence

Portland Piano International's three-day festival examines the state of the European Union’s contemporary classical music and its 20th century roots

by JEFF WINSLOW

“Clearing” is such a paradoxical word. It refers to the absence of something – storm, forest, piles of stuff – but at the same time invites contemplation of what comes to life in the cleared space. What first struck me about Portland Piano International’s three day, four evening festival of nominally contemporary piano music, “The Clearing,” the long weekend after the election was what was absent: American composers, aside from Elliott Carter, a composer with a long lifetime of ties to Europe.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Rich Brase.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Rich Brase.

Also, much of the repertory was not at all new: pre-World War II works by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, and music written immediately after the war by Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen and György Ligeti, who with Boulez’s passing just this year at the age of 90 are all gone now. These works were included primarily for historical perspective, and the narrow Eurocentrism of the repertory turned out to be only natural: PPI had appointed Serbian pianist Tamara Stefanovich to curate the festival, and she along with Pierre-Laurent Aimard make up what may be Europe’s reigning power couple of contemporary piano. And so the festival, held at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, turned out to be a lively and fascinating window into the world of European art music from the mid 20th century on, in all its uncertain glory.

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Out There: Holiday Edition

Circus Christmas, cash-and-carry paintings, Post5 expats, and a belly dance potluck. For yuletide thrills, get out there!

While families may prefer to play it safe with their holiday celebrations, sometimes wise ones wander farther, guided by more distant stars. It was ever so.

Welcome to the winter edition of Out There, a semi-regular roundup of special, surprising, or lesser-known arts events. This December, ditch Bing Crosby’s White Christmas in favor of braver fare! Pluck fresh paintings right off a gallery wall and pay for them on the spot! Potluck with belly dancers! And give displaced Post5ers a Christmas to remember.

Wanderlust's Circus Carol features a ringmaster Scrooge haunted by circus-act spirits.

Wanderlust’s Circus Carol features a ringmaster Scrooge haunted by circus-act spirits.

The Big 500

Want to shop for original art the same way you’d load up a cart at the Cash ‘n’ Carry? Then hit the 9th annual Big 500. As its name suggests, this show/sale will unveil 500 paintings by various local artists, available for purchase on the spot. The works are as diverse as you might imagine, yet conveniently uniform in size and price: each 8″ x 8,” and $40. Curated by Chris Haberman (the artist behind the Eagles Lodge mural at 50th and Hawthorne and the now-closed People’s Gallery) this show may have moved from its former home at The Goodfoot Gallery to the Ford Gallery, but it still offers the same unbeatable deal as ever to gift-buyers and decorators on the prowl for original paintings.

Scary Puppet Film Night

Has anticipating the debut of Imago’s puppet masterpiece La Belle put you in the mood for more puppet magic? Then you may want to check out the significantly-more-sinister Scary Puppet Film Night. Beady Little Eyes will show rare and new puppet movies at The Steep and Thorny Way To Heaven. (Make reservations as this is technically a private club.)

Portland Bellydance Guild’s Winter Hafla+ The Art of Bellydance

Mourning the hidden midriffs of bleak midwinter? Then you may enjoy Portland Bellydance Guild’s Winter Hafla. What’s that, you ask? A free, family-friendly party and potluck with a few pro and student performances, plus open dancing and drumming. Feel free to “BYO” any of the following: food, non-alcohol drinks, percussion instruments (drums, tambourines, etc), and of course donations to buoy PBG’s general effort. Or if you’d prefer a more formal sitdown show, head to the Clinton Street Theater for The Art of Bellydance, a lineup of solo and group performers that, unfortunately, happens to be the swan song of four-year belly dance presenter From the Hip.

Viva’s Holiday

This gloriously notorious Portland-made “stripper opera” retells a true tale from Magic Gardens, the memoir of legendary local stripper Viva Las Vegas. Chris Corbell (formerly of Classical Revolution PDX and Muse:forward) conceived of the project, composed the opera and debuted it last season with support from members of Opera Theater Oregon and the blessing of Viva herself. With a twelve-piece orchestra, four singers, and a bit of tasteful nudity, it’s the only Christmas show of its kind.

White Album Christmas

Do you tire of the usual Christmas carols and winking 1950’s fireside kitsch? Have you ever yelled at Bing Crosby, “You’re no Beatles!”? Then Wanderlust Circus has a treat for you. This production is just what it says on the tin: a show set to the Beatles’ White Album, only “Christmas” to the extent that it happens in winter and it’s family-friendly. While The Nowhere Band plays the whole double album—horns, roars, refrains and all—cirque-bohemian dancers, aerialists, jugglers and clowns run helter skelter, embodying the psychedelic spirit of each song and together celebrating the album’s halcyon splendor.

A Circus Carol

Wanderlust’s other holiday tradition is much more in the Christmas-y canon, but still pretty full of surprises. Ringmaster Noah Mickens plays Scrooge, and each “spirit” that visits him is a different style of circus performer. Gypsy-jazz Christmas covers played by the brilliant Three Leg Torso and sung by various characters propel the storytelling and give each act something to swing to.

N.E.W. Residency Performance

There’s no telling what to expect from this culminative dance showcase by the participants of New Expressive Works’ 8th 6-month residency: Dana Detweiler, James Healey, Jessica Hightower, and Renee Sills. Well, maybe there’s some telling. Though soundscape maestro Jay Clarke humbly downplays his contribution of new music to the show, claiming “The music is fine but the dancers are the main attraction,” audiophiles and film buffs who remember Clarke’s gorgeous score from the  2010 documentary Marwencol  will be resoundingly sold.

Spectravagasm: Holidazed

Spectravagasm, the twisted brainchild of brilliant comic actor Sam Dinkowitz and a handful of Post5 Theatre clowns, is a long-running sketch comedy series that’s already covered many themes including Camp, Love, Art, Death, and Drugs. Bum luck that as Dinkowitz emerged from three winters in PCS’s Twist Your Dickens to prep a Holiday ‘gasm, he learned Post5 was losing their proverbial room at the inn. With Post5 closing their Sellwood location, Shaking The Tree has now agreed to host Spectravagasm‘s wayfaring players. Anyone who’s wistful for Twist can count on similar irreverence from Dink in his new digs.

A Christmas Carol: A One-Man Ghost Story

Another orphaned show from Post5’s sudden closure is Phillip Berns’ solo version of A Christmas Carol. Even if you’ve seen the Christmas classic performed solo elsewhere before, this rendition is a rare treat because the spry, youthful actor playing all the roles is much more of a Tiny Tim/Cratchitt/Nephew type than a Scrooge sort. The planned full run has been compressed into three dates of dinner theater at Picnic House. Go partake in this comfort and joy.

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These events occur at various venues throughout the month of December. For further details, click directly on event titles.

 

 

 

Rinde Eckert, Alessandro Sciarroni reviews: Scattered remains

Avant garde theater artist and dazzling jugglers close TBA festival

“There certainly is a lot of stuff here,” Rinde Eckert mused aloud as he gazed around the cluttered stage at the outset of My Fools, his retrospective show that highlighted the closing night of this year’s Time Based Arts Festival. Framed by a desk on one end and a piano on the other, the stage at Portland’s Winningstad Theater boasted costumes, props of various species, a projection screen, MacBook, rows of little cards mounted on sticks that he carried to each “station” on the stage as he performed there, and above all a wide array of musical instruments. All attested to the New York based solo performer’s vast range of skills and artistic creations. For the next hour, we wondered: with all that stuff strewn about, what was he going to do next?

Rinde Eckert performed at Portland's TBA festival.

Rinde Eckert performed at Portland’s TBA festival.

If anyone is entitled to a Greatest Hits show, it’s Eckert, the supremely versatile singer/writer/instrumentalist/performer/director who, over three decades and more than five dozen works (averaging two per year) has been making some of the era’s most original performance art. We soon realized that the busy stage was meant to evoke the multidisciplinary artist’s fecund career, and possibly his richly furnished mind. So, yes, a lot of stuff indeed.

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Provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn is back with “The Neon Demon”

The divisive, Danish-born auteur's latest provocation is set in the glamorous, dangerous world of high fashion models.

“Great cinema is really all about what you don’t see.”

Director Nicolas Winding Refn told me this last year when I interviewed him for the release of The Act Of Seeing, a collection of more than 300 posters, curated by Refn, of exploitation rarities, mostly from the ’60s and ’70s, all featured in a heavy, gorgeously-rendered hardcover tome. Or as he gleefully admits, “a very expensive book, but about trash.”

His love of artsy trash cinema and subliminal imagery continues with “The Neon Demon,” a new film that could fit right alongside the aged, forgotten titles from his book. Elle Fanning stars as an aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles, where her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has. The film, though it was initially touted as his first real foray into horror, is, of course, anything but a traditional entry in the genre. “Don’t believe everything you read. Traditional… come on man. My films are like Christmas, you can’t wait to open it,” he elaborated. “And one thing’s for sure, what you expect I’m not going to give you. That’s what makes life so much more fun.”

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‘The Overview Effect’ preview: Space odyssey

Portland composer/actor's new theatrical production sends audiences on a journey through inner and outer space

For as long as he can remember, Portland composer Tylor Neist wanted to be an astronaut. “I don’t even know where it came from,” he admits. Growing up in Minnesota, “I always loved space. I had space paraphernalia in the house as a child.”

Tylor Neist.

Tylor Neist.

He also loved theater. When he was eight years old, Neist played the shy, lisping Winthrop in The Music Man.But music became his main attraction, eventually leading Neist to a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied violin performance and composition.

A couple of years ago, Neist saw a film about the Overview Effect, a term coined by Frank White in his 1987 book of that title that refers to “a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface,” says Wikipedia, in which “the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this ‘pale blue dot’ becomes both obvious and imperative.”

“Everything came together,” Neist remembers — space, music, theater. “Being that I always wanted to be an astronaut, I was really inspired by the message.” He decided to create “a piece about a journey into the great unknown.” Neist’s new theatrical production, The Overview Effect, opens Friday and runs through April 23 at Portland Center Stage.

Neist plays a character he calls a combination of astronomer Carl Sagan and philosopher Alan Watts. The hour-long show is set in his workshop, and also uses projections from the Hubble Space Telescope as his character’s imagination embarks on its journey.

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Cascadia Composers and Northwest Piano Trio reviews: The Color of Magic

Two concerts featured contemporary Oregon classical music. One succeeded.

by MARIA CHOBAN

Lights out. In a dark cavernous church, twinkling blue Christmas lights bob their way to a harpsichord. They tilt over it, no doubt praying. They un-tilt and lower onto a bench. The instrument emits a long sustaining moan.

THE HARPSICHORD SUSTAINS??!!??? What spell has been cast?

Je

Jennifer Wright.

No time to think, the blue lights are driving the instrument to react. Like T-cells attacking an infection, the notes bombard the drone. Above, a screen displays the sound waves — oscillating, colliding, and my growing anxiety isn’t “How did composer, Jennifer Wright, achieve this?” It’s “OMG, Who or What is going to Win? How will this play out?” In You Cannot Liberate Me, Only I Can Do That for Myself, the composer/performer has managed to translate a creative concept/challenge (how to sustain a percussive sound) into a universal dilemma (how to deal with the new: fight it, ward it off, accept?). To be fair, I figured this out long after the performance, but only because the gnawing anxiety pestered me to work through it, to come to closure.

Science transcends process. Houston, we have Magic.

Lately more and more Oregon indie classical and even establishment classical groups are starting to realize the value of programming new and locavore music. It’s a really good sign of a developing homegrown alt.classical scene that’s not depending on dead Europeans and insular New Yorkers. I want all these groups who are playing homegrown 21st century music to succeed because Oregon draws outlaws, visionary DIYers who don’t just want to make it in New York and LA—they have something to say to today’s audiences. Oregon can be the role model for LA, New York, Paris.

But new and local are only the beginning, necessary but not sufficient if classical music is to (re)connect with broader Oregon audiences. The events need to appeal broadly, unless you just want a niche audience. And niches won’t sustain new classical music.

Multimedia helps. Taking the performances out of churches and auditoriums and staging them in bars and black box theaters helps. Dressing down or up (anything but black nightgowns) helps. Choosing a program that takes the audience on a ride helps.

Alas, even these ingredients are necessary but still not sufficient. To draw broad audiences, the essential element that must be cultivated is Magic.

Magic is not learned; it is omnipresent — there for the taking. It is the thing we often discount, the first feeling that comes up, the first glib utterance out of our mouths when throwing around ideas. Magic can only be welcomed in when she subtly drops a bomb in your ear. Or not; one can opt out, thinking the voice is too crazy, will offend too many people or the wrong person, and do the safe, sane, currently-in-mode thing and hope it’s enough to generate ticket revenue to cover what the RACC grant doesn’t. And the creative concept itself is only a start — much more Magic, courage to support the magic inspirations and lots of grunt work (including practice/rehearsal hours) are needed on this yellow brick road to the Emerald City.

Two concerts featuring new music by Oregon composers showed what can happen when presenters listen for Magic and then vest themselves in the quest of fulfilling that inspiration … and what happens when they don’t.

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Words & Music: Ambitious Oregon productions combine stories and sounds

'Attachments & Detachments,' 'Boldly Launched Upon the Deep,' and 'Oregon Stories' weave stories and sounds

Oregon is all about stories. Maybe the rain helps, but for whatever reason, we’re known as one of the most literary states in the union. Check Portland’s downtown Powell’s bookstore even on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll find it teeming with people seeking stories.

Of course stories appear in other art forms besides books — films, operas, songs. Not so much in instrumental music, however. Yet lately, we’ve seen a slew of contemporary music performances that explicitly connect new music to storytelling in various ways, including just in recent weeks:

I’m sure I’m leaving out plenty of others, but it’s clear that there’s a trend toward connecting storytelling to new classical and jazz music in Oregon these days. Why?

Delgani Quartet's Man of Words concert.

Delgani Quartet’s Man of Words concert combined music and theatrical dialogue.

Both jazz and contemporary classical music have gone from being relatively mainstream art forms to niche interests over the past half century or so, and one reason is their emphasis on art for art’s sake, too often privileging artistic process and innovation over audience connection. It’s not necessarily an either/or proposition — much of the greatest music both innovates and connects — but maybe this craving for story represents a desire to re-connect new music to lived human experience rather than indulge in abstract soundscapes, abstruse musical processes, and concept-dominated art.

Yet when performers add words to music in unfamiliar ways (not opera, not songs), they enter a different realm than the usual music concert. Even the most compelling words and music don’t necessarily compel interest without some sense of how they work together dramatically on stage. Three recent Oregon performances showed the risks and rewards of mixing stories with sounds.

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