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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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‘Moby Dick, Rehearsed’ review: Welles’ whale tale

Bag&Baggage Productions' staging of Orson Welles's 'Moby-Dick, Rehearsed' is a qualified triumph of imagination over obsession

Moby-Dick isn’t a novel, it is an entire imaginative world. It is massive, bulky, colossal, terrifying, majestic and ultimately unfathomable. It is the physical representation of one man’s will, one artist’s transcendent vision, an entire internal universe externalized…”

So writes Bag & Baggage productions artistic director Scott Palmer on the company blog. Of course, the “one man” he’s referring to is author Herman Melville, who transformed his own obsession with the particulars of whaling and the fictional obsession of a foolhardy sea captain, Ahab, into the 1851 epic that eventually (though not initially) came to be regarded as an American classic.

But obsession and imagination also describe Ahab himself, obsessed by a whale and the manifold metaphors it represents, not to mention the minutiae of whaling. They characterize the great American film director Orson Welles, obsessed (as he was by so many other hugely ambitious projects he started but never quite pulled off) by Melville’s novel, which he spent years transforming into the play, Moby Dick, Rehearsedwhich the company is staging at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre this month. They also apply to Palmer, one of Oregon’s and perhaps America’s most artistically ambitious theater artists, himself.

“Who in their right mind would decide that Moby Dick was appropriate source material for a play? Only a maniacal genius like Orson Welles, really. B&B has a long history of doing staged adaptations of American novels, and this just felt like such a perfect fit for us and our style of work,” Palmer said in a question & answer interview on the B&B website. “That unapologetic ambition, that willingness to take a massive risk and potentially fail spectacularly — that feels very Bag&Baggage to me.” You might say Palmer is obsessed with transforming unlikely material, from Shakespeare’s worst plays to Arthur Miller’s weighty The Crucible and many others, into stage triumphs. He usually succeeds.

Bag & Baggage Productions presents "Moby Dick, Rehearsed" at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag & Baggage Productions presents “Moby Dick, Rehearsed” at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Neither Ahab nor Melville nor Welles nor Palmer let the challenges of their tasks daunt them. Ahab caught his prey, but it cost him his life and those of his crew. Melville’s novel was widely regarded as a crazy failure in its time, and its overabundance of non dramatic material still repels many readers. Welles’s misguided attempt to turn so inward-gazing a novel as Moby Dick into compelling stage drama amounted to hunting a white whale; as Palmer acknowledged in a pre-show talk, it’s perhaps a good thing that Welles devoted himself to filmmaking rather than playwriting.

In nevertheless choosing to stage Welles’s whale folly (in his centennial year), Palmer again plays the white knight, this time trying to save the white whale. Does he catch the object of his obsession in this new production and redeem Welles’s hubristic vision? Like the others, it’s a foredoomed, magnificent failure that, if you can stick with it long enough, you ultimately can’t let go of.

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INTERVIEW: Ciro Guerra, Writer/Director Of Oscar-Nominated ‘Embrace Of The Serpent’

The Colombian filmmaker talked with our critic about his films, what makes for great cinema, the amazing locations in 'Serpent', his Oscar experience and more

Ciro Guerra is having a good month. The Colombian-born filmmaker recently attended his first Oscar ceremony, where his newest film, “Embrace Of The Serpent,” was nominated in the foreign language category (it lost to “Son Of Saul”). Beyond being a personally momentous occasion for the young writer/director, who celebrated his 35th birthday in February, the Academy Award nomination was the first ever for his native country.

Describing his experience at the ceremony as “quite fun and quite crazy” during our interview on Skype, he says the Academy made them feel welcome and that he was thankful to meet so many people in the industry he’s admired for a long time. “We we’re kind of relieved we didn’t win,” he said. “There was a favorite going in and it’s great not to be the favorite. It can be a lot of pressure. Even winning can be a lot of pressure. So we just made the best of it and enjoyed it.”

I really can’t praise “Embrace Of The Serpent” enough. It’s one of those films that captures the imagination with a grip that doesn’t loosen until the credits have ended. Make sure to seek out the film when it opens exclusively this Friday at Living Room Theaters. Its two-pronged narrative ping-pongs back and forth (sometimes in the same unbroken take) between events 40 years apart in the life of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of his people. He encounters and travels with two scientists, one inspired by the other to search the Amazon for a sacred healing plant. (While by no means a “true story,” much of the film is inspired by the diaries of German Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American Richard Evans Schultes)

The black and white visuals, druggy hallucination sequences, performances, and a killer soundtrack—ancient tribal music mixed with the natural cacophony of the jungle—all make for an incredibly immersive, funny and beautiful rumination on dying, colonialism and being the last of one’s kind. It’s truly a film to go get lost in at the cinema.

Guerra, whose previous film, “The Wind Journeys,” is also highly recommended (I was able to rent the DVD at Movie Madness in fact), was generous with his time over Skype, talking with me for more than 40 minutes. Suffice to say it was fairly in depth, focusing mostly on his latest film and his work overall, but also making room to talk about what makes for great cinema (you know, the kind you see at an actual movie theater), the gorgeously epic Amazonian locations where they shot ‘Serpent’, and much more. Below are a few excerpted highlights from our chat. If you’d like to hear the entire interview, you can do so by streaming or downloading the embedded podcast below.

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one of many memorable images from “Embrace of the Serpent”

“Embrace Of The Serpent” is filled with so many great, memorable cinematic sequences. In particular, the moment when you link both storylines from different time periods in one fluid take.

In the early versions of the script, it was a very Western script in the way everything was explained and all the dates and locations were perfectly clear. Then I started working with the Amazonian people, and I realized their conception of time is completely different. Film is essentially a medium of time. That’s the clay we work on with cinema, it’s made up of fragments of time. I realized what would make the movie special and unique would be that it was told from that perspective. And that included this different understanding of time, that time is not a linear sequence, which is how we are taught to experience it. Amazonian people, and shamans especially, see it more as a simultaneous multiplicity. Which is funnily extremely close to the way quantum physicists define time.

So I wanted the film to be an expression of that. In Amazonian storytelling past, present and future intertwine and dialogues mirror each other. As the process of research went on the film became more and more imbued with this Amazonian spirit and way of storytelling. So I thought if we could create links between different times, to make them appear to be simultaneous, it would be close to the spirit of the Amazonian people. 

So the idea for the two-pronged narrative, is that also how that came about? To put the audience in the mindset of Karamakate? 

Yes. The main thing about the film is that the point of view is from the shaman. This story has usually been told from the explorers’ point of view. So we really needed to flip the story on its head. When you switch the point of view you realize that history has been told in a very one dimensional way. I think that is something cinema can do. It really can make you experience the world from a particular perspective. The perspective of Amazonian people is very difficult for us to understand and get into it. This film is an attempt to build a bridge between the storytelling that we know and can understand, and their storytelling which for us at first can be incomprehensible. This film needed to be accessible for anyone. It would have been dishonest to make this a cryptic film for a small [art film] niche.

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“Embrace Of The Serpent”

Watching the film is an incredibly immersive sensory experience. I think that’s really important for cinema today. Since most people are happy to watch everything on their TVs, computers or phones, it’s more important than ever that a film deserves to be up on a big screen to get people out of their house and going to the theater. “Embrace Of The Serpent” is truly a big movie and belongs there. 

I agree totally with you. I think the cinema should be an experience. The effect that cinema can have on the senses is something I think no other art form can come close to it. For me it’s always very important that the films… that you can really feel where you are. They have a strong sense of place. And the tools of cinema allow you to do that, to put you in there.

The sound design and overall look of the film is incredible. Can you talk about some of those sensorial elements and how you conceived and executed them? 

The sound design is the creation of Carlos García, a brilliant sound designer. We had this concept of creating a trance-like state through the sound. Using the sounds of nature and its frequencies in a way that would take the viewer in a trance like, or a spiritual state. It’s the state that Amazonian people use to tell their stories. You are sort of elevated by the sound. You do that only using the frequencies of the natural environment. That creates a feeling that can only be experienced completely in a cinema.

The look of the film [cinematography by David Gallego] is inspired by the images the explorers took during their travels. When I went there I realized it was not going to be possible to portray the colors of the Amazon on film. Especially what they mean to the people there. These are people who have 15 words for what we call green. I thought this way we could trigger the audience’s imagination. The Amazon that you see in the film is not the real one, it’s an imagined Amazon. But that imagined Amazon is certainly going to be more real than what we could portray.

“Embrace Of The Serpent” opens at Friday March 11 at Portland’s Living Room Theaters. Advance tickets are available now. 

Siren songs: Divas descend on Oregon

Classical vocal recitals pair singers and pianists on Oregon stages

by JEFF WINSLOW

Friends of Chamber Music is about to present the annual solo gig in its admirable Vocal Arts Series this Sunday afternoon at 3:00 PM in Lincoln Performance Hall at Portland State University, and as always, has lined up a world-class soloist. Mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung has performed in dozens of the world’s finest opera houses and symphony halls, and with dozens of the world’s top directors and conductors. Her recordings have garnered three Grammy awards. Although most of her recording and performance activity has been with orchestra, she is no stranger to the recital stage, and FOCM has a knack for finding operatic singers who are versatile enough to make intimate partnerships with piano only, so operaphobes likely have little to fear.

Michelle DeYoung performs Sunday at Portland State University.

Michelle DeYoung performs Sunday afternoon at Portland State University.

Granted, the program of music by Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Joseph Marx has lots of dramatic numbers – and, lots of hard work for pianist Kevin Murphy! But it also includes Manuel de Falla’s subtle, incomparable masterpiece of arrangement, “Seven Spanish Folk Songs.” Few songs in all the literature speak to the heart so simply and directly (and, you may find as I do, with almost unbearable sadness), as “Asturiana.” Don’t worry, the other songs in the set run the emotional gamut, and you’ll no doubt feel like laughing at times too. (ArtsWatch readers use coupon code “Brahms” to save $10 per ticket.)

If this doesn’t satisfy your lust for pairing opera singers with pianists, check out the upcoming Portland Opera Resident Artist show, on Tuesday, March 15, 7:00 PM at Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium. Soprano Katrina Galka and mezzo soprano Abigail Dock will perform songs by Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert, Francis Poulenc, and the complete “Summer Nights” by Hector Berlioz, as well as a tribute to Judy Garland featuring American standards by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers.

Estelí Gomez performed in Portland and Eugene. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Estelí Gomez performed in Portland and Eugene. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Oregon doesn’t seem to attract many touring classical solo singers outside of opera. If not for FOCM’s vocal series and the occasional Oregon Symphony program (OSO is starting off its 2016-2017 season with a bang by hosting Renée Fleming in a return visit), they might be a real rarity. Fortunately for lovers of what is sometimes called “art song,” a number of homegrown events go on, sometimes just under the radar. Over the past several months, I’ve been able to attend three that included songs I love as well as songs rarely heard. A fourth featured Esteli Gomez, who has her own Grammy as part of the ultra-contemporary a cappella group Roomful of Teeth, singing freshly written songs by University of Oregon students accompanied by UO student musicians.

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Portland Youth Philharmonic preview: Marion Bauer shines again

Youth orchestra's Saturday concert revives the music of one of Oregon's first nationally known female classical composers

by SUSAN PICKETT

Editor’s note: Marion Bauer was devastated. A few weeks earlier, the 45 year old Portland High School graduate had returned returned to New York from Jazz Age Paris, where she’d been living for three years, to care for her older sister, Emilie Francis, who’d been run down by a car in 1926. A former music critic for The Oregonian, Musical Courier and Musical Leader magazines, Emilie Francis had been her younger sister’s mentor since their days growing up in Portland. When she died not long after Marion arrived, the surviving sister plunged into deep grief. As a composer, it was natural for her to turn to her music. That same year, she wrote a piano piece called Sun Splendor that she later orchestrated. It became her most famous composition, performed by the New York Philharmonic under Leopold Stokowski in 1947. 

marion bauer, 1922

Marion, who became a professor at New York University and music journalist after her sister’s death, died in New York in 1955, and since then, her music has largely remained unplayed in the city she grew up in.

This Saturday, Portland Youth Philharmonic will perform Bauer’s 90 year old work. ArtsWatch asked her biographer, Whitman College Prof. Susan Pickett, to tell us about this early Portland musical original. She’ll also give a free talk about Bauer and participate in a free panel discussion about women composers this weekend.

Marion Bauer was born in Walla Walla, WA in 1882 to French-Jewish immigrants. The fledgling town was only about twenty years old at that time and vigilantes still roamed the streets. Her father, Jacques Bauer, was an amateur musician and a merchant in Walla Walla, and her mother, Julia Heyman Bauer, was a linguist and scholar who taught at Whitman College during the 1880s. When Jacques Bauer died in 1890, the remaining family moved to Portland, where maternal relatives lived. Julia Bauer taught languages at St. Helen’s Hall and was also active in the Portland suffrage movement.

Marion attended St. Helen’s Hall and Portland High School. Her older sister, Emilie Frances (1865-1926), was a music critic in Portland for The Oregonian and Musical Courier magazine. The only surviving Bauer son, Cecil, was an attorney in Portland, and also one of the founders of the Tualatin Golf Club because Jews were not allowed on the Portland golf courses. He married Rose Bloch, a famous Portland soprano. All of the Bauers lived across the street from the Congregation Beth Israel, where they worshipped.

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Claire Chase: Leading from inside out

Performing this week in Portland, the flutist and contemporary classical music entrepreneur develops and nurtures new models for new music

Claire Chase often tells the story of her first teenage encounter with German-American composer Edgard Varese’s haunting 20th century classic Density 21.5. The brief, elusive solo composition for flute utterly transfixed her, setting her on a course to find more moments like that one. Its hold on her remains undiminished. “The more I live with this four minute masterpiece the more I love it,” she said in an interview with the new music magazine I Care if You Listen last year, “and the more astounded I am at how timeless it is, how it teaches me every time I play it, and how many burning questions it leaves unanswered.”

claire chase orangeMany classical musicians would have been content to just keep endlessly recycling such a favorite old chestnut, along with other hoary classics. But Chase, who grew up in Chicago and is now based in Brooklyn, wanted something more: more Densities, more transfixing moments, more timeless music, more unanswered questions.

And she was able to make that happen because, unlike so many play-what-they’re-told, stick-to-the-classics musicians, Chase is a creator. Not of compositions, but of creative opportunities. Just as George Crumb’s searing Black Angels inspired David Harrington to start Kronos Quartet, Density is Chase’s Rosebud, inspiring her to create projects and ensembles — including her well known International Contemporary Ensemble — that make more creative leaps like Varese’s possible. She’ll showcase some of the results of her latest, the hugely ambitious Density 2036 commissioning project, at two solo performances in Third Angle New Music’s Studio Series this Thursday and Friday, February 18-19, at southeast Portland’s intimate Zoomtopia studios.

The shows will feature music Chase has been commissioning from contemporary composers since 2014 in the project, which will continue with commissions each year until the centennial of Varese’s Density 21.5.  Each year, she’ll premiere a new hour long program of solo flute work commissioned that year, and tour it as she’s doing in Portland, releasing recordings annually with scores and other performance notes and materials made freely available online to flutists everywhere. Every three years, she plans to give a progressively longer cumulative performance of all the works commissioned to that point, culminating in a 24 hour marathon in 2036 that will no doubt leave her lips and lungs in need of futuristic medical treatment.

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The Arc of ARCO

Portland band ARCO-PDX’s rise and fall and rise offers lessons for classical music success

by MARIA CHOBAN

I’m at 10th and SE Morrison in southeast Portland – check.

It’s 6:45pm – check

There’s a line stretching down the block — wha??

I recognize none of the usual suspects. Am I at the right show?

I ask the 40-something couple at the end of the line if this is the ARCO show.

“Yup.”

Me: “How do you know ARCO?”

Him: “We don’t. We’re from out of town and we heard that Holocene is a great venue.”

Holy cow, people actually go out and take a chance on shows based on the reputation of the curating venue. Do they realize ARCO is a classical music band? That I’ve witnessed the rise and fall of the group across three shows in two years? Two years ago, ARCO hit the scene with a brazen formula and a “Take No Prisoners!” attitude. They were the bomb. Over the course of the next two shows they abandoned some key original ingredients and suffered.

ARCO-PDX. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

ARCO-PDX. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

I’m here at the group’s fourth show nervously betting on a Hollywood hit: ARCO: The Return of the Magic. I’m also here spying patterns — between ARCO’s hits and misses, between concerts filled with hooked newbies or sadly empty space — and sharing that information because…well…I too want to fill my shows with this audience.

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