cappella romana

ArtsWatch Weekly: film fest x 3

Grab your popcorn: PIFF, Portland Black Film Fest, African film fest fill the screens; 10 tips for a busy week onstage; Arvo Pärt, more

Film fanatics, this week is yours: You’ve just hit the trifecta.

The 40th annual Portland International Film Festival opens on Thursday.

The Portland Black Film Festival, featuring films about black life in America, is the newbie of the three, but arrives with some zing. It also opens on Thursday, at the Hollywood Theatre, with Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, and continues through February 22 with 10 features, including Pioneers of African American Cinema. The centerpiece, this Saturday, is the blaxploitation classic Coffy, with action star Pam Grier as special guest.

And the 27th Cascade Festival of African Films, which features films by African filmmakers from the African continent, kicked off on Friday and continues through March 7. It continues a grand tradition of bringing hard-to-find films to town – this year more than 30, including feature films and shorts. Coming up Friday is The Cursed Ones, from Ghana, about a pair of village outcasts accused of witchcraft. Every offering at the Cascade Fest, which takes place at the Cascade campus of Portland Community College, is free.

“I Am Not Your Negro” at PIFF and the Portland Black Film Festival.

PIFF, the granddaddy of the local festivals, continues through February 25 with more than a hundred movies from Afghanistan to Venezuela, in languages from Afrikaans to Yiddish. It kicks off Thursday evening with director Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, which arrives with a passel of admiring-to-ecstatic reviews and a nomination for best documentary feature at this year’s Academy Awards. It’ll also be screened February 18 in the Portland Black Film Festival. Based on Remember This House, the final, unfinished novel of the great American writer James Baldwin, it explores “the absurd – and deeply tragic – relationship between the United States and skin color.” Some of the festival films will have broad commercial releases, and some will be available in art houses or on cable. The PIFF screenings will provide your only opportunity to see some others.

Spend a little time going through the schedules for all three festivals, then make your plans.

“The Cursed Ones,” directed by Nana Obirir Yeboah, at the Cascade Festival of African Films.





Pen/man/ship. Portland Playhouse takes on Christina Anderson’s acclaimed play about a ship at sea headed for Liberia in 1896 at a time when the American Colonization Society is campaigning to send African Americans “back” to Africa. Opens Saturday.

Marjorie Prime. Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer finalist has a top-notch cast at Artists Rep: Vana O’Brien, Chris Harder, Linda Alper, Michael Mendelson. It’s science fiction about aging, technology, and memory loss: O’Brien plays an 85-year-old woman whose memories are prompted by an artificial version of her late husband. Opens Saturday.

Swimming While Drowning. Milagro produces the world premiere of Emilio Rodriguez’ play about a gay teen who leaves home and his homophobic father and winds up in an LGBT homeless shelter in Los Angeles. Opens Friday.

His Eye Is on the Sparrow. Maiesha McQueen stars as the great gospel singer Ethel Waters in Larry Parr’s musical biography, performed in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage. Opens Friday.

Trifles/Dutchman. Defunkt brings back a couple of old one-acts with contemporary inclinations: Susan Glaspell’s 1916 Trifles, a play with feminist overtones about a murder in the country; and Amiri Baraka’s 1964 Dutchman, about a young black man and a seductive white woman who meet on a subway. It was Baraka’s last play under his birth name LeRoi Jones, and coincides with his turn toward black nationalism. Opens Friday.

The Pillowman. The new Life in Arts Productions kicks off with Martin McDonaugh’s dark, brutal, chillingly beautiful drama about child murders and storytelling in a totalitarian state. Jamie Rea directs Bobby Bermea and others. Opens Friday at The Headwaters.

Interlude. Six dances by six choreographers, danced by six company members of PDX Contemporary Ballet, all in the intimate space of CoHo Theatre. Friday-Sunday.

Missed Connections and Other Love Stories. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Readers Theatre Rep brings readings of three short plays that offer a rueful look at love: David Ives’s Sure Thing, Peter Barry’s Sex with a Mathematician, and Brooke Berman’s Defusion. Friday-Saturday, Blackfish Gallery.

Cabaret Boris & Natasha. The latest edition in this adventurous series at Performance Works NW features dancers Mike Barber and Subashini Ganesan, oboist Catherine Lee, PETE’s Amber Whitehall in a piece “made of hungriness and failure,” and more. Friday-Saturday.

In the Blood. Victor Mack directs Suzan-Lori Parks’s contemporary adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, focusing on a woman with five “illegitimate” children who’s trying to break out of poverty. Opens Friday at Portland Actors Conservatory.



Composer Arvo Pärt

A WHOLE LOT OF PÄRT. The Portland choir Cappella Romana is undertaking an Arvo Pärt Festival that kicks into high gear Thursday through Sunday, featuring the music of the Estonian composer who is perhaps the most-performed living composer in the world. Oregonians have some deep connections with Pärt and his music, and ArtsWatch writers have taken note:

When Oregon met Arvo. Brett Campbell tells the extraordinary tale of Pärt’s 1993 agreement to compose a new work for the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene – a partnership that almost fell apart in a crisis of confidence, and ended in triumph the following year: “The ovation went on for a full 15 minutes, until, amazingly, the shy Pärt himself leapt up to the stage, a beatific smile beaming from the dark cloud of his beard, then embraced [conductor Helmuth] Rilling and the singers in turn.”

Arvo Pärt Festival: spirituality in sound. Daniel Heila explores the “holy minimalism” of Pärt’s devotional music: “The Eastern Orthodox composer’s departure from modernism was marked by an intense reexamination of all that he knew about music and an exploration and embracing of its sacred history.”

A Pärt pilgrimage. Oregon music student Justin Graff recalls his journey to Estonia to meet his musical hero and what he found, and shared, down a long rural road.




ArtsWatch links


Theater for Barbarians. Maria Choban gets on her ancestral Greek and goes to a bunch of Greek plays around town. They tell her more about contemporary America than ancient Greece, she writes: where’s the raw, wild passion?

Kill the NEA? What it might mean. The new presidential administration is taking aim at the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We consider what might happen if both federal agencies actually get the ax.

Fertile Ground reviews: Young Bloods. Brett Campbell takes in Broken Planetarium’s Atlantis and Orphic’s Iphigenia 3.0 and discovers theater made by and for a bold new generation.

Global Voices get a fair hearing. A.L. Adams drops in on the first weekend of Boom Arts’ mini-festival of readings of international plays (it concludes this weekend). The upshot? “Global Voices” is all over the map – and that’s a good thing.

Cappella Romana: choral conundrum. Bruce Browne, reviewing the choir’s performance of Finnish composer  Einojuhani Rautavaara’s All Night Vigil (Vigilia), argues that this music from the 1970s deserves much wider attention. And he praises guest basso Glenn Miller: “He is so modest and self-deprecating, you wouldn’t know his capabilities, except his vocal quality is that of the voice of God.”



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Cappella Romana review: Choral conundrum

Portland choir's revelatory performance of Rautavaara's "All Night Vigil" shows a neglected masterpiece ripe for rediscovery


The question “How long is an All Night Vigil” sounds a bit like a “stupid answers” category on Jeopardy. But if you are new to the choral manifestation of the ANV, you will be happy to know that short, general consumption concert versions are available for such works. Such was the case with the All Night Vigil (Vigilia) of contemporary Finnish composer  Einojuhani Rautavaara, performed by Cappella Romana at Portland’s St. Mary Cathedral this past Saturday. We congregated with the expectation of the ancient Byzantine chant, the surround sound profundity, basso and otherwise, and the potential for an evening of Eastern Orthodox transmogrification. We also experienced a performance that shows why this music created forty years ago deserves wider attention.

Cappella Romana sang Rautavaara’s “Vigilia” in Portland.

For Rautavaara, the 1970s was a creative decade. Then in his forties, he was appointed his country’s first ever Artist Professor. His declamatory (spoken) choral work, Ludus Verbalis (1960) was making the rounds in American choirs. He was distancing himself musically from his neo-classical works of the 1950s, the decade in which he studied at Juilliard with Vincent Persichetti and began his teaching at the Sibelius Academy. He completed his foray into serialism and quasi film-score romanticism of the ‘60s and alighted upon his own voice – the Modernist, eclectic voice – which would be his foundation for the next three decades. (See Daniel Heila’s ArtsWatch preview for more details on Rautavaara’s career.) The All Night Vigil (1971-72) was written at the beginning of this new Rautavaara choral voice. It is this voice which is the bliss of the work – and the conundrum.

There are traditional elements to the work, including long-breathed chants, and oblique Byzantine modality, endless verses separated by drawn out “Amens” and the strict adherence to the text.

But Rautavaara was fulfilling the commission, by the Helsinki Festival and the Orthodox Church of Finland, which requested something brand spanking new. They got it.


Arvo Pärt Festival preview: Spirituality in sound

Contemporary music master's method embeds meaning in music


Music is essentially powerless to express anything at all.
—Igor Stravinsky

Though music’s ability to express anything is questionable, its purely sensual nature can serve meaning, and composers continually mate it with words to express our common experience, to help us locate ourselves between life and death, to turn our outward existence back toward ourselves for consideration, reflection, rejuvenation, reaffirmation, reassurance. A text set to music is thought expanded into an outward, sensual expression of its meaning. Such combinations are infinitely communicative and express every kind of human experience. Often, the most sublime examples are settings of religious texts. And if record sales are any indication of success, the “sacred minimalist” music that has been welling up out of the Baltic region and northern Europe since the early 1970s is the cream of the sublime.

Cappella Romana sings music of Arvo Pärt this weekend.

Following on the heels of their performance of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s sacred choral work Vigilia, Portland-based internationally touring vocal ensemble Cappella Romana presents the five-day Arvo Pärt Festival, which Cappella artistic director Alexander Lingas believes is North America’s first to showcase the work of the most performed living composer worldwide for the past six years — and a profoundly devout one. The fest runs February 5-12 and features full scale a capella choral works as well as chamber ensemble music and solo instrumentals.

A Composer Seeking Meaning

Credited with the birth of holy minimalism, Estonian Arvo Pärt joined other Western composers in Europe and the US in the late 1960s and ’70s in abandoning the rigid aesthetics of twelve-tone and serial music to seek more culturally pertinent pathways to new music. The Eastern Orthodox composer’s departure from modernism was marked by an intense reexamination of all that he knew about music and an exploration and embracing of its sacred history. As a result of his deep introspection, Arvo Pärt created a unique approach to setting text that may actually challenge Stravinsky ‘s idea of pure music devoid of meaning.

Mirroring the career path of many composers who came to maturity in the 1950s and 60s, Pärt started out as a neoclassical composer and then crossed over into the intellectual rigor of twelve-tone techniques and serialism in the early ‘60s. Responding to the Soviet repression of modernism and finding the modernist methods unfertile ground, Pärt retreated into periods of creative limbo and non-productivity late in the ‘60s, spending much of his time studying 14th and 15th century choral music.

Composer Arvo Pärt

These were times of great struggle for Pärt during which, Hillier writes “he lacked the musical faith and willpower to write even a single note.” His continued study of ancient western music—Gregorian chant, plainsong, Renaissance polyphony—led to a radical shift to a spare, minimal style that often employed sacred texts in choral settings with and without instrumentation.

Part’s break from modernism’s obsession with abstraction and musical process wasn’t so abrupt as it may superficially sound. Pärt’s epiphanic stylistic transformation was born of (and still employs) an abstract process, with close ties to the rationalist serial techniques cranked out by legions of midcentury academic composers. Strict rules of relation between notes are set up in the realms of “melodic” and “harmonic” content—a technique the composer’s wife Nora likened to the ringing of bells and was thus dubbed tintinnabuli. This is not the western harmonic tradition of tonic–dominant power plays but an abstracted tonality that is pitch centric and depends on foundation triads (three-note chords that permeate the entire piece), and tightly defined modes.

Arvo and Nora Pärt in 2012. Photo: Rene Riisalu.

Transcending the traditional technique of “word painting” in the composition of masses, Part’s mature music translates the mechanics of the text into the tools needed to select and write the music, using the very skeleton and guts of a text—its syllables, words, punctuation— to craft the musical form. Passio, which Cappella Romana performs by candlelight on February 11, is the quintessential work in this style. Each syllable is given a duration dependent on its place in the sentence and that sentence’s role in the larger text. The punctuation of a text secures its fundamental reading. Pärt uses the punctuation to select durations that shape phrasing and to highlight the relationships of one phrase to another. Syntax and cadence are married to pitch and duration to reveal music written by words. (Or are the words being written in tones and durations and spoken by the music?)

The composer considers the technique to be anchored in sacred concepts, with the melodic elements representing the mundane sacrifices and sins of everyday life and the harmonic, triadic elements to be an ever-present force that keeps the melody from straying. And, in fact, and again at his wife’s suggestion, the composer insists that both aspects of his method are facets of the same thing: 1 + 1 = 1.

In the early 1970s, the result of Arvo Pärt’s rigorous reexamination of Western music and disciplined reconstruction of his approach to composing was a string of stunningly calm, open, resonant works that spread like a rising tide across the international classical music landscape. Many will be performed during the festival — a rare opportunity to experience in a few days a range of this transcendent and (for many) spiritual music.

The Listener’s Role

“All music arises from silence, to which sooner or later it must return,” writes singer and conductor Paul Hillier in his book, Arvo Pärt. I would add that a text arises from thought and to thought must return. When text and music are brought together, meaning and mind are mated with sound and soul, and the listener experiences moments of synergy, sensations that are larger than the sum of the two elements. And there is a reason for this.

Music itself is purely abstract and any emotion that swells up in the listener’s chest or electrifies their spine, or emboldens their arrogance, has its source in their consciousness, in association. Very few of Pärt’s fans understand Latin or liturgical Slavonic, yet they claim his music is holy, sacred, mystical. Perhaps this is due to the snowball effect of listeners who are tuned in to opportunities for spiritual experience (church members, spiritualists, New Age enthusiasts) stumbling on his work and excitedly spreading the word.

I suggest a different reason. Listeners, by the very act of listening, take the music to another level: broad-thinking composers refer to this as the audience “completing” a piece and embrace the phenomenon. I consider this the reason for listeners’ claims of holy, mystical, sacred: their own completion of the piece within their sphere of meaningful association. And the musical sphere of many of these listeners is the sanctity of the church where choirs pour forth their collective souls. From the early sacred performance contexts on through to the popular success of his commercial recordings, the terms of sacred, mystical have abided and inevitably the label was born.

Perhaps Pärt’s tintinnabuli style approaches music that conveys meaning. Yet, though the structure of the text colonizes the music, the meaning still resides in the words. But by embedding the structure of a text so intimately within the music, the composer brings listeners to a sensual understanding of its meaning through which they witness the vivification of the word — a mystical experience indeed.

The Arvo Pärt Festival continues February 9-12 at various venues in Portland. Please click on the festival link above for more information.

Daniel Heila writes music, plays flute, and loves words in Eugene.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

When Oregon met Arvo

With help from composer Arvo Pärt, Royce Saltzman wanted the 1994 Oregon Bach Festival to be his grand finale. It was nearly a disaster.

Editor’s note: From Feb. 5-12, Portland choir Cappella Romana presents Portland’s Arvo Pärt Festival honoring the world’s most performed living composer. The festival includes a chamber music concert by Third Angle New Music, several choral concerts by Cappella Romana, a film biography that airs this coming Sunday, February 5, and more. ArtsWatch is running a series of stories about the 81-year-old Estonian legend, beginning with a story by University of Oregon student Justin Graff, recounting his encounter with Pärt in Estonia and continuing with this story, originally published in Oregon Quarterly, about the Oregon Bach Festival’s commission of a new work from Pärt in 1994. Details on the festival events follow.

As Royce Saltzman boarded the plane that would take him to Berlin, he couldn’t help feeling anxious. Saltzman, executive director of the Oregon Bach Festival for a quarter century, had devoted his life to music. As a singer, his instrument had been his voice; as a conductor, his choir.

Now Saltzman played people — the performers, staff, funders, media, volunteers, and dozens of others who came together each year to create a two-week extravaganza of more than 40 separate concerts, lectures, and workshops that each summer drew audiences of more than 30,000. Note by note, year by year, he’d cautiously nurtured the annual classical music event into what the Los Angeles Times called “a musical enterprise virtually without equal in America.” His skills had earned him many accolades, including leadership of the U.S. and international choral organizations.

Roycs Saltzman

Yet as the plane rose from the Eugene airport in January 1993, Saltzman knew he was approaching a critical juncture. The Festival had made its reputation through sharp performances of centuries-old masterworks. But for the 25th anniversary edition to be held in June 1994, Saltzman wanted to add a new dimension: an original piece by a major contemporary composer. And he had someone special in mind: a 56-year-old Estonian whom many regarded as the world’s preeminent active composer. His name was Arvo Pärt, and securing a new work from him might propel the Oregon Bach Festival into the first rank of classical music institutions. A successful premiere concert from so prominent a musician would encourage other composers to submit their new works to the OBF — and that, in turn, could make it an internationally recognized beacon of great new music as well as great old music.
The ’94 festival was special to the 65-year-old Saltzman for another reason: it would be his last as executive director; he’d just announced his retirement. If he could get Pärt, Saltzman have an opportunity that every musician craves: to go out with a grand finale.

Only one thing stood in the way: Arvo Pärt himself.


Cappella Romana preview: Music of spiritual transformation

Portland vocal ensemble performs Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s 1970s masterpiece "Vigilia"


Being areligious, atheist, or just spiritually disinterested doesn’t mean you can’t get something out of sacred music or that it won’t speak to you, stimulate your intellect, your ear. Case in point: Cascadia Composers’ show last weekend, ‘The Desire for the Sacred,’ which mixed secular and sacred spiritualism. And this weekend, Cappella Romana, the Northwest’s foremost professional vocal ensemble, performs a major sacred work by a great 20th century Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Vigilia for a capella choir, that provokes, for me, questions about the relationship between sacred music and secular listeners. Performances in Portland on January 28 and 29 promise to be stirring events for believers and nonbelievers alike.

Cappella Romana performs Rautavaara’s ‘Vigilia’ Saturday and Sunday in Portland.

Rautavaara, who died last year at age 87, was known for abrupt and radical stylistic shifts. A young adept of the neoclassical era, he jumped ship in the mid-1950s to explore 12-tone and serial compositional techniques, a focus that prevailed through the ’60s, in commanding pieces with abstract titles: Praevariata, Modificata, Divertimento, Cantos (a favorite among structuralists). Toward the end of this period, his comic opera Apollo contra Marsyas foreshadowed Rautavaara’s turn to sensuous inspiration and concerns of the soul and heart as opposed to the mind. In an uncanny symbolism, and in line with the composer’s confessions of self-focus, Marsyas loses his hide (he is a satyr), his very outward being, after challenging Apollo, the supreme agent of reason, to a musical contest. It is hard not to see the abandoning of reason (Apollo/serialism) and the transformation (losing one’s hide) to sensuality/spirituality via metaphorical death — the Dionysus/Apollo dichotomy in its most personal expression.

In the 1970s, Rautavaara’s music became the servant of a spiritual transformation and fed the composer’s maturing sensuality and religiosity on into his later years—becoming a music that some call mystical. He was only one of many composers in the late 1960s and early ‘70s to abandon the deliberate modernism of the 12-tone row and total serialism and embrace tonal/modal music of static dynamics and repetitive forms. For Rautavaara and others, the American minimalists Reich and Riley included, that transformation involved re-examination of spiritual convictions and religious heritage.

Einojuhani Rautavaara in the 1950s.

In Estonia, Arvo Pärt fled the barren territory of modernism and the dogged oppression of Soviet culture henchmen to convalesce in ancient music forms only to return a master of mystical minimalism. His countryman Veljo Tormis had years earlier plunged into the virtually bottomless well of Baltic folk song to produce authigenic vocal works—expansive and primal—that have been performed internationally to great acclaim and that gained considerable momentum in the atmosphere of holy minimalism of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ’90s.

And across the Baltic Sea’s Gulf of Finland, Rautavaara, feeling that serialism produced results too far removed from the laborious compositional process to have sustainable meaning, tamed his angular, unforgivingly textural serial voice of the 1960s to produce transcendent vocal compositions held aloft by susurrous orchestral textures and often employing Christian sacred texts.

Vigilia (or All Night Vigil) from 1972, a setting of sections of the Eastern Orthodox Vespers, Matins, and First Hour based on the Orthodox vigil of St. John the Baptist for full a capella choir with solos—including basso profundo (sung in Portland by Grammy-winning soloist Glenn Miller)—is Rautavaara’s first piece with overt religious text. The 1970s produced other religious works (largely choral or vocal based) and Cantus Arcticus, an orchestral work which can be heard as a spiritual homage to the Arctic, to nature (a shared focus of American composer John Luther Adams), with the voices of the choir replaced by songs of birds performed via tape recordings. The opening of the composer’s heart absorbed his reverence for nature as well as his faith.


OOPS. HERE IT IS A WEEK into December, and you’ve still got that shopping stuff to do. You sort of thought this would be the year you bought local – you know, support the place you live in sort of thing – but it’s all a bit confusing, and you’re really not sure where to start.

Hannah Wells 8 x 8-inch artwork in “The Big 500.”

So let us introduce you to The Big 500, an all-local, all-art, low-cost and accessible event produced by “people’s artists” Chris Haberman and Jason Brown and sprawling across the Ford Gallery in the Ford Building, 2505 Southeast 11th Avenue. Now in its ninth year, The Big 500 is actually more than that – 500+ Portland area artists, each creating 8 x 8 inch pieces on wood panels, each piece for sale for $40. More than 5,000 works will be on hand, and besides putting some cash in local artists’ pockets, the event raises money for the Oregon Food Bank, which can put it to extremely good use.

The sale kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday and continues through December 23. It’s a pretty wild scene, with all sorts of stuff at all sorts of levels of accomplishment, and it’s more than a bit of a crap shoot: you might walk in and find ten pieces you absolutely must have for the people on your list, or you might strike out. Either way, the sheer volume of objects is pretty amazing. And what you spend here stays here. You’re welcome.


ArtsWatch Weekly: all that glitters, all that glows

A holiday compendium: in dark times, a triumph of artistic light

I read the news today, oh boy. It’s a compulsion begun in childhood with the sports and comics pages of broadsheet newspapers (Duke Snider! Alley Oop!) and expanded, as I grew older, into the full range of world events and a long career inside the sausage factory of the newsgathering game. Rarely has the news looked more bleak or fragile than it does today: who knows where that latest piece of Internet-amplified information came from, or whether it was invented by fierce partisans out of outsourced whole cloth, without a whiff of objectivity or credibility? Truth becomes the loudest voice; the loudest voice becomes the truth. Oh boy, indeed.

Miya Zolkoske and Andrea Whittle (foreground) with ensemble in "A Civil War Christmas." Photo: Owen Carey

Miya Zolkoske and Andrea Whittle (foreground) with ensemble in “A Civil War Christmas.” Photo: Owen Carey

Hardly a time, it would seem, for visions of sugarplums. And yet, as the holidays roar into their inescapable month of triumph (if there’s a “war on Christmas,” its battlefields seem to be in places like Walmart and Macy’s and Amazon) I find myself, once again, comforted by the beauty and ritual of the season’s quiet core. At our house we have our own holiday rituals, including a strict paternal ban on pulling out the Christmas CDs before Thanksgiving, a ruling that is regularly and gleefully broken by the better natures of the household, who know a sucker when they see one. Lately, having once again acquiesced to the inevitable, I’ve been listening to an old favorite, “Christmas in Eastern Europe,” from the Bucharest Madrigal Choir.