oregon symphony

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.


Oregon Symphony ‘SoundSight’ series: Music to our eyes

This weekend's production of Olivier Messiaen's 'Turangalila' symphony features complementary video projections

For centuries, orchestras have been expensive vehicles for presenting sophisticated symphonic sounds. But as non-classical shows have added visual elements from projections to smoke to colorful lighting, even classical music audiences increasingly expect to see something onstage besides tuxedoed musicians staring at music stands and sawing away on their strings. This weekend’s Oregon Symphony program shows the orchestra committing to appealing to its audience’s eyes as well as ears.

The orchestra’s performance of 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen’s massive Turangalila symphony features video art by Rose Bond, an animator and media artist at Pacific Northwest College of Art. The concert is the second in this season’s new SoundSight series, part of Oregon Symphony President Scott Showalter’s effort to venture beyond standard repertory.

The Oregon Symphony's "Turangalila" will include projections created by Portland video artist Rose Bond.

The Oregon Symphony’s “Turangalila” will include projections created by Portland video artist Rose Bond.

“It’s not enough anymore to have cookie-cutter programs with an overture, concerto with guest artist, then a symphony on the second half,” Showalter says. He aims to both broaden (with the recent upsurge in concerts featuring pop stars from various generations to live performances with video game and film soundtracks) and deepen (with seldom performed classical works) the symphony’s programming.

With the SoundSight series, “we asked, ‘How can we reimagine core symphonic works in a way that advances the composer’s vision,” using visual arts. Showalter says. “It’s not just a gimmick.”


Oregon Symphony review: Making and missing the magic

Orchestra’s performance of lesser known works more than makes up for its humdrum Beethoven  


The Oregon Symphony’s November 5th, 6th, and 7th concerts bore the title “Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.” As several ushers and audience members told this reviewer in reference to the nearly full house at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Monday the 7th, “Oh yes. Beethoven.” The Symphony knows what sells tickets. Put the magic name on the posters and the people will come.

Fair enough, but in the event the orchestra also played two other substantial pieces before the intermission, and played them with more flair than Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major.

Guest conductor Hans Graf’s interpretation of this Romantic warhorse broke no new ground, but how can one break new ground with such an overplayed classic? On the other hand, there was something slightly less than magical about the Pastoral, and Beethoven’s symphony relies on magic. The combination of a powerful and assertive Beethovian orchestra with lovely, almost pacifist music is at the heart of the Sixth, and therein lies its appeal and uniqueness, along with its program music descriptions of the five movements. Graf’s Sixth was okay, but one believes the Oregon Symphony can do better than just okay.

 Hans Graf conducted the Oregon Symphony.

Hans Graf conducted the Oregon Symphony.

It wasn’t Graf’s tempos that dampened the mystery. At 45 minutes his Pastoral was toward the long side of the recorded spectrum — Herbert von Karajan, Neeme Järvi, Roger Norrington, Bernard Haitink, John Eliot Gardiner, George Szell, and Arturo Toscanini all did it from three to seven minutes faster — but Graf wasn’t in bad company, with Leonard Bernstein, Christian Thielemann, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer, and Wolfgang Sawaalisch all clocking in at around his speed. And while the Sixth does contain a number of potentially tricky entrances on the upbeat for either all the strings or the entire orchestra, these were not overly noticeable. Rather, after the rigors of the program’s first half, Graf simply seemed less meticulously or physically involved in the conducting: less attentive to detail, more sparing in gesture, vaguer in tempo indications. Then again, perhaps he and the orchestra were simply tired on the third night of performing an exhausting program.

The demands on the performers, and the rewards for the audience, had come abundantly in the first half of the program. Graf conducted Robert Schumann’s mini-symphony Overture, Scherzo, and Finale, written in 1841, as if he’d grown up hearing it in his mother’s womb. A more polished, suave, and effective performance can scarcely be imagined. With brilliant attention to tempo changes, both abrupt and gradual (rubato), Graf seemed to conduct the orchestra players’ every gesture, and they responded with silky, glistening precision. Schumann’s music, not always considered on a par with his some of his longer symphonies (which add a slow movement to this piece’s three), emerged as a resplendent 18-minute showpiece and a more than substantial concert-opener.

It was difficult to imagine how Graf and the Symphony could keep up such a high level, but their fresh rendition of Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion, and String Orchestra was a revelation. The Concerto and Martin’s compositional style in general have been described as a mix of Ravel and Stravinsky, and this seems accurate. In this piece, he sets out to place each of the seven wind instruments in relation to the others and to the symphonic strings, to illustrate some of the many ways the sounds of wind and string compare and contrast. Against a melodic template reminiscent of ravishing Ravel melodies begun and then, in spiky Stravinskian fashion, abandoned in favor of others before they are fully developed, Martin uses his three movements, lasting a total of 22 minutes in Maestro Graf’s performance, to accomplish his goal in three different ways. In the first movement Allegro, each of the seven wind instruments is given its own music. They return in the second movement Adagietto—Misterioso ed elegante in music now peaceful and now violent against a relentless and slow duple-meter tick-tock, which becomes an urgent crescendo before disappearing into a beautifully plaintive solo for trombone. The third movement, a dancelike Allegro vivace, brings in the soloists one at a time, beginning with the flute, and then puts them into lively groups of two or three, with colorful results. A rambunctious timpani solo interrupts the proceedings briefly towards the end.

Monday’s Concerto was an extremely effective performance of a difficult piece, every bit the equal of Graf’s Schumann. Deserving of special mention are Carin Miller Packwood’s explorations of the bassoon from the top to the bottom of its range, Jeffrey Work’s triple-tonguing and otherwise immaculate trumpet work, and Daniel Cloutier’s soulful trombone. The other four soloists — five including Niel de Ponte’s timpani and all drawn from the orchestra — played with verve and accuracy.

But primary kudos must be reserved for Hans Graf for conducting of exemplary taste and involvement. If things lagged a little after the intermission, Beethoven’s invincible monument more than survived the experience, and even earned a partial standing ovation — “Oh yes. Beethoven” — from an audience that did not similarly reward the Schumann or the Martin. Perhaps they will the next time these pieces are programmed and so beautifully played.

Recommended recordings

• Schumann Overture, Scherzo and Finale: Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden (EMI/Warner Classics 522128).

• Martin Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion, and String Orchestra: Matthias Bamert conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Chandos 9283).

• Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in F Major: Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical 64462); George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony 89838).

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: vote, and other opportunities

Looking back, looking ahead: a week's worth of theater, dance, music, film, and art in and around Portland

After all that feuding and fussing it’s election day, and nothing on this week’s calendar is more important. In Oregon, with its vote-by-mail elections, that means today is last chance, not first chance. Remember, ballots must be received by 8 p.m. Tuesday, not just postmarked by today. That means it’s too late to mail your ballot: You’ll need to drop it off. You can do that at your branch library and other designated spots. If you haven’t turned your ballot in yet, stop reading this right now and get ‘er done. If your vote is safely cast, scroll on down and take a look at a few visual reminders that the United States has been doing this for a long time. Except for the Bingham painting, the images come from the Library of Congress’s 2012 book Presidential Campaign Posters: 200 Years of Election Art:

"The County Election," George Caleb Bingham, 1852, oil on canvas, 38 x 52 inches, Saint Louis Art Museum

“The County Election,” George Caleb Bingham, 1852, oil on canvas, 38 x 52 inches, Saint Louis Art Museum




Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival. The 43rd edition of the Northwest Film Center’s annual regional showcase runs Thursday through Tuesday at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium and Portland State University’s nearby 5th Avenue Cinema and Skype Live Studio. Shorts, features, and documentaries ranging from the battle over water rights to an internet horror tale to life in a modern medieval village.

Epoch. An evening of new dance from Samuel Hobbs (November) of push/FOLD and ArtsWatch dance columnist Jamuna Chiarini (The Kitchen Sink), with music by Hobbs and Lisa DeGrace. Friday and Saturday, BodyVox Dance Center.


Oregon Symphony review: Disappearing act

Hallowe'en concerts deliver three tasty treats and one unhappy trick


Under a typically energetic music director Carlos Kalmar, the Oregon Symphony delivered a powerful yet always beautifully nuanced Hallowe’en concert. The band played with soul and precision in a program of Leos Janacek, Sergei Prokofiev, and Samuel Barber. But something important was missing.

That something was a convincing— even an acceptable — performance by the evening’s featured soloist, violinist Joseph Swensen.

Violinist Joseph Swensen

Violinist Joseph Swensen

After a ten-year stint as conductor of the well-regarded Scottish Chamber Orchestra and spells as conductor of other orchestras and opera companies, Mr. Swensen has lately concentrated on appearing as a soloist, but his involvement with chamber music has been a lifelong passion, and this taste for intimate music was all too evident in his playing of Barber’s 1939 Violin Concerto.

Throughout all three movements — the lovely thirteen-minute Allegro, the equally fetching eight-minute Andante, and the lightning-fast four-minute Presto — Swensen played facing the orchestra, as if participating in a string quartet in someone’s living room. Worse, his tone was fatally soft. Most of his notes were lost in the orchestral texture around him when they should have led the way. Swensen’s right arm was the lightest this reviewer has ever heard in a solo violinist. All of the beautiful interplay of the first two movements was simply lost as Swensen seemed to try to usurp an orchestra seat rather than play his designated role. And the perpetual-motion finale, which should be a bravura display, 110 measures of non-stop arpeggios, came across as a sort of noisy dumb show, with Swensen virtually inaudible throughout. At the end, he threw up his arms exultantly, like a marathon runner, and the audience responded to his gesture with an undeserved but all too common Portland standing ovation. This seemed an ironic commentary after such a disappointing experience.

Swensen’s performance seemed a double shame because the orchestra played so well under Maestro Kalmar’s sensitive, detailed, and precise direction. Soft passages throughout the evening were especially good, achieving the goal of quietness with no loss of rhythmic gesture, one of the marks of great orchestras. And in the final movement, with the strings and winds flying beside the solo line, the playing was sure and confident.

Devilish Doings

As was the orchestra’s playing in the first half of the program. Kalmar warmed up the band and the audience with a six-minute version of Janacek’s excerpt from the Prelude of his final opera The House of the Dead, composed in 1927, just a year before the composer’s death. The lugubrious subject matter, drawn from Dostoevsky’s autobiographical story of the four years he spent in Siberian prisons, seemed appropriate for Hallowe’en, even if it contrasted somewhat with the exuberant and colorful, if violent, instrumentation of Janacek’s score. It was a fitting introduction to the concert’s longest offering at 35 minutes, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3.



Unlike the closing work in the Oregon Symphony’s October 22-4 concerts, Richard Strauss’s 1898 tone poem Ein HeldenlebenAndrew Norman’s 2015 percussion concerto, Switch is not explicitly a hero’s journey. But, invoking videogames as it does, one can’t help but sense a quest theme for these concerts. After all, the great videogame protagonists were all on some sort of heroic quest or another. Mario and Luigi, Link and Zelda, Samus Aran, Lara Croft — to name only a few — go through most of the phases outlined by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his legendary Hero With a Thousand FacesI suppose we could compare the start menu with the call to adventure. Norman’s concerto follows the same basic pattern, sending the percussionist on a journey across the stage through several distinct phases of challenges and obstacles.

Soloist Colin Currie, for whom the concerto was composed, described his experience playing the piece as feeling like the pinball in an arcade game, ricocheting around the stage between three different arrays of percussion instruments. In the composer’s words: “The soloist, dropped into this complex contraction of causes and effects like the unwitting protagonist of a videogame, must figure out the rules of this universe on the fly, all while trying to avoid the rewind-inducing missteps that prevent progress from one side of the stage to the other.”

Percussionist Colin Currie performed with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Percussionist Colin Currie performed with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

The orchestra started alone, sounding the call to adventure, and after a few minutes the percussionist rushed in from stage left to play quick figures across the first, gigantic percussion array, delivering complex syncopated runs on a set of huge almglocken (tuned cowbells), congas and bongos, concert toms, temple blocks, and tin cans before climaxing on the snare drum and cymbals. Currie handled his entrance marvelously, dashing in breathlessly over waves of whistles and cheers. A jolly impish grin on his face, he hopped through the opening gestures with nimble flair, checking in furtively with his music and conductor Carlos Kalmar while scurrying from one section of the array to another.

Composer Andrew Norman

Composer Andrew Norman wrote ‘Switch.’

Once the piece got rolling, the title’s meaning became clear. Certain gestures in the percussion parts — woodblock strokes and cymbal chokes for Currie, slapsticks and log drums for the orchestral percussionists stationed around the orchestra — switched on and off the different layers of music (what Norman calls “channels”) throughout the orchestra. The effect was quite striking, if I may be excused the pun. Screeching violins and howling trombones would start up a wailing cacophony quite out of nowhere, and then stop just as suddenly, exactly as if a switch were being thrown or a button being pressed.

This back-and-forth progressed towards a climax, at which point Currie was suddenly sent back to the beginning, tumbling back down to the far end of the percussion array to restart the opening gestures on the almglocken, congas, and tin cans. Each time he returned, he did a little better—and moved through the passages faster and faster. Every successful completion of the opening passages would bring him to new musical material. It was just like “dying” in a videogame and having to start all over, rushing through familiar early levels to get to the next area.


Doing anything Friday night? How about hanging out on 82nd Avenue?

The East Side strip, which runs north-south for many miles, was once considered a barrier of sorts between the city and the sprawl, and also an economic barrier, with a richer urban population to the west and a poorer, semi-rural population to the east. East County didn’t get in the game very much, and when it did, it was often as a political football. 82nd became neon central, home to everything from used car lots to Southeast Asian restaurants to massage parlors – and, increasingly, a rich stew of ethnic and immigrant cultures.

Signs of the times: Sabina Haque's 82nd Avenue.

Signs of the times: Sabina Haque’s 82nd Avenue.

That’s what makes it interesting to Portland artist Sabina Haque, a very good painter and collagist whose work in recent years has moved also toward installation, film, and cultural and cross-cultural projects, including her provocative series on drone warfare in Pakistan, where she grew up.

Haque, as artist in residence for the Portland Archives & Records Center, has been digging deeply into the area’s long and complicated history, finding a cultural through-line to match the strip of concrete that divides culture from culture and east from west. From 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday she’ll unveil what she’s created in Annexation & Assimilation: East 82nd Ave, a giant exhibition/event in the 8,000-square-foot APANO/JADE multicultural center at 82nd and Southeast Division Street. The free event will include video projections on 20-foot screens, oral histories, shadow theater, poster installations and more – for some, a rousing introduction to a part of Portland they hardly know; to others, a simple statement of the place they live.


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