oregon symphony

ArtsWatch Weekly: barking mad

Biting into September's shows, Brett Campbell's music picks, Miss Ethnic Non-Specific, West African drumming & dance, more

Here we are in the Dog Days of Summer, and we pretty much know what the phrase means: that hot and often muggy stretch of August that seems to last forever, when the sun saps energy and the whole world seems to lag. But where did the saying come from?

Maybe from the rising of the dog star, Sirius – a period, as Wikipedia describes it, that “Greek and Roman astrology connected with heat, drought, sudden thunderstorms, lethargy, fever, mad dogs, and bad luck.” Not to mention this week’s Dog Days interloper, the lunar blotting-out of the sun. The story ambles down from Zeus to Achilles, Hector, Seneca, and Pliny, on into the medical lore of the early modern age and even the Age of Reason: The Clavis Calendria of 1813 declares that in the Dog Days “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, Quinto raged with anger, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies.”

It’s their time: “Pierrepont Edward Lacy and His Dog, Gun,” attributed to Milton W. Hopkins, 1835-36, oil on canvas, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York

All of which, frankly, has us looking forward to September, which in the cultural world (maybe as a carryover from the traditional school calendar) is the true time of fresh beginnings. Theater seasons begin to kick in. The dance calendar gets busy. The Oregon Symphony gets ready to swing into action again. TBA, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s annual Time-Based Art festival, overtakes the city Sept. 7-17.

Continues…

Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Oregon Symphony reviews: making old music new

On a single May weekend, two Portland orchestras tried different approaches to renewing a venerable musical form

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

“All music was new to start out with,” said the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra executive director Betsy Hatton from the stage steps at First United United Methodist Church.

I can appreciate her gentle chiding: it’s a rare thing to go to an orchestra concert with any new music at all on the bill. So it was a pleasant surprise to attend a concert where an Oregon orchestra performed works by not one but two living composers.

Steven Byess led Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra’s season-ending concert.

First, though, concertmaster Dawn Carter and director-conductor Steven Byess warmed us up on some old music: Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. I had somehow never heard the PCSO before, and I was immediately impressed by their balanced sound: spry and nuanced and playful and a little melancholy. The strings sounded especially crisp and articulate, warm and expressive but not washy (at least, not where I was sitting). My heart warmed to the lovely horn playing, a rare treat, while the oboe’s insouciant tone on some of the bluer melodicles reminded me of just how much Gershwin owed to Debussy. Principal flutist Liberty Broillet nailed that difficult and oh-so-tonally-important quiet C#-centered motive that recurs throughout the little tone poem like the titular faun’s pan pipe (not for nothing is that C# one of the flute’s most difficult notes).

I was struck by how freshly old the music sounded, if I may be forgiven the paradox: I’ve heard this piece hundreds of times, and while it never sounds new, it never really sounds old either. PCSO made it sound appropriately timeless. Colorful, dreamy, luxuriant, detailed Debussy is a composer much better suited to live listening than recordings, and by the end of I was all chilled out and ready for some New Music.

Continues…

Oregon Symphony review: going big

Orchestra's season closing concerts feature large scale Mahler and Stravinsky, and a big success in a "Little Russian" symphony

by TERRY ROSS

On May 15, people came for the show, and thanks to dancers and puppets, they got it. And thanks to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, they also got some memorable music.

The “show” in question was the third in this season’s Oregon Symphony series of multi-media events, called Persephone. Earlier installments were based on Bela Bartok’s 1911 opera  Bluebeard’s Castle  and Olivier Messiaen’s 1948 opus Turangalila, and they involved projected images, creative lighting, unusual instruments (an ondes martenot for Messiaen), among other effects. For Igor Stravinsky’s Persephone, which premiered in 1934, the requisite large orchestra, giant choir, children’s choir, tenor soloist, and female narrator were abetted by the puppetry of multiple Emmy award-winning Michael Curry and dancer Anna Marra, from Portland’s BodyVox. The whole bunch were led by OSO maestro Carlos Kalmar.

Oregon Symphony’s ‘Persephone’ featured striking design by Oregon’s Michael Curry. Photo: Brud Giles.

The 48-minute Persephone show came after the intermission, with the orchestra onstage before an evocative set featuring a glowing sun/moon. The text by André Gide was declaimed and sung in French by, respectively, French actress Pauline Chelviller, who did the role a couple of years ago under director Peter Sellars, and American tenor Paul Groves, an opera singer in considerable demand. Gide famously didn’t care for Stravinsky’s refusal to treat his text as poetry and boycotted the premiere.

His point was well taken. Throughout his career, Stravinsky was never enamored of close textual settings, preferring to regard words as merely syllables and to appropriate their meaning in a more general sense. So in Persephone, the outlines of the music follow the heroine, who is the goddess of springtime, as she is abducted from earth and made to be the underworld mate of Hades, god of the dead, then released (for a while) each year to ensure the appearance of spring on earth before returning to her life below. In a generally vapid score (one of Stravinsky’s weakest), the orchestra makes some Stravinskyan gestures (introductory statements by high-pitched brasses of percussion, decorous string writing in his Neo-Classical stage) to accompany the narrative.

But the real heroes of this production were the lively massed choruses — Portland State University’s Chamber Choir and members of the Pacific Youth Choir — the puppeteer, and the featured dancer. Combined with the lighting director, these participants never let the action flag, even when Stravinsky’s music strongly suggests it might. They carry the “show.” I was especially enchanted by Mr. Curry’s flying spirits, by his puppet of Persephone (also known in mythology as Proserpina), and especially by Ms. Marra’s mind-bending contortions as a flying version of Persephone. She flew through the air as if freed from gravity, every gesture lyrical and lovely.

Continues…

Oregon Symphony review: a ‘Persephone’ redeemed by puppetry

Non musical elements help flawed Stravinsky music drama succeed

by BRUCE BROWNE

Persephone lends itself wonderfully to interdisciplinary artistic collaboration. Called a “melodrama” by its composer, Igor Stravinsky, it is a ballet, with a tenor soloist, a choir, an orchestra and a grandiose mythological melodrama out of which visual effects can spring.

Persephone was the final production in the three-part SoundSights series mounted by the Oregon Symphony this year, the previous two being the Bartok opera Bluebeard’s Castle and Messiaen’s Turangalila (click titles for Oregon Arts Watch reviews).

Saturday evening’s supersensorium included fabulous optics, impeccable singing, a superb orchestra, solid acting and imaginative and colorful costumes and puppetry. For this gesamtkunstwerk, the best were engaged: Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony, Pauline Cheviler (Persephone the narrator), Anna Marra (Persephone the dancer) and the choirs (Portland State University Chamber Choir and Pacific Youth Choir). The visual concept was handed over to Oregon theatrical designer Michael Curry.

Michael Curry’s puppetry enhanced ‘Persephone.’

In choosing Curry to join Washington glass master Dale Chihuly and Portland media artist Rose Bond as the third SoundSights collaborator, the orchestra again nurtured the tremendous pool of talent in the Pacific Northwest.

Curry’s bold theatrical designs have been captivating audiences worldwide at Olympic events, in theaters, at the Metropolitan Opera and in Disney productions. He and his team toiled in their studio facility in Scappoose, Oregon to offer visual genius to the production.

It’s clear that the SoundSight initiative has drawn many new ears and eyes to the concerts, a generous portion of them younger, as we saw lots of children Saturday night, buzzing about upcoming sightings of flying goddesses, animated trees, a graceful deer and a Brobdingnagian, roseate King of Hades. Ghostly kites, tree human roots morphing into hairdos, and eerily human puppets were stunning, bringing the mythology to life.

And thank the Greek gods, because the non musical elements are absolutely essential to making Stravinsky’s Persephone relatable and digestible.

Continues…

ArtsWatch Weekly: Really big show

Going big: Perséphone with puppets, an American in Paris, Mahler's grand sweep, the sounds of Cuba and Lou Harrison

At the Portland Showtime Bistro, audiences like things well-done, but often served small to medium. We enjoy our intimacy, from compact ensembles like Portland Baroque Orchestra and FearNoMusic to closeup theater spaces like CoHo, the Back Door, the Ellyn Bye Studio, Shoebox, and Shaking the Tree. Summer’s coming, and with it, once again, that sprawling celebration of good things in small packages, the Chamber Music Northwest summer festival (with a welcome emphasis this year on women composers).

But sometimes you want the whole darned smorgasbord, and only big will do. Portland can provide that, too, and lately it’s been doing so … well, big-time.

Big night on the town: Portland Opera’s “La Bohème.” Photo: Cory Weaver.

Portland Opera’s just completed its grand-scale production of Puccini’s overflowing romantic potboiler La Bohème (Terry Ross reviewed it for ArtsWatch here) and is saddling up for a June musical-theater adventure in giant-windmill territory with Man of La Mancha (featuring Grimm star Reggie Lee as one of the best sidekicks in history, Sancho Panza).

Continues…

ArtsWatch Weekly: Great Graham

Revisiting Martha Graham's potent power of the past; a Wanderlust Mother's Day; Michael Curry's "Perséphone" with the Symphony; Brett Campbell's music picks

Martha Graham created her legendary American modern dance company in 1926, and it’s difficult to imagine, more than 90 years later, just how earth-shattering her early works must have seemed. Graham carved legends out of time and space: intense, pristine, pared to the bone. She created a hyper-expressionist, essentially American style of dance, built on the works of Denishawn and other pioneers but reimagined in the movement possibilities and theatrical impulses of her own body.

She collaborated with many of the great composers and visual artists of her time, which was long and artistically fertile: born in 1894, she created her final dance in 1990, the year before she died at age 96. Her bold, emphatic approach to dance can seem overstated to contemporary audiences. Yet it carries the intensity and hyper-expressionism of the great silent movies, and if you just give it a chance, something of the pure rawness of her glory years comes through, as if it were new all over again.

Martha Graham in “Dark Meadow,” 1946. Reproduced with permission of Martha Graham Resources, a division of The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, www.marthagraham.org. Library of Congress.

No company built by a daringly original dancemaker – not Graham’s, or Balanchine’s, or Alvin Ailey’s, or José Limón’s – can survive on memories of its founder alone, and it can be a tricky business to balance the tradition of what was once radical with the need to remain in the contemporary swim of things. The Graham company, under current artistic director Janet Eilber, mixes things up boldly. When the company performs Wednesday evening in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the White Bird dance season the program will include works by a couple of high-profile contemporary dancemakers: the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, who now runs the Berlin State Ballet, and the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. But the core of the program will be two of Graham’s own works, 1948’s Diversion of Angels and Dark Meadow Suite, a distillation of an ambitious 1946 work that ran 50 minutes in its original form (the suite is much shorter).

Continues…

Oregon Symphony review: Time for a change

Professional Oregon vocalists could enhance orchestra's growing international standing

by TERRY ROSS

In keeping with an annual tradition, the Oregon Symphony presented a big choral work April 8-10 at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The choir was the Portland Symphonic Choir, founded back in the mid-20th century for just this purpose. In the years following, the Symphonic Choir went on to create an independent identity, giving a regular season of concerts.

Mozart’s monumental Requiem, which takes nearly an hour to perform, constituted the second half of the concert, and let it be said immediately that the performance was entirely adequate. The choir did its thing on cue, the pared-down orchestra played very well, and French Canadian guest conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni led the ensemble with evident appreciation for the music.

And yet… and yet. “Entirely adequate” is not acceptable these days for Oregon Symphony performances. This orchestra has improved immeasurably since the old days, and even more rapidly since Carlos Kalmar became Music Director in 2003. A former minor band has become an accepted major orchestra, perhaps not quite on a par with New York and Chicago, but not far behind. It attracts the same big-name soloists as the orchestras in New York, Chicago, London, and Berlin. Its use, therefore, of the all-amateur Symphonic Choir is a diminution.

In the April 10 performance, after the players and singers had two performances behind them, the effect of Mozart’s gloriously moving music was muted by the choir and by the staging, as well as the hall’s notorious acoustics. The choir should sound more immediate, more piercing, to give Mozart’s brilliant Handelian counterpoint its due. A 25- or 30-voice group of professional local choristers, singers who are paid by the likes of Cappella Romana, The Ensemble, and Resonance Ensemble, would make a far greater impact — and a louder “noise” — in performance than the 70 singers of the Symphonic Choir. And a smaller choir would allow for its being placed on the stage with the orchestra, rather than sequestered in the elevated rear-stage balcony, with its devouring acoustics and rotten sight lines.

The Symphony should profit by the example of numerous Portland Baroque Orchestra performances with chorus, in which 24 local singers (now usually Cappella Romana) never fail to provide a vivid presence. Performances with a giant choir are perhaps suitable for some late-19th-century repertoire and 20th-century extravaganzas like Carmina Burana, but for music of the 18th century and earlier, most conductors have long since abandoned cumbersome overcrowded stagings.

Perhaps the Oregon Symphony routinely brings in vocal soloists from elsewhere, as if to prove that it deserves international attention. But this seems unfortunate, both from a financial and artistic standpoint. First, importing soloists costs more in fees and transportation and housing expenses. In the case of April’s Requiem performances, local singers, auditioned by Carlos Kalmar, could easily have taken the place of soprano Katie Van Kooten, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Jack Swanson, and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams. These four did a reasonably suitable job with the rather meager solo material of Mozart’s piece, but certainly not a better job than a local quartet could have supplied. With a select local chorus and local soloists, the Symphony could thus have maintained its commitment to its community, while at the same time producing a better musical result and benefitting from the attendance of the Portland singers’ family and friends.

Continues…