Pavel Haas Quartet, Black Violin reviews: on and off the record

Two Portland string-centric concerts show the complementary values of live and recorded performances

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

One thing you can’t get from a live show—portability. I’ve been walking around town listening to Black Violin and the Pavel Haas Quartet everywhere I go. Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself on the bus cranking up BV’s punchy “Rhapsody” (off their first album, Classically Trained); walking home through Ladd’s Addition in the middle of the night, blasting PHQ’s astounding Schubert recordings after a late rehearsal, or in the bath chillaxing with their lovely recent recording of the Smetana quartets; I’m dashing to a composition lesson, late as usual, sneaking in one last round of “Day 2” (off BV’s second album Stereotypes) as I wend my way through throngs of dogs and their students soaking up the late spring sunshine in Portland State’s parks and flowery paths.

Another benefit of recordings, one which well complements the live experience, is their potential to bring non-linear temporality to the whole listening experience. You only hear the music live once (unless you’re following Phish around), but you can listen to the recording over and over again. Hell, you can listen to one movement over and over if you want to, or even just that one super cool break between the bridge and the last chorus. Conversely, when you know a group’s recorded output it gives the live experience a different kind of familiarity; I heard this first hand when I walked into Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last month for Black Violin and the whole audience was already singing the hits. And that works the other direction, too: when I listen to these albums, I remember what I saw and heard at the concerts, making an otherwise dry and solitary activity much more stimulating. …

Black Violin: Live and Recorded

Just this morning my partner and I had a crazy little Breakfast Adventure, trying to find a decent diner-style brunch spot downtown. I was all cranky because I just wanted to get some greasy eggs and coffee and get back to work (on this review), coffee-deprivation was turning into anti-gentrification rage, and the beautiful morning was turning into an unseasonably sweltering Portland afternoon as the sun grimaced down on the southwest sidewalks.

Black Violin’s Wil Baptiste performed in Portland last month. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

We finally ended up at a little cafe on West Burnside, exhausted from our fruitless diner quest, and settled for a couple of breakfast croissants and steaming cups of hot, delicious, hipster coffee. As I sat there steaming over my lost work day, The Universe (or rather one of Her agents, Our Lady Eris), played a little practical joke on me. Drifting out of the quaint cafe’s radio, sandwiched incongruously between aughtsie classics like Modest Mouse’s “Float On” and some Strokes song I couldn’t remember the name of, came the familiar strains of Black Violin’s “Virtuoso”, off their first album, 2012’s Classically Trained. A little jab from a jovial goddess, teasing me out of my grouchy writer’s block. This, too, is what recorded music is for.

Another thing you can’t get from a record: the intimacy of performer and audience. My colleague Maria Choban has already given Black Violin’s mixed Schnitz crowd a better description than I can; I want to know where she goes to “buy her young” because I could use some too. I had to laugh at my stationary Irish ass, flabbily filling a front row seat while everyone around me boogied and cheered and waved their hands in the air.

Portland5 and Chamber Music Northwest brought Black Violin to Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

It would be hard to pick a favorite “live” feature from this show: Wil strumming his viola like a uke and leading a sweet sing-along of “Invisible”; Kev taking solo after blistering solo on his badass electric violin, a giant grin radiating out from under his cap; the band’s customary totally improvised number, not just some simple jam (though there were jammy elements, here and throughout) but a full-on group-improvised song, complete with extended down-beat negotiation and impeccable on-the-spot decision-making from the whole group; DJ SPS’s ridiculous turntable skills and witty, PDQ Bach-esque solos; BRAVO Youth Orchestra coming up on stage for “Magic” and the Copland-inspired “Shaker,” starstruck-but-confident young violinist Luis Chan-Hernandez taking the solo with Kev and nailing it with a sly smile while attentively eyeing the older man’s more advanced bowing technique; Wil and Kev encouraging each other and their band and their fans and the kids on stage, pumping each other up, breaking stereotypes, showing “what a black man is capable of” and reminding us that “there’s always hope to fuel the fire.”

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Vanport Mosaic

Remembering the destruction of a city and its culture, Brett Campbell's music picks, arts in Wilsonville, kabuki, and more

Sixty-nine years ago today, on May 30, 1948, a 200-foot section of dike burst in the lowlands south of the Columbia River and north of Portland, and the untamed river’s waters burst in, inundating the city of Vanport and killing 15 people. Almost overnight what had been the second-largest city in Oregon, with a population of about 40,000 at its peak, was no more. People fled in a panic, a more orderly evacuation made impossible because up to the last moment the Army Corps of Engineers and the Housing Authority of Portland had assured the city’s residents – many of them black or Japanese American, almost all of them working-class – that the dike was safe, and there was no need to worry.

Shipyard workers and Vanport residents, with their paychecks. City of Portland Archives.

Today there is little evidence of Vanport, which in its six brief years of existence had been a thriving “instant” community built to house wartime workers in the Kaiser shipyards and their families. Up to 40 percent of the population was African American, and although the neighborhoods were segregated, the schools and after-hours social life were not. Vanport was hardly a Utopia of cultural and racial harmony, but at the time it might have been the most socially progressive community in an almost completely white state.

All of that ended with the floodwaters, almost in a blink. But the memory lingers on. People who lived there or were born there are still alive; others are their children and remember the family stories. And the annual Vanport Mosaic Festival, a four-day event that this year ended Monday and marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the city’s birth, helps keep the flame alive.

On Sunday afternoon I went to the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, where much of the action took place (the center’s upstairs galleries hold a nice exhibition on Vanport’s history and culture) to see staged readings of two plays that were central attractions of the festival: Michael A. Jones’s Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water and Don W. Glenn’s American Summer Squash. Both are by African American playwrights, and both are about the displacement and trauma and readjustment of people caught in the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the 2005 flooding of vast African American neighborhoods of New Orleans, an event that echoed the Vanport flood in both its environmental and its cultural effects.

Overturned cars and other devastation after the Vanport deluge of 1948. City of Portland Archives

There was, in spite of the tracing of vibrant African American cultures being shattered at least temporarily, and the lingering cultural and political questions about exactly why and how that happened, a feeling of hopefulness in the dramas and a sense of joy in the event itself. These are our stories. They are good to tell, and good to hear. That two stories of New Orleans were told in a celebration of the legacy of Vanport seemed fitting, somehow: the widely known disaster of Katrina, which cost at least 1,200 lives across the hurricane’s broad path, and the smaller, lesser-known destruction of Vanport seem like intimate cousins, forever linked. The texture of the tales also seemed to bleed into Portland’s ugly current events, in particular the murder of two men and serious wounding of a third in a racially charged crime on a MAX light-rail train, allegedly by a white supremacist who was threatening two young women, one of whom was wearing a hijab. There are the floods – the flashpoints – and the long-simmering circumstances in which they strike. Performances of the two plays repeat this weekend, at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at IFCC. Catch a slice of important history, and some engaging theater, if you can.

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Robert Frank’s ‘San Francisco’: Questions and confluences

A great Robert Frank photograph from 1956 takes the measure of our progress

By PAUL MAZIAR

I first saw Robert Frank’s book of photographs of 20th century America, The Americans (1955-1957)—many of which are presently on view at the Portland Art Museum—when in the throes of reading Jack Kerouac. I’d then been casually acquainted with the poetry and jazz culture of the 1950s and ‘60s, and I was making amends by reimagining what American life was like then, relative to the beauty and meaning these artists were able to summon up.

Frank’s photographs astonished me—they had the congenial spirit you get from poets like Allen Ginsberg, partly because of their everyday vernacular and spontaneity—but also because, maybe more subtly, of their keen eye to the plight of marginalized people. Frank’s photographs give us the America of that specific time, when car sales skyrocketed and TV dinners were all the rage. It was all Disneyland, McDonald’s, and The Seven Year Itch. On the other hand, 1955 also marks the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the onset of the Civil Rights movement, when Rosa Parks and others refused to obey bus segregation laws.

Formally, Frank’s photographs depict people in urban and other environments, often on the move. This is part of Frank’s expressive panache: He’d apparently snap a photograph from the window of a moving car, sometimes through a dirty windshield, and the outcome seems just perfect.

Robert Frank, “San Francisco” 1956

Of all the photographs from the museum’s American Photographs exhibition, on display through June 4, San Francisco (1956) might most aptly be called quintessentially American. The picture is of a black man and woman reclining on a grassy hillside, trying to look out over San Francisco and enjoy a sunny afternoon together. They are presently interrupted by some white creep with a camera—Frank. And they give him a look.

To appreciate this photograph is to enlarge the moment: What happened right before this photo was taken; or maybe more interesting, what happened just after Frank’s shutter slammed shut? In this moment, Frank captured an encounter between two worlds, and it makes the photograph so keenly, and tragically, American.

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Music Today Festival review: listening, collaborating, exploring

Biennial University of Oregon new music event provides glimpses of the future of Oregon music

by GARY FERRINGTON

The University of Oregon’s 2017 Music Today Festival (MTF) offered such a diversity of concerts that in trying to sum it up, I found myself searching for unifying themes. It wasn’t easy.

Produced by members of the Oregon Composers Forum (OCF), under the direction and mentorship of Dr. Robert Kyr, the bi-annual UO School of Music and Dance (SOMD) festival offered a varied three-week (April 19-May 13) program showcasing the richness of vocal and instrumental music being written today. Over the course of nine concerts I had the opportunity to hear not only the premieres of 40 new works by UO composition majors, but also music by many well known contemporary composers including Pauline OliverosLibby LarsenToshio HosokawaClaude VivierMagnus Lindberg and more. This was the twenty-fifth anniversary year of the festival, which Kyr founded in 1993, and which he continues to organize and direct as one of the most extensive and innovative new music offerings in the Pacific Northwest.

 

James Shields Trio with Laura Metcalf (cello) and pianist Conor Hanick perform new works by UO composers. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

For example, the Ova Novi ensemble’s concert focused on music by contemporary women composers. TaiHei (view concert) offered new works influenced by Pacific Rim and other world cultures. The Sonus Domum Ensemble (view concert) staged a cross-disciplinary and improv-based event celebrating the life and music of Pauline Oliveros, and the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble performed three extended instrumental works by student composers; an unusual opportunity for young composers to showcase their ability to write long and more complex pieces of music.

The festival also included music inspired by the soundscape of an old growth forest and two special concerts by guest artists soprano Esteli Gomez (view concert) and clarinetist James Shields and Friends (view concert) performing works specifically composed for each by OCF composers. MTF concluded with the world premiere of “The Banshee,” a new chamber opera by Daniel Daly.

I finally decided to focus on three themes: attentive listening, collaboration, and breaking boundaries. You can view unedited webcast videos of concert events by clicking on links marked (view concert). Skip over stage set-ups and other non-performance activities.

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Quintana, Crow’s Shadow, big day

Art notes: A legendary Native American gallery returns, an innovative eastern Oregon art center comes to Portland, and the Jewish Museum prepares for a grand reopening. Oh: and First Thursday, too.

The innovative Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts has been a boon to the worlds of art and Native American culture in the Northwest since it was established twenty-five years ago by artists James Lavadour, Phillip Cash Cash, and others on the Umatilla Reservation near Pendleton. Its nationally known printmaking center draws artists of all sorts to eagerly sought-after residencies with master printers. The Institute actively boosts economic development for Native American artists and students via classes, workshops, and other programs. And not coincidentally, over its quarter-century Crow’s Shadow has had a hand in the creation of a wealth of vital contemporary art.

Jim Denomie (Ojibwe), “Blue Mountain Portraits,” 2011, print monotype on Somerset satin white paper, 20 x 15 inches; Crow’s Shadow at Froelick

For forty-two years until its founders retired and closed up shop two years ago, Quintana Galleries was a national and even international force in nurturing and selling mostly traditional Native American and First Nations art. Several other Portland galleries represent excellent contemporary Native artists, but no new gallery has sprung up to take Quintana’s place.

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New Expressive Works: The tension builds

Subashini Ganesan's resident choreographer program features Stephanie W. Schaaf, Jessica Kelley, Dora Gaskill and Michael Galen

New Expressive Works’ current residency program shows that this dance community is as strong as ever. Founded in 2012 with the mission to support dancers of diverse backgrounds in developing original work, N.E.W. also provides accessible practice space and a variety of movement classes in a centrally-located, well-equipped studio.

Annually, the space serves 4500 audience members and students, and more than 200 independent performing artists have used the facilities for some aspect of their practice. The residency program has supported 32 choreographers to date, with four more on the way. In short, it’s exactly the kind of program that artistic communities in this city need in order to survive all the closures and changes to the spaces where they can work and live.

Every six months, four choreographers are chosen for the residency program. They receive 144 hours of free rehearsal space, a modest stipend, and moderated, critical feedback in the form of Katherine Longstreth’s Fieldwork program. The works, whether they are finished or in progress, debut as 20-minute pieces at the end of the residency, as they did last night for the 8th session. The show continues at 7:30 pm through Sunday, May 28, at New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont, Ste 2, in the WYSE Building (use building doors located on the south side of the building).

The program moved with a steady momentum, held together by themes that emerged though the individual works. These conceptual threads that ran through the performances seemed to indicate a zeitgeist of shared concerns among the resident artists rather than enforced curatorial decisions. One could easily imagine the questions and ideas bouncing off of each other during the Fieldwork sessions to recombine later in the residents’ individual practice.

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Portland theater: victimizing women

Well intentioned adaptations of Greek theater classics undermine the originals’ dramatic power

by MARIA CHOBAN

Once upon a time, a spoiled sorceress, the apple of her father’s eye, fell in lust with an equally self-absorbed foreigner. The beautiful brat paid no attention to her father — the king’s — warnings. The foreigner, on a quest to steal treasure from their kingdom, seduced her with the cunning of a Greek. The barbarian sorceress cast magic spells on the dragon guarding the treasure, allowing the cad to steal the Golden Fleece and flee. The besotted sorceress joined him, securing their escape by murdering her own brother. She sprinkled his fingers and toes into the ocean, slowing the pursuers to pick up the pieces to bury.

Fast forward ten years and two kids later. Now no longer a princess but a mistrusted stranger in a Greek land, Medea thinks Jason will worship her just as her father did. But the middle-aged status seeker, tired of the “skila’s” (bitch’s) shrill tirades, pulls off one more cunning trick. He convinces the king of Corinth to allow him to marry his beautiful young daughter. 

Anne Sorce as Medea: a family tragedy. Photo: John Rudoff/Polaris Images.

My Greek grandmother pauses. Kerchief tied around her head, kitchen apron, thick black grandma shoes. Ankle-less squat feet. We’re sitting on the back stairs of her house, her black olive eyes as crazy as Medea’s. She tortures me with anticipation.

That’s the Medea telling her story in my Greek grandmother’s crazy eyes. That’s the Medea Euripides brought to the playgoers in 431 b.c.

That’s the Medea you read about in the news, like Diane Downs who shot her own kids.

We hate her, we fear her, but we reverberate because she’s buried in each of us.

The Medea we got in Imago Theater’s recent production of Medea is NOT that frenzied vibrant living Greek murderess. Imago gave us static lines that thudded through the continual andante pace. I knew we were off to a bad start when the Nurse trudged in ritualistically. Euripides starts the play like a gunshot. The nurse in a tizzy, wringing her hands, worries that her mistress will do something really really awful SOON! Greeks don’t trudge. We wring our hands, fret and talk fast!

This Medea isn’t the only example of modern productions and adaptations sapping the originals’ artistic vitality in a misguided attempt to bring a modern feminist angle to ancient classics. Last year, Shaking the Tree Theatre used Edna O’Brien’s adaptation of Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis, which turns Iphigenia into a sacrificial victim by deleting lines where she admonishes her mother to suck it up, and that show Iphigenia as headstrong an outlier as is her father, Agamemnon.

I haven’t seen it, but I’m worried about what I’ve heard of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Medea adaptation (Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, continuing in the Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland through July 6) with playwright Luis Alfaro’s script telling an immigrant’s story.

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