MusicWatch Weekly: wonder women

Music by women, young musicians, Mexican and immigrant composers highlight the week’s Oregon concerts

Our regnant political culture seems to be waging war on everyone who doesn’t belong to the long-dominant ruling class. Let’s hope it’s the last gasps. This week’s Oregon music offers life-affirming musical retaliation from those (sometimes literal) targets: young people, women, immigrants, Mexicans, and more.

Women’s voices and music were long silenced by overt or de facto oppression, but a couple of Portland concerts this weekend shows just how much female composers had — and have — to offer.

Wright, Marsh, and Philipps wrote the music for Burn After Listening’s Saturday concert.

On Saturday at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Portland composers collective Burn After Listening New Music returns for its second presentation: (Dis)connect: New Music for Challenging Times, with original compositions by three top Portland female composers. Some stars of Oregon classical music — Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet and singer Laura Beckel Thoreson — join  violist Christina Ebersohl (whom we’ll have more about next month), dancer Christina Wolken, writer Katie Boehnlein in multimedia creations by Lisa Ann Marsh, Stacey Philipps, and Jennifer Wright. You can also experience Disjecta’s current exhibition by yet another female Oregon artist, Portia Munson’s large-scale installation, Flood. And yes, Wright’s Skeleton Piano will rattle its bones.

Christina Ebersohl performs at Burn After Listening’s show.

Also on Saturday night (alas) at Northwest Dance Project and also Sunday afternoon (yay!) at The Hallowed Halls, another newish Portland ensemble, the Broken Consort, presents its second performance. Sirens, Interrupted features not only contemporary music by founder/composer/singer/social advocate/Big Mouth Emily Lau (the cantata excerpt In Praise of Menstruation), but also the premiere of Maggie Finnegan’s Assemble with Care, an autobiographical cantata of the experience of a rape victim, plus Oregon premieres of music by a pair of renowned 20th century women, Meredith Monk and Pauline Oliveros, one of today’s rising female composers, Kate Soper.

The Broken Consort performs music by women on Saturday and Sunday.

The concert also connects today’s female composers with a long tradition of women’s classical music, from the virtuosic vocal music by independent 13th century Spanish nuns in the Las Huelgas Codex to the pioneering works by 17th century Italy’s all-female musicians’ collective Concerto Delle Donne and more. Lau, a board member of Early Music America, was a force in Boston’s flourishing early music scene before relocating to Portland, and performers include early music and contemporary music specialists from around the nation.

Speaking of early-contemporary music combos, Seattle’s Tudor Choir commissioned another contemporary composer much influenced by folk music, much-acclaimed Philip Glass protege Nico Muhly, to create a new piece, Small Raine, which they’ll sing in concerts presented by Cappella Romana Saturday night at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, NW 18th & Couch and Sunday afternoon at Hillsboro’s St. Matthew’s Church, 475 SE 3rd Ave. The centuries-spanning program also includes English Renaissance composer John Taverner’s 16th-century Western Wind Mass, and more.

Another recommended choral concert: Portland State University’s award-winning choirs’ centennial tribute to Leonard Bernstein Friday and Sunday at First United Methodist Church. Along with his masterful Chichester Psalms, the show also  features music by living composers who were heavily influenced by Bernstein, including the Northwest premieres of new works by British composer Tarik O’Regan and American composer Eric Whitacre.

The Tudor Choir performs Saturday in Portland and Sunday in Hillsboro. Photo: William Stickney Photography.

Speaking of female Oregon composers, as we were earlier, Sunday’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony concert features music by two more: MYS violinist and composer Katie Palka’s The Breathing Earth and Corvallis composer/violinist Jayanthi Joseph’s Olam. Even the main composition, Rimsky-Korsakov’s ever-thrilling Scheherazade, celebrates a woman who used her creativity to survive. Stay tuned for my ArtsWatch feature about this concert and Palka tomorrow.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Welcome to Urban Bush Women

White Bird brings back Urban Bush Women for a movement-based discussion of race, gender, identity, body image, and economics

This week I am excited to introduce you to Hair and Other Stories, a new collaborative work by Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women (UBW). The piece blends dance, theatre, voice, and visual elements, focusing on hair and specifically African American women’s hair, and Urban Bush Women use it as a platform to discuss race, gender, identity, body image, and economics. The work, presented by White Bird, opens at the Newmark on Thursday, March 1, and runs through March 3.

I am also personally thrilled to introduce Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and UBW to you because Zollar was one of my dance teachers at Florida State University way back in the day. I was also very fortunate to perform in her work Shelter, a dance about the physical and emotional deprivation of homeless people, and to receive a full scholarship to the very first Summer Leadership Institute on undoing racism and creating a new dancer for a new society. Working with Zollar and UBW opened up my point of view to a much broader concept of what dance could be, what a dancer could look like, and to new ideas of how to move and live in the world.

Hair and Other Stories, described by the company as the “urgent dialogue of the 21st century,” actually began its development in 2001 as Hairstories, a work by Zollar and the company at the time, that discussed the cultural significance of black women’s hair through a collection of individual women’s hair stories and humor.

Zollar founded the company in 1984 and has received many awards for her work, including three Bessie Awards and two Doris Duke Awards. These days, she has taken on a different role in the company’s creative process and is the project’s dramaturg. This updated version of Hair and Other Stories has been choreographed by associate artistic directors and company dancers Chanon Judson and Samantha Speis in collaboration with the company dancers, and it’s directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges with costumes by DeeDee Gomes, projection design by Nick Hussong, and lighting by Xavier Pierce.

Celebrating it’s 34th year, UBW “seeks to bring the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance.” They do this “from a woman-centered perspective and as members of the African Diaspora community in order to create a more equitable balance of power in the dance world and beyond.”

The company’s core values include: validating the individual; catalyzing for social change; building trust through process; entering community and co-creating stories; celebrating the movement and culture of the African Diaspora; and recognizing that place matters.

In addition to developing a large body of work, creating new works (for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco, University of Maryland, Virginia Commonwealth University and others), touring internationally, and teaching dance at Florida State University, UBW has developed community engagement programs like BOLD (Builders, Organizers, & Leaders through Dance), the Summer Leadership Institute (SLI), and the Urban Bush Women Choreographic Center.

In a behind-the-scenes video of Hair and Other Stories, associate artistic director Samantha Speis explains that what we will see in the performance “is our practice. This is what we are doing and you have an hour and 15-20 minutes to be inside of that and experience it and examine some things about yourself. It’s also really about lifting everyone’s humanity because we’ve all been dehumanized by the construct and its about understanding how we all sit inside of it.”

You can also catch a preview of the work in the companies teaser here.

In a video interview for The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in 2016, Zollar, discusses her evolution as a choreographer and the importance of embracing risk throughout her practice. “Risk,” she says, “exists on the edge of failure…so if you’re not right on that edge of failure…you’re not in a place of risk. Living on that edge and learning from that edge to me is a really exciting place.”

For Dance Magazine earlier this month Zollar opened up about her creative process, and the hardest parts of sustaining a dance company.

“I have a three-idea rule: Whenever I see other performances, I have to come out with three ideas—maybe it’s costumes, lighting, staging. Don’t dismiss anything. If it was a waste of your time, you didn’t enter with the right mind-set.”

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Portland’s August occasions

The great playwright August Wilson takes the spotlight in Red Door's high-school monologues and PassinArt's gala and "Two Trains"

We’re in the middle of August Wilson Week in Portland, which is a very good place to be.

On Friday, PassinArt: A Theatre Company opens the great American playwright’s Two Trains Running at the Interstate Firehouse Center.

On Monday evening before a packed audience in the Newmark Theatre, the August Wilson Red Door Project held its fifth annual high school Monologue Competition, choosing two winners and an alternate to move on to the nationals at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway in New York.

On Saturday evening in a ballroom at the DoubleTree by Hilton near Lloyd Center, PassinArt celebrated its annual gala, Sweet Taste of the Arts, with a healthy crowd that included, among many others, Two Trains Running director William Earl Ray and the superb veteran actor J.P. Phillips, who is also riding the trains.

And with just a little patience, the August Wilson celebration extends: On May 2, Portland Playhouse will open its revival of his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Fences. It’ll be the seventh of Wilson’s “American Century Cycle” of ten plays, each from a different decade of the 20th century, that the Playhouse has presented for Portland audiences – a gratifying and illuminating feat. Those plays – in addition to Two Trains Running and Fences they include Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf – constitute one of the great achievements of the American theater, and for that matter, of American literature and culture.

Wilson’s plays are vital historic documents, and they are still urgently current, as a story by Tracy Jan earlier this week in the Washington Post makes clear. Report: No progress for African Americans on homeownership, unemployment and incarceration in 50 years, it’s headlined, and it underlines both the disturbing intransigence of America’s racial divide and the continuing need for honest, revealing, compelling stories about ordinary life in all of the nation’s communities.

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Jump for joy: August Wilson monologue winners, from left: third place winner Alyssa Marchant, first place winner Noreena McCleave, second place winner Kai Tomizawa. Wade Owens Photography

Both the August Wilson Monologue Competition and PassinArt’s gala were intensely community events, art growing from the connections among place and people and time. Communities, of course, are both fluid and interlocking, and can be expanded or carried with you when you leave. In Wilson’s case it begins in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the economically teetering but culturally vibrant African American/Jewish/Italian neighborhood where he grew up and where most of his plays are set. But really, it begins further back, on the slave ships, in the fields and plantation houses (his great and mystical character Aunt Ester is 285 years old when we first meet her in Gem of the Ocean, and lasts through several plays and about 60 more years beyond that), along the route of the Great Migration that brought so many emancipated but not fully free African Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North, bringing their hopes and songs and stories with them.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Casually Optimistic

On tap: A blood-red Scottish Play, a Scarlet letter, Death visits a maiden, some hollering sessions, two trains running, a season of musicals

I’ve been writing some nice things lately about actors. Maybe more than before, but no less truthful. Lest you think me a suckup, let’s settle the scales. Here are a few current and soon-to-open plays that may be great for all the wrong reasons.

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Jamie M. Rae is a Macbeth in blood-red. Photo: Gary Norman

I’ve heard from some that The Scottish play we mustn’t say—Macdeath?— is slaying at Shaking The Tree, yet I’ve also heard from ArtsWatch’s TJ Acena  that it’s got spacing and pacing problems, and that Macboof is a little aloof. Anyway, staged with translucent walls in an already-small space for ample shadow-play, and starring Jamie Rea as the titular killer, it should at least defy cliche.

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PDX Jazz Festival reviews: music and more

Regina Carter, Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan, Luciana Souza, Tigran Hamasyan and young Portland visual artists were among the highlights of the annual celebration of jazz

by ANGELA ALLEN

From elite jazzers to startling up-and-comers, the 2018 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival spread the music around Portland Feb.15-25 with a 100-plus gigs, twice as many musicians, and a wide spread of venues and event prices, many free.

Following are some highlights, and trust me, I missed dozens of others worth talking up.

Poet-plus

Brazilian singer Luciana Souza has always been a poetic musician (listen to her version of “Waters of March”), but these days she champions poets with a dedicated CD, convinced that we need more of them in our presently dark world. Her newest undertaking, Word Strings, is a drummer-less project with skilled stand-up bassist Scott Colley and gonzo Brazilian guitarist Chico Pinheiro from Souza’s Sao Paulo hometown. The trio tested out some Word String pieces Feb. 17 at Revolution Hall in a not-quite-sold-out concert.

Luciana Souza performing at PDX Jazz. Photo: ©2018 Mark Sheldon.

Souza studied in the United States at Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory, but she grew up in a lively music-and-word-crazy Brazilian household. Her mother, Tereza Souza, is a poet/lyricist, and father Walter Santos, a singer. Her 81-year-old godfather, Hermeto Pascoal, is a Brazilian composer whose “Forro Brasil” she played toward the end of the hour. The DNA and cultural influences help her to carry on Brazilian music traditions, yet she is boundless and genre-less in her approach to her past and to her art.

Souza’s group put to music poetry by Leonard Cohen, Charles Simic, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop (who lived in Brazil), much of it with samba and bossa nova shades, some with original arrangements. Souza loves to play a little drums and timpani, but not too much. Her sidemen were masterful at making the most of her inviting, haunting, fluid lyrical singing; they could have been soloing much of the time — Colley and Pinheiro are so good in their own rights.

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Oregon Ballet Theatre locates the wonder in ‘Wonderland’

OBT’s ‘Alice’ is just curiouser enough to keep the kids happy and the adults cooing

By HEATHER WISNER

Tiny girls in poofy party dresses spun circles around steam punks sipping coffee in the Keller Auditorium lobby this Sunday, in a scene to rival the afternoon’s main event: Alice (in wonderland), which Oregon Ballet Theatre has mounted for a two-week run. This is the West Coast and company premiere of the ballet, which Septime Webre created in 2012 for the Washington Ballet, and if the large and enthusiastic crowd it drew to the matinee is any indication, we may not have seen the last of it.

The show offers plenty to enthuse about, particularly its gratifying blast of color and motion during a dreary Oregon winter. Costumer Liz Vandal, scenic designer James Kronzer and puppetry designer Eric J. Van Wyck have conspired to create a vivid alternate universe teeming with feathered, fuzzy and finned creatures and kooky humans whose psychedelic frippery would not have looked out of place in the Mark Morris Pepperland show last week. As a bonus, the OBT Orchestra plays composer-violist Matthew Pierce’s score live for all shows.

Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers in Septime Webre’s “ALICE (in wonderland)”, performed at the Keller Auditorium/Photo by Jingzi Zhao

Lewis Carroll’s storytelling in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass has inspired too many dances, films and other artistic ventures to enumerate: This one begins, as many do, with Alice taking leave of her squabbling family to join Carroll for a rowboat ride. It’s the point in the production where the stagecraft wizardry kicks in, as crew members hang the boat prop from the pair’s shoulders, then remove it once Carroll has rowed them across the stage.

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‘Just This One’ review: staging the blues

Jukebox musical based on the life of legendary Portland bluesman Paul deLay electrifies Fertile Ground festival

At the Fertile Ground Festival performance of Just This One, a jukebox musical based on the eventful life of late Portland bluesman Paul deLay, I went to a play and a great blues concert broke out.

I never got to hear deLay, who died in his native Portland in 2007, live. Having devoted way too many college nights to intense study of great local and touring blues masters at one of the nation’s great blues clubs, Antones, I was too snobby (not to mention too busy covering other music after moving here) to imagine that Oregon could produce great blues comparable to what I’d so often heard in Texas, except for maybe Robert Cray. By the time I realized my error, a year after moving to Portland, deLay was gone, stolen by leukemia at age 55

Saeeda Wright, Lisa Mann, LaRhonda Steele, Ben Rice in ‘Just This One.’

So the fact that even a deLay newbie like me so enjoyed Wayne Harrel’s new musical shows that his songs and story (even as fictionalized here) are plenty compelling for any blues lover — not just those trying to relive deLay’s glory days performing at the Fat Little Rooster.

That’s because this show wisely keeps the spotlight on deLay’s masterfully crafted, often wryly humorous music, not the characteristically contrived story frame, and enlists a stage full of powerful performers to deliver it. Even though the show, ably directed by Judy Straalsund, happened in the backroom of a southeast Portland piano store, Michelle’s Piano Company, if I closed my eyes, I could imagine I was back at Antone’s, minus the clouds of cigarette smoke.

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