MusicWatch Weekly: musical collisions

Old and new, east and west, and other traditions interact in Oregon concerts this week

While some want to keep cultures/races/music “pure” and keep others out, history shows that the greatest accomplishment emerges from the collision of diverse influences, often originating where cultures cohabit. Cappella Romana’s performances of Renaissance music from the Greek islands Saturday night at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, and Sunday afternoon at Lake Oswego’s Our Lady of the Lake Church reflects the fruitful musical hybrids born on islands such as Crete, where Western/Italian music intermingled with Byzantine/Greek sounds. The estimable Portland vocal ensemble, which sang this music at the world’s pre-eminent early music festival in Utrecht, brings it home to Oregon for first performances and a recording.

Is this whole #meToo thing going #toofar? I don’t think so, but decide for yourself Sunday night at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall when the superb singers of Portland’s Northwest Art Song seize a famous composition written for a single male singer with pianist and — transform it into a duet by two nonpareil female vocalists, soprano Arwen Myers and mezzo Laura Beckel Thoreson, with pianist Susan McDaniel. The gender switcheroo — and the transformation from monologue to dramatic dialogue — should add dimension, sugar and spice to Franz Schubert’s 1823 song cycle about unrequited love, The Miller’s Daughter (Die schöne Müllerin). It sounds fascinating, and with performers and music as great as those involved here, an experiment worth trying. By coincidence, another Oregon soprano is pulling the same move, as you’ll learn in this space next week.

Northwest Art Song sings Schubert on Sunday.

Earlier Sunday at Eugene’s United Lutheran Church, Oregon Bach Collegium’s all-JS Bach show features the Delgani Quartet and others performing three of his ever popular Brandenburg Concertos and a couple of equally lovely sonatas, all played on period instruments by historically informed experts.

Also on Sunday afternoon, Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko plays Mozart, Beethoven and Prokofiev at Corvallis’s LaSells Stewart Center Sunday afternoon.

For a glimpse into classical music’s future, check out either or both Sunday afternoon concerts in one of Oregon’s most valuable artistic incubators: Fear No Music’s Young Composers Project. Young composers, age 10 through 18 have been working with the Portland new music ensemble’s pros all year to develop their musical ideas into playable pieces, culminating in these concerts in Lincoln Hall at Portland State University.

Sonia Wieder-Atherton on cello in the frame of Chantal Akerman’s film “Saute ma ville” (1968). Photo: Fondation Chantal Akerman.

Wild card of the week: Tuesday and next Wednesday’s performances by Paris-based cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton’s CHANTAL? A dialogue between a movie, a cello and a text at Pacific Northwest College of Arts’s Mediatheque. This intriguing multimedia collision about the great avant garde filmmaker Chantal Akerman involves film, personal memoir, and more; the musical segments include works by Prokofiev, Béla Bartók, Leoš Janáček and more.

And speaking of music and film, the documentary Itzhak about the legendary violinist whose last name, like Prince and Madonna’s, is unnecessary, returns this weekend to Portland’s Living Room Theaters.

Classical UpClose continues breaking down barriers between music fans and classical music with its third week of free Portland-area shows performed by Oregon Symphony musicians, including concerts Friday at Tigard United Methodist Church, and Tuesday at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church. Smaller scale mid-day chamber music “blitzes” pop up throughout the week at Tigard’s Symposium Coffee House, ​Milwaukie Center, and Hollywood Senior Center. Check the schedule and interactive map for details.

Speaking of family friendly classical fare, well known Eugene actor Bill Hulings stars in Eugene Symphony’s Sunday concert, The Composer is Dead, based on Lemony Snicket’s delightful murder mystery and featuring original music by American composer Nathaniel Stookey. It’s an inviting — and interactive — introduction to music and instruments.

Show Tunes

Music and theater also collide Friday and Saturday in Eugene at The Shedd’s annual cabaret presentation of Evynne Hollens’ Contemporary Songbook, which brings music from today’s Broadway stages to Oregon. This time the featured musicals are biographical, from Hamilton, Beautiful, Anastasia, Grey Gardens, Fun Home, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, and recent hits like last year’s Come from Away and the current movie musical The Greatest Showman inspired by the true story of P. T. Barnum’s creation of Barnum & Bailey Circus, plus a peek at singer Hollens’s new musical in progress with Portland singer-songwriter Anna Gilbert, Milagro.


A ‘Major’ deal with the Devil

In GB Shaw's "Major Barbara" at Portland Center Stage, good intentions and bad money duke it out on the moral battlefield. Guess who wins.

We’ve seen her type before: the Iron Matron. Imperious, but so impeccably mannered that you almost wouldn’t notice. So cunning that she’d never admit to her own cleverness. Intent on everyone doing things her way because, by god, that’s the way good people do things!

Alternately feigning helplessness, pulling strings and slinging barbs, Lady Britomart steals the opening scene of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, and with the marvelous Dana Green playing the role in the production newly opened at Portland Center Stage, that amounts to grand theft.

From left: Charles Leggett as Andrew Undershaft, Dana Green as Lady Britomart, Hanley Smith as Barbara Undershaft and Brian Weaver as Adolphus Cusins. Photo: Jennie Baker

Shaw gives the character such sly wit that you excuse all the exposition she’s hauling out. Under the guise of asking her grown son, Stephen, to take charge of family matters, she fills him in on family history, meanwhile laying out for us the play’s narrative premise as if she was setting the dinner table (though of course she’d have the help do that).


DramaWatch Weekly: ‘Are you ready?’

Chris Coleman gives his trademark greeting at his last opening night with Portland Center Stage. Plus: openings, closings, highlights & more.

“Are you ready?”

As showtime approached for the Portland Center Stage production of Major Barbara on opening night, artistic director Chris Coleman left his aisle seat in row L and strode to the lip of the stage. Even to fairly casual followers of the company there must have been little doubt as to how he would greet the audience: “Are you ready?”

It’s how he’s begun his introductory remarks for years — possibly (did any historian of local culture have the foresight to note this?) since he came to the company from Atlanta in 2000. So, with that question and the usual thanks to sponsors, everything went according to custom. Which felt a little odd.


As Coleman moved toward the stage, I set down the cup of coffee I was drinking and shifted in my seat, preparing to join in the standing ovation I expected would greet those three little words. April 20’s Major Barbara performance was something of a milestone, after all; the director’s final opening night at PCS after more than 17 years there. The company’s managing director, Cynthia Fuhrman, even made a point of sending out an email about the show’s significance and her desire to “pack it with arts community folks.”

And yet the evening felt decidedly muted, matter-of-fact, business-as-usual. No spontaneous pre-show ovation materialized (umm…should I have been the one to start it?). At the play’s end, Seattle actor Charles Leggett stepped out front to coax Coleman onto the stage, but the director merely grabbed a bouquet of flowers, waved back at the now-cheering crowd, then rushed off as though his taxes were overdue.


Dance Week Diary, Part Three: Jazz hands

Kody Jauron leads the Broadway jazz class at NW Dance Project, and truly, jazz hands are involved

I wake up sore from the previous day, so I’d like to think I was doing something right. [Editor’s note: In yesterday’s installment of Dance Week Diary, hip-hop instructor Katya Wilkins had said that if you aren’t a little sore after class, perhaps you could apply yourself more the next time.]

Kody Jauron leads Broadway jazz class at NW Dance Project/Photo by Heather Wisner

I wave goodbye to my husband with jazz hands and head to Broadway Jazz, only to find, once teacher Kody Jauron gets class underway in the sunny studio at NW Dance Project, that jazz hands are indeed on today’s menu. The warmup begins with Sweet Charity’s “Rich Man’s Frug,” which musical nerds will recognize as one of Bob Fosse’s most memorably groovy dance sequences. Following chest and hip isolations, we power through a set of double-time crunches as Tina Turner belts out “Proud Mary.”

Part Three: Broadway Jazz at NW Dance Project
What is it? Jazz dance foundational class
What makes it fun? Informal dance-party vibe
Who is it for? Broadway babies
Who is it not for? Self-serious types

Once we’re sufficiently loose, it’s back to Fosse: Jauron teaches us most of the “I Gotcha” sequence from the 1972 concert film Liza With a Z, a Fosse and Fred Ebb production with all the Fosse slink: jazzy box steps, coyly pointed fingers and swiveling hips, plus something Jauron dubs “the chicken run” (Y’know that thing Mick Jagger does with his hands on his hips and his elbows cocked behind him? That.)

It’s a substantial amount of choreography to absorb in one session, but it doesn’t feel intimidating—Jaron keeps the mood light, throwing himself into the steps with such genuine enthusiasm that he laughs along with everyone else when his glasses go flying after a saucy toss of his head. Like Wilkins, he emphasizes the mood that the choreography should evoke, by turns casual and intense.

When someone asks him how a run should look, he pauses to consider the question. “I don’t know,” he says finally. “Maybe like you’re running away from life?” And if that sounds dramatic, remember that we’re talking about a Liza Minnelli concert.

We finish with enough time to run the combination twice, and if we didn’t get all of it, well, Jauron points out, there’s always next week.

Surviving the Baby Wars

CoHo's "Luna Gale" chronicles a volatile and exhilarating custody battle

There is a moment in CoHo’s astounding new production of Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale when a mother learns a stomach-churning secret about her daughter. Yet she doesn’t scream, shake her first or exclaim that it can’t be true. She simply freezes as still as a photograph.

That is what it feels like watching Luna Gale. Gilman’s story of a brutal custody battle in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, may not be soothing, but in the hands of director Brandon Woolley and his ferociously committed cast, it is spellbinding. Together, they embrace not only Luna Gale‘s power to provoke, but also the fact that it is entertainment in the best and brashest sense of the word—a roller coaster of a play packed with twists that could have made a Sixth Sense-era M. Night Shyamalan howl, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Sharonlee McLean, “a force of unearthly brilliance” in “Luna Gale.” Photo: Owen Carey

The first hairpin narrative turn arrives in the opening scene, where we meet a young couple, Karlie and Peter (Shannon Mastel and Jacob Camp). With her black nail polish, ripped jeans and James Dean-style bellowing, Karlie looks like a teenager fuming in the principal’s office. However, we quickly learn that she and Peter are immersed in all-too-adult crises. Not only are they meth addicts, but they are also in danger of losing their baby daughter Luna to Karlie’s mother, Cindy (Danielle Weathers, who also co-produced the show), an evangelical Christian who hides her vindictive spirit behind touchy-feely declarations like “The thing about Jesus is that he always gets results.”


Dance Week Diary, Part Two: Hip-hop class at Vega Dance Lab

Heather Wisner continues her National Dance Week tour: Today she encounters the hip-hop class of Latya Wilkins

You can dance, even if you think you can’t. You don’t have to have experience. You don’t have to be young and pliable. You don’t even need to buy special clothes or shoes (most of the time).

To prove it—and to alert you to National Dance Week, which is happening now and is more worth celebrating than most holidays, in my view—I took a different dance class in the Portland Metro area for five days running. Full disclosure: I have some dance experience. But I’m also old enough to qualify for an AARP card, and one of my knees has been acting up lately, so I’m not exactly waiting for a phone call from World of Dance.

Latya Wilkins teaches hip-hop dance class at Vega Dance Lab/Photo by Heather Wisner

Luckily, Portland is wall-to-wall with classes for all ages, skill levels, tastes and degrees of decrepitude; check out Dance Wire PDX’s useful Class Finder to find some that sound appealing. To narrow my choices, I set a few parameters: I’d only take a class that didn’t require the purchase of special shoes (sorry, ballet and tap), that you could drop into (workshops were out), that didn’t require a partner (see you later tango, salsa, ballroom) and that was open to beginners. Yesterday, I hit Laura Haney’s Be Moved class at BodyVox, and today I’m at the hip-hop mercies of Latya Wilkins at Vega Dance Lab.

Part Two: Hip-Hop at Vega Dance Lab
What is it? Hip-hop choreography for beginner and intermediate-level dancers
What makes it fun? A teacher with a sense of humor + a hip studio feel
Who is it for? Hip-hop lovers who want to dance it out
Who is it not for? Arthritic folks

“We’re doing Beyoncé today,” announces teacher Latya Wilkins at the top of the hour, “sooo … get ready to live your best life.” Her timing is impeccable: Queen Bey has just killed it so thoroughly at Coachella the weekend before that by the following Monday, New York studio Banana Skirt Productions has announced it will teach a class of her festival choreography.

Wisely, Wilkins doesn’t attempt such a feat with a classful of a dozen beginners, instead coaching us through her own choreography to “Flawless.” It starts out slowly enough, rising from a kneel on the floor into a few fierce poses before picking up steam with bounces, shoulder rolls and finally, some crazy fast backward arm swings (“Pretend there’s a serial killer behind you,” Wilkins helpfully suggests.)

In this upstairs studio on Southeast Water Avenue, with its exposed brick, graffitied north wall and the rumble of freight trains passing by outside, you actually can imagine for a moment that you’re in a New York studio, and when Wilkins turns on an industrial-sized fan at the front of the room, it’s easy to channel your inner diva, something she expressly encourages. “I want you to sell it,” she says, demonstrating how the choreography shouldn’t look (neutral expression; small, tentative steps).

Latya Wilkins teaches hip-hop dance class at Vega Dance Lab/Photo by Heather Wisner

The hour flies by: besides running the choreography enough times to get us comfortable with it (and to allow more experienced dancers to play with it as they see fit), she has a knack for coaxing us into really dancing, rather than just doing steps. “I don’t go to the gym to work out, because it’s boring,” she says at one point. “Dance is my workout, because it’s fun.”

I couldn’t agree more. Calling attention to the fun factor in dance is, in fact, the whole point of this endeavor, although I also take to heart her admonition that it’s still a workout, and if you aren’t a little sore after class, perhaps you could apply yourself more the next time.

Coming Up: Broadway jazz dance at NW Dance Project.

Portland Baroque Orchestra & Trinity Cathedral Choir review: wise compromises

Performance of J.S. Bach’s immortal Mass in b minor deftly balanced historical authenticity with practical necessity


There are a few works of art whose merit is not debatable. J.S. Bach’s b minor Mass is one of these.

Yet this masterpiece is rarely performed as its composer probably intended. Various factors — choice of venue, availability of historically accurate performers and instruments, etc. — often require today’s performers to make compromises between original intention and modern practicality. Armed with best practices, conscientious performers pursue historically informed performance, not re-enactments. We then must concede the possibility of resolving difficulties of balance, nuance and tempi.

Under the lucid leadership of distinguished British conductor David Hill last weekend, the combined forces of the Trinity Cathedral Choir, the Portland Baroque Orchestra and five excellent soloists made the right choices. (See my interview with Mr. Hill below.) The value of this performance in the Trinity Music series – to singers, audience, the preservation of the choral arts and to the glory of God through music – was manifold.

Trinity Cathedral Choir and Portland Baroque Orchestra performed J.S. Bach’s ‘Mass in b Minor.’ Photo: Howard Luce.

The arias and duets were something special. Mr. Hill had at his disposal a stellar counter tenor, Daniel Moody; stentorian baritone Jesse Blumberg; the jewel-voiced local soprano Arwen Myers; German-born tenor Nils Neubert; and versatile soprano Estelí Gomez. Each of these singers carries a lengthy resumé of wide-ranging credentials, nationally and internationally.

In the aria “Quoniuam tu solus sanctus” (For you alone are holy), Mr. Blumberg was fulsome in tone, his voice cutting through the cathedral with well honed vowels. His principal Quoniam partner, horn player Andrew Clark, was quite simply the best I’ve heard in this piece, playing his part flawlessly, and without score.

Countertenor Moody possesses a refulgent tone, and was irresistible in his aria “Qui Sedes ad dexteram Patris” (You who sit at the right hand of the Father). This is a major talent; I was grateful that a real countertenor (as opposed to female alto) was Hill’s choice. More about that in a bit.

Ms. Myers sang with a sterling silver patina throughout, especially effective in the duets “Christe eleison” (Christ have mercy), with Ms. Gomez, and later “Domine Deus” (Lord God, King of Heaven) with Mr. Neubert. The latter pair were well matched, along with flutist Janet See, in phrasing and articulation. Mr. Neubert was also effective in the penultimate aria, “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord). In the “Laudamus te” (We praise you) Ms. Gomez confronted the challenges of matching the sparkling crisp 32nd-note duplets and runs in the violin, played expertly by Carla Moore.