Photo First: Seeing Astoria

As the Astoria Regatta gets ready to sail around the bend, K.B. Dixon takes his camera to Oregon's oldest city and finds a wealth of images

Astoria has a garish and dramatic history, its fraught founding meticulously chronicled in Peter Stark’s award-winning book—a book with a title as long as the city’s renovated river walk: Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire—A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival.  It is the story of John Jacob Astor’s venal and ultimately failed dream of establishing an international trading post on the Pacific coast to sell fancy fur like sea otter (aka “soft gold”) to the Chinese. Fragments of this history and of the later more pertinent histories of the city as a fishing and timber center are easy to find today. What is also easy to find today is a vibrant arts and cultural scene.


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


Mixed in with timber terminals, working canneries, and barking sea lions are a handful of busy galleries—galleries like the eclectic RiverSea; the intimate Imogen; the Royal Nebeker Art Gallery at Clatsop Community College; and the Lightbox Photographic Gallery, one of the best photographic galleries not just in Oregon, but on the whole West Coast.  There is the refurbished Liberty Theatre, a general performance venue extraordinaire; Godfather’s Books, a Luddite’s summer-of-love sanctuary; and, of course, Vintage Hardware, a de facto museum which, in spite of some recent gentrification, remains a fascinating place, a capacious cabinet of curiosities.

It is a city with an unconventional beauty all its own, an authentic time-worn quality—a city that nurtures a strong sense of connection to its working-class past.

It is also a city that offers plenty of tourist-friendly programing. There is the Crab, Seafood, and Wine Festival in April; the Astoria Music Festival and the Scandinavian Festival in June; and the Astoria Regatta in August. But its most inspired annual offering is, I think, the FisherPoets Gathering in February—”a celebration of the commercial fishing industry in poetry, prose, and song.” It is a weekend-long extravaganza with a hundred fisher poets—deckhands, skippers, cannery workers, and shipwrights from the East and West Coast—descending on the city to read for each other and for growing crowds in Astoria’s pubs, restaurants, and galleries. This coming year’s will be the 22nd  such gathering.


FLAVEL HOUSE, 2013


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MusicWatch Weekly: Happy accidents

Music editor misses Glass opera, amplified strings, and the end of CMNW

Allow me to get personal for a moment. You, my dear readers, know that I’m involved in this vibrant local music scene I’ve been writing about every week for the last three years. As a student at Portland State University, I walk past area composers Kenji Bunch and Bonnie Miksch in the hallways about once a week. Until recently, I sat on the board of Cascadia Composers (about whom you can read all about right here in Maria “Arts Bitch” Choban’s detective hunt). I play drums in a surf punk band and gongs in a Balinese gamelan, and most of my friends and acquaintances are musicians. It’s inevitable that your ever-busy music editor will occasionally find himself becoming Part of the Story.

Music editor Matt Andrews becomes Part of the Story. Photo by Matias Brecher.

So this week I’m going to lean into that pretty hard and tell you all about my brother’s band. I’ll also explain why you have to go to a bunch of wonderful local concerts in my stead this weekend, beautiful shows I’ve been waiting all year for, all piling up here at the bottom of July where I have to miss them because I’ll be spending the next five days packing for a six-week trip to Bali.

But first, a case for Mozart.

To garden or not to garden

Portland Opera earns its place in the city’s music scene for one reason: they pour almost as much time, effort, talent, and money into productions of operas by living U.S. composers as they put into the classics. (Honestly that’s a pretty generous “almost,” but they do alright for an arts organization of their heft. Oregon Symphony does better, but they also do more.)

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DramaWatch: a friendship in song

Meredith Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis launch a show at CoHo. Plus: JAW weekend, new in Ashland, 100 fires this time, last call.

“And remember your main relationship to everything you bring is that you’re gonna have to carry it, so choose wisely.”

That sounds like a good bit of practical travel advice. But because it is a line from a play, it also has other meanings, greater resonances within a story, and perhaps within the lives of those who come to see that story unfold onstage. 

Meredith Kaye Clark (left) and Katherine Murphy Lewis: in Tonight Nothing, a friendship to unpack. Photo: Steve Brian

In Tonight Nothing, by Merideth Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis, one of the characters, called K, is prone to packing up and heading off — to find adventure, to find herself, to escape some disappointment or other, vague or acute. Yet she is loathe to choose, to leave things behind, whether that’s a stuffed animal, an electric wok or something less tangible, something she’ll have to carry not in her backpack but in her heart or her psyche. 

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Through a Glass, Darkly

Philip Glass’s setting of Franz Kafka’s allegorical tale remains as relevant as ever

Philip Glass never expected In the Penal Colony to be a success. “When I wrote it, I thought, it’ll get done once and then no one will ever do it again,” Glass said. “Why would you want to watch a suicide? Basically that’s what you’re doing. And it turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. I would say it’s the most performed opera that I’ve written.”

Glass’s misgivings are understandable. Even for the world’s most famous living composer, In the Penal Colony doesn’t exactly scream “crowd pleaser.” Written at the outset of World War I and published in 1919, Franz Kafka’s brief, bleak tale is set in a penal colony, where The Visitor has been invited to witness an execution. The Officer in charge wants him to endorse to the colony’s new commander the continuation of the peculiar — and horrific — execution method devised by the now deceased Old Commander. The killing machine, called The Apparatus, tortures condemned prisoners to death by excruciatingly inscribing, over up to 12 hours, a description of their crimes directly on their flesh. The prisoners are never told the nature of their crimes, but readers discover that this one was condemned for failing to salute his superior’s door each hour. The Officer believes the tormented prisoners achieve ecstatic enlightenment at the moment of death.

A scene from Portland Opera's new production of Philip Glass's In the Penal Colony. Photo by Cory Weaver.
A scene from Portland Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The apparently more enlightened new regime recoils at the Apparatus’s barbarity, and so does The Visitor. And yet, “it’s always risky interfering in other peoples’ business,” he sings in Glass’s opera. “I oppose this procedure, but I will not intervene.” 

Allegorical Apparatus

Kafka’s grim allegory sent shudders through an Industrial Revolution society besotted with emergent technology’s promise. When science was sundered from morality, modern inventions could have a dark side, distancing humans from the consequences of their actions, numbing us to the dangers of our ingenuity. 

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Dance preview: The essence of love in Indian dance

Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran focus on the rasa of love in their bharatanatyam concert Sunday night

Across genres of Indian art, rasas—the juice or essence that classifies the aesthetic of the work—play a key role in transporting the audience to a realm of wonder parallel to the one we live in. Though the ancient form of Indian dance, bharatanatyam, may seem mysterious and other-worldly at first, the emotional content that serves the style is recognizable, even without the benefit of extensive cultural education.

When I asked visiting bharatanatyam dance couple Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran of Chennai, India, what their favorite rasa was, Viraja replied simply, “The king of the rasas: shringara (love). A love for what you do, a love for the art, and our love for each other.”

 Sunday, in a one-night only performance at Portland’s New Expressive Works, the duo will perform an hour’s worth of traditional Indian dance, followed by a special audience talk-back that will help answer questions that may arise.

Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran will perform Sunday night at New Expressive Works. Photo by Sibu Kutty

Bharatanatyam is a beautiful and rich dance form laced in tradition traced back in  Sanskrit texts from the 2nd century CE. “There’s a lot of misconceptions around bharatanatyam because it’s an ancient art form; a carrier of tradition, of ways of the past. There are many ways to demystify it,” says Subashini Ganesan, founder and director of N.E.W. 

Viraja and Shyamjith are a dynamic dance couple trained from the illustrious Kalakshetra Foundation, based in Chennai. Kalakshetra is an intensive university program founded in 1936 that has received international attention for its perfectionism and clean, geometric approach to the preservation of classical Indian dance. Reflecting on their  Kalakshetra training, Viraja noted that it’s rewarding now as professional dancers to be asked if they are from Kalakshetra, based on their performance qualities alone. That reputation seeps through Viraja and Shyamjith’s work as creators and performers, further validating the level of training that informs their movements.

Kalakshetra’s program emphasizes that there is more to learning the artform than just the movements, however. The idea that the dance progresses as the dancer’s life experience becomes more full and mature is equally important. While chatting with Ganesan, she also cited that principle, recalling her early teachers explaining that “you won’t perfect bharatanatyam until you’ve felt the emotions of it in your real life.” 

Shyamjith noted that the school “gave us an eye for beauty, and a system to follow when creating.” Later in our conversation, he explained that he likes to push the boundaries of the tradition as the choreographer of their performances. For him, that might mean using music with a more modern feel to it, which you’ll have a chance to hear in the final dance of the Portland program, which uses the melodies of composer Sri. Balamurali Krishna.

Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran/Photo by Paresh Gandhi

Sometimes, this type of innovation receives pushback from more traditional practitioners of the ancient form, while others welcome the new ideas. “We try to improve ourselves and change based on the feedback we get about out work,” says Shyamjith. 

Viraja and Shyamjith’s Portland program includes a blend of the rasas, the Indian term that refers to the feelings evoked in Indian artistic practice. The nine rasas are shringara (love), haasya (comedy), raudra (fury), karuna (compassion), bheebhatsya (aversion), bhayaanaka (terror), veera (herosim), adhbuta (wonder), and shanta (peace). Given that the dancing duo is also a couple in real life, I wondered how the rasa theory played out in their artistry, and how it relates to the idea that your understanding of the practice increases as your life experience broadens.

“The whole reason we are dancing together is because we believe in each other. As artists, we strive toward the same thing, to strike a chord. That is rasa,” said Viraja. Their work’s foundation is “to be honest, to be sincere, and to bring the best of our energies together. We try to live up to each other’s strengths.”

The experience of the performers’ intimate bond as partners should be enhanced in the cozy performance studio at N.E.W. Similar to western ballets, bharatanatyam is typically performed in large theatres with proscenium stages. The grandeur of the theatre reflects the breadth of the dance form as it narrates mythical legends and spiritual ideas of sacred Hindu texts. I asked them how they felt bringing their work to a smaller space than what they are used to. Audience members will be able to see each facial expression and have a close view of the intricate footwork that denotes the form.

“Personally, I feel cautious. You have to be very clear and not be distracted by the audience. But we are human,” says Shyamjith.

Viraja sees these potential distracting moments as just that, moments, and then you are still in your performance.  Shyamjith shared that some of the rasa expression comes more naturally to a woman, and that he’s sometimes hesitant to try them. But, in a similar way to how he pushes boundaries as a choreographer, Shyamjith uses this challenge as an opportunity to push himself and his ways of storytelling.

For the pair, the talk back will serve as an important exchange of understanding. Without it, “the stage becomes a divide between the audience and the art,” Viraja says.

 Viiraja and Shyamjit will perform Sunday, July 28, at 5 pm. Limited tickets are available through New Expressive Works.

Musical Fire in the Rogue Valley

Southern Oregon music festival features three weeks of classical music new and old

by ALICE HARDESTY

The Rogue Valley is home to the Britt Music and Arts Festival, which takes place in July and August every summer. The Britt Festival Orchestra’s music director, Teddy Abrams, is hugely popular among music lovers here and in his home city of Louisville, where he directs the Louisville Orchestra. That affection is reciprocated, he assures us. “I immediately fell in love with Jacksonville, with the region, and with the orchestra from the first time I came here to conduct. That was seven years ago, the year before I started my first season as music director. I’ve been associated now with this festival for a good solid percentage of my life if you think about it.” Fortunately for Southern Oregon, Abrams has renewed his contract for four more years.

Young Teddy

While some of us might say that seven years is only an eye-blink, when you’re just 32 that’s a good percentage of your life. Abrams started his musical career early. He was improvising on the piano at age three, beginning lessons at five, and got interested in conducting after attending a San Francisco Symphony concert at age nine. He began studying conducting and musicianship with Michael Tilson Thomas at the age of twelve. At sixteen he started a bachelor of arts program at the San Francisco Conservatory for Music and went on to the Curtis Institute of Music and later to the Aspen Music Festival and School. At both of the latter institutions he was the youngest conducting student ever accepted, and he is currently the youngest conductor of a major orchestra in the U.S. By now he has conducted orchestras around the world, and he also performs frequently as a pianist and clarinetist. And, in his spare time, he composes!

Mission and challenges

I’m sure Teddy Abrams has been labeled “wunderkind” sometime along the way. But unlike many prodigies, his flame continues to burn brightly, and his creative energies are unstoppable, proof of which lies in the successful rejuvenation of the Louisville Orchestra and in the number and quality of the programs he has created for the Britt Festival Orchestra.

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‘It takes a lot of patience and a good seam ripper’

The 29th annual Quilts by the Sea show will draw nearly 300 quilts -- and some of the best quilters in Oregon -- to Newport

Twenty-odd years ago, Cindy McEntee found herself with a sewing machine she had no interest in, but that a well-meaning aunt thought she should have. There it sat in its cabinet, unwanted and taking up space in McEntee’s living room.

One gray Sunday, McEntee fell asleep in that room and awoke just as OPB’s Sewing With Nancy was going off the air. Not long after, McEntee found herself in the local craft store looking for something that might occupy her hands. She left with two quilt projects.

“Heading Home,” a joint effort by members of the Oregon Coastal Quilters Guild, will be raffled off at the Quilts by the Sea show.
“Heading Home,” a joint effort by members of the Oregon Coastal Quilters Guild, will be raffled off at the Quilts by the Sea show.

“I ripped them right out,” McEntee recalled. “I made two large quilts in like two weeks. I thought, this is really fun. I took them to Craft Warehouse and I said, ‘Did I do this right?’ She said, ‘You finished them already?’

“That’s how it started. It was just a fluke. Nancy was talking to me in my sleep. I was just glad I wasn’t sleeping to This Old House; I’d have a pickup truck with a  bunch of tools.”

These days, McEntee is one of two certified professional Quiltworx instructors in Oregon, past president of the Oregon Coastal Quilters Guild and winner of 18 ribbons – including two best of show – at the annual Quilts by the Sea. McEntee, along with most every other serious quilter in Lincoln County and beyond, is gearing up for the 2019 festival, Aug. 2 and 3.

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