Embracing creativity

Composer Gabriel Kahane discusses new Creative Chair position, concerts with Oregon Symphony

This week, singer-songwriter-composer Gabriel Kahane arrived in Portland to start his position as Creative Chair for the Oregon Symphony–a job he’ll hold for three seasons, organizing a variety of concerts and working with the beloved hometown orchestra to expand its embrace of new music and living composers. Kahane’s already got Caroline Shaw on board for two different concerts next March: her Partita (paired with Berio’s Sinfonia) and a more intimate chamber concert, the first of Kahane’s Open Music series (and conveniently scheduled less than ten days after Shaw’s Portland concerts with Third Angle). That seems like a pretty good start to me.

The symphony has needed this, dear reader–although, in the half-decade I’ve been monitoring them professionally, the OSO has performed some truly wonderful concerts of new music. In fact, they’ve covered three pretty distinct eras of what’s broadly thought of as “new music”: old new music (Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Ravel); new new music (Theofanidis, Akiho, Bettison); and that fruitful in-between realm of oft-forgotten mid-to-late 20th-century music (Barber, Menotti, Corigliano). There have also been more than a few duds in the mix–which is as reliable a sign as any that they’ve hit critical mass.

It’s the question of what they should be doing with that critical mass that’s been concerning me these last few years. We could consider the situation until now as a bare minimum for embracing new music–after all, a bolder move would be to simply invert the ratios and banish Beethoven to the occasional overture, that phantom token zone where the new music usually has to content itself.

That brings us to this weekend’s concerts, which begin with Beethoven’s overture to The Creatures of Prometheus–a wildly appropriate choice considering the rest of the program. The old new music is represented by Russian film composer Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, a gorgeous and emotionally complicated mid-century ode to the human spirit. All the rest is Kahane, joining the orchestra to sing “Empire Liquor Mart” and Pattern of the Rail, a suite of six newly orchestrated songs from his solo piano-and-voice album Book of Travellers–another ode to the human spirit.

Continues…

‘No Human Involved’: Art by sex workers tells a complex story

The "No Human Involved: The Fifth Annual Sex Workers’ Art Show" turns the tables on a dehumanizing term

By KYLE COHLMIA

“No Human Involved” is a slang term coined by Los Angeles police in the 1980s to signify the murder of sex workers, drug users, gang members and transients, the majority of those from Black and Brown populations. The term, while inherently used to dehumanize the violence inflicted upon these marginalized communities, has been turned around by artists in No Human Involved: The Fifth Annual Sex Workers’ Art Show to bring awareness to specific issues of oppression.

Spearheaded by STROLL PDX, a sex worker-led activist organization, this year’s exhibition is at Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA), running through December 14. The exhibit features work by 16 artists, a selection curated from a competitive international open call by Kat Salas and Matilda Bickers of STROLL PDX and Roya Amirsoleymani, artistic director and curator at PICA.

Installation view of No Human Involved: The Fifth Annual Sex Workers’ Art Show/Photo courtesy of PICA

Continues…

Memories of Michael Bowley

Paul Sutinen remembers his friend artist Michael Bowley, who died in November

High on my living room wall, above and left of the TV, is a drawing depicting three rectilinear shapes distributed randomly on the white paper. Below them is, handwritten, “These are not birds flying, nor are they boomerangs.” It’s a work by Michael Bowley from 1977. I first saw it on his apartment wall when it was brand new, and we lived a few blocks apart in Northwest Portland. I was immediately intrigued by the piece because of the caption. It first made me think of folks who look at non-representational art and ask, “What’s that supposed to be?” And Michael was saying what wasn’t depicted. A few years later Michael saw a small simple found object sculpture of mine and suggested that we trade artworks. I immediately knew what I wanted and I’ve had These are not birds flying, nor are they boomerangs for about 40 years now. It still makes me think and it makes me smile.


Michael Bowley,  These Are Not Birds Flying Nor Are They Boomerangs, 1977/Photo by Paul Sutinen.

It was Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving that I learned of Michael’s passing at age 72. I appreciate the invitation to remember him here. We met in 1975—both young artists, he 28, me 26. Only a few seeds of the now burgeoning Portland art community had sprouted. Portland Center for the Visual Arts was founded in 1972. Blue Sky Gallery would open in the fall of 1975. There were a couple interesting commercial galleries, and a few college spaces. It was Michael who initiated two-person shows for us at the Wentz Gallery at the Museum Art School (now PNCA, 1977) and Buckley Center at the University of Portland (1979). We made artworks especially for those spaces. It was the thing to do back then.

In 1976 a new “artists’ space” non-profit gallery opened, kind of a local art version of PCVA. It was the Northwest Artists Workshop. It was founded by a handful of young artists fresh from the Portland State University art program. Michael was one of them. 

It seems like it was in the late 70s that Michael was a studio assistant for Mel Katz. Mel was working on his “Post” series, tall wall-mounted fiberglass sculpture/paintings. I remember Michael talking about sanding the pieces. That was an insight for me—that Michael might just enjoy the monotonous meditative meticulousness of the sanding process.

Continues…

ArtsWatch Weekly: Sugar plums & what music means

Hip-hop haven, profiles in gender, Loverules at the museum, gallery tips, a new opera, un-holiday tunes, gibassiers and more


MUSIC MAY BE THE FOOD OF LOVE, AS SHAKESPEARE’S DUKE ORSINO proclaimed in Twelfth Night, but it is also the food of thought, feeling, action, and belief. Music can take you into deep waters and guide you to unexpected shores. What is the connection between sound and the greater world? ArtsWatch’s Matthew Neil Andrews found himself so immersed in the mysteries a while back that he decided to dive in even farther, looking for answers, or at least for even deeper questions.

“Several questions haunted this journalist’s mind during a series of fall concerts put on by three of Portland’s most excellent classical groups: Fear No Music, Resonance Ensemble, and Third Angle New Music,” Andrews wrote. “The music was all good, but was often upstaged by the concerts’ messages and the questions they raised.”

Third Angle New Music’s artistic director and flutist Sarah Tiedemann, Back in the Groove at the Jack London Revue. Photo: Kenton Waltz 

How, in these contemporary and sometimes politically engaged performances, did the music and the messages mix? In a three-part series, Andrews stretched his readers’, and his own, imaginations:

Continues…

A game of reflections

Gaming-themed opera commissioned and staged by Portland State University places women's voices centerstage

By ANGELA ALLEN

Mirror Game, a new opera commissioned by Portland State University’s Opera program, made its world premiere Nov. 29 in PSU’s Lincoln Hall Studio Theater. The opera is an intriguing effort to bring women into the limelight in a male-dominated tech world.

The historically misogynistic world of opera often casts women characters as victims of culture or the times, or dying of some disease or addiction—though opera directors have lately tried to put more positive spins on such characters as Bess in Porgy and Bess, Madama Butterfly’s Cio-Cio-San, and even “gypsy girl” Carmen, in an attempt to lift them out of the limitations of damsels-in-distress roles. And although I don’t play video games, younger generations tell me there aren’t a helluva lot of strong women characters populating that entertainment genre. So opera in general, and this particular opera’s subject matter, reflect one another.

Mirror Game thankfully does not make heroines of women or total pigs of men – and none of the characters is particularly redeemable. Nor does the opera offer solutions to heal the male-controlled, reputedly sexist Silicon Valley world. But it does give women characters a voice. The opera features six characters (three men and three women), and honestly it’s hard to like any of them much. Selfish self-absorbed entitled Millennials caught up in their phones and selfies, strutting around like they own the world in their high-tops and cropped tops! But it’s easy enough to cheer for the cause: Women deserve a voice – creatively and personally.

The opera was written by librettist Amy Punt, who created The Place Where You Started, which PSU Opera staged four years ago, and award-winning composer Celka Ojakangas, who has not yet reached age 30. The 80-minute opera is lively and engaging, even if you don’t know a thing about gaming – which Mirror Game is about (it has a several truncated love stories, too, and of course, power is a theme). It bursts with video graphics and complex projections and lighting that reflect the gaming world. This is an all-hands-on-deck piece by the PSU Opera crew, which consistently creates shows that far outreach most student operas. Kudos as usual go to veteran stage director Kristine McIntyre for bringing it all together. 

PSU Opera staged the new opera "Mirror Game." Photo by Joe Cantrell.
PSU Opera staged the new opera “Mirror Game.” Photo by Joe Cantrell.

Continues…

Spaces: At Shop La Familia hip hop digs in

Shop La Familia was started by Swiggle Mandela as an outpost for hip hop in a hostile city

By CHRISTEN McCURDY

It takes some effort to find Shop La Familia.

It’s on a stretch of North Lombard Avenue between the Interstate Fred Meyer and the much-loved King Burrito taqueria. It’s also a few blocks away from the kind of natural grocery store that’s often a harbinger of gentrification.

From the street, the spot looks like a row of quiet office buildings occupied mostly by union locals. But if you walk to the back of the building to the nondescript gravel parking lot, through propped-open industrial doors and and head down the stairs, you’ll find what local rapper Swiggle Mandela has planted underground.

The Art of Space
An occasional series on places and prices in the arts world. In an escalating real estate market, how and where do artists and arts groups find suitable and affordable places to make and show their work?

Shop La Familia is a retail space, an erstwhile music venue and a community space for a loose collective of artists connected with Portland’s hip-hop scene. In a city where rapidly escalating real estate prices have put a squeeze on cultural spaces in Portland, La Familia is creating a space of its own, in a historically black, but rapidly gentrifying part of town.

“Every show, every gathering that we’ve done there, it’s like, I get to say, ‘This is literally underground hip-hop,’” says Michael Gaines, who raps as Figure 8 and usually just goes by Fig. He moved to Portland from Detroit about five years ago.


Swiggle Mandela at his store and art space, Shop La Familia & the Coop, in North Portland/Photo by Christen McCurdy

“We’re doing hip-hop underground in Portland right now and no matter how good or bad this goes, this is what it’s about,” Figure 8 explains. “All those interviews where you see people talking about, ‘I went to every open mic, everything, we had to start our own thing, we had to start our own clubs, we had to give back,’ it just feels very reminiscent of what the good parts of hip-hop are and I think that’s why we keep doing it.”

Continues…

Letter From Seattle: Holiday Edition

Seattle stages offer a variety of Christmas treats, but the big gifts are Broadway-aspiring musicals such as "Shout Sister Shout!"

Seattle has a thing about holiday shows. It extends far beyond the ubiquitous, pseudo-Victorian productions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that ritually appear in playhouses across the U.S. each December. In the Emerald City theaters also stuff the proverbial stocking with musicals, dark and light comedies, mysteries, improv shows, even live radio dramas in sync with the season.

Religious diversity be damned: Christmas-themed productions clearly sell in these parts, and the calendar is again crowded with them. But for anyone visiting Seattle between now and New Year’s Eve, there are alternatives in an array of non-tinseled stage options.

Carrie Campere stars as rock ‘n’ roll progenitor Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Shout Sister Shout! at Seattle Rep. Photo: Bronwen Houck.

For music fans high on the list should be Shout Sister Shout!, a crowd-pleasing and sonically edifying bio-musical based on the life of the late Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It’s a rare homage to an artist without the mainstream fandom of, say, Tina Turner, Cher, The Temptations, Carole King — all subjects of recently minted Broadway musicals. Arguably, though, Tharpe had greater impact on popular American music than any of them.

As stressed in Seattle playwright Cheryl West’s script (a scaffolding of serviceable hokum and smart sass), Tharpe really deserves her recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designation. The first prominent gospel artist to strap on an electric guitar and rock out to rousing worship tunes such as “Didn’t It Rain”  and “Up Above My Head,” and a direct influence on such rock “founding fathers” as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and others, Tharpe (who died in 1973) was a consecrated force of nature onstage.  An inventive instrumentalist wielding a hefty Gibson L-5, she also was a solid songwriter and a spine-tingling vocalist. And in the 1940s she scored one of the first crossover gospel hits to climb the R&B charts (her prescient, much-covered “Strange Things Are Happening Every Day”).

The challenge for any bio-musical is to make the subject’s life as dramatic and compelling as their music.  That’s touch and go in West’s script, heavily revised from the show’s 2017 premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse. In the current production at Seattle Rep, there’s too soapy  an emphasis on the naïve young Rosetta’s failed marriage to a nasty, chauvinistic minister. Much more intriguing directions — her close bond with a formidable evangelist mother, and the religious/aesthetic tensions within the African American gospel music milieu itself — are left under-examined.

Like many musicians, Tharpe was a lot better at creating music than talking about it.   (Few interviews with her exist, but there’s a good biography by Gayle Wald the show draws on, also titled Shout Sister Shout.) 

Christin Byrdsong and Carrie Compere in Shout Sister Shout! at Seattle Rep. Photo: Bronwen Houck.

What is heavenly here is the bountiful, soul-soaring score, with 22 classic songs including numerous Tharpe originals. These are belted out by the excellent Carrie Campere as Rosetta, and the tremendous Carol Dennis, whose powerhouse voice graces the roles of Rosetta’s mother Katie and, briefly, Rosetta’s queen-bee rival Mahalia Jackson. (Fun fact: Dennis is a former wife of and backup singer for Bob Dylan.) Completing the diva triumvirate is Allison Semmes as Marie Knight, Rosetta’s sometime musical partner and lover.

If Shout Sister Shout! does nothing more than make people check out Sister Rosetta’s recordings and YouTube clips, it’s done a real service to an artist who richly deserves her full due.

***

Another new musical, Mrs. Doubtfire, is premiering during the holidays at 5th Avenue Theatre en route to Broadway, where it’s slated to open at the Sondheim Theatre in March 2020. The latest stage spin-off of a hit film, it’s based on the 1993 comedy starring Robin Williams as a divorced schlub who impersonates a dowdy female Scottish nanny in order to spend more time with his children.

This musical version of the cross-dressing farce (a descendent of the vintage drag hit, Charley’s Aunt) has some commercial firepower behind it. Staged by Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks, its head producer is Kevin McCollum (In the Heights, Motown the Musical), and brothers Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick (creators of the clever Shakespeare romp, Something Rotten) are concocting the score.

The show stars Rob McClure – an endearing top banana charged with the unenviable task of slipping into Williams’ sensible nanny pumps and marmaladed brogue.

Can Mrs. Doubtfire garner as many kudos as Tootsie — the 2019 Broadway musical based on the 1982 film comedy that also trades on a guy passing as an older woman? Moreover, can it do better at the box office? (Despite a Tony Award for David Yazbek’s clever score, “Tootsie” closes in January after only a nine-month Broadway stand, though a national tour is in the offing.)    

Every Broadway musical is an expensive risk to produce. So while critics don’t get to weigh in until halfway through the show’s run (recently extended through Jan. 4), Seattle audience reaction could be key to helping Mrs. Doubtfire work out the kinks.

***

For something cozier and wackier, ArtsWest Playhouse offers Head Over Heels, the result of an unlikely grafting of Sir Phillip Sidney’s venerable epic poem “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia” with the pop-rock tunes of 1980s new-wave darlings the Go-Go’s. The band’s best-known tune, “We Got the Beat,” opens the show, and yeesh, what an earworm. Named after another Go-Go’s hit, the show debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 before a short Broadway run notable in part for the brouhaha over Ben Brantley’s tepid New York Times review, which a slew of readers branded “transphobic.”

Head Over Heels at ArtsWest Playhouse. Photo: John McLellan

A fractured fairytale loaded with gender-bender twists, the story mish-mashes Sidney’s 16th-century pastoral royal quest with the lusty adventures of a battling king and queen, a pair of lovestruck princesses and an exiled rustic pining for one of the latter.  There’s a glam oracle presiding over the action, and LBGQT erotic tangles that end happily for all concerned.

The effortful silliness of the book (adapted by James Magruder, from Jeff Whitty’s original) wears thin after a while. But the hard-working, full-throated cast members really sell it, especially Louis Hobson, Ann Cornelius, Alex Sturtevant and the knock-out transgender diva Mila Jam as the oracle. Plus there’s big help from Matthew Wright’s ebullient staging.   And that takes some doing with the  Go-Go’s musical catalogue, which (for the uninitiated) ranges from infectiously boppy earworms to vapidly bland throwaways

***

For those who crave a little Christmas, ACT Theatre once again offers its perfectly charming annual rendition of A Christmas Carol, but there are a few edgier alternatives as well: The Christmas Killings at Corgi Cliffs, a new mystery (with festive eats) at Café Nordo’s nouvelle dinner theater. The Hard Nut, the irreverent Mark Morris Dance Group take on The Nutcracker (on tour at the Paramount Theatre). 

Or, for a real change of pace, there’s the spoofy Yule romp, A Very Die Hard Christmas at Seattle Public Theater.  To quote Bruce Willis, star of the blockbuster action flick that inspired this irreverent, bloody bauble by the comedy troupe The Habit, “Welcome to the party pal!”