Oregon ArtsWatch

 

‘Faust’ review: giving the devil his due

Portland Opera’s dazzling new co-production lends depth and color to Gounod’s take on Goethe 

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

“Music,” the saying goes, “is the language of the soul.” But when that soul is sold to the Devil, as in Charles-Francois Gounod’s opera Faust, even some of the most beautiful musical lines ever written could not prevent the hell-bound downward spiral. In a slowly unraveling demonic mode, Portland Opera Association’s artistic forces presented an interdisciplinary Faustian wonderment on opening night last Friday at Keller Auditorium.

Setting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s massive Faust to music, let alone opera, is a huge undertaking. Gounod took several passes at getting his produced. When it was finally tweaked to his satisfaction in 1859, distilled to the dramatic essence, the five act opera went 19th century viral and has since become one of the most often staged operas of all time. New York’s Metropolitan Opera opened its doors in 1883 with a production of Gounod’s Faust.

Angel Blue and Jonathan Boyd in Portland Opera’s ‘Faust.’ Photo: Corey Weaver.

You might think Faust is the only reason his name is known, but wait: 1) Who superimposed a Catholic “Ave Maria” chant over the top of a Bach C major prelude to create one of the most loved works of all time; 2) Who wrote the ‘National Anthem’ of Vatican City (the Papal Hail to the Chief, as it were); 3) Who wrote the original theme to the Alfred Hitchcock television program? The answer to all three: Charles Gounod.

Gounod was born in Paris almost exactly two hundred years before the June 17 closing performance of POA’s 2018 Faust production. He received composition awards in his early years at Paris Conservatory and in Rome. A devoted Catholic and family man who loved the music of Palestrina and Bach, Gounoud was an admirer and friend of Berlioz. He wrote symphonies that are not widely performed, a large number of choral works and one other opera of note, Romeo and Juliet.

With a handful of major singing roles, large mixed chorus and large orchestra, the story (libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre) is a balanced and dramatic work. An artist, Faust, his body and creativity degraded by old age, is contemplating suicide. He is enraged by young women outside singing of nature and God and calls out for Mephistopheles, who takes it from there.

Crossing Faust’s pathway to doom are Marguerite, paragon of feminine purity; Siebel, young boy, love-struck over Marguerite; Wagner, a soldier off to war; Valentin, also a soldier, and brother of Marguerite; and Marthe, a matronly friend of Marguerite. And for all except Marthe, Gounod has written arias that have become staples in solo vocal literature.

Portland Opera’s ‘Faust’ closes this weekend. Photo: Corey Weaver.

It wasn’t just the language of music, however, that told the tale at Keller Auditorium. The prodigious visual stagescape was the collaborative work of a troupe of stage-craft artists taking their artistic vision from California sculptor John Frame. (Read Paul Maziar’s ArtsWatch interview with Frame.) David Allen Moore (projection design) targeted images, some 3D, onto the stage with eerie precision. Vita Tzykun (set and costume), Duane Schuler (lighting) and stage director Kevin Newbury. colored, textured and shaded the drama.

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Brooklyn Rider & Kayhan Kalhor review: unchanging aesthetic

Poorly programmed contemporary music concert's strong opening and closing numbers can't compensate for a sagging middle

by TRISTAN BLISS

Beloved, do not let me be discouraged closed the first half of Brooklyn Rider and kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor‘s concert at Corvallis’s LaSells Stewart Center with the exact same highly digestible aesthetic it opened on. The May 24 program’s unchanging syrupy aesthetic left my mind to wander to the harsh life of the Himalayan mountain goat. I imagined David Attenborough so gracefully narrating the subsistence existence or brutal death which certainly lay ahead for my little goat. That is to say, Beloved and the concert’s unchanging aesthetic was that of music written to serve a function subservient to another medium, such as nature visuals.

The problem was: there was no other medium. Just a poorly programmed show with so much filler that my ears were deadened before I could enjoy the few compositions I would have otherwise appreciated.

Brooklyn Rider and Kayhan Kalhor. Photo: Reza Maleki.

I had attempted to spare myself this fate by researching BR to make sure I was part of the target audience. I perused their website and listened to their 2017 release of Philip Glass’s String Quartets 6 & 7. Now admittedly, I didn’t seek out Brooklyn Rider’s music with Kalhor or Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen’s compositions, both included in this particular show. But the signs seemed promising: A recent release of new music from a composer I enjoy (if not necessarily those specific works); a review hailing them as the “future of chamber music” (Strings magazine 2010); Kronos Quartet being considered a “similar artist” on their Spotify page, possibly for their release of Glass quartets; a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette description that called them “four classical musicians performing with the energy of young rock stars jamming on their guitars, a Beethoven-goes-indie foray into making classical music accessible but also celebrating why it was good in the first place.”

But Brooklyn Rider’s marketed image didn’t align with the actual programmatic flatlining I experienced. It’s true that Brooklyn Rider is accessible and “why it was good in the first place” is subjective, but there was no “rockstar” energy emanating from the stage. A “rockstar” implies a larger-than-life persona, a personality that seems irresistibly engaging, and the energy to sell that image so effectively the audience believes it’s who you really are. A “rockstar” knows they are not just performing separate musical pieces, but that a concert is one singular performance from the moment you step on stage to the moment the curtain drops, and if you’re not holding the audience’s attention, you’re losing it.

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PAMTAs: It’s ‘Scarlet,’ ‘Addams’

Portland Playhouse's adaptation of "The Scarlet Letter" and Broadway Rose's "Addams Family" top Portland's night of musical-theater awards

The 2018 PAMTA awards, Portland’s annual celebration of its year in musical theater, swept into the Dolores Winningstad Theatre in downtown Portland Monday night like a showstopper tune.

Big winners in the award ceremony, hosted by actor Darius Pierce, included outstanding original musical winner Scarlet, Portland Playhouse’s adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter; and Broadway Rose’s The Addams Family, which took the best-revival PAMTA and, like Scarlet, several individual awards.

Lisamarie Harrison as Morticia in Broadway Rose’s “The Addams Family,” winner of the outstanding revival PAMTA. Photo: Sam Ortega

One of the evening’s highlights was a special “outstanding contribution” award to the popular and highly admired performer Sharonlee McLean.  “Sometimes without even knowing it an actor brings something to the room, something intangible, special, weighty, an asset they may not even know they possess,” the introduction said. “Such a unique, wonderful and magnificently talented actor is Sharon Lee McLean.”

Susannah Mars and Eva “Rainbows” Hudson Leoniak in Portland Playhouse’s outstanding original musical, “Scarlet.” Photo: Brud Giles

This year’s PAMTA awards, for achievement during the 2017-18 season. Categories and winners are in boldface, with finalists listed after:

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Portland Symphonic Choir review: new heights

Guest conductor Richard Sparks leads masterful performance of Martin's 'Mass' and a contemporary composition

by BRUCE BROWNE

A choir will rise to the occasion of a guest director, and new literature. But soar to new heights? Portland Symphonic Choir’s third candidate for permanent music director, Richard Sparks, brought something extra, something ethereal, to the confines of Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral last week. He coaxed a finesse, a cohesiveness of vocal tone in a cappella singing, in particular in the Frank Martin (1890-1974) Mass, that has not been heard in PSC for some time.

PSC’s performance shone a new, brighter light on themselves, and the justifiably famous Martin Mass (1922-26). This double choir a cappella mass is arguably one of the great pieces of the 20th century, though it lay in the composer’s desk drawer for a handful of decades, until brought to light by Eric Ericson and the Swedish Radio Choir in their magical BMI recording (first released in the 1970s and re-released in 2014 on Warner Classics.) This was an important impetus for many choral directors to learn the great depths of 20th century choral music, including that of Martin, Messiaen, Dallapiccola and Britten; no previous choral recording had ever had such an impact.

Portland Symphonic Choir

Never derivative, each movement exploring poetic new styles, the Mass is sui generis, compared to others of its ilk in the first half of the 20th century. One hears a pentatonic basis in the Resurrexit; long Renaissance polyphonic lines in the Kyrie; and a kind of thudding neo-primitivism in the Benedictus. The Sanctus is a revelation: washes of harmonic colors softly bouncing from one choir to the other bathing us in varied hues. One can almost hear the praying of the choir here and elsewhere in this work.

The Martin Mass is a barometer for choir excellence. Tuning must be taut – not the “did we end in the same key in which we started?” kind of tuning, but the internal meshing of intervals and harmony in the internal moving parts. This requires listening to each other and to the choral “core.” It also requires letting go of the personal singer sound for the co-operative one. All this must be mentored from the podium, and it happened here in the Martin.

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Emblems Wind Quintet preview: fresh breezes

Young ensemble’s concert brings 21st century music to Eugene

By GARY FERRINGTON

When the Emblems Wind Quintet lands in Eugene for a performance at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance on June 3, it will be a homecoming for two of its members. Bassoonist Brandon Scott Rumsey and clarinetist Clarissa Osborn are former Eugene and Damascus residents and 2012 and 2013 graduates of the University of Oregon.

Emblems Wind Quintet performs Sunday in Eugene. Photo: Chris O’Brien.

Although Osborn now lives in Portland, the other members come from various corners of the world: Canadian-born flutist Merryl Neille (Monard) grew up in South Africa and, like Rumsey, now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the ensemble was founded in 2016. Las Vegas resident Alex Hayashi (oboe) has roots in Hawaii. Michigan native Caroline Steiger (horn) now calls San Marcos, Texas home.

When they converge in Oregon, the ensemble will be bringing music written by members of the first generation of mature 21st century composers. “A key component of our mission,” Rumsey notes, “is to share with the world fresh, exciting wind quintet gems that did not have a long life after their first performance or, in the case of commissions, have never been heard before.” That includes works by contemporary composers as well as composers who have been historically overlooked or brushed aside.

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‘Rituals’ review: ambient tension

Contemporary classical music ensemble Sound of Late's dive into ambient sounds achieves incomplete immersion

by TRISTAN BLISS

“Listen closely to the cycles of your breath as you sink deeper into a universe of sound.” As that promotional quote for its May 19 show Rituals at Portland’s N.E.W Expressive Works indicates, Sound of Late invited us to lose ourselves in the spatial and immersive qualities of sound. Unfortunately, while waiting for this “universe of sound” to engulf me, Rituals played out as a fringe avant-garde chamber music concert that I would be cautious about who I invited to. The promised sound world was almost tangible and the show was teetering on something more, if only Sound of Late had believed in the validity of their vision and not sacrificed it to composers’ isolated visions of their scores.

Sound of Late’s ‘Rituals.’ Photo: Carlin Ma Photography.

Sitting in a circle, the audience’s experience centered upon the sound oscillating from inside to outside the circle. The Portland/Seattle new music ensemble performed Sequences by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Gjallarhorn by the Oregon electrical engineer/composer Chet Udell, in the speaking silence by Oregonian Andrea Reinkemeyer, and Et Nunc by Brooklyn based Alvin Singleton inside the audience circle. In between each of these pieces, a passage from Thirteen Changes by Pauline Oliveros would be played from outside the audience.

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‘Outset’ and ‘Confluence’ series: improvisation institutions

Creative Music Guild series bring both local and touring creative improv performers to Oregon audiences

Story and photos by PATRICK McCULLEY

Coffee shop/vintage clothing/used record store by day, and bar and music venue by night, Northeast Portland’s Turn Turn Turn has become a host, laboratory, and hub for the city’s small but thriving improvised and non-traditional music scene.

“Local” is the operative word here. The Creative Music Guild, which creates and promote concerts for improvised and/or experimental music throughout Portland, uses its Outset Series to showcase local talent every first and third Wednesday.

Outset showcases the local scene’s diversity. Last December, in a nod to their round robin duo performances from the Improvisation Summit of Portland, the CMG put together an ad-hoc improv night that randomly selects from a pool of musicians four ensembles which take the stage in turn to bring to life, to improvise, twenty minutes worth of completely new music.

Dead Death killed it at the Outset Series.

The first band of the night, with Blue Cranes saxophonist Reed Wallsmith, Derek Monypeny on guitar, and TJ Thompson on drums, sizzled, spat, and shimmered with the noise of free improvisation in the beginning of their set. But the feeling soon changed as Thompson’s driving, tom-heavy groove began to drive the band in a more rhythmically structured direction, with minor-key melodies from guitar and saxophone fluttering on top. After several minutes their intensity dissolved into an arrhythmic, nebulous, bright wavering of tone, dominated by distorted guitar and and shimmering cymbals.

The following band, with Andy Raybourn on bass clarinet, Tim DuRoche on drumset, Blue Crane Joe Cunningham on tenor saxophone and slide whistle, struck a more humorous tone. Rayborn’s bass clarinet melodies flapped and wandered like some kind of zany forest creature between DuRoche’s sporadic snare and cymbal hits. Cunningham added another zoological element to the music with the bird-like utterances of his slide whistle. As the set progressed, however, and Cunningham’s saxophone joined the fray, our musical jungle soon echoed with plaintive wails and screams of large, extinct creatures, as well as a strangely appropriate melodic fragment from Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” And oddly enough, although I doubt it was intentional, the set ended with a similar exchange of melodies and utterances with which it began.

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