Oregon ArtsWatch

 

Finding hope through music

Southern Oregon’s Anima Mundi Productions continues to challenge audiences about cultural and social issues through music

By GARY FERRINGTON

A new concert series dedicated to bringing world-class musicians and composers to southern Oregon with the purpose of musicially addressing challenging social issues was inaugurated this October when Anima Mundi Productions co-founders, composer Ethan Gans-Morse and poet Tiziana Della Rovere, launched The Heart of Humanity program. This annual series of three concerts per year (fall, winter, and spring), often programed with “extra-musical” and “beyond the concert hall” elements that proactively engage the wider community, is focused on giving a compassionate voice to marginalized people and turning the concert hall into a venue for renewed hope, mutual understanding, and communal healing.

Malek Jandali Trio opens Ashland’s The Heart of Humanity series. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy Anima Mundi Productions.
Malek Jandali Trio opens Ashland’s The Heart of Humanity series. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy Anima Mundi Productions.

The Heart of Humanity is the fourth Anima Mundi project in which Gans-Morse and Della Rovere have focused on the mission of creating musical performances that inspire the soul, inform the mind, and foster community.

Their first production, The Canticle of the Black Madonna (2014), was a fully staged, Portland-premiered event about combat PTSD and the environment. A chamber opera,Tango of the White Gardenia (2018), addressed issues of bullying and body perception and went on tour around the state.The Rogue Valley Symphony commissioned Anima Mundi’s third and most recent collaborative effort, How Can You Own The Sky? (2018), a symphonic poem exploring the Native American legacy of Southern Oregon through poetry and orchestral music with indigenous musical influences.

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Claiming culture, marketing emotion

Oregon Mozart Players concert explores new worlds with music by living composers—and raises questions of preparation and appropriated meaning

By DANIEL HEILA

Beall Hall at the University of Oregon School of Music was almost at capacity on October 12th for the Oregon Mozart PlayersNew Worlds concert–the first of three 2019-2020 season concerts featuring contemporary classical compositions. The progressive program and the exciting young guest artists–Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet–promised a compelling listening experience. Two works by American composers under the age of 50 were the program’s highlights: Teen Murti by Reena Esmail and How Wild the Sea by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.

Both pieces featured non-Eurocentric themes, and Esmail’s piece was crafted using materials of a nonwestern musical tradition: the Hindustani music of Northern India. Esmail is Indian-American and has completed significant studies of Hindustani music in India (Fulbright-Nehru scholarship), and brings that pedigree to her writing. For his part, Puts (whose opera Silent Night won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music) drew inspiration for his string quartet concerto from tragic media images of Japanese victims of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

The two works were masterfully crafted, rewarding attentive listeners with multi-textured soundscapes, harmonic excursions into unfamiliar territory, and bravura ensemble and solo passages that highlighted the virtuosity of both the ensemble and the guest artists. So it was with a sinking heart–just a few bars into Esmail’s sensitive treatment of Hindustani music–that I realized the Oregon Mozart Players had bitten off more than they could chew with Teen Murti.

The piece opened with layered melismatic lines over a drone: a quintessential Indian music structure. The texture was thick with “blue” notes (microtones achieved by fingering a touch higher or lower on the neck and via glissandi) and meaty low-register trills in the first violins. My ears were primed. But then there was a spate of stuttering pizzicato. The string players were hesitant, not wanting to be the one to plink out of place, thereby rendering their entrance scattershot. A growing sense of ill ease permeated the performance from that point on, the players struggling to get through the piece without a train wreck.

In an effective, coloristic section of ad lib, portamento-laden phrases in the violins held aloft what could have been a languid, sensuous cello obligato from within the orchestral section. Unfortunately, the cellist was so focused on the page that her performance was lackluster. To be fair, rehearsal time is at a premium even for the more regularly programmed works from the classical canon, let alone unfamiliar new works that may present challenges the ensemble has not faced before. 

The ensemble continued their unsteady way through the lovely piece, doing their best to execute the freely metered, elastic rhythms. A final return to the opening liquid microtone textures brought the structure to a satisfying conclusion, capped off with an inspired melismatic solo statement from concertmaster Alice Blankenship. The piece had desperately needed that kind of emotional commitment from the beginning.

This is music that goes against the grain of western music in so many ways, and to ask an ensemble that specializes in the most western of western music to embrace it was perhaps poor judgement. It is hard to see an ensemble struggle, especially one with such high standards. But salt was rubbed into the wound when artistic director/conductor Kelly Kuo made awkward excuses for the subpar performance, mentioning the challenging rhythmical elements. Perhaps it would have been better to sing the praises of the work and move on to the next piece instead of acknowledging the weakness of the performance.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.

Processing tragedy

On his well-crafted website, Kevin Puts writes about having written music associated with tragedy: “It seems I am always making memorials, or trying to process tragedy through my writing.” Often these works are inspired by images the composer has seen. Falling Dream: a couple leaping together from one of the burning towers during the 9/11 attacks. His Clarinet Concerto: images from a documentary of families mourning at the graves of fallen soldiers of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The impetus for How Wild the Sea was televised imagery of an elderly man, trapped on the roof of his home, being swept along on the violent Tōhoku tsunami tide, having just lost his wife to the tumult.

Delgani Quartet opened the piece, with a gentle to-and-fro motion of arpeggios and running scales that evoked an undulating sea, consonant intervals projecting a deceptive benevolence. After an abrupt shift to dissonance, the to-and-froing morphed into an ominous swelling and contracting as the orchestra washed over the solo ensemble. This morass of portent gradually coalesced into a clearly metered rhythmic section that highlighted declamatory, unison orchestral statements.

The concerto continued in this manner, exploiting the protagonist role of the quartet against the “forces of nature” portrayed in the orchestra. Puts’s brilliant orchestration had the quartet sending phrases off into the brass and percussion sections, creating motivic currents which gave the work tremendous sonic depth. Despite the predictable tolling chimes and woodwind intonation issues, OMP delivered a much more energetic performance than with Esmail’s work, including an outstanding contribution by the french horn section.

Puts’s treatment of the quartet as a single voice–shared rhythmic and melodic material activated, agitated, and modulated from within by the separate instruments–created a powerful counter to the orchestra’s aural dominance. Delgani was in their element, their tight ensemble rapport executing dense contrapuntal and rapid scalar sections with enthusiastic synergy.

A return to the oceanic textures of the opening–this time the underlying anxiety retreating in dark brass reverberations–signaled the conclusion of the work. A few errant currents of phrases and motifs passed between sections, and a tic-toc brass-and-percussion figure guided the orchestra to a textural cadence and a unison solo statement by the quartet: a spine tingling conclusion that was unfortunately marred by two full orchestra hits that seemed counterintuitive and awkwardly self-conscious.

Creative impetus, or mere marketing?

I feel compelled, in today’s atmosphere of transparency of intent and growing respect for difference (cultural, sexual, religious or otherwise), to mention a criticism I have for Puts’s work. With regard to the two previously mentioned tragedy-inspired works (Falling Dream, Clarinet Concerto), I understand the impetus. These are issues close to home, events that affected and continue to affect Americans viscerally. But I have observed a tendency (especially in more conservative contemporary classical communities) for composers to jump at monumental events as impetus for composition. I feel that this practice can be a minefield of unintended effrontery to victims of these tragedies or members of the cultures that have been afflicted, especially if the events happened at a significant distance to the composer’s life, lifestyle, and culture. 

So, I wonder about the respectfulness of writing pieces inspired by a kind of media-driven voyeurism. I can understand using the Japanese tragedy as impetus if the composer had a direct connection to the Japanese disaster; Puts did have a piece performed in a Japanese town damaged by an earthquake in the 90s, but that seems a distant relationship to the Tōhoku earthquake. Simply appropriating the meaning in a Japanese man’s suffering without any deliberate, respectful reference to his culture seems a particularly good example of cultural hubris. How Wild the Sea used no elements of Japan’s rich musical culture, historical or contemporary. I can imagine there were many touch points for creativity in the aftermath of the disaster: favorite community songs and folksongs of the region, to name just two. Why were these not explored?

Remove the program note’s mention of the impetus and the composer’s explanation on his website, and the piece bears no connection to Japanese culture. So why just a textual reference to a tragedy that captured the world’s attention? Could this be marketing? Is this a composer seeding his work with imagery to engage the morbid fascination and pity the observer feels for the suffering? I certainly hope not. But, I feel that there just wasn’t enough relevant content in How Wild the Sea to comfortably support the composer’s decision to apply the tragic imagery of a doomed man’s suffering to his music.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Clarissa Parker.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Clarissa Parker.

The Oregon Mozart Players are to be commended for their programming of living American composers. They are participating in a rising tide of performing organizations discovering the amazing variety, accessibility, and artistry of American contemporary classical music. Perhaps they might find a more copacetic rapport with the more pulse-oriented pieces of the minimalists (Philip Glass’ symphonies, for instance) and post-minimalists (John Adams’s lighter orchestral works) or the abstracted tonality of the current roster of young Brooklynites (Andrew Norman, Missy Mazzoli).

However the orchestra’s programming develops, Oregon Mozart Players have established themselves as committed champions of contemporary classical music, willing to take risks and create memorable music of our time.

Oregon Mozart Players will feature music of Frederik Magle on December 6 and 7 and of Michael Torke on March 28, 2020.

Daniel Heila writes music, loves words, and plays flute in Eugene, OR.

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Portland Book Festival: Sometimes too much is a good thing

The Portland Book Festival moves outdoors to accommodate both the crowds and the profusion of writers

By KATIE TAYLOR

Literary Arts will pitch a big tent in Shemanski Park on Saturday, November 9, and it will be full of authors and the readers who love them. 

Portland Book Festival (formerly known as Wordstock) challenges the unpredictable outdoors this year, moving its popular “In Conversation” stage out of Portland Art Museum’s Crumpacker Library and into the park, courtesy of Portland Parks Foundation. The Book Fair will also overflow its indoor boundaries to occupy Portland Art Museum’s Sculpture Garden.

“We needed a bigger space and we were using all we had, so we made a new one,” said festival director Amanda Bullock.  

A scene from the book fair of the 2018 Portland Book Festival/Photo courtesy Literary Arts

A circus is a good analogy for Portland’s big annual book event, with its 100+ authors appearing on nine stages all in one dense, delirious, daylong literary orgy.

Malcolm Gladwell is one of the headliners of this year’s Portland Book Festival./Photo courtesy Literary Arts

“It’s intentional FOMO,” Bullock said. “There’s always something happening, a new event starting every 15 minutes. Even if one thing is full, there’s always something else to check out.” So, don’t worry: Everybody’s missing out on something!

This is the fifth year Bullock has organized the festival, more fully realizing her guiding ethos for the event each time. “We want to be a festival for every kind of potential reader. Diversity of voices is important—age, gender, ethnicity, where they’re from, where they are in their career, what their genre is. The density of the festival is a great way to fulfill that dream.”

With that principle in mind, the Festival has added a new genre this year: romance. “It’s an amazing genre,” Bullock said. “People think of romance as Regency bodice rippers, but there are a lot of really modern stories being told through this genre today.” A panel called “Royal Romance: Modern Love Stories” features New York Times bestselling romance writers Jasmine Guillory and Casey McQuiston, whose recent releases both feature royal affairs. The event is moderated by McKenzie Kozman.

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The warhorse dilemma

Portland Opera's Puccini production provides good performances but few surprises

By ANGELA ALLEN

Portland Opera has staged the beloved Madama Butterfly seven times since 1967. I have seen the opera seven times since 1962 – not all at PO. This latest PO Butterfly opened Oct. 25 and wound up a four-performance run Nov. 2 at the Keller Auditorium.

Why do I keep going back?

It gets under your skin. I unabashedly love Giacomo Puccini’s sweeping melodies that make space for Japanese folk music and American tunes.

Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Suzuki and Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San in Portland Opera's 2019 production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.
Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Suzuki and Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San in Portland Opera’s 2019 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

I love the tragic story of boorish racist American Navy Lt. B.F. Pinkerton (sung competently by Mexican tenor Luis Chapa). During a stopover in Japan, Pinkterton takes flighty 15-year-old Butterfly as his bride with the help of marriage broker Goro (Karl Marx Reyes), abandons her for three years, remarries, and returns to take their child back to America.  It is an emotionally brutal story that is based on truth. Yes, Asian brides–and no doubt women of other cultures–were loved and left by Westerners who traveled their way for war or business. Part of the tragedy is that the resulting mixed-race children did not fare well in traditional cultures.

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Percussion’s vast instrumentarium

Portland Percussion Group expands percussion world with concert of score-call winners

By CHARLES ROSE

The world of contemporary percussion music is strange. While many composers we think of as “classical” wrote great percussion music—Varese, Xenakis, and Stockhausen among them—contemporary concert percussion music has a much broader scope of influences than most other fields. By their nature percussionists are extremely flexible, learning the nuances of playing dozens of different instruments that span the whole world of cultures, eras and aesthetics, united by a shared emphasis on rhythm, performance and dance. If there’s any genre of contemporary classical music that lovingly embraces the music of West Africa, Indonesia, Japan and Turkey as much as Western Europe, it is concert percussion.

The percussion scene of Portland is equally vast and colorful, even if on a smaller scale. High school marching bands, a world-class drum corps, some great shops, PSU’s massive percussion department, the Portland Percussion Group, and dozens of private teachers hanging posters in coffee shops around town all play their part in the fertile culture here. The Portland Percussion Group is among the most prestigious performing groups in town: the quartet of veteran performers Brian Gardiner, Paul Owen, Brett Paschal and Chris Whyte have been together since 2011, playing classics and constantly commissioning new works. Their concert Fixtures on October 21 consisted of Threads by composer and recently-retired Princeton professor Paul Lansky and three premieres from their recent call for scores.

In performance, Gardiner, Owen, Paschal and Whyte operate as a single unit, and perfectly locked together throughout the concert. That is a testament both to their individual skills and their cohesion: even through the heaviest fields of noise they emerged right back in tempo. I tend not to discuss performance in my reviews, mostly because I am a composer and spend most of my listening time analysing the music on the fly. At Fixtures, however, I couldn’t help but be enthralled with their precision and dynamic control.

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‘The Dope Elf’ considers power

The Gawdafful National Theater visited Yale Union earlier this month for play about white supremacy that kept the audience in motion

By KYLE COHLMIA

“I am the dopest elf!” proclaimed Jacqueline Wright during the final monologue of her performance in The Dope Elf, written and directed by Asher Hartman and performed in three different plays by the Gawdafful National Theater at Yale Union in Portland, September 14–October 20. 

While seemingly humorous, her exclamation of identity wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t stated for the purpose of amusement or banter. It was a strong proclamation asserting power. This interactive live play/social experiment/art project is, after all, about power, specifically white supremacy, which Hartman described in the catalogue as “the underlying cause of all ills, loss, boredom, and perilous transformation.” 

The play itself experiments with elements of power between the performer and audience members. As the observer, you are not passively sitting in front of a stage, watching the actors from afar. Instead, The Dope Elf requires that the audience congregate around the actors, following them, sometimes unknowingly, from scene to scene, placing their bodies in a vulnerable position of proximity, inside the sets themselves.

Jacqueline Wright as The Dope Elf in Asher Hartman’s “The Dope Elf” for Gawdafful National Theater/Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber

Phillip Little, Gawdafful National Theater actor who plays the role of John in The Dope Elf, addresses this power dynamic in the play’s program: “If you occupy land, you occupy history, and that history talks back. Dreams, hauntings, visions are the mediums through which this history is transmitted. Personalities fragmented along spiritual fault lines. Inner landscapes are remade gradually or cataclysmically.”

His quote speaks to the “presumed safety” and privilege audience members usually hold  in traditionally white art spaces. In The Dope Elf our passive role as consumer is challenged and put into question, as we are now physically a part of the collective narrative.

The Dope Elf’s non-linear storyline of elves, trolls, ghosts, magicians, and animals, “questions popular culture’s fascination with mystical power as a substitute for political power,” as “each character grapples with their own unidentifiable psychic pain,” (Dena Beard, Curator, The Dope Elf program notes). With stage aesthetics resembling nostalgic ‘80s TV shows like “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” the actors walk the audience through overlapping narratives with complex dialogue that switches from recognizable to ambiguous language.

As an audience member of Play 2, the second iteration of the three-part, non-narrative but sequential performance, I was initially intrigued by the stage designs that were laid out across the gallery space. The performance started out in the center of Yale Union with the Dope Elf, an aging trans man/elf, and their troll neighbor Gingy as the central characters. The two converse about their identities, interactions and everyday absurdities, moving separately and together in rolling chairs that became like a dance, a duet of fluidity, where The Dope Elf exerts their power over Gingy, setting the tone for the rest of the play. 

We are then thrown into a scene between two lovers, John and Alfred, who dramatize their contentious but loving relationship. At the end of this interaction, John seemingly dies, and as we progress into the next scene, he slowly and methodically dresses, changing from his white t-shirt and “Lucky Charms” boxers into a man’s business suit while singing an Irish song, a poetic transition from queer lover to staunch businessman.

Once he is in his new costume, he confronts The Dope Elf about purchasing their home so that new businesses can occupy their property. We are then introduced to two new characters, The Magician, a white man who lives in a glass house, and a black man, Dirk, who comes out of the audience and into the performance. Dirk interacts with The Magician and successively Alfred and John, in two separate scenes, ostensibly meant to invoke the concept of white supremacy and dramatize race relations. At the end of the play we are reintroduced to John and Alfred who turn into a violent elf and hellhound, respectively, ending on a macabre note, leaving the fate of each character open-ended and up for interpretation.

While the poetic dialogue and overlapping stories brought me in and out of consciousness, creating a blurred perception of the characters and their relationships to one another, the overall theme of The Dope Elf was clear. This is about power. 

As The Dope Elf exclaims:

“This is about power. I will sacrifice myself to
the impulse for power. As actors do… Oh yes,
I am a magical system. An elf is a magical
system. I am that. I am a system. I rearrange.
people and things. Like that. Oh yes, what
you perceive of me is true. Whatever you
think. Oh, yes, there will be blood.”

The positioning of the audience alone indicates this theme—the awkwardness of where to sit or stand or how to interact with the performers strips away the power of passive consumption. I keep going back to Little’s quote on land occupation—as an audience member, I am not separate from the landscape of psychic pain and the structures of white supremacy. 

I am the you that occupies land. I am the you that occupies a history. And while I may not be the dopest elf, I am the you whose inner landscape is gradually and sometimes cataclysmically being remade.

Kyle Cohlmia was born in Stillwater, OK. She received a B.A. in Art History and Italian with a minor in English from the University of Kansas and an M.A. in Instruction and Curriculum at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Kyle has worked at various art museums and galleries including the Denver Art Museum, Oklahoma Hall of Fame, and most recently, as Curator of Exhibitions for the Melton Gallery at the University of Central Oklahoma. She is a previous fellow of Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition’s Art Writing and Curatorial Fellowship and has written for various art publications including Art Focus, Art 365, and Art Discourse. Kyle is currently living in Portland, OR, working toward her second M.A. in Critical Studies at Pacific Northwest College of Art. 

Being the song

Anne Sofie von Otter and Kristian Bezuidenhout show Schubert’s classical roots at Friends of Chamber Music concert and masterclass

By KATIE TAYLOR with contributions by SUSAN HARRIS

When pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout launched into the fourth and final song in Swedish mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter’s opening Mozart set at her Friends of Chamber Music Vocal Arts Series recital last week, I thought, “that sounds like Schubert.” With its rolling arpeggios, Mozart’s “An Chloë” irresistibly brough to mind Schubert’s “Das Wandern,” which opens his famous song cycle Die schöne Müllerin. That wasn’t an accident.

This beautifully crafted program began with Mozart, progressed seamlessly into Schubert through a classical lens and ended with Schubert’s romantic side. The effect worked in both directions, revealing intriguing hints of a view forward to early romanticism in late Mozart and showing Schubert’s classical roots with a clarity that was wholly surprising to a listener accustomed to the more barn-burning approach many singers take to his songs. 

The program made a side trip midway to listen in on Schubert’s Swedish contemporaries, Adolf Fredrik Lindblad and Franz Berwald, and von Otter’s lyrical art song sets were thoughtfully interwoven with solo turns by Bezuidenhout.

The pairing of singer and accompanist couldn’t have been more perfect. Both artists combined relaxed, spontaneous delivery with meticulous attention to detail and delivery that was never anything less than divinely subtle.

Anne Sofie von Otter and Kristian Bezuidenhout at Friends of Chamber Music concert October 2019. Photo courtesy of FOCM.
Anne Sofie von Otter and Kristian Bezuidenhout at Friends of Chamber Music concert October 2019. Photo courtesy of FOCM.

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