Angela Allen

 

Songs of Love and Justice

New Portland Opera production celebrates Black composers

Damien Geter, photo by Rachel Hadiashar.
Damien Geter, curator of Portland Opera’s ‘Journeys to Justice’ program. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.

When Portland Opera singers and staff began to discuss Journeys to Justice, a 75-minute program of art songs and opera about the American Black experience, they pleaded with Damien Geter to add to the list his “The Talk: Instructions for Black Children When They Interact with Police.”

“I would never program my own pieces,” said Geter, who is artistic advisor of Portland Opera since July, 2020. “But they wanted it.”

And so they got it. As will opera listeners.

The program will begin streaming at 7:30 p.m. April 16 and is available until May 31. You can purchase a digital pass through Portland Opera, at a $50 suggested price, though there’s a “Pay What You will Option” for as little as $5.  A ticket allows access to all the Zoom events mentioned below.

Though each of the six pieces is contemporary —  written in the late 20th and early 21st centuries — Geter chose somewhat established works as well as freshly minted ones. The better known are the lyrical “Songs of Love and Justice” by prolific composer Dr. Adolphus Hailstork set to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, and “Your Daddy’s Son” from the 1996 musical Ragtime, which Stephen Flaherty composed with Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics.

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Bending genres to the world’s shape

"Classical music remains racist," composer DBR declares. His vital music breathes the air of Prince, hip-hop, Rosa Parks and Nina Simone.

In the heatwave of the Black Lives Matter movement and the thirst to hear new multicultural classical music, composer Daniel Bernard Roumain is a force to be reckoned with. 

His striking, genre-bending music will be spotlighted at this season’s third virtual Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival concert on Saturday, Aug. 22, from Sokol Blosser Winery in Dayton, Oregon. His pieces include “String Quartet No. 5 (Parks),” which speaks to Civil Rights matriarch Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala.; and “Hip-Hop Studies & Etudes,” 24 works in each musical key. His compositions are programmed with Ludwig Van Beethoven’s final “String Quartet, Opus 135” and the little-known Baroque composer/nun Isabella Leonarda’s “Sonata #12” for violin and cello. Roumain served as one of three virtual composers-in-residence for this year’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. (See my previous festival stories, Flights of music from a barrel room and Chamber music and a virtual toast, at Oregon Arts Watch.)

Composer DBR: “My work has always been a very small part of that big fight for justice.”

DBR, Roumain’s professional name, is “an important voice, now and in the future, and his music is stunning,” festival co-director and violinist Sasha Callahan said earlier this month. “The `Parks’ quartet we’ll be playing is fierce, bold, beautiful and full of life. It’s really evocative and distinctive” — and it includes clapping, a practice that reaches back to ancient cultures. 

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A hearty encore for David Shifrin

After 40 years, the clarinetist supreme retires as director of Chamber Music Northwest. His colleagues give him a round of applause.

Even the most ardent classical-music enthusiasts may not know several details about celebrated clarinetist David Shifrin, who retired this summer after 40 years as artistic director of Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest.

  • He uses synthetic — not cane — reeds.
  • His distant relative Lalo Schifrin (different spelling), who came to Hollywood from Argentina, persuaded David Shifrin’s parents to buy him a clarinet when David was growing up in Queens, New York. Pianist Schifrin, now 88, composed the theme from Mission Impossible, and David Shifrin, 18 years his junior, decades later commissioned him to compose pieces for the clarinet that ended up on the Aleph Label in 2006, Shifrin Plays Schifrin. The compositions were played at CMNW.
David Shifrin: a song and a smile. Photo courtesy CMNW
  • Hearing Benny Goodman play Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and “lots and lots of swing” in the 1956 movie The Benny Goodman Story assured Shifrin that he had picked the right instrument. “I just fell in love with the clarinet,” said Shifrin, who at 13 attended Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. Surrounded by serious young players, including violinist sisters Ida and Ani Kavafian (who perform often at Chamber Music Northwest), he convinced himself that to be a musician, “I’d have to work very, very hard, practice and practice, and be the best I could be.” That summer, he thought he’d give the career a shot. He’s never recalibrated his aim.

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Flights of music from a barrel room

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank and the musicians of Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival create an album in the J. Christopher cellars

On a bone-chilling March day in 2018, Gabriela Lena Frank flew in from her Northern California farm to rehearse with Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival members. Bundled up in fleece and flannel, the group descended into the barrel room at J. Christopher Wines in Newberg, Oregon, a place they’d inhabited in summer 2017 with Frank as composer-in-residence and the string players bringing her music to life. The weather  was warmer then.

This time they planned to record two of Frank’s major chamber compositions, “Milagros” (“Miracles”) and “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout.” The cellar’s temperature hovered around the mid-50s, “tough for the fingers to move fast enough,” said cellist and WVCMF co-founder Leo Eguchi

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Photo: Mariah Tauger

 Named by the Washington Post  in 2017 as one of the Top 35 Women Composers in Classical Music and called “an exciting and necessary voice” by the Los Angeles Times, Frank was not worried about this chamber group taking her work into the recording world.

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Chamber music and a virtual toast

Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival, known for blending sounds and wine, pops the cork on its fifth vintage – this time, via streaming

Minus the barrel room and live applause, members of Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival will play music for three August weekends at three stellar wineries (J. Christopher Wines, Archery Summit Winery and Sokol Blosser Winery) beginning Saturday, Aug. 8. Though you’ll have to savor the vintages at home in front of your computer, it’s a small sacrifice for these dedicated musicians’ performances. Longtime friends, the WVCMF string players have quarantined, masked up, and practiced outdoors before the festival begins.

In its fifth year—this is the first virtual one—the festival will showcase the music of Ludwig van Beethoven (this year marks his 250th anniversary) and the work of living American composers. Five contemporary composers’ works will be performed, including Portland composer/violist/Fear No Music artistic director Kenji Bunch’s “Four Flashbacks” for violin and cello. Several composers will appear virtually for question-and-answer periods after the concerts.

Music amid the (virtual) vineyards: Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival founders and directors Leo Eguchi and Sasha Callahan. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar

In the past, the festival has collaborated with one composer a year. Joan Tower, Jessie Montgomery and Gabriela Lena Frank have been in residence. This season, Montgomery and Frank will show up again, along with Daniel Roumain (DBR), all of whom will be communicating virtually from their homes (Montgomery from New York City, Frank from northern California, DBR from Massachusetts). Festival directors Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi make it their mission to collaborate with BIPOC, women, unsung, and minority composers. “We deeply believe that the life and vibrancy of this art form hinges on reflecting the world we live in, with all its diverse voices and experiences,” artistic co-director Callahan says.

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Food and art, art and food

"Food can be art. It can be messy, sensual, sexual, intoxicating and comforting. Inspired. Much like art … it should dance in your memory."

The meaning of art has been fiercely debated and never settled.

American photographer Norman Mauskopf gave the definition a whirl when recently judging portraits for Santa Fe Photographic. For anything to be art, there must be some element of tragedy, comedy, beauty, irony, or mystery.

What about magic? Or the wow factor — simply being blown away or deeply touched? And what about when beauty and other art elements rest in the eye of the beholder?

It’s all so complicated, and whatever art is, remains subjective. Still, we know when we’ve been moved, if art has touched us.

Maybe art is better defined in broad terms, as in Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter’s declaration in the 1964 protected-speech decision. “I know it when I see it,” he wrote to define the threshold for what was obscene.

So do we know art when we see it, feel it, watch it, hear it? 

That’s a bit personal, too.


AND THEN THERE’S FOOD.


Can a bowl of plums and tomatoes, or several raw artichoke halves, pass into the realm of art, beyond sustenance,  nutrition and community — if you share? Can a piece of fruit or a plate of food look so dazzling and taste so sublime that it leaves one’s soul filled as it might be after listening to a Bach cantata or George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” or when staring at Vincent van Gogh’s iridescent “Sunflowers”?

Of course it can, and it does. Just look! Just taste!

Symmetry and simplicity: a bowl of sweet plums and tart tomatoes. Photo: Angela Allen

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Keeping the winter alive

Yardbird, Onegin and Portland jazz festival stir up the Northwest

In a 1954 radio interview, jazz saxophonist and bebop shaper Charlie Parker said that he wanted to play music that was “clean, precise, something that was beautiful, has a story to tell.” He insisted humbly that “my prime interest is in learning to play music. I never want to lose my horn.” Parker said that around the time he played Seattle’s Civic Auditorium, now McCaw Hall. That was one year before he died at 34 in New York City.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, the five-year-old 90-minute opera playing at Seattle Opera’s McCaw Hall through March 7, is more about Parker’s life than about his music. A saxophone appears only in the second act—through the radio. (An alto flute and regular flute are part of the orchestration, primarily to represent birds.) The opera is symphonic, in European style, rather than written or improvised as jazz in the American idiom, but several jazz jewels glitter throughout, including bits of Parker’s “Ornithology” and some first-act scatting. There are moments of Stravinsky and Beethoven, whose music Parker admired. The tenor, Joshua Stewart, who sang Parker’s part on Feb. 22, stands in for Charlie Parker’s tunefully relentless tenor saxophone. Stewart alternated performances with Frederick Ballantine as Parker for the run of the show.

Seattle Opera staged the new opera 'Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.' Photo by Sunny Martini.
Tenor Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker in Seattle Opera’s production of ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.’ Photo by Sunny Martini.

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