Angela Allen

 

Vision 2020: Niel DePonte

A Portland musical standout for more than 40 years, the percussionist, composer and conductor thinks about the thorny issues ahead

At the Oregon Symphony’s June 1 concert this year, Niel DePonte will play the famously energetic snare drum part in Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. The spring season will end his 42-year career as the symphony’s principal percussionist, a job he’s had since he was 24 years old. Symphonic percussionists’ duties have grown more complex in the past half-century, with all manner of bells and whistles added to scores. His responsibilities have burgeoned along with the bigger and, usually, better drumming parts.  

He’s retiring from that role, but head percussion guy is only one of several jobs DePonte juggles on Portland’s arts scene.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


He will continue to conduct the Oregon Ballet Theatre Orchestra, something he’s done since 1985, and carry on his 26 years of work with MetroArts Inc. mentoring young musicians and pushing educational programs. Then there’s his composing and arranging, including his arrangement for Houston Ballet’s Peter Pan, played since 2002. That won’t stop, either.

Keeping all those artistic balls moving in harmony has gotten tougher as DePonte has turned grayer, he said in a recent interview. “These are high-wire jobs. When you’re trying to be perfect all the time (as a musician and conductor), and the number of performances has increased, it’s demanding. Artistic organizations are trying to grow and help artists to make a living. It’s a lot.”

Niel DePonte, amid the clatter and bang. Photo courtesy Oregon Symphony

DePonte grew up in the New York area in a high-achieving family where “education was the thing, and music was played.” His mother sang Italian opera by heart, a piano was in the house, he started drumming at 7, and earned a masters degree at Eastman School of Music. All in all,  “expectations were high,” he said.

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Art on the Road: Colors of India

Angela Allen takes a photographic journey to the world's second most populous nation, discovering a unique sense of color along the way


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANGELA ALLEN


“Its unique sense of color,” the late Indian photojournalist Raghubir Singh said, was India’s primary cultural contribution. 

Singh was mainly a street photographer who shot color film in the mid- and late-20th century when black and white reigned as the photojournalist’s and art photographer’s choice. He called India “a river of color” and published a book in 1998 with that title. (He died in 1999 at 57.)  He captured the crush of people in a country of 1.06 billion, the streets’ cacophony, the jumble of creaking rickshaws, overflowing buses, unruly motorcycles — and camels. Always, movement is relentless among the saturated colors. Singh’s photos didn’t always have a focal point, in the linear Western way. He went after fluidity and continuity.

When I traveled with a group of photographers last year with our cameras to Rajasthan, Singh’s birthplace in northern India, color and movement were easy to find. Life is forever in motion, though admittedly, I often sought out calm rather than chaos. Some say India is an assault on the senses. Traveling through the country is a sensuous experience like none other, photographically and personally. It is never boring.

We made our way through Rajasthan (Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Jojawar and smaller villages ) and then to Uttar Pradesh, where the holy city of Varanasi seethes with energy on the Ganges River. Hindus journey there to die, believing that sending their ashes down the river will lead them on to the next life. They also bathe and play in the river, celebrate festivals and holidays, wash their clothes, boat, do business, water their animals, pray. The Ganges, too, throbs with life  and with death’s ashes. We were warned not to take photos of cremation ceremonies, out of respect, so you won’t find any here.

This photographic journey begins backwards from our route. My pictures start at the Ganges, not the world’s largest river but the one with the most spiritual currents, and end with moments in villagers’ and farmers’ lives.

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Early in the morning in Varanasi, people wash, do their laundry, swim, cook, sell, fish, worship, socialize, and usher their dead into the next world along the 1,569-mile-long Ganges River.

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Music in the wineries: a fine pairing

Old world and new meet and match in a rare and heady balance as the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival uncorks its fourth vintage

Good wine is a natural companion to great music, perhaps better than strawberries and cream in Oregon’s midsummer. In pairing the two, the old world meets the new, and each enhances the other, says Leo Eguchi, co-founder of August’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. 

A cellist and wine collector, Eguchi explains how the alchemy works: “In the summer of 1890, an aging Johannes Brahms felt that he had one last mountain to summit, and it was a big one. He sat down to write one final piece before retirement, and he poured in everything left to say. The resulting work, the String Quintet in G Major, opus 111, demonstrates a perspective that only an aging master can provide: exuberant joy, mournful tragedy, love lost and won … in short, a life complete and well-lived.”  

(As it turned out, the piece wasn’t Brahms’ swansong.)

Festival founders Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi at J. Christopher Wines in Newberg. Photo: Kelly Stewart

The vintage that partners with Brahms’ piece during the first festival weekend, Eguchi explains, is “restrained or extravagant. Archery Summit’s 2016 Red Hills Vineyard Pinot Noir has a depth and balance to accompany the string quintet. Ripe cherry and roasted tea flavors mirror the music’s surprise turns from major to minor, and the wine strikingly shows the same warm richness that can only be the voice of Brahms, deepened even further in the mid-range by this quintet’s additional (extra) viola.”

Give it a whirl!

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Punk Papageno in Wine Country

Aquilon Music Festival reinvents Mozart’s eternal opera

July’s three-week Aquilon Music Festival in Willamette Valley wine country debuted in summer 2018, and this year, concert-goers might have a better time pronouncing its French name. 

“AK–will-on,” explains Chelsea Janzen, who will sing Pamina in the festival’s centerpiece opera, The Magic Flute. She adds, tongue in cheek, that Baroque scholar Ian Pomeranz, an Aquilon young-artists’ workshop teacher, “would have a much more refined pinkie-up French pronunciation.”

Punk Papageno set design by Laurel Peterson for Aquilon Music Festival 2019.
Punk Papageno costume design by Laurel Peterson for Aquilon Music Festival 2019.

It was, until recently, an unfamiliar word to the Oregon arts scene. “Aquilon” roughly translates as “god of the northern wind,” and has a sensory connection to Alexander Pushkin’s 19th-century poem, “My Sister’s Vineyard.” The verse finishes with “as soon as the Aquilon blows, it brings with it” [rough translation] “the aromas of spices and exotic perfumes”—a heady thought. The name generates further power with its Northwest association and its connection to Aquilon director Anton Belov, 44, a Russian-born opera baritone who can stir up enthusiasm for just about anything musical.

“What we do is a miracle,” Belov said earlier this summer at Dundee’s bustling Red Hills Market, flashing phone photos of the outrageously colorful in-progress set of The Magic Flute that he and his teen-aged son, Andrew, had been working on the previous night. This time around, the festival’s opera will feature a limited orchestra and a full-blown set; last year it was more “guerilla opera,” he jokes, meaning bare-bones with small orchestra and minimal set. 

Chelsea Janzen at Black Walnut 6/20/2019
Soprano Chelsea Janzen in Dundee’s Black Walnut Vineyard, June 2019. Photo by Anton Belov.

About 700 people attended the festival in 2018 at wineries and at Linfield College, about an hour’s drive from Portland in McMinnville. This year, Belov hopes for 1,000 concertgoers as he watches music and culture gain momentum in wine country. “I want to go four weeks next year,” and he will—if he can get funding.

Aquilon students

Megan Uhrinak, 26, a festival singer who doubles as a visual designer and pitches in to help Aquilon efforts in any way she can, was a former student of Belov’s at Linfield College, where he is an associate music professor. She says that Belov and opera changed her life. She grew up in McMinnville, studied biology until she switched her studies to music, and fell hard for opera after working with Belov. “I found that I loved the way it felt to sing in this style, which is both athletic and full of emotion.” She has performed major roles in Portland State University productions, including the part of sourpuss Arminda in this spring’s well-received La Finta. She played the Countess in Aquilon’s Le Nozze de Figaro last summer.

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‘La Finta Giardiniera’: early blossoms

The young Mozart's relatively obscure comic opera, staged this year by both Portland State University and Portland Opera, showcases emerging singers

Story by ANGELA ALLEN

Photos by JOE CANTRELL

The obscure La Finta Giardiniera (The Fake Gardener) is making its modern-day debut twice in Portland in four months. The opera is Portland State University’s spring presentation (the final show is at 3 pm Sunday, April 28) and Portland Opera stages it in July.

Did Portland’s opera directors have the same dream at the same time?

Or is it the irresistible W.A. Mozart? The composer was 18 — younger than many of these student performers— when he wrote the opera, which premiered in 1775 in Munich. Even if the opera lacks a moral typical of his later pieces like Cosi, Don Giovanni and Figaro, its music hints at the Mozart to come. Guiseppe Petrosellini gets credit for the libretto though there is some controversy around who actually wrote it. Much of it is so repetitive that in the PSU production, subtitles disappear for stretches of time because the characters repeat the same thing over and over.

The Act One opening ensemble: Life, and song, and costumes are abloom.

With its helter-skelter plot, mixed identities, and operatic exaggerations – these characters wear their hearts deeply inscribed on their long sleeves—La Finta, a fun “buffa” piece—is rarely performed, but it provides a good vehicle for young voices and energetic actors. Four couples, plus a mayor, go in and out of love and at times, go stark raving mad, or slightly nuts. The plentiful roles are distributed evenly, so the opera is well suited to such a student production as PSU’s, and in the case of Portland Opera, to up-and-coming resident artists.

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‘Il Trovatore’: clarity amid complexity

Soprano Angela Meade stars in Seattle Opera's vivid production of Verdi's violent tragedy

by ANGELA ALLEN

Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) at Seattle Opera’s McCaw Hall Hall through Jan. 26, is a death-soaked, secret-infused and passion-obsessed opera. Giuseppe Verdi’s gory tale of revenge and jealousy is one juicy piece — when it doesn’t stumble like a lame warhorse.

Which it didn’t. With an intricate plot, mixed identities, terrible secrets and musical beauty and lyricism, it conjures up a well-crafted Shakespearean tragedy. And as with Shakespeare, the audience must pay close attention to fully appreciate it. Thanks to great singers and smart production choices, SO told the tale well.

Michael Mayes (di Luna) and Martin Muehle (Manrico) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Il Trovatore.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

The plot is complicated and fueled by the parents’ sins visited upon their offspring. Brothers Manrico, the troubled troubadour (Brazilian tenor Martin Muehle) and the entitled Count di Luna (baritone Michael Mayes) are at battle with each other, but they don’t know they are brothers. The gypsy, Azucena, who burned her own child instead of one of the royal brothers in a revenge plot for her mother who was burned at the stake, rears Manrico and pretends to be his mother, but keeps this secret from him. Then there is the love interest, noblewoman Leonora (soprano Angela Meade) caught in the middle.

Leonora loves the tenor— and spoiler alert —dies for him. He dies, too, beheaded by his unsuspecting brother, the Count. Beheading and witch-burning are portrayed in shadowy form behind a scrim, but prepare for violence, if not bloody. Program notes compare the violence level to Game of Thrones.

As Verdi said, what else is life but death? His two young children and 26-year-old first wife died within months of one another, so death was on the composer’s mind.

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Autumn Leaves: PDX Jazz’s fall season

Presenting organization brings internationally renowned jazz daddies and a mama to Oregon

by ANGELA ALLEN 

Sold out.

It’s no surprise that the piano-driven Tord Gustavsen Trio’s Sept. 30 concert sold out weeks ago. But you still have more chances to catch cutting-edge jazz in Portland this fall, courtesy of PDX Jazz.

Gustavsen and his Norwegian group need a bigger venue than the 100-seat Classic Pianos in southeast Portland. He’s best known in European and Scandinavian circles, but everywhere, Gustavsen’s “reputation is growing,” said Don Lucoff, executive artistic director of PDX Jazz.The pianist and composer has played Portland twice before – once at the Mission Theater and before at Tony Starlight’s when it was on Northeast Sandy Boulevard. This time, a few days short of his 48th birthday, Gustavsen will be showcasing his trio’s newest CD, The Other Side, in part a tribute to his father who died last year and turned his son onto the piano.

Tord Gustavsen Trio

Under his own name, Gustavsen has produced eight albums and won numerous jazz awards. With his cerebral, minimalist melodies and spiritual, quietly expressive approach to the keys, he is often compared to pianists Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans – and certainly the two American keyboardists have been major influences.

As important as piano players are other artists, Gustavsen said earlier this month in a phone interview from Oslo. “The passion for expression and expressing as much as you can in every single note is so important. The best singers have cultivated that art. So Billie Holiday and (saxophonist/composer/bandleader) Wayne Shorter have influenced me as much or more as the pianists.”

New Orleans blues, second-line groups and New Orleans funk add to his influences. The music of Swedish mid-century crossover artist, the late Jan Johansson, who is little known outside of Scandinavia, has rubbed off. Johansson played with Stan Getz and “bridged jazz sensibility with Scandinavian folk music,” Gustavsen said.

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