Angela Allen

 

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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Breathing fresh air

Portland Opera’s ‘American Quartet’ of one-act operas

An American Quartet sold out–and for good reasons. Portland Opera’s seven-performance black-box show, which opened Feb. 9 at Hampton Opera Center and closed Feb. 22, was witty, short, well performed, utterly charming, and for once the spotlight shone on American opera composers. The entire program, sung in English with projected captions, lasted about 95 minutes along with a 15-minute intermission. That’s a long way from a four-hour night with Wagner.

Emilie Faiella as Lucy and Geoffrey Schellenberg as Ben in The Telephone. Photo by Kate Szrom/Portland Opera.
Emilie Faiella as Lucy and Geoffrey Schellenberg as Ben in Gian Carlo Menotti’s ‘The Telephone.’ Photo by Kate Szrom/Portland Opera.

These four one-acts, ranging in length from 10 to 26 minutes, provided a sharply tuned showcase for the up-and-coming Portland Opera Resident Artists, each of whom sang multiple parts.

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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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A game of reflections

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

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.

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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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The warhorse dilemma

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

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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