Angela Allen

 

Meaning and quality on a shoestring

Opera Theater Oregon's tribute to Guthrie and Hill features expressive performances and timely message

We all know a bit about Woody Guthrie, the 20th-century American social-justice troubadour. Apostles and adopters like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash embraced and copied his music ad infinitum. During these 21st-century trying times, when social justice is taking a far back seat to greed and power-grabbing, why not celebrate Guthrie again?

Opera Theater Oregon’s This Land Sings: Songs of Wandering, Love and Protest took up the cause with an engaging production built on Michael Daugherty’s radio-show-style chamber opera Aug. 24 at Alberta Rose Theater. The house wasn’t sold out, but close enough. Scenery was spare, other than big-screen slides of the Dust Bowl and other Depression horrors, and costumes were non-existent—though conductor/OTO co-creative director/composer Justin Ralls wore suspenders. The outfits leaned toward muted country-folksy with a touch of  frontier vibe rather than showy or elaborate.

Opera Theater Oregon's 'This Land Sings.' Left to right: Daniel Mobbs, Lisa Neher, suspendered Justin Ralls, announcer Thom Hartmann. Photo by Michael Daugherty.
Opera Theater Oregon’s ‘This Land Sings.’ Left to right: singers Daniel Mobbs and Lisa Neher, suspendered conductor Justin Ralls, announcer Thom Hartmann. Photo by Michael Daugherty.

But the music? The singing? The conducting? The ensemble-playing? They were terrific and made up for any deficits in visual design. With this piece, OTO continues to fulfill its mission of presenting contemporary English-language works that shine a bright and piercing light on social, political and environmental issues. If you saw OTO’s 2017 Two Yosemites, composed by Ralls, then you know the group set a high bar for its mission and continues to pursue it with utter sincerity. (Read Arts Watch’s interview with Ralls here).

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Refreshing and overwhelming

An interview with composer-violinist Jessie Montgomery, performed and performing this weekend at Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival

Rising-star—or risen constellation—composer Jessie Montgomery will light up Sokol Blosser Winery’s Dundee tasting room for two concerts Aug. 17 and 18, final weekend of this year’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. (See my Oregon Arts Watch feature story.)

Expect excitement, as well as three 2-ounce pours of Sokol Blosser vintages throughout the concert, which includes two compositions by Montgomery, Baroque composer Elisabeth–Claude Jacquet’s “Sonata for D for Violin and Cello” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 132.

The program’s centerpiece, Montgomery’s 7-minute quartet Strum, is “turbulent, wildly colorful and exploding with life,” wrote a Washington Post critic. “It sounded like a handful of American folk melodies tossed into a strong wind, cascading and tumbling joyfully around one another.”

Composer-violinist Jessie Montgomery.

Like that much-praised and much-played composition, Montgomery at 37 has the energy, talent and flourishing reputation to fuel many more years of composing, advocating for people of color, and playing the violin. She is a member of the New York-based Catalyst Quartet, a collaborator with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, and recipient of numerous commissions from top chamber and dance groups. Those efforts and honors comprise a small chunk of her accomplishments, accolades and advocacies. 

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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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