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Virtual and vital: Strike up the band

Caught short by the pandemic, the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra takes to technology and shows that shutdown doesn't have to mean shut up

On that dark day in March when Oregon began to shut down, Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s leaders knew they had to move fast. “As soon as we knew we were going into lockdown, we tried as quickly as possible to transition to what’s next,” recalls music director Raúl Gómez. The Portland organization had to cancel not only its four upcoming spring concerts, but also its weekly Saturday rehearsals and its classes, affecting more than 500 students in 14 orchestra, band, string and jazz ensembles, including the 90-member Symphony Orchestra, and in beginning strings and theory classes. MYS leaders knew nothing could fully replace the lost programming, but they were determined not to leave a musical void in their teenage students’ lives.

“We had to find a way to keep the students engaged,” Gómez says, “to keep making music in some way.” 

Raúl Gómez conducts MYS way back in the days when they could all play together on stage.

But how? Governor Kate Brown’s emergency announcement prohibited gatherings required to put on a concert or a group rehearsal in the band rooms at its regular Northeast Portland and Hillsboro high schools. Nevertheless, MYS found a way to rethink — if not entirely replace — its major programs, including its crown jewel season closing concert. ArtsWatch readers, and everyone else, can see the result on their own screens this Saturday.

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Barra Brown: Sense of Urgency

Portland musician’s diverse projects embrace his expansive creative mentality

On the day Portland drummer/composer Barra Brown entered the studio to begin recording his second album of original compositions, he got the news: a family friend he’d known all his life was in the hospital. Valeria Ball, a close friend of Brown’s mother who led a Southern Oregon dance company that once included Brown, had a brain tumor, and needed emergency surgery. 

Brown, a Lewis & Clark College alum who’s one of Oregon’s widest-ranging musicians, was devastated, but  “she would want you to make the album,” his mother told him. He forged ahead with  Dreaming Awake,  released in 2015 and dedicated to Ball, who died the following year, and others who have battled cancer. Since then, Brown, now 30, has unleashed a flood of music in varied styles, playing various instruments, as though he needs to try everything now and take it as far as he can — before it’s too late.

Barra Brown. Photo: Reed Ricker.

“I think I have a sense of urgency just because I don’t know when I’m going to die,” he muses. “Maybe that comes from my friend dying. There’s no excuse for not doing what it is that you’re meant to do. There’s this urgency: all these ideas are here. The struggle is having time to get them all out.”

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A chance encounter and a flood of memories

A conversation on a train takes a writer on a ride into Portland racial history and one woman's life of beauty, elegance, and endurance


By STEPHEN RUTLEDGE


Oregon, and Portland, its biggest city, are not very diverse. Many white people may not even begin to think about, let alone understand, the inequalities faced by the city’s black and brown citizens. Many people who live here in Portland have never had to directly, physically, emotionally, interact with people of color. As the city becomes more popular and housing prices rise, Portland’s tiny African American population (at 6.3 percent, Portlands Black population is still more than three times the state figure of 1.9 percent) is being displaced to far-flung fringes of the city, leading to even less diversity in the city’s core.


The Vanport Mosaic 2020 Virtual Festival, which commemorates the 1948 flood and celebrates Vanport’s historical connection to the drive in Portland to “amplify, honor, present, and preserve the silenced histories that surround us in order to understand our present, and create a future where we all belong,” continues through Saturday, May 30.
See the schedule of online events here.


From its very beginning, Oregon was an inhospitable place for Black people. In 1844, the provisional government of the territory passed a law banning slavery, and at the same time required any African American in Oregon to leave the territory. Any Black person remaining would be flogged publicly every six months until he left. Five years later, another law was passed that forbade free African Americans from entering Oregon.

As Cora Smith was growing up, Portland’s African American culture centered on the city’s Albina district. Above, children helping with the Albina Neighborhood Improvement Project, 1962. Photo: City of Portland (OR) Archives, A2010-003

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Stage frights and podcasts

As the theater world goes dark, actors' tales of real-life stage disasters as told on "The Actor's Nightmare" seem a perfect antidote

From Portland to Paris, Ashland to Ankara, Beaverton to Beijing, theaters around the world are shut down. One of the longest-lived forms of social mingling and creative contact has met its match in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is keeping this most gregarious form of art from expressing itself.

In the meantime, film – that is, already recorded and edited film – and television are surging in popularity as people stay at home with their screens and live their lives virtually, binge-watching everything from The Americans to the complete British and American versions of The Office. Occasional filmed theater productions help fill the gap, too: The National Theatre’s streamed “At Home” series, including the recent Frankenstein with Danny Boyle and Benedict Cumberbatch, has drawn a global audience of more than 9.3 million views.

Ah, but what about the real thing? Anyone who’s ever hung around a backstage, or dropped in on a bar where theater people congregate after a show, knows that in theater circles a lot of the after-the-fact pleasure comes from regaling other insiders with disastrous tales of what went wrong, whether the audience ever realized it or not. In a way this swapping of stories is a kind of theater of its own.

“The Actor’s Nightmare” host Louanne Moldovan, caffeined up and ready to roll.

A while back, Portland actor, director, producer, and playwright Louanne Moldovan realized the potential of this form of storytelling and decided to take it beyond the bars and theater parties. This kind of tale would be ideal for podcasting, she thought: Invite some actors, interview them, let them spin their stories, record and edit and release. And so, The Actor’s Nightmare was born – or, as the series is subtitled on its Web site, “REAL HORROR stories from THE STAGE.” (The Actor’s Nightmare also has a Facebook page.)

A few days ago I interviewed Moldovan in Officially Sanctioned Covid-19 Socially Distancing Format: I emailed her a few questions, and she emailed back her replies. Sit back and enjoy the transcript below – and when you’ve finished reading, go to the Actor’s Nightmare Web site and listen to a podcast or four yourself:

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Starting Over: The value of crisis

Societies change and the arts are at the center of how we understand both the societies and the change

Nearly every day during my particular version of shelter-in-place, I sift through articles and essays (not to mention tweets) from likely sources, hoping to find out what in the blazes is going on out there. Or in here. Surely, I think, somebody has figured this stuff out, and so I search. 

I’ve been productively edified and instructed, pleasantly amused and delighted, annoyingly frustrated and aggravated, and alternatingly filled with dread and anxiety. You have to love the cycle that starts with anxiety, leads to dread, and then ends up back at anxiety. We’re all Kierkegaardians now!

Last week I ran into science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s essay, “The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations” in the New Yorker’s excellent feed. Robinson opened his argument with a reference from the late culture critic Raymond Williams, who argued in “The Long Revolution” that each historical period has its own, distinct “structure of feeling.” Robinson neatly paraphrases Williams’ observation about cultural difference as “a distinct way of organizing basic human emotions into an overarching cultural system. Each had its own way of experiencing being alive.”

Robinson then goes on to argue that we are (or maybe it’s “we should be”) entering a new cultural system through the door of the pandemic. That’s good: We need to turn the page on our current system if we are going to mitigate the disaster of climate change in a meaningful way.

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Rose Festival: A fond look back

This year's big parades and carnival are gone with the pandemic wind. As scaled-back "Parading in Place" begins, we salute the way it was.


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


A Rose Festival by any other name may not smell quite so sweet, but this abbreviated retrospective, this “Virtual Rose Festival,” will have to do this year as Portland’s annual celebration of the genus rosa has, like so many other essential celebrations, wilted in the heat of this global pandemic. In place of parading there is parading in place. The photographs here are collected from past years of sporadic attendance, and are offered as a reminder of what many may be missing today, but almost certainly will be enjoying again in the not too distant future.

This year’s festival, the 113th, was to have opened on Friday, May, 22, and continued through June 7, complete with its showcase parades: The Starlight Parade, the Junior Parade, and the culminating Grand Floral Parade. Holding their place will be the Rose Festival’s Parading in Place: Check the link for details.


2013: Hitched

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Patrick Collier: Not another pretty picture

The artist, quarantining at home, sings the blues about art and the fire outside

The last art review I wrote for ArtsWatch was about an exhibit I saw the day before I went on lockdown. In that essay I wrote about the difference seeing art in person makes, as opposed to seeing its digital representation, as there were subtleties I would have missed had I just seen the work online. And if one holds to the rule that art needs to be seen in situ in order to be properly reviewed, I don’t foresee getting much art writing done for quite a while, given the risk factors for myself plus the mounting drive to make genocide by default the national coronavirus policy.  

Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear (1989)

Not that there is a dearth of art online worthy of review. Not that there wasn’t an overabundance on social media before the pandemic, and in the last two months it has increased exponentially. As a response to the stay at home orders and closing of brick and mortar venues, artists are doing virtual studio visits or posting mini-retrospectives. Galleries do video tours of their exhibits, and museums are opening up their collections to view on their websites. Dance ensembles, chorales, and other musicians of all sorts are performing remotely, all gathered together in frames on Zoom. Indicative of various needs that may or not be obvious, and may or may not be met, I find it both a bit tragic and heartening (although I have to work at any positives that come out of this crisis) at the same time. 

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