Chamber music comes out to play

ArtsWatch Weekly: Chamber Music Northwest enters the concert hall, shakeup at OBT, Black & beautiful in Newberg, "Frida" rocks, Waterfront Blues Fest, "Summer of Soul"

THE SCENE WAS FAMILIAR, ALTHOUGH IT HAD BEEN WELL MORE THAN A YEAR since I’d been inside a concert hall. Yet there I was, on Wednesday morning, sitting inside Kaul Auditorium at Reed College for the first open rehearsal of Chamber Music Northwest‘s 2021 season, which begins officially tonight with a concert by the East Coast Chamber Orchestra and CMNW’s new artistic leaders, the married team of pianist Gloria Chien and violinist Soovin Kim.

Oh, sure, there were differences from the Before Times. The mostly older audience filed in at a social distance after first signing in with their names and telephone numbers (for contact tracing, just in case) and taking seats in little separated pods of two or three chairs. And everyone except the musicians – all of whom were fully vaccinated, as were, presumably, most of the crowd – was wearing a mask. There was no stink, as far as I could smell, about the precautionary requirement. It would have been difficult not to notice the sheer pleasure of the audience – and its attentiveness. This was, despite its modest size, something of a coming-out party; a grand reopening. After all these months, to be sitting inside a concert hall, listening to great music performed by highly skilled musicians, in real time and real space! Everyone, or so it seemed, was here not out of obligation but desire.

Chamber Music Northwest’s first open rehearsal of the new season: getting into the swing of some early Mendelssohn. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

There was familiarity, too, in the onstage pre-rehearsal scene. A goodly amount of woodshedding. A musician or two checking phones. A stoic stare into the distance. A finger-loosening run or two up and down the keyboard. Even a pre-rehearsal (and presumably post-coffee) yawn. Everyone except the cellos standing. Because this was a rehearsal, a proliferation of casual clothes, from jeans and T-shirts to sundresses and pantsuits and even a little black dress. All of the pre-show rituals and routines that performers use to shake out of one reality and into that rigorously focused reality beyond: sixteen voices, preparing to become one.

Kim addressed the crowd. “We’ve been playing together for a few days,” he said. “And it’s been something of a shock. We’re getting used to it now. But I know for most of you this’ll be the first time in ages you’ve heard so much sound.”

There was, in fact, sound aplenty. This is a full chamber orchestra, sixteen strong – about the size of an Ellington- or Kenton-style big band, and as rigorous in its section voices. In addition to Chien and Kim, who took the featured roles, the stage held seven violinists, a bassist, three violists, and three cellists. The musicians were rehearsing Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings in D Minor (here’s a backgrounder on the composition; at tonight’s season-opening performance they’ll also play Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48) and there were sonic swells and recedings galore.

The piano and violin concerto is remarkable in several ways: you might say, prodigious. “Mendelssohn was 14 at most – depends on when his birthday was – when he wrote this piece” in 1823, Kim told the audience. You could say there’s a bit of youthful showiness in the score: Those rippling piano arpeggios! That laying-down by the ensemble of a wall of sound after the solo turns! I’d rather call it an exuberance of sound and structure – high-spirited yet controlled; a gallop with a firm hand on the reins.

Many things happened in the course of the run-through, moments tumbling over one another, vying for attention. Kim’s round and rolling solo violin sound, with enough astringency to push the music urgently forward. The resounding swell of cellos, violas, violins and bass, with Chien’s piano both a melodic and a percussive force. Kim’s pizzicato finger-pluckings of the strings, quick percussive jabs before returning to the flow. The small smile playing about the corners of his mouth when his journey through the music took him through a passage he particularly liked. Chien, her back to the audience, nevertheless making a resounding visual impression through the swift emphatic movement of her fingers, back leaning forward and to one side or another depending on where the music took her hands. The concentration and bounce of the East Coast Chamber Orchestra musicians as they got into the thing. On the violin side of the stage, the players swinging and swaying, like dancers.

After the run-through a little discussion among the mechanics began. Where can we tighten? What might we tone down? How can we make this engine purr? Let’s run though this part one more time. This was fine-tuning, looking for that edge to help bring everything together. And it felt very much like the beginning of good things to come. Chamber Music Northwest’s live performances run through July 25, with taped video versions for home viewing available through Aug. 31, in this year’s combination live and recorded festival. In the concert halls or at home, they’ve got you coming and going. You can check the full schedule and list of musicians here.

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Monica Huggett, the exquisite violinist and artistic director emeritus of Portland Baroque Orchestra, is one of seven fine fiddlers featured in K.B. Dixon’s portfolio of notable Portland violinists.

PORTFOLIO: SEVEN VIOLINISTS. One of the many musicians at this year’s Chamber Music Northwest summer festival is Sarah Kwak, concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra and executive director of Classical Up Close. Kwak is one of seven superb Portland violinists who sat for photographer K.B. Dixon in the latest of his series of black-and-white portraits of the city’s artists, from writers to visual artists to musicians. Another is the internationally celebrated Monica Huggett (above), director emeritus of Portland Baroque Orchestra. They’re joined in this exquisite portfolio by Kwak’s fellow Oregon Symphony players Peter Frajola and Greg Ewer; the Portland Opera Orchestra’s Lucia Atkinson; jazz/Celtic/classical violinist Eddie Parente; and performer/luthier David Kerr, a founding member of Portland Baroque Orchestra and owner of the legendary David Kerr Violin Shop.



Black, beautiful & beyond: a gallery show for now

"White Bird Dancing," by MO WO (MOsley WOtta) (mixed media, 3 by 4 feet, 2017).
“White Bird Dancing,” by MO WO (MOsley WOtta) (mixed media, 3 by 4 feet, 2017), in the exhibition “Black Matter” at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg.

BLACK ART MATTERS. While the Portland Art Museum is lifting pandemic restrictions effective today in accordance with new statewide guidelines, and the Portland Chinatown Museum and Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education have reopened – big steps toward reclaiming some sort of cultural and, we can hope, medical normalcy – Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center is celebrating something of a landmark of its own.

“We’re only halfway through the year, but I suspect that the new exhibit at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, Black Matter, will rank among my favorites of 2021,” David Bates writes. “There’s so much of it, filling the Parrish Gallery (the center’s largest visual art venue), and so much to linger over.” The show, which continues through July 31, includes works by more than a dozen Black Oregon artists, among them Keeva Moselle, MOsley WOtta, the art photographer Jamila Clarke, and Jeremy Okai Davis. “This exhibit offers Black artists the opportunity to share artwork that expresses what’s in their hearts and minds without the requirement of a political agenda,” curator Tammy Jo Wilson writes. “Black artists are continuously expected to make art about race, racism, and social injustice. The artwork in this exhibition expresses more than their experience of living in a state and country rooted in systematic racism; their work speaks to the experience of being human.”

  • A MERGER WITH A BANG. On the same day last week that Salem’s Willamette University and Portland’s Pacific Northwest College of  Art finalized their merger, a $2 million gift from the late philanthropist Arlene Schnitzer’s estate gave the merger some oomph. Arlene Schnitzer’s son, philanthropist and collector Jordan Schnitzer, and the university announced the gift, which “will create the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer PNCA Dean’s Initiative Fund, providing the new PNCA dean with resources to test new initiatives, facilitate collaboration between the PNCA and Willamette faculties, and more.” A search begins immediately for a PNCA dean. The possibilities of the merger are intriguing: Salem’s excellent Hallie Ford Museum of Art is a part of Willamette, and PNCA holds the relatively small but important collection of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, which shut down in 2016. PNCA, meanwhile, will retain its name, faculty, and Portland campus. 


Waterfront Blues, youth theater, Shakes on the coast

The Northwest  Bone Gang, playing afternoon and evening sets at the Blues Festival on Saturday, was begun by Flagboy Chuk, who moved to Portland from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and recruited other New Orleans expats and Northwesterners to carry on the tradition.

A WEEKEND OF BLUES. Skip the fireworks. (Please: The entire West’s a tinderbox, just waiting for an errant spark to set off a summer of devastating fires.) Go ahead with that backyard barbecue. (The weather looks good.) And maybe spend part of your Fourth of July Weekend with the Waterfront Blues Festival, which after taking a Covid pause last year is back with a lineup it’s calling “Upriver 2021.” For more than 30 years one of Portland’s biggest and best summer celebrations, the Blues Fest is scaled back this year but still has a star-studded lineup, including a healthy dose of zydeco and New Orleans sounds, some terrific voices in the Northwest Women Rhythm & Blues lineup, local legend Curtis Salgado, the strutting MarchFourth Band, and much more. It’s called “Upriver” because it’s moved south from Tom McCall Waterfront Park to the smaller and more controlled space of The Lot at Zidell Yards. Live performances are Friday through Monday, but you can catch some of the sounds from home. Salgado headlines the televised Blues Fest Cares concert, airing free at 7 p.m. tonight, Thursday, on KOIN (6) TV. Community radio KBOO 90.7 FM will broadcast and stream the festival from noon to 4 p.m. Friday through Monday. Those same days, you can watch the concerts live from 6 to 10 p.m. at waterfrontbluesfest.com.

STAGE & STUDIO: 2 YOUTH THEATERS. In her newest podcast on ArtsWatch, Dmae Roberts brings together two heavy hitters in Oregon youth and children’s theater: Sarah Jane Hardy, artistic director of Northwest Children’s Theater & School; and Marcella Crowson, artistic director of Oregon Children’s Theatre. Among many other things, they talked about how teens have grappled with mental health during the pandemic, and how that affected the choices the companies made for virtual productions,

NOISES, SOUNDS, AND SWEET AIRS. When Cannon Beach’s Coaster Theatre Playhouse decided to move its Shakespeare shows outdoors, Lori Tobias reports, it confronted a new challenge: being heard above the din and background noise of the great outdoors, and against the inevitable sprawl that outdoor performance brings. As the company prepares its Sixty-Second Shakespeare and whodunnit The Case of the Coaster Clambake, Tobias reveals how they’re dealing with the Great Sound Barrier.



Shakeup at OBT: Irving and Fonte are gone

Choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s work with Oregon Ballet Theatre predates his appointment as resident choreographer in Kevin Irving’s tenure. Above, OBT’s Artur Sultanov and Alison Roper perform Fonte’s “Bolero” in 2010. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert 

OBT AND KEVIN IRVING PART WAYS. In a dance world shocker, Oregon Ballet Theatre parted ways late last week with Kevin Irving, its artistic director for the past eight years. Jamuna Chiarini reports that Irving said the board requested his resignation, and he believed “my only choice was to accede to their request that I resign – albeit with a heavy heart.” The company’s highly talented resident choreographer, Nicolo Fonte (who is also Irving’s personal partner) then resigned as well. Peter Franc, former company principal dancer and rehearsal director of the ballet’s second company OBT2, was named interim artistic director. The move, which has drawn attention in dance quarters across the country, leaves OBT with a fresh creative slate and all sorts of unanswered questions as it approaches the resumption of live performances in October.



Portland Opera’s ‘Frida’: sex, angst, and art

Catalina Cuervo as Frida Kahlo and Bernardo Bermudez as Diego Rivera in Portland Opera’s production of “Frida.” Photo: Trace Downen

COLORS GO OUT IN THE WORLD: ‘FRIDA’ REVIEWED. “Despite its three-decade lifespan, Frida remains fresh and flashy, Angela Allen writes in her review of Portland Opera’s long-awaited production. “Plenty of sex, angst and art (and a little pot) propel it into contemporary times. Above all, the intricate music and sharp-witted libretto make the story come fully alive — and I suspect, will keep the opera breathing for decades.” Allen adds: “In these days of multiculturalism and manifold sexual identities, Kahlo, a bold brave bisexual Mexican artist who died at 47 in 1954, reigns as a heroine of the unconventional. The opera does a lot to make us care about her, aside from her unconventionalism. It gives Kahlo many dimensions, allowing us to see her as a complex and deep-feeling and deep-thinking, sometimes sassy and sarcastic, human being rather than as a restless, pain-tortured, lovelorn art icon.” Live performances have ended, but a digital version is available through Aug. 9.



What’s up in July’s film, art, music & lit

“Apogee,” a multisensory, science fiction-inspired performance by Hannah Krafcik and Emily Jones, plays Performance Works NW’s Alembic Artists Series July 30-31. Photo courtesy Performance Works NW

VIZARTS MONTHLY: EXPERIMENTS WITH SPACE. Lindsay Costello checks the July gallery scene and discovers some intriguing experiments, including a collaborative Oregon/New York installation surrounded by vegetation in Aurora; evocations of time and the body at the newly named Oregon Center for Contemporary Art (formerly Disjecta); a sculptural “outdoor art adventure” in and around Ashland; the always adventurous dance/theater/performance art of the Alembic Artists Series at Performance Works NW; and more.

NOW HEAR THIS: JULY EDITION. Robert Ham’s monthly amble through the virtual pages of the music distributor Bandcamp unveils a fresh crop of downloadable and highly listenable music by Oregon musicians, from railroad cadences by José Medeles to a “Meat Shop Idyllic” from “non-binary future pop genius Jan Julius,” an elephant in the attic from the dream-pop ensemble Fells Acres, and more.

LITWATCH JULY: ROCKSTARS, LOVE STORIES, AND OPEN MICS. Amy Leona Havin’s monthly close reading of Oregon’s literary calendar unearths everything from The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic to a coming-of-age tale borrowing from the Brothers Grimm and Iphigenia and set in Portland, to open mics, Ghost Town Poetry, Slamlandia, and more. Oh: And, find out how Joni Michell fits into Oregon’s July literary scene.

MUSICWATCH MONTHLY: REOPENING THE RUBICON. Charles Rose peers across Oregon’s July music landscape and sees things opening up. Is the timing right? With fewer than 70 percent of the state’s citizens immunized, he’s not persuaded – but ready or not, here the music comes: Chamber Music Northwest, Waterfront Blues Festival, Oregon Bach Festival, and more.

FILMWATCH WEEKLY: THE HEAT IS ON WITH “SUMMER OF SOUL” AND “ZOLA.” “Just throwing this out there, but the difference between the way three days of peace and love on Max Yasgur’s farm have been memorialized in pop culture and the way the Harlem Cultural Festival taking place the same summer downstate has been remembered is as stark as black and white,” Marc Mohan remarks in noting the different fates of Woodstock and this at least equally astounding landmark 1969 music event. The Harlem concerts, featuring everyone from Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder to Mahalia Jackson and Sly and the Family Stone, are at last getting their due in the remarkable documentary Summer of Soul

Gladys Knight & the Pips performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the terrific new documentary film “Summer of Soul.” Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved


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About the author
Senior Editor

Bob Hicks has been writing about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki OhtsuJames B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Prologue, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series “Today I Am.”

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