Hurry up and wait: Art in shutdown time

ArtsWatch Weekly: As Covid-19 turns the world inside again, the arts world finds ways to stand and deliver in spite of it all

AND JUST LIKE THAT, THE PANDEMIC’S ROARING BACK. Infection and death rates have been spiraling nationally, internationally, and locally, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has ordered a two-week “freeze” (four weeks in high-impact areas including Portland) of large gatherings, including home Thanksgiving celebrations, effective yesterday. There’ve been murmurings of rebellion. Longtime populist politician Tootie Smith, for instance, who’s just been elected chair of the Clackamas County Commission, has declared that “my family will celebrate Thanksgiving with as many family and friends as I can find. Gov. Brown is WRONG to order otherwise.” Although the governor’s order comes with the threat of fines and even jail sentences for scofflaws, state troopers are unlikely to raid Smith’s or anyone else’s overstuffed Thanksgiving dinner gathering. And yet facts are facts, and the facts say that for reasons of public health and safety, the shutdown is necessary.
 

Vive la France: On Portland streets now empty, a crowded Bastille Day in 2012. Photo: K.B. Dixon

For museums and other cultural gathering places, many of which had only just begun to reopen their doors to visitors, the order brings another blow to an already financially tenuous situation. In A new round of shutdowns we checked with museums and other arts centers around the state to see who’s shutting down – pretty much everybody we contacted, as it turns out – but it comes down to this: It’s probably closed. You should be staying home, anyway. And if you do decide to head out, check with your target cultural center first: You’ll probably discover that it isn’t open. Yes, you can go to the grocery store, and a few other places. But once again, in the main, we’re homebodies by necessity. It’s enough to make even an introvert long for the days when we all crowded together, as photographer K.B. Dixon notes in his photo essay The Year of Living Crowdlessly, in which he gathers fourteen images of crowded public spaces at elbow-to-elbow public events over the past few years. Oops. Pardon me. Did I step on your toes? Sometimes we don’t know what we miss until it’s gone.
 

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WHAT TO DO WITH OURSELVES, then, while we’re chilling on the home front? There are books, of course, and plenty of shows to check out online or on TV. And there’s music. There’s always music. The other day I stole an hour and a quarter and signed on to Chamber Music Northwest’s web page, where I then linked into its current streamed concert, which featured clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gloria Chien (who is also the festival’s new co-artistic director) in a program of Brahms (clarinet sonatas 1 and 2), Weber (the melodious Grand Duo Concertant) and contemporary American composer Jessie Montgomery, whose new work Peace, composed during the pandemic, fit well with the older works and yet added a contemporary tug of discord struggling to resolve. It’s a piece worth more than a single listen, from a composer and violinist who’s also been featured recently at the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. (See Angela Allen’s ArtsWatch interview with her from August 2019.)

Pianist Gloria Chien and clarinetist Anthony McGill in a virtual Chamber Music Northwest Concert recorded at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts. Screen shot from video.

McGill, who played at Barack Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration, and Chien have played together often, and their sound was smooth and relaxed yet also attentive to the demands of the music; never lazy – it would’ve sounded very good on an audio recording. But this concert is more than just sound. It’s the video cameras, too, moving in tune to the music in a flow of closeup shots and pans. Thanks to the camerawork by Zac James Nicholson and Tristan Cook, and to Nicholson’s editing, the experience is much more full and expressive, engaging both the ear and the eye.

We can see Chien’s hands at the keyboard, her long fingers and slender wrists conveying delicacy and strength, and, sometimes, the fleetness and sudden eloquence of an Olympic gymnast springing into flight. Her concentrated features, her forward bend as she homes in on the keys, her connecting glances through the piano’s open lid toward McGill. We can see him, feet planted apart for agility and balance, upper body moving from the small of his back, sometimes leaning into the music, sometimes swinging side to side like a pendulum, sometimes stretching back as if to see the sky. It’s almost – almost – like being in the room with them, in real time, feeling the immediacy of it all. And all in accord with the sound, Chien providing the rhythm and drive and McGill the flow of melody, like water rushing over the rocks in a shallow mountain stream. Sometimes they switch roles. Sometimes both play rhythm and melody, in a confluence that both tames and liberates the moment. Sometimes, as in the Vivace movement of the Brahms, McGill’s clarinet becomes a rhythm instrument, too, a burnished and emphatic flow of sound over a bed of protruding punctuation marks.

It wasn’t live, and I was still sitting at home. But in these Days of Our Virtual Lives, it was a good place to virtually be.

Screen shot from the video of Montgomery discussing her “Peace.” 


MARY OSLUND, JULY 29, 1948 – NOV. 16, 2020 


Mary Oslund in performance. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

A GREAT AND WELL-LOVED PRESENCE IN CONTEMPORARY OREGON ARTS has journeyed on. Mary Oslund, who as artist and administrator, choreographer and teacher, mother and mentor was central to the flowering of the arts in Portland for more than three decades, died on November 16 at her home in Southeast Portland. The cause of death was MSA (Multi-System Atrophy), a rare neurological and degenerative disease that affects multiple functions of the body, including motor control and balance.

Mary founded and directed Dance Works Studio in Eugene and then moved to Portland, where she was a key figure at the old Conduit dance studio and ran her own company, in which she worked with an all-star cast of contemporary dancers. “I make dances from a keen interest in the body and movement, the richness of work with artists in other forms, the breadth of possibility within choreographic design and statement,” she told Eric Nordstrom in a 2015 interview. “I want to create work that is at once complex, captivating and mysterious.”

She leaves two daughters, Liv Oslund, who lives in Lanciano, Italy, and Corinna Van Liew, of Portland; two grandsons, Gabrielle Ciambotti, 19, and Thomas Ciambotti, 18, who live in Lanciano with their mother; an enormous body of work, and legions of grieving dancers and artists of other disciplines.  A memorial is pending. “I would like to do something that includes movement performance and includes the Portland dance community that was so important to my mom,” Van Liew said in an e-mail.  “My plan is to wait until we can do this safely (or more comfortably outdoors).”

Longtime dance critic Martha Ullman West will publish a complete memorial on ArtsWatch soon.



STAGE STORIES: STUMPTOWN CLAIMS ITS SPACE


Julianne Johnson (left, with Shahayla Onanaiye and Kristin Robinson) in the hit production of “Dreamgirls” that got Stumptown rolling. Photo courtesy Stumptown Stages

THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT DOES. Starting on a small scale and gradually building over the years, the musical-theater company Stumptown Stages has carved out its own special spot in the Portland theater universe with shows ranging from Dreamgirls to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, In the Heights, Once on This Island, Soul Harmony, Ebenezer Ever After, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and The Wiz. And one important thing more, Bobby Bermea writes: From its beginning – and despite admonishments that it could never happen – it’s been a Portland leader in casting Black and BIPOC performers and hiring people of color in other creative roles. As live theater takes a break, it’s good to pay attention to a company that’s made a difference.

Meanwhile, virtual theater – videotaped, audiotaped, delivered livestream or pretty much any way except inside an actual theater with an actual live audience – is booming. Profile Theatre has followed up its successful radio-style audio release of Lynn Nottage’s Mlima’s Tale with a new release of Paula Vogel’s HOT ‘N’ THROBBING, a play about erotica and domestic violence and the various meanings of obscenity. Jamie M. Rea directs a highly promising cast including Ayanna Berkshire, Eleanor O’Brien, Eric Newsome, Treasure Lunan, Zak Westfall, and Bobby Bermea – yes, the same Bobby Bermea, a regular ArtsWatch contributor, who wrote about Stumptown Stages and “the little engine that does.”

A few other virtual theater possibilities this week:

  • SOUND OF SILENCE. Beginning Friday, Nov. 20, Portland Playhouse presents a crack creative team – writer/performers Nikki Weaver and Matthew Kerrigan, filmmaker Tamera Lyn, composer Alia Farah – in an experimental evocation of the meanings and nature of silence. Among other things, clowning is involved.
     
  • FROM THESE STREETS I RISE. CoHo Theatre presents an encore performance through Nov. 30 on its YouTube channel of Mikki Jordan’s hour-long piece, with direction by Chris Harder and music by Samie Jo Pfeifer, about the homeless-advocacy newspaper Street Roots and its vendors. (And, yes: Buy and read Street Roots when you can – its perspectives can be eye-opening, and there’s nothing else in Portland like it.)
     
  • A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Through Dec. 6, Northwest Children’s Theater & School is streaming four episodes of the company’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s grand fantasy. It’s a collaboration between director Sarah Jane Hardy and choreographer Anita Menon, and good things happen when these two get together: You might remember their previous NWTC collaborations on Tenali: The Royal Trickster and The Jungle Book


FROM SARAJEVO TO OREGON, A TALE OF MUSIC & SURVIVAL


Now (left) and then (right): Dijana Ihas performs and teaches in Oregon; photo by Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story. In the second year of the Siege of Sarajevo, which began in 1992, Ihas carried her viola past the rubble for another concert. Photo courtesy of Mirza Ajanovic 

AND THE QUARTET PLAYED ON. As war raged in the Bosnia and Herzegovina capital city of Sarajevo in the 1990s, violist Dijana Ihas – the youngest member of the acclaimed Sarajevo String Quartet – played through the bombings and shootings and destruction for audiences that braved the possibility of death to hear the music. Two of her fellow quartet musicians were killed, and replaced. Ihas and the music played on. In a story that was published originally by The Immigrant Story and then republished by ArtsWatch, Elizabeth Mehren relates Ihas’s remarkable journey from war-ravaged Eastern Europe to the United States and eventually to Oregon, where she now heads the Pacific University String Project, a music education program for children in grades two through twelve, in Forest Grove. It’s a harrowing and ultimately life-affirming story of courage and the power of music.



AT 97, A SPRY KID SPREADS ITS MUSICAL WINGS


David Hattner leads the Portland Youth Philharmonic. Photo: Bev Standish. 

PORTLAND YOUTH PHILHARMONIC: CREATIVE RESPONSE. Brett Campbell’s been looking long and deep lately into the problems and possibilities of arts education, and in this chapter of our occasional series “The Art of Learning” he takes a look at what’s new and exciting at the venerable Portland Youth Philharmonic, which is a robust 97 years old. The pandemic, he discovered, inspired the youth orchestra to create a new music festival and commissioning program featuring new music by diverse voices – a two-day festival with 14 composers premiering new works. It’s a fascinating story about composers writing for the young musicians who’ll premiere their work, and the musicians stretching up to meet the challenge. In an atmosphere like that, everybody learns.



ARTISTS SUNDAY AND OTHER NEWS BRIEFS


ARTISTS SUNDAY. It’s no secret that nine months of pandemic-forced shutdowns have been catastrophic for many artists and arts organizations. For some groups it’s a matter of survival. Others are looking at a long slow crawl back toward balance and solvency. To help mitigate the losses – and help you with your long-distance shopping – a national Artists Sunday has been set up for Thanksgiving weekend. The Oregon Arts Commission is one of 330 groups nationally supporting the buy-from-local-artists movement, which so far includes about 100 Oregon artists and artisans. Make a list. Check it twice.

PSU MUSEUM GETS A DIRECTOR. The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University, which got off to a good start a year ago under the leadership of veteran curator and museum director Linda Tesner, who signed up to get the project off the ground, has named a new permanent director. Maryanna G. Ramirez, most recently a curator, programmer, and fundraiser at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami, will take over the PSU directorship on Nov. 30. She will, according to a statement from PSU, “collaborate with guest curators to create spirited exhibitions, and drive programs to engage PSU’s diverse student body and the community.”

ANTI ANXIETY COVID-19 MUSIC DAY 249. There’s something to be said for reliability – a lot to be said, actually –  and in Portland music circles few people have been more reliable throughout the pandemic than pianist and composer Michael Allen Harrison. Every day he releases, gratis, a music video designed to help keep things chill in trying times. Today, Thursday, is Day 249, and the piece is Rodgers and Hart’s 1932 song You Are Too Beautiful, which he performs on solo piano. Tomorrow, who knows? Back on July 16, Brett Campbell wrote for ArtsWatch about Harrison’s multiple arts-education programs – it’s worth another read – and that was … well, a lot of Anti Anxiety Covid-19 Music Days ago.
 
 


BUT, WAIT. THERE’S MORE!


Belle Kea has a heart-to-heart with Santa during last year’s holiday celebration at the Lincoln City Cultural Center. This year, the center will collect letters to Santa instead of hosting visits with the jolly old elf. Photo courtesy Lincoln City Cultural Center


THE NEWS NEVER STOPS AT ARTSWATCH CENTRAL. For instance, we’ve been noticing lately that it’s beginning to look a lot like … Christmas? Ready or not, here the holidays come, and considering the year we’ve been through so far, we all deserve a seasonal break, even if it’s likely to be very different from the Breaks of Holidays Past.

Check out the word on St. Nick and other good recent ArtsWatch stories:

  • LINCOLN CITY’S SMALL-TOWN CELEBRATION GETS A LITTLE SMALLER. Holiday celebrations have always been a big deal at Lincoln City’s cultural center, a hub of activity in the coastal town. And so it will be this year – in a small-scale, distanced way, beginning the day after Thanksgiving with drive-through cookies and crafts, Lori Tobias reports.
     
  • WATERGATE, ETHICS, A MIRROR TO NOW. Richard Hertzberg reviews James H. Barron’s new political history The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate and discovers, in addition to a fascinating and untold aspect of America’s watergate years, some parallels to now and some questions about the limits and responsibilities of journalism.
     
  • DANCE NEWS: CREATIVITY IS FLOWING. Jamuna Chiarini does some checks around Portland’s coronavirus-shuttered dance scene and finds some creative responses from NW Dance Project, BodyVox, and NDP dancer Franco Nieto, who’s opening a studio inside Disjecta Contemporary Art Center.
     
  • MARKING A YEAR, MARKING A CHANGE. Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, on the Oregon Coast, is assuming stewardship of the Community Arts Project, a learning program for kids. First up, Lori Tobias reports, is a delving into the “winter count,” pictographic records kept by Great Plains tribes, for 300 Nestucca Valley and Garibaldi elementary-school kids.


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