Making music, symphonic & Black

ArtsWatch Weekly: Oregon Symphony picks a new leader; we begin a Black-music column; finale for Fertile Ground.

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THE BIG NEWS IN OREGON ARTS THIS WEEK WAS VERY BIG: The Oregon Symphony has picked its new music director. The Austrian conductor David Dansmayr will assume the artistic post at Oregon’s largest musical organization for the 2021/22 season, becoming only the third musical director for the symphony since 1980. He’ll replace Carlos Kalmar, who led the orchestra from 2003 until this season; Kalmar replaced James DePriest, who had held the top job for 23 years. 
 

The Austrian conductor David Dansmayr takes over the top artistic spot at the Oregon Symphony. Photo courtesy Oregon Symphony Orchestra.

Dansmayr, 41, has built a robust international career as a guest conductor and a music director, conducting orchestras from Salzburg to Stuttgart to Vienna and across the United States. He’s been the assistant conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, music director of Chicago’s Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, music director of ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, and chief conductor of the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra. In Oregon, where DePreist and Kalmar left their own distinctive marks on the orchestra, Dansmayr represents a new generation and a new opportunity: He made warmly received guest-conductor appearances with the symphony in 2018 and ’19. He arrives when the Oregon Symphony, like so many other cultural organizations, is at a turning point: Because of the pandemic it hasn’t performed a live concert in many months, and it’s still unsure when it’ll be able to begin again. Watch for deeper looks at Dansmayr and his aspirations for the symphony from ArtsWatch’s music writers.
 


NEW COLUMN: BLACK MUSIC MATTERS 


Mic Crenshaw and Xamada in Neo Vecci’s video “Caô Xangô” from the 2020 album “Rebel Wise.”

BLACK MUSIC MATTERS, VOLUME ONE: BLACK MESSIAHS. “February is Black History Month, not Black Music Month (that’s in June, thanks to Presidents Carter and Obama),” ArtsWatch Music Editor Matthew Neil Andrews writes in the first of a series of columns. “But this month which we’ve collectively set aside for appreciating Black history is also the shortest month of the year, so it’s quite obviously not the only time we should be paying attention. Let’s consider this month a good time to take stock, freshen up, and perhaps start a new tradition of deliberately seeking out and hearing Black music.” Truly, Black music is a foundational rock of American culture: Andrews’ investigation could go on for a very long time without beginning to run out of fresh subject matter. In this first column he roams the musical map, from Portland singer and composer Damien Geter to what he calls “The Mic Crenshaw Phenomenon” to Cannonball Adderley and friends to the pulse of the new movie Judas and the Black Messiah to the thrashing sounds of Bad Brains and more.


TELLING STORIES IN VIVID STROKES OF PENCIL AND PAINT


Billy White, Untitled, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 40 inches. Image courtesy Adams and Ollman.

STORY FRAGMENTS IN PAINT AND COLLAGE. Adams and Ollman gallery has brought together two exciting artists – Californian Billy White and the late, great Bill Traylor, who didn’t begin to make art until he was 85 – in an exhibit of vivid narrative images. “Some artists are natural storytellers,” Lindsay Costello writes. “… (O)ne can imagine their painted figures swaying in an ’80s nightclub or strolling to the market hundreds of years ago. Storytelling artworks prompt questions about the figures’ time and space. Who are these people? What do they love? What problems do they face? Billy White and Bill Traylor are both artist-storytellers, building distinctive narratives through their prolific art practices. Billy White takes a bold and emotional approach, using thick planes of acrylic paint to form raw portraits of isolated characters. Bill Traylor works smaller, using discarded materials to create a visual record of his surroundings in Jim Crow-era America. Both artists pulled from radically different life experiences to inform their works shown at Adams and Ollman, but they find common ground in their uniquely honest depictions of the human experience.”

Bill Traylor, “Untitled (Woman with Purse and Umbrella),” 1939-42, colored pencil and graphite on found paper; 15 1/2 x 6 inches. Image courtesy Adams and Ollman.

TALKING PROSPERO WITH CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER


The Filipina actor Soelistyo as Ariel, with Christopher Plummer as Prospero, in the 2010 Stratford production of “The Tempest.” The photo is from Tobias Andersen’s copy of the show program.

MY FEW BRIEF MINUTES WITH CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER. The great stage and screen actor died last Friday at age 91, and the following day, the veteran Portland actor and director Tobias Andersen sent an email remembering his own meeting with Plummer in 2010, when Plummer was starring as Prospero in The Tempest at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival and Andersen was preparing to take on the same legendary role at Clackamas Repertory Theatre in Oregon. We asked Andersen if we could share his story with ArtsWatch readers, and he kindly agreed. It’s a short, sweet story of generosity, respect, and professional comradeship, and well worth the read.


AROUND OREGON: ASTORIA VISTAS, SHORT FILM FEVER


Paul Polson has created giant inflatable sculptures for parades, rock bands, and Broadway, among others. This colorful snail appeared in Cirque du Soleil’s “Mystère” show. Photo courtesy the artist


PAUL POLSON: ‘I LIKE TO FEEL THAT EVERY PLACE I GO, I LEARN FROM IT.’  Lori Tobias profiles the Astoria artist, whose career has taken him far and wide. He’s helped build a giant inflatable King Kong to perch on the Empire State Building, designed sets for Cats on Broadway, created fantastical inflatable sculptures for the likes of Cirque du Soleil (see the giant snail above). But since moving to Astoria in 2018 he’s discovered an entirely new, to him, subject: the tankers and bridges and vistas of the river city perched above the Coast. 

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SPREADING THE WEALTH. On Thursday morning the Oregon Arts Commission announced fiscal year 2021 small operating grants to 97 arts organizations across the state, from Klamath Falls to Cottage Grove, Eagle Creek to Albany, Medford to Hermiston to Portland and beyond. At a time of tight resources for almost all cultural groups (that means anytime, really, but even more so during the pandemic) the grants help groups do the necessary everyday work that keeps things humming. The awards – $1,159 to each organization – are small but especially crucial for this group of grantees, none of which has an annual budget of more than $150,000. Click the link to see who gets money.

“In Your Palm,” in the McMinnville Short Film Festival’s environmental block, explores the devastation caused by the palm oil industry in Indonesia.


McMINNVILLE SHORT FILM FESTIVAL GETS REAL. The 10th annual festival of short films about all sorts of things from all sorts of places kicks off 10 days of streaming on Feb. 18, and David Bates has the lowdown on what looks to be a fascinating and distinguished lineup: From beginning to end 127 films, in such categories as drama/comedy, horror/suspense, experimental, locally produced, and animation. This year’s festival will have particular focuses on environmental documentaries and Native American films, with some highly promising entries in both categories. The films are being delivered via streaming, which means you won’t get to sit in a packed movie house with a pumped-up crowd of fellow film buffs – but also means you can watch it from wherever you are, near or far.

HIGH DESERT MUSEUM REOPENING INDOORS. Deschutes County in Central Oregon has moved down a notch to “high risk” status for coronavirus restrictions, allowing the Bend museum to reopen its indoor exhibitions beginning Friday, Feb. 12. The general-interest museum, which features wildlife, cultures, art, history, and the natural world, will offer visitors a first look at the new exhibit Dam It! Beavers and Usincluding the incisor tooth of a giant beaver that roamed the high desert during the Pleistocene era before becoming extinct 10,000 years ago. Capacity will be limited, and timed tickets are strongly encouraged. If you go, don’t forget to mask up.


AT THE MOVIES: WILL THE THEATERS OPEN SOON?


Martine Chevallier and Barbara Sukowa in the Golden Globe winner and Oscar contender “Two of Us.”


STREAMERS: CINEMA UNBOUND AWARDS, ANDREI TARKOVSKY, TOWNES VAN SANDT. First things first. “The big news this week,” Marc Mohan begins his newest Streamers column, “was the announcement that, as of Friday, February 12, Portland’s movie theaters, like its restaurants, will be able to reopen on a limited basis. None of the metro area theaters have announced plans to sell tickets or rentals to the public immediately, but it is at least a small symbolic step back toward normalcy. Let’s not screw it up this time, eh?” We’ll second that. In an exceptionally newsy column, Mohan also names the winners of the Portland International Film Festival’s Cinema Unbound Awards (some big names are on the list), fills us in on a late-career highlight for the compelling actor Barbara Sukowa, unearths a newly restored documentary gem about the late, great musician Townes Van Sandt, levitates with Andrei Tarkovsky, and even takes a trip to disorienting M.C. Escher land.


FERTILE GROUND: THE AFTERMATH


Martine Chevallier and Barbara Sukowa in the Golden Globe winner and Oscar contender “Two of Us.”

PORTLAND’S 12TH ANNUAL FERTILE GROUND FESTIVAL of new works – and the first to be presented entirely online rather than in live performance spaces scattered across the greater metropolitan area – officially closed on Sunday, the last day that new works were added to the streaming mix. (You can still see all of the festival offerings through Feb. 15, on the screen of your choosing.) How did it all work out? Bennett Campbell Ferguson saw a lot of shows, and for the most part, he writes in his post-festival analysis, things went surprisingly well. He chose four favorites, explaining, “What made them invigorating was how they each—in epically different ways—embraced the struggles of making art in a locked-down world, transforming obstacles into creative fuel.” He continued: “Chosen is a solo performance. Fold in Gently is a baking podcast. Oh Myh is a next-gen romantic comedy. Prismagic is a comedy-circus-dance extravaganza. If I learned anything from Fertile Ground this year, it’s that there wasn’t one way for the festival to work during COVID. Some artists compensated for the limits of screens by blitzing audiences with movement (Prismagic is packed with miraculous acrobatic feats), but minimalism proved equally magical.”

Campbell led a crack team of ArtsWatch writers who know their theatrical stuff – Bobby Bermea, Max Tapogna, Marty Hughley, Campbell himself – in covering the festival, from quick short reviews to in-depth interviews with the artists. They didn’t cover the festival wall to wall, but together they laid an impressive amount of critical carpet. Read ’em and take heart: The theater’s still alive:

  • Fertile Ground 2021: Digital seedlings sprout. Bennett Campbell Ferguson previews the festival and talks with director Nicole Lane about the switch from live to online viewing.
  • Interactive cookies and scares. Bennett Campbell Ferguson writes about two plays with interactive aspects: Fold in Gently and RE: Lilith Lopez.
  • Martha Bakes in Black & White. Bobby Bermea talks with playwright Don Wilson Glenn and director Damaris Webb about Martha Bakes, a play about race and history and the nation’s first First Lady in her colonial kitchen.
  • Tough questions, tough answers. Lisa Collins’ “wonderful and exacting” new play Be Careful What You Ask For delves into a Portland killing and matters of race, Max Tapogna writes.
  • The rhythm and meaning of Lilies. In the short Lilies, Max Tapogna writes, poet Joni Whitworth and filmmaker Hannah Piper Burns find the mythic amid the reality of Covid-19.
  • A “Hot Mess” of a zombie jamboree. Mark LaPierre and Ian Anderson-Priddy’s zombie comic-book musical, Max Tapogna writes, will make your pulse rush. If you have one.
  • Strike up the virtual festival band. This ArtsWatch Weekly update talks about Kwik Jones’s screwball comedy/mystery thriller Cat Napper and Rachael Carnes’s post-apocalyptic What a Memory Looks Like.
  • Looking for light, packing a punch. Max Tapogna lends an approving ear to opera singer Onry’s brief but powerful Livin’ in the Light.
  • Days of Fezziwig Past. Bennett Cmpbell Ferguson finds something intensely moving in Josie Seid and Sara Jean Accuardi’s Fezziwig’s Fortune, in which an overlooked character from A Christmas Carol gets his closeup.
  • A room with a redemptive view. Bobby Bermea talks with the makers of The November Project, a play that takes place entirely in a bathroom, about its real-life impetus and long road to its current fictional form.
  • Belling Shakespeare’s cat. Marty Hughley investigates Madonna of the Cat, playwright Sue Mach’s investigation of the mysterious 16-year gap in Shakespeare’s late romance The Winter’s Tale.

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About the author
Senior Editor

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

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