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Sing a song of Dante

ArtsWatch Weekly: A musical trip in a funhouse mirror, talking about "Lorelei," creative laureates & more.


THE PAST MIGHT NOT REPEAT ITSELF, BUT IT RIPPLES like a funhouse mirror, reflecting in often strange and twisted ways. (Or, as Mark Twain put it, “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”) And so, when news crossed my desk from the group Big Mouth Society of a series of small-gathering outdoor picnic concerts celebrating the early 14th century poet Dante Alighieri, I found myself disproportionately, almost ridiculously enticed by the prospect: Dante, who in his Divine Comedy traveled through Hell and back for his readers, might have fit snugly into the 21st century––or at least, a funhouse-mirror version of it. 

Domenico di Michelino, “Dante and His Poem,” 1465, oil on canvas, 91.3 x 114.1 inches, Duomo, Florence

“We’re honoring the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death with music based on his poetry and written over a 500-year period,” Big Mouth’s Susan Kevorkian wrote about the project, called collectively Precious Fruits: A Picnic Concert. “Like us, Dante lived through plague, social protest and regime change. We’re excited to share his work in an array of virtuosic vocal and instrumental music by historical and contemporary masters.” If that’s not a reflection in a funhouse mirror, I’m not sure what is.

What’s in store musically? Works that span the centuries, says composer and performer Emily Lau, Big Mouth’s artistic leader. Music will range from compositions by the late Renaissance and early Baroque master Luca Marenzio to works by Baroque composer Luzzasco Luzzaschi, Brazilian Romantic composer Alberto Nepomuceno, contemporary Dutch composer Paul Van Gulick, and more. (You can read ArtsWatch Senior Editor Brett Campbell’s fascinating story here about Big Mouth and Lau, from March 2020, just as our contemporary plague shutdown was changing everyone’s lives.) Lau notes about the picnic concerts: “Almost all of the performers combine in various instrumental and vocal ensembles, and we devise ensemble pieces through a highly collaborative process.”

The fluidity of the programming suggests the tantalizing veil between present and past that is an enduring fascination of all sorts of art in all sorts of forms. How are we like those people who came before us on this small planet in this tiny corner of the universe? How are we different? How do we tell our own Plague tales? (Dante’s slightly younger near-contemporary Giovanni Boccaccio put his own spin on the funhouse mirror in The Decameron, in which a group of people sitting out the Black Death from the safety of an isolated villa spin fantastic stories to while away the time.)

Precious Fruits will have four performances: two on Sunday, Aug. 1, and two the following Sunday, Aug. 8. Where, exactly? Once you buy a ticket, all will be revealed. This Sunday’s will be somewhere in Southwest Portland and somewhere in North Portland. The two shows on Aug. 8 will be somewhere in Northeast Portland and somewhere in Southeast Portland. Oh, and about the picnic part: The novelist Julian Barnes also had something to say about history and repetition. “History,” he declared, “just burps, and we taste again that raw-onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago.” Fortunately, these are bring-your-own-picnic-food events. You can eat anything you like.


WHAT ELSE HAS BEEN HAPPENING on the Oregon music front? Quite a bit, as ArtsWatch’s writers and editors have discovered:


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  • CHAMBER OF MUSICAL DELIGHTS. Chamber Music Northwest––the first large Portland performing group to venture back into the concert hall for a season of shows––has finished this summer’s live programming at Kaul Auditorium, and Angela Allen spotlights several of the high points, from world premieres to unexpected instrumentation to sterling performances by the likes of bass-baritone Davóne Tines. Videotaped versions of the concerts remain available to stream through Aug. 31.
  • ROSETTA: THE MAKING OF A MUSICAL. Bennett Campbell Ferguson talks with composer Jenn Grinels and director Merideth Kaye Clark about The Rosetta Project, their hopeful Broadway musical-in-the-making, based on the story of a 19-year-old woman who disguised herself as a man and joined the Union Army in the U.S. Civil War.
  • CONCERTS AT THE BARN. Master percussionist and ballet-orchestra conductor Niel DePonte turns impresario as he jumps on the haywagon of rural concerts with a pair of shows in The Butler Barn at Hoffman Farms Store in Beaverton. The two-concert season opens today – Thursday, July 29 – with Trio Del Mar performing works by Gabriel Cassadó, Yuko Uebayashi, and Carl Maria von Weber. The second concert, Aug. 26, will feature Trio Parallel performing works by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich.
  • SILETZ BAY MUSIC FESTIVAL RETURNS WITH CONCERT OF RESILIENCE. “After a year of struggling with the fallout from COVID,” Lori Tobias writes, “organizers of the Siletz Bay Music Festival were ready to host the summer concerts once again. But where to begin, what to do?” It was a puzzle – until artistic director Yaacov Bergman and production manager Jain Sekuler saw Up from the Ashes, photographer Bruce MacGregor’s exhibit at the Lincoln City Cultural Center of images in tribute to the victims of the 2020 wildfires that devastated nearby Otis. Now one of the 2021 festival’s centerpieces will be a performance of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, accompanied by a slideshow of MacGregor’s photos. 
“Duane. NE Highland Road. Lincoln City, Oregon April, 2021.” Photo: Bruce MacGregor. In a centerpiece of this year’s Siletz Bay Music Festival, a slideshow of MacGregor’s images from the aftermath of 2020’s devastating Otis wildfires will accompany an orchestral performace of Sumuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” 

Ursula K. Le Guin and a friendship to remember

The author Ursula Le Guin at the Oregon Coast, from Arwen Curry’s film “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.”

LETTERS & LUNCHES: ABOUT URSULA. “Ursula Le Guin was a woman of letters, in every sense of the phrase. Via the postal service and e-mail, for nearly six decades, we exchanged words on the page and on the screen, sometimes at great length, often briefly. We made lunch dates, and we broke them.  We wrote about our families, our work, current events, and our cats.” So began Martha Ullman West’s talk on Tuesday in the Portland Art Museum’s sculpture court about her longtime close friend, the late, great Portlandwriter whose essays, poetry, and speculative fiction presciently addressed cultural, political, and environmental issues and helped transform and broaden the borders of literature. The occasion was a U.S. Postal Service ceremony marking the release of a new, 95-cent stamp in Le Guin’s honor.

The art of August: Our gallery & museum guide

Works by digital art pioneer Joan Truckenbrod are on view Aug. 3-Sept. 16 in a retrospective at the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland.

VIZARTS MONTHLY: NATURE, CULTURE, AND INDIGENOUS VIEWPOINTS. Lindsay Costello casts her August eye across Oregon (and greater Portland, too) for a double handful of intriguing art possibilities: “Artists statewide will present works intertwining cultural storytelling, vulnerability, and the natural world. Hear vital Indigenous perspectives online at Five Oaks Museum, or view new paintings by Klamath Modoc artist Ka’ila Farrell-Smith at Springfield-based Ditch Projects. Many artists this month are also considering the role of nature in healing and creativity. Try a road trip to the High Desert Museum’s new exhibition on pollinator flora, or visit the Schneider Museum to expand your perspective on possibilities for computerized expressions of nature.”

Talking with: Director of the filmed-in-Oregon ‘Lorelei’

Sabrina Doyle, director of the new made-in-Oregon movie “Lorelei,” which opens in Portland July 30 at The Living Room Theaters.

FILMWATCH WEEKLY: Q&A WITH THE DIRECTOR OF OREGON-MADE “LORELEI.” Marc Mohan talks with director Sabrina Doyle about how and why she made a movie about, as Mohan puts it, “folks who don’t normally get the Hollywood, or even the Portlandia, treatment.” Says Doyle: “A lot of films about working-class characters tend to be very issue-focused, and sometimes, even with good intentions, they can verge on sadism—the characters are put through the ringer to illustrate the hardship of their lives. I wanted to make a film that celebrated resilience and interiority and dream life and that didn’t flatten the characters out to explore an issue.”


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Dance: push/FOLD in PDX and Mexico City

Choreographer Samuel Hobbs (left) in a push/FOLD rehearsal with Holly Shaw (in green) and Ashley Morth (in pink). Photo: Jingzi Zhao 

SAMUEL HOBBS’ COMPANY PREPS FOR A MEXICAN FESTIVAL. After months in Covid hibernation, Elizabeth Whelan writes, Hobbs’ lean and lithe dance troupe is bounding back into action with a trip to Mexico City and the 2021 Festival Internacional De Danza Contemporánea De La Ciudad De México. It’ll be the company’s international live debut, following a successful recent virtual appearance in the Dancing on the Edge Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia. Before heading to Mexico City, push/FOLD will perform its program in its home town of Portland, at Zidell Yards on Friday and Saturday, July 30-31.

Laureates, gatherings, radio plays

Joaquin Lopez and Leila Haile are Portland’s new creative laureates.

CHATTING WITH THE NEW LAUREATES. TJ Acena has a conversation with Leila Haile and Joaquin Lopez, Portland’s new city-appointed cultural laureates, who’ll be advocates for the role in urban life of creativity and people who create. Lopez––an actor and musician– and Haile––a tattoo artist, dancer, and cofounder of Ori Gallery––are the city’s first co-laureates, and the third and fourth in all: They succeed Sabashini Ganesan-Forbes, who succeeded Julie Keefe. “I believe that one of my creative strengths is my community work, the way I connect and activate people,” Haile tells Acena. Lopez adds: “I love the collaboration, going back and forth over ideas, and bringing people together. I love having a role as a synthesizer.”

A KILLER OF A PARTY ON THE RADIO. In the Covid year, Portland’s intensely visually oriented Imago Theatre has shifted from the stage to the radio waves, where voice and sound effects carry everything. They’re premiering their new plays on KBOO-FM 90.7 community radio, which happens to have its studios right across the street. Longtime Imago performer Danielle Vermette, a costar in Carol Triffle’s absurdist new sort-of-murder-mystery Happy Times, gives an inside look at how it all works.

PHOTO FIRST: A DAY WITH THE MAKERS. On a bright and sunny Saturday, photographer K.B. Dixon did something he hadn’t done in fifteen or sixteen months: He grabbed his camera and went out to mingle in a crowd. What lured him, besides last weekend’s weather and a sense that the world was waking from its long shutdown, was the gathering of the artists and craftmakers at the Slabtown Makers Market, a mini-street fair and studio tour at NW Marine Art Works, a warehouse-turned-artists-center in Northwest Portland.

Drawn by the weather and the chance simply to gather, viewers wandered about the booths and studios at last weekend’s Slabtown Makers Market. Photo: K.B. Dixon

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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