bryan johanson

Oregon new music recordings 2016: Small beauties

Some of Oregon's most intriguing 2016 releases apply big ideas to small-scale compositions

The Warbler Sings, Paul Safar
Composer/pianist Safar had already forged a reputation as one of Eugene’s most intrepid musicians in the classical tradition, thanks in part to his years of concerts and festival appearances via Cherry Blossom Productions, the company he set up with his partner, singer Nancy Wood. His reputation spread statewide thanks to his many appearances in Cascadia Composers concerts, then his 2013 Composer of the Year Award from Oregon Music Teachers Association, which resulted in the commission for his 2016 CD’s title track. That airy, seven-part setting of haikus by the famed Japanese poet Basho finds a unique place between jazz (especially in trumpeter Dave Bender’s trumpet lines and bassist Nathan Waddell’s interjections), classical music (Wood’s elusive, evocative vocal melodies), and Japanese music (spare, almost austere atmosphere of asymmetric abstraction evident in Safar’s pianistic sprinkles).

More birds flutter through a pretty pair of short, solo piano intermezzi, “Geese in the Moonlight” and “Dawn, Singular Heron,” joining other denizens of nature: the Middle Eastern cello / dumbek / zills trio “Cat on a Wire”; the playfully ominous “The Spider,” and the narrated fable “Moonfish” (both featuring Wood). Waves sparkle and heave, via Safar’s piano and Woods’s lovely vocals in the closing “Ocean.” These and the other concise, tuneful tracks should appeal to a wide range of listeners, not just classical fans. Most have highlighted Cascadia concerts over the past few years, and there’s no substitute for seeing an electrifying performer like Wood live, but this diverse recording stands on its own as one of the most enjoyable contemporary Oregon classical music releases of the last decade.

Invisible Light, Delgani Quartet
Safar’s music also graces the debut release from Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet, which in under two years has zoomed to prominence in the Willamette Valley and beyond. Their collaboration with another Eugene based artist, actor Ricke Birran, on Safar’s four settings of music from classic literary sources ranges from a gripping, over-the-top reading from The Pied Piper of Hamelin; an antic take on Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter, an ominous percussive jungle chant to William Blake’s “The Tyger”; and an incantatory Satanic soliloquy from Milton’s Paradise Lost.


Maybe their experience in historically informed performance practice helped the ensemble embrace the ancient, Middle Eastern spirit of Portland-born composer Lou Harrison’s gravely beautiful 1978 String Quartet Set (written for Canada’s Orford Quartet and first recorded by the Kronos Quartet), which relies on the Pythagorean (a/k/a ditone) tuning used in the millennium before the Renaissance in Europe and the Middle East as well as Turkish and French baroque forms. University of Oregon prof Terry McQuilken’s scintillating title cut is based on the music of a more recent source: an early 19th century shape-note hymn, evolving into a tuneful suite that passes through sections touched by jazz, contemporary classical and even medieval influences.

Continues…

ArtsWatch Weekly: whale of a week

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

The history of art, in a way, is a history of obsession. And who is more obsessed than Captain Ahab, feverish hounder of the great white whale? Herman Melville, perhaps, creator of the novel Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, and thus creator of the monomaniacal Ahab. Or Orson Welles, the mad genius of the cinema, who attempted to latch on to Melville’s harpoon and ride it to obsessive triumph in an unlikely stage adaptation of a novel that might be both untamable and unadaptable. Or, maybe, Scott Palmer, the adventurous artistic director of Bag&Baggage Productions, who’s taken Moby Dick, Rehearsed, Welles’s obsessive adaptation of Melville’s obsessive novel, and brought it to the B&B stage. In his fascinating (and in its own way, obsessive) review of B&B’s production, ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell quotes Palmer on the book that started it all: “Moby-Dick isn’t a novel, it is an entire imaginative world. It is massive, bulky, colossal, terrifying, majestic and ultimately unfathomable. It is the physical representation of one man’s will, one artist’s transcendent vision, an entire internal universe externalized …”

Bag&Baggage's magnificent obsession. Casey Campbell Photography

Bag&Baggage’s magnificent obsession. Casey Campbell Photography

Giant whales and such, as Brett points out, have been something of a communal obsession in Portland lately, from Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s season-long serial [or, the whale] to Portland Story Theater’s The Essex, the Northwest Film Center’s Welles-fest, a reading of excerpts from the novel at Portland’s Mother Foucault’s bookshop, and the musically adventurous AnyWhen Ensemble’s Moby-Dick inspired Boldly Launched Upon the Deep.

And how does this magnificent obsession (or cascade of obsessions) work out? Campbell writes: “Neither Ahab nor Melville nor Welles nor Palmer let the challenges of their tasks daunt them. Ahab caught his prey, but it cost him his life and those of his crew. Melville’s novel was widely regarded as a crazy failure in its time, and its overabundance of non-dramatic material still repels many readers. Welles’s misguided attempt to turn so inward-gazing a novel as Moby-Dick into compelling stage drama amounted to hunting a white whale; as Palmer acknowledged in a pre-show talk, it’s perhaps a good thing that Welles devoted himself to filmmaking rather than playwriting. In nevertheless choosing to stage Welles’s whale folly (in his centennial year), Palmer again plays the white knight, this time trying to save the white whale. Does he catch the object of his obsession in this new production and redeem Welles’s hubristic vision? Like the others, it’s a foredoomed, magnificent failure that, if you can stick with it long enough, you ultimately can’t let go of.”

America is, of course, a land of magnificent attempts and magnificent failures, which makes this whole thing seem so, well, American. It’s like a magnificent stab at the great American production of the great American adaptation of the great American novel: Who needs perfection when you’ve got a series of obsessions the size of a great white whale?

 


 

Vin Shambry (left), Chantal De Groat, and Chris Harder in "We Are Proud To Presnt ..." Photo: Owen Carey

Vin Shambry (left), Chantal DeGroat, and Chris Harder in “We Are Proud To Present …” Photo: Owen Carey

America is also obsessed with race, and the great stain of its racial history, which continues to trouble and obsess us in everything from policing to housing to job opportunity to our political campaigns, where it is sometimes used like a hidden (or not so hidden) persuader of fear and loathing. ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson delves into this not-so-magnificent American obsession in his review of Artists Rep’s new production of We Are Proud To Present a Presentation About the Hero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s smart and searing play about race, and our continuing difficulty in talking about it honestly, often even when we have the best of intentions. “We Are Proud to Present is a scorpion of a play,” Johnson writes, “and its tail packs a serious punch made all the more deadly by the light tone of the beginning.”

 


 

Tamisha Guy and Vinson Fraley Jr. in Kyle Abraham’s ‘The Getting’. Courtesy White Bird, © Jerry and Lois Photography All rights reserved http://www.jerryandlois.com

Vinson Fraley Jr. and Tamisha Guy in Kyle Abraham’s ‘The Getting.” Courtesy White Bird, © Jerry and Lois Photography. All rights reserved. http://www.jerryandlois.com

And while we’re on the subject: In Kyle Abraham dances about race, Nim Wunnan writes for ArtsWatch about the dance troupe Abraham.In.Motion’s canny and provocative performance in the White Bird series, a trio of works rooted in hip-hop, modern, and contemporary dance. The show “confidently and gracefully engaged both historical and very immediate issues of race and the individual’s place in this culture,” Wunnan says, and adds: “We start to understand in this work that certain movements and positions are almost exclusive to black bodies in this culture. And we rightly start to feel uncomfortable in our seats, notably when the usually vibrant and fluid [Tamisha] Guy sinks to the floor with a leaden exhaustion, face down, with her hands behind her back in an unmistakable position of submission, of arrest. The one Oscar Grant was in when he was shot point blank in the back.” Grant, in case you’ve lost track amid the the seemingly endless string of “incidents” involving police and black citizens, was slain by a Bay Area Rapid Transit policeman in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 in Oakland.

 


 

Heath Koerschgen and Danielle Weathers in "Davita's Harp." Photo: Friderike Heuer

Heath Koerschgen and Danielle Weathers in “Davita’s Harp.” Photo: Friderike Heuer

A few things to keep in mind on this week’s calendar:

Davita’s Harp. The Jewish Theatre Collaborative has been preparing all season for this world-premiere adaptation (by Jamie M. Rea and director Sacha Reich) of Chaim Potok’s 1985 novel about a contentious family in the New York of the 1930s, as the world is churning toward disaster. Opens Saturday; through April 9 at Milagro Theatre.

Arvo Pärt and The Ensemble. Justin Graff gets us all in the mood for the notable chamber and vocal group’s weekend performances of the mesmerizing music of Pärt, “one of the world’s greatest living composers.” And in A Pärt Pilgrimage, Graff gets considerably more personal, telling the tale of his journey to Talinn to meet the master, of sharing chocolates,  and a session at the keyboard. All pilgrimages should be so rewarding. The performances: 7 p.m. Saturday at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church; 4 p.m. Sunday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall.

Northwest Dance Project. The Portland ensemble’s newest concert is called Louder Than Words, which might be appropriate, because it’s been raising the roof lately with performances in New York and elsewhere. A new work from the company’s talented resident choreographer, Ihsan Rustem, plus one each from artisitic director Sarah Slipper and Brazilian dancemaker/filmmaker Alex Soares. Newark Theatre, Thursday through Saturday.

 


 

 

ArtsWatch links

 

Wangechi Mutu, “Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors”/Courtesy of PNCA

Wangechi Mutu, “Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors”/Courtesy of PNCA

 

Wangechi Mutu and the revolt of the female form. Grace Kook-Anderson looks at 511 Gallery’s Northwest premiere exhibition of this post-colonial, feminist, New York-via-Nairobi artist. “Mutu’s women are distorted figures, hybrids of animals and natural elements, bodies that are capable of great force,” she writes.

Michelle De Young: heavy going. What happens when a Wagnerian powerhouse of a voice meets an art song in recital? Katie Taylor went to the acclaimed singer’s Friends of Chamber Music concert and found the combination of voice and material sometimes disconcerting.

Oscar nominee Ciro Guerra: an interview. Erik McClanahan talks with the Colombian-born director of the foreign-language nominee Embrace of the Serpent. Bummed that he didn’t haul home an Oscar? “We were kind of relieved we didn’t win,” Guerra said. “There was a favorite going in and it’s great not to be the favorite. It can be a lot of pressure. Even winning can be a lot of pressure. So we just made the best of it and enjoyed it.”

Toxic glory: Heathers: The Musical. Christa Morletti McIntyre takes a look at the ’80s glory that was the cult teen movie, and the new glory of its musical-theater adaptation, which is is getting a slam-bang co-production from Triangle and Staged!

Born to run (and to film): Wim Wenders, continued. Marc Mohan looks at more of the Northwest Film Center’s fascinating series by the German director. This time around: Paris, Texas; Kings of the Road; The American Friend; The State of Things.

In Mulieribus: hours well spent. Bruce Browne celebrates the “happy marriage” at Mt. Angel Abbey of the outstanding choir’s Renaissance music and exquisite projected art from a medieval book of hours.

Last chance: Jacques Rivette’s twelve-hour Out 1. The French New Wave director’s ambitious, audacious, half-a-day opus has rarely been seen in the past forty-five years, but the Northwest Film Center’s been showing it, cut into digestible segments. Marc Mohan pays his respects.

Bullshot Crummond rides again. Lakewood Theatre’s world-premiere production of the latest Crummond comedy, a sequel to a 1970s parody of the old Bullshot Drummond British adventure series, revels in an old-fashioned sort of fun, Christa Morletti McIntyre writes.

Bolai Cao: abundant talent. It was a propitious meeting at Portland Piano International, Jeff Winslow writes – the rising young pianist Bolai Cao performing a new work by the veteran Oregon composer Bryan Johanson, a piece created in homage to Domenico Scarlatti.

Hello, My Name Is Doris: Sally Field talks about her new movie. ArtsWatch’s Marc Mohan chats with the two-time Oscar winner about her latest turn, as a “socially inept, eccentrically clad” office worker who develops a crush on her younger boss. “Some people have called it a love story, but I think it’s a coming of age story,” she says. “The challenge of being a human being is will we open up to every different stage of our life?”

Johanson and Prochaska: media speak. Borrowing from Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum “the medium is the message,” Paul Sutinen looks at new shows by veteran painter/printmakers George Johanson and Tom Prochaska and declares the medium does matter.

 

Tom Prochaska, "Hillside Nevada," 2016, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. Photo: Dan Kvitka

Tom Prochaska, “Hillside Nevada,” 2016, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. Photo: Dan Kvitka

 


 

About ArtsWatch Weekly

We send a letter like this every Tuesday to a select group of email subscribers, and also post it weekly on the ArtsWatch home page. In ArtsWatch Weekly, we take a look at stories we’ve covered in the previous week, give early warning of events coming up, and sometimes head off on little arts rambles we don’t include anywhere else. You can read this report here. Or, you can get it delivered weekly to your email inbox, and get a quick look at all the stories you might have missed (we have links galore) and the events you want to add to your calendar. It’s easy to sign up. Just click here, and leave us your name and e-address.

 


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Bolai Cao review: Abundant talent

Portland Piano International recital coupled a rising young piano star with veteran Oregon composer's newest work.

by JEFF WINSLOW

“Abundance” seemed to be the theme of Portland Piano International’s latest Rising Stars / Oregon Composers Commissioning Project concerts, a cheering offering for the cold gray days of February. After two previous concerts, including one in Salem, Valentine’s Day saw pianist Bolai Cao at Portland Piano Company, playing sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, studies by Frédéric Chopin, Reminiscences of Don Giovanni by Franz Liszt, and last but emphatically not least, a brand new work by Oregon composer Bryan Johanson. The Portland State University professor of music’s work was composed in homage to Scarlatti and bears the same Italian title “Essercizi” that Scarlatti himself called his sonatas.

Abundance because:

• Scarlatti wrote over a hundred sonatas a year for the last five years of his nearly 72-year long life;

• Chopin at the opposite end of his adulthood – before he even left the Poland of his youth for Paris – had already composed many highly original studies;

• Johanson’s new piece bristled with entertaining ideas;

• the Liszt, like nearly all the works on the program, unleashed a superabundance of notes from the piano.

Cao at 19 is even younger than Chopin was when he left Warsaw, but he cuts an imposing figure and his pianism was imposing as well. Two of his four Scarlatti selections were of the “OMG” variety, infamous among pianists for their lightning-fast figuration and wide leaps, but Cao displayed barely a trace of warm-up jitters. I would have preferred a more lyrical approach to a couple of the Chopin studies, including the well-known “Black Key” (op. 10 #5), which has many intricacies for the ear’s delight but which flew by at the pace of an east wind out of the Columbia River Gorge. On the other hand, the deceptively difficult “Waterfall” etude (op. 10 #1) was appropriately tumultuous and astonishingly accurate, and Cao’s lyrical side did come out to play in op. 10 #3, which a century later could have been a crooner’s hit.

Bolai Cao performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Rich Brase.

Bolai Cao performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Rich Brase.

Without losing any accuracy, and even more astonishing, any clarity, Cao reached the apex of tumult in Liszt’s madcap virtuosic paraphrase of the Mozart opera. Just about every trick from the Liszt playbook is in there – wide leaps, thundering octaves including blind octaves (playing very fast octave scales with alternating hands), and runs and arabesques galore – and yet, while those in the know roll their eyes, it somehow manages to stop just short of tastelessness. To realize its potential takes extraordinary pianism and Cao was equal to the task. Yes, I laughed at the end, but not from derision. Instead, it felt like popping the cork off Mozart’s celebrated Champagne Aria.

Johanson’s work didn’t require such fancy acrobatics, but it had its own challenges and brought another appreciative smile to my face. Its three movements, fast / slow / fast, each hewed closely to the model of Scarlatti’s sonatas, which were a milestone in the development of the form, as imaginative in their day as Beethoven’s 50 years later. The first movement punctuated fast runs and contrapuntal tricks with fanfares on exotic chords. The fanfares reappeared, subdued and almost unrecognizable – more like cries in the wilderness – in the pensive, even mournful slow movement. Intuitively I wanted them to be echoed in a triple articulation of the final chord, but things didn’t turn out that way. All long faces vanished in the finale, which romped to a thumping finish through short quotes from not only Scarlatti but also J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel (all three, by the way, born in 1685). A couple of the quotes added to the humor by squirting dollops of unexpected harmonic stability into Johanson’s somewhat angular lines and delightfully off-kilter yet ultimately center-seeking harmonies.

If you missed the concert and are feeling a resulting lack of abundance in your listening life, don’t fret. This was only the third of six such concerts this season, and six more are planned for next season. The fourth hasn’t yet been announced, so keep an eye on PPI’s website and Oregon ArtsWatch. PPI’s next recital features another young piano star, 28-year-old Joseph Moog, playing music by JS Bach, Liszt and Chopin on March 12 at Portland State University.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer.

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