Dana Green

Chamber Music Northwest: risk-taking redeemed

This summer’s festival, like last year’s, shows a classical music organization refreshing itself with new performers and new music

One day about four years ago, recently installed Chamber Music Northwest executive director Peter Bilotta was chatting with a major donor to Portland’s annual summer classical music festival. The funder “called us ‘musty,’” Bilotta recalls. “I decided this art form is alive, not musty — and we’ll prove it to you.”

This year’s five-week edition, which ended July 29, revealed a festival that has shaken off the mustiness. Bristling with listener-friendly new music, fresh young performers and diverse older ones, CMNW has managed to pull off this stealth reinvention while also holding on to most of its aging core audience, its renowned longtime performers, and a healthy dose of core classics.

Bright Sheng’s ‘The Silver River’ finally debuted at Chamber Music Northwest this summer. Photo: Tom Emerson.

For most of the years since its founding in 1970 as relatively cozy event at Reed College, CMNW has operated as West Coast summer outpost for musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which long time CMNW artistic director David Shifrin long ran. It added a second venue at tony Catlin Gabel school and mostly focused on core classics and a commissioned work or two each year, often from de facto house composer David Schiff, a Reed prof.

But new music and new performers have lately played a much greater role. “I felt one thing holding us back was being too cautious about the canon,” Shifrin recalls. When the affable visionary Bilotta arrived in 2013, he found an eager partner. They introduced innovations that have reinvigorated the festival: Protege Project, Casual Wednesdays, a new music commissioning fund (which Shifrin actually created earlier but gained traction only after the recession), more outreach programs, a weekly noon new music series, year-round programming, and more. Together, Bilotta says, “we decided it’s time to start shaking things up, taking more risks. We decided we were comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

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A ‘Major’ deal with the Devil

In GB Shaw's "Major Barbara" at Portland Center Stage, good intentions and bad money duke it out on the moral battlefield. Guess who wins.

We’ve seen her type before: the Iron Matron. Imperious, but so impeccably mannered that you almost wouldn’t notice. So cunning that she’d never admit to her own cleverness. Intent on everyone doing things her way because, by god, that’s the way good people do things!

Alternately feigning helplessness, pulling strings and slinging barbs, Lady Britomart steals the opening scene of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, and with the marvelous Dana Green playing the role in the production newly opened at Portland Center Stage, that amounts to grand theft.

From left: Charles Leggett as Andrew Undershaft, Dana Green as Lady Britomart, Hanley Smith as Barbara Undershaft and Brian Weaver as Adolphus Cusins. Photo: Jennie Baker

Shaw gives the character such sly wit that you excuse all the exposition she’s hauling out. Under the guise of asking her grown son, Stephen, to take charge of family matters, she fills him in on family history, meanwhile laying out for us the play’s narrative premise as if she was setting the dinner table (though of course she’d have the help do that).

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Painting the town ‘Scarlet’

We're not in the 1600s anymore: Michelle Horgen's marvelous updating of "The Scarlet Letter" adds a modern sensibility (and lots of songs)

Portland Playhouse’s new musical, Scarlet, is no dry historical retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. While that popular 19th-century novel was the source material for playwright Michelle Horgen’s retelling, and it is set in the same puritanical time, this is not your father’s Scarlet Letter.

For starters, this is retold by a woman (Horgen is at least a triple threat, having written book, music, and lyrics) in 21st century America. And Hester Prynne has a lot to say — and, it turns out, sing — that rings as true today as it must have in 1850. Judgment and shaming, after all, have become public, prolific, and painful in the era of Twitter and Facebook, where most people can’t simply escape or go home to hide their embarrassment.

Rebecca Teran is Hester Prynne in “Scarlet” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles

In Horgen’s hands, the story also becomes much more about motherhood—how becoming a mother “shatters your existence” in a “blinding instant” — than it was in the words of Hawthorne. There is an especially heart-wrenching story involving Hester’s friend, Sarah Winthrop, a new character who was not part of Hawthorne’s story, which is set in 17th century Puritan Boston. Dana Green, who plays Sarah, wears her grief for the rest of the play — across a number of years — and will break your heart. It is also more about the sisterhood we share with other women — our friends, our community, even the crazy old lady everyone pretends not to understand.

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