elsewhere ensemble

MusicWatch Weekly: stagy sounds

From opera to musicals to concerts influenced by musical theater, this week’s Oregon stages teem with music written for dramatic productions.

This year’s PAMTA Awards may be history, Cabaret has closed and Les Miz and Portland Gay Men’s Chorus’s United States of Broadway don’t arrive till next week, but this week still offers abundant opportunities to hear music that originated in musicals, opera and other dramatic productions. 

 “Portland Opera’s brewing up a deal with the devil with its latest production of Charles Gounod’s Faust, opening June 8, and it’s likely to attract sizable audiences,” ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks, who apparently traded his soul for extensive knowledge of visual art, theater and music, told subscribers to our newsletter last week. “Something about this legend’s been fascinating readers and theater- and music-lovers for centuries. The thirst for knowledge, the overwhelming desire for pleasure and experience, the human who would be more than a god, the man with the ambition and arrogance to believe he can outwit the devil, or who just cares about winning right now so much that he doesn’t quite believe the future price he’s agreed to pay. The ripples of the story are everywhere, from politics to business to people’s love lives: win now, and damn the consequences.

Portland Opera’s ‘Faust’ opens this weekend. Photo: Corey Weaver.

“Portland Opera’s new Faust – a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, where it premiered in March – is based visually on a world created by sculptor and artist John Frame. But the story he interprets is ageless. Gounod’s opera is based mostly on Part 1 of Goethe’s famous version of a legend that stretches back to a real person from the 15th and 16th centuries, Johann Georg Faust (and various other medieval/Renaissance folk characters) and forward to, well, at least now. Christopher Marlowe famously dropped in for a visit, as did traveling puppeteers who used Faust and Mephistopheles as sort of stock Punch-and-Judy characters. Turgenev and Thomas Mann tackled the subject. So did Berlioz and Wagner and Mahler and Liszt. Stephen Vincent Benét had fun with it in “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” and legend has it that the blues guitarist Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads and sold his soul in exchange for musical greatness (practice and innate talent no doubt had more to do with it). In István Szabó’s great 1981 movie Mephisto, based on Klaus Mann’s novel, a German actor essentially sells his soul to the Nazis in exchange for prestige and success.

“So, here comes Gounod’s Faust again. Our advice? Give the devil his due. But lend the opera your eyes and ears.” Our kissin’ cousin Artslandia’s new Toi Toi Toi magazine for Portland Opera has interviews with production designer Frame and star soprano Angel Blue. Stay tuned for Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch review. And ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley will soon have the scoop on a couple of other musical theater productions onstage, Portland Center Stage’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill and Mocks Crest’s The Light in the Piazza.

When it appeared in 1970s, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass was, er, crucified by some who disapproved of the great American composer/conductor transforming sacred music into show tunes, or, even worse, rock and/or roll. Bernstein, whose centenary this year has occasioned numerous performances of his always dramatic music, just couldn’t keep theater out of even his non-Broadway compositions. He even called his Mass “a theater piece.”

Directed by Jon Kretzu and conducted by Justin Smith, Stumptown Stages’ new production Saturday and Sunday at Marylhurst University’s St. Anne Chapel stars stalwart baritone Douglas Webster as the Celebrant (a role he pretty much owns) plus the terrific Julianne Johnson, Katie Harman and Broadway veteran Kirk Mouser, experienced local soloists, Marylhurst Choral Union, Women’s Chorale and Pacific Youth Choir. Co-created by Marylhurst University’s music department, it’s an example of the loss to Oregon arts caused by the school’s impending closure.

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MusicWatch Weekly: a river runs through it

New music inspired by the Columbia River, Chekhov stories, homelessness, and other sources highlight this week's Oregon concerts

The biggest reasons many of us live here ultimately trace back to the rivers that course through this beautiful land. Much of Oregon’s prosperity stems from our proximity to the Columbia River and its watershed, so it’s appropriate for our artists to draw inspiration from the big river — and from the indigenous Oregonians who have so long strived to protect it. Cascadia Composers’ “Our Waters: Big River to the Pacific” concert Saturday at Portland State’s Native American Student and Community Center, 710 SW Jackson St., features works for chamber instruments and voice by Northwest composers Jack Gabel, Theresa Koon, Brent Lawrence, Liz Nedela, Dawn Sonntag and Jennifer Wright that honor the history and culture of the Columbia River watershed. The multifaceted show also includes performances by Native storytellers Ed Edmo and Will Hornyak and visual art by Bonnie Meltzer.

Another new music concert at Portland State Tuesday (Lincoln Hall Studio Theater, LH115) and the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall Monday returns to a theme that’s popped up in other recent contemporary classical shows: mixing music and theater. New York’s Elsewhere Ensemble, a theater-music group whose members hail from the USA, UK, France, Belgium, Russia, Switzerland, Japan and beyond, sports a recent Oregon arrival: newly appointed UO viola prof Arnaud Ghillebaert, who joins the distinguished ranks of Oregon new music violists that includes Kenji Bunch, Joel Belgique, Charles Noble, Sound of Late’s Andrew Stiefel and more. Various configurations converge on different projects. Chekhov Triptych, which revolves around three stories by the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, features award winning Broadway actors and a new original score for string trio composed by the ensemble’s violinist, Colin Pip Dixon.

Elsewhere Ensemble performs new music with Chekov stories Monday and Tuesday in Portland and Eugene. Photo: A. Blasberg.

Another recurring theme in recent Oregon music: tango. Not only did Eugene Opera just stage Astor Piazzolla’s 1968 tango operita, Maria de Buenos Aires, but on Wednesday at Portland’s Old Church, two of Argentina’s finest tango masters, Pablo Estigarribia & Adrian Jost join a pair of Portland tango veterans in a concert that celebrates both traditional and new tango music. Pianist Estigarribia has won awards for his performances, arrangements, and original tango compositions. Jost, who co-founded San Francisco’s Trio Garufa tango band, plays the traditional tango instrument, the bandoneón button accordion. Along with Oregon Symphony bassist Jeff Johnson and violinist Erin Furbee of Portland’s Tango Pacifico, they’ll play traditional tangos, nuevo tangos by Piazzolla, and originals. And with Portland State faculty violinist Tomas Cotik, a Piazzolla specialist, ensconced here, look for more tango treats soon.

Pablo Estigarribia and Adrian Jost perform Wednesday at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall.

A recurring theme I’m happy to see suspended: bring to Oregon a Famous Soloist, even one who performs or commissions new music — and assign them an over-played European Romantic perennial that they could (and sometimes seem to) play in their sleep, so often have they performed it. Thankfully that’s not the case, for once, when the great American violinist Joshua Bell & Oregon Symphony team up this weekend at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on one of 20th century America’s most delightful concertos: Leonard Bernstein’s 1954 Serenade. Inspired by, of all things, Plato’s Symposium, the violin concerto’s five movements evoke the different moods and personalities involved in each dialogue, but it’s far from academic — joyous, playful, boisterous and even inebriated.

Gabriel Kahane. Photo: Josh Goleman.

Even better: the show sports the world premiere of emergency shelter intake form, commissioned by the symphony from New York’s Gabriel Kahane, one of the most appealing of the rising generation of 30-something composers. It’s the final installment of the symphony’s Sounds of Home series that purports to respond to current issues here and now. In this case, the issue is homelessness, and Kahane drew on interviews with people who’d endured it. He’ll join Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, Portland singers Holcombe Waller and Holland Andrews (a/k/a Like a Villain) and Portland’s Maybelle Community Singers in the OSO performance. It’ll be played at Jacksonville’s Britt Festival in July, too.

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