eugene vocal arts

Light amid darkness

Oregon Repertory Singers perform Portland composer Joan Szymko’s oratorio inspired by people confronting Alzheimer’s dementia

This is what we fear…
Nothing to think with
Nothing to love or link with

From “Aubade” by Philip Larkin, excerpted in Shadow & Light.

When Eugene Concert Choir and Vocal Arts director Diane Retallack approached Joan Szymko in 2014 to write a new piece for choir about Alzheimer’s dementia, the Portland composer faced three challenges. First, she had no friends or close family members with the disease. Second, though she was an award-winning composer who’d written more than 100 choral works, it would be a much bigger piece than she’d ever attempted. Finally, she worried that it would be a depressing work — “a horror story.” 

But after spending two years researching and composing music and libretto about the heartbreaking subject, Szymko discovered a way to cope with the epic scale it demanded. And she also found that it’s possible to find hope and even peace at the end of an Alzheimer’s journey.

Shadow and Light is a touching and hopeful look at the effects of Alzheimer’s,” says Christine Meadows, who sings one of the central solo parts in Oregon Repertory Singers’ Portland premiere of Szymko’s 2016 work this weekend. “[Szymko] captures the huge range of emotions and experiences that many of us have journeyed through with our loved ones.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: females in the foreground

Oregon concerts put women front and center

Women’s History Month just passed, but fortunately, times are changing enough that Oregon performers and presenters are no longer confining half the human race’s creative accomplishments to only one-twelfth of the calendar year. Several concerts this week focus on women’s voices and stories.

Preview: The Passion According to an Unknown Witness from Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on Vimeo.

The Ensemble of Oregon commissioned one of Oregon’s most nationally recognized composers, University of Oregon prof Robert Kyr, to create The Passion According to an Unknown Witness. The hour-long composition retells the famous Passion story set by Bach and many others — from the point of view of the women who journeyed with Jesus in the myth, including Christ’s mom and Mary Magdalene. Musicians from 45th Parallel and Trinity Choir join Portland’s all star small vocal ensemble, featuring some of Oregon’s finest singers in this world premiere. Pre concert talk at 4 pm, concert 5 pm Sunday, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 147 NW 19th Ave, Portland.

Shirley Nanette, back in the day.

Shirley Nanette has been a prominent singer on Portland’s jazz and soul music scene for decades, with performances at national festivals, regional clubs, even with the Oregon Symphony. But like so much of the city’s African American cultural heritage, her breakthrough 1973 album, Never Coming Back, featuring some of the historically black Albina neighborhood’s top musicians of the day, sank into obscurity. Now, DJ/producer/record collector/radio host/ writer Bobby Smith, the African-American arts nonprofit World Arts Foundation, and their Albina Music Trust, are refuting the album’s title by bringing back this lost music in a live performance of the album by Nanette and the Albina Soul Revue Band, starring some of today’s top Portland soul men, who’ve played with everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Prince to Bootsy Collins to Ages and Ages.
Saturday, Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St. Portland.

Chamber Music Amici contributes to redressing American classical music’s long-standing gender imbalance with first-rate music from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, featuring music by one of today’s leading American composers, Pulitzer winner Jennifer Higdon. Her colorful 2003 Piano Trio’s movements reflect their respective titles: the beautifully placid, Aaron Copland style “Pale Yellow” and the incendiary “Fiery Red.” The concert, which includes some of the Eugene area’s top classical players, also features an absorbing 1834 string quartet by that other Mendelssohn, Fanny, whose brother Felix regarded as a talent equal to his own, and Amy Beach’s ardent, late Romantic 1938 Piano Trio.
Monday, Wildish Community Theater, Springfield.

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MusicWatch Weekly: across the ages

Concerts span the centuries from Renaissance to 21st century sounds

Oregonians today are lucky to be able to hear live performances of music from several centuries, not just the narrow 150 year swath of Central European music that once dominated classical concerts. This week’s concert schedule includes music from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and contemporary eras—- sometimes in the same show.

Big Mouth’s Emily Lau

Big Mouth Society  has added a wonderful, welcome wild card to Oregon music. Headed by accomplished early music performer Emily Lau, the group combines theater, performance art, Renaissance, Baroque and contemporary music, and modern social concerns into singular shows that transcend standard concert format. In King of Monster Island: A Wild Memoir, Lau and another nationally renowned early musician, Tina Chancey, use viol solos, medieval music by Guillaume de Machaut, Irish hornpipes, Bosnian Sephardic tangos, “as well as juvenilia, parody, satire and a shameless reworking of tunes by Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Tom Lehrer and Flory Jagoda” to tell an eventful autobiographical tale.
Friday & Saturday, The Hallowed Halls, 4420 SE 64th Ave. Portland.

• Another ensemble that mingles ancient and modern, Dreamers’ Circus, came together, as so many happy combinations do, in a pub. Jazz pianist Nikolaj Busk had repaired to a Copenhagen bar after a concert and spotted a fiddler (Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen) and Swedish cittern (a Renaissance lute) player, Ale Carr, jamming on traditional Danish tunes. Busk joined on in the bar’s piano, and over the next decade, the trio found itself not only winning folk music awards but also working with classical music bands like Copenhagen Philharmonic and the renowned Danish String Quartet — Sorenson’s other band. His classical background, Busk’s jazz influence and Carr’s long roots in traditional folk music give the band a unique and musically vibrant place in the folk music world, as evidenced by the fact that this show is presented by Portland’s venerable classical organization Friends of Chamber Music.

Along with “classical” piano and violin, they’re liable to bust out accordion, cittern, kokle, ukulele, stomp board, clog fiddle and synthesizers. Their splendid new Rooftop Sessions album shows the band at its best. Here’s a clip of them performing with another great Swedish band, Väsen, which performs at The Shedd in Eugene next Wednesday, April 10. Read Daniel Heila’s ArtsWatch feature about their previous Oregon visit.
Sunday, The Old Church, Portland.

• Despite their name, the Tallis Scholars are far from musty or academic. Long recognized as one of the world’s finest choirs, the award-winning singers make sacred Renaissance music come alive with transparent, soaring performances that move today’s listeners. Over four decades, they’ve toured the world many times over, and won loyal audiences in previous Portland performances. This one is a greatest hits of Renaissance choral music, including Gregorio Allegri’s famous Miserere, and church classics by Josquin Des Prez, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and Cristóbal de Morales.
Sunday, St. Mary’s Cathedral, 1716 N.W. Davis, Portland.

• In Guitarology, the latest concert in the valuable (yet free of charge!) Celebration Works Series, Portland Guitar Duo also crosses the centuries in music, tracing the development of the guitar over half a millennium of music on a collection of historic lutes and guitars.
Friday, First Presbyterian Church, 1200 SW Alder, Portland.

Monica Huggett plays French music with Portland Baroque Orchestra musicians.

Baroque

• The most familiar Baroque music is either Italian (Vivaldi, Corelli) or German (Bach, Handel). But 18th century French music has its own elegance and charm. In Leclair, Rameau, and the Age of Enlightenment, Portland Baroque Orchestra’s new chamber music series brings two superstars of Baroque music, guest harpsichordist Byron Schenkman and PBO artistic director and violinist Monica Huggett, to join veteran PBO viola da gamba master Joanna Blendulf and violinist Toma Iliev, in graceful, spirited sounds by François Couperin, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and tragically short-lived Jean-Marie Leclair.
Saturday, First Baptist Church, 1110 S.W. Taylor St. Portland.

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MusicWatch Weekly: American holidays

Along with abundant traditional European Christmas music, Oregon concerts offer American angles on holiday music, music mixed with theater, film, dance, and more

Millions of Americans celebrate Christmas, but let’s face it, the Yuletide is hardly an American original. Sometimes it seems that about all we’ve contributed to a story that began in the Middle East and was St. Nicked by Europeans, is our characteristic commercialization of what was once a spiritual occasion.

Actually, Americans have over the years made the mid-winter holiday — like so many other cultural artifacts that originated elsewhere — our own through music, and you can hear some of it on Oregon stages this week.

• Based on the memoir by iconic Portland stripper / author Viva Las Vegas, Viva’s Holiday scored a surprisingly young and diverse audience in its 2015 and 2016 performances. Set in her family’s Minnesota home during a Christmas visit, Portland composer Christopher Corbell’s intimate, one-act Christmas opera recounts Viva’s declaration of independence from family expectations, socially approved careers, and occasionally clothing — a perfect Portland-style twist on standard holiday themes. Already revived once, Corbell’s lyrical music, which embraces both classical traditions and his own singer-songwriter background, has now received a splendid recording by a twelve-piece orchestra and four opera singers conducted by former Opera Theater Oregon artistic director Erica Melton. This Cult of Orpheus concert (i.e. unstaged) performance includes all the music, minus costumes, sets and stage action, plus a set by Portland’s early French sex music trio Bergerette (which has a close connection to Viva), plus a chance to buy the newly released CD. Let’s hope Santa brings a full re-staging during a future holiday season. Read ArtsWatch’s review and feature story about the original production.
Saturday, Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland.

• Violin deity Mark O’Connor, who’s developed an entire music ed curriculum that introduces American kids to music using our own folk traditions rather than centuries-old European pedagogy. Possibly the world’s greatest fiddler, the Seattle-born star brings the sound of his popular “Appalachia Waltz” combo to holiday music when his crack band and singer Brandy Clark perform the music from his hit 2011 album An Appalachian Christmas this week in Portland and Eugene. The Grammy-winning fiddle virtuoso (who’s also won major awards for his guitar and mandolin skill) composer (nine concertos, two symphonies, three string quartets and counting), studio musician, and educator may have worked with some of the world’s most renowned musicians, from Yo Yo Ma to Earl Scruggs to Wynton Marsalis, but he really enjoys playing with his family and friends. What better time to do that during the holidays? His O’Connor Band features his wife and fellow fiddler/ singer Peggy, champion mandolinist son Forrest, national flatpack champ guitarist Joe Smart, banjoist/bassist Geoff Saunders giving carols and other holiday standards given a warm, all American bluegrass/folk inflection.
Wednesday, McDonald Theatre, Eugene, and Friday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

Mark O’Connor Family Band performs “An Appalachian Christmas” Wednesday in Eugene and Friday in Portland. Photo: All Classical Portland

Music & Theater & More

Along with Viva’s Holiday and Portland annual Christmas Revels, which is more theatrical than musical though worth seeing on both counts, on Sunday, Eugene Concert Choir presents its fully staged musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A Dickens of a Christmas includes plenty of seasonally appropriate sounds that you nevertheless don’t hear ad nauseam in stores and commercials everywhere this time of year. ECC artistic director Diane Retallack has placed the ghost of Christmas Past’s setting in a Renaissance Feast, with appropriate madrigals and carols performed by the costumed “Lords and Ladies” of Eugene Vocal Arts in Elizabethan attire and accompanied by Byrdsong Consort. The ghost of Christmas Present inhabits Dickens’s mid-19th century Britain, with English carols and other music of the period, including Arthur Sullivan’s (of Gilbert &) Handelian Festival Te Deum, accompanied by Eugene Concert Orchestra. The ghost of Christmas Future appears in a “raucous, kitschy look at contemporary culture” with flash mob, break dancing, circusy acrobatics, an Elvis impersonator, and Churchill High School’s Concert Choir. This colorful experience is more than just a concert, featuring costumes, sets, theatrical lighting and sound, action, pageantry, choreography and of course Dickens’s immortal story of Scrooge and the rest.

Eugene Vocal Arts members don Renaissance garb at Eugene Concert Choir’s ‘A Dickens of a Christmas.’

And don’t forget about this weekend’s concluding concerts in a couple other music-meets-theater runs we’ve told you about in earlier MusicWatches:

• Portland Opera to Go’s kid-friendly, bilingual production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, at Portland’s Hampton Opera Center, 211 SE Caruthers Street, and

 The Shedd’s production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, at Eugene’s Jaqua Concert Hall, 285 E Broadway.

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MusicWatch Weekly: solos and duos

Duo pianists and string players, a doomed love duet, and solo pianist, singer, and percussionist highlight this week's Oregon music

Portland Opera opens its season with Verdi’s Bohemian Parisian perennial La Traviata, which runs this Friday night and Sunday afternoon, and next Thursday and Saturday at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Romanian soprano Aurelia Florian, tenor Jonathan Boyd and Weston Hurt star in this traditional production sung in Italian with projected English translations.

Jonathan Boyd as Alfredo and Aurelia Florian as Violetta in Portland Opera’s production of Verdi’s ‘La Traviata.’ Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

• For opera music of more (sadly, in the wake of the latest right-wing gun- and bigotry-fueled massacre) immediate relevance, you’ll have to head up to Seattle’s Benaroya Hall for the powerful Music of Remembrance series, which remembers the Holocaust through music. Performed by Seattle Symphony members, this 20th anniversary concert, includes highlights from MOR’s varied repertoire of Holocaust-era music and new works its commissioned: excerpts from Tom Cipullo’s award-winning chamber opera After Life, imagining a confrontation between the ghosts of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso; Jake Heggie’s opera Out of Darkness, Lori Laitman’s oratorio Vedem, Paul Schoenfield’s Camp Songs. Northwest Boychoir sings Yiddish songs that Viktor Ullmann arranged in Terezín death camp. Members of Spectrum Dance Theater reprise dances that choreographer Donald Byrd created for The Dybbuk.

Courtney Freed, cutting loose as Freddie Mercury.

• Just in time to piggyback on the new Queen movie (or is that the other way round?), Courtney Freed’s one-woman Freddie Mercury tribute concert Mercury Rising returns Friday to Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre. Aided by David Saffert on keys, Josh Gilbert on reeds, Bernardo Gomez on bass and Tom Goicochea on drums, she’ll sing Queen songs arranged by Reece Marshburn. “Freed thankfully didn’t try to embody the outsized rock star,” ArtsWatch’s Angela Allen wrote after the show’s brief April run at Coho Theater,” but “Mercury fans, who comprised most of the audience, were all over the songs—doing the Wave, cheering, singing and mouthing the words. She added some vamping and dancing (her singing is much better than either) and interspersed her songs with spicy narration…. The music leaned far more toward jazzy cabaret than ear-killing British rock. And even if you weren’t a diehard Queen fan, you couldn’t resist Mercury’s melodies.”

Orchestral Attractions

• The Oregon Symphony brings another musical/theatrical combo Saturday through Monday at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Petrushka tells the story of a puppet come to life, so it’s only appropriate that creative director Doug Fitch enhances Stravinsky’s sublime 1911 ballet score (in its 1946 revision) with puppets, dance, set design, audience participation and other visual touches designed to evoke the 1830s St. Petersburg fair that inspired the original. One of the season’s best classical programs also boasts Haydn’s stirring penultimate symphony, William Walton’s African music-influenced Johannesburg Festival Overture, and Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s unseasonably sunny Summer Pastorale.

Doug Fitch’s puppetry enhances Oregon Symphony’s ‘Petrushka’ this weekend.

• On Saturday and Sunday at Newport Performing Arts Center, Newport Symphony plays Schubert’s Overture In the Italian Style, along with Ravel’s gravely beautiful At the Tomb of Couperin, and brings in trumpeter Katherine Evans to lead the way in Hertel’s third trumpet concerto and the late Seattle-based composer Alan Hovhaness’s haunting Prayer of Saint Gregory. The show closes with Mendelssohn’s ebullient “Italian” Symphony #4.

• Speaking of the peripatetic Mendelssohn, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra plays his “Scottish” Symphony No. 3, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, and Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, with soloist Dimitri Zhgenti on Saturday and Sunday at Skyview Concert Hall.

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Music News & Notes

Catching up with recent news in Oregon classical music

Note: this post has been updated after news of the passing of one of America’s great musicians.

We’re usually so busy previewing and reviewing performances that we rarely have time to catch up on other news in Oregon classical music. So as winter turns to spring, here’s a roundup of a few comings and goings of important figures on the scene, honors, and opportunities. If you have more news you’d like us to consider sharing with ArtsWatch readers, please let us know.

Steven Zopfi conducted Portland Symphonic Choir in Michael Tippett’s oratorio, ‘A Child of Our Time.’

Transitions

Scott Showalter

• Whither Showalter? **Updated**
The biggest news in classical music so far this year is yesterday’s sudden departure of Los Angeles Philharmonic’s already legendary Deborah Borda for the New York Philharmonic, which she ran in the 1990s. Why is this news in Oregon? Because current Oregon Symphony president Scott Showalter’s previous job was Vice President for Development of the LA Phil, following stints as Associate Vice President of Alumni Relations and Development of the University of Chicago, and Associate Dean for External Relations of Stanford Law School. A classically trained pianist, Showalter is a graduate of Stanford University and UCLA and has extensive experience in fundraising, which is now the primary job of orchestra CEOs, and a big reason why the NY Phil brought back Borda, a prodigious rainmaker as well as visionary. **UPDATE**: A symphony spokesperson says that Showalter has no plans to leave the OSO, which has enjoyed record ticket sales and donations under his leadership, and that he expects Borda to do great things in New York as she did in LA.

• PSU departure
Former Portland State University Dean of the College of the Arts Robert Bucker, an esteemed choral conductor, has been named Interim Vice Provost and Dean of the Faculty at New York’s prestigious Manhattan School of Music. A search is underway for his replacement.

Stephen Zopfi.

• Choir conductor change
Portland Symphonic Choir artistic director Steven Zopfi is departing after 14 years, as a result of a scheduling conflict with his work as director of choral activities at the University of Puget Sound. A search has commenced for his successor.

• Opera recovery
As Oregon ArtsWatch was first to announce publicly (you really should be checking our Facebook page!), Eugene Opera has cancelled its productions of West Side Story and La Tragedie de Carmen scheduled for March and May. The company announced last week that a small group of supporters has jointly pledged to donate a total of $60,000 when the company receives a matching $60,000 from other donors. The combined total of $120,000 is specifically earmarked to pay existing obligations to local artists, technicians, and businesses; it will cover about 75% of the current debt of $160,000. A separate $20,000 matching grant will begin funding the company’s next season.

• New opera series
Meanwhile, a new opera-oriented series has sprung up in Portland. The  Opera Wildwood Concert Series is a project of Luigi Boccia’s Vox Artis Foundation, which seeks to establish, organize and sponsor concert and lecture series, live and studio recordings, seminars and publishing/broadcasting activities through a specialized Youtube channel, in the U.S and abroad. Vox Artis also aims to provide encouragement, training opportunities, career assistance and financial support, including scholarships and awards, to promising and talented young singers and/or scholars,” according to its press release. The inaugural concert at Portland’s Wildwood Company on 3rd Avenue featured promising young opera singers. Stay tuned to ArtsWatch for the latest developments with this new company, and other news in Oregon classical music.

Opportunities

Piano Day
Pianists are invited to sign up for Portland Piano International’s Piano Day — the first such celebration in the US. For the last two years, other countries have celebrated the 88th day of the year (corresponding to the number of keys on a standard piano), March 29, in 20 cities across the globe. Now, from noon – 10pm, pianists will play a total of 1000 minutes of piano music of all genres at four locations in the Portland Metro area at different times: the studio at All Classical Radio, the atrium at Portland City Hall, the platform at the Washington Park MAX Station (260 feet underground!) and the stage at Alberta Abbey. Pianists of all ages and abilities will perform on some of the City’s best pianos. The events will be free to the public, but each performer will be raising funds from the community with a minimum goal of $10 per minute played. The funds raised will be used to support the educational programs of Portland Piano International. Sign up to play or sponsor a pianist at http://portlandpiano.org/piano-day.

Battle of the Bands.
The Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) is accepting registrations for its second annual Battle of the Bands competition, which happens Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom. Eight employee bands, sponsored by their companies, will perform in front of friends, family, co-workers and a panel of celebrity judges as they vie for the title of Best Company Band and other prizes. The event will raise more than $80,000 for RACC’s annual Work for Art campaign.

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Eugene Concert Choir, Oregon Contemporary Theatre previews: Alzheimer’s onstage

'Shadow and Light,' 'Blackberry Winter' explore the consequences of Alzheimer’s Disease through music and theater

by GARY FERRINGTON

Most of us will eventually know a family member, friend, acquaintance, or colleague who, as a vibrant individual today, will be slowly transformed by the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Their subtle slide into the shadows is difficult to first recognize and then accept. But as the loss of mental capacity becomes more pronounced, the lives of those affected, the families and friends who care about them are changed forever.

Diane Retallack conducts Eugene Vocal Arts in the world premiere of "Shadow and Light." Photo: Eugene Concert Choir.

Diane Retallack conducts Eugene Vocal Arts in the world premiere of “Shadow and Light.” Photo: Jon Christopher Meyers.

The arts have long provided a way of exploring the emotional consequences of mental illnesses like Alzheimer’s. Themes of anxiety, schizophrenia, melancholy, depression and other disorders have appeared in paintings and sculpture, on stage, or in music.

This month, Eugene Concert Choir’s select chamber ensemble, Eugene Vocal Arts and Oregon Contemporary Theatre offer two new productions about people with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers. On Saturday, April 2, an introductory symposium co-hosted by the two arts organizations initiates a month of music and drama.

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