In The Penal Colony

MusicWatch Weekly: Happy accidents

Music editor misses Glass opera, amplified strings, and the end of CMNW

Allow me to get personal for a moment. You, my dear readers, know that I’m involved in this vibrant local music scene I’ve been writing about every week for the last three years. As a student at Portland State University, I walk past area composers Kenji Bunch and Bonnie Miksch in the hallways about once a week. Until recently, I sat on the board of Cascadia Composers (about whom you can read all about right here in Maria “Arts Bitch” Choban’s detective hunt). I play drums in a surf punk band and gongs in a Balinese gamelan, and most of my friends and acquaintances are musicians. It’s inevitable that your ever-busy music editor will occasionally find himself becoming Part of the Story.

Music editor Matt Andrews becomes Part of the Story. Photo by Matias Brecher.

So this week I’m going to lean into that pretty hard and tell you all about my brother’s band. I’ll also explain why you have to go to a bunch of wonderful local concerts in my stead this weekend, beautiful shows I’ve been waiting all year for, all piling up here at the bottom of July where I have to miss them because I’ll be spending the next five days packing for a six-week trip to Bali.

But first, a case for Mozart.

To garden or not to garden

Portland Opera earns its place in the city’s music scene for one reason: they pour almost as much time, effort, talent, and money into productions of operas by living U.S. composers as they put into the classics. (Honestly that’s a pretty generous “almost,” but they do alright for an arts organization of their heft. Oregon Symphony does better, but they also do more.)

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Through a Glass, Darkly

Philip Glass’s setting of Franz Kafka’s allegorical tale remains as relevant as ever

Philip Glass never expected In the Penal Colony to be a success. “When I wrote it, I thought, it’ll get done once and then no one will ever do it again,” Glass said. “Why would you want to watch a suicide? Basically that’s what you’re doing. And it turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. I would say it’s the most performed opera that I’ve written.”

Glass’s misgivings are understandable. Even for the world’s most famous living composer, In the Penal Colony doesn’t exactly scream “crowd pleaser.” Written at the outset of World War I and published in 1919, Franz Kafka’s brief, bleak tale is set in a penal colony, where The Visitor has been invited to witness an execution. The Officer in charge wants him to endorse to the colony’s new commander the continuation of the peculiar — and horrific — execution method devised by the now deceased Old Commander. The killing machine, called The Apparatus, tortures condemned prisoners to death by excruciatingly inscribing, over up to 12 hours, a description of their crimes directly on their flesh. The prisoners are never told the nature of their crimes, but readers discover that this one was condemned for failing to salute his superior’s door each hour. The Officer believes the tormented prisoners achieve ecstatic enlightenment at the moment of death.

A scene from Portland Opera's new production of Philip Glass's In the Penal Colony. Photo by Cory Weaver.
A scene from Portland Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The apparently more enlightened new regime recoils at the Apparatus’s barbarity, and so does The Visitor. And yet, “it’s always risky interfering in other peoples’ business,” he sings in Glass’s opera. “I oppose this procedure, but I will not intervene.” 

Allegorical Apparatus

Kafka’s grim allegory sent shudders through an Industrial Revolution society besotted with emergent technology’s promise. When science was sundered from morality, modern inventions could have a dark side, distancing humans from the consequences of their actions, numbing us to the dangers of our ingenuity. 

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MusicWatch Monthly: Too many notes

Summer gets all sweaty, with classical and jazz festivals, operas, experimental sound art, and a bit of good old-fashioned NW gonzo punk

Garden wall at Lan Su Chinese Garden. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

La Finta Giardiniera
July 12-27, Newmark Theater
In The Penal Colony
July 26-August 10, Hampton Opera Center

It’s oddly appropriate that Portland Opera is closing its season with summer performances of Mozart and Philip Glass. Both composers are that rare breed: equally adept at performing their own chamber music, writing grand symphonies for orchestra, and collaborating on a variety of comic and tragic operas on themes both timeless and timely.

They have both also been accused, perhaps justly, of writing too many damn notes, and that’s part of why the best way to experience theatrically-inclined composers like Mozart and Glass is in their native habitat: the opera house. That’s really where their music lives best, in live performances rich with grand singing, engaging sets and costumes and lighting and the other “works” which give opera its name—plus the comedic and dramatic intimacy that is live theater’s specialty.

July 12-27, PO stages the lesser-known Mozart opera La Finta Giardiniera, in its second Portland production of the year (PSU Opera put on their own production earlier this year). Lindsay Ohse stars; Chas Rader-Shieber directs.

July 26-August 10, Jerry Mouawad (co-founder of Portland’s Imago Theatre) returns for another modern “pocket opera.” PO specializes in presenting these chamber operas by modern composers, thrilling Portland audiences recently with Laura Kaminsky’s As One and in 2017 with Mouawad’s production of David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field and The Little Match Girl Passion. Martin Bakari and Ryan Thorn star in Glass’s adaptation of the terrifying Kafka story.

Jazz and Blues

Waterfront Blues Festival
July 4-7, Waterfront Park

For over three decades, Portland’s iconic blues festival has been a hot, sweaty, messy, crowded, rite of passage. It’s such an undertaking they’ve got a handy little guide for navigating the four-day, four-stage fest sprawled across the west side of the river, wedged between the waves and the construction cranes.

Take a look at the line-up right here. If any of those musical legends and other hot-shit artists sound like you’d want to get into a sweltering, sunscreen-slathered groove with them and a thousand other vibing blues fans down on the sun-baked shore of the Willamette River—then pack yourself a bag full of bottled water, grab a big floppy sun hat, and get your ass down to the water.

Waterfront Blues Festival, July 7, 2018.
Waterfront Blues Festival, July 7, 2018.

Jazz in the Garden
Tuesdays, July 16-August 20, Lan Su Chinese Garden

Across six Tuesdays this summer, Lan Su Chinese Garden in Old Town Portland hosts PDX Jazz’s Summer Music Series, featuring a variety of international and local artists. On July 16th, it’s Malian supergroup BKO Quintet; on July 23, Portland vibraphonist Mike Horsfall pays tribute to Cal Tjader; on July 30, erstwhile Portland saxophonist Hailey Niswanger returns from Brooklyn with her band MAE.SUN. In August, jazz and soul singer China Moses performs on the 6th, pianist Connie Han plays on the 13th, and on the 20th Bobby Torres Ensemble commemorates Woodstock.

The Territory
July 15, Kaul Auditorium, Reed College
July 16, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University

Local superstar jazz composer and pianist Darrell Grant is having a busy year, as usual. His nine-movement suite for jazz ensemble The Territory, premiered at Chamber Music Northwest in 2013, led to the formation of the “Oregon Territory Ensemble,” which has continued performing the landscape-inspired music and recorded it with Grant in 2015.

They’ll perform The Territory here twice in July, and the line-up is pure local A-list: Florestan Trio cellist Hamilton Cheifetz, vocalist Marilyn Keller (From Maxville to Vanport), bass clarinetist Kirt Peterson, multi-instrumentalist John Nastos, trumpeter Thomas Barber, drummer Tyson Stubelek, bassist Eric Gruber, and vibraphonist Mike Horsfall.

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