Joan Szymko

MusicWatch Monthly: Fabulous February

Composers, composers, composers! ...and a jazz festival

Classical weekend

This weekend, you can take your pick of classical music concerts: choral, chamber, or orchestral (or all three, if you have the stamina). On the 7th and 8th, Portland Lesbian Choir celebrates the ratification of the 19th Amendment (guaranteeing women’s right to vote) with their “Born to Celebrate” concert at Central Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland. The most exciting thing about this concert: a premiere of a new 19th Amendment-themed work commissioned by PLC from Portland composer Joan Szymko, whose music has been a highlight of recent Resonance Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers concerts.

Also on the 7th and 8th, at local theater company Bag & Baggage’s cozy Hillsboro venue The Vault, Northwest Piano Trio performs Shostakovich’s second piano trio as the live score for playwright Emily Gregory’s intimate end-of-life play The Undertaking. In this unique collaboration with B&B and director Jessica Wallenfels’ Many Hats Productions, the trio will be onstage with the actors. On the 8th at Portland State University, PSU violin-piano duo Tomas Cotik and Chuck Dillard will perform Mozart, Schubert, and Piazzolla–three of the four composers Cotik specializes in (the other, of course, is Bach). And if you already have tickets to Portland Opera’s An American Quartet, don’t forget that it opens this weekend–and if you don’t have tickets yet, you’d better hurry!

Also this weekend, the Oregon Symphony relegates two more living composers to the Fanfare Zone. Their “Pictures at an Exhibition” program (concerts Friday in Salem and Saturday-Monday in Portland) manages to make room for twelve minutes of Missy Mazzoli and thirteen minutes of Gabriella Smith between the half-hour blocks of decomposers Mussorgsky and Paganini. I get that we’re supposed to be grateful to OSO for playing anything at all by living composers and women composers, and we really are grateful that they commissioned a new work from Smith: living composers need to eat! But we’ll never tire of complaining about the Fanfare Zone, and we won’t stop until the ratios are reversed and decomposers have to compete for their token opening spot on concerts dominated by Zwilich concerti and Tower tone poems.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: old, new, always

Same old story? Brash new wave? In Oregon arts & culture this week, old and new mix it up, and it's sometimes tough to tell which is which

ART IS ABOUT STRIDING BOLDLY INTO THE FUTURE and discovering the new. The Portland Art Museum, for instance, is getting ready to open the first major retrospective of the work of American artist Hank Willis Thomas, whose photography, sculpture, video, and collaborative public art projects turn their focus sharply and sometimes satirically on the flashpoints of contemporary culture and the struggle for social justice and civil rights. Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal …, which will run Oct. 12-Jan. 12, is the museum’s big fall-season attraction, and a central part of a run of shows in the next few months about the work of artists of color: the essential Portland painter Isaka Shamsud-Din, the great Robert ColescottFrida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and the just-opened exhibition Question Bridge: Black Males.

Hank Willis Thomas, The Cotton Bowl, from the series Strange Fruit, 2011. Digital c-print. 50 x 73 inches. © Hank Willis Thomas, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

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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 Monthly: A Septemberful of ‘music’

"Classical" music, "Hip-hop" music, "Queer" music, "Experimental" music

Well, friends, you’ve got a helluva nice September to look forward to. Oregon Symphony provides live backup to the greatest movie of all time and also Wyclef Jean. Cappella Romana performs a bunch of Byzantine music, Kalakendra and Rasika present Indian classical music and dance, Nordic folk band Sver comes to Alberta Rose, and local rapper Fountaine headlines a free Labor Day hip-hop fest.

FearNoMusic and Third Angle swing back into full Relevant Classical mode this month, while Oregon Repertory Singers perform local composer Joan Szymko. Portland State’s Queer Opera presents gender-bent opera scenes and art songs, Dolphin Midwives plays a Harvest Moon Cacao Ceremony, and the Extradition Series imports a Canadian trumpeter.

We’ve even got a few concerts for you outside the Portland metro area, in case the shame trolls decide they want another helping of bananafied humiliation optics, police cover, wasted city resources, and charitable donations.

“Drip, drip.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: This music kills fascists and opera

Folksy chamber operas, locavore choral music, doom and psych and loops, pairs of pairs of pairs

Well folks, basically everything is happening this weekend. You want modern chamber operas based on Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill? Justin Ralls and Opera Theater Oregon have got your back. You want doom metal and/or psychedelic stoner rock? Hippie Death Cult and Queen Chief will melt your mind. Or maybe live Spaghetti Western music is your cup o’ joe: check out local supergroup Federale. Electronics abound at 2019 NW Loopfest, but if you want to go the other direction, check out Portland’s newest local-composer-friendly singing group, Foris Choir. You could even pack a sandwich and a thermos of green tea and get your voice down to Bach Cantata Choir’s madrigal sing-along.

I know you’re all chomping at the bit for your next music theory lesson, but all this lovely stuff is happening tonight and this weekend–so let’s dive right into what I’m missing right now.

Opera must die

Olivia Giovetti recently made a compelling case for why opera must die, and although I agree with her conclusion I must quibble with her timeline–opera is already long dead. Moreover, while its sloppily shellacked corpse has been slowly decomposing for the last few decades, wonderful new forms of opera have been springing up everywhere. Have a listen to some of my recent favorites: Laura Kaminsky’s As One, Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, Kevin Puts’s Silent Night (could throw Du Yun’s Pulitzer-winning Angel’s Bone, but honestly I’m not crazy about that one; can’t win em all, which is sort of the point). Patient Zero in this rebirth of the opera is probably Philip Glass, whose brilliant 1979 opera Satyagraha is quite possibly his greatest work and almost surely the likeliest to live beyond him.

These modern operas all still have compelling narratives and the harmonic sensibilities to support them; beautiful, singable, memorable melodies; well-drawn characters; and a sense of the mythopoeic that connects the mundane lives of individual characters to the grand archetypes which illuminate the human psyche.

In other words, opera is alive and well. The trouble is that opera companies (as Giovetti points out) program way too much of the safe conservative stuff and way too little of the new stuff. I’m not saying stop doing Mozart and Puccini–Mozart and Puccini are awesome. But what if we just flip the ratio of new to old? Instead of a season of Vivaldi and Leoncavallo with one or two token new operas, what if it was a whole season of new stuff with a token Wagner or Rossini? Portland Opera is gradually catching up–they’ve recently performed Lang, Kaminsky, and Glass, and their upcoming season features Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers and An American Quartet of short operas by Menotti, Barber, Douglas Moore, and Lee Hoiby.

But, for now at least, nobody in town is doing as much to promote new opera as Opera Theater Oregon under the co-directorship of composer Justin Ralls and singer Nicholas Meyer. A couple summers back, it was Ralls’s lovely, mythic Two Yosemites; last year it was Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince. When I interviewed Ralls for Arts Watch last summer, he said two things that rang a big pair of Balinese gongs in my brain:

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Music makes the message come alive

Resonance Ensemble concert features all women singers and composers

The first movement of Melissa Dunphy’s new choral composition LISTEN sets texts from Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, with lines like “I thought he respected my work” and “When I was asked, I had to tell the truth, I could not keep silent.” In February’s Portland performance by Resonance Ensemble, which commissioned it, chants on “he-he-he” and “no-no-no” formed a rhythmic and harmonic canvas across which stretched long, tortured, almost Lutosławski-esque melodies. The second movement took this sound world even further, setting lines from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s 2018 testimony with a thicket of dense dissonant counterpoint, ending on “my responsibility is to tell the truth.”

On the screen above all this were pictures taken at both testimonies. Hill looking over her shoulder. Ford looking straight ahead, hand raised, terrified and determined. At a certain point it felt like a horror movie, and a reminder of the ways in which our actual reality has become a horror movie. I’ll tell you another time all about the gasps and tears in the room, during this piece especially, and about the way we all held each other afterwards and reassured each other that it was okay to feel afraid and angry and helpless and mortified and terrorized.

Resonance Ensemble reprises its popular concert featuring women singing music by women.

It was a cool misty February at Cerimon House in Southeast Portland, the local vocal group Resonance Ensemble was starting its concert Women Singing Women, and up on the screen above the stage was an old black-and-white photo of Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, fists raised. Over the course of the next 90-odd minutes, a few hundred photographs of women would appear on that screen, from Amelia Earhart and Barbara Bush to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Portland’s own Ursula K. Le Guin, ending (spoiler alert!) with a return to Steinem and Pitman-Hughes, 40 years later, fists still up.

The sold-out concert was, as the name suggested, an afternoon of women singers performing music composed and arranged by women (they scheduled an encore, which also sold out). As we’ve previously discussed the Bechdel-Wallace effect in music here, we’ll limit ourselves to quoting Steinem, who wrote (in her 1992 self-esteem book Revolution from Within):

Each of us with hearing and vocal cords can sing, yet many of us have been embarrassed out of this out of this primordial pleasure by self-consciousness and shame at the sounds we make. Our critical, conscious self literally stifles our voice. And, as with any other human capacity, the less we use it, the less we believe it to be worth using.

It’s a theme I often hear from women working in classical music, and especially composers. At the post-concert Q&A, the composers Melissa Dunphy and Portland’s Stacey Philipps both described themselves as latecomers to composing. Philipps talked about the long history of women composers being ignored or married off, and Dunphy said “a lot of women are late-comers to composing.” Resonance Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon added that she was not able to find a female conducting teacher until she was working on her doctorate. It’s not just women who experience this, of course—that Steinem quote perfectly pierced this male heart—but it’s usually women leading the way in doing something about it. We need concerts like this. It’s nice when they sound good too.

The singing at Cerimon House started with Ruth Moody’s “One Voice,” Resonance soloists Brittany Rudoi, Sarah Maines, and Cecily Kiester singing “This is the sound of one voice…This is the sound of voices two…This is the sound of voices three”—a clever bit of musical wordplay in physical space leading to the rest of the choir coming in on “This is sound of all of us,” a beautifully resonant sound in the sonically spacious but physically close and intimate room.

FitzGibbon stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s very important you hear my voice today.” She described the concert’s theme as “exploring the ways women’s words are sometimes silenced, sometimes heard, something needing to be heard.” She also offered what would prove to be very necessary trigger warning about the concert’s content: “these are difficult things to hear, but important to hear.”

Resonance Ensemble conductor and Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon. Composers Melissa Dunphy Stacey Phillipps. At Cerimon House for February 3rd Women Singing Women concert. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.
Melissa Dunphy, Katherine FitzGibbon, Stacey Philipps. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.

It’s become all too easy to do Social Justice Music. Our time (by which I mean this era in which we can communicate and organize with anyone, anywhere, anytime) has come to be defined by a broad range of social issues all stemming from the simple fact that we can discuss and organize around subjects and experiences that were previously invisible to polite society. Some of the big examples would include the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter (started by three women), #metoo (started by one woman, amplified by another, and then by so many others), the rise of international corporatism and global fascism (and their opponents), and other such difficult and important topics.

Clearly all of this is a good thing, terrifying and overwhelming though it all may be at times (we’ll come back to FitzGibbon’s trigger warning), and in many ways our era fits the old sense of the word “apocalypse”—an unveiling. All of this should be talked about, and it should appear in our art. Our music should address it, because our music is our lives and our lives cannot be separated from the great movements of our time.

This being Portland, Social Justice Music concerts have been springing up like wildflowers in May rain, and sadly the majority of these concerts have been boring and lazy, leaning on their social relevance as a crutch for inferior art. And it ends up cutting both ways: if you’re not going to make good music to support your social justice message, you’re going to undercut the message itself.

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MusicWatch Monthly: the darkling buds of May

Encore shows, season closers, and kickoff concerts showcase visuals, Dutch virtuosi, Japanese drums, and women composers

There’s an old Oregon saying: “April showers bring May showers.” Our famously persnickety springs tend to veer from warm noon-times of glorious blooming sunshine to those long desperate afternoons of deep drizzling gloom that have our S.A.D. souls begging the gods, “when will you make an end?”

Fitting, then, that our Curated Concert Spread for May includes so much rich, loamy music. From fresh rain and frolicking flowers to ominous thunder and deadly lightning, here’s a sample of what’s happening in your merry, mournful town this May.

Weill, Auerbach, Price: Music for Orchestras

Oregon Symphony Orchestra
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland
The Oregon Symphony Orchestra puts on a few different types of concerts, and they end their season with three contrasting varieties spread across the month like a field full of wildflowers and mushrooms.

May 4, Norman Huynh conducts the OSO and guest choirs from Portland State University in a live performance of the award-winning score from Miloš Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus, the music deftly synchronized to the movie, projected on a giant screen above the orchestra. Unlike similar concerts with thoroughly cinematic scores (Star Wars, Batman), this concert doubles as a simple Mozart feast—including more than a little bit of that glorious Requiem, which PSU’s choirs performed in its entirety earlier this year. The music is all ages but the film is rated R, so know your kids or leave ‘em at home.

PEER GYNT from Studio Moto on Vimeo.

May 11-13, Carlos Kalmar conducts Edvard Grieg’s popular Peer Gynt score with visualizations by designer Alexander Polzin. This is the third concert of OSO’s popular SoundSight Series, which brings together visual artists and musicians for delightfully polysensory shows. Previous concerts have featured animation, projection mapping, and all kinds of puppetry. Also on the program: Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, featuring soprano Jane Archibald.

OSO closes its season with a Mahler symphony, the deceptively pretty first, sometimes called the “Titan (it’s the one with the minor-key Freres Jacques). The three concerts May 18-20 also reprise Kurt Weill‘s satirical ballet chanté, The Seven Deadly Sins, with Pink Martini chanteuse Storm Large in the double lead role originated by Lotte Lenya (Anna I and Anna II) and vocal quartet Hudson Shad as The Family. The Mahler symphony is nice and springy—like all Mahler, it’s lusciously orchestrated and therefore absolutely essential Schnitz-listening—but it’s the Weill that’s bringing us in out of the rainshine.

Storm Large rejoins the Oregon Symphony with Hudson Shad in ‘Seven Deadly Sins.’ Photo: John Rudoff.

That vocal quartet is a funny case and deserves a special mention. Hudson Shad is, among other things, a cadre of Seven Deadly Sins specialists who got together specifically to perform this macabre deliciousness with Marianne Faithfull way back in antediluvian 1989, eventually recording it with her in 1997. These four guys have now been singing this music together for three decades. Listeners familiar with Weill from his Threepenny Opera can expect more of the composer’s iconic, sardonic cabaret sound. Meanwhile, here’s a taste of what we can expect from Large.

Auerbach and Martinů
May 5
Portland Youth Philharmonic, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland
PYP routinely handles new and difficult music that belies the age of its membership—think of it not as a group of highly skilled young musicians but as a 95-year-old symphony orchestra playing with vigor, courage, curiosity, and a deep emotional heft rivaling its more grown-up professional counterparts. They earned points with OAW by being one of the only groups in town to celebrate the Bernstein centennial with something other than West Side Story and Candide for the umpteenth time, opting instead to perform Lenny’s first symphony to perfection with Laura Beckel Thoreson in March. (Points also to PSU choirs for their magnificent Chichester Psalms and to Eugene Symphony for performing Bernstein’s second symphony, both last year; there’s also this).

Their season closer features PYP alum Max Blair performing Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů‘s 1955 sunny little Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra, and the West Coast premiere of contemporary Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach’s Symphony No. 1 “Chimera.”

You’ll enjoy the Martinů concerto, sure but you’re really going to thank us for Auerbach, whose music is exactly the right kind of fresh. It’s punchy and agitated, modernistically morbid, bristlingly bombastic, colorfully dissonant, heroically wistful, and melodically profuse—which, to my ear, places her about halfway between Khachaturian and Elfman.

America’s Florence
May 21
Metropolitan Youth Symphony, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland
Classical music lovers continue waking up to music by U.S. composers of the present and past, and one of the best of the rising old stars is Florence Beatrice Price, the first African-American woman to be recognized as a serious symphonic composer. Following the 2009 discovery of dozens of lost Price scores (discussed here by local singer and Arts Watch correspondent Damien Geter), the classical world has been abuzz over this much-needed new entry into the early U.S. canon, finding ample space for her among the Beaches and Seegerses and Iveses. Stay tuned for ArtsWatch’s concert preview.

MYS—like PYP a fearless and curious band—performs Price’s tasty first symphony and her Americana-as-apple-pie Dances in the Canebrakes, along with the homage Letter to Florence Price, composed by MYS alum Katie Palka, one of the stars of Fear No Music’s Young Composers Project (read Charles Rose’s interview with Palka and three other YCP composers right here). MYS will also give the West Coast Premieres of two works by a pair of eleven-year-old composers, participants in the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers Initiative: Harlem Shake by Camryn Cowan and Boogie Down Uptown by Jordan Millar.

Japan, Netherlands, Florida: Transnational Chamber Musics

“Her Light Escape”
Spire Duo, May 4, Portland house concert.
Superb Eugene soprano Emma Rose Lynn and pianist Andrew T. Pham performing settings of poetry by Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare, W. H. Auden, Robert Frost and more by 20th and 21st century composers composers such as André Previn, Dominick Argento (both of whom died this year), Benjamin Britten, Ned Rorem, and others.

Portland Taiko rejoins FearNoMusic. Photo: Rich Iwasaki.

Japanarama: The Ongoing Influence of Japanese Culture
May 6
Fear No Music, The Old Church, Portland
Fear No Music’s husband-and-wife leadership team—Artistic Director Kenji Bunch and Executive Director Monica Ohuchi—have spent the past five years making FNM the best kind of Portland hybrid: a classical ensemble with unimpeachable performance credentials, a love for local and contemporary composers, and a mature sense of social justice and responsibility.

This season’s theme, “Worldwide Welcome,” invites international musics and musicians into downtown Portland’s Old Church, and this concert’s special guest is the beloved percussion ensemble Portland Taiko, a jolly and entertaining crew who have collaborated with Bunch on previous concerts and will likely be audible across the river. The Japanese drums—many of them gigantic—were originally designed for communications between villages and within armies, providing a nice counterpoint to Bunch’s quiet, reflective music.

Kendrick Scott Oracle
May 6, Jack London Revue, Portland
After earning his reputation as one of the finest jazz drummers of his generation in his decade anchoring Terence Blanchard’s superb ‘00’s band, Kendrick Scott formed his own band, Oracle, to showcase his considerable compositional chops. He scored a coveted record contract with sainted jazz label Blue Note, which just released one of the best jazz albums of the year so far. A Wall Becomes a Bridge beautifully blends varied textures: Jahi Sundance’s turntable, Mike Moreno’s fluid guitar, John Ellis’s various woodwinds (flute, bass clarinet, horn) and bassist Derrick Hodge’s wordless vocals, plus some vocal samples. Add Scott’s inventive drumming and Tyler Eigsti’s bright electric and acoustic keyboards, and it adds up to a forward-looking amalgam of ‘70s fusion, a dash of modern hip hop, and lyrical contemporary jazz that can charm fans of everyone from Pat Metheny to Scott’s fellow Houston natives Jason Moran and Robert Glasper.

Classical Musicians of Holland bring Portland a Dutch treat.

“Classical Musicians of Holland”
May 7
Portland Dutch Society, The Old Church
We here at Oregon Arts Watch have an almost jingoistic attitude toward classical music: local composers, local performers, local poets, local rainstorms. We’re locavores and we’re not ashamed of it. Some might even call us musical terroirists. But we do occasionally get wind of travelling shows blowing in under the radar, something to remind us life beyond the Willamette Valley.

On May 7, Portland Dutch Society hosts three young musicians, the most recent winners of Holland’s Prinses Christina Concours (Princess Christina Competition): violinist Yente Lottman, trombonist Niels Jacobs, and pianist-composer Maxim Heijmerink. The concert program features a lot of pretty familiar stuff—Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Chopin—and it will all no doubt be played superbly (we’re especially excited to hear that delicate Rachmaninoff vocalise on trombone). But this concert’s blossoms are the works by less-known composers: Alexandre Guilmant, Joseph Jongen, Peter Kiesewetter, and Heijmerink himself.

Mozart’s Clarinet
Delgani String Quartet
May 12 & 14, Temple Beth Israel, Eugene
May 18, Christian Science Church, Salem
May 19, The Old Church, Portland
Maybe you just can’t wait until June to hear Mozart’s clarinet quintet at Chamber Music Northwest’s opening night. Or maybe you just want to hear UO clarinet professor Wonkak Kim play the foundational work with a basset clarinet and an amazing regional string quartet. Delgani also hails from Eugene, and we’ve admired the spry, sensitive quartet ever since hearing them pair György Ligeti’s first string quartet with Lou Harrison’s early last year at Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival (another worthy out-of-towner that gusted through Portland and blew most of us away).

But it’s not Mozart’s quintet (Brahms’s is better) or Kim’s basset clarinet that interests us. No, what we really want is to hear something—anything—by the criminally underappreciated Florida-based composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, whose miraculous Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet was our personal “best-in-show” of CMNW 2017.

One Heart: Music for Voices

Lost | Found
Big Mouth Society
May 3, The Hallowed Halls, 4420 SE 64th Avenue, Portland
The ensemble founded and led by early music specialist and singer Emily Lau also has big talent, and big ears. This show includes vocal and instrumental chamber music by anonymous 14th-century Sephardic Jewish women, 15th century Burgundian master of melody Guillaume de Binchois, 16th century choral music paragon Palestrina, 17th century Italian pioneer Claudio Monteverdi (one of the first Baroque and opera composers), the greatest composer of the 18th century (J.S. Bach), 19th century Brit Edward Elgar, contemporary American composers Emma Lou Diemer and Eric Whitacre, and even Lau herself.

Portland State University’s Queer Opera Project returns May 7. Photo: Byisabel.

Queer Opera Kickoff Concert
May 7
PSU Queer Opera, Lincoln Recital Hall, Portland
Last year, PSU collaborative piano professor Chuck Dillard introduced us to Queer Opera with two of the season’s most entertaining recitals (three, if you count Poulenc’s Les mamelles, which was the best show this exhausted reviewer attended all year). This is what we had to say about Queer Opera’s debut concerts at the time.

QO is a summer program, so they kick off their season just as other groups are ending theirs. On May 7th, community members join PSU students and faculty in a concert featuring some of the songs that thrilled us last year, along with selections from West Side Story and Jake Heggie’s song cycle Here and Gone, sung by Daniel Mobbs and ArtsWatch contributor Damien Geter.

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