justin ralls

Meaning and quality on a shoestring

Opera Theater Oregon's tribute to Guthrie and Hill features expressive performances and timely message

We all know a bit about Woody Guthrie, the 20th-century American social-justice troubadour. Apostles and adopters like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash embraced and copied his music ad infinitum. During these 21st-century trying times, when social justice is taking a far back seat to greed and power-grabbing, why not celebrate Guthrie again?

Opera Theater Oregon’s This Land Sings: Songs of Wandering, Love and Protest took up the cause with an engaging production built on Michael Daugherty’s radio-show-style chamber opera Aug. 24 at Alberta Rose Theater. The house wasn’t sold out, but close enough. Scenery was spare, other than big-screen slides of the Dust Bowl and other Depression horrors, and costumes were non-existent—though conductor/OTO co-creative director/composer Justin Ralls wore suspenders. The outfits leaned toward muted country-folksy with a touch of  frontier vibe rather than showy or elaborate.

Opera Theater Oregon's 'This Land Sings.' Left to right: Daniel Mobbs, Lisa Neher, suspendered Justin Ralls, announcer Thom Hartmann. Photo by Michael Daugherty.
Opera Theater Oregon’s ‘This Land Sings.’ Left to right: singers Daniel Mobbs and Lisa Neher, suspendered conductor Justin Ralls, announcer Thom Hartmann. Photo by Michael Daugherty.

But the music? The singing? The conducting? The ensemble-playing? They were terrific and made up for any deficits in visual design. With this piece, OTO continues to fulfill its mission of presenting contemporary English-language works that shine a bright and piercing light on social, political and environmental issues. If you saw OTO’s 2017 Two Yosemites, composed by Ralls, then you know the group set a high bar for its mission and continues to pursue it with utter sincerity. (Read Arts Watch’s interview with Ralls here).

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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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‘The Little Prince’: flight of imagination

Artistic director Justin Ralls, who conducts this weekend’s Opera Theater Oregon’s production, sees Saint-Exupery’s story as “a metaphor for that revitalizing world of imagination and creativity”

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

This weekend at downtown Portland’s lovely Dolores Winningstad Theatre, Opera Theater Oregon premieres its new production of The Little Prince. That’s the whole run, so if you’re going you’d better get a move on. The opera—with libretto by British playwright Nicholas Wright and music by British composer Rachel Portman (best known for her award-winning film scores and the music Jim Henson’s The Storyteller series)—is sung in English and based on the popular novel by French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

This is the second season with OTO for artistic co-directors Justin Ralls and Nicholas Meyer, the composer-singer team who brought us Ralls’s Two Yosemites for their inaugural season with the independent opera company last year. Joining them in this year’s production are some of the area’s finest singers. Superstar mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn plays The Fox (a raisonneur sort of character who gets most of the best lines); composer, Resonance Ensemble bass-baritone, and ArtsWatch contributor Damien Geter sings The King (and one of the baobab trees). In the starring roles, we’ve got baritone and Aquilon Music Festival founder and festival coordinator Anton Belov as The Pilot, and tiny soprano Catherine Olson as the titular prince. It’s worth going to just for the vocal cast.

Belov and Olson in OTO’s ‘The Little Prince.’ Photo: Theodore Sweeney

Portman’s score is, well, Portmany—melodic, bright and a little moody, heavily indebted to normal classical music—and I look forward to hearing how Ralls handles another composer’s music, having only heard him conduct his own. He is a fine composer in his own right, student of UO-based composer Robert Kyr and one of many younger voices who are finally beginning to bloom (Nokuthula Ngwenyama and Andy Akiho also come to mind). OTO will premiere his new opera, Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest, next season.

Ralls is also a passionate advocate for creativity as a form of resistance, as evidenced in his brilliant and prescient 2015 essay “The Power of Creation in an Age of Destruction,” an impassioned and well-reasoned manifesto that you should take a moment to read—after you’ve finished the following interview, that is. Ralls’s answers have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.

The Little Prince, Verdi style

In redefining the mission of Opera Theater Oregon we [artistic directors Ralls and Meyer and executive director Lisa Lipton] wanted to focus on contemporary works, work that is in English specifically to reach our audience, works from diverse composers, and works that aren’t necessarily represented.

The Little Prince was on our radar, and we all reviewed it and thought it would be a great fit for us in our second production. Two Yosemites was a big work, and pretty heavy in its content and its musical language. We wanted to not repeat that, but have something that opens it up to an even larger audience and attract people that had never been to an opera before, and younger audiences.

Catherine Olson plays the title role in Opera Theater Oregon’s ‘The Little Prince.’ Photo: Theodore Sweeney

The Little Prince was ideal for us because of the accessibility of the music and the variety of roles. There’s ten-plus characters, but those characters don’t sing an entire opera—they have cameo appearances. So we’re able to feature a lot of different singers with a very practical economy of means. We’ve been talking about it as “The Little Prince, Verdi style.”

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ArtsWatch Year in Music 2017

ArtsWatch chronicles a year that showcased women's music, natural inspirations, and institutional evolution

Oregon music is surging, and this year, Oregon ArtsWatch has been your personal surfboard to keep you on top of the tide instead of inundated by it. And to bring you views of the powerful creative forces beneath the waves. This roundup is in no way a comprehensive or even representative sample of the dozens and dozens of music-related previews, reviews, features, interviews, profiles, and more we presented in 2017. Instead, we’ve chosen mostly stories whose value transcends a particular concert, leaned toward Oregon rather than national artists (who can get plenty of press elsewhere), favored music by today’s American composers instead of long-dead Europeans, and tried to represent a variety of voices and approaches. We hope this roundup gives a valuable snapshot of an eventful, fruitful moment in Oregon’s musical culture.

Homegrown Sounds

Although we also write about jazz and other improvised music and other hard-to-classify sounds, ArtsWatch’s primary musical focus has always been contemporary “classical” (a term we’d love to replace with something more accurate) composition by Oregon composers, and this year presented a richer tapestry than ever. As always, Cascadia Composers led the way in presenting new Oregon music in the classical tradition, but others including FearNoMusic, Third Angle New Music, the University of Oregon and even new entities like Burn After Listening also shared homegrown sounds. ArtsWatch readers learned about those shows and composers from accomplished veterans like Kenji Bunch to emerging voices such as Justin Ralls.

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and ?? play with toys at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

Cascadia Composers and Crazy Jane fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum
Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that ‘classical’ ? — Music. JANUARY 20 MATTHEW ANDREWS.

Kenji Bunch: Seeing the Elephant
After returning to home ground, the Portland composer’s career blossoms with commissions from the Oregon Symphony and Eugene Ballet. MARCH 7 BRETT CAMPBELL.

45th Parallel preview: from conflict to collaboration
ArtsWatch review provokes contention, then cooperation as ensemble invites writer to co-curate a concert featuring music by young Oregon composers. MARCH 29  BRETT CAMPBELL. Also read Maria Choban’s review: 45th Parallel review: Horror show .

Burn After Listening: Stacy Phillips, Lisa Ann Marsh, Jennifer Wright.

‘Fire and Ice’ preview: accessible adventure
New Portland composers’ collective’s debut performance includes aerial dance, sculpture, poetry, icy instruments — and a close connection to audiences. APRIL 27 BRETT CAMPBELL

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MusicWatch Weekly: in- and outdoor sounds

It's worth venturing outside, smoke and all, to catch some late summer sounds this week, and indoor music is available too

Our weekly music listings, having recently moved back in with the parents over the summer, as so many graduates are doing these days, are pleased to announce that they’ve found their own place again and are busily furnishing it with shiny new previews of a select few music events around the state — many of them alfresco. There is no truth to the rumor that the Music listings were jealous that their Drama siblings just got their own place too….

Tia Fuller performs two shows with her quartet in Portland Friday.

Portland SummerFest

The annual summer music festival temporarily relocates from Washington Park (thanks to construction) to downtown Portland’s so-called “Halprin Sequence,” the lovely if sometimes overlooked public spaces designed by famed architect Lawrence Halprin to restore a few human-scale spaces to a downtown Portland neighborhood ravaged by ‘60s-style car centric urban renewal. As you stroll among Lovejoy and Keller Fountains, Pettygrove Park and the little Source Fountain from 5–9 pm, hear urban soundscapes, music by inventive Cascadia composers Jennifer Wright and Daniel Brugh, local opera singers accompanied by pianist Chuck Dillard, and more.

Wednesday, SW Lincoln and SW Market Streets, Portland.

Hunter Noack performs in three outdoor Oregon settings this week.

“In a Landscape”

Portland pianist Hunter Noack has embarked on a second September series of outdoor performances around Oregon. (Read my ArtsWatch story about the first one.) This time, he’s put a nine-foot Steinway on a trailer, and is toting it to Astoria, Pendleton, Eugene, and ten other towns from the coast to the Steens. He’s also bringing wireless headphones to distribute to listeners so they can experience the music without alfresco acoustical limitations, and various guest artists, from singer and former Miss America Katie Harman Ebner, Pink Martini founder/pianist Thomas Lauderdale and members of various Oregon orchestras. Check the website for who’s playing what and where and other details on individual performances (and probably fire/weather related updates) through September 30.

Wednesday, Agate Beach Golf Course, Newport; Thursday, Mount Pisgah Arboretum, Eugene; Saturday, Suttle Lodge & Boathouse, Sisters.

Al Di Meola shreds on Wednesday in Portland. Photo: Alessio Belloni.

Al Di Meola

The paragon of jazz fusion guitar returns, augmented by a quintet that includes electric violin, on a 40th anniversary tour that features both electric and acoustic axes and tight, tuneful jazz influenced by various global traditions, from Middle Eastern to flamenco.

Wednesday. Revolution Hall, Portland.

Sam Hong plays Oregon music and more this weekend.

Sahun “Sam” Hong

Portland Piano International kicks off its next admirable (and free of charge!) Rising Star series with the young prize winning pianist playing Beethoven and Chopin sonatas, Brahms’s lovely Op. 119 pieces, and a pair of intermezzi by the fine Oregon composer Brent Weaver.

Thursday, George Fox University, Bauman Auditorium, Newberg; Friday, Terwilliger Plaza and Monday, Classic Pianos, Portland.

Tia Fuller Quartet (early and late shows)

The rising jazz alto/soprano sax star is probably best known for her work in Beyonce’s band and other pop star gigs (Aretha, Jay Z, et al), but jazz heads and critics have long admired her supple, energetic work with her own quartet over four albums.

Friday, Fremont Theater, Portland.

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‘Two Yosemites’ review: mythological quest

Opera Theater Oregon premiere effectively dramatizes a famous camping trip that had a monumental effect on America

I confess to approaching Oregon composer Justin Ralls Two Yosemites: An Environmental Chamber Opera with a few biases and reservations. For one thing, I usually skew more urban than rural in my musical tastes. I like a Gershwin tune (how about you?) and I tire of the pentatonic open-fifth/open-prairie sound pretty quickly. Worse still, I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle listening to an environmental opera about my home state while my adopted state is engulfed in flames.

Short and Meyer as Roosevelt and Muir in ‘Two Yosemites.’ Photo: Ted Sweeney.

Turns out I had nothing to worry about. The UO doctoral candidate’s music was Copland-esque, sure, and I had a few emotional moments as I reflected on the hundred-year-old argument about whether nature is worth treating with respect (we haven’t figured this out yet? really?). But I ended up enjoying last Friday’s premiere at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel so much that I’ll probably go back for the undoubtedly more epic outdoor premiere at L&C’s Law School Amphitheater this weekend.

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Voice in the Wilderness: opera singer Nicholas Meyer

Childhood friends shape new made-in-Oregon opera 'Two Yosemites'

by ANGELA ALLEN

Nicholas Meyer’s friendship with Justin Ralls began decades before they collaborated on Ralls’s new Two Yosemites opera. The two boys  grew up kicking around the soccer ball in their southeast Portland neighboring ‘hoods of Eastmoreland and Sellwood. They played in the Sellwood Middle School jazz band (Meyer on clarinet, Ralls on drums) and sang in the Cleveland High School award-winning choirs.

Most memorable in their teenage years was their collaboration in Cleveland’s take on the Broadway musical, The Pajama Game, where Meyer performed the lead and Ralls played drums.

Both made the Cleveland junior varsity soccer team, but as they moved into their later teens, sports gave way to music. Their futures dawned, if not in synch, in parallel.

Aaron Short and Nicholas Meyer as Roosevelt and Muir in ‘Two Yosemites.’ Photo: Carole Montarou.

“Justin wanted to write operas in high school,” said Meyer, 29, who will sing the role of John Muir in Ralls’ upcoming Two Yosemites, an “environmental chamber opera” opening on Friday at Lewis & Clark College.

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