mark o’connor

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 bi-Weekly: holiday traditions

Oregon serenades 2017 to an end — and none too soon — with Celtic, French, Spanish, Indian and more music from across the globe and the centuries

While everyone hunkers down for the holidays, the music plays on, but not nearly as often as usual, so MusicWatch is taking the rest of the year off as part of its musical fasting treatment for 2017’s overindulgence in Oregon’s musical overabundance. Meanwhile, here’s a few solstice-brighteners to take us through the end of the year.

In Mulieribus

Tickets have long been sold out for Wednesday’s “Vivaldi’s Magnificat and Gloria,” a historically informed performance of a pair of Italian baroque classics by the period instrument performers (from Portland Baroque Orchestra and others in the region) presented by Northwest Baroque Masterworks at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, but click the link above and see if someone cancels. One of the best shows of every holiday season, though, In Mulieribus’s annual concert, does have seats available. On Wednesday at Vancouver’s Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater and on Friday at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, the sublime Portland women’s vocal ensemble this time takes a French twist, with medieval carols, nativity songs and other music from the Renaissance and earlier by Binchois, Dufay, England’s John Taverner, and more.

Another annual Oregon holiday tradition, if a five-year run can qualify for that status, comes to a close Friday when Mark O’Connor and his 2017 Grammy winning musical family band bring their final Appalachian Christmas show to Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Oregon Symphony cellist Nancy Ives, who wrote about it for ArtsWatch last year, returns, and another family, the Seattle (O’Connor’s hometown) trumpet and piano team of Allen and Laura Vizzutti open for the multi-Grammy award winner who may be the world’s greatest fiddler, who’s played with many of the planet’s finest musicians and again brings his Americana-tinged holiday tunes to Oregon one last time.

Speaking of Americana holidays, Oregon Mandolin Orchestra plays seasonal tunes at Portland’s luminous Festival of Lights at the gorgeous Grotto on Saturday. Lots of other bands and choirs are performing there throughout the holidays, so click the link to check ‘em out.

ArtsWatch has covered this combined music and theater event elsewhere, but here’s another reminder to catch the merry pianist and Liberace channeler David Saffert with Jillian Snow Harris in A Liberace & Liza Christmas at Portland’s Coho Theater December 21-30, with guest artists including singer Susannah Mars, star thespian Isaac Lamb, and more.

Next week at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland Youth Philharmonic’s annual day after-Christmas concert takes a mostly Spanish turn with music Enrique Granados adapted from his piano pieces inspired by Francisco Goya’s paintings, Goyescas; Albeniz’s musical depiction of Seville’s famous Corpus Christi Day procession, and some of the finest ballet music of the 20th century, a suite from Manuel de Falla’s colorful The Three Cornered Hat. An unrelated bonus: music from John Williams’s score to the reptilian screen classic Parque Jurassic. 

On December 30-31 at Portland’s Community Music Center, another annual holiday music tradition, Oregon Renaissance Band’s holiday concert, goes all Celtic, with a baker’s dozen specialists on wonderful archaic instruments like sackbutts, viola da gamba, cornamusen, krummhorns, racketts, tartold, bagpipes, spinettino, tabor, and even early recorders and violins playing and singing ancient tunes by Turlough O’Carolan, William Byrd, John Playford, Thomas Weelkes and more.

South India’s Carnatic tradition is just as venerable as all these European early music shows, and Oregon is fortunate to boast a family of musicians whose lineage on the beautiful, ancient long-necked veena lute stretches back eleven generations. Renowned India born veena virtuosi Sreevidhya Chandramouli and Chandramouli Narayanan join their sons Kapila and Sushruta Chandramouli and ghatam (clay pot) percussion master Ravi Balasubramanian December 30 for a Carnatic classical concert at Portland’s Christ United Methodist Church.

The Oregon Symphony plays music from Beethoven’s Symphony #9 on New Year’s Eve at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

On December 30 and New Year’s Eve at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, “Pink Martini New Year’s Extravaganza” returns with Portland’s own retro-Latin-Euro big band’s annual joint venture with the Oregon Symphony, now expanded to three performances, but tickets remain for only the last, late night bash. Along with orchestra-enhanced hits from throughout Pink Martini’s career and recent CD Je Dis Oui!, the Oregon Symphony will perform the glorious final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony #9.

For a smaller scale NYE, catch Portland’s venerable Florestan Trio, 41 years old and counting, as they precede a champagne and dessert reception with an hour of chamber music classics by Franck (from his famous violin sonata, Mendelssohn, Poulenc, Rachmaninoff, Falla and more at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall.

The Florestan Trio performs in Friends of Chamber Music’s New Years Eve concert.

The Christmas myth is many things, but one of them involves a resurrection story, which should resonate with fans of Eugene Opera, which just arose from its most recent near-death experience. Its New Year’s Eve opera buffa, Rossini’s 1816 The Barber of Seville, also has some here-and-now resonance, with its story of a powerful older man trying to coerce a much younger woman into an abusive relationship. Eugene Opera’s cast mixes a pair of Met vets (baritone Malcolm MacKenzie and mezzo Heather Johnson) with local stars Jake Gardner, Bill Hulings, recent arrival Craig Phillips (the New York Polyphony singer now at the UO) and more, all conducted by Andrew Bisantz, who’s added the title of artistic director to his EO portfolio. Maybe the triumph of true love over sexual predation will get 2018 off to a better start than the year it’s replacing.

After some post holiday dieting, the slimmer, sleeker MusicWatch will return in 2018, and don’t worry, in the meantime, ArtsWatch will have a few other music stories to tingle your ears as we bid a pffft! farewell to a troubled year. Meanwhile, here’s a new video from Oregon singer Marti Mendenhall to put you in the holiday mood.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Revel without a Claus

Commedia Christmas, O'Connor & Ives, Nutcracker, Imago's new Belle, Milagro's Posada, more "Messiah," Kurosawa Dreams, and more

This year’s dragon, not red as in the picture here from 2014 but a bright scaly green, was sitting in a little storage corner outside Portland Revels’ offices in the Artists Repertory Theatre creative hub one day last week, waiting patiently for assembly. It was in two pieces: a hind portion stretched over a large backpack, with room for levers, and a gangly top, again with movable parts, which when occupied by puppeteer Shuhe Hawkins will stretch giraffe-like perhaps 12 or 15 feet above the stage. It is a lovely creature all in all, and that fabled dragon-slayer St. George really ought to be ashamed.

Taggin’ with the dragon, in the 2014 Revels. Portland Revels photo

It’s Revels time again – this year’s Christmas Revels runs for eight performances Friday through December 21 at St. Mary’s Academy downtown – and for Bruce Hostetler, newly settled in as artistic director after about five years of working with and directing the annual winter solstice show, that means settling into the hundreds of details at hand while he’s also thinking about bigger things. If you don’t know about Revels – which is in its 22nd year in Portland, and began in 1975 in Cambridge, Massachusetts – it’s a grand and genuinely family get-together of singing, dancing, storytelling, mumming, and playing old-time instruments that is rooted in Celtic customs but regularly roams the earth, making connections with other cultures’ solstice traditions. Santa Claus? That’s somebody else’s tale.

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“An Appalachian Christmas” preview: Traditions converging

Mark O’Connor’s family band holiday concert incorporates American classical and folk music -- and an Oregon Symphony cellist with ties to both

By NANCY IVES

I was brought up loving the European classical canon. Schumann, Dvorak and Ravel were childhood favorites. I didn’t identify all that closely with the old-timey popular songs my family would gather around the piano to sing.

Nor could I look to the music of other cultures. I had long envied friends who had a cultural tradition in their families – a Chinese grandmother, Italian roots, Scandinavian traditions, that sort of thing. But since both sides of my family had, for the most part, come to the U.S. in early 17th century, I didn’t have any ethnic heritage I could discern.

Then one day in graduate school, a professor played a recording of Charles Ives singing and playing piano and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. In college, I’d learned that the first great American composer was my great-grandfather’s cousin, a distant but real relationship. On the recording, the timbre of his voice was uncannily like that of my Grandpa Leo Ives, who I had heard singing barbershop quartets all through my childhood. I realized that I did indeed have a cultural heritage: American.

World renowned violinist Mark O’Connor understands that that heritage includes American popular music as well as classical music. On Dec. 14, I will have the pleasure of playing with Mark O’Connor at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, in a program titled “An Appalachian Christmas.” Presented by All Classical Portland and sponsored by Bob’s Red Mill, this will be the fourth year of what has become an annual Portland tradition.

Mark O’Connor Family band performs ‘An Appalachian Christmas’ Wednesday night. Photo: All Classical Portland.

The music on this concert also reflects older major traditions: the familiar music of the Christmas season, primarily centuries-old and European in origin, and America’s own homegrown roots music legacy. O’Connor’s synthesis of those two venerable traditions is part of a bigger journey, one that I resonate with. Playing with a group centered on the bluegrass tradition may seem far afield for a symphony cellist like me, but playing music that so seamlessly bridges styles to create its own brand of Americana has an element of “coming home” for me.

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