martin bakari

Mixed art signals amid the turmoil

ArtsWatch Weekly: Tumbling toward Inauguration; Carrie Mae Weems' billboard campaign; opera in full voice; new faces; Zoomy theater

AS WE TUMBLE TOWARD INAUGURATION DAY, fear and uncertainty fill the air like a chemical cloud. Will another attack take place? If so, will it be more damaging than the first, from which five people died – six, if you count the police officer who took his own life after dealing with the mob in the Capitol Building? What of President Trump, now impeached for a second time, this time charged with “incitement of insurrection“? Will he stand down, or once again ramp things up? What will happen in the capitals of the fifty states, whose centers of government right-wing radicals have vowed to occupy? How and when will the impeachment trial play out in the Senate? Will it aid or harm the process of actually governing during perilous times? What of the coronavirus vaccines? When will they become available to the mass of American citizens? Who will or won’t agree to be inoculated, let alone, at a time when even basic public health has been turned into a radically politicized subject, simply wear a mask?

Above all: How did we reach such a state, and how do we extract ourselves from it? 

Such questions both override our cultural lives and define them. The arts are a reflection of their culture and their times, sometimes underlining the flow of world events and sometimes reacting against them. They can no more exist in a vacuum than a demagogue can exist without a ready and willing audience. 
 

From the Five Oaks thread: “A far-right extremist wearing animal furs and holding a plastic shield and a wooden walking stick sits beneath an oil painting of Charles Sumner by portrait artist Walter Ingalls. Charles Sumner was a U.S. senator from Massachusetts who was an abolitionist and supporter of civil rights for African Americans in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. He was once severely injured and nearly killed when Representative Preston Brooks beat him with a walking cane on the Senate floor after Sumner made an anti-slavery speech. A small object label is located under the painting.”

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Clap good and hard from home

Portland Opera ends livestream recital series with Isiguen and Bakari

In November 2020, Portland Opera premiered its “Live From the Hampton Opera Center,” a series of free, virtual recitals featuring artists who call the PNW home. Read the ArtsWatch review of the first two–featuring Camille Sherman and Damien Geter–right here. The recitals are archived for one month following their premieres; be sure to catch the last one before it disappears this week.

Martin Bakari wastes no time in his introductions. The moment the show is live the tenor lists the program’s composers and invites the audience to “clap good and hard from home.” Clearing his throat, he jumps into a lovely rendition of “Un’aura amorosa” from Cosí fan tutte. After a clipped piano arpeggio from Portland Opera’s chorus master and assistant conductor, Nicholas Fox, Bakari sings with Mozartian lightness. On the return to the opening phrase, the camera stays close on Bakari’s face. His eyes are closed, yet he communicates a love-sick emotion just as effectively. As the song ends, Bakari takes a deep breath in – a “breath of love” – then lets it all out. You want to sigh with him.

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No opera glasses needed

Camille Sherman and Damien Geter showcase contemporary composers in Portland Opera’s new online recital series

On November 11th, Portland Opera premiered the second installment of “Live From the Hampton Opera Center,” a series of free, virtual recitals featuring artists who call the PNW home. In Women in Political Life, mezzo-soprano Camille Sherman embodies an array of first ladies and the husband of one late Supreme Court justice. The recital, directed and curated by Kristine McIntyre, features music by contemporary American composers Stacy Garrop and Jake Heggie. Sherman sings in English throughout.

Sherman begins her recital with Garrop’s song cycle In Eleanor’s Words. The songs’ lyrics are adapted from My Day, a newspaper column written by Eleanor Roosevelt from 1935 to 1960. What I like most about the cycle–and in the recital in general–is that it is also a piece of theatre. “The Newspaper Column,” the cycle’s first song, opens with the percussive sound of a keyboard. But the hands of pianist Susan McDaniel are still. Sherman, dressed in First Lady attire, is banging away on a portable typewriter. She turns from the typewriter to the camera. “Washington, September 8th, 1936,” she says, then proceeds to sing about the art of journalism.

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Philip Glass’s music makes a perfect match to Kafka’s provocative story in Portland Opera’s potent production 

By BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Why on earth do we go to an opera? Great singing? Check. Realistic, affecting acting? Check. Innovative sets and staging ? Check. Uplifting and hopeful story leaving you with peace, happiness, and lightness of spirit.? Hmmm…uh, not so much, when the story is Philip Glass’s 2000 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.”

From the get-go, the plot is studded with emotional downers, with no end in sight. It features, in a nutshell, a sentry who failed to salute an superior and is condemned – without his knowledge or ability to defend himself – to death on a contrived (and thankfully non-existent) mechanical apparatus that imprints the letters of a man’s crime on his flesh. Meanwhile, an Officer oversees the torture and a Visitor drops in to observe. Soooo… it’s a grand night for singing, eh? 

Ryan Thorn as The Officer in Portland Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s ‘In the Penal Colony.’ Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

Yes, indeed, because it’s the Portland Opera and its production of In the Penal Colony, which runs through August 10 at Hampton Opera Center’s intimate studio theater, is a stunner.

But c’mon, this is not the only or last opera to get a bit grim. See Verdi: young Princess sealed in a tomb; father murders daughter in a sack. See Puccini: heroine dies of consumption, and so on. You see? Kafka’s grim, absurdist tale, void of heroes or redemption plot can exist comfortably in the opera genre – thanks to Philip Glass.

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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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