michael allen harrison

$50 million? It’s a beginning

ArtsWatch Weekly: An emergency lifeline to Oregon's cultural sector staves off pandemic disaster. But the economic problem is still urgent.

FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS SOUNDS LIKE A LOT. AND IT IS. But spread it across the entire state of Oregon to aid a cultural infrastructure devastated economically by pandemic shutdowns and the cash runs out pretty quickly. The Legislature’s Joint Emergency Board approved the bailout on Tuesday, as part of a $200 million general economic package distributed by the state through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund. The significant cultural part of the package came after a spirited lobbying push by groups and individuals, and notably recognized an economic truth that is often overlooked: Cultural workers are workers, and when they lose work they undergo the same stresses as anyone else thrown out of a job. “People who work in cultural organizations have families, have to pay the mortgage or the rent, have children to feed,” Brian Rogers, executive director of the Oregon Cultural Trust and the Oregon Arts Commission, said in a telephone conversation on Wednesday. “Without these funds coming in, these organizations are having a difficult time.”

The Emergency Board, and the state itself, can’t solve all the problems of the reeling cultural sector by themselves. The $50 million E Board allocation is exactly what it says it is – an emergency measure, meant to lend a significant hand during a disaster and help stave off collapse. It can’t magically make up the lost income of an entire industry that’s been hit exceptionally hard by the pandemic. A statewide Cultural Trust survey in May projected a $40 million loss by June 30 for the 330 cultural groups (out of more than 1,400 that the Trust tracks) that responded. It’s now mid-July, with no clear end in sight, and the losses keep piling up. For perspective, the $4.71 million that the E Board is delivering to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which got the biggest allocation granted, covers a little more than 10 percent of the festival’s annual budget.
 

Everything’s coming up virtual. The 70-year-old Salem Art Association Art Fair and Festival, pictured in a previous year, becomes a virtual event this year, celebrated long-distance on Saturday and Sunday, July 18-19. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust 

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Play it Forward: restoring music education

This month's Virtual Supper Club event supports pianist Michael Allen Harrison's program to bring music lessons to Oregon students

When Michael Allen Harrison was growing up in 1960s Portland, arts education enriched his life. “All the public schools had band programs, strings programs, choir, theater, painting, sculpture,” he remembers. “There were piano teachers in every neighborhood. We had everything at our fingertips to figure out what we were good at, what inspired us.”

What inspired Harrison was playing piano and composing music. He used the skills and qualities he gained from his arts education to become one of the most successful pianists in so-called New Age music, found his own record label, record more than 60 albums, score musicals, films, ballets, theater productions and orchestral compositions, and much more. He was recently inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.

Michael Allen Harrison

But as his own star rose, Harrison watched with disappointment and then alarm as his home state systematically dismantled the public school arts education system that had so enriched his life and helped him create the music that delighted so many listeners. 

Harrison decided to do something about it. He resolved to help restore access to music education to Oregonians who couldn’t afford it. Two decades ago, he created the Snowman Foundation program to support music education in Oregon and eventually Seattle, then the Ten Grands fundraising concert to bring pianos to students whose families couldn’t afford them. And three years ago, his Play it Forward program embarked on the culminating phase of his original vision. 

But like so many other worthy educational and musical efforts this year, Play it Forward has had to shift gears — though the engine is still running strong and moving forward. And this week, Oregon arts lovers can help.

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I feared this installment of our occasional news roundups should really be called Music Rests instead of the usual Music Notes. Like others recently, it’s peppered with postponements and cancellations — but scroll down a bit and you’ll also find some happier tidings, as musicians and music organizations creatively adapt to this year’s somber new reality.

Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: Jennie Baker

As you peruse the gloomy news below to the sound of sad trombones, you might wonder: what can I do to help Oregon music survive this crisis? Well, you might tell your lawmakers to support allocation of Coronavirus Relief Funds to help venues survive this extended closure. Portland’s invaluable Old Church Concert Hall, whose existence is threatened along with many others, has a template letter to your State Representatives, who are considering voting on such measures very soon, that explains the importance of independent music venues to the state’s economy. You can find your own rep here. Reps from the Old Church testified before a legislative work group this month, but lawmakers need to hear from all Oregonians who cherish arts in smaller independent venues.

The Bad News

•  To the surprise of no one but the disappointment of many, Portland Opera announced the postponement of the first two operas of its 2020/21 season, necessitated by Oregon’s pandemic-provoked prohibition on large public gatherings through at least September. I suppose we can all live without Tosca for awhile, since she seems to spring back to life every few months in endless resurrections/recyclings, but it really stings to have to wait longer for the Oregon premiere of a chamber opera by an actual living composer, Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s 1991 Frida, about the eventful life of the great Mexican painter. Both powerful women should appear on Portland stages sometime next year, with exact dates to be announced later. Meanwhile, enjoy this video of Portland Opera Resident Artist Camille Sherman singing Rossini’s “Una voce poco fa” from the balcony of the company’s building on the Willamette River.

• Another seasonal opera source, Portland SummerFest, also announced the cancellation of its Opera in the Park, a consequence of Portland Parks & Recreation’s pandemic-induced cancellation of all summer activities in city parks.

• After the cancellation of the Oregon Bach Festival and Chamber Music Northwest’s live performances, another — and much newer — summer classical music institution is on hold. In a Landscape, which happens outside at various scenic Oregon natural venues, would seem a good candidate for the kind of physical distancing needed to safely attend, but “concerns about travel and crowd limitations, along with the risk of exposure for our audience and crew” have induced impresario/pianist Hunter Noack to hold off on this summer’s series, with hopes of possible resumption of a few performances.

•  Another Oregon classical music institution, Musica Maestrale, announced the indefinite suspension of its concert plans, pending some level of certainty about the resumption of live Oregon musical performance. During the meanwhilst, founder/lutenist Hideki Yamaya has, like many other performers, been scouring the Renaissance/Baroque organization’s video archives and posting past performances on YouTube

• The Newport Symphony is taking a similar tack for its annual Independence Day show, replacing live performance with a radio broadcast of an encore performance on KNPT and KYTE at 4 pm July 4, followed by a 7-10 pm posting on the orchestra’s website.

• Given the almost complete cancellation of live music this year, it’s not surprising that American Public Radio has also canceled its weekly live radio show, Live from Here, hosted by Portland mandolinist/ singer/ composer Chris Thile. The ebullient successor to A Prairie Home Companion reached 2.6 million listeners per week over 600 public radio stations, but “while this news fills me with sadness, I understand the decision,” Thile told Billboard, “ as my extraordinary teammates and I conceived of Live From Here as a celebration of live, collaborative audible art, and there’s just no telling when it could be that again.” The silver lining might be more time for Thile to make music, like his just released album with Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan, and with other projects like his Punch Brothers band.

Chris Thile. Photo: Brian Stowell

The Good News

On Sunday, the Oregon Symphony inaugurates a free weekly online series. The seven-part Essential Sounds spotlights “people who are holding our community together during this time of crisis,” the orchestra’s press release explains. “Over the course of this free, seven-part series created by Oregon Symphony Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane and director Holcombe Waller, you will experience dozens of heartfelt musical performances, each accompanied by stirring imagery inspired by the stories of essential workers in a particular sector. You will hear stories like that of an Oregon Symphony percussionist, whose cousin went from frontline healthcare worker to COVID patient – and his musical dedication to her.”

Special guests include Portland songwriters Storm Large and Amenta Abioto, and recurring segments like “Composers in Quarantine Making Dinner” spotlight how prominent contemporary American composers like Nico Muhly, Jessie Montgomery, and Missy Mazzoli are responding artistically to the pandemic.

Gabriel Kahane. Photo: Josh Goleman

• The Oregon Symphony is also premiering Symphony Storytime, an original video series designed for kids seven and under. Each episode presents a children’s story narrated by a master storyteller, with accompaniment by an OSO musician performing the book’s “soundtrack,” as well as a lesson about the instrument featured in the episode. Nine English episodes and four Spanish episodes will be released on June 25, July 2, and July 9.

Eugene Symphony music director Francesco Lecce-Chong has added a Thursday night live show, featuring talks with other musicians, to the orchestra’s educational Musical Mondays stream.

• Portland’s Big Mouth Society is hosting weekly online community salons Tuesdays at 6 pm, featuring music, spoken word content and “heartfelt conversation.”

 • Live jazz is scarce these days, but Driveway Jazz Series, a socially distanced outdoor jazz series, is bringing top musicians like singer Marilyn Keller and pianist Darrell Grant to a driveway in front of a bungalow in Southeast Portland, and streamed out to the universe.

Portland Baroque Orchestra is planning to stream its entire next season, reserving the possibility of returning to live audience productions if virus and authorities permit. And it’s also going to use its spiffy streaming technology to allow other Portland artists to do the same.

•  One more Oregon classical music institution holds out enough hope that the music will resume to extend the contract of its artistic director. Eugene’s Oregon Mozart Players announced that Kelly Kuo will remain as artistic director and conductor through the 2023-2024 season.

Kelly Kuo re-ups with Oregon Mozart Players.

•  Though Sunriver Music Festival has suspended its August concert series, it’s still planning to stage its annual Young Artists Scholarship Concert in late August, and to award $35,000 to classical music students for next school  year. The organization has reopened its offices and plans further announcements about upcoming performances soon.

• Fueled by strong reviews, Portland vocal ensemble Cappella Romana’s new CD , The Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia, topped the Billboard classical charts for three weeks during its 15-week run there. You can watch a documentary about the making of the world’s first vocal album to be recorded entirely in live virtual acoustics, as well as video from the original live concert, at the group’s website.

•  Many ArtsWatch readers have enjoyed performances at Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, including Newmark Theater, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and the rest. They and other visitor venues found themselves with lots of unconsumed food and beverages for canceled events. So Metro, the regional planning organization that runs the venues, donated those perishables to groups that are feeding hungry Oregonians. The donations “have helped in providing 11,549 meals to our houseless guests here at the mission and for our search and rescue program,” said Lori Quinney, Union Gospel Mission food service director.

• Portland pianist Michael Allen Harrison has long staged an annual benefit concert and other programs to boost music accessibility to children of all economic backgrounds. Harrison’s July 25 Play It Forward virtual fundraiser supports no-cost music lessons and instruments for Portland youth by delivering to donors homes a music-filled “supper club” featuring live music, dinner and wine pairings.

• Two Portland-based music organizations, Chamber Music Northwest ($20,000) and My Voice Music ($15,000) were among the 14 Oregon arts recipients of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts this month. And Cappella Romana just scored a a $68,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the work of Cappella Romana’s music director and founder, Dr. Alexander Lingas, who will lead a team of scholars to produce a volume of medieval Byzantine chants from the Greek monastery of Grottaferrata near Rome. He’ll also conduct research to create “Christmas 1400: A Byzantine Emperor in King Henry’s Court,” a new concert program of Byzantine and Latin music, slated to be performed in 2021.

• George Floyd was many things: family man, religious man, athlete, friend, victim of homicidal racist police state violence, maybe symbol of long overdue change. But he was also a musician. In the wake of his murder and the national protest movement it sparked, even more than usual, we need to hear from artists of color. Eureka Ensemble has compiled a useful guide to African American composers and organizations that offers “ links to either a) music by Black American composers created as a counter to the racism they faced; or b) information about Black-led/Black-founded groups working towards inclusion and equality.” Music from Other Minds offers a more contemporary oriented playlist of Black composers here.

Musicians aren’t the only performers stifled by the virus crisis, but music is no doubt providing solace to them too. Of course, Oregon’s top major professional team boasts a bona fide professional artist, rapper Dame DOLLA, in its starting lineup, and along with being a good dad to his young son and joining a protest against racist police violence across Portland’s Burnside Bridge, he’s been laying down some tracks — including this one speaking directly about the continuing racist outrages perpetrated against African Americans.

Another perennial NBA All Star, Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, who grew up in Oregon while his dad Mychal patrolled the painted area for those same Portland Trail Blazers, is recuperating from injury and presumably getting through this season’s virus-enforced hiatus with the help of meditation, nature sounds (of course), and classical music. We await a study that would provide arts advocates ammunition by documenting a causal relationship between listening to, say, Chopin, and sinking three point shots at an alarming rate. 

•  Those of us who miss the chance to hear live musical theater like opera and musicals can sympathize with a pair of Oregon Broadway music fans who made a parody video of show tunes they loved (from Frozen to Sweeney Todd to Hamilton and more) – rewritten about life during quarantine. Actor/singer Julia Belanova and writer/director Joel Kwartler ask that if you enjoy their video “please consider a donation to the actors fund.”

Have some more news about Oregon music that ArtsWatch readers should know? Let us know in the comments section below, or email music@orartswatch.org. Meanwhile, enjoy a little serendipitous patriotic musical harmony from Portland State University, whose graduation ceremony fell victim to the virus. But that didn’t stop the music, thanks to a Portland Opera singer and a PSU grad student.

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Living in a world of upside down

ArtsWatch Weekly: The pandemic is the puzzle. Adaptability is the key. Unlocking the cultural world's path to the future is the challenge.

SUDDENLY EVERYTHING’S TOPSY TURVY, and it’s seeming more and more like a mistake to think that things are going to get back to “normal” even after the health threat has ended, whenever that might happen. In the cultural world, the economic effect of the coronavirus shutdown is going to be hard on everyone and catastrophic for some. And by “everyone” I mean not just arts groups themselves but also the artists and staffers who’ve made their livings working for them, and the funders who keep them going, and the audiences who may understandably be reluctant to flock back to theaters and concert halls and museums as if social distancing were just some crazy blip that’s done and gone. Some groups, even if they do everything “right,” aren’t going to survive.
 
Barry Johnson, ArtsWatch’s executive editor, has started writing a column he calls “Starting Over,” which is about exactly those issues. How do we start over? How do we reinvent? What do we return to, and what do we move beyond? In his most recent “Starting Over,” Masks and democracy, he talks about some of the political failures that have made things worse in the United States than they needed to be, and reports on his conversation with the veteran arts consultant George Thorn, who suggests that the sort of creative, step-by-step problem-solving artists engage in every day might be a model for the society as a whole. In an earlier column, Point to point, Johnson talked with Portland Center Stage at the Armory’s Cynthia Fuhrman about practical adaptability. 

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Friderike Heuer, “The Strikers,” montage, from her series “Fluchtgedanken,” 2020. In her visual essay “Fluchtgedanken: Thoughts of Escape,” Heuer writes about manipulating images of paintings by the mid-20th century painter George Tooker, and how her adaptation of his work is a response to such disturbing issues of the Covid-19 crisis as the return of eugenics to public discussion and practice: “Took us what, only 75 years to get around to it again? What are expendable lives? The old? The diseased? The incarcerated? The poor?”

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ADAPTABILITY IS GOING TO BE CRUCIAL, and in a lot of cases, also not sufficient. Because the situation will be different for everyone, which means that while there may be smart overall strategies, they’ll have to be adapted to specific situations. And the ground keeps shifting.

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MusicWatch Weekly: psychedeliclassical

Trippy visuals and more enhance Oregon classical music concerts

Classical music still lags a ways behind, say, the reggae community when it comes to appropriately celebrating 4/20. Admittedly, the some of the thrill has kind of, uh, gone up in smoke since Oregon finally ended the preposterous cannabis Prohibition, but it’s never too late explore the possibilities of imbibing ear-opening music with mind-altering visuals, and this week offers a couple of psychedelicious opportunities.

Radiance Orb prepares for its Hult Center trip.

On Thursday, the Eugene Symphony’s The Color of Sound concert spotlights Russian composer Alexander Scriabin’s notorious expansive voluptuous music, which partakes in both Romanticism and Impressionism. Whether or not he was actually gifted by synthesthesia, the crazy visionary Russian composer (like others then and now) “saw” sounds as colors — the note A was green, for example. His score for Prometheus included a part for a “light organ” that could display colors corresponding to the pitches in his music, but he was born a century or so too soon for technology to fully accommodate his vision. Fortunately, the mad scientist/artists at Eugene’s Harmonic Laboratory and Light at Play have arrived to help the ESO realize Scriabin’s vision for that proto-psychedelic 1910 piano concerto (subtitled Poem of Fire), with an eight-foot keyboard-controlled “Radiance Orb” suspended above the stage projecting tapestries of light around Silva Hall matched to the music.

The show also includes Scriabin’s famous 1908 fourth symphony, Poem of Ecstasy, which zooms from erotic to mystic to cosmic, plus short classical greatest hits by Handel, Grieg, Debussy, Pärt and more. ESO should sell edibles out in the lobby before this one.
Thursday, Silva Hall, Hult Center, Eugene.

• As should Cascadia Composers, whose 4/20 All Wired Up concert doubledose features more than a dozen of the region’s most accomplished composers, including some of its most promising next-gen voices. This mini festival of new electronic music includes original homegrown compositions for electric guitar and bass, keyboards, percussion, vocals, oboe, amplified trumpet and horn, piano, organ, and interactive fixed media. Then they add projections, modern dance, even an aerial drone. And that’s just the 4 pm show.

After a break (including an optional talk about “data-driven instruments” by prog/electronic/algorithmic composer percussionist Steve Joslin and electronic music and soundscape wizard Mei-Ling Lee), the video-enhanced 7 pm concert includes video/sound art for percussion, electronics, piano, electric guitar and fixed media. Composers include Timothy Arliss O’Brien, Dana Reason, Paul Safar, Brian Field, Greg Steinke, Nicholas Yandell, Matthew Andrews, Ted Clifford, Jennifer Wright, Tristan Bliss, Antonio Celaya, Stacey Philipps, Vivian Elliot, Mei-Ling Lee, Jeffrey Ericson Allen, Joshua Hey, Greg Bartholomew, and Daniel Brugh.
Saturday, The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., Portland.

• The Creative Music Guild’s fascinating Extradition Series features 20th- and 21st-century experimental music that often blurs the imaginary line between composition and improvisation. The five pieces in Saturday’s concert leave many artistic choices up to the interpreters. A score by Bay Area composer Danny Clay consists of a large wooden box containing dice, playing cards, a clock, marbles, and instructions to the performers to turn the melange into music. Alexis Porfiriadis’s Happy Notes, Sad Notes gives performers ten “episodes” of graphic symbols and a series of questions regarding how they are to be interpreted (“Are these happy notes? Shall we play them?”) and invites them to take it from there. Performers include harpist Sage Fisher (Dolphin Midwives), clarinetist Lee Elderton, Branic Howard on guitar/electronics, pianist Matt Carlson, oboist Catherine Lee (oboe), cellist Collin Oldham, trumpeter Douglas Detrick, flutist Maxx Katz, percussionist Matt Hannafin, and more.
Saturday. Leaven Community, Portland.

Trotter & McNeal perform Friday and Saturday.

• In Golden Organ, Margaret McNeal and Stephanie Lavon Trotter use electronic and acoustic music and voice to “reclaim Opera.” This weekend’s “performative installation,” and there was a new voice which you slowly recognize as your own, includes original compositions, improvisations, multimedia and more. C
Friday and Saturday, Performance Works NW, 4625 SE 67th Ave. Portland.

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MusicWatch Weekly: August catch-up

A new month brings more music festivals to Oregon

Keeping up with even the segment of Oregon’s increasingly busy music scene ArtsWatch can afford to cover (and we’d love to do more, if our readers and Oregon music institutions will help us pay for it) is nearly impossible when the season’s in full swing. It’s all we can do to tell you what’s about to happen, so you don’t miss the stuff you want to hear. That’s why we prioritize previews and reviews of continuing productions, like multi-performance operas. Readers have complained about us piling too many music stories at once, so we try to keep it to a maximum of one per day, which is about all we can handle with our current resources anyway.

That often means that reviews of non-recurring shows get pushed to the end of the line, or rather the end of the season. Which is where we find ourselves this month. With a few notable exceptions, most classical and jazz music institutions pretty much shut it down beginning in June, when western Oregonians at last joyously receive parole from our rain-huddled winter and spring imprisonment and head outside. Most of the rest, like the Astoria and Oregon Coast and Oregon Bach Festivals and Chamber Music Northwest, also call it a season when the smoke begins to descend. Which gives our writers (many of whom are working musicians and/or have day jobs) a chance to catch our breaths (figuratively at least) and finally catch up on those reviews they hadn’t time and/or we hadn’t room to deliver earlier.

That’s why you’ve been seeing reviews of events stretching back to early 2018 lately, and will be seeing more in coming weeks as our writers, once again stuck inside avoiding wildfire smoke, continue working through their backlogs. We hope you enjoy the memories until the new shows commence.

English conductor Jeremy Summerly (center) led a vocal ensemble at the 2017 William Byrd Festival.

Which actually is, er, now! Yes, while a couple of major festivals close this weekend, no fewer than four more music festivals begin this week, including the annual William Byrd Festival, which runs August 10-26 at several Portland venues. Now embarking on its third decade of bringing Renaissance choral music to Portland, the annual festival includes public lectures, open-to-the-public choral performances at church services, an organ recital, and a pair of public concerts. Friday’s opening concert at Portland’s Old Church, directed by renowned English choral conductor Jeremy Summerly, features masterpieces from 1610-11 — the transitional period between the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Friday also marks the opening of the annual Sunriver Music Festival, with a concert celebrating the centenary of one of America’s mightiest men of music, Leonard Bernstein. Along with his ballet score Fancy Free and joyously jazzy Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, the concert includes Rhapsody in Blue by one of Bernstein’s great inspirations, George Gershwin, and a brief, brash, bustling 1992 work by the American composer whose new Passion was premiered last month at the Oregon Bach Festival.

Composer Richard Danielpour works with the Oregon Bach Festival chorus in preparation for the premiere of his ‘Yeshua Passion.’

“While Toward the Splendid City was composed as a portrait of New York, the city in which I live,” Richard Danielpour has written, he actually began it during his year-long residency with the  Seattle Symphony, a Northwest sojourn which not surprisingly gave him “serious second thoughts about returning to New York. Life was always complicated in the city and easier, it seemed, everywhere else. I was, however, not without a certain pang of nostalgia for my hometown, and as a result Toward the Splendid City was driven by my love-hate relationship with New York. The work’s title comes from the heading of Pablo Neruda’s 1974 Nobel Prize address.” He wound up going back anyway.

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MusicWatch Weekly: piano playground

Second annual Piano Day highlights a skimpy week in Oregon live music

Spring break may have broken Oregon’s music calendar this week, but there’s still something to celebrate. Portland is celebrating the international Piano Day again. Last year, Portland Piano International brought the worldwide event, which was started by German pianist Nils Frahm (who happens to be coming to Portland this week too!) in 2015, to Oregon for the first time. This year, it’s sponsoring  performances at a half dozen locations in the metro area. Pianists of diverse ages and skill levels signed up to play pianos at each spot, and asked friends to sponsor them, with all funds raised going to support PPI’s valuable education programs. Check the website for the ebony and ivories nearest you.

There’ll be ten — count ’em! — pianos onstage at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall when Michael Allen Harrison’s annual Ten Grands show returns Saturday night. From Portland cops to prodigy pianists and composers to blues and jazz masters  to renowned players like Tom Grant and the founder himself, a parade of pianists will help raise funds for Harrison’s admirable Snowman Foundation and the Play It Forward Program, which helps bring music education and instruments to organizations that serve disadvantaged youth in the Northwest.

Speaking of Frahm, the visionary composer is indeed performing Tuesday at Revolution Hall, but the show’s been sold out for weeks. You can and should check out his latest, splendid album, though, or really any of them.

Nils Frahm is playing in Portland but if you don’t have a ticket already, you can participate in the Piano Day he created. Photo: Alexander Schneider.

You missed out on Hamilton tickets in Portland and Seattle — but you can catch the Hamilton of the ‘70s when A Chorus Line arrives this weekend at Eugene’s Hult Center. The 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama (which also scored nine Tony awards including Best Musical) was the longest running show in Broadway history till that time. ACL set the template for many of the most successful musicals that followed. Marvin Hamlisch’s sparkling score, one of the most memorable ever composed for a musical, still moves the heart, as does the story of 17 veteran dancers auditioning for spots on a Broadway chorus line just before they age out of a tough business.

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