michelle fujii

A flood of memory, a mosaic of the future

ArtsWatch Weekly: The Vanport Mosaic Festival goes virtual, bringing the legacy of the great flood of 1948 into contemporary Portland

ON MEMORIAL DAY IN 1948 A RAILROAD BERM BURST in the lowlands just south of the Columbia River and north of Portland, sending a swiftly moving wall of water over the edge and inundating the city of Vanport, killing 15 people, leaving 17,500 homeless, and essentially wiping the city off the map. Vanport had been hastily constructed six years before to house workers and their families building warships in the Kaiser shipyards of Portland and Vancouver. At its height it had had a population of 40,000, making it the second-biggest city in Oregon at the time. In the decades since, the disaster has been forgotten by many, lost in the march of “progress” (Delta Park and the Portland International Speedway now sit where Vanport once thrived). For others it’s become an almost mythological touchstone, an emblem of what Portland and Oregon had been and what it would become, especially in its attitudes and actions about race. As Brett Campbell put it in his 2015 review of Rich Rubin’s play Cottonwood in the Flood, which debuted at an early Vanport Mosaic Festival and was set in Vanport in the 1940s, the city became, “along with Celilo Falls, Oregon’s Atlantis.” 

Henk Pander, “Vanport,” watercolor, 40 x 60 inches, from his series of large history paintings of the flood and its aftermath. Pander will be part of the Vanport Mosaic virtual festival in an online conversation, “Painting History,” with Chisao Hata and other artists who have depicted Vanport in their work. Image © Henk Pander 

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DramaWatch: A new stage of “Otherness”

Unit Souzou turns to live streaming to present part of its performance project "The Constant State of Otherness." Plus: what isn't happening in local theater.

It’s lonely out there.

You might have that sense these days merely from looking outside. As Americans and others around the world practice — to unfortunately varying degrees — the newly ascendant and essential principles of social distancing, our streets appear emptier and therefore lonelier, and it’s not a big step to imagine that many folks sheltering in place (odd use of “sheltering,” as though the novel coronavirus were falling like acid rain) alone are sheltered in a lonely place.

Michelle Fujii has a different sense of it. She has long felt the loneliness of the outsider.

Michelle Fujii and Toru Watanabe, co-directors of Portland-based taiko-theater company Unit Souzou. Photo: Intisar Abioto and New Expressive Works.

An artist who has forged a career out of representations and explorations of her cultural identity, formerly as artistic director of Portland Taiko and for the past several years as co-director of Unit Souzou, Fujii has lately been digging into what her company’s current performance project calls The Constant State of Otherness.

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Portland Taiko: Stay Hungry

Portland Taiko charts a new course with "Insatiable"

Portland Taiko premiered "Insatiable" last weekend.

Portland Taiko premiered “Insatiable” last weekend.

Even before the lights came up, it was clear that this wasn’t your typical Portland Taiko show. The first eerie, metallic sounds emerged from the darkness, and then the stage illumination revealed a small ensemble of dance/drummers resplendent in spiffy new black and red stage costumes, a change from the more prosaic blue working outfits seen in past concerts.

The rest of ensemble’s hour-long premiere of “Insatiable” at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall last weekend felt just as different from the troupe’s usual sequence of several separate, 5-8 minute long, varied sketches, usually featuring plenty of smiles and audience engagement. Although divided into scenes, “Insatiable” is definitively a single piece, punctuated by a few blackouts and linked by smooth transitions, with recurring rhythmic and choreographic elements. The quintet of performers and all their instruments never left the stage (effectively maintaining continuity), never addressed the audience, and in fact spent part of the show with their backs turned toward us, facing the back curtain as they sat and drummed.

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Cantores in Ecclesia performs at Portland's William Byrd Festival

It’s official: no Oregon weekend, even in the canine days of August, is free of fascinating music. Oregon State University’s La Sells Stewart Center in Corvallis hosts the 20th annual Zimbabwean Music Festival, where you can listen to and/or learn to play marimba, drum, mbira (the beautiful gourd-encased metal so-called “thumb piano”) and more music of southern Africa’s Shona people. Down in the Siskiyous, the Beloved Festival continues with various world music offerings. And Eugene’s Oregon Festival of American Music presents its final show of the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy tonight at the Hult Center.

Speaking of Gershwin, Barry has alluded to the controversy over the impending remake/reboot/desecration/ modernization of the 20th century’s greatest work of American music (although West Side Story, Appalachian Spring, Music for 18 Musicians, Einstein on the Beach, Charles Ives’s Symphony #4 and a few others also have a strong claim). This Friday and Sunday, and next weekend, you can see a more traditional version of Porgy and Bess, in a new Seattle Opera production directed by Chris Alexander and conducted by John DeMain (who helped revive Gershwin’s great American opera with the Houston Grand Opera in the 1970s). Portland writer Angela Allen reviewed it quite favorably on ConcertoNet.

Seattle Opera's Porgy & Bess runs this weekend and next. Gordon Hawkins (Porgy) and Lisa Daltirus (Bess). © Elise Bakketun photo

Another great American opera that premiered a year before Porgy, in 1934, gets a new production next weekend in San Francisco, courtesy of SF’s Museum of Modern Art, which, in conjunction with its much praised exhibit of Gertrude Stein’s et families’ art collection, commissioned a new version of Stein and Virgil Thomson’s delicious opera Four Saints in Three Acts — and a brand new response to it by a local, contemporary composer, Berkeley’s Luciano Chessa. (Attention Portland art institutions and classical music institutions: here are two good ideas for you borrow. ) Chessa’s A Heavenly Act takes the Stein texts Thomson cut from a later, truncated version of Four Saints and makes a new story from them, set to his original music. It runs next weekend, Aug. 18-20 only.

Portland’s new music / alt classical scene is about to get a boost from a new organization making its debut this Sunday at the city’s Someday Lounge. Composer Justin Ralls modeled his Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project on the celebrated Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and along with its first performances, the concert stars the great Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic (embarking on its first season under new director and violinist Paloma Griffin), Eugene’s superb duo Beta Collide (trumpeter Brian McWhorter and flutist Molly Barth, with guests), New York experimental opera composers Jeff Young and Paul Pinto, Oakland percussionist Moe! Staiano, and sound artists Lucio Menegon and Sabrina Siegel. Some of these artists played parts of the same show at Eugene’s Jazz Station Wednesday.

Classical and choral music fans should check out the 14th annual William Byrd Festival, dedicated to showcasing the complete works (over several decades) of England’s greatest Renaissance composer (probably, depending on whether you count John Dowland as part of that period). On Friday, in maybe the top recommendation for this summer’s edition, David Trendell of London’s King’s College will conduct soloists from Portland’s Cantores in Ecclesia in music of Byrd’s last songbook, Psalms, Songs and Sonnets, on its 400th anniversary. Sunday’s Compline service, conducted by Cantores director Blake Applegate features Byrd’s music for the divine office, and Monday’s mass for the feast of the assumption will be accompanied by liturgical music from Byrd’s 1615 collection Gradualia, conducted by Duke University’s Kerry McCarthy.

Portland Taiko director Michelle Fujii’s solo show, Choking, finishes its run at the city’s Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, 5340 N. Interstate. This multimedia exploration of Asian American identity involves dance, music, video and an art installation.


And if you missed Portland’s hottest jazz ensemble’s scintillating collaboration with Northwest Dance Project last year, you can see Blue Cranes and NDP dancers alfresco at Portland’s Washington Park Friday night. In fact,  you probably want to see them again even if you did catch them last time, especially because this time, it’s free!

Portland Taiko’s Michelle Fujii

For fans of European classical music, this weekend brings the closest approximation of the doldrums we’ll see this year. Oh, there’s a few scattered events in parks and elsewhere, but really, this is the weekend to stretch your music boundaries.

This weekend and next, Portland Taiko artistic director Michelle Fujii brings her new one woman dance/theater/installation, “Choking”, to the Interstate Firehouse. Her regular group performs in Portland’s Waterfront Park and at a festival.

At Portland’s Hollywood Theater, the prolific Filmusik organization offers a new live soundtrack (performed by Retake Productions), of an Italian Mad Max rip-off called Warriors of the Wasteland.

At Oregon’s quintessential jazz club, two of the state’s finest young jazz outfits — pianist Andrew Oliver’s Kora Band, which beautifully fuses the West African lute with appealing, trumpet-fueled modern jazz, and another great jazz pianist’s ensemble, the Ben Darwish Trio.

The twentieth annual Zimbabwean Music Festival returns to Corvallis this weekend, offering opportunities to hear and learn to play some of the planet’s bubbliest music on mbira, marimba, and more. There’s more learning and listening opportunities over in Oakridge, where you can catch the wave of the  ukulele revival. And the thirteenth annual Pickathon brings an attractive array of rootsy sounds from national and regional acts to Pendarvis Farm southeast of Portland.

Eugeneans have the annual Oregon Festival of American Music to reacquaint themselves with some of the most engaging sounds of the 20th century — the great songwriters Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer and more, including a fully staged version of the Gershwins’ sublimely silly 1930 musical Girl Crazy, which spawned more hits than almost any other musical of its era.

And if you happen to be down in the state’s southwest corner for, say, a theater orgy, and the annual Oregon Country Fair didn’t quite fill your cravings, check out the trippy world music options at a big new festival that’s rounded up some well-known performers.

We’ll resume our regularly scheduled Euro-centric classical coverage soon.