nicholas meyer

MusicWatch Weekly: A song and a dance

Irish songs, Latinx bienestar, Balkan Brass, Viking musicians, and the return of Federale

As the great Pacific singer, dancer, composer, percussionist, instrument builder, and calligraphist Lou Harrison loved reminding us, “music is basically a song and a dance.” This week’s selections might be all over the genre map–cumbia psicodélica; twisty Balkan brass; rowdy cinematic rock and other local uncategorizables; clarinets and percussion and laptops; songs from Ireland and World War I; a siege catapult’s worth of jazz–but all of it hews to this basic formula. Sing. Dance. Repeat.

You’re probably going to get snowed in with the cats and the chessboard next week, so now’s your chance to clear your throat, lace up your red shoes, and get into some music.

Tonight, tonight, tonight

We already talked about Blue Cranes and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble in November’s monthly column, so hopefully you’ve already bought tickets and hired a babysitter. In case you haven’t, this is your reminder that their Siege of Cranes concert, featuring the tight-knit BC quintet and PJCE’s eight-piece horn section, is happening tonight at Holocene. Get on it, Portland.

You could go up to T.C. O’Leary’s on Northeast Alberta to hear Irish folk songs–and even sing along if the mood strikes you–every month. But the special guests on tonight’s Oíche na namhrán (“night of song”) deserve a mention: Uilleann piper Preston Howard Wilde and harpist Elizabeth Nicholson will join regular host Michael Steen-Orr for tonight’s shindig. No doubt the harp in question is the lovely diatonic variety used by Taliesen and Dolphin Midwives, and that’ll be sweet–but it’s those pipes we’re curious about. You’re probably picturing the noisy bagpipes of countless cheap jokes, but these are different; sweeter, gentler, more Irish. Have a listen to Wilde right now and tell me you don’t want to go order up a Jameson’s and sing along.

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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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MusicWatch Monthly: Second Summer

Out-of-town festivals, funk at the zoo, opera ‘bout Guthrie, we’re all Kulululu

Oregon, as everyone knows, has two summers every year. The first lasts from the first hot weekend in May until the end of Chamber Music Northwest. The second summer—the one you’re in right now—occupies all of August and lasts until Oregon Symphony gets rolling for real at the end of September (their annual Zoo show on the 7th doesn’t count).

If you want to hear live classical music during Second Oregon Summer, you’ll have to head down to Jacksonville for the Britt Music & Arts Festival, happening right now through the 11th, or else head out to wine country for the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival, happening right now through the 18th. You can read Alice Hardesty’s previw of Britt right here, and Angela Allen’s preview of the WVCMF right here.

Other than that, you’re out of luck. There’s no music happening in Portland during Second Summer, so you might as well stay home, stay hydrated, catch up on your reading, and dig into that 10-disc Lutosławski boxed set.

Polish composer Witold Lutosławski.

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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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‘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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