Niel DePonte

Vision 2020: Niel DePonte

A Portland musical standout for more than 40 years, the percussionist, composer and conductor thinks about the thorny issues ahead

At the Oregon Symphony’s June 1 concert this year, Niel DePonte will play the famously energetic snare drum part in Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. The spring season will end his 42-year career as the symphony’s principal percussionist, a job he’s had since he was 24 years old. Symphonic percussionists’ duties have grown more complex in the past half-century, with all manner of bells and whistles added to scores. His responsibilities have burgeoned along with the bigger and, usually, better drumming parts.  

He’s retiring from that role, but head percussion guy is only one of several jobs DePonte juggles on Portland’s arts scene.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


He will continue to conduct the Oregon Ballet Theatre Orchestra, something he’s done since 1985, and carry on his 26 years of work with MetroArts Inc. mentoring young musicians and pushing educational programs. Then there’s his composing and arranging, including his arrangement for Houston Ballet’s Peter Pan, played since 2002. That won’t stop, either.

Keeping all those artistic balls moving in harmony has gotten tougher as DePonte has turned grayer, he said in a recent interview. “These are high-wire jobs. When you’re trying to be perfect all the time (as a musician and conductor), and the number of performances has increased, it’s demanding. Artistic organizations are trying to grow and help artists to make a living. It’s a lot.”

Niel DePonte, amid the clatter and bang. Photo courtesy Oregon Symphony

DePonte grew up in the New York area in a high-achieving family where “education was the thing, and music was played.” His mother sang Italian opera by heart, a piano was in the house, he started drumming at 7, and earned a masters degree at Eastman School of Music. All in all,  “expectations were high,” he said.

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Wit, speed, a blast from the past

Oregon Ballet Theatre lights the fireworks with Forsythe, Balanchine, and the dazzling return of Dennis Spaight's 1990 "Scheherazade"

From the sharp angles of William Forsythe’s  In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated to the lavish curves of Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, Oregon Ballet Theatre celebrated the company’s 30th anniversary on Saturday night  with technical fireworks, wit, drama, and the speed, energy, and adaptability that are the hallmarks of American dancers.   

George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which contains much of the source material for Forsythe’s once-radical ballet, was the equally elevated middle piece on this highly charged sampler of works exemplifying three of the creative forces that made ballet American. The third force is Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and the ways in which choreographers such as Spaight and OBT’s current resident choreographer, Nicolo Fonte (e.g. his Petrouchka),  reacted to that tradition.

It’s brilliant programming, and OBT Artistic Director Kevin Irving is to be commended for it. Each ballet is a gift to the audience, and a gift to the dancers as well, offering them opportunities to stretch and grow, hone their technique, and refine their artistry, starting with the curtain-raising In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. This was Irving’s calling card, as a German critic once put it, referring to another artistic director’s vision for a different ballet company.  In this instance, Forsythe’s 1987 ballet, replete with revved-up classical shapes and steps mixed with insouciant, natural walking and standing, represents perfectly Irving’s vision of a contemporary ballet company supported at the box office by evening-length story ballets.   

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Brian Simcoe in William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

IT NEVER OCCURRED TO ME when I saw the company premiere of Forsythe’s work two years ago that Middle’s  relentless, high-tension propulsion of dancers across the stage, with only the walking and standing  giving dancers and audience a chance to breathe,  provides the same opportunities for bravura turns as the second act of, gulp, The Nutcracker, which will return for its annual run at OBT in December, or The Sleeping Beauty, to be seen in February.  The difference, of course, is musical: Thom Willems’s score for In the Middle ain’t pretty and it tells no stories. But as several critics have pointed out, the pounding rhythms demand as much precision from the dancers as the arias in Violin Concerto or the melodies in Scheherazade

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