portland5 centers for the arts

Black Violin review: black & white

At the classical/hip-hop duo's latest Portland shows, the action happened as much in the seats as on the stage


Commotion at the corner of my right eye. People standing in the rows of the concert hall. No, wait. Grey and white haired women pushing to get to the aisle. Eyes follow to…


Only a few feet away the aisle is bopping to Telemann-like riffs thumping from Black Violin. Playing the posh Schnitzer concert hall, full of older white classical music appreciators and younger African Americans, the classical violin-meets-hip-hop band returned to Portland to promote their album Stereotypes. And oh boy did the mosh pit break ‘em!

Black Violin performed at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

From the stage, violist Wil Baptiste exhorts me to “Put Your Hands Up and Wave Them Like THIS!” His partner, violinist Kev Marcus, nods appreciatively, in rhythm, continuing to plow through noodly passages perfectly in tune. Nat Stokes, Black Violin’s secret weapon on drums, builds a propulsive engaging and LOUD narrative under the flashy strings.

Meanwhile, DJ SPS turned this whole weird juxtaposition between straightahead rock-tight drumming and manic baroque strings into glass, dropping in today’s beats and disembodied vocals. Add columns of colored lights and a fog machine and you’d have to be dead or a snob to not giggle along with the infectious enthusiasm.


Fall Chamber Music: Fresh approaches

Friends of Chamber Music, Portland5 Centers for the Arts, and others vary the usual formula for small group classical music

Death to chamber music! Oops, I mean death to “chamber music.” The music can be great, but the name can sound off-putting and archaic to music lovers who aren’t already part of the classical music insiders club. If we just called string quartets, piano trios, and the rest “bands” like all those other ensembles that make music, it might feel more welcoming to outsiders. Because despite its reputation for stuffiness, some chamber musicians — that is, classical small bands — are producing some of most innovative sounds — and ways of presenting of them — in music today. This fall concert season that just ended provided several examples.

New Music

This fall, classical small bands seemed to add more 21st century music than usual to their programs. The new Montrose Trio’s October 4 concert, which also devoted about a third of the show to a contemporary work — even better, a premiere, and still better, a co-commission from the presenter, Portland’s Friends of Chamber Music. Of course, local  new music ensembles like FearNoMusic, the Mousai (reviewed for ArtsWatch by Tristan Bliss) and Third Angle (reviewed for ArtsWatch by Jeff Winslow) regularly include new music in their shows, but they tend to draw niche audiences interested in new music, unlike these touring ensembles such as the Montrose and the Calder Quartet, whose December FOCM performances included one piece each night by leading contemporary composers Andrew Norman and Thomas Ades, in programs that each featured one composer from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

Friends of Chamber Music brought the Montrose Trio to Portland. Photo: John Green.

Friends of Chamber Music brought the Montrose Trio to Portland. Photo: John Green.

The single performance of Temple Visions was the only new work by a composer of our time among those the trio played over three nights in Portland and Eugene, but Michigan composer James Lee III’s intensely dramatic trio definitely deserved its place among the classics by Haydn, Mendelssohn, et al. The trio (pianist Jon Kimura Parker, violinist Martin Beaver, cellist Clive Greensmith) gave a high-tension performance of Lee’s taut composition, navigating its choppy jump cuts with focused precision and earning raucous applause.

I’d call the commission, FOCM’s second ever in its nearly eight-decade long history, an unqualified success, and I wish more presenting organizations would invest more often in the creation of new music. They’re co-commissioning another new work for the Pacifica Quartet from Bang on a Can’s Julia Wolfe, an excellent choice, but I hope FOCM and other Oregon presenters will also commission new music by Oregon composers. Wolfe doesn’t lack commissioning opportunities, especially since winning this year’s his year’s Pulitzer Prize for music, but plenty of Oregon composers deserve the support (and national exposure of their music if played around the world by a major ensemble like Pacifica Quartet) from this Oregon classical music institution. More important, Oregon audiences deserve the chance to hear the music of our own creators played by top notch classical small combos. Our presenting organizations should be at least as eager to support Oregon composers as those from New York.

Extra-musical Enhancements

A string quartet plays music by Haydn in front of a projected image of a sunrise over a rocky beach. A horn-rimmed, bearded professor sits on the stage apron, until he rises and begins to lecture the audience at Portland’s Newmark Theatre about biology.

Welcome to another development in chamber music’s evolution. Along with including new music on programs, some bands are augmenting their concerts with non musical contributions. In November, for example, Third Angle New Music resumed its mix of words and music and a few weeks later, the Mousai deftly garnished their “Vignettes” concert with concise theatrical touches. The Fry Street Quartet went several steps further in the October 15 Newmark performance, not only including a newly commissioned work, but also making that music part of a larger creation that transcended music and even art.


The Bicycle Men: Breezy summer comedy ride

Touring musical comedy spins its wheels before getting in gear and delivering a rattling good time.

Just in time for Pedalpalooza, that annual festival devoted to all things bikey in Portland (and many that you wouldn’t necessarily imagine to be so), The Bicycle Men rolls into town for a three-day spin at Portland’s Winningstad Theatre. Boasting comedy as broad as a cruiser’s fat tire, a plot as thin as those little racing saddles, themes as lightweight as a carbon-frame road bike … well, you get the idea. Although it’s unfortunately not as tight as those spandex cycling pants, though just as padded, Bicycle Men nevertheless takes viewers on a breezy summer comedy ride.


Custom-built by a seven-man (and one woman) peloton of Second City alumni now based in Los Angeles (five of whom appear onstage, including the keyboardist), The Bicycle Men is less a work of cohesive theater and more a thin, er, frame used for hanging a series of skits that feel like they originated in comedy clubs, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The relatively intimate Winningstad is probably the best of the city’s larger theaters to experience it in, but might work even better in a less formal big cabaret club setting.

Co-written by performers Joe Liss and John Rubano, the story, such as it is, presents a familiar set up: a stranger is unexpectedly trapped (here, by a vehicular malfunction) in a foreign place where everyone is weird and inexplicable. While American summer bike tourist Steve waits for his bike to be repaired in a petite French village, he encounters oddball hosteliers, bike repairmen, puppeteers, cabaret performers, even, improbably, an old American (or as Rick Perry would say, Texan) buddy and, ultimately, a mysterious, mythical deity called “L’homme du Bicyclette.”

Each encounter occasions a song (and usually dance) number that often has little to do with the alleged plot, providing opportunities for cranking out mostly clever sendups of obvious stereotypical targets: Texans, Jewish entertainers, Italian crooners, faux décolletage and other semi naughty bits, bike worship, sex, clueless unsophisticated American tourists, snooty French people, white people (a dance number of that title is one of the show’s highlights), and, of course, mimes.

In fact, the show wobbles when struggling to advance its bare-bones plot, picking up speed in its set pieces. Like a cyclist ascending and then descending Mt. Tabor, The Bicycle Men starts off slow and gains impressive momentum in the second half. Trimming the clunkier portions of the first act, as well as the intermission, would have turned an intermittently amusing two-hour evening into a really tight hour-long delight.

Nevertheless, with its charmingly and intentionally low-budget look; some generally funny and occasionally hiliarious songs (especially a devilish existentialist lullabye, a Gilbert & Sullivan/“He’s a Lumberjack” style song called “An Unremarkable Man,” one of several Monty Python-inspired bits, and another about non-gay musical theater performers); tight, compelling musical direction and performance by keyboardist Ryan McCurry; and uniformly engaging performances (especially rubbery Derek Manson, whose singing and dancing really boost the RPMs) by its engaging quartet of actor/singer/dancers, The Bicycle Men surmounts its occasional bumps and wobbles and makes for a mostly smooth, silly summer ride that should play well in bike-besotted Oregon.

Incidentally, anyone interested in bike-related theater, or vice versa, should check out one of Pedalpalooza’s most fun and arts-related rides. Portland’s Working Theatre Collective rolls out its annual bike play — this year’s edition is called Time Cycle June 18-21.

Working Theater Collective presents Time Cycle June 18 during Portland's Pedalpalooza.

Working Theater Collective presents Time Cycle June 18-21 during Portland’s Pedalpalooza.

Portland’5 Centers for the Arts presents The Bicycle Men, June 5-7 at 7:30 pm at Winningstad Theatre. Tickets are available online.

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