Rhapsody in Blue

Oregon Symphony reviews: immigrant songs

Fall concerts include a world premiere theatrical commission and 20th century works by immigrant American composers

An orchestra handles like a steamship, where a jazz band (even a big one) handles like a motorboat, and genre-crossing tends to breed monsters as much as angels. What kind of hybrid might the Oregon Symphony Orchestra produce in performing George Gershwin’s jazz-meets-classical  Rhapsody in Blue alongside Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and a newly commissioned play-with-orchestra last November?

As it turned out, soloist Kirill Gerstein’s clever two-concerto gambit smoothly navigated the tricky course, chiefly by virtue of his own witty and informed virtuosity (he actually began his career as a jazz pianist). Throughout Rhapsody in Blue, he made a point of emphasizing the most avant-garde, “outside” sounding notes, as if to say “speaking of atonality, you ever notice how edgy this note is?” I’d heard my share of the Rhapsody already this year, but Gerstein’s performance made it fresh for me. Any decent concert pianist can finger their way through the tricky bits, and any hack can hammer out those iconically familiar themes, but it takes a special artist to improvise something completely new in the middle of a revered classic. Gerstein’s choice to solo in an especially outré and swinging way, stretching surreal blues licks all around a steady left hand groove, sounded quite legitimately like the sort of thing I’d expect to hear in one of the old-fashioned jazz clubs that Portland keeps closing. It’s the sort of musical witticism and daring that makes veteran jazz audiences chuckle knowingly over their martinis. I’m not sure how well it went over with the symphony crowd, but I loved it.

Gerstein, Kalmar and the orchestra delivered dynamite Gershwin and Schoenberg. Photo: Leah Nash.

My only real complaint is the usual one: Rhapsody in Blue, again? Gershwin composed his perfectly lovely (and considerably more classical) Concerto in F the following year, and I’d rather have heard that one for the first time than Rhapsody in Blue for the hundredth. To be perfectly frank, at this point Ellington’s version is about all we really need.

Where Gerstein brought out Gershwin’s modernity, he brought out what jazziness he could find latent in the Schoenberg. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what he was doing to make it sound so much more immediate and clubby than, say, Pierre Boulez’s excellent recording with Mitsuko Uchida (or his earlier one with Daniel Barenboim). I dunno, maybe just putting these two on the same program was enough to prime my ear for the connections. Conductor Carlos Kalmar certainly reinforced the relationship in the audience’s mind, joking about Gershwin and Schoenberg’s famous tennis partnership in 1930s Hollywood and reminding us of Gershwin’s early connections to the European avant-garde.

Kalmar also joked, when explaining the unorthodox program order, that we should not leave the premises “after the Schoenberg, nor before the Schoenberg, nor during the Schoenberg.” It’s a pretty audacious move putting Big Bad Schoenberg on any program, and although the OSO and their audience are pretty open minded, the Godfather of Horror Music ranks pretty high on the list of Forbidden Composers. The presence of Gershwin—and the stirring, heartfelt performance of the Prokofiev concert opener—smoothed all that over, recontextualized the music as different sides of a story about American immigrants, and made it all considerably more palatable. Hell, I like Schoenberg a lot and this was probably my favorite live performance of his music to date.


DanceWatch: Paul Taylor takes White Bird back to the beginning

A busy Oregon dance week also includes Oregon Ballet Theatre's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Espacio Flamenco Portland

Jamuna Chiarini

This week in Oregon, dance delivers. Paul Taylor Dance Company returns to Portland thanks to White Bird, an evening of conversation and performance with Espacio Flamenco, and Nicolo Fonte’s Rhapsody in Blue continues for a second weekend at Oregon Ballet Theatre. The Northwest Screendance Exposition opens in Eugene featuring an evening of Portland films, and Nartana Kuchipudi presents Sri Krishna Satya. So much dance goodness in this beautiful week.

Looking back, Bob Hicks reviewed the work of Complexion Contemporary Ballet last week in The Complexion of the Times, and Matthew Andrews reviewed Narayana Katha in Narayana Katha Bharatanatyam review: enchanting dreamscape.

Performances this week

Rhapsody in Blue by Nicolo Fonte. Photo courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Rhapsody In Blue (World Premiere) and Never Stop Falling (in Love)
Choreography by Nicolo Fonte
Performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre, directed by Kevin Irving
October 7-14
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St.
See above.
Rhapsody In Blue, a collaboration between Oregon Ballet Theatre resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte and Pink Martini founder Thomas Lauderdale continues for a second weekend, along with Never Stop Falling (in Love), Fonte’s 2014 work created for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary. It features Pink Martini singer China Forbes and a medley of Pink Martini songs.

Two weeks ago I sat in on a rehearsal for Rhapsody In Blue. The costumes for Rhapsody are a gorgeous, textural mix of electric blues in satins, laces, brocades, and matte cottons, with swirling skirts, and tailored suits, evoking decadent sumptuousness and ease. The movement, like the chosen color, is also electric and explosive, shooting out from the dancer’s centers like arrows, creating dramatic, stretched lines with arms and legs. It sweeps and falls, rebounds and flies, describing the music and the space around the notes perfectly. Sometimes the dancing is large and uses the whole cast, and sometimes it is quiet and uses a single gesture. It’s a beautiful, dynamic work that might make you see/hear Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue in a whole new light.

Diálogos: An evening of flamenco conversation and performance. Photo courtesy of Espacio Flamenco Portland.

Diálogos: An evening of flamenco conversation and performance
Presented by Espacio Flamenco Portland
Featuring Alfonso Cid (singer), Jed Miley (guitarist), Lillie Last (dancer), Christina Lorentz (dancer), Brenna McDonald (dancer), and Nick Hutcheson (percussionist)
October 11
7 pm Lecture Demonstration
8 pm Performance
McMenamins Mission Theater, 1624 NW Glisan St.

In celebration of the flamenco language that links singing, guitar, dance, and percussion, Espacio Flamenco Portland presents Diálogos: An evening of flamenco conversation and performance— a combination lecture demonstration and performance presenting world-renowned flamenco guest artists alongside some of Portland’s finest Flamenco artists.

In a pre-show interactive lecture/demonstration, professional flamenco singer Alfonso Cid will take the audience on a historical journey of flamenco, discuss differences in styles, talk techniques behind the vocals, guitar playing and dance, and introduce some of Flamenco’s most influential artists.

Arden Court, Syzygy, and Piazzolla Caldera
Paul Taylor Dance Company
Presented by White Bird
October 12-14
Newmark Theatre, Portland’5, 1111 SW Broadway
Celebrating full circle, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, who performed for White Bird’s first season, returns to perform three classic Taylor works, two of which appeared on White Bird’s inaugural program in October 1997—Arden Court and Piazzolla Caldera.

Arden Court, set to the Baroque composition of William Boyce, was originally choreographed in 1981. According to Anna Kisselgoff for the New York Times, the piece is a “continuum of non-stop movement.” Clive Barnes for The New York Post wrote that “[Arden Court is] one of the few great art works created in [the 20th] century.”

Syzygy, from 1987, hurls dancers across the stage like orbiting and eclipsing planets to a commissioned score by Donald York. ArtsWatch executive editor Barry Johnson, at the time with The Oregonian, wrote that it is: “Full of utterly brilliant and seemingly disconnected shards of choreography. A full-throttle exercise in physicality, loose-limbed and speedy… It simply continues to increase its velocity, its sense of elfin delight, as the dance goes by. Leaves the audience gasping for more.”

Piazzolla Caldera, Taylor’s tribute to the Argentine tango, from 1997, danced to Astor Piazzolla’s seductive music, captures the culture and dance of tango without a single authentic tango step.

Taylor trained with Martha Graham and José Limón, joining the the Graham Dance Company as a soloist in 1955. He also worked with Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine who created the solo work Episodes for Taylor as a 1959 New York City Ballet guest artist.

His choreographic career began in 1954 and his work became hugely influential to the advancement of modern dance in the 20th and 21st centuries, inspiring dance and choreographers worldwide.

In an interview with Jeffrey Brown for PBS, Taylor talked about his work and said, “Well, you see, dance, I think, consciously or unconsciously symbolizes life. And it reflects the human condition, or it can. It tells us the joys, the sorrows, the fallacies, the idiocies, the brilliance, anything human.”

Robert Battle, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is recorded on video on the company’s Vimeo channel talking about how Taylor’s work has influenced his own work, and about setting Piazzolla Caldera on Ailey in his inaugural season as artistic director in 2011. You can see that video here and also an excerpt of the Ailey company performing Taylor’s Arden Court here.

A still from Libera, a film by Walter Yamazaki. Photo courtesy of The NW Screendance Exposition.

The Northwest Screendance Exposition-Eugene
Founded and Directed by John Watson
Presented by the University of Oregon Department of Dance
October 13-14
University of Oregon Department of Dance, Dougherty Dance Theatre, 1484 University St.
7:30 pm October 13, The Portland Project – films from Portland screendance film makers
10:00 am October 14, So This is Screendance! Seminar/workshop led by John Watson and Shannon Mockli (Free)
4:30 pm October 14, The Juried Films, Part 1
7:30 pm October 14, The Juried Films, Part 2

Curated by founder and director John Watson, this annual Eugene-based screendance festival celebrates artistic collaborations between dancers, choreographers, filmmakers, and sound artists on film.

The festival includes 24 films by filmmakers living in Canada, China, Italy, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, UK and the USA.

The Portland Project which opens the festival on Friday October 14, will feature four films by Portland filmmakers; Eric Nordstrom’s Moving History: Portland Contemporary Dance Past and Present, Fuchsia Lin’s Crystals of Transformation, Gabriel Shalom’s Warehouse Samba, and Living The Room by SubRosa Dance Collective.

ArtsWatch’s Gary Ferrington based in Eugene previewed the entire festival, which you can read here.

Sri Krishna Satya-Thematic Dance Ballet. Photo courtesy of Nartana Kuchipudi.

Sri Krishna Satya-Thematic Dance Ballet
Hosted by Nartana Kuchipudi
3 pm October 14
Portland Community College Rock Creek, 17705 NW Springville Road

Presenting Sri Krishna Satya, a Kuchipudi dance ballet about Lord Krishna and his wife Satyabhama, produced, directed and presented by Guru Sri.Pasumarthy Vekateswara Sarma, performed by the students of Anuradha Ganesh.

Kuchipudi is one of the eight major Indian classical dance forms originating from the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The style is a blend of dance and drama, has similar costumes to Bharatanatyam, and is known for it’s plate and pot dances where the dancer performs while standing on a brass plate while balancing a pot on her head.

Upcoming Performances