seattle opera

Keeping the winter alive

Yardbird, Onegin and Portland jazz festival stir up the Northwest

In a 1954 radio interview, jazz saxophonist and bebop shaper Charlie Parker said that he wanted to play music that was “clean, precise, something that was beautiful, has a story to tell.” He insisted humbly that “my prime interest is in learning to play music. I never want to lose my horn.” Parker said that around the time he played Seattle’s Civic Auditorium, now McCaw Hall. That was one year before he died at 34 in New York City.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, the five-year-old 90-minute opera playing at Seattle Opera’s McCaw Hall through March 7, is more about Parker’s life than about his music. A saxophone appears only in the second act—through the radio. (An alto flute and regular flute are part of the orchestration, primarily to represent birds.) The opera is symphonic, in European style, rather than written or improvised as jazz in the American idiom, but several jazz jewels glitter throughout, including bits of Parker’s “Ornithology” and some first-act scatting. There are moments of Stravinsky and Beethoven, whose music Parker admired. The tenor, Joshua Stewart, who sang Parker’s part on Feb. 22, stands in for Charlie Parker’s tunefully relentless tenor saxophone. Stewart alternated performances with Frederick Ballantine as Parker for the run of the show.

Seattle Opera staged the new opera 'Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.' Photo by Sunny Martini.
Tenor Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker in Seattle Opera’s production of ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.’ Photo by Sunny Martini.

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‘Il Trovatore’: clarity amid complexity

Soprano Angela Meade stars in Seattle Opera's vivid production of Verdi's violent tragedy

by ANGELA ALLEN

Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) at Seattle Opera’s McCaw Hall Hall through Jan. 26, is a death-soaked, secret-infused and passion-obsessed opera. Giuseppe Verdi’s gory tale of revenge and jealousy is one juicy piece — when it doesn’t stumble like a lame warhorse.

Which it didn’t. With an intricate plot, mixed identities, terrible secrets and musical beauty and lyricism, it conjures up a well-crafted Shakespearean tragedy. And as with Shakespeare, the audience must pay close attention to fully appreciate it. Thanks to great singers and smart production choices, SO told the tale well.

Michael Mayes (di Luna) and Martin Muehle (Manrico) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Il Trovatore.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

The plot is complicated and fueled by the parents’ sins visited upon their offspring. Brothers Manrico, the troubled troubadour (Brazilian tenor Martin Muehle) and the entitled Count di Luna (baritone Michael Mayes) are at battle with each other, but they don’t know they are brothers. The gypsy, Azucena, who burned her own child instead of one of the royal brothers in a revenge plot for her mother who was burned at the stake, rears Manrico and pretends to be his mother, but keeps this secret from him. Then there is the love interest, noblewoman Leonora (soprano Angela Meade) caught in the middle.

Leonora loves the tenor— and spoiler alert —dies for him. He dies, too, beheaded by his unsuspecting brother, the Count. Beheading and witch-burning are portrayed in shadowy form behind a scrim, but prepare for violence, if not bloody. Program notes compare the violence level to Game of Thrones.

As Verdi said, what else is life but death? His two young children and 26-year-old first wife died within months of one another, so death was on the composer’s mind.

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Music Notes: new year, new directions

New year brings new leadership to Oregon music institutions, and more recent news in Northwest classical and jazz music

Portland’s classical music scene is experiencing a leadership transformation. This season, Third Angle New Music selected Sarah Tiedemann as its artistic director, replacing Ron Blessinger, who had moved over to 45th Parallel Universe as interim artistic director of the now collectively run organization. Now two of the city’s biggest classical presenting organizations have announced upcoming new directors.

Marc-André Hamelin

Portland Piano International announced that one of today’s most esteemed performing classical pianists, Marc-André Hamelin, will curate the presenting organization’s 2019-2020 SOLO season. The Boston-based Canadian ultra-virtuoso is the first guest curator in PPI’s new, annual single-year guest curatorial system, instituted after artistic director Arnaldo Cohen ended his five-year tenure last year, leaving founding artistic director Harold Gray to step in and curate PPI’s current season.

• Another venerable Oregon classical music institution that recently flirted with the rotating curator model PPI has adopted is evidently having second thoughts. The Oregon Bach Festival has announced a search for a new artistic director, apparently prompted by its School of Music and Dance’s new dean, Sabrina Madison-Cannon, who oversees the festival. (Last year’s festival was run by a committee of music school faculty and others.) Eugene writer and longtime festival observer Tom Manoff argued recently in ArtsWatch that the absence of a single artistic leader in the wake of the messy and still mysterious dismissal of its respected previous AD created a vision vacuum at the nearly half-century old Oregon music institution. The good news: the search will be headed by savvy Eugene lawyer Roger Saydack, who spearheaded the successful searches for Eugene Symphony conductors Marin Alsop, Giancarlo Guerrero, and others who have gone on to starry careers on larger stages.

Soon-to-be CMNW artistic directors Kim and Chien

Chamber Music Northwest announced that violinist Soovin Kim and pianist Gloria Chien will become joint artistic directors in fall 2020. They will succeed David Shifrin, the New York clarinetist who has led the organization since 1980 and who will curate the next two summer festivals before passing the baton to the husband and wife team, chosen from among 60 candidates. They’ve run chamber music series in Tennessee and Vermont, and Chien was a CMNW Protege artist in 2017.

• Portland’s BRAVO Youth Orchestras named Cecille Elliott to the newly created position of Director of Creative Play, which has to be the coolest title on any music resume in memory. “Her primary responsibility is to find existing activities and develop new ones that are not usually seen as components of classical music education,” the press release says, “using body percussion, rhythmic chants, songwriting, singing, circle songs and games, as well as body movement.” She’s been with the admirable youth organization since 2015.


BREAK THE CAGE – Collective Composition at BRAVO from Seth Truby on Vimeo.

•  All Classical Portland’s new Artist in Residence program has chosen renowned Portland pianist Hunter Noack as its first Artist in Residence, and  Lakeridge High School senior and cellist Taylor Yoon as its first Young Artist in Residence. The program provides residency for both a professional and a young musician, with plans to announce a poet and visual artist in the fall of 2019. They’ll have access to All Classical Portland’s facilities and studio time, including on-air opportunities including appearances on Thursdays @ 3, at station events, concerts and special broadcasts. Noack is best known here for his In a Landscape: Classical Music in the Wild project, an outdoor concert series involving a 9-foot concert Steinway in state and national parks, historic sites, and other spectacular locations. Yoon and her sisters formed a musical group, Yoontrio, and she helped launch Olivenbaum, a non-profit organization that uses music to promote social harmony. This past summer, the group performed in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea as part of the Lindenbaum Music Festival. Noack and Yoon will make their performance debut at All Classical Portland’s Lovefest Concert on February 26 at Portland’s Newmark Theatre.

Hunter Noack, playing in the wild

• The Siletz Bay Music Festival named Karin M. Moss as the festival’s new executive director. She’s a 30-year veteran of music promotion and business development at organizations in California, New York, Chicago, North Carolina and beyond.

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Alfred Walker and Angel Blue: stars on the rise

Winning acclaim this summer in Portland's Opera's "Faust" and Seattle Opera’s "Porgy and Bess," the two stars move on to other roles at the Met and in Europe.

by ANGELA ALLEN

More often than not, he plays the villains (Méphistophélès in Faust) and the weirdos (Bluebeard in Bluebeard’s Castle). She portrays the vulnerable tragic heroines (Violetta, Mimi, Marguerite).

Certainly those aren’t the only roles rising opera stars Alfred Walker and Angel Blue perform. But these parts have given them access to the world’s best stages. Both will sing at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2018-19 season – she reprising Musetta in La bohème, he as the Speaker in The Magic Flute. And more is in view: Blue will sing Violetta in La Traviata in her Covent Garden debut and Walker takes on Jochanaan in Salome at  Oper Köln and Thoas in Iphigenie en Tauride at Oper Stuttgart.

Walker is singing Porgy to her Bess at Seattle Opera through Saturday. (Read my ArtsWatch review.) They met when she sang Clara and he was Porgy in a 2012 Boston Symphony Orchestra concert version of the opera. “Alfred was a great Porgy then and he’s even better now,” said Blue. “He makes the job easier by simply being who he is: talented, fun-loving, and very creative. It is rewarding to work with someone who is open to his colleagues’ ideas and opinions. He is also a great singer with his very strong and supported sound. We blend well together.”


Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

Barrel-chested and imposing in stature, Walker owns a voice loaded with depth and color. Opera News, commenting on his performance in the title role of The Flying Dutchman, called his bass-baritone “inky with clear projection.” Daryl and Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch review of Portland Opera’s recent Faust said Walker “brought an appropriately dark and threatening lustre to his role” of Méphistophélès.

Walker also is gifted with a huge range, from low E to high A-flat. He can reach baritone heights or descend to intimidating lows. With a facial expressiveness that can light up a stage or transport an audience to hell, he is as fine an actor as singer. And his flexible instrument allows him to play a range of characters. “I love my voice for that reason,” he said in a recent phone interview from Seattle between rehearsals of Francesca Zambello’s production of Porgy and Bess. “It keeps the repertoire constantly flowing.”

Recently, Walker was hired for a bass role, but the directors decided the baritone part would be the better fit. Which opera? He can’t say; it hasn’t been announced. But he’s been caught in the bass-baritone change-up more than once.

Blue, who has been compared to the legendary Leontyne Price (Blue calls herself the diva’s “No. 1 fan” and modestly rebuffs the comparison), sings with a bright, vibrant soprano – her stunning timbre has been noted often – and acts with a stage demeanor that can melt hearts.

“The singing was opulent, sturdy, glowing,” the Brownes wrote about her performance in Faust. “Leading soprano Angel Blue (Marguerite) has a perfect voice for this role, and many others to come. Not a light little soubrette voice, this is a three-tool singer: great tensile strength and flexibility (much needed for the famous ‘Jewel Song’) and ravishing high notes.”

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‘Porgy and Bess’ review: Catfish Row Northwest

Seattle Opera’s elaborate new production complements Gershwin’s American classic 

by ANGELA ALLEN

The stars, and there were several, could have carried Seattle Opera’s Porgy and Bess. But they didn’t have to. Conceived by Francesca Zambello, the production was spot-on in so many ways—emotionally attuned, musically uplifting, edgily designed and lit— that there was no need for the fine singers, several on the rise, to work overtime.

A co-production with Glimmerglass, the three-hour opera, with a 30-minute intermission, continues with several performances through Aug. 25 at McCaw Hall. It is selling well, but not sold out.

Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

If you argue with George Gershwin’s music and librettists DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s (with help from Ira Gershwin) portrait of Catfish Row in the mid-1930s, as many have over time, suspend your imagination. Just dive into this piece and leave the cultural politics for another time. Or another discussion. You can’t put this piece into a box: It’s sad, but not a tragedy. It’s funny but not a comedy. Porgy and Bess is utterly moving—hopeful yet stuffed with such tough realities as poverty, fatherlessness, drugs, unfaithfulness, racism, ostracism, crime.

The heart-rockin’ beauty of the music (“Summertime,” “I Got Plenty of Nuttin,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” and “My Man’s Gone Now”) and the libretto’s variety and cleverness outclass so many operas plagued with dull and stupid words and plots. The songs alone, and you’ve heard them over and over (“Summertime” is one of the most covered songs in history), place the opera at the top of the American repertoire.

John DeMain, 74, who conducted the opera for Seattle in 1987, was back on the podium for this run. He’s led this music many times (the first, at age 32), and his Tony-award-winning Houston conducting helped bring the opera back to life in 1976, so his Porgy history has been a storied one. The music is part of the seamless artistic blend that works so well in this show, with jazz, folk music, klezmer, gospel and classical influences mixed into Gershwin’s Americana pot. Some jazz- and folk-driven instruments are atypical for opera: trombones, saxophones, banjos, clarinets and trumpets, leaving out the strings, except the bass.

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MusicWatch Weekly: hot summer jazz

Smoke gets in your eyes, jazz gets in your ears this week as summer festivals continue despite the blazes

What began as an informal neighborhood musical soiree has blossomed into one of Portland’s jazz treasures. The fifth annual Montavilla Jazz Festival  at Portland Metro Arts, 9003 SE Stark, is headlined by the Grammy-nominated team of primo pianist Randy Porter’s Trio with jazz singing living legend Nancy King, performing the music from their recent Grammy-finalist album featuring Cole Porter tunes and more. The lyrical jazz duo of flugelhornist Dmitri Matheny and pianist Darrell Grant also reunites after too long a break, co-leading a quartet in new chamber jazz compositions.

Maybe the most intriguing act on the program was inspired by Tamolitch Pool on the McKenzie River near Blue River. One of our area’s most magnificent natural spaces, its allure inspired Salem-based composer-pianist James Miley’s evocative, ambitious new Watershed Suite, which Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble performs at Montavilla and at a free show Thursday at (appropriately) Springfield’s Roaring Rapids. Miley, a Willamette University music prof who directs Willamette Jazz Collective, combines classical and jazz influences in a multifaceted work that translates the complex beauty Oregon’s watersheds, including the mighty Columbia River and Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge, into music. One of the state’s most valuable music institutions, PJCE features top Portland area performers and also continuously nurtures both performances and recordings of new, original jazz music compositions some of Oregon’s finest emerging and accomplished musicians.

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble performs at this weekend’s Montavilla Jazz Festival.

Other performers constitute an all-star lineup of Portland jazz performers leading expert ensembles, including national award winning pianist/organist/drummer/trumpeter George Colligan’s fun, multigenerational new electric trio Other Barry and guitar demon Ryan Meagher’s Evil Twin, both celebrating cool new releases on PJCE’s label that you can hear at the links above. Erstwhile Portlander Nicole Glover returns from New York to jam with local greats, and the festival also includes omnipresent drummer Alan Jones, saxophonist Tim Willcox, Christopher Brown, jazz/funk trumpet star Farnell Newton, bassist Shao Way Wu, and sets featuring some of the top improviser/composer/performers from PJCE and Creative Music Guild.

Nicole Glover performs at Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Diaz Duran.

Tonight, Roaring Rapids also features Bossa PDX, with Portland jazz pianist/singer Kerry Politzer, Colligan (who happens to be her spouse) on drums, sax titan Joe Manis, guitarist Enzo Irace (who shreds in Other Barry) and bassist Damian Erskine playing new arrangements of Brazilian classics. And there’s modern chamber jazz tonight in Portland, too, with Simone Baron’s piano trio in an intimate house concert at Casa Della Zisa, 4624 NE Fremont St.

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‘Aida’ and ‘Rigoletto’: lush Verdi

Portland and Seattle productions' opulence and timelessness overcome oft-staged operas’ overfamiliarity

Two stunning Giuseppe Verdi operas in one West Coast weekend are a treat, unless grandeur is not your thing.

Portland Opera’s Rigoletto, which opened May 4 at Keller Auditorium and continues with performances on May 10 and 12, and Seattle Opera’s Aida, with a two-week run through May 19 at Seattle’s McCaw Hall, were full-blown triumphs. If we’ve seen and heard them time and time again, and though they’re weighted down with sexism and un-fluid gender roles, as the trendy phrase goes, these productions showed frequently staged operas can remain exciting.

Seattle Opera presents Verdi’s ‘Aida’ featuring design by the street and studio artist RETNA. Photo: Philip Newton.

Remember, this music, written by Italians, was first performed in the mid-19th century. Today, the operas can inspire us to discuss and sort out sex roles and gender traps more honestly than in the old days. If we’re willing to suspend imagination, they can challenge rather than frustrate us.

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