A Baroque groove master at work

A conversation with composer Andy Akiho and percussionist Colin Currie, featured on this weekend's Oregon Symphony concerts

Composer-percussionist Andy Akiho gestured across the room to a table in the corner of the Heathman Hotel’s cozy library. “I composed most of it right there,” he said. “They let me stay here until three in the morning sometimes.”

Akiho is speaking of his Percussion Concerto, which Colin Currie and the Oregon Symphony will premiere this weekend alongside two of Akiho’s heroes, Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives. Currie himself joined us, and both spoke fondly of Portland, where Akiho now spends half the year. Currie told me the first time he landed at PDX airport, he was immediately reminded of his native Scotland. “Then it rained all week,” Currie said, “and I thought, ah this is bliss!”

The percussionists maintain busy schedules. Currie will be conducting Steve Reich’s tribute to painter Gerhard Richter, Reich/Richter, and is excited about Scottish composer Helen Grime’s Percussion Concerto–very different from Akiho’s–which Currie commissioned and will be performing several times this year. Meanwhile, Akiho has been finalizing the recording of his LIgNEouS Suite for marimba and strings, is currently finishing an album with his band Miyamoto is Black Enough, and somehow also finds time to work on an eleven-movement quartet for Ian Rosenbaum’s Sandbox Percussion.

This weekend, though, it’s all about the long-awaited concerto: Akiho’s first major orchestral work (2015’s Ping Pong Concerto notwithstanding) is full of ceramic bowls, a meaty marimba, and all the rhythmic complexity and melodic verve we’ve come to expect from one of our favorite young composers. The Oregon Symphony performs at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall this Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

Arts Watch recently spoke in person with Akiho and Currie; their answers have been edited and condensed for clarity and flow.

Inception, inspiration, orchestration

Andy Akiho: I’m obviously inspired by the city, because I wrote almost all of it here. There’s no story or anything, that’s why it’s just called Percussion Concerto for now—until Colin comes up with a story, then we’ll change the title.


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.   


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


MusicWatch Monthly: Hot music in the cold city

Warm up your fall with saxophones, film and classical music, international virtuosi, and metallized Metroids

Are you cold yet? Have your fingers and toes and hearts and guts frozen as Winter creeps closer and you face down the end of the world? Are you ready to put on a sweater and a balaclava and drown out the chaos with frosty music and a fire in the belly?

Good! Here’s your prescription for October.


Now that you’re all sweatered up, it’s time for some hot sax. Tuesday, October 2nd–tonight!–it’s the zany trio Too Many Zooz at Crystal Ballroom, wherein baritone saxophonist Leo Pellegrino, trumpeter Matt Doe, and drummer David “King of Sludge” play their stompy dancey “brass house” music. If that’s not zany enough for you, wait until tomorrow and check out skronky Skerik at Goodfoot Lounge on the 3rd. Then, at 4 in the afternoon on the 5th, head over to the Midland Library on Southeast 122nd for the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s tribute to Portland’s Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper. Or wait all the way until next week and dig local diy jazz quintet Blue Cranes at The 1905 on Sunday the 13th.

Oregon Symphony Orchestra

After a cancelled zoo concert and a weekend of Empire, the OSO’s symphonic season is officially underway. We heard from composer Oscar Bettison last week, and you’ll hear all about his rewilded music (performed last weekend alongside Mozart and Brahms) from Charles Rose soon enough. This month, the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi continues into full fall mode with concerts of music all over the “classical” map, from film music to Stravinsky to Coldfuckingplay.


Suzanne Haag plays with fire

"The Firebird" tests the former Eugene Ballet dancer's transition from performer to choreographer


On a recent flight home to Eugene, former Eugene Ballet dancer Suzanne Haag struck up a casual conversation with the man seated next to her. He asked her the questions non-dancers usually ask: What are pointe shoes made of? What’s a typical workday like? Then he asked her what it was like to retire after dancing with the company for 15 seasons, and whether she had any regrets. It wasn’t the first time she has fielded that question, Haag told ArtsWatch: “I keep getting asked ‘How do you feel, you know, now that you are done?’”

In retrospect, she said, there are things she might have done differently: working out and practicing more on her days off, asking for additional feedback and guidance on how to improve, seeking different roles.  But, she concluded, “… that’s not regret, just my older, more experienced self assessing my work.”

As the plane prepared to land, Haag acknowledged to her seatmate that while her life in dance was indeed about to change, it wasn’t about to end. Reflecting on her career made her realize that she had been preparing for this transition since she was a young dancer.

Suzanne Haag (left) coaches Reed Souther and Yuki Beppu in "Surrounding Third." Photo by Antonio Anacan
Suzanne Haag (left) coaches Reed Souther and Yuki Beppu in “The Surrounding Third.” Photo by Antonio Anacan.


Devilish Doings

Director, dancers, choreographer and conductor offer perspectives on this weekend’s University of Oregon staging of Stravinsky’s ‘The Soldier’s Story’


A young enlistee trades his fiddle to the devil in return for unlimited riches, a princess — and ultimately loss and grief. The Russian folk tale The Runaway Soldier and the Devil, which Igor Stravinsky and Swiss writer C.F Ramuz adapted and premiered during the brutality of World War I, is a metaphor for its time as a struggle between good and evil. The Soldier’s Story (L’histoire du soldatwas first performed in Switzerland 100 years ago on September 28, 1918 at the Theatre Lausanne. This weekend, a century later, a cadre of students and faculty at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance called Pacific Artists Collective (PAC) stage a theatrical revival of the Faustian tale that retains the original’s scale while providing contemporary approaches.

The Soldier’s Story has been staged in many different ways over the years, including jazz, ballet, orchestral, and even Inuit versions. But when PAC Artistic Director Bronson York approached Associate Professor of Dance Shannon Mockli about a possible production of Stravinsky’s chamber musical theater piece, he wanted to make it much like it was originally conceived: a simple and transportable hour-long theatrical work that moved from village to village, and not necessarily performed on a stage or in a theater. “So with that in mind I really brought it back to the essentials,” York says. “It has no backdrops or even really a set, with one exception in the second act.”

Minimal set design with trio of dancers in the role of soldier, devil and princess. Photo: Luke Smith

The ensemble includes a story narrator, musicians, three actors, and three dancer-characters —a soldier, a devil and a princess who, Mockli says, are “not relegated to acting these parts. Rather, they all participate in each of the dance sections, sometimes representing their characters and sometimes more poetically expressing an image or idea [or] the emotion … of a scene.”

Mockli notes that “a trio in dance always expresses a kind of dynamic tension in its asymmetry.” The dancers interweave with one another and change partnerships throughout, each affecting the shifting experiences of the others and creating dynamic tension in the narrative. Ultimately, the trio of characters are implicated by each other’s changing actions and choices, as they are “woven in a kind of eternal web,” Mockli says. “The choreography lives in this sort of liminal space of being purely poetic or impressionistic.”


Guitar gods and circus scores: an afternoon at the symphony

Stravinsky, Piston, and the L.A. Guitar Quartet keep things light and lively at the Schnitz

Los Angeles Guitar Quartet

Los Angeles Guitar Quartet

While Eric Clapton’s pantheon of guitar gods was shredding Madison Square Garden over the weekend (old pals like Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, B.B. King, Vince Gill, and Los Lobos dropped by to peel a little paint) a very different but no less rewarding form of guitar worship was going on in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall: the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, backed by the Oregon Symphony, was getting down and cleanly with a little Joaquin Rodrigo.

In certain quarters the members of the quartet – John Dearman, Matthew Greif, William Kanengiser, Scott Tennant – are guitar gods themselves, though more Apollonian than Dionysian. Not that they can’t get deep inside the emotions of a piece of music. They can, and do. But they come from a different tradition of acoustic and composed music that embraces the present but also circles back to the guitar’s medieval and renaissance predecessors. And while the trademark of Clapton and friends might be to take things higher, faster, and louder, the LAGQ’s virtuosity is rooted in restraint.

The guitar quartet was the guest-star part of a program that conductor and music director Carlos Kalmar called circus music – “except for the Concierto Andaluz, but it’s played by four guitarists, which is kind of a circus by itself.” And so it was – the concert, that is: Igor Stravinsky’s quick and galumphing “Circus Polka” (1942) and the 1947 version of his ballet score “Petrouchka” (originally composed 1910-11) in the first half; Walter Piston’s sly and bouncy 1940 suite from the ballet “The Incredible Flutist” following the guitarists after intermission. It was an all 20th century program, if mostly early 20th century (Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto Andaluz” premiered in 1967, and the guitar quartet’s encore, Manuel de Falla’s bumblebee-quick and ever-popular “Ritual Fire Dance,” in 1915), and there was a time when it might have been considered a first-rate pops program: it made me think of Arthur Fiedler and his emphasis on “light classics” with the old Boston Pops. No matter. On an alternatingly sunny and blustery Sunday afternoon that felt both light and breezy, so did this entertaining and deceptively challenging concert.

The best musical quartets are made up of players who are virtuosic individually but even better as an ensemble, and the LAGQ fills that bill, playing with the speed and synchronicity of a great passing basketball team: sometimes it’s tough to tell who scored the basket and who got the assist. “Concierto Andaluz” moves in ebbs and flows, quick in its fingering (it has complex meters and more than a nod to the primal rhythms of flamenco) but leisurely in its structure; and the quartet, playing a deft little passing game with the scaled-down orchestra, shows off without showing off. It was tough not to smile at this display of easy-sounding but technically difficult dexterity.

“I think ‘Petrouchka’ is my favorite Stravinsky ballet score,” my classical/opera/ballet buff younger son remarked as we settled into our seats. Not “Firebird” or “Rite of Spring”? No, he replied: “Petrouchka” seems more contemporary. Then, in his casual opening chat that is one of the advantages of attending the symphony’s Sunday afternoon concerts, Kalmar noted that “Petrouchka” is also the least popular of the three. Why? Well, the other two wind up mightily and close with a satisfying bang. “Petrouchka,” which tells the odd little tale of a lovesick puppet who is murdered by his loutish rival for the ballerina’s affections, ends not in a whimper but a quiet, caustic jeer: Petrouchka’s ghost appears on a roof above the public square, thumbing his nose at the crowd. It’s a sly, sophisticated ending, precise in its demands, and the orchestra pulled it off deftly. Stravinsky’s score is also very brassy, both in the lower and upper registers (that’s principal trumpeter Jeffrey Work expressing himself so forthrightly) and extraordinarily complex rhythmically, giving the percussionists a healthy workout. In that sense it’s definitely modernist, and it reminded me that later in his career, after he’d left Russia and Europe and moved to the United States, Stravinsky sometimes wrote scores specifically for jazz musicians.

“It seems like only the best conductors record Piston’s ‘Incredible Flutist’ suite,” the younger son said, implying that it takes a brilliant musical mind to realize that this light and impish romp of a ballet score is also a very good piece of music. Kalmar and the orchestra alike seemed convinced. They ripped engagingly and precisely through the passages of this (also) odd little tale, this one about a wandering flutist ­– principal flutist Jessica Sindell is sterling – who charms the pants off the people in a sleepy village. Again, the piece is breezy and blatty and percussive, and you could tell the players were having at least as much fun as the audience. I saw heads a-bobbin’ in the cello section, and when the orchestra got to the Circus March section where the players are called on to burst out in cheers and whistles, there was no holdin’ ’em back. Make a joyful noise, all ye lands.

At intermission the son rushed out to the lobby, took a twenty-dollar bill out of his wallet (all the cash he had) and bought a copy of an L.A. Guitar Quartet CD. “Bring it back after the show,” Michael Parsons, who was manning the sales table, told him. “They’ll be here to sign copies.” So we did, and struggled to get the damnable plastic wrapper off so it could be signed: as it happened, we’d both recently clipped our fingernails short. Eventually we managed. The woman in front of us had the same problem. “I want to get this signed,” she told the quartet’s Greif, who was sitting in the first of the assembly-line chairs, “but I just can’t seem to get this wrapping off!” He took the CD from her, displaying those impressive long and tapered fingernails that guitarists maintain for precise picking. “I can do that.” And … zip.

No doubt Clapton and Richards could do the same. But I ask you: would they stick around after a concert to autograph fans’ CDs?


  • The program repeats at 8 p.m. Monday, April 15. Ticket information 503-228-1353.
  • James McQuillen’s concert review for The Oregonian is here.


Read more from Bob Hicks >>

Support Oregon ArtsWatch!