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Choral music and Christmas concerts both have a deserved reputation for conservatism — soothing, traditional sounds that wouldn’t startle anyone with a new idea. Oregonians, however, are lucky to have top-notch choral organizations that favor expansive programming, even during this most tradition-bound of seasons. Former Portland State University and Portland Symphonic Choir director Bruce Browne reviewed one of them, Oregon Repertory Singers, here last week; that program repeated last weekend. Browne himself led one of Portland’s other major vocal groups, Choral Arts Ensemble, in concerts last weekend at the city’s downtown First Unitarian Church.

Bells rang and singers streamed up to the stage from the pews and doorways as the concert kicked off with music by the composer Officially Decreed by the New York Times to be the most awesomest ever, then continued with a plush but not weighty  version of the most popular work by perhaps America’s most renowned living choral composer, Portland-born Morten Lauridsen, one of several versions of O Magnum Mysterium purveyed. Except for a couple of brief, early shaky moments in the altos, CAE sounded more sonically secure than I’ve heard them over the past few years, displaying rhythmic buoyancy in Ideo Gloria in Excelsis Deo by Richard Kraehnenbuhl and real expressive power in the program’s highlight and rousing first-set closer, Monteverdi’s magnificent Gloria, with accompanying organ by Jennifer Creek-Hughes and strings. An excellent small accompanying ensemble of harpsichord and fiddle occasionally added welcome textures throughout the concert.

CAE commendably included several other local guest contributors — buy local! Browne dedicated a plangent version of the O Magnum text, set to the familiar Nimrod variation (from Edward Elgar’s popular Enigma Variations), to its arranger, Portland’s Elinor Friedberg, who died shortly after completing the arrangement. Portland’s Ronn Pricer contributed a fresh arrangement that almost but not quite made me welcome the inevitable rum-pa-pum-pums of the dreaded “Little Drummer Boy.” And Gresham High School’s Overtones showed why they’ve won honors in statewide competitions in a couple of stellar guest takes, including a nifty arrangement of “Joy to the World,” with at least one unnamed soprano clearly destined for further musical accolades. Even the teenage basses were entirely convincing in Lux Arumque by the world’s hottest choral composer, Eric Whitacre. And even the audience sounded solid in a couple of singalong carols.

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Joakim Eskildsen’s "The Long Plaits, Tirnaveni"/Courtesy Blue Sky Gallery

I fully expected to be writing about music right now. On Friday, I was attempting to juggle my weekend calendar so I could try to catch Holcombe Waller and friends at the Alberta Rose, the Portland Cello Project and friends at the Aladdin and maybe try to squeeze in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Holiday Revue with songbird Susannah Mars, though I was also very attracted to the “Hard Times” double bill at the Hollywood Theater (“The Grapes of Wrath” and “Wendy and Lucy,” each introduced by Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt, who wrote and directed the latter).

But early Friday afternoon I heard that Portland artist Robert Hanson had died (of cancer, aged 75), and suddenly my weekend ground to a halt. I wasn’t a close friend of Hanson’s, though we chatted occasionally when I saw him at art events with his wife, the artist Judy Cooke. I admired his work, which had taken a turn toward figure drawings in the ‘90s, curious little things that were immediately “readable” as portraits (or self-portraits) but then after some scrutiny proved much more elusive than that, the work of a quick mind and a deft mind applied to making creative marks on paper, not simply representations of people. But I had never engaged them on the digital page, which is where I try to work things out.

Maybe that’s what stalled my weekend, the realization that I’d never be able to enlist Hanson to help me, to guide me to an understanding of his work and through that work other things ever more central. I posted the sad news Friday on the ArtsWatch Facebook page (which you can find here), and finally, Saturday, I wrote something about him, drawing on an interview he’d done with the artist Anne Johnson. (You can read it here, if you want.)

By that time I was well past going to hear music, though, even though I knew it would be good, maybe even revelatory, and at the very least, good fun.

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Third Angle pianist Susan Smith at City Dance in 2008

Last week, the Wall Street Journal, for whom I’ve written for more than a decade, published my story about Portland’s alternative classical music scene, and as always, space limitations forced us to leave some important bits on the cutting room floor. The trend the story identified may be news to most of the millions of WSJ readers, but many Oregon arts watchers probably already know much of that tale. But they may not know what we had to leave out: What makes Portland such a hothouse for creative classical music, and what we can do to ensure that it continues to flourish. Here’s the director’s cut.

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Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution/Credit: Blue Mass Group

Today’s harvest of links all appeared this weekend on the ArtsWatch Facebook page. Which you can join!

Vaclav Havel, the playwright/president is an ArtsWatch hero — integrity, courage, intelligence, compassion. In memory of his death Sunday, here’s a link to excerpts from his book “Disturbing the Peace,” thanks to the New York Review of Books.

Still not convinced that the arts are important to kids at the most basic levels? A little ammo from Australia

And speaking of Australia: ‎”…The watershed was a Japanese watercolour at risk/Of running off the canvas,the big water carrying its muted palette/Down to the sea and taking a good part of me with it…”

That’s from the poem “Walking Underwater,” by Australian poet Mark Tredennick, which won the Montreal International Poetry Prize, and it’s about hiking in the Columbia River Gorge (presumably with Kim Stafford), among other things. Our place starts to make better sense to us the more we talk about it… Here’s the poem in full.

Since Bob Hanson’s death on Friday, we’ve been pointing everyone to a wonderful interview he did with artist Anne Johnson for PNCA’s online magazine: “When I taught drawing, one of the things we dealt with was structure and seeing relationships between forms that are more or less “correct.” I was showing students how to put together a form, that it’s a series of relationships based on landmarks on the page you can refer to once you get a few down. In my recent drawings, I’ve really gotten away from that. This is nothing I’m thinking about logically, it’s just something that happens.”

Our anticipation for Fertile Ground reached new heights, once we saw the list of projects… and those were just the words!

Today in logograms: Poets & their obsessive use of ampersands.

Robert Hanson's "Pink"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Artist Robert Hanson operated in a style that didn’t call attention to itself. The drawings that occupied him since 1995, both of himself and his models, were small and seemed so fleeting somehow, a temporary gathering of a few marks on paper, a spot of color here and a provisional line there.

I’m tempted to call them modest drawings, though I actually think of them as quite bold, a test of his powers, by turns, of reduction and creation. They didn’t have an apparatus; they didn’t scream at you from the rafters; they didn’t blot out the sun. But they did confront you with a proposition: That this was enough. That these marks, so deft and wise, considered deeply enough, could lead you to a series of thoughts about the human figure, the ability of the human hand and eye to represent it, the various qualities of lines and dashes of color and their power to communicate.

I doubt that he’d be upset if I suggested that he’d applied modernist ideas about making art to drawing the figure, and those ideas imply a parallel (or underlying) investigation into the nature of art itself.

Hanson died on Friday morning, and the thought that this experiment, this hand and mind, this creative approach, this inner knowledge expressed through and to the outside world, has ended, well, it’s hard to take without personal, even selfish regrets. My biggest ones: That I hadn’t gotten to know him better and that I hadn’t written the long essay about him that I’d wanted to (one that would have involved lots of interviews and long looks at his art).

Our thoughts are with his wife, the artist Judy Cooke, and all of those he touched so wisely, at Pacific Northwest College of Art, where he taught for many years, and everywhere else.

I plucked these quotes from a nice, fat interview between artist Anne Johnson and Hanson for Pacific Northwest College of Art’s online magazine, Untitled. It’s worth reading as a whole, because Johnson’s questions are excellent and informative themselves and Hanson clearly feels at home with her. And thanks to the Elizabeth Leach Gallery for supplying images of a nice selection of his work.

Robert Hanson's "I'm Not Sickert"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

“I’ve been drawing—the head, actually—from the early ‘70s on, but it wasn’t until the ‘90s that I really made a concentrated push to focus on drawing. Given my subject matter, I found the brush not as expressive or satisfying a tool, so I stopped painting altogether. I didn’t show the new drawings, a series of self-portraits, or variations of myself, until 1995, at Elizabeth Leach.”

Robert Hanson's "Chiara"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

“As soon as I just said I’m not going to try for a likeness—if I winged it, if I said I’ll just try to make an interesting drawing and see what happens from there—I would get better results….
I’ll take a pencil or colored pencil, or sometimes chalk, or even ballpoint or black ink, and once I have the model set up, I start just marking up the page a bit. Then I can start drawing rather freely from the model, sometimes with a general kind of outline—it will usually be quite unsatisfactory—just to get some idea of placement and scale. Sometimes I’ll just start with the edge of the eyeglass, say, or an earring, and develop the image out of that. I’ll jump from one object to another. I’ve stopped thinking about proportions.”

Robert Hanson's "Eye Shadow"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

“In breaking away, in the last few years, I began to do less planning and rely more on intuition. I started elaborating along the edge of forms, trying different line combinations, letting go of consistency…. Yes, I start with flatness. I always know I will add all kinds of illusionistic space as a byproduct of drawing the figure, but the idea that the image happens on a flat surface somehow allows me to mess up that surface, to play around with it. The drawing isn’t precious any more.”

Robert Hanson's "Woman Series 11"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

“When I taught drawing, one of the things we dealt with was structure and seeing relationships between forms that are more or less “correct.” I was showing students how to put together a form, that it’s a series of relationships based on landmarks on the page you can refer to once you get a few down. In my recent drawings, I’ve really gotten away from that. This is nothing I’m thinking about logically, it’s just something that happens.”

Robert Hanson's "I'm Not Sickert"

“I need to leave breathing room, lots of white paper. I like to leave escape routes, ways out and into the drawing. No filled-in coloring books for me. No stained glass windows…. Openness, airiness, transparency! I love those qualities. Drawing is the best way for me to get at them. When a work of art has these qualities, my feet move directly across the museum floor toward that image.”

A show of Hanson’s portraits opens at the Portland Art Museum on January 7, part of the museum’s APEX series of shows by Northwest artists.

Interior Margins installation view | Midori Hirose, SQFT, 2010 | lumber room, Portland, OR | Photo Dan Kvitka

Interior Margins installation view | Midori Hirose, SQFT, 2010 | lumber room, Portland, OR | Photo Dan Kvitka

 

Abstraction is real. Probably more real than nature.
Joseph Albers

Part of being an artist is wanting to hold things down for a minute, make it real.
Lynne Woods Turner

What happened last Saturday? Three hours after it began, what was my take-away from the epic-length gallery talk at the Lumber Room (419 NW 9th), essentially eight mini artist talks in which most of the artists in the Lumber Room’s current exhibition, Interior Margins, answered a question (or statement) apiece from curator Stephanie Snyder?

Interior Margins, which runs through January 30, is a show of abstract work by women, all but one from the Northwest, and most from Portland. Of the responses by Heather Watkins, Blair Saxon-Hill, Judy Cooke, Midori Hirose, Michelle Ross, Lynne Woods Turner, Linda Hutchins, and Nell Warren, one can say that each was thoughtfully considered and illuminating about the artist’s practice and propensities. Lynne Woods Turner for example, emphasized her responsive nature (“as in gardening, things tell you what they want to do”). Few of the women addressed either the ideas behind the work or to put it another way, what was going on in the work. And I was hungry for that.

Whatever it was beyond process that Snyder was trying to get at in her questions, most of the conversation returned to process. So we now know that Warren’s little paintings are the result of her scraping used paint from her palette to create reliefs, that Watkins holds the paper and tilts it to guide the ink to make her drawings, and that Turner draws on the back as well as the front of the paper. There was a lot of this kind of thing about doing which may tell us something about abstraction, that there is a kind of sweet luxury in the doing beyond the thinking about the doing that is a sanctuary and a near-meditative practice. (I may be inscribing my own experience onto that of these artists…with your indulgence.)

Leonie Guyer, Victoria Haven, and Kristan Kennedy were absent, which is a shame especially because Kennedy’s “E.G.S.O.E.Y.S” (2011) is the piece de resistance of the show.

The most interesting moment was when the senior artist in the group, Judy Cooke, noted that the work she was seeing around her in the room—specifically the draped fabric works of Ross and to a lesser extent Kennedy and Saxon-Hill—takes her back to the ’70s, to women artists working at their kitchen tables, to incorporating everyday materials into their works. It was also great to hear about the thinking behind Saxon-Hill’s works, concrete-impregnated burlap draped on a white plinth leaned up against the wall…she’s been inspired by the photogravure documentation of  mid-century sculpture and interested in the draped backgrounds common at the time.

And Snyder gave Hirose the opportunity to answer those who would situate her colored sand-filled acrylic cubes in a Minimalist tradition, with Midori noting that certain polygons represent each element, the cube representing earth. She also framed her work as incorporating a childlike playfulness and of course spoke about the soft-meets-hard moment of the sand and the acrylic. Cooke talked about extracting a shape from a composition to make a shaped work. Turner talked about symmetry in her forms being the “path of least resistance,” with anything else being “too assertive.” Ross talked about moving away from the figure because she, “didn’t want to rely on the easy familiarity of the figure.” That her “intense engagement with material” is her response to “culture that is etherealized through technology.”

The printed piece we received in conjunction with the talk featured a number of quotes regarding abstraction and an excerpt from an essay Snyder had written for the exhibition “Abstract” she curated for the Cooley Gallery at Reed College (where she is John and Anne Hauberg Curator and Director, Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery), which also featured artists Turner and Guyer. In that excerpt Snyder quotes Martin: “The line doesn’t have to describe anything. It focuses you, beyond it and beyond yourself.” And for line we could substitute any mark or field. Snyder writes, “Abstraction, commonly misunderstood as a reductive response to life, is in fact an intersecting embrace of the interconnectedness of all things.”

It’s a beautiful and powerful statement, and I think certainly in the case of work like that of Martin, that is appropriate. But this aspect of abstraction is only one of very many, and I’m not sure that the works in Interior Margins all can be housed under this notion. Though Linda Hutchins’ comment on one of the more important aspects of the series of drawings in the exhibition nearly was lost in the process talk, the idea of allowing the line’s imperfections (“natural undulations”) reminded me of this other aspect of abstraction, that of allowing, of abstraction opening up space for the viewer to co-create meaning in the work.

As much as I think these conversations may point to the productive (and conversely disjointed) space between the work and intention of the artist and the project of the curator, it’s a complication I appreciate,  this creation of a constellation of independent stars (both object and idea) with multiple possible links between them.

See this show. The installation of Watkins series of black on black drawings is stunning. And the trip up the stairs is worth it for the work of Saxon-Hill and Kennedy alone. Through January 30.

Portland Cello Project plays Portland's Aladdin Theater this weekend/Photo: Tarina Westlund

’Tis the season and all, and in a period that emphasizes traditional sounds, I’m impressed to see some Oregon classical music institutions figuring out creative ways to celebrate the season without succumbing to same old sameitis.

Last Saturday’s concert by the confusingly named Cantico: Portland Chamber Singers, for example, managed to balance the need for familiar tunes with some unusual yet still appropriate repertoire, and a fresh approach refreshingly bereft of sentimentality.

The singers kept things lively by presenting two dozen songs  in many different configurations: duos, trios, quartets, a solo alternated with the full choir selections. This necessitated a lot of stage changes, with the attendant microphone set ups and take downs, but they’d obviously rehearsed that aspect of the show so thoroughly that all proceeded smoothly.

The instrumentation provided further variety, including some low key guitar picking and singing (Sky Pixton Engstrom, Courtney Atack, David Orme) on a lovely vocal duet of happily un-treacly “Away in a Manger.” Other numbers featured flute (the excellent Kathleen Parker), harp (Catherine Stone), piano (Karen Porter, Heidi Bruno, Toni Glausi), oboe (Diana White) and organ. Pop arrangements of Christmas music by John Gorka and the Beach Boys (which included the donning of scarves, hats and goggles) lent variety and familiarity to works by contemporary and 20th century composers John Rutter, Stephen Paulus, David Willcocks, and more, plus classical composers like Tomas Luis de Victoria, Max Reger, Adolph Adam and others. Other songs, like “Silent Night,” used updated or even reharmonized arrangements. A couple of numbers fell flat or tasted a bit gooey, but overall, thanks to several strong soloists and other voices, crisp transitions and performances, and astute programming, Cantico’s Christmas concert was as enjoyable and musically engaging as any holiday themed concert I’ve attended in Portland.

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