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The arts in 2013, Part 2: July through December

ArtsWatch looks back on some of the highlights and significant moments of the year

Here at ArtsWatch we’ve been casting our thoughts back to days of yore. Of, like, January 1, 2013, to June 30, 2013. We looked back on that six-month stretch yesterday to remind you (and ourselves) of some of the bigger and more intriguing Oregon arts stories that zipped past our startled noses.

Victor Mack, Jason Rouse in Portland Playhouse's "Detroit." Photo: Brud Giles

Victor Mack, Jason Rouse in Portland Playhouse’s “Detroit.” Photo: Brud Giles

So today, natch – as Old Grandfather 2013 shuffles off into the sunset of rocking-chair recollection – we continue our review, this time covering July 1 to December 31. What can we say about a six-month stretch that began with a radio station and an opera company shacking up together, and ended with a Portland museum showing off the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction – and to an anonymous bidder, at that? As it turns out, we said quite a bit. Below we’ve provided links to stories on some of the top moments in Oregon’s recent cultural history. Give ’em a click and relive those glory days. Seems just like yestermonth, doesn’t it?


The arts in 2013: The first six months

We compiled some of the big news, concerts, exhibitions, and shows of the past year

ArtsWatch brothers and sisters, 2013 was… good grief, what WAS 2013? Let’s see: sad, tense, conflicted, uncertain, amazing, glorious, strange, crazy. Please feel free to add your own adjectives if you don’t like those. You won’t hurt my feelings, honest.

For any of us, summing it all up also means admitting that we can’t help but be incomplete. The arts are so pervasive here, so wide-reaching, that even a team of us dedicated to seeing as much as we can, inevitably falls short of the mark:  A commitment to one subject leaves a thousand more (at least) untouched. That’s one of the limitations we live with, uncomfortably.

We can’t go on, but we must go on!

So, here we offer Part One of a re-cap of the ArtsWatch Year in Stories. It’s not comprehensive, not even of the stories we wrote, because this year we managed to write something like 500 of them.  But maybe they’ll give you enough of a taste to get your own memories working.

Anne Mueller left Oregon Ballet Theatre in 2013/Oregon Ballet Theatre

Anne Mueller left Oregon Ballet Theatre in 2013/Oregon Ballet Theatre


The changing of the guard at Artists Repertory Theatre meant that long-time assistant artistic director Jon Kretzu left the company at the beginning of the year.

Brett Campbell started a big argument with his contention that holiday concerts (and really most classical concerts) are too long and not audience friendly enough. I joined in because the point (less is more) seemed so obvious.

Jamuna Chiarini did a set of three choreographer interviews at dance rehearsals, the first with Anne Mueller.

Portland playwright Sue Mach’s new play for Third Rail Repertory Theatre, “A Noble Failure,” took on the subject of the testing mania that has seized our schools, among other things.

The Warhol Foundation and PICA created the Precipice Fund, dedicated to financing artist collaborations that have often been unfundable by foundations and government agencies. Later in the year, they announced the first class of recipients.

Fertile Ground 2013 was a microcosm of the year in arts: overflowing and various as you can imagine. The ArtsWatch scouting crew managed to hit a LOT of the performances and got a taste of the Future!

The lumber room’s Terrain Shift exhibition, reported Patrick Collier, caught the discipline of photography in a moment of transition.


Bob Hicks wrote about what happened when the Portland Opera rode a warhorse named “Tosca” with a lithe and lovely touch.

Profile Theatre’s season of Athol Fugard plays reminded us of apartheid history past and how that history resonated down to the family level in “The Road to Mecca.”

The sudden late-2012 resignation of Christopher Stowell left Oregon Ballet Theatre at the crossroads.

Profile Theatre and Theatre Vertigo were kicked out of their home in the Theater! Theatre! building, which decided to take the theater out of the building. Later in the year, happy endings were realized.

The great maestro James DePreist, who led the Oregon Symphony for nearly a quarter of a century, died. leaving us to consider his vast influence on the orchestra and the city.

A Portland Art Museum retrospective of native Portlander Carrie Mae Weems focused the city’s attention on the personal politics of race, reported S. Renee Mitchell.

Brett Campbell proposed that Oregon seize on its strength by investing in New Music Incubators, using Brooklyn’s Original Music Workshop as a model.

AL Adams served up some short-order art at PLACE gallery and kept a diary of the experience.


How does Portland paint itself? And is its “style” changing? AL Adams addressed the questions with illustrations!

Martha Ullman West remembered choreographer and costume designer Jann Dryer, who helped pioneer modern dance in Portland in the 1970s.

Carter Hudson, Christopher Livingston, "Whipping Man." Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Carter Hudson, Christopher Livingston, “Whipping Man.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Issues around race popped up a lot last spring, including Profile’s “Blood Knot” and Portland Center Stage’s “The Whipping Man,” which Bob Hicks reviewed together.

Jamuna Chiarini interviewed Eric Skinner on choreographing with confidence.

We started Sabina Samiee’s diaristic take, My Year in Tango, as it unspooled over several weeks.

Classical Revolution PDX founder Mattie Kaiser decided to step down from her post, and we conducted her exit interview.

The Portland arts tax, which passed overwhelmingly in 2012 providing arts classes to Portland elementary students and funding to arts groups, was adjusted to make it fairer.


White Bird’s ongoing relationship with Paul Taylor Dance Company has given us lots of chances to think about his loopily beautiful work.

Annie Baker’s “The Aliens” from Third Rail gave us a disturbing picture of life in our times and a way of considering it.

Portland is rapidly becoming a city of storytellers (among other things), and Lawrence Howard at the Singlehandedly festival is a good reason why.

Christopher Corbell was picked to replace Mattie Kaiser at Classical Revolution PDX, and we got him on the record right after he started.

Jana Hanchett kept a good eye on piano performance in Portland in 2013, including Arnoldo Cohen’s last performance before he took command at Portland Piano International.

Tom Prochaska's "Ensor's Boat"/Courtesy Froelick Gallery

Tom Prochaska’s “Ensor’s Boat”/Courtesy Froelick Gallery


The new artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre, Damaso Rodriguez, directed “Ten Chimneys,” and may have sent some smoke signals about his intentions.

Jeff Winslow and Bruce Browne offered authoritative double-barreled looks at Oregon’s fertile choral music scene.

A new Portland Playhouse adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s great novel, “The Left Hand of Darkness,” got us thinking about a multitude of issues.

Patrick Collier went visiting to Tom Prochaska’s imaginary city at Froelick Gallery.

After falling afoul of the official rules of journalism (most notably: Thou shall not make stuff up), Mike Daisey explained himself, and Brett Campbell assessed the damage.

Bob Hicks went backstage for tech night of “A Bright New Boise” to see the chefs at work.


How do classical pianists connect with audiences in the new millennium? Jana Hanchett considered four approaches to the problem.

Oregon Ballet Theatre principal Lucas Threefoot headed for Europe and the Monte Carlo ballet, but stopped first to talk to Martha Ullman West.

New plays by Andrea Stolowitz and Carol Triffle, “Ithaka” and “Beaux Arts Club,” both featured great performances by their leading actors while exploring different precincts of the theater universe.

Oregon Ballet Theatre chose Kevin Irving to replace Christopher Stowell as artistic director, and we supplied the entrance interview.

Isamu Noguchi, "Cloud Mountain"/Portland Japanese Garden

Isamu Noguchi, “Cloud Mountain”/Portland Japanese Garden

The Japanese Garden celebrated its 50th anniversary with a series of great art exhibitions, including one of work by Isamu Noguchi, which turned around Patrick Collier’s thinking about art.

Graham Bell interviewed Portland photographer Evan La Londe about his recent conceptual and seductive work.

While we were doing exit interviews, we sat down with Anne Mueller to look back at her time at Oregon Ballet Theatre and what lies ahead.

In June, The Oregonian announced another round of layoffs, which trimmed its already small staff of arts writers even further, and ArtsWatch made its bets about the future.

Naturally, much more happened in the first six months of 2013 (including my favorite show of the year, “Something’s Got Ahold of My Heart,” which I never even wrote about!). But that gives you some idea, yes? And tomorrow we’ll have the exciting conclusion of 2013 in the arts!

Cappella Romana joined Portland Baroque Orchestra in Handel's "Messiah."

Cappella Romana joined Portland Baroque Orchestra in Handel’s “Messiah.”


Editor’s note: The holidays are peak season for choral performances, so ArtsWatch asked regular contributors Bruce Browne and Jeff Winslow to hear as many as possible and report back to our readers. Here’s part one, with a bonus assessment at the end.


Year-end indulgence

This arts writer’s version of a sculptor’s requisite bed piece

I have a number of reasons I don’t like to do year-end reviews or best-ofs; or rather, I have written them in the past, shouldn’t have, and would avoid doing so if I could kick the overriding need to reflect and make an accounting that comes with December.

The Art Center in Corvallis

The Arts Center in Corvallis

First of all, my art viewing, like my arts writing, is a some time thing, which makes me considerably less than an authority. I’m mostly a stay-at-home guy who hangs out in my low-residency (formerly referred to as my dungeon) basement working on other projects and occasionally scanning Facebook for updates from other artists, writers and friends in general. That said, I guess I do look at a lot of art because I follow links. (I suppose if I was a serious info junkie I’d hang out on Twitter instead, but social media = social contract and who has the time?) What I don’t do often, but should, is make the trip to larger cities within fifteen to seventy miles of my home to look. I know I’m missing a lot of worthy, non-virtual exhibits. For instance, there’s always Ditch Projects in Springfield, and Disjecta has considerably improved their programming over the years, as has Corvallis’ The Arts Center. I do regret not getting to these and many other venues more frequently.

Secondly, I want to find it prudent to avoid superlatives, which a summary “grading” of the previous year’s events surely implies. While this may make me a poor (reluctant) critic, admittedly, I have my favorite artists and have opinions about what galleries show consistently good work or are not afraid to push the envelope, but there’s this little voice in my head that asks “Who am I to make such pronouncements?” (See above paragraph.) It has the faint odor of boosterism, self or otherwise, which oddly enough becomes exclusionary. (As my mother says, “Don’t interrupt your work if it speaks for itself.”) To my mind this can quickly become the drugged teat from which malcontents suckle their spew. I’ve seen it happen. The hunger. The horror. The hunger.


 Portland Youth Philharmonic performs at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Thursday.

Portland Youth Philharmonic performs at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Thursday.

ArtsWatch loves a good party, but some of us have always loathed New Year’s Eve, which too often seems to be dedicated to nothing but inebriation and dodging drunk drivers, so it’s a treat to see so many attractive music events brightening the last days and nights of 2013 before we imbibe the bubbly. Listen up and drive safe!

Classical Revolution PDX, Thursday, Alberta Rose Theater, Portland. CRPDX’s annual Bachxing Day fun fest moves up (presumably commensurately in performance quality too) from the informal jam-environment of the late, lamented Someday Lounge to actual stage environs, and features J.S. Bach’s Peasant Cantata, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, and more, plus music by a bushel of other Bachs, including the extremely late, unlamented PDQ.

Portland Youth Philharmonic, Thursday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland. The youth orchestra’s 90th anniversary concert includes music by Verdi (performed by an orchestra of PYP alumni), Berlioz and Wolf-Ferrari’s smoky “Susanna’s Secret.”

Unsilent Night, 6:00 pm Friday, starts at courtyard in front of the Portland Art Museum, winds through downtown. I wrote about this mobile community music event for Willamette Week, and will update this entry with a link to that story as soon as it’s posted.

Oregon Renaissance Band, Friday and Saturday, Community Music Center, Portland; Sunday, St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, Gresham. In one of the season’s annually most entertaining shows, the dozen member ensemble sings and plays rarely heard, half-millennium old music by the great Irish musician Turlogh O’Carolan and lesser-heard composers like Caioni, Satldmayr, Goudimel and Viadana, on replicas of historical instruments (violin, viola da gamba, lute, sackbutts, recorders, cornamusen, krummhorns, bagpipes, racketts, tartold, spinettino, tabor) made by ORB founder/directors Philip and Gayle Neuman.

The Ensemble sang Victoria's Requiem in Portland.

The Ensemble sings Britten and more.

The Ensemble, Saturday, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Vancouver, and Sunday, Saint Stephen Catholic Church, Portland. I know we’re sated with Christmas everything, including music, but you’re unlikely to have heard much if any of the 20th century music this small vocal group drawn from the ranks of Portland’s finest will purvey: Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat Antiphonen,” Abbie Betinis’ “In This Tyme of Chrystmas” and “Dormi, Jesu,” Frank LaRocca’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” Jake Runestad’s “Sleep, Little Baby, Sleep” and music by British composers Kenneth Leighton, Peter Warlock Herbert Howells and several works by centenary composer Benjamin Britten.

Sound Narcissist, Sunday, The Waypost, Portland. Oregon music suffered a great loss when Classical Revolution PDX founder Mattie Kaiser headed to New York last year, but the vibrant violist returns for a visit with her new musical partner pianist Aaron Butler. The duo performs classics by J.S. Bach, and the great 20th century French composers Darius Milhaud (one of the “Four Faces” from 1943) and Maurice Ravel (1911’s “Noble and Sentimental Waltzes”), and contemporary composers Anne Farber (Variations of Light, 1987) and a 2010 piece that nickname-checks a familiar place, “The Dreams We Dream for the City of Roses,” by Oregon’s own Scott Ordway.

New Year’s Eve

Oregon Symphony, Monday and Tuesday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland. The orchestra sold out its run of performances of Beethoven’s grand Symphony #9 earlier this year, so why not bring it back especially when it can enlist immense Northwest-bred or based vocal talents like mezzo Angela Neiderloh and baritone Richard Zeller among the four soloists? But Ludwig van’s symphonic swan song is only the second half of the OSO’s concerts. The first brings a musical party led by Pink Martini pianist and symphony board member Thomas Lauderdale and some of his co-conspirators (singer Storm Large Monday and China Forbes), the von Trapps (members of the famous singing family that recently moved to Oregon), director Gus Van Sant (who’s actually a musician, too, with recordings to his credit, and cantor Ida Rae Cahana.

Eugene Opera, Hult Center, Eugene. opens its new production of Verdi’s ever-popular La Traviata, with music director Andrew Bisantz conducting and Metropolitan Opera soprano Leah Partridge starring as the doomed “fallen woman” Violetta in her company debut. The show continues January 3 and 5.

Friends of Chamber Music benefit, The Old Church, Portland. You know what happens… the champagne is tasty, New Years Eve is romantic, winter’s chill draws everybody closer… and pretty soon, jazz and classical music are flirting shamelessly, getting way cuddlier with each other than they’d dare by day, sans bubbly, and trysting the night away. Portland Chamber Orchestra has been staging benefits featuring jazz performers at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s this year, and the latest bi-musical assignation happens Tuesday night when the great Oregon jazz singer Rebecca Kilgore joins veteran jazz piano master Randy Porter (who’s played with greats ranging from Freddie Hubbard to Benny Golson) and bassist John Wiitala in the second annual NYE benefit for Friends of Chamber Music, the worthy presenting organization that’s brought so many top-rank touring classical musicians to Portland for the past three-quarters of a century. After an hour of 1930s and ’40s jazz standards, champagne, and a dessert reception, who knows what kind of steamy cross-genre intercourse will transpire?

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Although the winter solstice and a couple of major winter religious holidays have just passed, as the title of Portland Cello Project’s new EP suggests, every winter has an extended play in Oregon, so these seasonal CDs should still hold water, as it were, till around Independence Day. Other Oregon recordings here would make fine gifts regardless of the season.

Portland Cello Project, Winter (The Best Nine Months of the Year).

PCP’s most “classical” project yet — what with the starring role of Oregon Symphony principal cellist Nancy Ives and the band bringing the music last week to her band’s home base, Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (one of those temples of classical music that PCP had hitherto avoided in its quest to boldly go where no cellos had gone before) — the 7-song EP’s style suits its seasonal subject. If rock is the quintessential summer music, maybe it’s no coincidence that we turn to classical chestnuts like “Messiah” and “Nutcracker” around winter’s fires in order to fully express the wet season’s more complex moods. West side Oregonians will chuckle ruefully at the EP’s subtitle, but you can hear Hawaii-born-and-raised PCP founder Douglas Jenkins’s genuine if paradoxical fondness for his now-home state’s long grey season in his affectionate arrangements of music from Benjamin Britten’s classic “A Ceremony of Carols” (including “This Little Babe,” which rocker Lindsey Buckingham filched for his pre-Fleetwood Mac “I’m So Afraid”), the recent Fleet Foxes hit “White Winter Hymnal” (graced by omnipresent Portland trumpeter John Whaley), the familiar Renaissance carol “Riu Riu Chiu,” to the Chanukkah standard “Shalom Chaverim.” My only complaint: this EP isn’t extended enough. Maybe they’ll stretch out in live performances and give this wintry music the room it needs to breathe.

The Twelve Days of Electric Opera Company.

One of Portland’s leading alt classical institutions, which delighted rock and classical fans with its imaginative original arrangements of classical standards for rock band instrumentation, returns after too-long a hiatus with a new studio recording by its Electric Guitar Orchestra. Released, one day at a time with a different video each day, on YouTube and Facebook, the videos feature its signature switched-on takes on Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” ballet music and the exhilarating “Winter” concerto from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” and more, which does the music the favor of making the familiar strange and much more fun than a partridge in a pear tree. Metalheads can especially rejoice at the hilarious latest installment.

Michael Charles Smith, The Nutcracker Suite for Marimba Quartet.

First, all cellos, then mostly electric guitars, and now this! What a coincidence that the same music EOC arranged for guitars also appears in an arrangement for four marimbas and crisply played by another Oregonian, who adds J.S. Bach’s famous “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” to boot. Smith also has another new CD of marimba arrangements of the great doomed Portland composer Elliott Smith’s music.


David Friesen,“Morning Star.”

Oregon Jazz Hall of Fame jazz bassist and composer Friesen has been presenting Christmas season concerts in Portland for four decades now, and even if you’ve had your fill of Christmas music, his deep blue new arrangements of standards like “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night,” and others, performed by an all-star band including saxophonists Rob Davis and Tim Wilcox, pianist Dan Gaynor and drummer Charlie Doggett, transcend the source material and the season.

Cappella Romana, “A Time for Life” and “Divine Liturgy.”

Robert-Kyr_A-Time-For-LifeBest known for its sublime performances (and often exhumations) of ancient sounds, especially Byzantine and Orthodox music, the Portland-based vocal ensemble releases a pair of disks by living composers that will appeal to fans of both old and new music. The more familiar name to Oregon audiences belongs to University of Oregon professor Robert Kyr, one of the Northwest’s finest and most prolific 21st century composers. Cappella commissioned and premiered his moving “environmental oratorio” “A Time for Life” in 2007, and happily will reprise it this spring, when we’ll have more to say about Kyr’s ambitious setting of texts from the Greek Orthodox Service of the Environment, the Bible, and Native American songs, chants, and prayers. Unlike the Catholic Church in Galileo’s time, or Fox “News” and other corporate-funded ideologues today, the Eastern Orthodox church doesn’t deny ecological science; Kyr has drawn some texts from the church’s environmental protection proclamations.

‘A Time for Life’ is a ‘musical play’ that traces a journey from the glory of Creation as it was given to humanity (Part I) through our destructive behavior as demonstrated by the current global environmental crisis (Part II: Forgetting),” Kyr’s notes explain. “The final phase of the journey (Part III: Remembering) moves towards a hopeful future in which humanity serves as a responsible steward of the earth and thus realigns itself with the creative forces of existence.”

The singers of Cappella Romana and players of Portland’s Third Angle New Music, both expert long-time interpreters of Kyr’s music, excel in music that sounds tailor made for Cappella’s unique strengths. Despite some over-earnest and over-solemn moments, understandable given the grave subject matter, “A Time for Life” stands as one of today’s most accomplished musical responses to humanity’s greatest 21st century crisis, especially in the third section’s spiraling passages of virtuoso vocal voluptuousness and the unforgettable final ecstatic “Beauty before me…behind me…below me…above me…around me…”

Tikey-Zes_Divine-LiturgyCappella’s other new CD brings another ambitious work by one of its favorite composers, Southern California’s Tikey Zes, whose “The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” the ensemble premiered in 1992. Sung in Greek, it presents Zes’s musical portions of the liturgical setting of the words of one of Orthodox Christianity’s most sacred figures, but, due to CD space limitations, omits some parts of the service that Zes didn’t set and would be spoken in the actual Pentecost religious ceremony. Much of it is a dialogue between a priest or deacon and the chorus, with occasional organ accompaniment, and will doubtless primarily interest listeners who share the church’s spiritual inclinations. But Zes’s original music, though sometimes based on ancient Orthodox chants, sounds  less austere than the old stuff and richer in its use of counterpoint and other, later musical techniques. Performed with real skill and commitment here by some of the Northwest’s finest singers, it sounds both ancient and modern, timeless.

“Galileo Galilei,” Portland Opera.

Portland Opera scored a coup when America’s most prominent living composer, Philip Glass, impressed with its 2011 production of his opera about the great Italian scientist and his battle with religious orthodoxy, asked the company to make the first recording. The packaging and recording are as sumptuous as PO’s striking set design, and while the music isn’t top-rank Glass—too many by-the-numbers songs do more to advance the plot than to excite the ear, and too many stretches just chug along in Glass’s familiar signature style with too little variety—it’s a worthy monument, even if it doesn’t quite ascend the heavenly heights (or plumb the Stygian depths) of the company’s previous Glass opera recording, “Orphee.”

That’s no fault of the cast composed mostly of Portland Opera’s 2011-12 resident artists, with baritone Andre Chiang and tenor Richard Troxell especially excelling in younger and older versions of the title role. One scene pushes poor Lindsay Ohse as Galileo’s plucky daughter, Maria Celeste, to the top of her range and beyond, resulting in occasional shrillness, but she and the rest of the cast and orchestra, conducted by Anne Manson, generally sound quite convincing.

As in the production itself, the music really reaches escape velocity toward the end (here, on the second of two disks), after his showdown with the Catholic Church’s perennial (and in this case potentially fatal) insistence on dogma over evidence and reason, as the story sails backward in time toward the gobsmacked young Galileo’s initial sense of astonishment at the universe’s manifold, mysterious wonders—which is what excited the composer about the man and his story in the first place.

Terra Nova Consort, Frutos del Amor, Music of Medieval and Renaissance Spain.

Frutos del amor copy copyLike Electric Opera Company, Ashland’s TNC, which provided the music at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Green Shows from 990-2007 has been missing in action for too long, and like PCP, the award-winning, internationally acclaimed early music ensemble, consciously re-establishes the vital link between so-called classical and popular music unfortunately severed over the past century or so, to the detriment of all concerned. “In these early recordings, the blurring of the line between folk and classical idioms was cutting edge,” says music director Pat O’Scannell. “I am a great believer in the gritty and raw, the music of the people if you will. I like to bring in vocal sounds and timbres that are not what the modern classical listener is accustomed to hearing.”

She also follows historical practice by encouraging the band to improvise, as the sparse notation invites and composers of the time would have expected. Fans of Portland Baroque Orchestra and other historically informed bands that emphasize music’s dance origins will also appreciate Terra Nova’s approach to rhythm. “Rather than smoothing out syncopated rhythms by slowing them and thereby lessening their intensity, I have opted to go for faster tempi on pieces that seem to lend themselves to this, and let the rhythms strongly lead,” O’Scannell says. Three band members play percussion, and most double on various period instruments and vocals. The recording also benefits from the relatively rare sound of the hurdy gurdy (a string instrument that uses a wheel to create a drone and keys to play melodic tones), wielded by one of the masters of that archaic instrument, Ethan James, who also had a foot in pop music as a producer and engineer working with groups from Sonic Youth to Black Flag and also composing new music. The band recorded this performance with him two years before his death in 2003.

The authentic, folk-fueled approach animates Terra Nova’s versions of some of the most famous music of the Middle Ages, the “Canticles of St. Mary” compiled (and probably partly composed) by Spain’s King Alfonso the Wise, which recount tales of alleged miracles perpetrated in the name of Christianity’s holy virgin. Sometimes it sounds folkish, sometimes Middle Eastern, sometimes Iberian, mostly beyond superficial categories. In this recording, Terra Nova lives up to its name, making this music sound like it must have originally: earthy, and new.


Swarmius in Starlight

Former Portland State University prof Joseph Waters has been crafting his category-cracking music from southern California for the past few years. Unfortunately, his singular band Swarmius doesn’t make it to Oregon often enough; their recent appearance at PSU was one of my favorite shows last year. No two Swarmius numbers sound much alike, but most share a certain kaleidoscopic sensibility. Which is why I should have known better than to expect the deliciously unpredictable band’s new three-track mini album to sound anything like Waters’s recent work. Instead, the tripartite mini-suite of tone poems — “Icicles in Starlight,” which Waters calls “Buddhist impressionism”; “Snowfall in Starlight,” and “Aurora in Starlight” — luminously evokes (via vibes, harp, and soft saxophones) the shimmering images suggested by their titles and forces yet another reassessment of Waters’ impressive compositional range.


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‘A Circus Carol’ is familiar, yet incomparable

Mounting two distinct holiday shows with almost no crossover, Wanderlust's got it going on.

I’d heard of Wanderlust’s two holiday shows in (ahem) Christmases Past. I was aware that “White Album Christmas” and “A Circus Carol” were seasonal standards. Still, I had yet to seen them, and based on limited exposure to much older monthly shows at Bossanova, I’d made a few assumptions. I figured that the shows would be PRETTY great, but also pretty similar to one another, two forums to repackage the same talented circus acts, with a very simple narrative through-line.

When I caught “White Album” a couple weeks ago, the storyline at least was what I’d expected: a family of ringers from the audience—a little girl and her two ghastly parents—interacted contentiously with Mickens, and eventually the daughter (played by Meg Russell) took to the stage. Fair enough; broadly drawn heroes and villains drum up bigger yays and boos from an all-ages crowd. But as for the rest of the show…I was wowed. The band was particularly superb, and the routines were dazzling. The personnel were so plentiful, and the scene changes so sudden, and the show so long (about 3 hours), it was almost too much, and hard for even an avid note-taker like me to track. I thought, “Surely the next show will re-use some of this work. I’ll sit on these notes and write up both shows at once, telling what each notable act did at both events.”

Nope. As it turned out, “A Circus Carol” was completely distinct from “White Album,” with not just a different band, but a wholly different cast of characters, and a changed ratio of tricks to tale. Where “White Album” was a skill showcase hung on a thread of narrative, “Carol” was a full-fledged musical with very witty dialogue and a tasteful smattering of acrobatics. Two familiar faces from “White Album” were ringmaster Noah Mickens, who played Scrooge, and ingenue contortionist Meg Russell, who portrayed a (miraculously recovering to say the least) Tiny Tim. But by trotting out an otherwise all-new cast of multidisciplinary stars, Wanderlust proved so versatile and prolific that just chronicling their efforts was unwieldy.

As soon as jazz band 3Leg Torso shambled onto the stage in chimney sweep costumes, jawing at each “ovver” in cockney accents, we got a clue that this show would weave acting in with its musical offerings. A later appearance by accordionist Eric Stern as the Ghost of Hanukkah Present further cemented this, as he shuffled and shrugged around mumbling, “Oy, gevalt!” at Scrooge’s bad attitude. While the show tasked its musicians with acting, it also asked a handful of acrobats and swing dancers to sing. In the most extreme example, Terra Zarra as the Ghost of Christmas Past performed a head-spinning aerial routine on a hoop while singing “Carol of the Bells.” Vocally, it was already a feat of respiration and range, and acrobatically, it was a showcase of supreme grace and might. Altogether, in a sparkling ice-white leotard and skeletal makeup, she was pretty unreal. Swing dance luminary Russell Brunner even held up his half of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”—adequately, while, like a good dance partner, he let his lady shine. Bob Cratchit (played by juggler/balancer Charlie Brown) was notably near-silent and barely in character—kind of a shame since his off-kilter verbal wit was an obvious strength in a past appearance at Miz Kitty’s Parlour. Some story-suitable explanation for his props, from his stackable blocks to his sword, would have been helpful. Singer Scot Crandall as Marley did no tricks—except for singing “O Holy Night,” divinely.

Classic carols got plenty of reinterpretation: Mickens re-framed “Silver Bells” as an old man’s rant about the noise level of merriment (a la the Grinch). 3Leg reset “Joy To The World” as a Copland-esque composition with wild-west wide-open fifths, translated “Carol of the Bells” into a polyrhythmic world-beat jam, and mutated “Let it Snow” into a mournful minor polka. As the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come swung eerily from purple silks, the band used squeaks, rattles and resonating frequencies to create a first-rate horror-show soundscape. 3Leg’s versatility was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Even ghostly acrobats couldn’t upstage them.

The script found its humor in re-framing the Dickensian events into more modern terms: Do-gooders who canvased Scrooge’s counting house were “gentlemen on bicycles” (read: Mormons) the Cratchits (celebrating Hanukkah in this version) were strapped with their daughter’s student loans and payments on their Prius, Young Scrooge was too busy working on his MBA to properly court Belle. Scrooge defended his “humbug” attitude with a wry comment that his “friends at Coca Cola invented Santa Claus to go with their bottle.”

Performances that defy categorization are too often doomed to underrepresentation in the press. After all, it’s harder to declare “a fine representation of a form” when shows combine too many disciplines to parse. But in case you hadn’t heard, the huge collective of artists under the umbrella of Wanderlust Circus are generally working their multitalented asses off, full of surprises, and better than I (or probably you) could imagine. And even though the holiday shows have wrapped…it doesn’t show signs of stopping.

More Portland “Christmas Carol” Reviews: Portland Playhouse | Post5 Theater | Twist Your Dickens


A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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