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52 pickup: reshuffling the 2014 deck

ArtsWatch looks back on the year that was: 52 arts stories for 52 weeks

What: we’re at the end of this thing already? It’s been a spine-tingling, head-scratching year, this 2014. During it we learned, by way of a $142 million Francis Bacon triptych that parked for a few weeks at the Portland Art Museum after its private purchase at auction, that Oregon is a tax haven for collectors of expensive art, a cozy Cayman Islands for ducking those pesky tariffs.

It’s also been the year that:

– Portland Opera decided to reinvent itself as a summer festival;

– Oregon Ballet Theatre star Alison Roper and Portland Art Museum chief curator Bruce Guenther retired;

– and a U.S. senator from Oklahoma, quite possibly as high as an elephant’s eye, railed against a government grant to Oregon Children’s Theatre for a musical about zombies.

Here at ArtsWatch World Headquarters we’ve been going over our dispatches from the past 12 months, looking for those pieces that give a sense of where we’ve been, where we’re going, and how many intriguing little side trips we took along the way. In another shuffle of the deck we could have picked a totally different house of cards. But this is the deck we chose. Gentle readers, here you have ’em – 52 stories for 52 weeks. May 2014 rest happily in our memories, and 2015 break out of the gate with a robust sense of boldness and adventure.


Chase Hamilton in “Friends.” Photo: David Krebs

Chase Hamilton in “Friends” helps kick off the dance year. Photo: David Krebs



13: A roaring kickoff to the Second Dance Season. “[Tracey] Durbin and [Janet] McIntyre’s Ebb & Flow was the heavyweight of the evening, danced by a fine ensemble … and marrying dance and film fluidly, with each supporting the other: at one point the dancers sit down onstage, backs to the audience, and watch the film, too, absorbed in images of themselves underwater, sinking and swimming.” Bob Hicks reports that Eowyn Emerald’s show of works by eight choreographers got the year’s dance card off to a rousing start.

19: Portland Piano interview: Vladimir Feltsman. “I survived because I knew that finally I would be let out of there, and I had to be ready. I worked very hard for eight years; it was a blessing in disguise because I had plenty of time to learn new music, to read books, to develop. Those eight years were an important though difficult time, and I would not trade them for anything.” Jana Hanchett listens to the virtuoso Russian-émigré pianist talk about his long wait to leave the old U.S.S.R. and what it’s meant to his life and career.

26: To Mom, who isn’t here: Why Fertile Ground matters. “(T)he two most important things in my life happened at almost the same time: my mother died, leaving me with a cavernous empty space in my life; and Trisha Pancio Mead took me out to a downtown dive bar for whiskey sours with a group of theater people and said, ‘Guys, lets start a new play festival. And let’s make it open to everybody.’ This is why it matters that the Fertile Ground Festival is uncurated. Because the city was full of people like me who had stories to tell and the drive to create work, and we just needed someone to open a door.” As the city rushes toward a new Fertile Ground new-works festival in January (and you could look up A.L. Adams’ splendid coverage for ArtsWatch of 2014’s), playwright Claire Willett explains what’s important about it in the first place.


Chanticleer and VIR reviews: Testostertones

Venerable San Francisco choir and new Portland vocal ensemble showcase the beauty of men's voices.


We in Portland are blessed to be so close to San Francisco, the home of world class male choir Chanticleer, and doubly blessed that our Friends of Chamber Music embraces the group in their mission. They are turning Chanticleer’s short jaunt north into a yearly event, and it’s always eagerly anticipated, as packed houses have shown. This year’s visit, the last Friday in March at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, fully lived up to expectations, as the choir applied their trademark precision and clarity to selections ranging across the last 500 years of classical music, a nod to the Middle Ages, and as usual, several lively arrangements of spirituals, folk and pop tunes. They seemed to take fewer risks than on last year’s program, or maybe they were just running a tighter ship this year. There was certainly no dearth of challenging works beautifully presented.



The opening early music set featured the Spanish Renaissance masters Tomás Luis de Victoria and Francisco Guerrero, that darling of the Counter-Reformation Palestrina, and a respectful yet intriguing adaptation of medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen’s “O frondens virga.” (The adapter, who split the ravishing ending into many more parts than Hildegard would have likely contemplated, wasn’t credited.)

I generally prefer Victoria over Palestrina, the intense Spaniard over the reserved and lofty Italian, but Chanticleer’s selections turned the tables on me. Palestrina’s Marian motet “Gaude Gloriosa à 5” immediately and joyously took flight, its counterpoint almost bubbling like meadowlarks. The Spaniards seemed restrained by comparison, although Guerrero’s “Ave Virgo sanctissima” featured repeated high, sighing entries in the top voices, and the group’s (male) sopranos shone expressively every time.

Secular works of the time included Andrea Gabrieli’s “Thyrsis desired death…” and Claudio Monteverdi’s “Ah me, if you’re so fond…,” both on a universal guy theme: what gals won’t do and what to say to change that. Even Chanticleer’s expert performance failed to breathe much life into Gabrieli’s labored double entendres – my mind kept wandering to Monty Python’s “Nudge nudge, wink wink” sketch. Monteverdi had a happier way with the subject. By focusing on repeated sighs (“oimé”), setting them off clearly against doleful minor-key contrapuntal and harmonic surroundings, he made the point with much less fuss. Not that it’s easy to sing, though the group made it sound that way. The final line, “thousands and thousands of sweet ‘oimés,'” descended through pungent dissonances to a surprise ending in the major key. Maybe she just smiled and promised to “be back in a moment.”


Seattle Repertory Theatre review: Falling Victim to History

In Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way and The Great Society, drama gets diluted in historical explanation.

Not even the powerful figures enshrined on Mt. Rushmore could quite match Lyndon Johnson’s unsurpassed ability to impose his will on people and events. The 36th President’s vision and ambition equaled his political shrewdness. The Machiavellian knowledge accumulated over decades as master of Texas’s famously cutthroat politics and the Senate’s byzantine ways equipped him, he imagined, to literally change the world. Inasmuch as the character trait that made him powerful — his hubristic belief that he could through cunning and power politics bend anything to his will — is also the tragic flaw that leads him to overreach, Johnson boasts all the qualities of a tragic hero, and is the most Shakespearean of American leaders.

Like Shakespeare, Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan strives to turn history into drama in his two-play LBJ cycle,  All the Way and The Great Society, which debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012 and 2014 and are running through January 4 at Seattle Repertory Theatre (though the run is sold out). That’s the brief assigned by OSF’s noble American Revolutions project, one of the great achievements of 21st century Oregon arts, which “asks that each play be based in history and explore a moment [my italics] of change. Beyond that, the playwrights choose the content, form, and style of their work.” So LBJ offers an ideal dramatic opportunity for classic tragedy: a seemingly irresistible leader who confronts truly immovable historical forces — and loses.

Surrounded by supporting dramatis personae who would be protagonists in any other drama, ranging from Martin Luther King to the ghost of John F. Kennedy (embodied by his equally tragic brother) to the incarnations of evil Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, Johnson’s tragedy would have had the Bard himself licking his quill to thrust it onstage.

Jack Willis (center, as LBJ) and Danforth Comins, Michael Winters, Wayne T. Carr and Peter Frechette in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s All the Way (2014). Photo by Chris Bennion.

Jack Willis (center, as LBJ) and Danforth Comins, Michael Winters, Wayne T. Carr and Peter Frechette in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s All the Way (2014). Photo by Chris Bennion.

But instead of exploring a moment, Schenkkan chose to explain an era. The battle over delegates at the 1964 Democratic convention during the Freedom Summer turmoil, Johnson’s desperate dance with the equally torn King, his confrontation with racist / opportunist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, his duel with the Kennedys, the passage of the landmark 1964  civil Right Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act (two of the greatest legislative triumphs in American history) and above all, his wrestling with the Vietnam War (and the larger geopolitical struggles it exemplified) … each of those and many others would make for more coherent dramas.

But trying to cram them all into the confines of a single, relatively conventional dramatic structure predictably produces a similar outcome to President Johnson’s attempt to handle them all at once in real life. As a result, Schenkkan’s cycle succeeds better as history than as theater.


Put away the wrapping paper, break out the bubbly, and uncork some sparkling Oregon music as we bid 2014 farewell.


Portland Youth Philharmonic, Friday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

Read my Willamette Week preview of the nation’s oldest youth orchestra’s annual holiday concert.

Oregon Renaissance Band performs in Portland.

Oregon Renaissance Band performs in Portland.


Oregon Renaissance Band, Friday-Sunday, Community Music Center, Portland.

Read my Willamette Week preview of this truly old fashioned Christmas.


Noah Bernstein Trio, Friday, Wine Up On Williams, Portland.

Portland jazzers convene for a post-Christmas session.


Classical Revolution PDX, Friday, Vie de Boheme, Portland.

Read my Willamette Week preview of the annual Bachxing Day bash.


The Ensemble, Saturday, Central Lutheran Church, Eugene, and Sunday, Saint Stephen’s Catholic Church, Portland.

Read my Willamette Week preview of this enjoyably out-of-the-ordinary choral concert.


Sound Narcissist, Sunday, The Waypost, Portland.

Read my Willamette Week preview of this show featuring the welcome if temporary return of Classical Revolution PDX founder Mattie Kaiser.


VIR, Tuesday, First Christian Church, Portland.

The men’s choir sings music by Eric Whitacre, Alfred Burt (who wrote some wonderful mid–20th century Christmas music), Benjamin Britten, the pioneering medieval composer Perotin, Renaissance master Dufay and a world premiere composed and conducted by Seattle composer/conductor Eric Banks (who leads The Esoterics).


New Year’s rEVElry


Oregon Symphony, Tuesday and Wednesday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

The orchestra’s annual NYE party (which needed a second night to hold everyone who wanted to attend) is becoming one of the state’s most valuable holiday traditions. This year’s edition adds Portland teacher and jazz institution Thara Memory and one of his brightest proteges, the brilliant jazz bassist/composer/singer, Esperanza Spalding to Beethoven’s mighty Symphony #9.

Eugene Opera-Elixir of Love 2014 from Attic Media, Inc. on Vimeo.


“The Elixir of Love,” Eugene Opera, Hult Center, Eugene.

Read my Eugene Weekly preview of Donizetti’s bubbly classic.


Randy Porter Trio, The Old Church, Portland.

Read my Willamette Week preview of this Friends of Chamber Music concert.


Melao de Cuba, Mississippi Pizza, Portland.

Read my Willamette Week preview of this party featuring the music of America’s new/old frenemy.


MarchFourth Marching Band, Tuesday and Wednesday, Alberta Rose Theater, Portland.

Brass and percussion unite with electric bass, guitar and even vocals in a funky melange of marching music from around the world.


DJ Anjali & The Incredible Kid, Bossanova Ballroom, Portland.

Read my Willamette Week preview of the Indian/Pakistani-influenced DJs New Year’s Eve dance party extravaganza.

Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

Oregon classical music releases: Five 2014 favorites

Oregon composers and performers shine in new and old music.

It’s an arts journalism tradition to fill the year-end concert void with “best of the year” lists. I can’t pretend to have heard more than a fraction of Oregon music CDs released this year, so this roundup just represents a few favorites I expect many classical music-oriented ArtsWatch readers will relish.

Portland Baroque Orchestra, J.S. Bach: Concertos for Oboe and Oboe d’amore (Avie).

“Bach used the oboe as no other composer had before,” 20-year-veteran PBO oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz writes in the liner notes to PBO’s new CD, “treating it as an equal partner to the voice, and showering it with lyrically and technically demanding roles… the oboe must have been one of Bach’s favorite instruments,” receiving thrice as many solos as the violin in his cantatas.

PBOWhich makes the absence of any surviving manuscripts for oboe showcases in Bach’s most alluring music — the concertos he wrote in Cothen before moving to Leipzig to write primarily sacred music with voices — especially disappointing. However, some years ago, scholars realized that some of Bach’s lost oboe (and other) concertos were hiding in plain sight: in the guise of harpsichord concertos they deduced the busy Bach (obliged to deliver a huge quantity of music on deadline) had arranged from earlier concertos featuring other solo instruments — including the oboe and its older cousin, the larger and mellower oboe d’amore.

One of those scholars is Ruiz himself, who’s performed with most of the leading historically informed ensembles, teaches at New York’s Juilliard School and has mentored many of America’s leading Baroque oboists. His reconstruction of some of Bach’s Orchestral Suites with Monica Huggett’s Ensemble Sonnerie (recorded on a chart-topping, Grammy-nominated CD) proved far more persuasive than the previous editions that commonly — and mistakenly — replaced the composer’s intended oboe with flute.

“In Bach’s time, the oboe was considered to be the electric guitar of the 18th century, truly a virtuosic vehicle in the right hands,“ Ruiz told me, ”and there were plenty of right hands around. I hope this [reconstruction] stretches expectations of the Baroque oboe.”

Now, again teaming with Huggett, Ruiz continues his revelation — or more accurately restoration — of the oboe’s signficance to Bach’s music. This CD of concertos reverse-engineered by Ruiz and others from Bach’s own arrangements for harpsichord (with one exception compiled from a cantata movement and a concerto fragment) into showcases for oboe, oboe d’amore, and violin and oboe should re-establish the primacy of Ruiz’s instrument in Bach’s music. (In one case, it reclaims the spotlight from an earlier reconstruction from harpsichord to violin that, Ruiz contends, doesn’t fit that instrument nearly as well.) And, following its acclaimed 2012 St. John Passion recording, the disk could also place Oregon’s own historically informed period instrument band in the international spotlight for authentic Baroque recordings.



Every Christmas movie is set during the holidays, but not every movie set during Christmas is a holiday film. The action movie Die Hard has the most popular reputation as a holiday-film-that’s-really-not, an antidote to saccharine annual standards, a Christmas movie for people who don’t actually like Christmas movies (Zack Handlen offered up the term “Christmas-adjacent”). Here is a not-too-festive selection of worthwhile films that serve up only a faint flavor of the holidays.


Cascadia Composers review: Strange Brew

Ingredients for a full fun house


The impresario ushers me in. “It’s chaos in there,” he twitches. “Of course it is,” I smile. Dan Brugh, mad scientist of concert presenting for Cascadia Composers, isn’t smiling. He turns and chases someone I’ve never seen in this organization, holding a wastepaper basket full of white sausage-like stuffed alien animals I’ve also never seen in this organization. Composers At Play: New Art Music That Has Some Serious Fun with Improvisation is the title of tonight’s event. If it were going smoothly and everything was under control, it wouldn’t be improv now, would it?


He’s a witch of trouble in electric blue

In his own mad mind he’s in love with you, with you

[The Audience!]

(“Strange Brew” – Cream) 

For this show, Brugh (pronounced “brew”), like any smart presenter targeting a general audience, set the scene for a family friendly concert with the venue he chose, southeast Portland’s Community Music Center in the middle of a family friendly neighborhood, and the playful graphic design he delegated to Cascadia composer and performer Jennifer Wright.


Jennifer Wright’s program designed for Cascadia Composers At Play concert.

Jennifer Wright’s program designed for Cascadia Composers At Play concert.

But that alone doesn’t account for the bewitched behavior of the evening: Composers laughed and played and gushed over fussing kids, performers loosened up and showed spontaneous comedic sides and toddlers danced. Brugh’s uncanny instincts for figuring out what audiences — not just performers — need is what makes his Cascadia shows so successful.

Not every concert — not any concert – can be like this one. But anyone can learn from it some things that make concerts of original music more likely to please even the youngest, toughest critics. What was Brugh’s secret love potion #9?


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