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Frogz at 35: the mime still boggles

Imago shows off its brilliant menagerie for the hometown crowd before hitting the road again. Next stop: France.

Art Without Boundaries is  the title of an internationally focused history of modern dance by former New York Times dance critic and poet Jack Anderson, and it’s also an excellent description of the long-lived variety show of the imagination Frogz, now in the middle of its home season at Imago Theatre.

Sloth on the loose. (All photos by Jerry Mouawad/Imago Theatre)

Sloths on the loose. (All photos by Jerry Mouawad/Imago Theatre)

The masked theater piece, which is one of the city’s prime performance attractions during winter break, has been crossing all kinds of boundaries – formal, geographical, generational, and cultural – since Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle, Imago’s founders, started it with a single frog 35 years ago.

Today, the cast of characters includes two more frogs, alligators, orbs, a baby, penguins, sloths, paper bags, string, and a cowboy, performed by a troupe of five quick-change artists, with very different training, who are willing to travel the world. Never cute, and never patronizing, Frogz can be hilarious or poignant, satirical or sad, whimsical, or magical. It is family entertainment, to be sure, but with a highly sophisticated edge.

The frog that started it all was born  in 1979, in an untidy two bedroom apartment in Eugene, where Triffle (then Uselman) and Mouawad, who was studying theater at the University of Oregon,  were living together.  “One of the rooms was full of making things,” Mouawad said in an interview in early December.  “We were in our twenties, a lot of stuff came from there, and we eventually had to get a studio.”

Where it all began.

Where it all began.

The couple had met two years before in Portland, in a ballet class being taught by the late Danny Diamond. Diamond’s studio was in the same building as the Richard Hayes Marshall School of Theater Arts, where Marshall taught the methods of Parisian mime Jacques Lecoq. Mouawad was also studying with Marshall, and Triffle, who spent her adolescence in Mt. Angel, getting attention by making her many siblings laugh in the family kitchen, soon got hooked on the Frenchman’s approach to wordless comedy.

Lecoq seldom performed, but was well-known as a great teacher and director. He had invented a system (he was French, after all) that included a number of methods of creating and expressing character without dialogue, using physical improvisation and other movement techniques as well as masks to convey “what lies behind the words.” Actors such as Geoffrey Rush studied with him, but so did architects and psychoanalysts. In the Eighties, Triffle began extensive studies at his school in Paris, assisting him, and following Lecoq’s death in 1999, assisting his son. She is now a certified teacher of the Lecoq methodology.

Juggling fish: doesn't everyone?

Juggling fish: doesn’t everyone?

Mouawad fell in love with theater when he acted in a seventh grade play at the American School in Beirut, hence the drama studies at the U of O. But once he became acquainted with Lecoq’s approach to theater, it made a lot more sense to him than the conventional techniques he was learning there.   He remembered being asked, as a twenty-year-old, to develop the character of a man twice his age, with twice his experience in the world. “That was confusing,” he said. “The world is too complex for a twenty-year old.” What drew him to masked theater and the Lecoq methods was the distillation of the simplest element provided by the mask, and the limited options of how to portray something or someone he was not: a slinky, a polar bear, a baby.

Nevertheless, Frogz in its current, complex incarnation is far from simple to perform. It requires physicality, strength, endurance, visibility, and  something Triffle says you are born with if you have it: comic timing.  “[That] is crucial,” Mouawad said in an interview in early December at Imago Theatre.  “Everything else can be taught.” Rehearsals were about to begin for the current run, and Triffle and cast members Kyle Delamarter and Kaician Jade Kitko were also present for a free-wheeling interview in which laughter overrides the recording of much of what was said. Frogz spends most of its time on tour, circumnavigating the globe, giving 150 performances a year, most recently in this country.

Delamarter seems to have passed his 2002 audition because of what Mouawad called “crazy behavior” before he even went up on stage, where he was challenged to “not be funny.” He was an animator at the time, and was taken into the company to perform in Biglittlethings, one of three incarnations of what my grandson calls the “animal show,”  (ZooZoo was the third). Delamarter has performed in all three, as well as in such experimental works as Backs Like That, Splat and Beaux Arts Club.  The family shows provide the bread and butter that sustain the more (much more) experimental pieces.

Ah, the things that Paper can do.

Ah, the things that Paper can do.

Delamarter has spent twelve years touring with the show in all its permutations, and what he had to say about audience reaction confirms the observations of cultural anthropologists that body language, as much as other forms of social behavior including spoken language, reveals cultural differences, even in different parts of the United States.  Frogz had a six-week run in Boston some years ago at the American Repertory Theater, before Mouawad’s unsettling version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit was performed there. When it came time for the audience participation in the penguins’ game of musical chairs, in which the birds go into the audience, “no one would give us a seat,” Delamarter recalled. This was not as frustrating, however, as a recent performance in Amman, Jordan, where despite being shown a presenter-created video of how to behave in the theater that included instructions about turning off cell phones, the kids (and the adults) ruined the black-light finale by taking pictures with their devices, using the flash, and also tried to see how it all worked by shining their flashlights.

On the whole, “the show translates well because there is no [spoken] language,” Delamarter said. Wherever it’s performed,  “they like it as much as families do anywhere. We did another show for immigrants, and there was no problem.” Kayla Scrivner, production stage manager, who traveled to Egypt and Jordan with Frogz on its previous tour to the region, points out that the less affluent audiences are better behaved: in Egypt, the company did a show for kids who had no cell phones, and the kids were completely attentive to the goings-on.

Some baby!

Some baby!

In this country, audience response often has something to do with the venue and the size of the city.  In small towns, audiences tend to be more receptive because they don’t see much live theater.  When the company recently performed in Crockett, Texas, Delamarter reported, it was greeted by a wall of sound that resembled the welcome the Beatles used to get more than forty years ago. This reminded Mouawad of being in Asia in the Eighties, performing in the Orb mask, and having sixty kids attack him when he came offstage. Onstage, he “could communicate with a theater of 2000 people in Taipei, but I couldn’t ask any of them to get me a cup of coffee.” Or stop attacking him. No matter where they perform, they “carry the masks,” as Lecoq put it, so well and so convincingly that children in particular think inanimate objects like orbs and string are alive; that fighting, cheating penguins are real; that lizards very scary; and polar bears are never to be attacked.

Kitko, a tap dancer by training, joined Imago in 2010 to perform in Stage Left Lost. The first challenge to “carrying the mask,” he says, is the way it limits your vision. “You can’t see what you would like to be able to see, but you get used to it quickly. You have to know that the performers are going to be where you want them to be at the right times; trust them to be out of your way.” A number of tricks help with this: stage floors are marked, so when an Orb, say, is looking down, it knows where it is; and there are sound cues that are inaudible to the viewers.

Windbags, blowing up some beauty.

Windbags, blowing up some beauty.

In general terms, says Mouawad, to “carry the mask means to perform it. You don’t manipulate it, you don’t have complete power; in some ways you’re collaborating [with it]. The sightlines can make you feel completely isolated from the world around you, but you’re still communicating through the mask.”

Kitko, Delamarter, Jonathan Godsey, Pratik Motwani and Tera Nova Zarra (the only woman in the cast) will be working their masked magic at Imago Theatre through January 4.  Their next stop is France, home of Lecoq technique. Catch them while you can: they won’t return for another year.


Twenty performances of Frogz remain. Check here for times, prices, and reservations.

News and Notes Oregon music edition

Oregon musicians and musical arts institutions score honors and dollars.

Let’s indulge in some holiday cheer by sharing some of the good news Oregon music artists and institutions have recently received. Information comes directly from press releases.

Eugene Symphony NEA Grant

Just in time for its 50th birthday, the ESO scored a $20,000 Art Works award National Endowment for the Arts – its biggest in more than 15 years and second largest ever. It’ll support a January residency and concert with alto sax master Branford Marsalis, who often performs in classical and pop music settings too. He’s performing with the orchetra January 22 at the Hult Center and will work with students from area middle and high schools and the University of Oregon and Lane Community College.

CD Booklet Cover and Back - Semifinal - 8-13

New Jazz Competition

Speaking of jazz, Portland State University will host the first annual Jazz Forward Competition on February 20 and 21, 2015 during the 12th Annual Portland Jazz Festival. Designed and curated by Origin Records recording artist and PSU Jazz Faculty member Jeff Baker, a critically acclaimed performer and award winning educator educator in the Northwest region, Jazz Forward is an outgrowth of the four year PSU Student Stage, organized by the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute @ PSU. The partnership with Portland Jazz Festival joins other major regional student jazz competitions across the country and represents a worthy investment in the future of Oregon music.

Chamber Music Northwest NEA Grant

The annual Portland summer festival also received a $20K NEA Art Works award, largest in its history, to support this summer’s 30-concert festival, which includes seven world and regional premieres commissioned and co-commissioned by CMNW, and composed by Peter Schickele (the nom de norm of PDQ Bach and an excellent composer in his own right), Pulitzer Prize winners David Lang and Aaron Jay Kernis, Pulitzer finalist Paul Schoenfeld, and the terrific Portland composers Kenji Bunch and David Schiff. Several other Oregon theaters, dance companies and other artists received Art Works grants.

Portland State Chamber Choir Award

The latest CD by the PSU Chamber Choir, Into Unknown Worlds, has been named a “2014 Recording to Die For” in Stereophile magazine. The list, which includes very few classical recordings and no other student recordings, will be published in the February. “This marvelously recorded compendium of ‘modern choral music from the far reaches of the globe’ rises to the top thanks to the quality of its music and singing and to its captivating sense of space,” raved Stereophile and San Francisco Classical Voice contributor Jason Serinus. It’s available at available at Oregon-based,, and iTunes. I’ll have a review on ArtsWatch soon, just in time for stocking stuffer season. Spoiler alert: buy it!

Oregon Musicians RACC Up Support

Darrell Grant and Hamilton Cheifetz performed in Grant's "The Territory." Photo: Jim Leisy.

Darrell Grant and Hamilton Cheifetz performed in Grant’s “The Territory,” at Chamber Music Northwest. Grant won a 2015 RACC Project Grant to turn the composition into a CD. Photo: Jim Leisy.

The Regional Arts & Culture Council, which covers the three-county Portland metro area, has awarded $693,959 in project grants for calendar year 2015, including 66 grants to nonprofit organizations and schools, and 80 individual artists in Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington Counties. Oregonians winning support for various music-related projects include Beaverton Symphony Orchestra, Big Horn Brass, Matt Carlson/Golden Retriever, Creative Music Guild, Fear No Music, 45th Parallel, Metro Arts, Michelle Fujii, Darrell Grant, Jen Harrison/Northwest Horn Orchestra, Nat Hulskamp, Theresa Koon/John Vergin/ Sandra Stone, My Voice Music, Travis Neel, Obo Addy Legacy Project, One World Chorus, Stephen Osserman, PDX Pop Now!, Portland Symphonic Choir, Raphael Spiro String Quartet, Resonance Vocal Ensemble, Resonate Choral Arts, Ethan Rose, Venerable Showers of Beauty Gamelan, Vibe, and Jennifer Wright. Other grants (in theater, dance, education, and media arts, for example) have musical components.

This year’s project grants (one of several categories of grants doled out by RACC, including others for professional development, individual artists, and general operating support) were funded by the City of Portland, RACC’s workplace giving program, Work for Art, Clackamas County, Washington County, Multnomah County and Metro. Congrats to all — and to the Oregon audiences who’ll get to experience the music these grants help make possible next year.

Know of other recent good news in Oregon music? Please share it in the comments below.
Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

Film review: Transgressing women make good cinema

"Gone Girl" and "Wetlands" make the case for misbehaving women


How did women transgress on screen in 2014?

Jenny Slate refused to feel guilty or haunted about her abortion in Gillian Robespierre’s likable indie The Obvious Child.

Scarlett Johansson turned the predator-prey tables on some very unfortunate Scottish men in Jonathan Glazer’s austere, unnerving Under the Skin.

And the less said about Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy, the better, but you do have to admire her determination to buck comedy’s entrenched gender stereotypes.

In movie circles, 2014 will likely be remembered as the year that Guardians of the Galaxy’s frat-lite humor dominated the multiplex, while the arthouse crowd was captivated by Richard Linklater’s a-young-man-comes-of-age tale Boyhood.But it was also the year of a pair of films that confronted taboos about women.


Get thee behind us, ye grinches! Holiday happenings are in full swing this weekend in Oregon music, including several creative combinations and a couple shows that turn the weekend into a circus. For music lovers, remember that The Nutcracker, Messiah, and Beethoven’s last symphony (coming next weekend) really are some of the most beautiful of human creations; the challenge of the holidays is to try, although they’re overplayed almost to death and sometimes scoffed at for their very popularity, to hear these wondrous classics afresh.

Mark O'Connor and Friends perform in Portland. Photo: Deanna Rose.

Mark O’Connor and Friends perform in Portland. Photo: Deanna Rose.

Northwest Baroque Masterworks Orchestra, Les Voix Baroques, Thursday, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland.

A couple years ago, Portland Baroque Orchestra brought its fellow historically informed performers Pacific MusicWorks down the highway from their Seattle home to perform Monterverdi’s glorious Vespers of the Blessed Virgin at Trinity — one of the most stirring choral orchestral performances I’ve experienced in Portland. This most welcome collaboration, which also includes Early Music Vancouver, continues with a performance of three of the six cantatas that comprise J.S. Bach’s magnificent Christmas Oratorio (keep reading if you want to hear two of the others the next night), along with other German Baroque masterpieces. The concert is sold out but you can call 503–222–6000 to see if returned tickets are available.

Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland & Portland Chamber Orchestra, Wednesday, St. Henry Catholic Church, Gresham; Friday, St. Matthew Catholic Church, Hillsboro; Saturday, St Andrew Catholic Church, Portland; and Sunday afternoon, Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Lewis and Clark College, Portland.

Another productive pairing, this one featuring two of Portland’s most appealing classical music institutions, also pairs two great oratorios by another Baroque giant, Handel, that concern two religions, Judaism and Christianity: Judas Maccabeus, based on the story of Hanukkah, and the Christmas portions of Messiah. It’s a smart way to give audiences who’ve seen the seasonal perennial another good reason to hear it again.


Bach Cantata Choir, Friday, Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, Portland.

Adding value is also the approach chosen by the 60-voice choir’s artistic director Ralph Nelson, who pairs two more movements of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (not the same ones performed the preceding evening by Northwest Baroque Works, so it’s possible to see almost the whole shebang over two nights) with a French Baroque beauty, Charpentier’s Midnight Mass.


In Mulieribus, Friday, St. Philip Neri Church, Portland, and Sunday, Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater, Vancouver, WA.

Read my Willamette Week preview of this highly recommended concert by one of the state’s finest vocal ensembles.


Lonnie Cline leads Unistus Chamber Choir Friday in downtown Portland.

Lonnie Cline leads Unistus Chamber Choir Friday in downtown Portland.

Unistus Chamber Choir, Friday, First Christian Church, Portland.

This candlelight concert featuring both new and traditional seasonal tunes (some sung a cappella, others accompanied by organ, piano, violin, guitar and flute), offers a welcome opportunity to catch this excellent chorus in a downtown location instead of its usual Milwaukie haunts, or in Tallinn, Estonia, where it sang this summer in the world’s largest choral gathering.

Mark O’Connor & Friends, Monday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

Read my Willamette Week preview of the return of the great fiddler, a Northwest native, with his band in their American-music focused holiday show.

Unsilent Night, Tuesday, Portland Art Museum entrance.

Read my Willamette Week preview of the most unusual and delightful holiday ambulation, and Maria Choban’s ArtsWatch review of last year’s Portland happening.

Unsilent Night is Tuesday in Portland.

Unsilent Night is Tuesday in Portland.

Oregon Mozart Players, Friday and Saturday, First Christian Church, Eugene.

In anothr candlelit concert, the chamber orchestra plays another Baroque program featuring one of J.S Bach’s mighty Orchestral Suites and one of his ever-enchanting Brandenburg Concerti, a dazzling double cello concerto by Vivaldi, and a stirring symphony by one of J.S.’s composer sons, the underrated Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach.


A Circus Carol, Friday-Sunday, Alberta Rose Theatre, Portland.

Another fruitful collaboration: Wanderlust Circus and Portland musical tricksters 3 Leg Torso return in this family friendly version of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas story, featuring Vagabond Opera singer/accordionist Eric Stern and other Portland musicians and theater artists.

Oregon Symphony, Cirque Musica, Friday and Saturday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

Still another circus-meets-classic Christmas combo, this one features music from The Nutcracker and other seasonal sounds, plus renowned aerial acrobats.


Christmas Revels, Thursday-Tuesday, St. Mary’s Academy, Portland.

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary in Portland, the annual theatrical celebration involves far more than music, of course, but fans of 17th century English music will also want to hear performances of “the beautiful traditional and composed carols and songs … drawn from the golden age of choral music in England and Europe,” says music director Robert Lockwood. “Audiences will hear melodies they already know, but also some exquisite pieces by Byrd and others that were popular in the Elizabethan and Caroline age.”


Babes in Arms, Friday and Sunday, The Shedd, Eugene.

Closing weekend for this new production of Rodgers & Hart’s great 1937 musical comedy, which brought us “The Lady is a Tramp,” “My Funny Valentine,” and other classics.


Oregon Symphony, Sunday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

Soprano Nadine Sierra joins the orchestra for a family friendly matinee show including classical and pop arrangements of holiday favorites and an audience singalong.


Scott Kritzer, Friday, Community Music Center, Portland.

Scott Kritzer performs Friday at Portland's Community Music Center.

Scott Kritzer performs Friday at Portland’s Community Music Center.

The great Portland-based guitarist celebrates a half century of phenomenal fretboardery with a benefit for Portland Guitar Society’s Advani Fund, named of one of Kritzer’s late students, which helps “serious students of the guitar who have financial need to pursue their studies.” Kritzer will play Baroque works, music by Albeniz and Villa-Lobos, his arrangements of vocal baubles from Puccini and Schubert, some Christmas carols, and a set from Manuel de Falla’s wondrous ballet score The Three-Cornered Hat.


Andrew Brownell, Thursday, Portland Piano Company.

The award-winning pianist, who grew up in Portland, comes home for the holidays from his current base in London to play a Beethoven sonata, a Schumann fantasy, a Busoni Bach transcription, and best of all, a pair of 20th century Christmas classics by the mystical French composer Olivier Messiaen and the great contemporary American composer George Crumb.

Muse:Forward, Sunday, The Waypost, Portland.

Read my Willamette Week preview of Oregon’s 50th anniversary celebration of Terry Riley’s proto-minimalist anthem, In C.


Michael Stirling/Matt Carlson/Doug Theriault, Sunday, Alberta Abbey, Portland.

The ongoing performance series M.A.S.S. X features three of Portland’s most visionary musicians, finding common ground between live improvised electronic music and Indian classical vocal music.


Oregon Mandolin Orchestra, Sneakin’ Out, Friday, Walters Cultural Arts Center, Hillsboro.

The mandolin masters perform Arcangelo Corelli’s Baroque classic Christmas Concerto, music from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, and other seasonal offerings.

Portland Symphonic Girlchoir sings Saturday.

Portland Symphonic Girlchoir sings Saturday.

Portland Symphonic Girlchoir, Saturday, Zion Lutheran Church, Portland.

The award winning chorus sings Latin (in both senses) holiday themed tunes and other seasonal favorites.


Portland Youth Philharmonic, Sunday, Michelle’s Piano, Portland.

This fundraising party for the nation’s oldest youth orchestra features PYP performers on violin and piano, accompanied by treats, wine and other beverages.

Dance review: The politics of body-mapping

Yossi Berg and Oded Graf opened White Bird's Uncaged series with a funny case of body politics

On Thursday night at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, White Bird launched season 15 of its Uncaged Series, with the return of Israeli choreographers Yossi Berg and Oded Graf and the U.S. premier of their “BodyLand.” Berg and Graff originally made their debut in Portland in the Uncaged series in 2011 with 4Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer. (I missed that performance but you can read a review by my fearless leader Barry Johnson and another by  Marty Hughley, formerly of The Oregonian and now allied with ArtsWatch, too.)

I also attended the master class taught on Friday morning by Graff and Berg at Conduit Dance. I am happy to report that the class was full, 25 students compared to the five that attended Phillip Adams class back in January of this year. The class and choreography appeared to be a synthesis of Berg and Graff’s combined experience as dancers and people in the world. It did confirm a few things I had surmised from the night before: 1) the choreographers enjoy that moment of dropping out of pedestrian movement into dance, and 2) tenderness, sensuality and high drama were common threads throughout.

'BODYLAND' by Yossi Berg & Oded Graf,/ photo   Christoffer Askmansmall

‘BODYLAND’ by Yossi Berg & Oded Graf/ photo Christoffer Askmansmall

“Bodyland” featured five male dancers from four different countries—Berg and Graff from Israel, Pierre Enaux from France, Soren Linding Urup from Denmark, and Robin Rohrmann from Germany. With this mix of perspectives and in the context of the United States and the current world political climate, I was expecting a highly charged, controversial conversation onstage. Instead, the hour-long performance was a mindful and carefully sculpted, visually and aurally beautiful, humorous conversation among the men, both as individuals and as representatives of their respective countries. Humor is disarming and it keeps peoples minds open.


Fear No Music review: Fear No Excellence

Locally sourced sounds concert showcases the diversity of Oregon classical music


I have a few composer friends that I like to talk shop with, and we usually spend our time complaining about the lack of visibility of new music, the trials and tribulations of being an “emerging” composer (whatever that means) or how certain “big names” almost always soak up all the opportunities (not because their music is lacking, but more just a general frustration). Sometimes, though, I lose track of the fact that I live in an amazing town for new music, and fEARnoMUSIC’s inaugural Locally Sourced Sounds concert last Friday night was a refreshing reminder that local composers can still team up with world-class musicians and make real magic happen.

Voglar and Belgique play a new work by Portland composer Bonnie Miksch.

Voglar and Belgique play a new work by Portland composer Bonnie Miksch.


Locally Sourced Sounds is a project aimed at answering a question posed by fEARnoMUSIC’s artistic director Kenji Bunch: what does the music of Oregon sound like? FNM’s attempt to answer that question took the form of a call for scores sent out earlier this year to any and all composers in the state, regardless of age or status. The only requirement was they had to be based in Oregon and they had to submit an unperformed string quartet lasting 10 minutes or less.  This year’s winner was Tylor Neist whose ethereal electro-acoustic string quartet, Unfolding, proved to be a compelling counterpart to the other works on the program by veteran Portland composers David Schiff, Tomas Svoboda, Michael Johanson, and Bonnie Miksch.

The program began with Portland State University faculty member Miksch’s duet for violin and viola commissioned by violist Joel Belgique for his wife (and fellow FearNoMusic and Oregon Symphony musician) Ines Volgar for her birthday. Somewhere Like You, My Darling intended to “showcase their brilliance and musicality as performers, and allow them plenty of interpretive liberty,” according to program notes. The delightful showcase featured romantic vigor coupled with intimate musical dialogues. Colors abounded in the duet’s ten minute duration, and a couple of moments reminded me of lovers’ squabbles. Of course, these tensions always resolved to the intimacy established at the outset, and thanks to the couple’s marvelous playing, the music’s evocative intertwining sounds were incredibly clear.

Michael Johanson’s sinewy Toccata made a great contrast to the romanticism of Miksch’s lovers’ duet. The Lewis & Clark College professor’s piece didn’t waste any time picking up momentum. Beginning with an intense line played in unison between the piano and the alto saxophone, the fluttery musical figure served as the prime material before being subdued by a contrasting slower section — my favorite moment in the entire piece, but one that was sadly too short. Saxophonist Sean Fredenburg and pianist Jeff Payne’s performance of Johanson’s fun, energetic Toccata  were tight and well-rehearsed given the fireworks they were playing.

Next was Svoboda’s enigmatic Passacaglia and Fugue, Op. 87 for violin, cello, and piano. Svoboda’s work has been featured on a number of concerts over the last year in celebration of the retired longtime PSU faculty member’s 75th birthday, and the “dean” of Portland composers was well represented with this piece. Seemingly emerging out of nothing, the Passacaglia’s transparent textures featured a lovely melodic line, introduced by the piano, which was passed through the instruments, eventually building to a fever. One of my favorite moments in the entire concert took place about two-thirds through the Passacaglia; as the violin and cello were dueling it out, the piano re-introduced the opening melody in thick, fragmented chords. Pianist Susan Smith, a member of Portland’s other new music ensemble, Third Angle, stated the melody with a gravity that was difficult to describe but incredibly effective. As the melody was slowly reintroduced, the violin’s and cello’s wild melodic figures begin to fragment and elongate, and very slowly transitioned back to the thin transparent textures of the beginning — a magical effect which is extremely difficult to pull off. My one criticism would be that the final chord — a Mahlerlian 9th chord that was reminiscent of the ending of the Song of the Earth — was drawn out just a little too long, but it was easily forgivable given the magic that just occurred. The fugue that followed was vivacious and its subject (which was derived from the Passacaglia’s theme) opened the piece with a Copland-esque energy and closed the first half with a standing ovation.

After intermission we were greeted with Neist’s Unfolding, for amplified string quartet and electronics. For a process-based piece (meaning external elements such as mathematics or numerology determine things like melody or rhythm), it was surprisingly accessible, even blatantly tonal in some parts. The playback that came through the speakers sounded almost like a ghost ensemble: quiet, tense, and melodic without any one figure allowed foreground prominence. There were a couple of moments where I looked up and realized that the ensemble was sitting still; the sound coming through was an echo of their former self in the form of electronic looping. It was a fascinating effect, but I was left wanting more from the electronic aspects. Still, the quartet (coupled with a skilled sound engineer, Neil Blake) played well and seemed to do the piece justice. Unfolding has set a benchmark for the pieces that will follow in future score calls.

The final piece on the program Reed College professor David Schiff’s autobiographical New York Nocturnes, was inspired by his time in New York during his early twenties. It opened strongly with decisively jazzy figures sprinkled throughout the piece. Schiff’s harmonic language, which borrowed elements of jazz harmony while not confirming to jazz conventions, provided some nice surprises. There were many allusions to the composer’s well-known jazz influences such as “walking” bass lines in Nancy Ives’s cello part (a common jazz technique), among other figures. The piece ended in a surprisingly intimate fashion that earned Schiff a roaring ovation.

With this concert, fEARnoMUSIC provided a decisive answer to Bunch’s question. The music of Oregon is diverse, rich, and very much alive. I hope Locally Sourced Sounds, which Bunch intends to repeat annually, will continue to develop the bond between fEARnoMUSIC and the composers of Oregon. The state has a vast sonic terrain that is ripe for exploration.

Jay Derderian is a Portland-based composer who is currently serving on the governing board of Cascadia Composers, an organization dedicated to the promotion and performance of living composers in Oregon.

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

‘Nut’: doin’ what comes naturally

In this beloved and most artificial of holiday perennials, George Balanchine wanted his dancers to seem natural. In OBT's 'Nutcracker," they do.

There’s much to love in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, and in the way it is performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre. OBT opened its annual run at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday afternoon, with live orchestra under the baton of Niel DePonte, and would that the orchestra were present at all performances. Even when the musicians play Tchaikowsky’s score less than perfectly, both they and the dancers, working together, make me see and hear new things in a ballet I’ve watched more times than I can count.

Kelsie Nobriga as a Snowflake. Photo: James McGraw

Kelsie Nobriga as a Snowflake. Photo: James McGraw

Balanchine wanted the children to look natural (actually he wanted all dancers to look natural, in this highly artificial form) and they definitely do in the party scene that begins the familiar story of Marie’s Christmas Eve dream. Johannes Gikas, as Fritz, Marie’s brother, misbehaved so easily, he made me wonder if he is something of a handful at home.  Zaida Johnson, the afternoon’s Marie, thoroughly convinced me that she loved her basically hideous Nutcracker doll (injured by naughty Fritz) enough to risk that spooky Stahlbaum parlor to check on him after everyone else was in bed. Balanchine’s Marie is an activist, moreover,  brave enough to save the Nutcracker Prince from certain death by flinging her shoe at the Mouse King during their duel, although on opening day she missed him by quite a bit. Possession of a lovely port de bras doesn’t necessarily also mean possession of a good pitching arm.

I love, always, and mostly because of the music, the first act’s  “Grandfather Dance,” which is not dissimilar to a Virginia Reel,  and is a multi-generational affair. Company artist Thomas Baker danced a wonderfully arthritic grandfather, partnering Samantha Baybado as a less convincingly ancient grandmother. Chauncey Parsons as Herr Drosselmeier, avuncular in the party scene when he presented the dancing dolls and the Nutcracker, and deliciously sinister as he sets the stage for Marie’s dream, proved himself as good a character dancer as he is a bravura technician.

En route to the Land of the Sweets, Marie and her Nutcracker Prince, in which the excellent Collin Trummel gives fresh touches to a role he could probably do in his sleep, pass through the Land of the Snow, wherein lies some of the most challenging dancing in the ballet. That’s because of the artificial snow, which can make the stage nearly as slippery as the real thing. I was particularly taken with the centered, expressive dancing of Sarah Griffin, a new company artist this year, but all sixteen dancers, some of whom are advanced students, stayed on their feet and stayed together in sparkling fashion, like real snowflakes, none of them looking precisely alike.

When Balanchine premiered his Nutcracker in 1954, New York Times critic John Martin complained that there was no real dancing in it, that it was nothing but mime and pageantry and spectacle, the very things that Mr. B. had stripped from classical ballet in such works as Four Temperaments and Symphony in C. The Waltz of the Snowflakes in fact is pure, plotless movement, it struck me on Saturday, and so is the Waltz of the Flowers. In some versions of this ballet it can be a boring repetition of Snow, albeit to different music. What saves it here is the Dewdrop Fairy, an invention of Balanchine’s, and a role he made originally for Tanaquil LeClercq, whose speed and chic and technical finesse were legendary. Candace Bouchard, a very different dancer, has made this role her own in the last couple of years, and on Saturday she really nailed it, dancing it with such musicality and delicate strength she managed to distract me from the garish backdrop and ditto tutus worn by the candied flowers. Lighting designer Michael Mazzola does his magical best each year to spotlight the dancing and obscure the set, but there is just so much that even he can do. I noticed this year that he had changed some of the lighting for the preamble to the party, suggesting, as does the music, the spookiness to come.

Balanchine loved acrobatics and had much enjoyed performing what was called the Hoop dance when he was a student at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg, so along with the mime that tells the Sugarplum Fairy how Marie and her Nutcracker Prince made it to the Kingdom of the Sweets, he included it intact in his twentieth-century version of the nineteenth-century classic. Jordan Kindell infused his performance of what’s now called Candy Cane with what I imagine is much the same infectious joy as the young Balanchine.

And when danced well, as it was on Saturday afternoon, by Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier’s Grand Pas de Deux can certainly make the heart beat faster and the tears flow. Balanchine broke up this traditional pas de deux and got some flack for it, but Sugar Plum does her variation at the beginning of the second act, and I thought that, while Cheng plucked at the floor with her pointes with time-honored musicality, she was just a little too “look at me” presentational.  That quality went away by the time she danced with the courtly Simcoe, who pulls off the technical tricks here with insouciance and ease.

A roiling of rats. Photo: James McGrew

A roiling of rats. Photo: James McGrew

What I find it increasingly difficult to love are the “national” divertissements of the second act. Hot Chocolate is OK, and Martina Chavez gave it some actual heat on Saturday afternoon; and the Marzipan Shepherdesses can be charming. But Coffee and Tea are really dated, and not in a good way. In the hootchy-kootchy Coffee, Makino Hayashi undulated on pointe as required, but I think took it sufficiently seriously to omit the satiric edge that Alison Roper used to give it, which for me at least makes it nearly bearable to watch. Tea, with its winsome Orientalist cuteness, usually makes me cringe, and my heart sank when I saw that Ye Li, who actually is Chinese, had been given the assignment.  Li, however, omitted the head-tilting cuteness, jumping high and rapidly, but I couldn’t help wondering what he was thinking.

I was curious, too, to see what Colby Parsons, new to OBT this season, would do with the role of Mother Ginger; if he would camp it up the way others have, or play it relatively straight. He played it quite straight, and mostly got laughs when he brushed his teeth, logical after consuming all those sweets, but a bit of didacticism I hadn’t noticed before. That, since the Balanchine Trust is extremely picky about note-by-note, step-by-step fidelity to the master’s original, or more specifically, the version of the ballet set by the authorized répétiteurs, sent me scurrying through histories of this Nutcracker to see if that was part of the original choreography.  Turns out Mr. B. did allow for some improvisation in this role, so it’s permissible. Why the Trust refuses permission to have the party girls win the tug of war against the party boys every now and then beats hell out of me. Kevin Irving asked, and was turned down flat.

Casting changes throughout the run: there are three new Sugar Plums this year: Bouchard, Eva Burton and Chavez, each of whom will put her own stamp on the role.  That was encouraged by Balanchine, and he often adjusted the choreography for individual dancers. Absent the choreographer, it is the dancers, after all, with the help of their ballet masters (in this instance Lisa Kipp and Jeffrey Stanton), who at the end of the day are responsible for providing this Nutcracker much to love.


OBT’s “Nutcracker” continues at Keller Auditorium through Dec. 27. Some performances include live music, and others are performed to a recorded score; be sure to check the schedule. Ticket and schedule information are here.


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