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100 moments in a very strange year

2016 in cultural review: a cavalcade of triumphs, challenges, and looming questions in Oregon arts

And that, saints help us, was the Year That Was.

The year we are only now escaping seemed written, like many others, by a sardonic jokester of a science fiction novelist: Really? But Annum Two Thousand Sixteen also dipped into the fertile and frightening world of Dystopia, a chilling prognostication of a future all too parallel to our own present, exaggerated only the tiniest of bits. No need to go over the details here. We’ve all been living them.

“Father Time,” Pieter Cornelis Wonder, 1810, oil on canvas, 48.8 x 42.1 inches, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The old boy’s had better years than 2016. Time to pick up his game in 2017.

How have the arts responded? In Portland and the rest of Oregon, in a dizzying variety of ways. A few were direct challenges or responses to the year’s political and cultural ruptures, from race relations to the rise of authoritarian movements here and abroad. Many looked to the past to revisit the profundities of great cultural achievements or find similarities to current events. Some struck out in new directions. Some looked at big things. Some found whole worlds in the details. Some were simply about beauty in the world, or the lack of it, or the comedy of life, both gentle and harsh. Part of the nature of art is to confront the real world of politics and current events. Part of its nature is to bypass the public and ephemeral to explore the private, the enduring, the movements beneath the surface that reveal the stubborn and sometimes gracefully evolving nature of things. Creativity strikes out in all directions, surprising only when it fails to surprise.

ArtsWatch has been tracking the creative culture obsessively, painting a real-time portrait of a notoriously shifting subject. Or making a collage. The year saw solid gains and triumphant highs, from the nurturing of Theatre Diaspora as a voice for Asian American actors and playwrights to the blossoming of the Fertile Ground new performance festival to the Oregon Symphony’s innovative collaborations with visual artists in its SoundSight series to an exhilarating rise of new and exploratory voices in the often staid world of “classical” music. And it saw heartbreaking lows, including the deaths of many leading cultural figures: Edward Albee, Harper Lee, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Umberto Eco, Elie Wiesel, architect Zaha Hadid, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Merle Haggard, singer Sharon Jones of the Dap-Kings, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Prince, and more. Among those locally were artist Rick Bartow and musician Robert Huffman (see stories below); singer Signe Anderson, original lead vocalist of the Jefferson Airplane; Ted Mahar, longtime movie critic for The Oregonian; and the great, wonderful writer Katherine Dunn, author of the great, wonderful novel Geek Love, who was memorialized sweetly a few days ago by Caitlin Roper in the New York Times Magazine.

As 2016 ends, we offer 100 pieces from this most puzzling, perilous, and all too transformative year – not the “best,” necessarily, but a rigorous sampling of Oregon’s cultural scene over the past twelve months.

Call it a map, if you like, and remember that a map is only an outline of an actual terrain. Our cultural guide to the science-fiction landscape of 2016:

– Bob Hicks






12: Yads, Torahs, history’s pointing hand. “We live in a time when knowledge and history are not just disposable, in that casual pop-cultural who-cares way, they are also actively and intentionally destroyed.” Three small shows at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education illustrate the tentativeness of history, the importance of reclaiming even its shards, and the beauty of meaningful objects. (Bob Hicks)


‘Turangalila’ gang-review: Illumination from many angles

ArtsWatch music writers and guest reviewers gang up on Oregon Symphony multimedia performance of Messiaen's mega-symphony


Photos by Jacob Wade

Editor’s note: a composition as ambitious, ginormous, and multifarious as Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalilla symphony demands more than a single journalistic response. ArtsWatch asked several of our stalwart music writers to weigh in on the Oregon Symphony’s December performances of the French modernist mystic’s mighty 1948 megalomusical creation. Two of those writers were laid low by travel difficulties and illness, but three survived to tell the tale, and we roped in a couple of distinguished guests to substitute for the missing mavens.

A Tapestry of Interwoven Polysensory Delight

The big trouble with this concert is that now I want every orchestra concert to be like this. Won’t Beethoven’s majestic old Ninth seem a little empty without animation projected on the walls? Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with no visuals? Unthinkable! We demand light shows at every concert.

The animation itself was deliciously surreal. Giant slabs of color rise up over the orchestra like ancient transdimensional beings out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs space opera; abstract lines and squiggly polygons play against the classical curves of the Schnitz‘s Renaissance balconies and plaster spandrels; nuts and bolts and screws dance an uncanny conga-line up the balustrades; and a sullen grey patch of dark clouds projected on the proscenium arch glooms periodically down on us like the cataracted eyeball of God.


Oregon new music recordings 2016: Small beauties

Some of Oregon's most intriguing 2016 releases apply big ideas to small-scale compositions

The Warbler Sings, Paul Safar
Composer/pianist Safar had already forged a reputation as one of Eugene’s most intrepid musicians in the classical tradition, thanks in part to his years of concerts and festival appearances via Cherry Blossom Productions, the company he set up with his partner, singer Nancy Wood. His reputation spread statewide thanks to his many appearances in Cascadia Composers concerts, then his 2013 Composer of the Year Award from Oregon Music Teachers Association, which resulted in the commission for his 2016 CD’s title track. That airy, seven-part setting of haikus by the famed Japanese poet Basho finds a unique place between jazz (especially in trumpeter Dave Bender’s trumpet lines and bassist Nathan Waddell’s interjections), classical music (Wood’s elusive, evocative vocal melodies), and Japanese music (spare, almost austere atmosphere of asymmetric abstraction evident in Safar’s pianistic sprinkles).

More birds flutter through a pretty pair of short, solo piano intermezzi, “Geese in the Moonlight” and “Dawn, Singular Heron,” joining other denizens of nature: the Middle Eastern cello / dumbek / zills trio “Cat on a Wire”; the playfully ominous “The Spider,” and the narrated fable “Moonfish” (both featuring Wood). Waves sparkle and heave, via Safar’s piano and Woods’s lovely vocals in the closing “Ocean.” These and the other concise, tuneful tracks should appeal to a wide range of listeners, not just classical fans. Most have highlighted Cascadia concerts over the past few years, and there’s no substitute for seeing an electrifying performer like Wood live, but this diverse recording stands on its own as one of the most enjoyable contemporary Oregon classical music releases of the last decade.

Invisible Light, Delgani Quartet
Safar’s music also graces the debut release from Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet, which in under two years has zoomed to prominence in the Willamette Valley and beyond. Their collaboration with another Eugene based artist, actor Ricke Birran, on Safar’s four settings of music from classic literary sources ranges from a gripping, over-the-top reading from The Pied Piper of Hamelin; an antic take on Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter, an ominous percussive jungle chant to William Blake’s “The Tyger”; and an incantatory Satanic soliloquy from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Maybe their experience in historically informed performance practice helped the ensemble embrace the ancient, Middle Eastern spirit of Portland-born composer Lou Harrison’s gravely beautiful 1978 String Quartet Set (written for Canada’s Orford Quartet and first recorded by the Kronos Quartet), which relies on the Pythagorean (a/k/a ditone) tuning used in the millennium before the Renaissance in Europe and the Middle East as well as Turkish and French baroque forms. University of Oregon prof Terry McQuilken’s scintillating title cut is based on the music of a more recent source: an early 19th century shape-note hymn, evolving into a tuneful suite that passes through sections touched by jazz, contemporary classical and even medieval influences.


A cozy chat with Hershey Felder

The "Irving Berlin" creator and star talks about life, politics, the return of "Willesden Lane," and his New Year's Eve singalong at the Armory


If you’re feeling the holiday blues or post-election anxiety, or you’re depressed by a seemingly irreparable schism in the American population, you should come to Portland Center Stage to see and hear Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin. Come before the show closes on Friday. Or even if you’ve seen it already, come to the big Great American Songbook Singalong on New Year’s Eve. You will, once again, feel the warmth of community. You’ll see the son of Jewish immigrants call up the life of an iconic Jewish immigrant in song, piano music, and storytelling. At times you can sing along, softly or lustily, as have many audiences before you. And you may shed a few tears. But for sure, you’ll leave with a smile and a warm heart.

Hershey Felder in the world premiere production of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” at Geffen Playhouse in 2014. Photo by Eighty Eight Entertainment.

On the recent Winter Solstice I had a warm conversation in a chilly Green Room with Felder, with occasional input from his director, Trevor Hay, and enthusiastic listening from PCS’s Claudie Jean Fisher. We touched on everything from the rigorous schedule of daily performances, to music and humanity, to the current state of nation.


ArtsWatch Weekly: season of gifts

Closing out 2016, giving to the groups that keep Oregon's culture alive and help it thrive

We are almost to an end and almost to a beginning, and neither is truly an ending or a beginning except in the way we divide and parcel time. Because we are a calendar- and clock-driven species, though, and because we live in a culture that regulates the trading chips we call “money,” the division of time between one year and the next has consequences. One such consequence is that we are in the time of giving, to the nonprofit organizations we believe in, and taking, of the tax credits available when we give those gifts before the end of the calendar year.

Like other nonprofits, arts groups large and small can’t cover their costs on ticket income alone. Figures vary, but it’s not unusual for cultural organizations to cover roughly half of their costs through earned income, and rely on grants and gifts for the rest. And while large donations are crucial, the lifeblood of most cultural groups is those smaller, regular, individual or family donations from everyday people – from you and me.


Christian Gerhaher review: Mahler in miniature

Singer's survey of smaller scale works shows the composer's more intimate side


Mention Gustav Mahler to any classical music fan (and many who aren’t), and chances are they’ll think “big” – concert-length symphonies for massive orchestras, or superstar conductor and opera director. Less well known is his “small” side: several dozen exquisitely crafted songs with piano that range from the subtle and concentrated to numbers that wouldn’t have been out of place on the pop charts of his day, had there been any.

Huber and Gerhaher performed Mahler at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

Acclaimed German baritone Christian Gerhaher and accompanist Gerold Huber brought the most subtle and most concentrated ones to Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, Sunday afternoon December 11, as part of Friends of Chamber Music’s cherished Vocal Arts Series. Only two of the eleven songs they performed rose to rafter-rattling volume, and the audience was so rapt that they couldn’t bring themselves to applaud between songs even when the printed program indicated a break. The two musicians must have been reassured, though, by the enthusiastic ovation they got at intermission and at program’s end. For the most part, it was richly deserved.

“Don’t look at my songs!” “I breathed in a gentle scent,” “At midnight,” “If you love for beauty,” and “I’ve become lost to the world,” five songs on Friedrich Rückert poems that Mahler wrote later in life, were like perfectly formed pearls, warm to the touch from being worn close to the heart. Voice and piano melded as one, even though Huber did not obviously hold back and the piano lid was fully open. Likewise, expression was well balanced – an effortless intimacy, even vulnerability, that never became affected.


Trinity Cathedral Choirs and Portland Baroque Orchestra: Christmas feast

German baroque cantatas highlight Trinity's annual Christmas concert and wassail party


Weihnachtskonzert (Christmas Concert) at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Church this past Saturday presented a Christmas feast, delicately layered with the texts, sounds and spirit of the season. The perfectly palindromic programming (A/B/b/B/A) made a kind of German Baroque sandwich, with cantatas of savory Bach bread on the outside, and lusty Buxtehude meat inside, with a sweet/tangy relish of a shorter Buxtehude organ piece slathered into the middle.

Dana Marsh conducted Portland Baroque Orchestra and Trinity Cathedral Choir. Photo: Wade Swearingen.

The menu’s main ingredient was the 4th century Ambrosian chant melody “Veni Redemptor Gentium” (Come Holy Ghost), a melody used by composers from the 17th century (Praetorius and Schutz) to the 20th (Hindemith and Penderecki). Bach’s settings of this melody appeared in the first Advent cantata of the evening, as Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” (Now come, Saviour of the heathens, BWV 61) and later in the last, Schwingt freudig euch empor” (Soar joyfully upwards to the stars, BWV 36). This dominant musical theme, “the coming of the spirit” was surely part of Trinity guest director Dana Marsh’s architectural vision for the evening.


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