christopher corbell

’The Emerald Tablet’ and ‘Nonsense’ reviews: from playground to pulpit

A pair of Portland composer showcases range from the delightfully ridiculous to the seriously sublime

Last month saw two concerts of new, made-in-Portland music, each entirely devoted to a single Portland composer. Both create contemporary classical music music influenced by music from outside the classical realm.

And that’s about the only similarity between the music of Dan Brugh and Christopher Corbell. The former trained at a prestigious music academy (Interlochen) before matriculating at the University of Oregon, while the latter is mostly self taught. Brugh’s music incorporates electronic elements including synthesizers more commonly used in pop music, while Corbell, a folk-rock singer songwriter before embarking on the study and creation of contemporary art music, draws on ancient and modern folk and classical influences.

The music reflected the two composers’ divergent personalities too. Attending Brugh’s show was like jumping into his personal musical playground, a Brian Wilson sandbox of diverse musical and optical colors, cool synthesizers, imaginative sounds, absurdist verse, even giant mechanical flying fish.

Brugh, Wright and unidentified flying fish in “Nonsense.” Photo: Matias Brecher.

Corbell is as outwardly focused as Brugh looks inward. The former Classical Revolution PDX leader thinks and feels a lot about contemporary political and social issues, and passionately expresses his beliefs in his music and writings.

Both concerts mostly succeeded in reaching beyond their inventive creators’ own fertile imaginations and connecting with audiences. While Brugh’s was mostly about the wild, sometimes wacky world in his own head, Corbell’s looked outward, to the equally tumultuous world around him, and us.


MusicWatch Weekly: gratitunes

Oregon music to be grateful for during Thanksgiving week

Even on this traditionally home-focused Thanksgiving week, several attractive concerts, like Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends, and Friday’s Portland Cellohead Project show have already sold out, but if you’re craving a euphonic dessert after Thursday’s feasting (assuming you’re one of the lucky ones who are able to feast at this time of surging Oregon homelessness), here’s some recommendations from Oregon’s musical menus. If you have other recommendations, please list in the comments section below. And enjoy this holiday devoted to gratitude. We ArtsWatchers are certainly grateful to our readers and supporters for helping us bring Oregon arts to you all year. If you’d like to express your gratitude in a tangible way that will help us do that, here’s how.

Christopher Corbell’s music is showcased at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall Tuesday. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

Mannheim Steamroller
Oregon Symphony members join the long-running synth-stoked holiday music show (actually born not in Germany but in Omaha) that’s so popular it’s performing in two cities hundreds of miles apart on the same night during this tour.
Friday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, and Sunday, Hult Center, Eugene.

Portland Cello Project
Friday’s show is sold out, but you can catch the celloriffic ensemble’s tribute to OK Computer — still my fave Radiohead album — that requires a full band, winds and brass to even attempt to capture its dark richness.
Saturday, Revolution Hall, Portland.

Classical composers including Brahms, the French composers known as Les Six, and others have occasionally teamed up to write a collaborative composition, and that’s what Portland’s fearless new music ensemble asked four of Portland’s best (and very different) composers to do for them. Renee Favand-See, Texu Kim, Mike Hsu, and Jay Derderian have each written a movement for flute, viola and piano based on material from a famous Franz Liszt bagatelle. The show also includes separate music by another Portlander, Ryan Francis, and two acclaimed non Oregonians, Armenian-American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian and Israeli-American composer Shulamit Ran.
Monday, The Old Church, Portland.

Paquito d’Rivera performs at Portland State Monday.

Paquito D’Rivera
The jazz show — make that shows — of the week features a fourteen-time Grammy-winner who also boasts an NEA Jazz Masters Award, National Medal of the Arts and more. The Havana-born composer, saxophonist and clarinet virtuoso plays his music and arrangements in three different settings: with the PSU Jazz Ensemble; with a chamber ensemble featuring PSU faculty artists Hamilton Cheifetz, Julia Lee and Darrell Grant; and with a quintet led by one of Oregon’s own finest jazz artists, keyboard master/composer/PSU prof George Colligan.
Monday, Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

Cult of Orpheus
Ace Portland composer Christopher Corbell follows his 2015 hit local opera Viva’s Holiday, with Daphne, a mythological opera miniature; The Emerald Tablet, a new work for vocal quartet and string quartet inspired by an influential alchemic text and informed by baroque and earlier influences; his new string quartet Give them space, commissioned for Keller Auditorium’s centennial; and music from his forthcoming two-act opera, Antigone and Haimon, for chorus, winds, and percussion, all performed by top Portland musicians. Corbell’s imaginative evolutions out of classic forms like opera and art song, enriched by his earlier singer-songwriter expertise, into a cohesive, compelling 21st century art music (or as he puts it, “poetic utterance and organic melody-based composition”) constitute one of Oregon music’s most fascinating ongoing developments. The former Classical Revolution PDX leader’s determination to glean the best from ancient forms born in aristocratic or otherwise anti-democratic contexts and infuse them with his original, contemporary artistic sensibility and progressive ideals is especially welcome in this (temporary, we hope) reactionary moment.
Tuesday, The Old Church Concert Hall, Portland.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

MusicWatch Weekly: autumn bounty

This week's Oregon music highlights

In one of the peak weeks in the fall season of Oregon music, terling sopranos sing old and new songs, and other highlights include contemporary electronica, jazz, choral music, and sounds from Argentina, Mali, Japan, Europe, and beyond — including Oregon composers. Please add your recommendations in the comments section below.

BallakŽe Sissoko and Vincent Segal perform Tuesday at Portland’s Old Church concert hall. Photo: Claude Gassian.

Julianne Baird and Marcia Hadjimarkos
The superb early music soprano and the acclaimed Portland-born pianist, long based in Europe, perform music from Jane Austen’s world. The immortal writer was also a musician who practiced pop tunes of her time on fortepiano (which Hadjimarkos will, appropriately, play here) daily before breakfast, and filled her room with sheet music and her books and letters with references to public and private music events. Along with music by Haydn, Handel, Gluck, and more, including female songwriters, the show features songs about country life, drinking, and love, plus Turkish and Moorish motifs, female character pieces, and songs about naval victories and the French Revolution. A pair of narrators interpolate readings from Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and more.
Wednesday, Hudson Hall, Willamette University, Salem.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith performs Thursday in Portland.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
The Orcas Island native, now based in LA, has moved from the contemporary classical niche to broader acclaim and audiences in electronic music, including opening for Animal Collective and collaborating Suzanne Ciani. The synth-savvy sound sculptor is releasing three albums this year to go with five earlier releases, numerous film scores, and more.
Thursday, Doug Fir Lounge. Portland.

Eugene Symphony
When the rising young pianist Conrad Tao appeared at the University of Oregon’s Beall Hall in 2011, he was a 17-year-old prodigy who could seemingly almost play masterpieces with one hand tied behind his back. Having grown both a beard and a reputation as a solid performer and composer, he’ll almost get the chance in Maurice Ravel’s dramatic 1931 piano concerto written for the great Austrian virtuoso Paul Wittgenstein, who’d lost his right arm to a Russian bullet in World War I. He’ll also solo in Liszt’s wild, colorful 1838 Dance of Death (Totentanz), and the orchestra will play a Mozart symphony about which its composer wrote, “I hope that even these idiots will find something in it to like.” He was talking about Parisians, not Oregonians, who’ll find plenty to enjoy in Mozart’s so-nicknamed Paris Symphony.
Thursday, Hult Center, Eugene.

Marquis Hill’s Blacktet plays two shows in Portland.

Marquis Hill Blacktet
The 2014 Thelonious Monk competition winner earned further notice with his gig in Joe Lovano’s band, and the sweet toned trumpeter has become a fine bandleader himself with this group that integrates bop, hip hop and R&B. Two shows.
Thursday, Fremont Theater, Portland.

Third Angle New Music & Tony Arnold
The Portland new music string quartet and New York new music soprano team up in music by the fine California composer Gabriela Lena Frank, colorful Australian composer Brett Dean, Greek-French composer Georges Aperghis, and midcentury Italian modernist Luciano Berio. Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch preview of the same team’s Creative Academy of Music concert Saturday.
Thursday and Friday, Studio 2 @ N.E.W. Portland.

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble
The plucky organization dedicated to cultivating 21st century music by Portland composers and improvisers celebrates its tenth anniversary with a a TED-style talk from Executive Director Douglas Detrick, silent auction with some really enticing offers, and three pieces of music that tell the PJCE story—by PJCE founding Executive Director Andrew Oliver, former Grasshoppers (the young composers mentored by established Portland jazz musicians via PJCE’s admirable program) mentee Andres Moreno, and the world premiere of a new piece by one of Portland’s busiest and most inventive musicians, drummer/composer/improviser Barra Brown.
Friday, Fremont Theater, Portland.

Sound of Late
The exciting Portland/Seattle ensemble gives the West Coast premieres of music by youngish British composer Anna Clyne (former composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony and other orchestras) and Sarah Kirkland Snider, plus works by by Japanese composer Somei Satoh, Italian modernist Giacinto Scelsi, and the world premiere of a new piece by young Seattle composer Noel Kennon. The show is enhanced by video art by Seattle artist Stefan Gonzales.
Saturday, N.E.W. Expressive Works, Portland.


May Day Worker’s Cabaret preview: Singing truth to power

Diverse performances of music from past and present highlight new annual concert "devoted to honoring labor and promoting equality and social justice"

Editor’s note: This Sunday, Portland’s Vie de Boheme cafe hosts what Portland composer Christopher Corbell hopes to be the first in an annual series of May Day performances. Featuring Corbell’s Cult of Orpheus, the brilliant Portland band Three for Silver, and former Portland Opera resident artist Caitlin Mathes, May Day Worker’s Cabaret seems to draw a connection between the music and theater of the great early 20th century radical artists Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, and Hanns Eisler and new music created in today’s age of rising inequality. ArtsWatch asked Corbell about the show and the philosophy that informs it.

Creating the Cabaret

I’ve always been inspired by Bertolt Brecht as a poet and dramaturge who had the guts to say something vital to the human village with his art. One night I was hanging out with members of Three for Silver, and we started listening to a lot of this stuff — Nina Simone singing “Pirate Jenny,” Dave Van Ronk singing songs from [The Rise and Fall of the City of] Mahagonny and I had this eureka moment that a Brecht/Weill production with Three for Silver centering the orchestra would be fantastic.

Three for Silver

Three for Silver (L to R: Greg Allison, Willo Sertain, Lucas Warford)

Well — that’s a big project! I think we should do it someday. In the meantime, I thought maybe we could just do a gig together and mix in some of these songs as a theme, appropriate to the international 5/1 labor holiday and also to our looming political primaries. The idea grew into a cabaret when I reached out to Caitlin Mathes, a fantastic performer who brings a lot of fire to the songs of Weill and Eisler. Caitlin met Three for Silver when they were both on The Late Now and also did some Eisler and Weill performances with Classical Revolution PDX when I was involved with that group and she was with Portland Opera. So once we all started talking the ball got rolling and these collaborative pieces just kind of fell into place.

Three for Silver’s sets will be mostly original, and then they’ll also do some Brecht/Weill covers and participate on some group songs. I love their sound and live energy, the way they structure their songs and medleys, and their image-rich lyrics. I hope this show brings them new fans!

I’m going to be performing one short set of Brecht covers, including reading some of Brecht’s poetry, and then doing a second-act set that’s all my own poetry, some recited and some set to music. My original songs are part of the Sonnets project, songs of original sonnets set for guitar, voice, and cello. Sonja Myklebust (of Portland Cello Project and Pacific Cello Quartet) will be playing the cello parts.

I’m pretty excited to share one of the brand new songs, “The Last Dive Bar,” which is about the way unbridled big-money development is changing Portland, especially with dive bars we know and love shutting down due to rent hikes and such. It’s perhaps the least “classical”-sounding song I’ve written for the project. It’s basically a honky-tonk country waltz, in iambic pentameter. With cello as fiddle.

Caitlin Mathes will be doing all her own selected repertoire, mostly Weill and Eisler, but who knows — if we can make this annual maybe she’ll come back next year and we can collaborate on some originals that fit the theme. I like the idea of working with singers and setting texts that are meaningful to them but which aren’t set to music yet.

There are also a couple of rowdy audience-participation numbers in the program.


Cascadia Composers and Northwest Piano Trio reviews: The Color of Magic

Two concerts featured contemporary Oregon classical music. One succeeded.


Lights out. In a dark cavernous church, twinkling blue Christmas lights bob their way to a harpsichord. They tilt over it, no doubt praying. They un-tilt and lower onto a bench. The instrument emits a long sustaining moan.

THE HARPSICHORD SUSTAINS??!!??? What spell has been cast?


Jennifer Wright.

No time to think, the blue lights are driving the instrument to react. Like T-cells attacking an infection, the notes bombard the drone. Above, a screen displays the sound waves — oscillating, colliding, and my growing anxiety isn’t “How did composer, Jennifer Wright, achieve this?” It’s “OMG, Who or What is going to Win? How will this play out?” In You Cannot Liberate Me, Only I Can Do That for Myself, the composer/performer has managed to translate a creative concept/challenge (how to sustain a percussive sound) into a universal dilemma (how to deal with the new: fight it, ward it off, accept?). To be fair, I figured this out long after the performance, but only because the gnawing anxiety pestered me to work through it, to come to closure.

Science transcends process. Houston, we have Magic.

Lately more and more Oregon indie classical and even establishment classical groups are starting to realize the value of programming new and locavore music. It’s a really good sign of a developing homegrown alt.classical scene that’s not depending on dead Europeans and insular New Yorkers. I want all these groups who are playing homegrown 21st century music to succeed because Oregon draws outlaws, visionary DIYers who don’t just want to make it in New York and LA—they have something to say to today’s audiences. Oregon can be the role model for LA, New York, Paris.

But new and local are only the beginning, necessary but not sufficient if classical music is to (re)connect with broader Oregon audiences. The events need to appeal broadly, unless you just want a niche audience. And niches won’t sustain new classical music.

Multimedia helps. Taking the performances out of churches and auditoriums and staging them in bars and black box theaters helps. Dressing down or up (anything but black nightgowns) helps. Choosing a program that takes the audience on a ride helps.

Alas, even these ingredients are necessary but still not sufficient. To draw broad audiences, the essential element that must be cultivated is Magic.

Magic is not learned; it is omnipresent — there for the taking. It is the thing we often discount, the first feeling that comes up, the first glib utterance out of our mouths when throwing around ideas. Magic can only be welcomed in when she subtly drops a bomb in your ear. Or not; one can opt out, thinking the voice is too crazy, will offend too many people or the wrong person, and do the safe, sane, currently-in-mode thing and hope it’s enough to generate ticket revenue to cover what the RACC grant doesn’t. And the creative concept itself is only a start — much more Magic, courage to support the magic inspirations and lots of grunt work (including practice/rehearsal hours) are needed on this yellow brick road to the Emerald City.

Two concerts featuring new music by Oregon composers showed what can happen when presenters listen for Magic and then vest themselves in the quest of fulfilling that inspiration … and what happens when they don’t.


‘Viva’s Holiday’ review: Homespun home run?

Successful made in Portland new opera attracts diverse audiences, but will they return?


It. Coitus. Knocking boots, hooking up, going down, getting dirty, whatever you call it, however you do it, simple word and concept that has been the dominatrix of human history and imagination: sex. If you want to catch peoples attention sex sex sexy sex sexity sex: people go apeshit for it. Viva’s Holiday’s December 2nd  premiere at the Star Theater proved no exception for the undeniable salability of everyone’s favorite past time.

Helen Funston (Viva), Bobby Jackson (Dad), Sadie Gregg (Mom) in 'Viva's Holiday.' Photo: Jessica Beer.

Helen Funston (Viva), Bobby Jackson (Dad), Sadie Gregg (Mom) in ‘Viva’s Holiday.’ Photo: Jessica Beer.

A Portland stripper going home for the holidays to visit her conservative family, a quickie synopsis of Portland composer Christopher Corbell’s new opera based on the memoirs of local legend Viva Las Vegas, contains the overt sex appeal of strippers and stripping as a positive reality of someone’s existence. But even that would be no match for the cold-shower sterilizing power of traditionalist opera culture.

Viva Las Vegas read from her memoir, 'Magic Gardens,' before the opera began. Photo: Gene Newell.

Viva Las Vegas read from her memoir, ‘Magic Gardens,’ before the opera began. Photo: Gene Newell.

Fortunately! Viva’s Holiday premiered anything but traditionally. Star Theater, NW 6th and Burnside, a venue usually known for band music and liquored up dance parties, was busting with an audience that by their own admission had negligible previous opera attendance. Sponsored by feisty indie opera company Opera Theater Oregon and produced by Corbell’s own Cult of Orpheus, the opera sold out its three day run. First time ticket sales to new audience members is a pretty solid second-base in the art music world, first-base if they even know this music still exists and third-base for second time ticket sales, and Corbell lightly petted basically the whole damn venue.

Viva’s Holiday’s true genius is its intersectionality of subcultural interests, creating a diverse audience appeal: opera, new music, Viva Las Vegas, and Star Theater fans are not a homogenous group, far from it, but a broad social swath diverse in almost every variable conceivable. Fans of Magic Gardens, Viva Las Vegas’ memoir, were the most represented subculture premiere night showcasing the importance of story; few people have had to tell their puritanical father their life calling is stripping, although everyone has (or should) have the moment of self-proclamation declaring, to borrow a line from Helen Funston’s aria: “it’s my fucking life.”


‘Viva’s Holiday’: Making an opera, evoking a community

Made in Portland opera embraces much of the city's indie classical scene, and more.

“Thank you for supporting the arts,” the stripper said.

Back in the late 1990s, Astoria-based singer/songwriter Christopher Corbell made his first visit to a Portland strip club. A friend was visiting from New Orleans, where Corbell used to live before moving to Oregon, so the two visited an establishment in the city’s then-seedy Old Town. “I expected a sordid experience,” he recalls. Then one dancer emerged, with a winking act that was smart, tongue in cheek, “really engaging with everyone,” he says. “It was totally different than the experience I expected.” At the end of her act she said, “Thank you for supporting the arts.”

Years later, reading 2009’s Magic Gardens: the Memoirs of Viva Las Vegas, Corbell encountered that same line, and realized that he’d actually experienced Portland’s own Viva, a Willamette Week writer, Williams College grad, preacher’s daughter and author who insisted that stripping could be a feminist, artistic, empowering, and even intellectual experience.

It wasn’t just Viva who left a lasting impression on Corbell. She was part of “an artistic underground that seems to be threatened by gentrification,” he wrote. “Local musicians, artists, writers, and others who recall the cheap rents, shows, and drinks of the ’90s at clubs like Satyricon and La Luna generally knew Viva, both from her time on stage (in rock clubs as well as strip clubs) and from her writing and activism. As old-school bar after bar has closed and rents have climbed rapidly, it is an apt time to look at — and bolster — some of the worldview that made this recent era of the Portland scene magical. Viva has always been a vocal proponent of that outlook; it pervades her Magic Gardens memoirs.”

Later, after he’d moved into composing music in classical idioms (he also became executive director of Portland’s Classical Revolution PDX), Corbell was searching for ideas for his first opera, and remembered the book and its author. He knew he wanted to write a local story, with local heroes, and celebrate the scruffier 1980s-mid 1990s city before it added the -ia suffix. Who better to represent pre-glitz Portland’s simultaneously smart and seedy sides than Viva Las Vegas herself?

“It’s a local legend story,” Corbell explains. “I’m using traditional opera vocabulary, its passions and emotions, to depict someone we know in our community.” Viva certainly makes a better local hero than, say, Tonya Harding.

Soprano Helen Funston as Viva, bass­baritone Bobby Jackson as Dad, mezzo­soprano Sadie Gregg as Mom, and tenor Alexander Trull as Brother in "Viva's Holiday."

Soprano Helen Funston as Viva, bass ­baritone Bobby Jackson as Dad, mezzo­ soprano Sadie Gregg as Mom, and tenor Matt Storm as Brother in “Viva’s Holiday.” Photo: Jessica Beer.

But Corbell’s one act chamber opera, Viva’s Holiday, which runs Wednesday through Friday, December 2-4 at Portland’s Star Theater, just a few blocks from where Corbell and Viva first met, is more than a celebration of a Portland cultural icon. And Viva isn’t the only Portland figure to collaborate with Corbell on his new opera. As it began to take shape over the last couple of years, the project drew collaborators from across the city, including various strains of its burgeoning indie classical community. Even though it’s not set in Portland, Viva’s Holiday is truly a project that grew directly from the city’s culture. It’s also potentially a new model for making homegrown classical music. In creating it, Corbell wasn’t just composing music, but also a community.


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