cult of orpheus

’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.

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.


‘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.”


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