edgar meyer

Chamber Music Northwest review: Category-busting Collaboration

Musicians Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall and George Meyer lit up the string-fired pyrotechnics in Chamber Music Northwest’s “In Motion” performance.


If any dance company avoids the obvious, it’s Portland’s 17-year-old imaginative and ultra-flexible BodyVox, which cannot be wedged into any genre or box, no matter how big and bendable the container. Ballet? Modern? Jazz? Full-stage projected videos? Computer graphics as backdrops? Opera collaborators? Wacky. Whimsical. The innovative company’s technically solid members make just about any move in a mix of styles, and make you laugh at their clever movement as they unfold, unlock and untangle. In what has evolved into a Portland starry summer tradition and star-spangled collaboration, BodyVox paired up with Chamber Music Northwest over the Fourth of July weekend.

Edgar Meyer, George Meyer, and Mike Marshall performed at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Edgar Meyer, George Meyer, and Mike Marshall performed at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.


CMNW’s headliner, double bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer, also remains un-boxable. If there’s one category to squeeze him into, it might be that mostly wild indefinable mix of Americana. But Meyer’s range is huge: bluegrass with Bela Fleck, Bulgarian folk dances, toe-tapping duets, Appalachian tunes with Yo-Yo Ma, Bach, of course, and his own work, of which several pieces were performed for this collaboration. Meyer occasionally accompanies James Taylor, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris and Garth Brooks – and teaches at London’s Royal Academy of Music and the Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Also, he plays the piano.

Completing the circle of this collaboration, Curtis is the Dover Quartet members’ alma mater, where cellist Peter Wiley mentored the group. The quartet and Wiley accompanied dancers in the first part of the performance. Joining Meyer were worldwide mandolin maestro Mike Marshall, who plays with astonishingly fast fingers the entire family of mandolins, including the mandola (and the guitar) and Edgar Meyer’s talented, suited-up Harvard-student son, George, on violin, viola and mandolin.

The best of the show was “Leave the Light On,” a long piece choreographed by BodyVox directors Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland. It was broken into several parts signaled by Meyer’s compositions: “Short Trip Home,” “Dance Music” (co-composed by Marshall and George Meyer), “Sliding Down,” “Indecision” and “1B,” each arranged for the three musicians’ array of stringed instruments. Dancers flew on and off the stage wearing unmatched, slightly disarrayed half-tutus (guys in white shirts), making jokes on traditional ballet positions and lifts, sweeping one another up in gender-blendering, breaking all the rules. The background blipped with childlike computer-driven graphics and words (including a glowing porch light, blinking bugs, word-drops of rain). Leaning into his bass with an easy-going but sure-footed possessiveness, shirt sleeves rolled up, Meyer led the musicians’ combination of first-class skill and playfulness that matched BodyVox’s.

he performance’s first part featured a mix of pieces shared by BodyVox dancers and the fast-rising, tautly playing Dover Quartet musicians (violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, cellist Camden Shaw, and violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt).

Cellist Peter Wiley opened the show with  J.S. Bach’s melancholy Prelude from Suite No. 2 in D Minor, accompanied by his dancing daughter, Dona Wiley, a member of New York-based CelloPointe. Their lonely, tender duet was a far distance in mood from the concluding exuberance of “Leave the Light On.”

Meyer and Marshall also played July 3 at CMNW’s sold-out performance at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium. As Edgar Meyer, a 2002 MacArthur award-winner, expressed in several different ways throughout the show – a performance that could have easily been staged at the Aladdin Theater or the Schnitz for its wide entertainment appeal— “tonight is about more playing and less talking.”

They concentrated on blending alarmingly well on numerous instruments, sometimes sounding like an entire string section. The musicians engage – tipping on their toes, reaching into one another’s harmonic and physical space – in intimate heartbeat-rousing musical conversations that cross age and genre barriers.  Many of the pieces were, as Meyer quipped, “mercifully untitled. We specialize in not naming songs.” No names, no boxes: these Chamber Music Northwest collaborations defy category.

Second and third shows are 8 p.m. July 5 and 4 p.m. July 6 at PSU’s Lincoln Hall. For information and tickets call 503-294-6400 or email: tickets@cmnw.org.

Angela Allen, a Portland writer, covers jazz, opera and other arts. This spring she taught creative writing at Rosa Parks Elementary in north Portland. In August, she’ll receive her Master of Fine Arts in Poetry/Creative Writing from Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop.    

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Edgar Meyer/ Photo by Jim Leisy, Chamber Music Northwest

This weekend I resembled the bees in my backyard, nosing around for a little something to take back to the hive, you know, a little Edgar Meyer sweetness at Chamber Music Northwest, a couple of blossoms at the JAW festival, another visit to Dance+ for Part Two.

Unlike the indefatigable bees, though, I’m not intending to build an entire honeycomb from the experience. And here, I’m taking leave of the metaphor altogether, especially because I know next to nothing about bees to begin with nor their alleged indefatigability. For all I know, bees start their days with the best of intentions and then find themselves distracted by less-than-urgent business on the Internet, just as I do! Hey, who DID win that air pistol gold medal?

Where was I? Right. No honeycombs and no more bees. (I am suppressing SO many bee puns right now…)

“The People’s Republic of Portland,” Lauren Weedman, JAW festival: You know the deal with JAW, right? Staged readings of plays-in-progress, which means that anything you see or hear could change or disappear before it hits the stage in a real production. And that means getting too deeply into the scripts is foolhardy, and the actors haven’t had time to develop their characters fully, so questioning a particular characterization doesn’t make sense, either.

That doesn’t mean we can’t write SOMETHING about the shows we see, though, although it’s likely, in Weedman’s case, just to confirm what you probably know already: Lauren Weedman is funny! And her reading was more like a progress report on how her reporting on the topic of Portland is going rather than a first read of a finished monologue. So… how’s she doing?

Lauren Weedman in “Bust” at Portland Center Stage/Owen Carey

Well, hard to say, because “Portlandia” has made this commissioned piece (by Portland Center Stage: the show is set to debut in April) difficult. How much satire can the city sustain? Food jokes, personal enlightenment jokes, gay jokes, stripper jokes? Check, check and check!

Trying to get off the usual merry-go-round of approved Weird Portland destinations (I remember when all we really had in the way of Approved Weird was the Church of Elvis and the Sandy Jug tavern), she wandered into some serious issues. But the problem is that Serious Portland is a lot like everyplace else: We struggle with changes to our neighborhoods that force out one class or race of residents and replaces them with others, for example. Maybe we’re trying to do more about it than most American cities going through similar things, but even so, this isn’t funny. Or maybe it is. I know even less about making comedy than I do about bees. Maybe a “Portland Is Really a Hellhole Just Like Every Other American City” comedy hour would be a laff riot.

Weedman’s got a good eye and ear, though, and as she wanders about, she encounters funny characters and situations.  Compared to her home ground in Indiana (she lives in LA now), the West Coast and Portland must seem optimistic, a place where technology, spiritual questing, the arts, the hand-made and the participatory (democracy, crafting, ‘zining, etc.) intersect in curious, amusing ways. And sometimes even profitable ways (in 2010 Portland’s growth in GDP was close to eight percent, I just heard on the radio). Maybe in her place, that’s the nexus I’d explore, not to make big “statements” about the future or nature of the city (both unknowable, right?) but simply to encounter the stories and characters that might be a little different from Evansville (which used to be the Big City to this western Kentucky boy) or even Indianapolis.

Whatever Weedman comes up with, I’ll be there, though, because she’s smart and engaging. That’s a pretty great start.

Dance+, Part Two, Conduit: I’ve written a couple of times about Dance+. Basically, Conduit (the downtown Portland dance studio non-profit) put out a call for proposals, specifically asking for collaborations between choreographers and other art forms, and a panel of judges selected eight to perform over two weekends, though one of them was scuttled from Part Two (Luciana Proano, “for reasons beyond her control”).

Some brief notes about Part Two? The Friendly Pheromones (Zahra Banzi, Chase Hamilton and Zoe Nelson) collaborated with Wave Clamor Bellow, performing together onstage. The tone was melancholy, by and large. In a sad world, sometimes we humans just form little clumps of support and maybe protection. Unclumped, up and dancing, the Pheromones moved in a satisfying classical modern style, that made the most of Hamilton’s angles, Banzi’s quickness and lightness and Nelson’s athleticism.

Gregg Bielemeier and Keyon Gaskin’s collaboration with composer Philippe Bronchstein was comic, full of quirky little solos and duets, though I hate using the word “quirky” to describe what Bielemeier does—he’s light and comic, like a Klee painting maybe, and Gaskin fit right in, capturing the little arm gestures above the head and little spins that mark Bielemeier’s work generally. Gaskin, though, turns Bielemeier’s shuffles into something altogether “leggier”—and funny in a slightly different way. And yes, there was a little cross-dressing at the end.

Danielle Ross’s “The Loveliest Landscape” is an extended solo with projected slides, strings of lights and flour, which Ross formed into little mounds and then scattered, with music and co-design by Christi Denton. I loved the semi-abstract slides projected onto Conduit’s back wall and mouldings, perfect for situating us in a space and dance that seemed to be trying to tell us something explicit but then pulled back for a more poetic gesture, either movement or visual. And I liked Ross and Denton’s ambition—”The Loveliest Landscape” is complex, various, well-considered.

“The Bachelors,” Caroline V. McGraw, JAW: Before hitting Dance+, I caught this dark comedy, which mostly makes fun of single men and their, um, relationship problems, if you consider breaking the rules about touching in a strip club a relationship problem. Maybe in the broadest sense? Anyway, it’s hard to work up much sympathy for these guys, even the sad-sack ones, which makes it easier to laugh at them.

The cast of Blake DeLong, Darius Pierce and Patrick Alparone seemed to have a good time with the material, and they adeptly located the laughs and drew them out of the audience. If I were giving feedback (and I’m not!), I’d say maybe one of the key turns didn’t seem logical to me (in the psycho-logical sense), but people were laughing around me, so they clearly had no trouble tracking.


Edgar Meyer/ Photo by Jim Leisy, Chamber Music Northwest

Edgar Meyer, Chamber Music Northwest: I’ll just say a word or two about Edgar Meyer, whom I interviewed back in 2009 when I was first attempting to work out some things about how classical music could renew itself, become part of a vital, living cultural conversation. Meyer was perfect for this because he’s a walking, breathing, bass-playing fusion project, who can find the heart of the matter in the classical repertoire as well as participate in and compose contemporary music.

And his concert at Kaul Auditorium was a demonstration project (here’s James McQuillen’s review). He started with J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello, which he played on bass, of course, and then moved first to a series of his own compositions (mostly, he also played Jobim) and then, for the encore, to music by his 19-year-old son George, who showed up to play violin alongside his dad. In his own work, the straw of the hoedown and some low-down mountain lonesome mix together, maybe with a little Western swing syncopation sometimes, and he glides up and down the neck of the bass easy as pie, producing sonic effects that make you laugh and also fit perfectly into the songs.

I think what I’ll remember most is the way Meyer paused in between movements of the Bach. He’d gather a breath, sigh, look at us, look heavenward and roll his eyes a little, throw his arm out around the neck of the bass and shake his hands (reminding me somehow of Stanley Laurel, the great Silent Era comedian) and then curl his fingers around the instrument, hunching over it at the same time. Playing a cello solo on the bass? That’s work, man!

And you know what? In the final movement, a gigue, a dance form that originated in the British jig, I thought I overheard the conversation between Bach and Appalachian mountain folk music. Without Meyer, I may not have noticed that.

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