james macmillan

ArtsWatch Weekly: Conduit’s last dance, Russian lost love, the color of race, chamber tales

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

For more than 20 years Conduit was a vital link – in many ways, the vital link – in Portland’s chain of contemporary dance organizations. A home base for some of the city’s most creative dancemakers, it was also the place that visiting choreographers and dancers made their temporary work home when they were in town. Major work and vital experiments were created here by a host of talented people. Mary Oslund, Tere Mathern, Linda K. Johnson, Gregg Bielemeier, V. Keith Goodman, Jim McGinn, Katherine Longstreth: the list goes on and on, creating a tapestry of the tale of a very large and significant chapter in the history of the city’s dance.

It’s all history now, or will be as of July 23, when Conduit hangs up its hat for good, at least in its current form. The party’s over – but not before an actual party, A Wake for Conduit, fills the Ford Building for a final celebration this Wednesday, July 13. Bring your stories, and put on your dancing shoes. Jamuna Chiarini has the story for ArtsWatch readers.

There Mathern's "Gather: a dance about convergence," performed in 2012 in Conduit's original home in the Pythian Building. Photo: Gordon Wilson

There Mathern’s “Gather: a dance about convergence,” performed in 2012 in Conduit’s original home in the Pythian Building. Photo: Gordon Wilson



A TALE OF RUSSIAN LOVE LOST. Bruce Browne reviews Portland Opera’s new production of Eugene Onegin, which continues in the relatively cozy Newmark Theatre through July 26. Tchaikovsky’s opera, based on Alexander Pushkin’s extraordinarily popular Russian verse novel, is re-set in this production to the late years of the Soviet Union and the early years of the post-Soviet era, a switch that works for Browne: “The reason this production works so well is that the actors/singers embraced the change.” He particularly praises Jennifer Forni as Tatiana, the country miss who’s spurned by the cold title character: “Forni’s voice has the power and brilliance of a roman candle, and yet is never pushed, always in control. She has the best messa di voce (getting softer and louder on one note) I’ve heard in a long time. And she convincingly brought to life the facets of her teenage angst, brought about attempting to deal with Onegin.”


Requiem, wrestling with the angels

The premiere of Sir James MacMillan's "A European Requiem" at the Oregon Bach Festival rages against the dying of the light

EUGENE – A perilous slide overcomes the Kyrie eleison, a keening, piercing swoop of sound, a lament rising above the orchestra like an unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question. Lord have mercy, the words mean, and in countertenor Christopher Ainslie’s delivery they are not so much an invocation as a genuine plea.

Anyone expecting a smooth and soothing slip into the oblivion of the afterlife from Sir James MacMillan’s ambitious new requiem, which had its world premiere on Saturday night at the Oregon Bach Festival here, was in for a shock. A European Requiem is less a work of solace, though it has some tender passages of relief, than a deep and fiercely felt argument about the unknowable – a lamentation not for an individual soul but for the soul of a continent, for the idea of a broad and culturally cohesive Europe, which MacMillan sees as slipping away. Great ideas, when they die, die hard: one does not lose, the music seems to say, without a struggle, and in the struggle lie the sense and passion of the thing being lost.

Conductor Matthew Halls and soprano soloist Sherezade Panthaki. Photo: Athene Delene

Conductor Matthew Halls and soprano soloist Sherezade Panthaki. Photo: Athena Delene

You don’t need to agree with MacMillan that an ancient idea of what Europe means is passing, or even understand the specifics of what is a rigorous historical and philosophical argument, to feel the urgency and texture of the debate in the music. A European Requiem pulls out all the stops, taking full advantage of the sonic possibilities of solo vocal lines; the festival’s very large and potent Berwick Chorus, whose members stood on rafters seemingly halfway to the sky; and the estimable festival orchestra, which undertook a rigorous forty-minute workout, especially in the percussion section. Conductor Matthew Halls, who is also the Bach Festival’s artistic director, led a splendidly well-articulated performance, pinpointing its textural shifts and vital balancing of tension and ease.


Requiem from a heavyweight

Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan is about to unveil a new requiem at the Oregon Bach Festival. It's a work of mourning for the culture of Europe.

EUGENE – Sir James MacMillan sits amid the organized clutter of his office in the catacombs of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. For the recently knighted Scottish composer and conductor it’s a temporary headquarters, with a couple of chairs, a small black leather couch, and a little table covered with papers, among them the blue-bound score to his new work A European Requiem, which will have its premiere on Saturday night at the Oregon Bach Festival.

It’s early Tuesday afternoon of this week, and MacMillan is on a brief break between a rehearsal and yet another of the many meetings that go along with his busy life. On this evening he’ll conduct the festival’s chamber orchestra in a concert that includes two of his own works, then prepare for a Thursday afternoon lecture and Saturday’s Requiem premiere, one of the focal points of this year’s Bach Fest, which continues at various concert halls in Eugene through July 10. Another new work, a Stabat Mater, will be premiered in London in mid-October, and among other things he’s also in the midst of preparing for the third annual run of his own small musical festival, the Cumnock Tryst, in Ayrshire, where he grew up, about 40 miles south of Glasgow. “It’s a little thing,” he says affectionately. “Four days in the autumn. I’m getting excited.”

Sir James MacMillan conducting. Photo courtesy Oregon Bach Festival

Sir James MacMillan conducting. Photo courtesy Oregon Bach Festival

In person MacMillan, who is 56 and was knighted last year (“Totally delighted,” he told the press at the time), is friendly, open, and eloquent, speaking softly and thoughtfully, with the steady backbeat and slight staccato sting of his native Scots tongue. He speaks as much about culture and its meanings as he does about music, and by implication at least, about the inevitable connection between the two. A close observer of history and “human nature as it passes,” he thinks deeply on the fractures and dislocations of modernity, the intentional divorcement from the past, including the relentless secularization of contemporary life. In this he feels embattled but not alone: “In our own time it’s quite clear that an awful lot of composers have been in search of something sacred.”


Colin Currie: A passion for percussion

Scottish percussion star begins residency with Oregon Symphony this week


There must be something in the Scottish water that made the tiny country produce the two most prominent percussionists of the era: Evelyn Glennie and Colin Currie. Still under 40, the Edinburgh-born musician begins his three-year tenure as artist in residence with the Oregon Symphony with this week’s round of outreach activities, culminating in three performances with the orchestra in which he’s featured soloist in fellow Scots composer James MacMillan’s 1992 masterpiece, Veni Veni Emmanuel, which Glennie originally recorded. (Currie has recorded it twice since and played it around 150 times around the world, including with Marin Alsop leading the Eugene Symphony in 2003.) MacMillan’s colorful 25 minute percussion concerto grew out of the composer’s Catholic faith, “a musical exploration of the theology behind the Advent message” and ends with an Easter hymn tune. It’s a big, dramatic piece whose theatricality is enhanced in live performance by the percussion soloist racing from vibraphone to woodblocks to marimba to drum set.

Colin Currie shows his Oregon spirit. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Colin Currie shows his Oregon spirit. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Currie’s performances with the OSO culminate a series of appearances around town, from solo and kid’s concerts at Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center to a performance with Grimm actors at the Cleaners at the Ace hotel, to a Saturday performance with the symphony’s percussion section at the Portland Farmer’s Market at PSU and a solo marimba set at the hip Coava Coffee/Bamboo Revolution. He’ll also work with students from PSU and David Douglas High School and play St. Mary’s Home for Boys. Currie finds percussion to be an excellent gateway drug to music for the kids he’ll be working with at various schools. “Children and adults find percussion enticing “because it’s something people can pick up easily,” he told me. “If you try to play a French horn, you can’t get a sound out of it, but you can pick up a drum and very quickly get a sound as good as anyone can.”


Helmuth and Martina Rilling, with Matthew Halls, looking at the score of James MacMillan's "Allelulia" at its July 6 world premiere.

Helmuth and Martina Rilling, with Matthew Halls, looking at the score of James MacMillan’s “Allelulia” at its July 6 world premiere.


Last Saturday, the Oregon Bach Festival chorus sang a sweet surprise 80th birthday gift for retiring founding music director Helmuth Rilling – an “Alleluia” commissioned from the great contemporary Scots composer James MacMillan, who is working on a big new commission for the 2016 Festival. It’s a treat to see the OBF returning to sparking the creation of new music, as it did for awhile every other year a decade or ago, resulting in major works by Arvo Part, Osvaldo Golijov and other composers. (You can hear some of that music this Saturday night at 8 pm, and on demand for two more weeks, on Robert McBride’s excellent Club Mod radio show on Portland’s KQAC radio.)  It’s a coup made possible by a $25,000 NEA grant and by the festival’s executive director, John Evans, a fellow Brit who goes way back with Jimmy Mac.

Note: This story was originally published as part of a larger News & Notes post, but because of the volume of comments and interest, we’re republishing it and the other components as separate stories. Please continue this fascinating discussion below!

Yet amid all the good news, one question kept troubling me: why do our major Oregon classical music institutions keep sending American taxpayer dollars to non-American composers at the same time they fail to invest in the development of contemporary Oregon music? Of course, no Oregon composer is as famous as the above-listed worthies. But MacMillan didn’t reach the stratospheric compositional heights that qualified his for that august OBF commission by accident, or, as the old Romantic mythology would assume, solely by virtue of innate genius. In large part, MacMillan’s success stems from early and continuing support from his homeland music institutions—the kind of nourishment that backward-gazing organizations like OBF and others have failed to provide Oregonians.


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