katie taylor

Music News & Notes: Operatic evolutions

Opera transitions, jazz laurels, music education, and other news in Oregon music

We went months without rounding up Oregon music news before last month’s N&N — and now, so much keeps happening that we need to do it again! Remember that we often slip news about Oregon music in Bob Hicks’s weekly newsletter and on our Facebook page, and we’re always looking for news about Oregon arts to share with our readers, so please keep us posted.

Opera Theater Oregon’s next stage

Opera Theater Oregon Producing Artistic Director Katie Taylor announced that she’s tossing the keys to the next generation of Oregon upstart opera makers: a collective including composers Justin Ralls and Anne Polyakov, baritone Nicholas Meyer and new music advocate Lisa Lipton. OTO Music Director Erica Melton and Film Director Jen Wechsler will remain with the company. Taylor approached Ralls about assuming leadership of the Portland indie opera company’s during development of an upcoming OTO production of his opera, Two Yosemites, opening this summer.

Meyer (l) and Ralls at a Portland preview recital for Ralls’s upcoming opera, ‘Two Yosemites,’ co-produced by Opera Theater Oregon.

The new leaders intend to “step up to meet the demands of reinvigorating opera in today’s artistic climate,” their press announcement declares. “With fresh ideas, relevant social commentary, and a love of accessible chamber music these new provocateurs plan to make their first opera with OTO a new and engaging experience geared to make an impact. Their first performance will feature a new outdoor opera in late summer. Look out for their newsletters, updates, and performance dates in the next few weeks.”

The transition marks the next step in OTO’s evolution since its 2005 founding by Angela Niederloh and Amy Russell. Under Taylor’s two terms of leadership (2006 to 2011 and 2015–17), the company enlivened the Portland music scene by producing or co-sponsoring visionary, often playful productions of both classic and new operas, often with inventive arrangements and scripts by Taylor (who’ll now turn to finishing up a book and short experimental opers in progress) and Melton. Stay tuned to ArtsWatch for more information on OTO’s new direction. With relatively new arrivals Cult of Orpheus, Ping & Woof, Opera on Tap, Opera Wildwood Concert Series, and (as we’ve noted in previous stories) new directions for Portland State University’s opera program, Eugene Opera (see below) and Portland Opera, it’s an exciting time for Oregon opera.

Grant prize winner

The national Jazz Journalist Association has named Portland pianist, composer, and professor Darrell Grant as one of its 2017 Jazz Heroes, an award given to people who further the art form of jazz in their communities. Longtime Portland jazz writer Lynn Darroch will present Grant with the award at the Portland Art Museum on April 30 — International Jazz Day. The event includes PDX Jazz’s Incredible Journey of Jazz program and a performance by Grant’s MJ New Quartet, which is touring the Northwest this month.

Pianist and composer Darrell Grant.

Q&A

Speaking of one of Oregon’s most valuable musicians, you can read a fascinating interview with Grant in Chamber Music America magazine. And there’s another informative new interview with a Portland composer, Dan Senn, in asymmetry music magazine, which will particularly interest fans of the influential Fluxus movement of the 1960s. And while we’re linking to good stories about Oregon music, check out long-time Portland classical music writer James Bash’s comprehensive overview of places to catch classical music for little or no cost — a welcome antidote to a problem ArtsWatch has long bemoaned.

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

Two concerts featured contemporary Oregon classical music. One succeeded.

by MARIA CHOBAN

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?

Je

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.

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Taylor emcees OTO's first show, "Will Kill for Vaudeville" at Someday Lounge (2007)

In a blow to the city’s music scene, one of Portland’s artistic visionaries, Katie Taylor, has stepped down as Opera Theater Oregon’s artistic director.

“After five years on the pony – the zesty, prancing pony that is OTO — I’ve decided it’s time for me to step down. I was going to invent a sex scandal (not involving ponies) to explain my departure, but then I remembered that this is Portland, and no one would be likely to care, even if ponies were involved,” Taylor wrote on the innovative company’s website. “So…I’ll just say straight out that it’s been an amazing ride, and I feel lucky to have met and worked with so many amazing people, but it’s time for me to say goodbye.”

Taking the Tarnhelm (redubbed the Tan-helm in OTO’s Baywatch-style version of Wagner’s The Rheingold) at OTO will be the alternative opera company’s musical director, Erica Melton, and film division director Jen Wechsler.

The company will throw a farewell party for Taylor at one of OTO’s original venues, Someday Lounge, on June July 24, which will include a short film and “opera karaoke.”

During her half-decade at the helm, OTO distinguished itself as one of Portland’s most creative performing arts companies, with ambitions inversely proportional to its budgets. A bastion of the city’s burgeoning alt-classical scene, the company used humor, pop culture references, a fun, informal atmosphere, and especially beer (at venues such as Someday Lounge, Alberta Rose Theater and Clinton Street Theater) to lure enthusiastic younger audiences to modern, sometimes wacky productions of classic operas, including producing a Portland-centric version of John Gay’s play The Beggar’s Opera (also the inspiration for Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera).

Taylor directed a spooky, Twilight Zonish version of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium at Someday and co-commissioned a new score for Filmusik’s Hercules vs. Vampires. Although they winked at some of opera’s stuffy pretensions, OTO’s productions always took the music itself seriously in the quest to “make opera safe for America.”

OTO has also been celebrated for partnering with other alt-classical outfits, including Electric Opera Company, Filmusik, and Classical Revolution. Taylor and Dark Horse comic artist Dan Schaefer (Batman, Spiderman, et al.), created a “singing comic book” for this year’s production of Massenet’s Werther called Out of Eden.

Taylor’s departure comes just weeks after she shepherded the organization to a stable  home at McMenamin’s Mission Theater. That somewhat eased the sting of Taylor’s heroic, close-but-no-candy-cigar efforts to obtain downtown’s Guild Theater as a home and performance venue for several of the city’s other alternative classical organizations.

All that work apparently came at a price, however. The company is run by volunteers, and Taylor has had to pick up work to recover her finances.

“Running the organization left me with little time for the actual writing that was the most important part of the work for me,” Taylor says. “I will miss it very much, but it was definitely time to move on. I’m also excited to see where Erica and Jen take OTO.” She told OAW she’s “working on a cross-genre book of short stories whose protagonists all have psoriasis and a sci fi novel about a new weight loss gimmick with hideously complicated side effects, raising the question of how much of who we are is our bodies and how much is our minds.”

Let’s hope we’ll see more of Taylor’s prodigious talent, inclusive attitude, and artistic ambition on Portland stages soon. And let’s hope OTO thrives without her leadership.

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