ken selden

‘Suor Angelica’ & ‘Gianni Schicchi’ review: tearful tragedy and family farce

Portland State University Opera’s spring Puccini double-bill strikes a fine and fun balance


PSU Opera always surprises me with the high quality of its productions and the skill of its young singers, many of them undergraduates. This is not professional opera (though advisors and directors are professionals), but it can reach impressive heights, and does in this double bill of two very different, very short Giacomo Puccini one-acts.

The first is a sentimental tragedy that takes place in a convent’s courtyard; the second is a better known opera buffo crowded into a Florentine bedroom. The operas, each about 40 minutes, are expansive and efficient: They provide numerous roles for up-and-coming singers and designer Carey Wong’s clever set is deployed for both operas – an outside setting for Suor Angelica and an inside one for Gianni Schicci.

Sung in Italian with English supertitles, the performance continues April 25-30 at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

Saori Erickson in PSU’s ‘Suor Angelica.’

Puccini wrote the operas with librettist Giovacchino Forzano in 1917-1918 and they were first performed with a third, Il Tabarro, at the Met in 1918. Like many opera composers, Puccini has a thing for vulnerable tragic heroines (think Cio-Cio San in Butterfly, La Boheme’s Mimi, etc.) and for sucking us into their dilemmas. But so what? Opera is about excess.

Sister Angelica was shuttled off to the convent seven years earlier for having an illegitimate child. Her haughty aunt, the Princess, sung and acted with requisite harshness by mezzo Grace Skinner, visits the convent and tells Angelica that her son has died. Devastated, Sister Angelica decides to kill herself – and does. At the end, there is a scene with Giotto-tinged-blue skies, floating clouds, and a Madonna in swirling white garb. The Madonna greets Angelica, and Angelica’s son joins her as she enters the pearly gates.

OK. It’s corny. It’s Puccini with a penchant for the syrupy, the over-the-top dramatic, the hopeless moments tinged with hope. But that’s our beloved Puccini.

As Sister Angelica, soprano Saori Erickson throws every inch of herself into Suor Angelica’s only aria, “Senza Mamma,” a fierce lament and love song to her dead child, Erickson makes the final part of the opera soar and fill Lincoln Hall with the help of a very competent student orchestra led by Ken Selden.

Erickson is a gifted singer mentored by professional soprano Pamela South, who has sung her share of Puccini roles with major opera companies. South’s other high-profile pupil of the night, soprano Hope McCaffrey, sings Lauretta in Gianni, the evening’s second opera. She shows her pipes and poise with the oft sung “O Mio Babbino Caro.” McCaffrey sings a bold and touching rendition of the popular aria, but her small role doesn’t dominate Gianni as Sister Angelica does the first tragic opera.

South is doing something right. These women seem to be going places. In 2016, Erickson won the “audience favorite” award at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and several others over recent years.

PSU Opera’s ‘Gianni Schicci.’

Gianni is crowded and crazy with a big cast who portrays the disorganized family of the dying Buoso, a rich uncle of this greedy brood. The handsome Rinuccio (tenor Alex Trull) cooks up the plan to introduce the arrivist Gianni Schicchi to his family to solve the problems with the uncle’s will – Buoso has left everything to the friars – if he, Rinuccio, is allowed to marry Gianni’s daughter, the lovely Lauretta. When the arrivist arrives, he puts everything in motion, replacing the uncle on his deathbed and dictating a new will to the notary, where of course, Gianni ends up with the cream of the wealth.

The zany family’s antics zigzag over the stage and they’re funny, especially those of Shainy Manuel who sings bawdy bewigged redhead Zita. She wriggles her red-ruffled rear at the audience at crucial moments; she has excellent timing.

The music and libretto are sublimely matched in hilariousness, and baritone Darian Hutchinson, who sings Gianni with flair, puts the glue into this opera. Hutchinson graduates this spring from PSU’s music program; this is his sixth PSU role (he sang Figaro and the mayor in Doctor Miracle, among others). He has a future in opera if he wants to grab it.

The ensemble singing is roaring fun with each of the cast members staying in distinctive character. Some critics claim that Puccini lost an opportunity when he never produced a full-length comic opera with such an excellent piece like Gianni showcasing his proclivity for the ridiculous.

Be sure you stick around for both operas. PSU’s singers, instrumentalists and music faculty should feel pretty proud about producing this level of Puccini.

Portland State University Opera’s ‘Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi’ continues at 7:30 p.m. April 25, 28 and 29 and at 3 p.m. on April 30 at Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave. Portland.  Tickets are $30 adults, $27 seniors and $15 students at the PSU box office in Lincoln Hall, online, or call the PSU Box Office: 503-725-3307.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is  

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Oregon new music recordings 2016: Small beauties

Some of Oregon's most intriguing 2016 releases apply big ideas to small-scale compositions

The Warbler Sings, Paul Safar
Composer/pianist Safar had already forged a reputation as one of Eugene’s most intrepid musicians in the classical tradition, thanks in part to his years of concerts and festival appearances via Cherry Blossom Productions, the company he set up with his partner, singer Nancy Wood. His reputation spread statewide thanks to his many appearances in Cascadia Composers concerts, then his 2013 Composer of the Year Award from Oregon Music Teachers Association, which resulted in the commission for his 2016 CD’s title track. That airy, seven-part setting of haikus by the famed Japanese poet Basho finds a unique place between jazz (especially in trumpeter Dave Bender’s trumpet lines and bassist Nathan Waddell’s interjections), classical music (Wood’s elusive, evocative vocal melodies), and Japanese music (spare, almost austere atmosphere of asymmetric abstraction evident in Safar’s pianistic sprinkles).

More birds flutter through a pretty pair of short, solo piano intermezzi, “Geese in the Moonlight” and “Dawn, Singular Heron,” joining other denizens of nature: the Middle Eastern cello / dumbek / zills trio “Cat on a Wire”; the playfully ominous “The Spider,” and the narrated fable “Moonfish” (both featuring Wood). Waves sparkle and heave, via Safar’s piano and Woods’s lovely vocals in the closing “Ocean.” These and the other concise, tuneful tracks should appeal to a wide range of listeners, not just classical fans. Most have highlighted Cascadia concerts over the past few years, and there’s no substitute for seeing an electrifying performer like Wood live, but this diverse recording stands on its own as one of the most enjoyable contemporary Oregon classical music releases of the last decade.

Invisible Light, Delgani Quartet
Safar’s music also graces the debut release from Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet, which in under two years has zoomed to prominence in the Willamette Valley and beyond. Their collaboration with another Eugene based artist, actor Ricke Birran, on Safar’s four settings of music from classic literary sources ranges from a gripping, over-the-top reading from The Pied Piper of Hamelin; an antic take on Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter, an ominous percussive jungle chant to William Blake’s “The Tyger”; and an incantatory Satanic soliloquy from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Maybe their experience in historically informed performance practice helped the ensemble embrace the ancient, Middle Eastern spirit of Portland-born composer Lou Harrison’s gravely beautiful 1978 String Quartet Set (written for Canada’s Orford Quartet and first recorded by the Kronos Quartet), which relies on the Pythagorean (a/k/a ditone) tuning used in the millennium before the Renaissance in Europe and the Middle East as well as Turkish and French baroque forms. University of Oregon prof Terry McQuilken’s scintillating title cut is based on the music of a more recent source: an early 19th century shape-note hymn, evolving into a tuneful suite that passes through sections touched by jazz, contemporary classical and even medieval influences.


Portland State Symphony preview: Confounding context

Orchestra performs music that appears in different incarnations from its source material

Everything is out of context at this week’s pair of Portland State University Orchestra concerts. Instead of their usual venue, PSU’s lovely Lincoln Performance Hall, the orchestra will perform at the historic Mission Theatre in Northwest Portland. Instead of standard orchestral fare, the student orchestra, led by PSU Director of Orchestral Studies Ken Selden, will play music by David Bowie, George Bizet, and Astor Piazzolla.

Even these three pieces are out-of-context: the orchestra will perform Bowie’s pop instrumental Abdulmajid in its orchestral arrangement by contemporary American composer Philip Glass and Bizet’s incidental music for the ballet L’Arlesienne (The Girl from Arles) as a concert suite (sans dancers), and 20th century Argentine composer Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, itself a recontextualized homage to Vivaldi. The Piazzolla suite will feature PSU’s new violin professor, Tomas Cotik, performing Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov’s arrangement for orchestra and violin.

Ken Selden conducts the PSU Symphony Orchestra Wednesday and Thursday.

“I have always felt that a university orchestra doesn’t need to be in the concert hall all the time,” Dr. Selden told ArtsWatch. “It seems when we perform off campus, people come out of the woodwork to hear us. In addition to the music, people can relax with a beer or some food, and enjoy the company of their friends and family. Our audience is not there for the same reason that someone might go to hear a professional orchestra.”


Enchanted Toyshop, all Gift Boxed

The Portland Ballet's holiday special features John Clifford's charming revision of a Ballets Russes original, plus a new piece by Anne Mueller

At the opening of The Portland Ballet’s annual holiday concert at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall on Friday afternoon I found quite a few reasons to be thankful. Many of them were kids, dancing their hearts out in John Clifford’s version of The Enchanted Toyshop.

Originally titled La Boutique Fantasque and choreographed by Leonide Massine for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (it premiered in London in 1919), Toyshop in Clifford’s version discards most of the libretto conceived by Massine and painter André Derain, who also designed the sets and costumes.  Derain’s designs are meticulously replicated for TPB by the wonderful Mary Muhlbach, who was also responsible for new designs for added characters:  Pinocchio, who serves as master of ceremonies; Amélie, the shopkeeper’s wife; the Blue Fairy; the Giselle doll; and hordes of miscellaneous children visiting the toy shop with their parents.

Kerridwyn Schanck, Andrew Davis, Lauren Kness in "Toyshop." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Kerridwyn Schanck, Andrew Davis, Lauren Kness in “Toyshop.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The Enchanted Toyshop – set to music by Gioacchino Rossini, arranged and orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi, and expanded by Clifford with more of Respighi’s music orchestrated by Benjamin Britten – offers comedy and pathos, fantasy and romance, a thoroughly satisfactory happily-ever-after-ending, and a lot of dancing, mainly by mechanical dolls who have come to life. (Think Nutcracker, think Coppélia, and sophisticates can also think Mary Oslund’s Reflex Doll.)


Dance Weekly: Portland Ballet’s ‘Day by Day’

Anne Mueller talks about the world premiere of her "Day by Day," among other things

By Jamuna Chiarini

This Thanksgiving weekend there is only one performance happening and it is a big one, The Portland Ballet will be performing the World Premiere of Anne Mueller’s Day by Day with John Clifford’s Firebird in collaboration with Portland State University’s Orchestra, conducted by music director Ken Selden at PSU’s Lincoln Hall.

Day by Day (World Premiere) and Firebird
The Portland Ballet with PSU Orchestra
November 27-29
Portland State University, Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Avenue
Note: 100 tickets will be available at the door every night for $5.00

Anne Mueller photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Anne Mueller photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Anne Mueller danced with Oregon Ballet Theatre starting in 1996 and became Principal Dancer in 2007 when the ranks became established, dancing a variety of roles and choreographing. She retired 15 years later in 2011. Mueller was also a co-founder of the Trey McIntyre Project in 2005, working as a company artist and serving as the company’s founding Managing Director and Director of Outreach. After she retired from OBT, Mueller focused on teaching and artistic administrator with responsibilities including ballet mastering, tour management, and acting as Interim Artistic Director following Artistic Director Christopher Stowell’s departure. In 2013 she became the Managing Director of Bag&Baggage Productions in Hillsboro until her switch to her current position as Co-Artistic Director at The Portland Ballet this year.

Day by Day is about the comedy and drama of everyday life performed to Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat Major with a cast of 98 Portland Ballet students ranging from ages 7 years to 20. Mueller drew on her favorite childhood authors like Roger Hargreaves, Russell Hoban and Shel Silverstein for her visual inspiration and worked collaboratively with artist Morgan Walker of Augen Gallery to create the projected backdrops and costume designer Melissa Heller from Bag and Baggage Productions to make the costumes.

For Mueller the choreographic process for Day by Day really began in February 2014 when she began discussions with PSU Conductor Ken Selden about possible music choices.

On Monday I sat down with Mueller, the Co-Artistic Director of Portland Ballet, at her favorite coffee shop—Pip’s Original Doughnuts—and talked dance. Our conversation bounced around quite a bit touching on many different topics. Here is some of that conversation.

What was your process in developing Day by Day?

The music that he [Ken Selden] initially suggested felt a little mature for a piece for dancers as young as 8, 9, 10, 11: it was much more complex. I wanted something that both had easily understandable regularity to it but that would still be interesting to me and something I would be happy listening to for essentially year and a half and also have depth to it.

I happened upon the Mozart piece, and I felt I could arrange it into something that had a sense of an arc. I didn’t know how narrative the piece would end up being if at all, but I wanted it to have a satisfying arc. I felt like if I switched the placement of two of the movements it would.

What were your first inspirations for movement?

I was sitting in traffic listening to the second movement, the Menuetto, (Mueller sings a bar of the music as an example). It has a very stop and start feel to it, and I was like oh my god! So then I thought about it: “Oh, I can use the little kids and I can make them little cars. I can use them as cars. They have headlights and tail lights and a little steering wheel. And I have a traffic officer that conducts traffic.” So that was probably the first kernel of an idea. Then I just thought, everyday there is comedy and drama, and in those daily things we all encounter, there is a real universality to that idea. And I thought, “Yup, let’s go with that. Something I can work with.

When will the dancers start working with the orchestra?

Tuesday of this coming week. There are things we did to try and prepare the dancers. Ken, the conductor, was there for rehearsal on Saturday, so he got to see the piece through, and we got to talk and he knew which recording I was working with and he knows the tempo the dancers are used to and then I started using an alternate recording. We also have pitch adjustment software, so I was messing around with the pitch speeding up and slowing it down. Just so they have experienced it.

Anne Mueller and Portland Ballet student Medea Cullumbine Robertson. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

Anne Mueller and Portland Ballet student Medea Cullumbine Robertson. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

It has been interesting following the progression of your career from afar and seeing how your skills as a dancer and choreographer translate into other fields. I was especially intrigued when you went to Bag & Baggage, which wasn’t related to dance at all. How did you do that?

A part of my professional life that a lot people don’t know that much about is being a Founder of Trey McIntyre Project, I was founding managing director of TMP. I went through the process while I was dancing, I went through the process with two others of building an organization from nothing. I wasn’t unfamiliar with what the operations of a very small arts organization look like because I had started one. I dealt with development functions, foundation communications, financial management. I had dealt with all that stuff before. It wasn’t specifically from my experience at OBT. Those things weren’t as foreign to me as they might appear.

Where do you think the model of a dance company is going? What is your take on that?

If you look at Germany every community has their own dance company, if not more than one, and opera, and so I wondered if the United States might do well to move towards that model, where the major metropolitan cities aren’t the sole owners of arts institutions and it becomes a little bit more localized and hopefully with a local sense of ownership and pride.

What I saw at TMP once it settled in Boise was a tremendous level of excitement in the community for what was going on, huge emotional support, and enough financial support for things to be working. And so that just made me wonder is that the next way that things should be working here?

What did you glean from being on the panel for Marginal Evidence at The White Box?

That’s another huge difference between the way projects generally develop in the ballet world versus the contemporary dance world at least in my experience. I have always felt incredibly under the gun timewise: move fast, get it done, get it done, get it done. Really no time to indulge in any sort of lengthy process. It was fascinating to me to listen to a lot of people say that’s how their process works, they have a lot of in-depth note taking and all of this deep exploration. I was like wow, thats super different.

If you would like to hear the discussion between Curator Chris Moss, Anne Mueller, Linda K. Johnson, Linda Austin and Katherine Longstreth at The White Box gallery for Longstreth’s installation Marginal Evidence, click here.

Did that change anything for you? Would you try something different because of something you learned that night?

I would be curious to know what I would do with the luxury of time and whether that would result in a better outcome or not. It might not for me. If you just have to be instinctive and not overthink things, sometimes that can work really well. I was definitely noting that difference and thinking about it a little bit.

What are your future plans for Portland Ballet?

We just started this new program (the career track program), and right now I’m really concentrating on getting this program off successfully and really making a positive impact on these ten dancers that I am working with and giving them everything that I can to help set them up for success in their auditions, whether they are going on to a professional company or intensive college training programs. So that’s my main focus right now.

In a lot of ballet environments for a number of reasons, dancers who are trying to embark on a professional career don’t necessarily have a lot of supportive resources in terms of where should I go, or what should my resume look like and what should my audition video look like and what places are appropriate for me to have an expectation about. So that is a lot of what i’m trying to do with these dancers as well. Yes, training them in the studio, but also pointing them in the right direction, and helping them understand how you should function in a studio/rehearsal environment that’s going to help your relationship with your artistic director or other artistic staff. Because nobody tells you that stuff, either, you sort of figure it out via trial and error and just getting older and maturing. But why don’t people tell you that—it’s not rocket science, it’s not. You know, it’s important and it has a strong impact on how people’s careers play out.

What are the different hats that you wear?

Primary teacher for the career track, and Nancy (Davis) and I split the rehearsals to some degree: it depends on what the schedule is. I run much of the rehearsals for the career track; I do all the scheduling for the career track; I teach other levels in the school, though not that much at this point because the workload of everything else I am doing is fairly full. I have rehearsals with the youth company that are outside of the career track hours, though Nancy and I are working together. She has let me take the lead on programing, thinking up the ideas of which ballets we are doing and preliminary casting.

For this production I have been doing a bit of negotiating with the collaborating artists, doing contracts for choreographers whose work we are performing. This is something we are ironing but being a conduit of communicating between venue and stage manager and lighting designer and us in house. I participate in marketing decisions and planning. I think that’s mostly it.

What is coming up next for Portland Ballet?

For the spring show, we are doing Valse-Fantaisie, we are doing excerpts of a Trey McIntyre Ballet called Mercury Half-Life which is to the music of Queen. He choreographed it on his own company in the company’s final season, and it’s going to be performed by the Washington Ballet in the spring as well. I actually staged sections of it on the Washington ballet when I was there in October, and I worked with a couple other stagers to get it set. When I get to setting it on the dancers here it will be the third time that I’ve worked with the material, which is great because it’s in you at that point.

We are going to create our own version of the Raymonda Pas de Dix. Raymonda is a full length ballet that nobody really does, but it has a lot of wonderful variations in it and the music is lovely and it’s a nice classically based showcase piece, which are super handy because you can present a classically based work without needing extensive sets and costumes. So we’ll put together a version of the Pas de Dix probably using a corp de ballet of eight and one lead couple. We will go through the variations and pick four that we feel are the right fit for the dancers that we would like to feature. Gregg Bielemeier will do a new work. He will probably start on that in December or January, and Jason Davis, who’s on faculty here, will create a new work as well. Did I get everything? I’m pretty excited about it, it’s super well-rounded.

Next weekend is a really big one-save the date for Alice Gosti, Soledad Barrio, Suniti Dernovsek, 11: Dance Co, BodyVox Dance and Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre.

Oregon Rites of Spring Survey 2: Oregon interludes

Oregon composers' music highlights spring concerts of 20th and 21st century sounds.

As the last early evening summer sunlight streamed through the windows of Portland’s Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, the city’s most exciting current composer, Kenji Bunch, meandered around the main gallery, playing his viola, passing within inches of the several dozen people in folding chairs. As he orbited the two big pianos installed in the center of the space, Bunch’s New Orleans-accented 2010 viola solo “Etoufee” gradually heated to a crayfish-cooking boil.

After enthusiastic applause, Bunch’s wife Monica Ohuchi, an equally (at least) fine musician in her own right, followed with a brief blistering hurricane, Bunch’s 2010-11 Etude 4. Bunch then joined her for I Dream in Evergreen, a spare and melancholy 2008 “meditation on permanence and impermanence,” he said. In my imagination, the triptych formed a musical parable of New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Kenji Bunch played his own music at Blue Sky Gallery.

Kenji Bunch played his own music at Blue Sky Gallery.

The couple concluded one of the best sets of music I heard all season with a ferocious performance of his 1998 Suite for Viola and Piano, which began with a fervid, neb-romantic Rhapsody, a real joke of a Scherzo that alternated between plucked and bowed passages, then a yearning, heartfelt lament, interrupted by jagged sobs that lurched straight into a whizzing whirlwind that showed off the viola’s full range of expression, eliciting cheers and hollers from the crowd for a rousing performance that lived up to the set’s title, Unleashed.

Bunch’s set was the second of four in the June 25 inaugural edition of the Makrokosmos Project, the evening-long annual showcase perpetrated by duo pianists Stephanie and Saar. That concert, in turn was one of several this spring and summer that mixed contemporary Oregon compositions with other music, which we’re looking at here second installment in our three-part series covering Oregon contemporary classical music circa spring 2015. (The third and final episode covers several all-Oregon contemporary classical concerts that highlighted the spring music schedule.) While it’s always gratifying to see full concerts of music by Oregon composers like the one we looked at in the first episode of our spring survey, ghettoizing Oregon classical music (like any new music) may deny other listeners the opportunity to stumble across it. Many Oregon music lovers may not know they’ll like music composed by Oregonians, because they may not have heard much of it. Many of our major institutions, from orchestras to radio stations, implicitly signal its inferiority by devoting only a tiny percentage of their programming time to it. Mixing new and old, local and international, in concert programs, allows the audience for each to bolster the others — and listeners to discover new sounds that they might like as much as the music they came for.


Weekend Concert Wrap-up: Jazz Infiltrations

Jazz turned up in unlikely places last weekend in Portland.

“Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.”

— Frank Zappa

Jazz is alleged to be a dying art form, but last weekend in Portland, traces of jazz kept turning up in the oddest places: a theater, a symphony concert, even an Indian music performance. As performances by Portland State University Orchestra and Oregon Symphony, David Ornette Cherry and some of Portland’s finest jazzers, and Yashila demonstrated, this supposedly endangered music exerted a powerful and often positive influence far beyond its home base in small clubs, and its creative, rebel spirit still prevails in other 21st century music.

Notes from the Underground

New York’s subway system has long inspired composers, most famously in Billy Strayhorn’s 1941 classic “Take the A Train,” for Duke Ellington’s band. The latest jazzer to derive some notes from the underground: Portland State University professor George Colligan, a recent NYC transplant whose new Existence drew some inspiration from the image of a crowded New York subway station. Colligan wrote out all the melodies and harmonies, but at its premiere at the PSU Orchestra’s Halloween concert, playing trumpet instead of his usual keyboards or drums, he led the student musicians to the Improv Avenue stop part way through the piece, producing a sweet tension over the steady beat, maybe reflecting the rich, occasionally chaotic urban cross currents that await when you disembark.

Norman Sylvester played bluesy guitar in David Ornette Cherry's Organic Nation Listening Party.

Norman Sylvester played bluesy guitar in David Ornette Cherry’s Organic Nation Listening Party.

Along with music by both famous Gabrielis, Ravel’s gorgeous Mother Goose ballet music, which the orchestra will perform with the Portland Ballet later this month, the concert also sported yet another new composition by a PSU faculty member inspired by New York bustle: a “preliminary sketch” of conductor Ken Selden’s Scandal in the Deep, composed to a ballet scenario by the French poet Celine, in which the Roman god of the sea, Neptune, is involved in a scandalous love affair with a mermaid. The students played only a skeletal version of a small portion of this work in progress, so I’m reluctant draw any conclusions about it now, but the unexpected, tantalizing taste of what I did hear makes me eager for the rest.


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