ladysmith black mambazo

ArtsWatch Weekly: NEA battle, dancing with Rodin

Arts groups push back, a week of dance, a road dog warrior, concert tips, what's on stage

It’s been a busy week in the arts world. Nationally, as the New York Times reports, the new administration seems intent on moving forward with its plan to kill off the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, although it’s by no means certain that Congress would go along with it, and, as the Times reports, opposition is being mounted across the country. The endowments reach into virtually every congressional district, and that reflects a lot of votes. As the Times put it, “(E)ven if the arts get only crumbs, administrators said, they are crumbs worth fighting for: much-needed money that supports community projects, new works and making the arts accessible to people in different parts of the country and to those who are not wealthy. And after years of culture-war debates in which conservatives took aim at the programs, questioning their value, arts groups are pressing the case that the federal money they receive supports organizations — and jobs — in all 50 states, both red and blue.”



Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new “Swan Lake.” Photo: Randall Milstein

IN PORTLAND, MEANWHILE, it’s a dancey sort of week. Oregon Ballet Theatre has just opened Kevin Irving’s reimagined version of Swan Lake, with the focus shifted from Odette/Odile to Prince Siegfried; it continues with four performances Thursday-Saturday at Keller Auditorium. Look for Martha Ullman West’s review in ArtsWatch on Wednesday.


Bach Cantata Choir & Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Variety’s virtues

Two very different vocal concerts demonstrate, for better and worse, the value of musical diversity


The chronological span of composers William Billings to J.S. Bach to Claudio Monteverdi and Heinrich Schutz isn’t vast, about 200 years from Monteverdi’s birth in Italy to Billings’ death in New England, but the difference in stylin’, you betcha. This musical diversity should have been the delight of last week’s concert featuring five different composers,  presented by the Bach Cantata Choir under the direction of Ralph Nelson and assistant director Emma Mildred Riggle. For the most part, it was.

“Universal Praise” by William Billings offered a robust opening at Portland’s Rose City Presbyterian church. A first generation citizen of the U.S. and considered America’s “first composer,” Billings (1746-1800) left quite a legacy of hymns, fuguing tunes (not fugal – two different animals), and other secular and sacred pieces laden with his peculiar harmonies and foot stomping rhythms. And, oh, straight-backed, early colonial American text: “Praise Him propagation, Praise Him vegetation, And let your voice proclaim your choice and Testify.” Billings got those colonial Americans a hootin’ and a hollerin’.

Bach Cantata Choir sang music by an impressive variety of composers at their winter concert.

Next up, the precious “O Nata Lux (“O light born of light…”)” failed to shine.  The title represents the glowing, white-hot transfiguration of Jesus in the Catholic faith of its composer, English Renaissance genius Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) survived as a Catholic for 70 years within the turmoil of the religious seesawing in England because his musical talent was transcendent. The piece deserves this consideration.

Since these early scores lack bar lines, or any other expressive markings, sung phrases must be based on word accent and a balance of anacrusic (“upbeatness” and thesis (“downbeatness”). Without those ideas injected into the music-making, phrases become limp and lack direction. This can, and did, lead to lethargy, and some intonation problems.

In the final cadence on the word “corporis” (body), there is a famous harmonic crunch, as the tenor sings an F natural, while the soprano descends to an F# (making for a very dissonant combination), followed by the tenor moving down to an Eb, which makes still another shocking dissonance against a D natural in the bass. Choir and conductor glossed over this passage as if it were a musical commonplace rather than a Tallis signature moment.

There was a nice uplift following the Tallis, as Ms. Riggle returned to conduct the “Hodie Christus natus est” of German baroque composer Heinrich Schutz. Buoyed by four fine soloists and a dance-like repetition of ‘Alleluia’, the “Hodie” zipped along, very well sung by the choir. Sopranos Catherine Bridge and Dorothea Lail, alto Kristie Gladhill, tenors Brian Haskins and David Foley and bass Benjamin Espana were well suited in their roles of one of Schutz’ hallmark techniques, favoriti (his word), meaning the soloists ( favorites) vis-a-vis the choir.


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