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Makrokosmos Project II: Joyously crazy music

In both Eugene and Portland, New York piano duo Stephanie & Saar's second annual festival goes American Berserk!

By JEFF WINSLOW and DANIEL HEILA
Photos by Adam Lansky

Editor’s note: OAW writers and composers Jeff Winslow and Daniel Heila each saw Stephanie & Saar’s Makrokosmos Project 2 last month, in Portland and Eugene. The programs differed somewhat, and so did their respective experiences.

Portland— As I sipped wine in an intimate side gallery, a sudden crash radiated from the main exhibition space at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery like thunder rolling through the concrete canyons of Manhattan. Stephanie & Saar had just started New York composer Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos from 2008, yet another in a long line of works mining the sound that brought him millions of fans over a generation ago. I’ve never been one of those millions, and yet there was something glorious in the way the two lidless pianos echoed around the reverberant space. A recording wouldn’t be able to match it. In the hands of husband and wife team Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Ho, the work emanated a sheer joy of piano sound that reminded me of a very different composer. A century ago, Sergei Rachmaninov penned work after work that, however much today’s fans and detractors may argue about faults and merits, nevertheless undeniably overflow with that same exuberance.

DUO Stephanie & Saar created and performed in the Makrokosmos Project2.

DUO Stephanie & Saar created and performed in Makrokosmos Project2

Glass’s work was just the first in June 23’s evening-length series of piano concerts, the Makrokosmos Project’s second annual installment, “American Berserk!” As it turned out, the planned climax of the evening, Frederic Rzewski’s massive set of 36 variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”, never quite materialized because one of the six pianists who were to play it had last-minute health problems. The remaining pianists gave a rich sample, interspersing Saar’s and Stephanie’s lively commentary with about a quarter of the variations. They will all regroup to give the entire work in a free concert at Portland Piano Company this November 13th.

There was plenty of other joyously crazy and crazily joyous music to make up for it though. The world premiere of Gerald Levinson’s two-piano work Ragamalika: Ringing Changes, a Makrokosmos Project commission, was a firehose spewing colorful harmonic and contrapuntal confetti inspired by bell overtones and music of the Indian subcontinent. The John Adams composition that gave the evening its name (without the exclamation mark) came across like Claude Debussy’s etude For Chords on hallucinogens. Recent Baltimore-to-Portland transplant Lydia Chungwon Chung almost made us believe people could really fly under their influence, even if it turned out it was “only” her hands.

FearNoMusic pianist Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

FearNoMusic pianist Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

But nothing could match the utter strangeness of John Zorn’s Carny. New music maven Jeff Payne’s deadpan performance let the New York avant garde composer’s sprawling, herky jerky work, loaded with allusions to fragments of others, speak for itself, but I’m not sure what its message was exactly. Maybe I would have gotten more from seeing the choreography of the FearNoMusic founder and pianist’s hands, but seating was all around the edges of the room and I happened to be sitting on the opposite side from the keyboard in play. An idea for future Makrokosmos Projects: project video of each keyboard on the wall behind it, so everyone in the room can see the pianists’ hands in action.

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Fertile Ground reviews: Solo showcases

Single-performer shows highlight Portland's valuable annual new theater works festival

“It takes a great team to create a one-person show,” writes creator/performer Sam Reiter in her program notes to Baba Yaga. The same sentiment was expressed by just about every other writer of the Fertile Ground City-Wide Festival of New Work shows I saw that relied on a single performer to carry the story onstage. Maybe that teamwork — a hallmark of Portland creativity — helps explain why so many were so surprisingly successful. Whether it’s thanks to the author of a book or play adapted into a FG production, the various shows’ directors, designers, or other backstage contributors, these apparent solo vehicles reflect productive creative collaborations.

Baba Yaga

Reiter herself portrays several characters in her triumphant show at Portland’s intimate Headwaters Theatre, using the notorious mythical crone as a narrator who frames several tales, with Reiter deftly shifting roles as easily as she doffs her babushka, sometimes shedding decades of life experience in the process. And even though Baba Yaga is Reiter’s story, crafted over the past couple years during her studies at Lewis & Clark College and Moscow Art Theatre, she does receive abundant assistance from director Caitlin Fisher-Draeger, lighting designer/tech director Corey McCarey, and especially actor/graphic designer/shadow puppeteer Robert Amico, whose silent shadow, projected onto screens, portrays various characters and whose gorgeous designs really enhance the mythological atmosphere.

“Baba Yaga is at once kind and cruel, amoral and material, helpful and hindering,” Reiter writes. “In some stories, she is either good or evil; in others, she is a mixture of both.” Reiter’s announced intention is to somehow reconcile those contradictions in the various portrayals of the infamous character from Slavic mythology — a tough challenge as the legends likely arose from different sources over centuries. And yet Reiter cleverly manages to concoct or discern a plausible character motivation for a complex archetype.

"Baba Yaga." Photo: Trevor Sargent.

“Baba Yaga.” Photo: Trevor Sargent.

To understand all may be, as the saying goes, to forgive all, but in this early incarnation of the show, Reiter may have gone a bit too far in sympathizing with her bloodthirsty protagonist, who comes off as more a relatively benign trickster than a wicked witch capable of the cannibalistic cruelty in some of the tales. Though “there’s always a risk that she will gobble you up,” Reiter’s notes explain, I never felt much risk; I wanted moments with a sharper edge, a little more blood, and maybe a bit less Portland nice in both the action recounted and Reiter’s portrayal. But she’s surely found an original and compelling angle on a complex character and a story that I hope she’ll continue to develop — abetted, of course, by the rest of her excellent creative team.

Dear Committee Members

Readers Theatre Repertory actor David Berkson also plays his character a bit Portland-nicer than the source material in his engaging premiere performance of Dear Committee Members at Portland’s Blackfish Gallery, RTR’s longtime home. Berkson’s own adaptation of Julie Schumacher’s popular *link novel that skewers academic pettiness is an entirely epistolary adventure, in which he reads the letters prolifically generated by a self-styled “cantankerous pariah” English professor (tenured, of course, so he can get away with his sardonic, sometimes vitriolic missives) at a lower-tier university.

This might not sound like a promising set-up for drama, but Berkson’s performance is far more than a straight reading, as Schumacher’s novel is much more than merely a series of satirical jabs — though it is that, too. And it’s not just for veterans of academe’s absurdities and annoyances.

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fEARnoMUSIC review: Incomplete conversation

Portland new music ensemble's concert of homegrown Oregon music doesn't always connect with broad audiences

by TRISTAN BLISS

On my drive home from my first new music concert of the year, there was a bad accident on the 5, and with my own family’s experience of death and suicide weighing on me from this past year, I started considering my motivations to spend this next year – and this review – expounding on the importance of new music. We already have plenty of notated organizational schemes of how to produce sounds traditionally considered pleasing, so why bother with the new?

It’s not that somehow living composers recognize logical inconsistencies with the works of the past, quite the opposite really, and have deemed it their life’s work to fix historical music. New music isn’t about what’s logical; in fact great art is often overtly about what’s illogical: it’s about forgetting to check your blind spot on the 5 and totaling your car, fracturing your skull on a casual hike from a falling rock, or receiving a phone call at work about how your distant uncle who never reconciled with the family stuck a gun to his chest.

So, why new music? Further, why new local music? With all the chaos that could/has/will happen with yet another new year, why do we bother ourselves with such petty considerations as organized rhythm and pitch, and why do we care where the composers live?

Voglar Belgique, Payne and Ives performed a pair of piano trios by Oregon composers.

Voglar Belgique, Payne and Ives performed a pair of piano trios by Oregon composers.

Exactly because of the chaos that makes music seem so petty! New music and our constant return to new music, despite natural chaos-driven tragedies or the cold calculated tragedies of man, stands as a constant reminder of our humanity, and while these conditions exist everywhere, we don’t live just anywhere. We live here, the Pacific Northwest, where when the sky is clear I can see Mt. Hood from Salem, the determined can ski and surf in a single day, craft coffee and beer are a way of life, and we have an ever-growing new music scene. Bach is like an overheard conversation, beautiful and engaging, but, me being neither German nor dead, it was never meant for me!

The power of new local music is that we are the intended audience, and while I didn’t love everything about fEARnoMUSIC‘s second annual Locally Sourced Sounds concert last Friday, I was glad for the conversation — but hope that fEARnoMUSIC will eventually extended the conversation past those already engaged with new music. 

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