seth nehil

Risk/Reward 2016: Creative tensions

Multi-disciplinary performance festival explores the contrasts between multimedia elements

Ah, summer: that season when the only arts our sun-drunk brains are capable of handling are explosion-laden superhero films and simplistic beach read books. Or so the entertainment-industrial complex would have us believe.

Not in Portland. Portland Center Stage devotes its annual July Just Add Water festival to workshop readings of new plays in progress. The end-of-summer Time Based Art Festival is dedicated to edgy, category-free performance and visual art developed by fringe festival-style artists from around the world. The city’s season of experimentation really gets started with the annual Risk/Reward Festival of New Performance, “a developmental platform for the creation of new performance works,” according to its mission statement, which cites criteria including “adventurous,” immersive,” and “cross-disciplinary”; it’s like a mini-TBA Festival, but geared exclusively to artists from our region.

Anthony Hudson as Carla Rossi at 2016 Risk/Reward Festival, Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

Anthony Hudson as Carla Rossi at 2016 Risk/Reward Festival,
Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

This year’s ninth annual edition, which ran June 17-19 at the valuable arts hub at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, showcased new works whose quality and appeal often matched and sometimes surpassed those higher-profile incubators. The most successful drew their power, and often their humor, from the interaction of two or more media forms—artistic friction that struck sparks.


Portland Opera presents Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro this weekend and next. / image via Portland Opera

So much swell singing onstage this weekend in Portland, including Friday night’s Winter’s Journey, which tops this weekend’s list of recommendations; it’s a rare opportunity to see one of music’s absolute classics and in a vital new interpretation. If you’re hesitating at all, listen to our podcast with the perpetrators. The biggest vocal news is Portland Opera’s production of Mozart’s classic The Marriage of Figaro Friday night and Sunday afternoon, and next Thursday and Saturday. It can be played as a romp or revolution, and it’ll be interesting to view the tale of unjustified class privilege during the current Occupation.  I’ll have a mini-review at Willamette Week next week.

In this week’s paper, you can read my review of sound artist Seth Nehil’s haunting Children’s Games. It’s not for audiences who want their messages delivered literally, but definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in adventurous sounds and stagings; this one uses live chorus (by members of Portland’s Flash Choir) as well as video projection.

And speaking of Portland Opera (which just snared an Operagasm! award for … well, you should just check out the site, because the categories definitely smash the stuffy stereotype), Tuesday brings a free recital at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium by one of its young studio artists, Andre Chiang, who sings an intriguing program of music by contemporary American composers Ned Rorem, Lee Hoiby, their predecessors Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein and John Jacob Niles and Samuel Barber, and Robert Schumann’s famous cycle — up there with Schubert’s — The Poet’s Love. PO’s always engaging Robert Ainsley accompanies and comments.

For more Portland vocal excitement, on Saturday night, two more of the city’s most vibrant voices, Mel Downie Robinson and and Tim Galloway, both of whom appeared in last weekend’s Resonance Ensemble show, join forces at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, accompanied by early music specialists Michael Wilhite and Douglas Schneider, singing Baroque music by J.S. Bach, Monteverdi, Handel, Rameau and more. There’s more Bach at Sunday’s Bach Cantata Choir free performance of a cantata (accompanied by small orchestra) by J.S. Bach and music by Renaissance composers at Portland’s Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, and still more free Bach in Eugene on Saturday afternoon at the downtown Atrium, where the Emerald Chamber Orchestra plays a cantata for solo soprano and a pair of chorale preludes. Eugene Baroque fans can also hear Elizabethan  lute duets and songs on Sunday afternoon at United Lutheran Church, featuring lutenists David Rogers and Hideki Yamaya and singers Anna Seitz Rikli and Jim Rich, who’ll sing songs by John Dowland and others, including Shakespeare’s contemporary (and perhaps composer for some of his plays), Robert Johnson.

Orchestra fans have several attractive choices around the state. Saturday and Monday’s Oregon Symphony concerts feature an always worthwhile warhorse, Mozart’s Symphony #41 — the composer’s magnificent final orchestral statement — and a relative rarity, Benjamin Britten’s only Piano Concerto, which offers diverse delights and a solo turn by Scottish pianist Steven Osborn, and Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan.

Last weekend’s OSO concert featured a superb performance by violinist Karen Gomyo in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and if you want more violin virtuosity and Beethoven, they’re onstage Friday and Sunday at the Beaverton Symphony’s concert, which includes Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps’ rhapsodic Violin Concerto, with Portland Baroque Orchestra violinist Adam LaMotte front and center, with Brahms’s Tragic Overture and Beethoven’s picturesquely pastoral Symphony #6.

Over on the coast, the Newport Symphony features yet another big concerto, Rachmaninoff’s Shine-y  third piano concerto, and a really fascinating undercard of Mexican music, including the startlingly original 20th century genius Silvestre Revueltas, Blas Calindo, Arturo Marquez and more.

Of the several excellent shows I caught last weekend, Resonance Ensemble‘s performance may linger longest in my memory. Hugo Distler’s theatrical Dance of Death proved to be strangely moving and seemed to emerge from ancient times, despite the occasional modern musical influences. But what really struck home was the sensitive, intimate performance by this all-star team of singers in mostly somber music by Samuel Barber, Johannes Brahms, Maurice Durufle and more. Resonance’s seemingly effortless dynamic shifts seemed perfectly geared to the lyrics’ phrasing and emotional content, and their ability to maintain a rich, firm tone even at the softest volume was especially impressive. At the end of Distler’s piece, when a worthy character achieves redemption, the sun suddenly brightened the stained glass windows at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church.

Several concerts of new music have already brightened the fall music scene. Third Angle’s agile performance of songs from New York composer Eve Beglarian’s Mississippi Project persuaded me that the composer, who also performed, is one of this country’s most compelling active composers.

Cascadia Composers’ third concert of the still young season offered several local gems. My favorite was Jackie T. Gabel’s Comet Crash 9, an electroacoustic setting of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that reflected that phenomenon as colorfully as Agniezska Laska’s video accompaniment. Bonnie Miksch’s Like Water, Like Sound, Like Breath effectively conveyed the varied moods and emotional turbulence related to the loss of parents and the birth of children in the same period. Gary Noland’s admirably concise Trio for flute, viola and cello swerved from late romantic angst to bucolic tango in a deliciously loopy staggering dance, that ultimately reminded me a bit of Ravel’s  deconstruction of classic waltzes, La Valse. Tomas Svoboda’s Lamentation for string quartet echoed Webern in its spare use of silence and sound. Wind quintets by Ted Clifford and Liz Nedela both showed real promise and engaging moments. In maybe the finest performance of the night, Eugene singer Nancy Wood sang rapturously in Jeff Winslow’s Yeats setting, When You Are Old. It’s nice to hear lyrics delivered clearly without being burdened by archaic or inappropriate opera or art song styles. Thanks to its perky percussion parts, played by Florian Conzetti, Greg Steinke’s sparkling Expressions III, inspired by Klimt paintings, contributed the night’s most exciting moments, and percussion also enlivened David Bernstein’s Quadralogues II.

What really stood out about this concert was the level of performance quality, the highest I’ve heard at CC concerts. When you have performers like Third Angle pianist Susan Smith, Colorado Quartet co-founder Diane Chaplin on cello, former Turtle Island String Quartet violist Danny Seidenberg, Oregon Symphony flutist Alicia DiDonato Paulsen and other excellent musicians giving their superb skills to this homegrown music, it adds immensely to the audience experience. Now, when are other musicians and presenters going to show up and scout some of this  listener-friendly Northwest music for use on local stages?

So Percussion’s performance of music by John Cage, Steve Reich and the band’s own Jason Treuting at Reed College — one of the highlights of the year so far — demonstrated the young quartet’s status as one of the country’s most important musical voices, and presenter  Friends of Chamber Music‘s welcome hipness in taking an expansive of view of chamber music. The New Yorkers brought Oregon some really fresh sounds, including one of Reich’s grooviest latter-day works, 2009’s Mallet Quartet, which sounded even more appealing than it did when I heard So present its premiere in 2009. Debut performances are important, but keeping them in the repertoire really makes new music grow.

FOCM’s outreach efforts also made important connections, as happened with last year’s Calder Quartet appearances at the Portland Art Museum and elsewhere. A Sunday afternoon free performance at Multnomah County’s Central Library kept kids and families engaged and participating in some clapping and other percussion. I wonder if anyone there realized that the music was by composers who were positively vilified by critics and conservative audiences for much of their careers. Hidebound critics routinely ridiculed Cage’s concepts of chance music, his ideas about the value of non traditionally musical sounds, and the rest of his transformational contributions to 20th century arts, while Reich’s early minimalism received boos and derision in the 1960s and early ’70s and even later. The critics lacked imagination, of course, but let’s also acknowledge just how much those two geniuses changed our culture, so much so that Stomp! and Blue Man Group and other percussion-propelled performances now seem perfectly safe,  friendly and fun, even for kids and families. That long view is worth keeping in mind when we encounter new art that seems strange today.

Eugene's Mood Area 52 plays its live score to the classic film Nosferatu

As noted in our feature story,  a pair of  recommended Portland  choral concerts lead the menu of classical and postclassical music offerings this weekend: On Saturday and Sunday at Portland’s First Unitarian Church, the Choral Arts Ensemble kicks off its season of auditions for long-time conductor Roger Doyle’s successor with CAE assistant conductor Tracey Edson leading a program of music by Portland’s Joan Szymko (the longtime composer for DoJump! dance theater), contemporary composer Kirke Mechem, Edward McDowell, Norman Dello Joio Frederick Delius and more, including the Choral Dances from Benjamin Britten’s 1953 opera Gloriana.

Also on Saturday (at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel) and Sunday (at  First Presbyterian Church), Portland’s Resonance Ensemble sings music by Samuel Barber, Johannes Brahms, Maurice Durufle and German composer Hugo Distler’s haunting, theatrical 1934 Dance of Death, which combines modern influences such as jazz with medieval styles and more.

On Saturday, you can hear music composed in our time and our neighborhood at Cascadia Composers’ concert at southeast Portland’s Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church, which features string quartets, wind quintets, piano and voice pairs, and other chamber music by composers Jeff Winslow, Tomas Svoboda,  Greg Steinke, Gary Noland, Liz Nedela, Bonnie Miksch, Jack Gabel (whose piece includes Agnieszka Laska’s video montage), Ted Clifford and CC founder David Bernstein.

On Sunday and Monday at Schnitzer Hall, the Oregon Symphony performs Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, with New York violinist Karen Gomyo front and center, along with Aaron Copland’s Letter from Home and Carl Nielsen’s Symphony #4 — both works that respond to world wars.

That was also the theme of the OSO’s celebrated Carnegie Hall concert last spring, and you can hear what the excitement was all about by picking up a copy of the newly released CD of that program, recorded last spring at Portland’s Schnitzer Concert Hall and featuring music of Britten, Vaughan Williams, Ives and John Adams. Grab one at the release party on Sunday.

Sunday night also brings the return of the Jasper Quartet, who starred in last year’s Chamber Music Northwest Protege concerts for rising young performers. At Kaul Auditorium on the campus of Portland’s Reed College, they’ll play a recent quartet by one of America’s most acclaimed composers, Aaron J. Kernis, Samuel Barber’s sole string quartet, whose second movement became the basis of the classic Adagio for String Orchestra (and later a choral arrangement too), and Franz Schubert’s searing String Quartet #14, “Death and the Maiden.”

Also this weekend and next (Fridays through Sundays), Portland sound artist Seth Nehil, composer Matt Carlson, videographer Dicky Dahl, dramaturge Jonathan Walters and Portland’s Flash Choir present Children’s Games, a four-act “sonic cinematic performance” that “celebrates the associative, fragmentary and irrational aspects of play and explores the traumatic colonization of wild space.” Nehil has creative evocative atmospheres to works by Portland dance and theater artists.

If you’re looking for a Halloween-themed multimedia experience, check out Eugene neo-tango/surrealist cabaret quintet Mood Area 52’s annual live performance of their original score to F.W. Murnau’s classic 1922 Dracula  film Nosferatu on Saturday at Portland’s Mission Theater.  MA52 will back the opening act, the Middle Eastern dance troupe Luminessa. On Halloween night, Mood Area 52 will also open for Jason Webley at Eugene’s WOW Hall.

Another alt classical option this Saturday: Portland’s classically trained, “Balkan Arabic klezmer-based, original absurdist cabaret ensemble,” Vagabond Opera, hosts a Transylvanian Voodoo Ball at the city’s Star Theater, which doubles as a release party for the band’s giddy new CD, Sing for Your Lives! Expect dueling celli, belly dance, fire arts, non-belly dance, Portland Balkan gypsy brass band Chervona, tarot readings, and more. Costumes and open minded attitudes encouraged.

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