ArtsWatch Weekly: artists at play

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

When visual artists and show people get together, interesting things often happen. Some collaborations have become legendary: Isamu Noguchi’s sculptural set designs for modern dance icon Martha Graham; Léon Bakst’s expressionistic designs for Ballets Russes. The original designs and even the title for the musical Fiddler on the Roof were inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall. More recently, the South African artist William Kentridge’s astonishingly absurdist designs for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 production of Shostakovich’s equally astonishing and absurd The Nose brilliantly suggested the tone of the Gogol story that inspired the opera. Last season, Portland Opera produced Stravinsky’s classic mid-twentieth-century opera The Rake’s Progress, based on William Hogarth’s famous eighteenth century series of paintings and prints, with David Hockney’s inspired modernized designs.

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Paageno (John Moore) and Sendak's set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Papageno (John Moore) and Sendak’s set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Now Portland Opera is back with a new production of Mozart’s fabulist opera The Magic Flute, using sets and costumes designed in 1980 by the brilliant children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, whose designs for The Nutcracker were also a mainstay at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet for many years. Sendak’s sets and to a lesser extent his costumes for The Magic Flute are immediately identifiable as his and his alone: in this case the collaboration is an overlay of artistic sensibilities, a discovery of parallels between two artists whose outlooks differ but mesh well. Sendak’s bright color sense and playfully exaggerated figurative style emphasize the childlike aspects of Mozart’s music and the opera’s slightly nonsensical tale. Sendak didn’t so much rethink his source material, the way that Kentridge and Hockney did, as find a level of mutual agreement, a seductive surface that allows the music to dive more deeply behind the mask. He created very traditional tableaux, but in his own  pleasing and agreeable style, and the result is … well, pleasing and agreeable and pertinent.


“Sting: The Jazz Remix”: New look at a past master

Portland jazz musicians revisit the music of the Police singer and solo star


Sting is one of the seminal artists of my generation,” says Portland pianist/composer Darrell Grant. As the leader of The Police (1977-1984) and as a solo artist, the former Gordon Sumner sold more than 100 million records, and his eclectic genre-crossing solo career exerted a huge influence on both Grant and fellow Portland singer and Sting-lover Marilyn Keller when each was shaping a musical career in the ‘80s.

“Sting’s music provides some beautiful vehicles for us jazz musicians to do what we do best,” Grant says, “weave harmony, melody, virtuosity, spontaneity, feeling and groove into stories about who we are and what our lives are like now.” Maybe the jazz connection shouldn’t be surprising; Sting began his music career playing jazz in the early 1970s in northern England.

Yet Grant, 53, says he has been surprised that so few of his music students at Portland State University, where he teaches music, have even heard of the British rocker. “It’s hard to believe that an artist so iconic in one generation could be so unfamiliar in the next,” he says. So Grant and Keller put together Thursday night’s concert, Sting: The Jazz Remix at Portland’s Alberta Abbey, in honor of his rock roots.

Darrell Grant.

Darrell Grant.

Expect to hear “Fragile,” “We’ll Be Together,” “Fields of Gold,” “Every Breath You Take,” “King of Pain” and “Englishman in New York.” Fifteen pieces are on the set list. Grant arranged most, though Portland pianist Ezra Weiss re-imagined “Fields of Gold.”

Those of us who tuned into music in previous decades will have a chance to relish the work of a vibrant oldie-goldie in a new style. Grant will play with Keller as well as his Naught 4 Us band that includes new talent and old, including saxophonist John Nastos, high school sax-player Quin McIntire, PSU trumpeter Noah Simpson, vocalist Jimmie Herrod (lead in pianist Weiss’s jazz version of Alice in Wonderland staged in February by Northwest Children’s Theater) and PSU students, vocalist Ashley Leonard and cellist Zach Banks.

Sting. Photo: Yancho Sabev.

Sting. Photo: Yancho Sabev.

Known internationally – he was Betty Carter’s pianist a few decades ago — Grant is a staunch community citizen in Portland’s music and educational worlds. In 2004 he established the Leroy Vinnegar Award ( named for the late Portland jazz bassist who created the “walking bass line,” moving up and down the instrument) to honor Portland’s outstanding jazz musicians. Grant has issued several popular CDs, including his newest, “The Territory,” and the much-lauded 2007 album Truth and Reconciliation.

Grant calls his recasting of the pop master of his youth “somewhat of a homecoming,” but acknowledges that “some people will be hearing this music for the first time.” As with any jazz concert, the magic will emerge from how musicians mix and mash yesterday with today.

PDX Jazz presents Sting: The Jazz Remix at 7:30 pm Thursday May 12, at the Alberta Abbey, 126 NE Alberta St. in Portland. Tickets ($20 in advance or $25 at the door) available online.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools. Her web site is

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