yo yo ma

ArtsWatch Weekly: a Nutcracker for the ages (all of them)

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

It’s three days until Christmas, and the day after the winter solstice (the day of, if you’re going by Greenwich Mean Time or its less elegantly named successor, Coordinated Universal Time), and that means that visions of nutcrackers keep dancing in our heads. This is not entirely voluntary – “inescapable” might be a more accurate word – but it’s not entirely unwelcome, either. As much as the inevitable annual return of The Nutcracker to ballet stages across America prompts world-weary calculations of budget-balancing and traditions gone wild, it also makes us think about why the thing’s so undyingly popular.

Lauren Kessler, right, as Clara's Aunt Rose in Eugene Ballet's version of "The Nutcracker." Photo courtesy Lauren Kessler.

Lauren Kessler, right, as Clara’s Aunt Rose in Eugene Ballet’s version of “The Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy Lauren Kessler.

Tchaikovsky’s score, steely and lush and brilliant, has a great deal to do with it: I’ve been known to give recordings of it a spin in mid-July, entirely out of season, and will put on Duke Ellington’s jazz-suite adaptation at the snowdrop of a hat. The ballet’s odd construction provides a neat children’s-perspective view of the season: the hubbub and excitement of Christmas Eve, with its scary visitor, fierce mouse army, and sibling spat, in the first act; the sheer pleasure, as the parade of divertissements rolls out in the second act, of opening all the gifts on Christmas morning. The ballet may be Russian and German in origin, but it’s also the height of Victoriana at a time of year when Victoria still rules. And if its story is less dark and enthralling than E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the ballet more than compensates with its music, dancing, and visual spectacle: I still miss Campbell Baird’s exquisite designs, based on Fabergé eggs, that Oregon Ballet Theatre used for several years in the James Canfield days.

The writer Lauren Kessler has long felt the enchantment, and unlike most of us, she did something about it. Kessler, long past ordinary ballet age, decided she wanted to perform in The Nutcracker, and so she cold-called Eugene Ballet’s Toni Pimble, looking for a chance to audition. As Angie Jabine notes for ArtsWatch in her fascinating review of Kessler’s book Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest To Dance The Nutcracker, Pimble said “sure” (or words to that effect), and Kessler set out to pursue her dream. Oh: and to write her book.

That meant, partly, getting her middle-aged body in shape. As Jabine writes: “Like Rocky Balboa in a leotard, she trained. All her previous weight lifting and track running and bicycle spinning had given her strength and endurance but had also shortened her hamstrings and bulked up her muscles. Now she would need to stretch out those hamstrings, develop her leg extension, and totally redefine her carriage. In early spring of 2014, she plunged into yoga, Pilates, water-jogging, and a machine-assisted workout called Gyrotonics—along with ballet classes, of course. All this, she notes, was just ‘prep for the prep for the real work.’”

In The Nutcracker, miracles happen. And so, gentle reader, Kessler did go on stage, as Clara’s Aunt Rose, last year and this year, too. And that, as both Kessler and Jabine tell it, is a pretty good story. Meanwhile, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s own Nutcracker, the George Balanchine version, continues through Saturday at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. You could watch the Christmas tree grow.

Xuan Cheng as Dewdrop in Oregon Ballet Theatre's production of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker." It continues through Saturday at Keller Auditorium.

Xuan Cheng as Dewdrop in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” It continues through Saturday at Keller Auditorium. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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A couple of weeks ago the celebrated cellist Yo Yo Ma was in town for a solo gig at the Schnitz sponsored by the Oregon Symphony. And there, before curtain time, he ran into a group of young musicians called the MYSfits – that “MYS” stands for Metropolitan Youth Symphony – who were providing a little pre-show music from the second-floor landing. The kids didn’t have tickets for the show (they were scarce, and expensive), but the chance to play at the Schnitz before a major concert was too good to pass up. And then an older fellow showed up and asked if he could sit in for a bit, and then … but don’t let me spoil the story. Read it yourself, as ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell relates it. Something extraordinary, and entirely fitting the season, occurred. You’ll remember this story. You might find yourself retelling it to your friends.

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Blackbird singing in the dead of night, Lennon and McCartney wrote, and Rachel Tess is taking it a few steps farther: On Monday, she’ll be dancing in the dead of night. At 5:30 in the morning, to be precise, when it’ll still be midwinter dark, on the sidewalks of the still-sleeping city, outside 1210 Northwest 10th Avenue in Portland. She and choreographer Peter Mills will collaborate on RACHEL, a performance for the dead of night, which will keep its audience out-of-doors for up to an hour, so bundle up. Reservations are required; make them by emailing rtess@rachelvtess.org. And set your alarm.

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Also on Monday, at a likely more conducive hour (10 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon) the Portland Art Museum will be open. The museum is open most days, of course, but it’s almost always closed Mondays, so this is something special. If you still want to walk off Christmas dinner and you don’t want to join the mob at the new Star Wars movie, this is an excellent dish to add to your plate. No need to set your alarm.


ArtsWatch links

 

The Mousai review: the importance of now. Ah, that’s more like it, Tristan Bliss writes: a concert made up entirely of work by contemporary composers, “the rare concert that doesn’t coerce nostalgia for a time gone-by that none of us have known, but sounds with torrential excitement to be alive now.”

The Moth: close to the flame. “The only thing missing was a campfire; and maybe some animal on a spit; otherwise, we were at home with our ancestors,” Christa Morletti McIntyre wrote about the celebrated storytelling program’s recent visit to Portland.

 


 

About ArtsWatch Weekly

We’ve been sending a letter like this every Tuesday to a select group of email subscribers. Now we’re also posting it weekly on the ArtsWatch home page. In ArtsWatch Weekly, we take a look at stories we’ve covered in the previous week, give early warning of events coming up, and sometimes head off on little arts rambles we don’t include anywhere else. You can read this report here. Or, you can get it delivered weekly to your email inbox, and get a quick look at all the stories you might have missed (we have links galore) and the events you want to add to your calendar. It’s easy to sign up. Just click here, and leave us your name and e-address.


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Yo-Yo Ma in Portland: Youth served

Legendary cellist joins young orchestra players in impromptu performance, and gives them the best seats in the house

When Yo-Yo Ma walked into Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Wednesday, December 9, he wasn’t expecting to hear anyone but himself play music. While the legendary cellist was joining the Eugene Symphony for a sold out concert two days later, his Portland show, though presented by the Oregon Symphony, was a solo gig.

So what, he asked his escort from the Oregon Symphony, was the obviously live music he was hearing as he entered the lobby?

image2As anyone who’s seen the OSO lately knows, its concerts are usually preceded by Prelude performances by local musicians, almost always young ones. “We love to give young performers a place to perform and an appreciative audience,” says the OSO Vice President for Communications Jim Fullan. “In addition, it provides our patrons with some pre-concert entertainment, which they always enjoy.” Held on the second floor landing where patrons can get really close to the musicians and the music, the brief performances make a tasty appetizer to an evening with the Oregon Symphony.

IMG_2171This evening’s Prelude performers, a string ensemble drawn from the ranks of Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s Symphony Orchestra, were in the middle of playing Edvard Grieg’s ever-popular Holberg Suite, conductor-less, which they sometimes do, when maybe the most renowned figure in classical music walked up to hear their set.

After the MYSfits started the fifth movement, Ma moved behind the group to observe the cellists. After watching for a bit, he asked MYS cellist Tommy Cohen, “Can I borrow your cello?” He sat down, and suddenly, 15 young Portland musicians were playing in Yo-Yo Ma’s band, or he in theirs. At the time, several of the musicians did not even realize that Ma was performing with them – it was quite a shock to finish the piece and see him there in the cello section.

Yo-Yo Ma, of course, isn’t just any celebrity soloist. The 60-year-0ld virtuoso is known as much for his restless curiosity and an eagerness to break boundaries, from his world music explorations to his Bach PBS special working with artists in different fields, to his Americana oriented Appalachia Waltz project and many more. He’s made 90 albums, collecting 18 Grammy awards to go with his National Medal of Arts, his Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Polar Music Prize, among multitudinous other laurels. He’s also played Barack Obama’s Presidential inaugural (continuing a string of Presidential appearances that began with his eight year old performance before President Eisenhower), collaborated with a broad range of musicians from the Dixie Chicks to Philip Glass to Bobby McFerrin. And he’s involved in many non-musical causes as well.

YYM MYSMa began to chat with the young musicians, offering general words of encouragement, telling them how impressed he was with the group. It was a nice gesture, something that all of them would tell their friends and families about for the rest of their lives, before the star headed off to his dressing room to prepare for his recital. The experience of playing with an idol, up close and personal, was something they would never forget.

“Above all,” recalled MYS music director William White, “Yo-Yo’s message was to have fun, perform, and communicate through music.”

Alas, a concert by Yo-Yo Ma is pretty much a guaranteed sellout anywhere in the world, ticket prices are dear, and none of the kids had tickets to his Schnitzer performance. But that didn’t stop their new bandmate from including them. He spoke to Oregon Symphony reps backstage, and about ten minutes before his recital began, 16 chairs appeared on the Schnitzer stage, flanking the star, and the MYS musicians got the word that they would be joining the great cellist. And that’s how the young musicians of MYS wound up with the best seats in the house.

Ma proceeded to play three of J.S. Bach’s legendary solo suites for cello, along with music by 20th century Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun (a friend of Bartok’s), a 2004 work Ma’s own world music Silk Road Ensemble commissioned from Chinese composer Zhao Jiping, and the popular “Appalachia Waltz” written by Ma’s fiddle buddy Mark O’Connor, who is to his instrument what Ma is to the cello.

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“What’s amazing about Yo-Yo Ma is that he made the kids part of the performance,” White says, “personally engaging each of them on stage through his performance, directing little winks, nods, and smiles at each of our students, seemingly trying to point out what he was doing, musically, with each of the pieces.”

“Let me be absolutely clear,” Ma announced to the startled Schnitzer audience at the close of his set. “I am the MYSfit on this stage.”

photoAfter his performance, Ma met with his new young colleagues, praising their skill and ability to play precisely without a conductor, dispensing advice (including some repertoire to try out), and even tips on presenting concerts in fresh ways. The students’ social media accounts quickly propagated with messages of gratitude and astonishment for the great cellist’s generosity. Yo-Yo Ma may not have expected to play in a band when he entered the Schnitzer Concert Hall, but by the time he left, he had a new one.

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The Oregon Bach Festival’s incoming artistic director is Matthew Halls/Courtesy OBF

Last week, Eugene’s Oregon Bach Festival announced the appointment of English conductor and organist Matthew Halls to succeed founding artistic director Helmuth Rilling in 2013. Though the timing came as a surprise — the festival earlier suggested that Rilling’s replacement wouldn’t be named till after next summer’s festival — the choice wasn’t. The 36-year-old conductor impressed everyone in his debut festival performance this summer, and the feeling was mutual. “I felt like I was walking into a giant family,” he told me in an interview the day after his appointment was announced. “I felt a great sense of warmth from the community as well as from the staff and musicians at the festival. I’m delighted to be becoming a part of the family as I embark on this exciting musical journey.”

Coupled with the 2007 appointment of former British Broadcasting Corporation executive John Evans, a former BBC executive who succeeded the much-admired founding executive director Royce Saltzman, who co-founded the University of Oregon program in 1970, the move completes the festival’s reinvention and sets the stage for new directions for the venerable Oregon classical music institution.

“Radical changes are coming,” Evans promised in an interview last year. Halls’ hiring is only the latest. Where will he and Evans take the Oregon Bach Festival?

Continues…

 
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