Weekend MusicWatch: Butterfly effect

Portland Opera brings Madame Butterfly. Again.

You wouldn’t know it from the Civil War games and recruiting battles, but Oregon universities collaborate a lot more than they compete. This weekend, the award-winning chamber choirs from the University of Oregon and Portland State University team up with renowned Harvard University choral conductor Jameson Marvin in music that spans the centuries. The perform Friday night at PSU’s Lincoln Recital Hall (with yet another strong young chorus, Pacific Youth Choir) and Saturday afternoon at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall.

On Sunday afternoon, the acoustically entrancing UO venue hosts the Salzburg Chamber Soloists in music by Dvorak, Mozart, Janacek, and Benjamin Britten (Les Illuminations) as the latest concert in the university’s Chamber Music@Beall series, curated by the Oregon Bach Festival. Or Eugeneans can hear the Cascade Consort perform Baroque music on period instruments that same afternoon at First Methodist Church.

Portland chamber music fans can content themselves with Sunday’s concert at Alberta Rose Theater, which features some of the city’s finest classical musicians performing under the umbrella of 45th Parallel in two of the most famous quartets of the 19th century, Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet and Dvorak’s “American” quartet, plus an arrangement of a Guns n Roses song and a set by popular singer songwriter Stephanie Schneiderman, from Dirty Martini.

Portlanders in search of a bigger sound will find it Saturday and Monday nights at Arlene Schnitzer Concert, where the Oregon Symphony plays music by Britten, Beethoven’s Symphony #4, a Brahms overture, and Max Bruch’s ever-popular Scottish Fantasy, starring rising young violinist Stefan Jackiw.

Speaking of the OSO and podcasts, the orchestra’s concert (with the Portland Symphonic Choir) performance of Haydn’s choral-orchestral masterpiece The Creation a couple weekends back fulfilled the promises made by Lewis & Clark College music prof Katherine FitzGibbon in our previous podcast. Conductor Carlos Kalmar kept the tempos brisk, the textures clear, and the dynamic contrasts high, and soloists Elizabeth Keusch (a last minute replacement who’d impressed at Oregon Bach Festival appearances in years past) and Ben Wager were especially impressive.

As Dr. FitzGibbon predicted, you couldn’t help but chuckle at the composer’s word painting. He cleverly plants the musical references to birds, worms, bugs, (probably) elephants, storms, et al., before the text tells us what animal or phenomenon the music reflects, so you get to play a little guessing game and admire his ability to evoke images through sound. As always, though, I wonder why Haydn added a third act (based on Milton’s Paradise Lost instead of the Biblical creation passages of the first two), since the Creation is done at the end of act two. The usual explanation is that he wanted to follow Handel’s tripartite tradition in oratorios. (The libretto had originally been intended for Handel, in fact.) However, the translated words projected in English over the stage onscreen provided another possible explanation: the famously henpecked Haydn, trapped in a loveless marriage, must have found grim ironic satisfaction in a long passage in which the soprano proclaims, essentially, that if women would just obey their husbands then “every moment is bliss.”

Looking Backward Through the Opera Glasses

The big show opening in Portland is at Keller Auditorium, where Portland Opera revives its popular production (which originated at New York City Opera in 1967) of Puccini’s tear-jerker, Madame Butterfly. Check out OAW’s podcast preview. This is one of those top ten or so operas in constant rotation here and elsewhere that keep PO and other companies (barely) in the black by catering to a certain segment of the opera audience’s apparently insatiable craving to hear the same familiar comfort food every few years. (Butterfly last alighted here in 2005.) Fortunately, this year, like last, we get an actual work by a living composer (Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei) and another mid-20th century classic (Leonard Bernstein’s delightfully dizzy Candide).

As we learned a couple weeks ago, however, next year won’t be even mildly adventurous — nothing on Portland Opera’s schedule is remotely modern; the only non-warhorse is Handel’s Rinaldo (admittedly a welcome and unusual choice but still almost exactly three centuries old), which will be performed in the smaller, lower-risk Newmark Theater by the lower-cost studio artists. That program has in recent years brought the most interesting works to the stage.

While we’re disappointed at this timid programming, we have considerable sympathy for PO artistic director Christopher Mattaliano, who’s often lamented the economic crisis’s squeeze on revenues that he believes forces PO to rely on surefire hits at the expense of cultivating new audiences through the innovative and contemporary programming that he’s said he’d like to do. Before the Great Crash, PO produced one more show per year, and that was usually a so-called “stretch” opera, i.e. not one of perennials, and the studio artists production in the Newmark was also often an unusual piece, like a Baroque opera. The financial crunch prompted PO to merge those two concepts, with the ultimate result being the loss of a slot for contemporary opera. Seen in that light, this spring’s upcoming combo of Candide and Galileo actually represents a commendable effort to break the formula, but it also makes next season’s schedule seem especially tame. If the financial situation were different, it seems likely that Mattaliano would program a more interesting — and necessarily riskier — season.

Opera is a high-stakes gamble, the most expensive art form there is. New York City Opera’s struggles have been well documented (and the highly adventurous Opera Boston closed its doors), and just last month, news surfaced that even venerable San Francisco Opera faces serious financial challenges — and it’s run by the legendary David Gockley, who in his long tenure in Houston became one of the country’s most effective apostles of contemporary opera. If those high-rolling companies with their deep-pocketed donors are worried, it’s no surprise Portland is pulling back too. The opening night of Madame Butterfly, it should be noted, is a sell-out, and the other performances will likely be close to it.

Still, while these short-term conservative strategies may mitigate the immediate crisis, ultimately they’re fools’ gold, because what happens when the craving for the same old same old is sated, or that audience dies off? Many of the viewers of any classic will be seeing it for the first time (unlike jaded music critics), but how many Butterflies can a community take? Without building an audience and a repertoire of operas from our own time and place, the art form will become an irrelevant, musty museum. Something is wrong with the high-cost model — among them the expenses associated with filling 3000 seats at the Keller — that stifles innovation and forces lowest-common denominator programming. In the coming year, since what’s happening on stage won’t really offer that much opportunity for fresh thinking, perhaps the OAW community can do some collective brainstorming about what, if anything, can be done about this dispiriting state of affairs. It’s something to do while we wait for the economy to turn around.

Promising Future

Portland Opera last week did offer cause for optimism about classical music’s future. Anyone who enjoys great singing should check out their occasional series of free vocal recitals by the company’s studio artists. Last week’s showcase for soprano Lindsay Ohse revealed an actress with real stage presence and terrifically expressive facial and physical presentation. She’s got the vocal chops, too, with maybe a little work needed to smooth out the transition from softer passages to her big guns in louder expressive passages. But Ohse, clad in a sea blue gown, sounded ready for prime time now, moving effortlessly from portraying a corpse to a tipsy music fan in successive songs by the great 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc, and confidently from French to Russian to German in music by Rachmaninoff and Mozart, in one case assuming the character of a lusty shepherd boy. As usual, PO assistant director Robert Ainsley provided informative program notes, insightful stage comments and sensitive accompaniment. These free programs at the Portland Art Museum are real treats.

Another Northwest-born diva familiar to Portland audiences, soprano Angela Meade, has just won the Beverly Sills Artist Award for singers under 40 at the Metropolitan Opera, where she’s opening in Verdi’s Ernani this weekend. It’s her second major award in a year.

More evidence of classical music’s bright future were on display last weekend at the Portland Youth Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra concert. The young musicians excelled in some powerful — and challenging to play, even for pros — music. In Osvaldo Golijov’s riveting Last Round for dueling string quartets and bass mediator, music director David Hattner cut his young charges no slack on the tempos — and they rose to the challenge, handling the tempo shifts with aplomb, and finding urgency when the score demanded, gentleness when this threnody to Golijov’s countryman, the great composer Astor Piazzolla, wanted an elegiac feel. The kids met professional standards in another great 20th century work, Henry Cowell’s Persian Set, which also featured Iranian-Portlanders Bobak and Hussein Salehi on Persian instruments. The concert ended with a delicious set of original works by Hussein (who was a prominent musician in his home country) performed on Persian instruments by local Iranian musicians augmented by PYP players. This innovative cross cultural collaboration, whose program and performance would have done honor to any ensemble in the state, was easily one of the most fascinating concerts of the year so far, reaffirming PYP and Hattner’s status as real treasures of the Portland music scene.

Portland Youth Philharmonic joined Iranian-American musicians at Portland's Wieden+Kennedy headquarters atrium

Expansive Vision?

The concert took place in the beautiful amphitheater of Wieden+Kennedy’s Pearl District headquarters, which has often hosted such public concerts. That building was famously designed by Portland architect Brad Cloepfil, whom it catapulted to national prominence. A week after hosting the opera’s depressing season announcement, the Portland Art Museum invited the visionary architect to flog his striking new book, Occupation, and talk about his firm Allied Works’ latest project.

Cloepfil, one of the country’s great designers of art spaces including New York City’s Museum of Art and Design and Denver’s new Clyfford Still Museum, broke through to national recognition with his breathtaking Wieden+Kennedy headquarters in the Pearl District. The unspoken irony of his presence at PAM, of course, is the juxtaposition of an architect who specializes in great art spaces and his hometown, which desperately needs an injection of that kind of artistic ambition but has somehow managed to resist the urge to hire Cloepfil to do anything about it. (It’s like the UO and the Trail Blazers missing out on a homegrown high school star. On the other hand, hometown Love doesn’t always work out.)

The survey of Cloepfil’s triumphs was a treat, of course, but the real action came when PAM director Brian Ferriso opened the floor to questions, and Portland Monthly editor and longtime Portland architecture critic Randy Gragg immediately raised the one that most of us were thinking: What role might Portland’s greatest architect play in the much-rumored future expansion of the Portland Art Museum.

“I’ve thought about it a little,” Cloepfil deadpanned, to chuckles from the audience. “I had a feeling it might come up tonight.” Both Cloepfil and Ferriso handled the unavoidably awkward situation with appropriate evasiveness, saying all they reasonably could given the uncertainties surrounding the museum’s funding. The former urged the city’s institutions not to try to become a “junior Boston” but to “aspire to collective trust in our own spirit of innovation.” Ferriso said whatever the museum did would depend on the economy and who can step forward to help fund an expansion.

There’s no point in squandering Cloepfil’s talents on a project unworthy of them. Whether the city’s arts supporters, and PAM itself, can summon the necessary ambition and resources to create the kind of first-class art museum this city and state deserve is really the big question. If that happens, I got the distinct impression that one of the city’s favorite sons — who still lives here even though he travels the world and has offices in New York as well as Portland — will be available to help and the museum would be interested.

The common thread in all these events: Oregon is nurturing new generations of ambitious artists and audiences. The question is whether the city’s arts institutions and their supporters possess concomitant ambition to make a stimulating home for them here, or whether they’ll continue to seek that level of vision elsewhere.

4 Responses.

  1. J. Grab says:

    Thank You! I loved your article and hope to see you at Madame Butterfly!

  2. Curtis Heikkinen says:

    Enjoyed your comments about the state of opera . The situation in Seattle is equally dull with regard to opera. I gave up my season tickets this year because there was nothing being offered that could justify the expense of traveling to Seattle. Next year looks equally dismal. I love their opera house but their programming, like Portland’s, has gotten very bland. The fact that Butterfly will likely do well in ticket sales is depressing in the sense that it reinforces my view that operagoers are just as narrow minded as symphony patrons. You note the uncertainty about what happens when the appetite for operas like Butterfly is sated. I don’t think it ever will be. That is what is so discouraging for the distinct minority of opera lovers like me who crave something else. I fear that we will never escape the Bohemes and Butterflys.

  3. Thanks, Curtis. The defenders of warhorses (maybe they should get T-shirts with that name on it!) will say that there’s always lots of people in any audience who haven’t heard, say, Butterfly or Beethoven’s Ninth or the Brahms Violin Concerto, and they deserve the chance to hear them, too. Fair enough. I just want a little more balance between old and new. Make that a lot — I’d settle for 50-50 for the next few years.

    In this case, I was actually the newbie, too, as this was my first live experience of Butterfly, believe it or not. I’m glad I saw it (you can read my mostly positive review in Willamette Week later this week), but I still wish there was another slot or three available for newer operas next season as we have this season. (That means Portlanders need to turn out for Galileo and Candide to show the bean counters that they, too, can fill the seats.)

    I actually asked Speight Jenkins, the long time director of Seattle Opera, who’s retiring this year, about this very issue when they produced the only commission of his 20+ year tenure last year in Amelia (which, unfortunately didn’t do much for me, though it sold pretty well). He said that they were still paying off the Amelia expenses despite good sales and all sorts of outreach to Boeing (and in fact they wanted an opera with a “flight” theme in part to reach that audience, which actually could raise some questions — what’s the difference between trying to reach your community vs. tailoring programming to who can pay to support it?) and other funders. He said there’s no way they could afford another commission like that for the next few years. There was nothing remotely challenging or off-putting about Amelia’s tonal score or story; it was simply its familiarity that made it so risky. That and the humongous costs of commissioning and staging a new opera.

    That’s why I understand PO’s position (though I don’t necessarily entirely agree with it), especially since Mattaliano has told me a couple of times on the record that he really, really wants to produce more new operas, and I believe him.

    And that’s why I keep coming back to the broken blockbuster model that forces these untenable Hobson’s choices on programmers — innovate or stay in the black. (Eugene has the same problem with the resident companies of the high-cost Hult Center.) Somehow, these institutions have to find a way to avoid the high costs that lead to this repetitive programming. Producing a couple shows per year in the Newmark was one way to do it but apparently even that wasn’t enough in a recession.

    As I’m sure you know, these issues have been debated for generations and have peaked during the stress of this recession. It raises all sorts of touchy issues including musicians’ pay, union contracts, elitism, marketing strategies, audience education, etc. etc. etc. I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know that anyone does. But I hope that maybe over the next year, ArtsWatch can become a forum for that discussion, not just in opera (which is the most prominent case because of its inherently astronomical costs), but in the performing arts in general. I see so much innovation going on in Portland’s indie classical scene and I (and others, including recent immigrants from NYC and Boston) see so much open mindedness on the part of Oregon audiences that I’m hoping that if any city can figure out a solution, or at least a mitigation of some kind, Portland — where we pride ourselves on high ambitions on a low budget — might be the place to do it.

    Meanwhile, check back later this month when we raise this issue with regard to another major Portland performing arts institution that you know well. I’m waiting to see the season announcements before releasing the hounds….

  4. curtis heikkinen says:

    Thanks for the response, Brett. As I read you comment that there are many in an audience who have not heard Butterfly or a Beethoven symphony, I was reminded of a discussion I had with John Dodge who a number of years ago was Program Director at All Classical FM. I was appalled at the time by what seemed to be a “dumbing down” of the music at the station. He told me that the average listener only tuned in for an hour a day and that they were programming so that those listeners were certain to hear their favorite warhorses. I found it ironic that a serious listener such as myself, who tuned in for many hours a day, was less served than people who seemed to desire little more than background music in their cars, homes and offices.

    I think that experience transfers to the concert hall and opera house. Serious listeners like myself, who have been long term season ticket holders, and who have heard standard repertoire more often than they care to think, are also at the mercy of those who dabble in classical music and opera and who only turn out for the familiar and comfortable. Tt is frustrating to say the least.

    I will say that the Oregon Symphony, which is particularly near and dear to me, has done an admirable job in bringing works rarely or never before heard to Portland audences. I admit that this season has had a oouple of disappointments, such as Joshua’s Bell’s unfortunate concerto substitution. But for the most part, the symphony has maintained freshness over the years in its programming at what I am sure is a significant cost at the box office. I applaud them for that. I only wish that Portland and Seattle Opera and All Classical were so courageous.

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