Eugene Art Talk

Bob Keefer on art and music around Eugene, Oregon

Category: Music (page 2 of 12)

Eugene Symphony opens its season with Webern, Schumann and Brahms — and oh, that cello!

Joshua Roman

Joshua Roman

Young cellist Joshua Roman turned in a dutiful performance of Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor tonight at the Hult Center to help conductor Danail Rachev and the orchestra open the 51st season for the Eugene Symphony. Truth be told, the concerto was better than dutiful; it was lovely and moving. But then, amid thundering applause, he came back for an encore to play a brief virtuosic solo — it probably does have a name, but I didn’t catch it — that had him playing the upright cello like a guitar. (Update Friday: It’s called “Julie-O” and it’s by Mark Summer,  original cellist and co-founder of Turtle Island String Quartet.)

Roman strummed and plucked and fretted and pulled the sound of Spanish guitar out of the instrument, with a whiff or two of American blues, before switching to the bow again and delivering a lush, lyrical melody that could pass for the sound track from a Ken Burns film. The audience went wild, and a friend leaned over and said, “He played the Schumann for his parents. He’s playing this for himself!”

It was a fun evening all around. Rachev, who is leaving the orchestra after this season wraps up, opened the concert with a Passacaglia by Anton Webern that started off sounding like startled cats and then grew and grew into a clanging, clamorous climax. The Schumann filled out the first half of the program, which wrapped up after intermission with Johannes Brahms’ fourth symphony, a big, warm, rich piece with rousing Beethovenish endings to three of its four movements.

Tonight’s crowd seemed to have more than the usual opening-night energy. That may be in part because it’s Rachev’s final season, and the orchestra — following its usual practice of the past two decades, is bringing in three finalists for the job of music director and conductor to play regular subscription concerts this season. They were chosen from about 250 applicants from more than 40 countries around the globe — yes, the Eugene Symphony’s reputation is that big.

Those three finalists are:

  • Dina Gilbert, assistant conductor of the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal in Canada. She’ll conduct on Dec. 8.
  • Ryan McAdmas, a symphonic, opera and new music conductor who previously worked as apprentice conductor to the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. He’ll conduct on Jan. 26.
  • Francesco Lecce-Chong, assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Music Director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra. He’ll conduct on March 16.

 

 

 

 

 

Eugene Symphony announces three finalists to replace music director Danail Rachev

The Eugene Symphony has released the names of three finalists to replace Danail Rachev as music director. Each will conduct a regular subscription concert in the coming season, which kicks off September 22 with a concert under the baton of Rachev himself.

They include two men and a woman — and two U.S. conductors and a Canadian.

Here are the three, with information from the symphony’s announcement.

 

Dina Gilbert_01

Dina Gilbert

Dina Gilbert
Concert date: December 8, 2016
Concert program:
Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute
Korngold: Violin Concerto (Elena Urioste, violin)
Stravinsky: Petrouchka (1947 version)
Dukas: The Sorceror’s Apprentice

Recognized for her energy, precision and versatility, Dina Gilbert brings great passion to the orchestral repertoire, and is also dedicated to conducting new commissions and works by Canadian composers. A native of Québec, she is the assistant conductor at the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal since April 2013. In addition to frequently conducting rehearsals with the OSM, Gilbert leads the orchestra in many concerts, including main series subscription events, youth concerts and the annual OSM in the Parks concerts. Gilbert is also the founder and artistic director of Ensemble Arkea, a Montreal-based professional chamber orchestra that presents innovative interpretations of orchestral music. In 2012 she made her debut with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. In February 2014, she conducted the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (Germany) as one of the selected participants in the prestigious Sir Georg Solti International Conductors’ Competition. She has collaborated many times with young Canadian composers, premiering more than 30 works and has also conducted many studio recordings for films and video games soundtracks. More at www.dinagilbert.com.

 

Ryan McAdams

Ryan McAdams

Ryan McAdams
Concert date: January 26, 2017
Concert program:
Mozart: Overture to Don Giovanni
Barber: Piano Concerto (Andrew von Oeyen, piano)
Brahms: Symphony No. 1

Artist bio: Ryan McAdams, a resident of Brooklyn, New York, received his M.M. in Orchestral Conducting from The Juilliard School in 2006, and a B.M. in Piano Performance from Indiana University in 2004. He is quickly establishing himself as a prized symphonic, operatic, and contemporary music conductor. In February 2010, he made a highly successful subscription European debut with the orchestra of the Maggio Musicale in Florence and led the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, with soloists Julian Rachlin and Mischa Maisky, in September 2010. His subscription debut with the Israel Philharmonic, replacing an indisposed Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos, was hailed as “extraordinary,” “masterful,” and “immense[ly] dramatic” by the Jerusalem Post; a live recording of the concert was released by the IPO on the Helicon Classics label. He has returned to the Israel Philharmonic twice since, most recently in a run of performances featuring concerti with cellist Alisa Weilerstein and Orff’s Carmina Burana. A Fulbright scholar, he previously served as Apprentice Conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, assisting then-Chief Conductor Alan Gilbert. McAdams is the first-ever recipient of the Sir Georg Solti Emerging Conductor Award. More at www.ryan-mcadams.com.

 

Francesco Lecce-Chong

Francesco Lecce-Chong

Francesco Lecce-Chong
Concert date: March 16, 2017
Concert program:
Liszt: Mephisto Waltz No. 1
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3 with Kuok-Wai Lio
Mozart: Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio
R. Strauss: Suite from Der Rosenkavalier (1945 version)

American conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, a native of Boulder, Colorado, has worked with orchestras around the world including engagements with the National Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, San Diego Symphony, and Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. He currently holds the positions of Assistant Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra. Previously, Lecce-Chong served as Associate Conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Grand Teton Music Festival. Lecce-Chong holds a Bachelor of Music degree with honors in piano and orchestral conducting graduate from the Mannes College of Music, and a diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied as a Martin and Sarah Taylor Fellow with Otto-Werner Mueller. More at www.lecce-chong.com.

A new Snow Queen 3: Composer Kenji Bunch takes on the biggest project of his musical career

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Kenji Bunch

When Eugene Ballet premieres its new full-length interpretation of “The Snow Queen” at the Hult Center next spring, its dancers will perform to all-new music by Portland composer Kenji Bunch.

That’s a giant leap forward, both for the ballet – which has never before commissioned a full-length musical score – and for Bunch, who has never before composed such a long piece of music.

“I have never done a full-fledged, evening-length orchestral ballet score,” he said in a recent visit to his home studio. “That is definitely a bucket-list item for a composer.”

Bunch, 43, grew up in Portland, where he played viola for five years in the Portland Youth Symphony and attended Wilson High School. From there he went to the Juilliard School in New York, where he majored in viola and composition. He stayed on in New York for two decades after graduation, performing and teaching and working as a composer, steadily making himself a name in the classical music world.

It was while Bunch was at Juilliard that he became friends with Brian McWhorter, a high-energy trumpet player who was also studying composition there.

“We were both students at Juilliard and we shared an interest in breaking out of the conventional composer/performer dynamic,” says McWhorter. “We were both composers and performers – and we were enamored with bringing some semblance of improvisation to classical music. I think that shared interest naturally brought us together, and we explored a lot of music from the experimental art music scene.”


A Kenji Bunch sampler on YouTube

McWhorter, who is now a professor of trumpet at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, is also co-founder and conductor of Orchestra Next, the student/professional orchestra that has played for Eugene Ballet performances since 2012. And it was McWhorter who suggested to EBC artistic director Toni Pimble that Bunch would be a great choice to compose the “Snow Queen” score.

“Kenji has a playful sensibility with his music that I enjoy a lot,” McWhorter says. “And I’m not alone. His music is very colorful, rhythmic, and he finds creative ways to set moods that are perfect for a narrative. He seemed a perfect fit for this project and I knew that Toni would like what he came up with.”

While students in New York, the two musicians began performing around the city, sometimes doing work so aggressively experimental that they left their audiences behind. This bland 1999 review from the Village Voice was about their performance as part of the Non-Sequitur Festival there:

Kenji Bunch and Brian McWhorter showed found film footage of a ’50s-era man dressed in an apron and making eggnog, while playing a desultory modal improv on viola, trumpet, and electronics that didn’t seem to have anything to do with anything.

These days, Bunch’s reviews are more enthusiastic. The New York Times has called him “a composer to watch,” and Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, included Bunch’s 2006 chamber opera “Confessions of the Woman in the Dunes” in his list of significant contemporary works in his book “The Rest is Noise.”

In a world that is largely hostile or indifferent to contemporary orchestral music, Bunch has managed to woo audiences without pandering. His work is richly complex without being off-putting. He works with pop influences without making his work sound cheap and easy.

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Bunch likes to cook, and when we first began discussing “The Snow Queen” he immediately brought up food as a metaphor for his music.

“I think a lot about food,” he said. “I like to cook, and I like eating and just thinking about food. And I see a lot of parallels with cooking. I get my best ideas in the kitchen.”

Much of his music, he said, is like new American cuisine.

“Chefs with classical training apply those techniques to regional dishes – and comfort food dishes – and revitalize it with their own unique approach,” he said. “I am drawn to the music of my surroundings. I listen to a lot of popular American music. Folk music. I like to play fiddle. I have written a lot of things with inspiration from fiddle and folk music.”

Except for this: None of that is happening in his score for “Snow Queen.”

“In this case, that didn’t seem to fit the project,” he said. “‘The Snow Queen’ is based on a Hans Christian Andersen fable, and is set in a time and place that, while somewhat vague, is clearly far removed from present day America. I wanted to capture an Old World aesthetic that both supported the story and honored the long tradition of evening-length orchestral narrative ballet scores, so my influences here are closer to Prokofiev and Stravinsky than American folk or jazz idioms. I’ve spent most of my life performing and listening to this music, so it feels very comfortable to find a personal vocabulary in that tradition.”

The Snow Queen project is a challenge even for an accomplished composer. Turning out two hours of fresh, inspired music takes a lot of work.

“It’s just a ton of music,” he said. “It’s about two hours of orchestral music. The longest thing I’ve written up until now – my third symphony – is just about 35 minutes. And writing fast music is incredibly hard.”

Bunch works when he can, fitting in composition time around his jobs teaching viola and composition and being the parent of two girls.

One of his favorite times to compose music is in the early morning.

As early as 5 a.m. some days, Bunch heads with his dog Coffee, a sweet-natured rescued pit bull, to a small but tidy studio – it measures just eight by 12 feet – that he constructed just outside the family home, which sits in a beautiful forested section of southeast Portland near Tryon State Natural Area. On the back wall hangs a series of stringed instruments: a violin, an acoustic guitar, a mandolin, a five-string banjo, a Fender electric guitar, a ukelele.

“Once in a while I’ll grab one of those and use it in a recording,” he said. Like most composers these days, he does the bulk of his work on a computer, which can, at the press of a button, kick out a MIDI-controlled performance of his complex score. This is both good news and bad news: The composer gets to hear the music played without hiring dozens of musicians, but the MIDI instruments are so electronic sounding that you really can’t tell a violin from a flute, and Bunch apologizes before letting me hear a passage of his new “Snow Queen” score.

And for good reason. For my unpracticed ear, the music – while certainly interesting and moving – was a bit lost in the artificial sound quality of the MIDI performance. It’s like someone is playing the parts using random stops on a cheap electric organ.

Bunch’s deadline for the completed score is the end of this year. At that point, McWhorter’s Orchestra Next plans to play and record the entire two-hour composition; Pimble will use that recording as she begins to work with her dancers on the choreography.

There’s a lot riding on Bunch here. The ballet has had one previous bad experience with a commissioned work, whose composer didn’t deliver on time. Bunch, though, looks perfectly confident he can finish the new “Show Queen” on time for Pimble and her dancers to create a new ballet.

“I am closing in on the end of the first of two acts,” he said. “It started really slow, but the further I get into it, the more momentum there is.”

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Bunch with Coffee

This is the third story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment. See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble, and Part Two, on scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson.

“The Snow Queen” will have its world premiere at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene.

See more at EugeneBallet.com.

 

‘On the Town’ sizzles at OFAM

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Mention Leonard Bernstein musicals, and you’re probably already thinking “West Side Story.”

But 13 years before “West Side Story” made its Broadway premiere in 1957, the New York composer composed the music for “On the Town,” a slender, sweet and funny musical whose music was based on Bernstein’s score for a ballet,  “Fancy Free,” which also was first performed in 1944.

This year’s Oregon Festival of American Music — in its 25th anniversary season — kicked off Friday night at Eugene’s Shedd Institute with a production of “On the Town” in the Jaqua Concert Hall. It’s the opening number in the Shedd’s three-show series of musicals, which continues with “Oliver!” (September 16-October2) and “Annie Get Your Gun” (December 2-18).

I was happily surprised this evening by the gentle good quality of OFAM’s “On the Town.” It’s a show that essentially has six lead roles, three boys and three girls, all of whom need to be able to act, sing, and dance, and the Shedd has managed to pull off this unlikely feat in style.

The story is simple. Three sailors find themselves on liberty for 24 delirious hours in New York City, and all three try to compress all of life and romance into that single amazing day — mostly in the form of boy meets girl. Gabey, particularly, falls in love with a photo he sees on a subway of Miss Turnstiles for June, and enlists his two buddies into the citywide search for the charming Ivy Smith.

The best known — perhaps the only known — song in the show these days is “New York, New York,” as in “New York, New York, what a hell of a town,” a lyric often bowdlerized (though not here) to “a wonderful town.”

The production, directed by Peg Major with music direction by Robert Ashens, keeps the action and music moving right along. One of the best scenes comes at the end of Act I, when a sexy encounter between Stephanie Hawkins (as Claire de Loone) and Jim Ballard (as Ozzie) devolves into natural history museum madness.

Janet Whitlow’s set, with large New York silhouettes, is simple and effective. Caitlin Christopher’s choreography takes good advantage of several trained ballet dancers in the show.

“On the Town” runs through August 7. Go see it.

 

 

 

 

Creating the Snow Queen 2: Nadya Geras-Carson on building an ice palace from scratch

Nadya Geras-Carson

Nadya Geras-Carson

The walls of the palace were of driving snow, and the windows and doors of cutting winds. There were more than a hundred halls there, according as the snow was driven by the winds. The largest was many miles in extent; all were lighted up by the powerful Aurora Borealis, and all were so large, so empty, so icy cold, and so resplendent!

That’s Hans Christian Andersen’s description of the Snow Queen’s palace in his popular fairy tale “The Snow Queen.”

Now just imagine designing and building that same palace from scratch – on a theater stage.

That’s exactly what Eugene artist and designer Nadya Geras-Carson is doing. The results will be on view at the Hult Center next April, when Eugene Ballet premieres its all-new ballet version of Andersen’s eerie and redemptive story of Gerda, Kay, a magic mirror, and an icy queen. Geras-Carson will also, of course, be designing sets for the rest of the tale, including a village scene and a forest.

So, we asked her, how do you go about creating a fairy tale world on a real-life stage?

The first stop, Geras-Carson explains, is to visit an entirely different world – the mind of the ballet’s artistic director Toni Pimble.

“With any show, you have to get inside the brain of the artistic director to see where they are coming from,” she says. “And Toni is a dream to work for. The first thing Toni said to me was, ‘I don’t want the set to be literal.’”

It won’t be. In fact, while some of the sets will be built – “hardscape,” as she calls them – they will be augmented throughout the show with a series of elaborate video projections and other lighting effects.

Geras-Carson is no stranger to theater or to art. She originally got a theater arts degree in design and technical theater at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco. After acting for a while – she played little-girl parts because of her short stature – she later studied illustration at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, thinking she would like to do poster design.

“But in the back of my mind I always wanted to be a sculptor,” she says. “Imagine!”

A sculptor she now is, as well as a painter – and a set deisgner.

In 2002 she painted a series of images that were projected onto the stage as a backdrop for Eugene Ballet’s production of “The Red Pony.”

Her initiation into full stage design here in Eugene came with Eugene Opera’s 2007 production of “The Magic Flute.” Her set for that show was open, looked a bit industrial, and drew on New World themes as well as the Egyptian imagery that is traditional for the show.

She is married to Don Carson, whom she met at the Academy of Art University. They both later worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, where she was a dimensional designer and conceptual designer/painter, and he helped design Splash Mountain and Toontown.

Don Carson has also done sets for both Eugene Ballet and Eugene Opera.

Geras-Carson actually got called into doing the Snow Queen design late in the game. The ballet company had originally hired another designer, who took on the project and then backed out due to a job offer.

“They called me in January,” Geras-Carson says, “and said, ‘Can you do this? And, by the way, can you get the sets drawn by June?’”

Once she had read the fairy tale and talked with Toni, Geras-Carson started with rough ideas and themes. She picked out color schemes. She looked for unifying principles that could help hold the show together visually. She thought about the idea of video projection, and decided she wanted to draw on the visual style of such artists as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Signac.

“You have to have a master concept, a design concept, that tells you these rules are inviolate,” she says. “Because I have to go from environment to environment to environment, I need some rules.”

Here are some of the self-imposed guidelines she’s working with:

  • The Snow Queen palace is all diagonals.

  • The village is horizontal and heavy.

  • The forest is vertical and fluid.

“You couldn’t have something fluid and warm inside the Snow Queen palace, for example,” she says.

She is also looking to Russian lacquer painting for inspiration.  “Russian lacquer painters and plate painters have used the Snow Queen story a lot in recent years,” she says.

Similarly, her color palette will shift coherently from scene to scene. “It’s all cool colors for the Snow Queen. Then you move into the village, and it’s gold and fall colors.”

Color is one point where more people get involved. Geras-Carson is coordinating, of course, with costume designer Jonna Hayden – “Oddly enough, most of our decisions for the colors happened simultaneously,” she says – and with lighting designer Michael Peterson.

The lighting plan, she said, includes “a stained glass effect that kind of makes the set look like it’s moving just a little bit.”

Movement like that onstage is something Geras-Carson is fond of, whether it’s done by lights or by video or by physical sets that transform themselves in front of the audience.

“I love to do a set that changes, especially if it can move,” she says. “The audience is constantly guessing as to what is going to happen next.”


This is the second story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment. See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble,  here.

“The Snow Queen” will have its world premiere at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene.

See more at EugeneBallet.com.

Vacation’s over, bears and all, and it’s back to the arts scene for me

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OK, I’m back from summer vacation, a couple weeks of backpacking at Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. I’m tan, rested, and ready to plunge back into the local arts scene, so long as there are no bears involved.

Meanwhile, there’s been news in the local arts world:

As of this morning, Eugene Ballet co-founder Riley Grannan has made it official, and public, at last: He is indeed retiring after 38 years running the company. He and Toni Pimble, who remains as artistic director, founded EBC here in 1978; it’s the only dance company in the state to have won a governor’s award for the arts.

Riley’s not what you’d call replaceable, but Josh Neckels, most recently production manager of the ballet, will take over as executive director.

Meanwhile, Karin Clarke is about to open her gallery’s inaugural Eugene Biennial exhibition, with work from artists from around southwest Oregon. The show fills the void left when the city cut funding to the non-profit Jacobs Gallery and the Mayor’s Art Show collapsed. The Biennial opens August 3 at the gallery, 760 Willamette Street, and runs through August 27. A reception and award ceremony begins at 5:30 p.m. Friday, August 5. (And, yes, I have a piece in the show.)

Finally, I returned from backpacking to find an interesting email in my inbox from an anonymous out-of-town musician who played in Matthew Halls’ historically informed performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass that opened the Oregon Bach Festival on June 24.

My review picked on the fact that HIP music may not belong in the spacious but acoustically dead Silva Concert Hall. “It’s OK for big, loud, unsubtle sound,” I wrote of the Silva, which was designed to use 1970s-vintage electronic enhancement that is now usually turned off.  “But it struggles to present anything very quiet. And it turns out that a HIP version of the B Minor Mass has a lot of subtle going on.”

The musician’s email is worth quoting at some length:

I have to say that at least some of us knew going in that it was going to be about as you described it, and I can tell you honestly that we were putting out 150 percent in a fervent attempt to overcome the sonic black hole that seems to be the predominant characteristic of Silva Hall, all of whose worst properties seem to be emphasized by doing historical performances there.

… It’s sad because this B Minor was a beautiful performance if you happened to be sitting where I was on the stage. This was my third B Minor this season, and was by far the best.

… Seems that there must be a decent size church with good acoustics somewhere in Eugene. Since historical performance is going to be integral to the festival for a while, at least, I hope that a good solution can be found for the larger projects. I’m all for amplification if we have to continue to do them at Silva, and frankly I was surprised that they weren’t adding a bit of ambience for the B Minor.

First of a series on Eugene Ballet: Creating a new “Snow Queen,” with choreographer Toni Pimble

Toni Pimble, Eugene Ballet

Toni Pimble, artistic director

Once in a blue moon an arts organization gets what amounts to a blank check to create good work. Not just good work, but new work, original work, work with no strings attached and no corners cut.

That kind of fairy-tale good fortune has befallen Eugene Ballet Company, which – with the help of a generous patron – is, for the first time, creating a new ballet entirely from scratch. EBC’s new adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Snow Queen” will make its world premiere at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts in April 2017.

It will have a full-length original orchestral score, by Oregon composer Kenji Bunch; original sets, by local scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; original costumes, by Eugene costume designer Jonna Hayden; and, of course, original choreography by Eugene Ballet co-founder Toni Pimble.

With support from Eugene Ballet, I will be following the creation of this new ballet through a series of articles over the next nine months on Eugene Art Talk. I’ll focus on the key players in this process, including dancers, musicians, designers, and even the business types that it takes to mount a brand-new show like this.

I start today by talking to Toni Pimble, who chose “The Snow Queen” after being invited to create a brand-new ballet by philanthropist and former Eugenean Richard P. Haugland. His foundation is covering $200,000 of the cost of creating this new show, with another $40,000 – for the music commission – coming from the Hult Endowment.

This is actually Haugland’s second time sponsoring a major new production here.

“Richard – a supporter of the ballet – had emailed me in 2011,” Pimble explains. “He said, ‘I would be willing to fund a ballet that you create for children. What would that cost?’

“I was on the bus on tour for ‘Nutcracker.’ And he was in Thailand. I said, ‘It’s really expensive. $150,000.’

“He said, ‘No problem.’

Pimble smiles. “I think I should have asked for more.”

That grant resulted in the ballet’s performance of “Mowgli – The Jungle Book Ballet” in 2013, based on the Rudyard Kipling story. It, too, was a complete new ballet, except that it relied on existing music.

Haugland, who with his wife Rosaria Haugland founded and later sold their company Molecular Probes, was a backer of the Eugene Ballet long before the couple had the money to be major philanthropists. Much of Haugland’s philanthropy has been directed at children; he is the founder of the Starfish Country Home School near Mae Taeng, Thailand, where he lives much of the year. At his school, the young students learn, among other things, ballet.

He’s even told Pimble he would like to see one of the graduates of Starfish dance someday in the Eugene Ballet.

And he liked what he saw in “Mowgli,” Pimble says. “After the show, he said, ‘Let’s do another!’”

Pimble knew exactly what she wanted to do next: “The Snow Queen.” It satisfied one of Haugland’s requirements – that it be a ballet for children – as well as one of hers, that it be a ballet for adults.

“It has to be sophisticated,” she says. “And it is.”

Pimble also wanted enough money to be able to commission an original score. For “Mowgli,” she selected from existing music.

“I really wanted to have a full-length composition written for us,” she says. “We have never done that before.”

The music for “Snow Queen” will be created by up and coming Portland composer and violist Kenji Bunch. Writing in the Oregonian, David Stabler this year called Bunch’s music “a driving blend of popular and classical styles.” A Portland native who spent two decades working in New York City, Bunch has been called “a composer to watch” by The New York Times.

“He does some pretty out-there music,” Pimble says. “But he also does work that’s accessible. He does both. You know, we want real music. We don’t want pandering.”

Bunch hasn’t composed for ballet before, Pimble said. “I liked the idea of his being in Portland. I like that people are excited about his music. I like that his career is taking off.”

So far, she has given Bunch a list of scenes, with their lengths, what will be happening in each scene and where the emotional high points are. His deadline for the commission is this fall. Pimble will have Orchestra Next, the Eugene student/professional orchestra conducted by Brian McWhorter, record the new score in January, so that Pimble and her dancers can begin work on the actual ballet.

At its heart, “The Snow Queen” is the classic tale of a hero’s quest. In this particular telling, though, the hero is actually a heroine – a girl — and she goes off on adventures to rescue a boy from the forces of evil.

In the story, childhood friends Gerda, a girl, and Kay, a boy, are separated when Kay is blinded to the good of the world by shards of a frozen mirror made by Satan. Kay ends up being taken to the Ice Palace of the Snow Queen; with help from various other characters, Gerda rescues him there.

It was this reversal of the classic gender roles that draws Pimble to the story. “It’s the heroine who saves the hero in this story,” she says. “And, the two main characters are women. That’s very different.”

She hasn’t cast the entire show yet, but principal dancers Yuki Beppu and her husband, Hirofumi Kitazume, will dance the roles of Gerda and Kay, while Danielle Tolmie will dance as the Snow Queen.

Pimble’s artistic career has its own fairy tale quality. Born in England, she studied ballet at the Elmhurst Ballet School, which is associated with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. The school’s notable alumnae include actress Hayley Mills, best known in the U.S. for her role in the Disney film “The Parent Trap,” and crossover soprano Sarah Brightman, known, among other things, for her performances of “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway and in the West End.

“My parents were not wealthy, and their commitment to my dream of becoming a dancer was quite a burden on them financially,” Pimble says. “Then I got a job within a week of graduating from Elmhurst, in Germany. Riley (Grannan, the company’s managing director) and I founded the Eugene Ballet in 1978 and have been very lucky and blessed with the support we have received from the community over the years, especially from Richard and Rosaria.

“And, yes, Richard’s commitment and trust in myself and EBC to create a ballet of this magnitude is very special, a dream come true!”

Pimble has choreographed nine full length ballets for the company and more than 50 shorter works, in addition to guest choreography for other companies around the country. In 1992 Pimble choreographed “Two’s Company,” to music by Antonin Dvorák, for the New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project. She’s been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts choreographer fellowship grant and, twice, artist fellowship grants from the Oregon Arts Commission.

Pimble has long been interested in popular culture. Last year, the company did a straight-through ballet version of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy.” She’s done ballet to the music of Pink Floyd and Pink Martini. She’s collaborated with the late novelist Ken Kesey and with Oregon blues singer Curtis Salgado. “I grew up listening to the Beatles,” she says.

The Eugene Ballet version of “Snow Queen” might get a boost from an unlikely popular source: A Disney animated comedy.

The original Hans Christian Andersen story of the Snow Queen served as the inspiration for the hit 2013 Disney computer animation “Frozen,” though Andersen’s tale was extensively changed to make it more conventional. “There is snow and there is ice and there is a queen, but other than that, we depart from it quite a bit,” explained the movie’s producer, Peter Del Vecho, when the movie came out.

Despite the differences, Pimble thinks the popularity of the Disney flick will benefit the ballet. “I think ‘Frozen’ will help us with marketing,” she says. “Interestingly, the first time we did ‘Peter Pan,’ the movie came out a few months before our premiere. I was really worried it would impact our performance negatively as regards ticket sales, but I think it had quite the reverse effect.”

Not surprisingly, the original “Snow Queen” fairy tale is darker and more serious than the Disney version, dealing explicitly with issues of sin, death and redemption through a Christian lens. Pimble’s version strips out the Christianity, but leaves the robust core story of how love and friendship can ultimately conquer evil.

“Andersen is a Christian – and I am an atheist,” Pimble says. “That doesn’t matter at all. ‘The Snow Queen’ is all about love: One human’s love for another.”

Oregon Bach Festival opens with a smaller, quieter, more historical — and muffled — B Minor Mass

Violinist Cullen Vance performs for Bach fans in the Hult lobby before the main event.

Eugene violinist Cullen Vance performs for Bach fans in the Hult lobby before the main event.

My live introduction to historically informed performance of classical music, also known as HIP, came at last year’s Oregon Bach Festival. Last summer, in one of a series of small concerts at the University of Oregon’s wonderful Beall Concert Hall, I listened to new OBF artistic director Matthew Halls conduct the young musicians of the Berwick Academy for Historical Performance in an afternoon performance of Beethoven Two.

The music was wonderful, crisp, clear and refreshing, after listening to way too many wall-of-sound Beethoven performances in my lifetime. I wrote last year that it was like eating fresh salad in place of overcooked soup.

So tonight I was really looking forward to hearing Halls kick off this year’s festival with a HIP performance of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

First off, the B Minor Mass is often said to be Bach’s greatest work. Which is a little weird, in some ways, as it’s actually a combination of other works he composed in the last quarter century of his life — and it was never publicly performed in his lifetime. In fact, the first documented public performance didn’t happen until 1859, 109 years after Bach’s death. And, to be honest, while I like the B Minor Mass, I don’t love it. It’s not an immediately lovable piece of music. It’s more intellectual than emotional. It takes, I imagine, rather more study and work than I’ve given it so far.

The B Minor Mass, though, has long been the signature piece of the Bach festival. It was regularly performed at the festival under the leadership of Helmuth Rilling, the German choral conductor who co-founded the festival along with the UO’s Royce Saltzman. Rilling truly loves the B Minor Mass, and he understands it.

But when Rilling did the B Minor, he did it in full-on Romantic 19th century style — big chorus, big orchestra, big sound. And that big sound fit well in the Silva Concert Hall, which is acoustically fairly dead.

So then Halls, the new artistic director, shows up — and he needs to claim the B Minor as his own. Hence tonight’s concert. Unfortunately, I — and a fair number of people in the audience — would rather have heard the Rilling version.

My problem tonight wasn’t with the Bach. Or even the performance. It was largely with the concert hall.

The Silva has always had difficult acoustics. It’s OK for big, loud, unsubtle sound, but it struggles to present anything very quiet. And it turns out that a HIP version of the B Minor Mass has a lot of subtle going on.

“It’s delicate,” my seatmate said. “Like you’ve turned your hearing aid down.”

Another friend, with whom I checked in at intermission, was less diplomatic. “I’ve got hearing aids,” he said. “And I turned them up. Didn’t help.”

Other than not really being able to enjoy all the sound dynamics, the performance was pretty much flawless. Countertenor Christopher Ainslie, whom I haven’t heard before, has an amazing, bell-like voice.

Let’s go back to the salad metaphor. What sounded crisp and clean at Beall Hall last year was distant and muddled from row T at the Silva tonight. All those little subtleties were lost, and I found my attention wandering as we worked our way through the two-hour performance.

So here’s my suggestion: Move that little HIP style B Minor Mass into Beall Hall, where the audience can hear and enjoy it. Or go even smaller — try performing it in one of the churches in town. After all, that was Bach’s day job, as a church organist. He knew churches. And HIP wants an intimate space — not the Silva.

 

 

 

‘Little Women’ make sweet music together at Eugene Opera

Hannah Penn 20100725 SDIM2859

Mezzo soprano Hannah Penn sang Jo

“Little Women” is one of those novels whose characters and story are so firmly known, at least by people of a certain generation, that it’s a little dangerous to try mounting it in another form. The story has also got a lot of material in it.  A long movie might work. A play might be a bit confining. Opera seems even more difficult than theater — especially considering the story revolves around the lives of at least  four different main characters, the four March sisters.

Adamo is not impervious to the difficulties of adaptation and some of the ironies of his artistic choices here. “Little Women” has been done as an opera once, an operetta once, a televised musical once and as a Broadway musical twice. None of those shows is produced today, if that’s any indication of their success. In her novel, as Adamo writes in his program notes, Alcott says that “Jo wouldn’t be put into an Opera by any means.” (He missed, though, the irony that this most female of novels is now being set as opera by a male.)

All that preamble aside, Eugene Opera’s “Little Women,” which opened tonight at the Hult Center’s and, sadly, has its final performance on Sunday afternoon, is an excellent, light, diverting and  lushly beautiful rendition of the familiar story into music. This is one of two stripped-down productions this season from the opera (the other being “Turn of the Screw”), with minimal set and performed in the Hult’s small Soreng Theater.

But it’s not opera lite by any means. Adamo’s score, performed by a small orchestra conducted by music director Andrew Bisantz, is full and lovely, and this is far more than a staged reading. From the opening scene, with the four sisters singing the beautiful “Four Little Chests All In A Row,” the music and story move seamlessly together.

Hannah Penn, the Portland mezzo who sings the main role of Jo, dominates the stage from the moment the lights go up with her strong, expressive voice; she’s as good an actor as she is a singer, and she carries the story along well. Brett Sprague is solid as her romantic foil, Laurie, and Jocelyn Claire Thomas’s soprano, sometimes piercing as a whip crack, makes for a perfectly lively Amy.

A number of cast substitutions were apparently made after the program was printed, according to an insert page, and the program, oddly, calls for two intermissions in this two-act show (there was, in fact, just one).

The opera is sung in English, most of which is easy to follow, but there are supertitles in case you miss a line.

Go see this on Sunday if you can. Saturday night’s audience was a little thin, and this production deserves much more attention than I’m afraid it’s going to get.

Beethoven soars at Eugene Symphony season ender

Eugene Symphony Beethoven Nine. Robert Kyr.

Composer Robert Kyr and conductor Danail Rachev at the start of tonight’s concert

OK, I’ll admit it. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is about as close to feeling real religion as I’ve ever come: Those cascading moments when, at least in translation, the lyrics to that staggering final movement of an hour-long work written nearly two centuries ago by an old man who was sick and deaf actually take us to wherever it is beyond the canopy of stars that God resides.

So, yes, I was up for it tonight — along with everyone else in a nearly a full house at the Hult’s Silva Concert Hall — and the Eugene Symphony, under the direction of Danail Rachev, pretty much delivered the goods.

The concert marked the end of the orchestra’s 50th anniversary season, and what a season it’s been. Yo-Yo Ma. Former music director Marin Alsop, not to mention her two successors, Giancarlo Guerrero and Miguel Harth-Bedoya. A disco dance in the Hult lobby. The whole season has felt positively giddy, and it’s been a whale of a lot of fun.

Tonight’s show opened with the world premiere of a new piano concerto by Robert Kyr, a University of Oregon music professor whose work has been praised by National Public Radio and by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. With Alexandre Dossin, a UO colleague of Kyr’s, on piano, the Dawning of the World (Piano Concerto No. 1) wove western structures around Balinese Gamelan sounds to create a three-movement tone poem about the Northwest landscape.

New music can be a challenge, to tell you the truth. I’d like to hear this one again. It was inviting but left me at times confused about where it was going.

The Beethoven absolutely delivered. Soloists Amanda Hall, soprano; Stacey Rishoi, mezzo-soprano; Scott Ramsay, tenor; and Lee Poulis, baritone, joined the symphony chorus to produce a mesmerizing rendition of the familiar but uplifting piece.

Rachev and the orchestra last did the Ninth in 2010 in a much less convincing performance. It was great to hear the majestic work done with passion and drive tonight.

 

 

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