Eugene Art Talk

Bob Keefer on art and music around Eugene, Oregon

Author: Bob Keefer (page 1 of 26)

The Snow Queen premieres this weekend!

 

Company dancer Victoria Harvey at a Snow Queen rehearsal

Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen is just about ready to freeze our hearts. The costumes are sewn. The set has been constructed. Lighting is being devised. And Toni Pimble, the ballet’s long-time artistic director, has completed her original choreography for the show, which makes its world premiere in two performances Saturday and Sunday (April 8 and 9) at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, this is a big deal arts event for a town like Eugene.

Starting perhaps three years ago, the ballet pulled together more than a quarter million dollars in grants to create an all-new version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale (which, much simplified, forms the basis of Frozen).

In the story, the evil Snow Queen kidnaps the young boy Kay, who is later rescued, after much adventure, by the girl Gerda, his friend.

The grant money assembled by the ballet has gone for everything from the new sets and costumes, being designed and created here by Nadya Geras-Carson and Jonna Hayden, to the luscious score, by which is composed by Portland’s Kenji Bunch and is to be performed by Orchestra Next, the student/professional orchestra conducted by Brian McWhorter.

At 90 minutes in length, the score, the ballet says, is the largest piece of orchestral music ever composed in Oregon.

 

Artistic director and choreographer Toni Pimble

We checked in with Pimble last week as she rehearsed her dancers and finished off the last bits of Snow Queen choreography with them. A co-founder with Riley Grannan of Eugene Ballet 39 years ago, Pimble has been working with her dancers as often as six days a week the last few months.

She was determined to get the choreography nailed down, she said, by a full week before opening night.

“The dancers need a chance to grow into their roles,” Pimble explained. “So for the last week we can be refining it.”

Choreographing a new ballet to the original score the ballet commissioned from Bunch has been hard work — and that was on purpose, Pimble said. She didn’t want to create her new ballet to easy music.

“The music has been pretty challenging, which is what we wanted,” she said. “At the same time it has to be accessible to the audience. The dancers are used to working with difficult music. ‘Rite of Spring’ (which the ballet performed in 2012) is a great example of difficult music, and they are used to working with that.”

Pimble’s first step with her choreography was working with the dancers to create a crow scene (friendly crows are the allies of Gerda in her search for Kay). Pimble said she picked that one to start with because Bunch’s music for it was so complex.

She played me a bit of the music for that scene from the recording of the score by Orchestra Next. To be honest, I never could figure out where the beat was. Bunch, she said, had done research on crows while writing the music; he discovered they make two different calls at the same time. Bunch’s music is layered in complex ways, she said.

“I started with that scene because I was so worried about that music. I mean, I told him to make it hard. But oh, god…”

But the dancers quickly got it. “It doesn’t sound random to us anymore,” Pimble said.

 

Principal dancer Danielle Tolmie practices her Snow Queen moves in the studio.

 

Untypically for classical ballet, which tends to open softly and quietly, Pimble’s Snow Queen starts with a bit of a bang — a big production number with lots of dancers filling the stage.

Principal dancer Danielle Tolmie, who has the icy role of the Snow Queen herself, said that first scene involves a great deal of sheer physical work as the dancers race around the stage. “It’s like the chase at the beginning of a James Bond movie,” she said.

“That first scene is going to be very tiring. But to get to act evil is a fun experience.”

This is Tolmie’s ninth season dancing with the ballet. She started as an apprentice dancer, then put in four seasons in the corps before becoming a principal last season.

Dark, evil characters, the dancer said, are seldom portrayed in the ballet world by women. So Tolmie’s very happy to dance the Snow Queen, who steals and freezes the little boy Kay in this dark tale of love conquering evil.

“Most of the evil characters always go to men,” she said. “For a woman to get one is fun!”

The Snow Queen will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, at the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall. Tickets at EugeneBallet.com.

Symphony finalist No. 3: Francesco Lecce-Chong

The third and last finalist for the job of music director at the Eugene Symphony is in town and will conduct the orchestra in a regular season concert Thursday night.

Francesco Lecce-Chong, now assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra, is 29 — which surprised me when I met him this week at the symphony’s office. Some of the most recent photos on his website make him look quite a bit older — and that is on purpose, he explained. “I got tired of people thinking I’m 14,” he joked.

A native of San Francisco, Lecce-Chong was raised in Boulder, Colorado, a city with much the same college-town vibe as Eugene. He’s an only child in a non-musical family; his father is an architect, and his mother, an artist.

As a child he worked his way through piano, violin and viola and was playing in a youth orchestra in Colorado when someone suggested he might try his hand at conducting. His first gig on the podium came at age 16 with a middle school orchestra.

“I couldn’t stop smiling,” he said. “It all goes back to what I love about conducting — making music with people, ideally with the most people possible. I love opera! You can’t get more people than that. The more complex it is, the better.”

He got his undergraduate degree in piano and orchestral conducting from Mannes College of Music at The New School in New York. He also has a diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music.

Lecce-Chong thrives on making order out of chaos. He loves conducting from the podium as well as conducting from the keyboard, and if he gets the job here you can probably expect to see and hear historically appropriate performances of early classical music.

He sees Eugene as an incredible music opportunity. “What has made this orchestra such a lovely place for young conductors is that they entrust the music director with so much responsibility,” he says. “And you have this thing going for you that most orchestras don’t — you always have a young music director.”

If he gets the job, Lecce-Chong says, he hopes to have the orchestra perform new music by young composers from the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance and elsewhere.

That sounds simple enough, but Lecce-Chong warns that new music can mean a huge commitment from both the music director and from the orchestra. New music, by definition without a performance history, requires a lot of careful work to perform well.

“So much of what can make a composer’s work successful is how the musicians react to it,” he said. As a result, he is very demanding with composers of new work. That pickiness benefits both the orchestra and the composer.

“I can’t afford to have a single misstep,” he says.

Similarly, he would like to see a more honest relationship between the symphony and its audience — one in which, for example, the concert-goers might feel free to “boo” a work they don’t like.

“In the 19th and early 20th century,” he says, “audiences felt completely free to react however they wanted to. All those people who hated ‘Rite of Spring’ [which caused a near riot at its premiere] did so because they felt comfortable.”

Lecce-Chong leads the orchestra at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 16, at the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall in a program that includes Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist Soyeon Kate Lee; Mozart’s Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio; and Ricard Strauss’ Suite from Der Rosenkavalier (1945 version).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve conned the Oregon Mozart Players into letting me judge a music competition Sunday

John Fawcet, a previous winner of  OMP’s Young Soloist Competition

Hold on here. Somehow this classical music-writing thing has gotten out of hand.

One day you write a short review of the Eugene Symphony. You manage to spell most of the names right and convince a few readers (not all) that you are slightly knowledgeable about the music you heard. Emboldened by accidental success, you go on to write something about the Bach Festival.

The next thing you know, you’re considered somehow an expert, and you’re invited to judge the Young Soloist Competition put on by the Oregon Mozart Players.

So that’s what happened. I’m going to help judge the competition at 6 p.m. this Sunday, Feb. 5, in Room 190 at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance. The OMP, about which I’ve written off and on for some time, is a sizzling chamber orchestra that plays, yes, a lot of Mozart, and is smart enough not to allow me to be the sole arbiter of this competition.

In fact, on Sunday evening I’ll be safely in the company of three other judges who actually do know something about music: Kelly Kuo, the OMP’s music director; Alice Blankenship, OMP’s concertmaster; and Jane Allen, OMP’s principal harp. I trust they will keep me out of trouble.

We’ll be listening to nine finalists, four who are under 14 years old, and five who are 14 to 18. They’ve been selected by video audition, and if they’re anything like the young soloists I saw perform with OMP two years ago, they are all someday going to be rich and famous and performing in Carnegie Hall.

On their way to New York, the winners from this year’s competition will be featured in OMP’s May 6 concert in Beall Concert Hall. Each winner will perform the same piece they played in the final round of judging, except that they’ll be accompanied by the OMP orchestra and the piece will be played in its entirety.

The May 6 concert will also feature Elgar’s Enfants d’un rêve (Dream Children), Op. 43, and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, Op. 25, “Classical.

 

Symphony conductor candidate No. 2: Ryan McAdams

Ryan McAdams

If Ryan McAdams becomes the new music director of Eugene Symphony next season, we can probably expect to attend unusual performances in unusual musical spaces.

We can also expect articulate talks from the podium.

McAdams, who conducted the orchestra last night at the Hult Center in a concert with works by Mozart, Barber and Brahms, is one of three finalists trying out with the orchestra to replace music director Danail Rachev when he leaves the symphony at the end of this season.

On the podium McAdams was energetic and assured, cutting an almost too-perfect figure of the handsome young conductor. If he has a flaw, it may be that he’s almost corporate slick.

Much like last month’s performance by Dina Gilbert, the first of the three finalists to conduct a public concert here, his music got noticeably better and more comfortable by the final piece, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, which he had selected (the other two were assigned).

I talked with McAdams for half an hour on Monday at the symphony’s downtown office, and began by asking him to expand on his vision for including contemporary classical music in the orchestra’s performance schedule.

“This is not a question of repertoire,” he said. “It’s a question of format.”

By that, he meant that rethought productions of standard fare can feel as contemporary as new works.

As an example, he offered a performance he conducted in 2015 of the tried and true Don Giovanni with New York’s Venture Opera.

“We did this Don Giovanni on the Lower East Side in a dilapidated synagogue (perhaps better known as Angel Orensanz Center) with no sets,” he said. “The costumes were simple, large pieces of fabric. And the audience felt this was new, cutting-edge material.”

Opera News called the production “by far the most enjoyable and thought-provoking Don Giovanni New York has heard in many a year.”

In conventional performance spaces, he said, the audience can feel removed from the process of making music — a passive recipient of performance rather than an active participant.

All orchestras need to consider unconventional performance spaces, he said, if only to accommodate the large number of contemporary works that don’t fit into conventional venues such as the Hult Center.

“Composers are creating pieces that interact with very specific environments,” he said.

Those new works should be seen as not just an advertisement for the “real” performance in the main hall, but musical experiences that stand on their own.

Asked for an example of a small orchestra doing the kind of work he admires, McAdams immediately cited the Louisville Orchestra, under Teddy Abrams. In 2014 the orchestra performed Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with a choir of hundreds of singers cobbled together from professional and school groups.

“It was enormous,” McAdams said. “The concert became the definition of a community event.”

McAdams has deep personal roots in performance. His father was a theatre director; his mother, an opera singer. “I think of everything in terms of theater,” he said.

McAdams, who arrived in town late last week for a whirlwind of interviews, receptions and conducting, didn’t get to join the Women’s March in Eugene on Saturday. He was busy rehearsing the orchestra that day, though he got to see the marchers go by.

But his wife of a year and a half, dancer and performer Laura Careless, did join in, having flown in from New York just for the weekend.

McAdams chose his words carefully in taking about the pink-hatted protest and deftly turned the conversation from politics back to art.

“That’s part of what the march meant to me,” he said. “It was a group of people coming together to create the world we want to live in.”

Big changes coming to Eugene Art Talk — and for its editor

Your editor at Eugene Art Talk.

Here’s something I bet you didn’t expect: Starting Wednesday, January 11, I will become the arts editor of the Eugene Weekly.

Yes, an actual newspaper job, with paycheck and everything. There I’ll be writing and editing stories about art and music around Lane County.

That’s not much different from the work I’ve done for the past twenty years, first for The Register-Guard and, during the past two and a half years, on Eugene Art Talk. But it’s not quite the same. Writing for an alt-weekly offers not only a different audience but an entirely different newsroom culture, and I’m looking forward to making that change after decades spent writing for mainstream newspapers.

So what’s that mean for Eugene Art Talk?

A couple things. First off, I will continue to write online, although with a somewhat different approach. In general, I won’t be looking to cover arts world news, as that will certainly go to my employers at the Weekly. I will continue to write some reviews, including some of those same-night theater and symphony pieces that have been popular with readers. In general, I hope, as I move forward, to offer readers broader commentary on the state of art and music in Eugene and its surroundings.

Second, I’m going to stop charging subscriptions for the site. When I started Eugene Art Talk in summer 2014, I decided that a reader subscription model was the most straightforward approach. Readers could pay for stories, rather than advertisers. To my surprise, that worked rather well. The idea was that I would lock up the best stories on the site so they could be read only by subscribers who paid $5 a month or $50 a year for access.

There was just one small problem: Locking up the website meant the best stories on Eugene Art Talk couldn’t be read by everyone who was interested. And that often hurt the arts groups who were the subjects of those stories. So after a few months I stopped locking up any stories at all. Readers kept subscribing anyway, which meant they were really patrons. Kind of nice.

But as of today I have canceled all subscriptions, stopped the automatic credit card payments that have been the lifeblood of Eugene Art Talk, and shut down the entire membership/subscription/financial apparatus on the site. The site is now free for everyone, and will remain that way.

It’s been a fun two and a half years. I’ve posted, as of today, 328 pieces on the blog, most written by me, with a few by Suzi Steffen, Serena Markstrom and Susan Palmer.  I’ve broken occasional news of importance to the arts world, written profiles and detailed interviews, and have done a lot of quick same-night performance reviews.

Thanks to all who have supported this little experiment in local journalism! I’ve really liked the opportunity to continue to write about the arts here and get paid a bit for it. And I’ve enjoyed the interactions that the site created with readers.

Now, I’m looking forward to continuing to write about the arts for a different publication, with a different audience, and getting to know many more readers.

Stay tuned, and Happy 2017!

Eugene’s arts year in quick review

Bary Shaw and Rebecca Nachison in Shrimp & Gritts: She’s Gone at OCT

Happy almost New Year! Seems like a great time to look back at what was good and what was not so good in the local arts world in 2016. I didn’t get to everything, so I’m certain I missed some real gems, but here are my picks for the best I saw and heard all year long, and a few notes about the bad out there.

The Good

Shrimp & Gritts: She’s Gone at Oregon Contemporary Theatre. Eugene playwright Paul Calindrino created a sweetly sardonic reflection on contemporary love, and it was expertly performed last summer under Brian Haimbach’s direction. Bary Shaw and Rebecca Nachison were amazing in the lead roles. Best local play of the year.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Lane County is enjoying an incredible renaissance in theater, and it’s being led by OCT.

Timothy McIntosh and Martha Benson as Hamlet and Ophelia at Cottage Theatre

Hamlet at Cottage Theatre.  Did I mention great theater is being performed around the county? Even in Cottage Grove? Under Tony Rust’s direction, Timothy Mcintosh, as Hamlet, made the indecisive prince entrancingly believable in this smart, watchable production.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change at Actors Cabaret of Eugene. ACE specializes in fun, diverting musicals, and I Love You, You’re Perfect was perfectly staged in this show directed by Joe Zingo. I think I could have stayed in my seat and watched it a second time.

Quality of Life at Very Little Theatre. Storm Kennedy led a very strong cast in this searing drama of love, age, and death, directed expertly by Carol Horne Dennis.

Karla Bonoff at the Shedd

Karla Bonoff at the Shedd. The Shedd Institute continues its mission of bringing unusually interesting talent to town — sometimes people you’ve heard of, and sometimes not. Bonoff has long been one of those under-the-radar singer songwriters known mostly to a few fans and to the better known singers (Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Wynona Judd) who performed her work. Her show here in April was gorgeous.

Eugene Onegin by Eugene Opera. As perfect a performance as I could imagine enjoying. Sometimes it’s hard to believe we have an opera company at all in a town the size of Eugene — much less such a good one.

The Eugene Biennial. After the non-profit Jacobs Gallery closed at the beginning of the year, the annual Mayor’s Art Show was left without a home, and quietly died, too. Gallerist Karin Clarke stepped up with the idea of a juried Eugene Biennial at her downtown gallery, keeping the all-comers show alive, and even expanding its reach to all the counties abutting Lane County. Good job.

Aliens, Monsters and Madmen at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.

Aliens, Monsters and Madmen at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. You’ve got to love it when the bad habits of your youth — comic books and Mad magazine, for example — become high art in your old age. This was one of the few arts shows in town I went to see twice, spending a long time in the gallery during each visit.

Stephen Hough with Eugene Symphony. The concert pianist’s performance of Beethoven’s third piano concerto was magnificent. Hough, recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, redeemed the whole idea of piano concertos with his playing. To add to the fun, we got to hear the orchestra play work by several high school students.

 

The Eugene Review. Dark clouds sometimes have silver linings, and The Register-Guard’s steady firing of arts and entertainment writers finally produced a local arts website that’s got solid talent behind it, including Randi Bjornstad, Serena Markstrom and Suzi Steffen. The Eugene Review, which kicked off late in the year after Bjornstad got the axe, is a lot newsier and has a greater range of voices than Eugene Art Talk.

 

Out of town

 

Yeomen of the Guard at OSF

The Winter’s Tale and Hamlet and Yeomen of the Guard at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. OK, I could practically have listed every one of the eleven plays OSF did this past year. But Winter’s Tale was beautiful, Hamlet was crazy with heavy metal rock and roll, and Yeomen of the Guard let me — and perhaps fifty other audience members — wander around stage right during the show.

Russell Childers at Hallie Ford Museum of Art. Childers’ haunting, evocative sculpture had never been the subject of a retrospective. The Hallie Ford, which is the best museum of Oregon art, stepped up this past year and remedied that problem with an excellent show of work by the late artist, who was institutionalized for much of his life.

 

Wendy Red Star’s Apsa’alooke Feminist 3 at PAM

Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy at Portland Art Museum. A well thought out and compelling show, put together by the museum, of work by Native American photographers reacting to Edward Curtis.

 

The bad

Art censorship at the UO. No, they didn’t go after figure drawing this year.  The project I have in mind is the blackface appearance by UO law professor Nancy Shurtz at a private Halloween party in her own house. Not art you say? Come on. She was dressed in costume, portraying a current book, Damon Tweedy’s memoir, “Black Man in a White Coat,” about discrimination people of color face in the medical profession. Sounds like art to me.  For this, her job is threatened and she is widely vilified as a clueless racist. Bad taste, maybe. Clueless, perhaps. But no one has disputed Shurtz’ claim that she did it to provoke a discussion of racism in the professions. The university administration’s inept handling has drawn national publicity.

R-G housecleaning.  Randi Bjornstad, a former colleague and current friend, was dismissed by her bosses on Chad Drive for her work as a union president in behalf of former entertainment writer Serena Markstrom, who was also fired by the paper. See a trend here?

 

The Jacobs Gallery. It’s been almost a year since the private non-profit Jacobs closed, its budget ground down by cuts in city financial support. The city bobbled the whole thing even more with a disastrous public meeting that shed little or no light on what the future might bring. Today, almost a year after the gallery went under, a sign over the gallery’s former front door still says “Jacobs Gallery,” and the defunct gallery’s hours are still posted on a sign outside the Hult Center. In the real world this kind of thing might indicate ambivalence. When is the city ever going to make up its mind about support of the visual arts?

 

People we’ll miss:

There were too many deaths in the arts world here locally in 2016, just as there were around the country. Here are some of the locals whose deaths touched me.

 

Mark Clarke in his home studio in 2008.

Mark Clarke. One of the best painters in the state, and one of the sweetest people you could ever know. Clarke was the father of gallerist Karin Clarke and husband of painter Margaret Coe.

Richard Haugland. A deep-pocket patron of the arts, he funded — among many other things — Eugene Ballet’s brand-new production of “The Snow Queen,” which is to debut in 2017.

Rick Bartow. An amazing artist with an amazing personal story, Bartow died this past spring just a year after the Schnitzer Museum mounted a big exhibition of his work.

John Evans. The former executive director (though he had other titles) of the Oregon Bach Festival, which he ran from 2007 until his resignation in 2014, the former BBC producer could be prickly at times, but attracted a lot of donor money to OBF.

Don Hunter. A geek’s geek, Hunter — an avid collector of sounds — founded the University of Oregon’s audio-visual department in 1947 and ran it for 30 more years. “I especially loved sounds that were disappearing,” he once told me.

 

 

Snow Queen 6: Recording the new show’s soundtrack album

Recording engineer Lance Miller runs the sound board at the Snow Queen recording session.

Something that most people don’t realize about orchestral music is this: It’s very hard for composers ever to hear what their compositions actually sound like.

I’m the first to admit I didn’t fully understand this until recently. Having been fascinated by the idea of computer music ever since I bought an Amiga 1000 computer back in the Bronze Age, I’ve always assumed that all you have to do is lay down MIDI tracks for all your instruments, hit a button, and then the computer plays your new symphony for you.

The occasional dissenting voice I’d hear from people who knew anything about music, I managed to dismiss as elite audiophile grumbling.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

This all came to light this week, when Eugene’s OrchestraNext sat down in a spacious studio at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance to play – for the first time it’s ever been performed – and record Kenji Bunch’s brand-new score for Eugene Ballet’s brand-new production of “The Snow Queen.”

Composer Kenji Bunch listens as OrchestraNext performs his new composition for the ballet.

As OrchestraNext’s Brian McWhorter conducted 23 musicians from the student/professional orchestra, I sat in a small control booth, which was dominated by an enormous sound board that could have come from any rockumentary you’ve ever seen on MTV. UO recording engineer Lance Miller presided at the board, watching the orchestra through a glass window, and said things like “Take 47!” into a microphone as McWhorter and his forces launched into sections of the hour and forty minute composition.

Behind him, in chairs along one wall, Bunch and Eugene Ballet artistic director Toni Pimble sat side by side, scribbling notes and, in Bunch’s case, occasionally offering suggestions to Miller and to UO music professor Bob Ponto, the producer for the session.

The recording they were making will have two uses. First off, Pimble will use it in rehearsal for choreographing the ballet with her dancers when rehearsals start in January.

Second, perhaps 70 minutes of the music will be put on a CD, which will be available for sale at the Hult Center when the ballet opens there in April.

Back to my original point about sound quality: I had heard a brief MIDI extract of Bunch’s composition last summer, when I visited him at his Portland home for an interview. To be honest, he didn’t really want to play it for me, and I understood why as soon as the music started coming out of the computer and speakers.

I could tell that it was music, but the sound was all electronica and no orchestra. I couldn’t even tell what instruments were being simulated. I listened and thought – well, I’m not sure what I thought.

When I heard the same music played on real instruments this week, the sound was dazzling and wonderful, lush, dark and lyrical, with layers of interest and meaning that not only invite but demand further listening.

Here’s how Pimble put it when I asked for her impressions after one of the UO recording sessions this week:

“The opening of the ballet – which sounded like an ambulance siren on the MIDI recording – is actually a beautiful mysterious and icy sound that in no way resembles the MIDI sounds,” she said. “I have been listening to a MIDI recording for months now. It is less than ideal when trying to get a sense of the overall instrumentation of Kenji’s music. His unique blend of the usual and unusual pairings of instruments creates wonderful color to the sound of the music.”

Artistic director Toni Pimble offers a suggestion.

She went on to talk about the complexity of the composition.

“I think that this has been a challenging commission for Kenji. I have asked him to write a cohesive score, but the scenes of the story are very different. The Snow Queen’s palace, the romantic music of Gerda and Kay, the quirky music of the conjure woman’s garden, the fields of crows, the prince and princess palace and the gypsy scene are all very diverse scenes, not only in place and time but in the telling of the tale. He has handled this diversity wonderfully.

“The colors and sounds of each scene are clearly different and transport us to each scene and yet the segues into each scene are beautifully crafted and seamless. Some scenes are very rhythmical, others flow more with lush romantic sound.”

Pimble said hearing the music actually played by a live orchestra is helping her with ideas for choreographing the work.

“Music is the catalyst for me when choreographing, so the more I can immerse myself in the music before stepping into the studio to begin rehearsals with the dancers, the more prepared I am with ideas for the dancers and the rest of my fellow collaborators. Yes, I have been inspired this week!”

Hearing the live performance helped focus her ideas on particular scenes, Pimble said.

“I think the gypsy scene is going to be challenging music to choreograph to but very exciting, too. The field of crows is clever, complex music with a light touch and will definitely be fun to work on. Kenji told me he watched some TV programs on crows before attempting that scene.”

To prepare for this week’s recording sessions, McWhorter told me earlier, he has been studying the score – but not listening to the MIDI version of the music.

He and Pimble, McWhorter added, have been consulting with Bunch by telephone or by email about once a week as Bunch developed the piece. I asked if this amounts to composing music by committee.

“We try to be as delicate as possible,” the conductor said. “It’s this funny dance. Kenji is so open to ideas, as opposed to a composer who has a rigid vision. He’s not dogmatic, at all.”

McWhorter and Bunch have been friends since they were students together at the Juilliard School years ago. “I am considering Kenji’s sensibilities almost more than anything. That comes from knowing him. What kind of things he values. He’s not one of those composers tied to the two-dimensionality of the score.”

This is the sixth 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; Part Two, on scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; Part Three, on composer Kenji Bunch; Part Four, on costumer Jonna Hayden; and Part Five, on dancers Isaac Jones and Sara Stockwell.

“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.

 

Brian McWhorter

Conductor Brian McWhorter

 

Dina Gilbert makes a nervous debut as conductor job candidate

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Everyone who has met her likes Dina Gilbert, the young French Canadian conductor who is in town this week as the first of three finalists to take over as music director of the Eugene Symphony next season.

She’s smart, quick, funny, enthusiastic and charming, and she just wrapped up a three-year stint as assistant conductor at the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, under Kent Nagano.

It was clear the audience was pulling for her the minute we walked into the Hult Center lobby this evening to hear her conduct the orchestra. “Did you see her talk?” one friend said. “She’s fabulous! Can’t they just hire her now?”

I had some of the same reaction after meeting her on Monday.

But, of course, the proof is in the music, and that was what we all came to hear.

Gilbert, with symphony executive director Scott Freck, answers questions after the concert.

Gilbert conducted four pieces this evening: two prescribed by the orchestra (Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute and Korngold’s violin concerto) and two of her choosing, which turned out to be Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

In the first half of the program – the prescribed Mozart and the violin concerto – she seemed nervous on the podium, waving the baton so energetically at times that she seemed to be flailing. It was sheer bad luck that the violin soloist, Elena Urioste, is tall and glamorous (the Washington Post has called her “a drop-dead beauty”), so their juxtaposition on stage emphasized Gilbert’s youth, as did her bouncing ponytail.

Visual cues aside, the music in both the Mozart and Korngold seemed dutiful but uninspired, as if she were rushing through to get the job done with.

The big surprise for me came in the second half of the program. Gilbert was still nervous. She tried at one point to make her entrance before the orchestra had tuned up, then turned and headed back offstage.

But from the moment she launched into Petrouchka it felt, for the first time, like she had her teeth into something. The orchestra was with her, and so was the audience. The music was solid and moving, and Gilbert was no longer bouncing wildly on the podium, but simply and calmly conducting. That energy continued through all four movements of the Stravinsky and right through the Dukas.

It was an amazing transformation. Perhaps it was because she was playing music of her choosing; perhaps her nerves had finally settled. Whatever the reason, she began to shine.

At a public question and answer session after the concert, she talked – again a bit nervously – about her love of contemporary music and her ideas for attracting a younger audience to symphony concerts. About a third of the audience at Orchestre symphonique de Montréal concerts is under 30, she said, and she hoped she could attract more young people to the symphony if she gets the job here.

I hope so, too.

Canadian Dina Gilbert kicks off symphony conductor try-out concerts at the Hult on Thursday

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It might have been inevitable that Dina Gilbert would become a conductor. The animated young French Canadian woman talks as much with her hands as she does with her voice.

That became clear in a half-hour interview this morning at the offices of the Eugene Symphony, where Gilbert is one of three finalists to replace music director Danail Rachev when he leaves his post at the end of this season. She will guest conduct the orchestra Thursday in its regular season concert.

As with the last three conductor searches, this one has drawn a lot of interest around the country and around the world. Basically, everyone out there who owns a baton wants to work with the orchestra that propelled Marin Alsop to fame and glory with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, followed by Miguel Harth-Bedoya (who went on to become music director at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra) and Giancarlo Guerrero (now at the Nashville Symphony ).

Gilbert – pronounce her last name as the French do, “jeel-BAIR” – is perfectly positioned for the youth vote, just in case any young people get a say in the selection process. At 32 she’s an advocate for new music who likes to conduct soundtracks for video games and film. In person she’s so animated she seems hyperactive, her hands flying constantly as she speaks.

She’s premiered more than 30 works by young Canadian composers – including one, Alexandre David, who was one of the artists I met in October during my residency at Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming. (David spoke highly of her as a conductor and as an advocate for new music. “Hire her!” he said.)

Gilbert arrived in Eugene last last week, got to spend a day exploring the community, and then plunged right in on Saturday – her birthday – by meeting the orchestra for a first rehearsal for this week’s concert, which will feature works by Mozart, Korngold, Stravinsky and Dukas. (The symphony board later sang her “Happy Birthday.”)

She said she’s amazed to find an orchestra of this caliber in a city the size of Eugene. “Nothing like this would exist in Canada,” she said. “No regular orchestra in a small community.”

Gilbert just wrapped up a three-year non-renewable appointment as assistant conductor at the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, whose previous music directors have included Zubin Mehta and Charles Dutoit.

She was often called on to step in for current music director Kent Nagano in rehearsals. The first time she said, he called her to the podium to conduct parts of the first movement of Beethoven’s third symphony while he stepped out into the hall. Finally, without warning, he asked her to conduct all other movements as well.

Fortunately she had prepared to conduct every piece of music the orchestra might play while she was there – even if that meant studying scores late every night after work. “It’s normal for me to have just four or five hours of sleep each night,” she said. “That’s OK. When I’m in a rehearsal I’m giving everything, but I’m receiving a lot back from the musicians, too.”

In fact, when I asked her what the public least understands about the job of a conductor, she said it was the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. “Our job is 99 percent done when the concert starts,” she said. “I spend 70 percent of my time reading scores. The public doesn’t see all the preparation we need to do before getting there.”

Gilbert grew up in a small town in Quebec, the fifth of six daughters in an all-girl family. She started playing piano, switched to clarinet, and took up conducting when a teacher told her she had “an intuitive way of communicating” with her hands.

She is founder and artistic director of Ensemble Arkea, a chamber orchestra in Montreal that performs innovative interpretations of orchestral music.

She has a PhD from the Université de Montréal; her work for the degree was on syncing orchestral music to film. She also has a bachelor’s in clarinet performance and a master’s in conducting.

The program for Thursday’s concert is:

Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute
Korngold: Violin Concerto (Elena Urioste, violin)
Stravinsky: Petrouchka (1947 version)
Dukas: The Sorceror’s Apprentice

Two other finalists for the music director job have also been named.

Ryan McAdams will be here to conduct the January 26 concert, and Francesco Lecce-Chong will conduct on March 16. Read more about all three finalists here.

Annie Get Your Gun at the Shedd: A fun night’s entertainment, if culturally uncomfortable

 

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Annie Get Your Gun, which opened tonight and runs through December 18 at The Shedd in Eugene, isn’t the most problematic old musical out there when it comes time for a 21st century revival in these days of cultural sensitivity.

But it’s not the easiest, either, mostly on account of the stereotypical way it presents native Americans in telling the stylized story of the real life Annie Oakley and her romance with sharpshooter Frank Butler amid William Cody’s spectacular Wild West show, which captivated much of the western world as the 19th century drew to a close.

The production at The Shedd doesn’t dance around the foibles of the script. In fact, this show, directed by Ron Daum, harks back to the original 1946 version, with book by Dorothy and Herbert Fields and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. One song has been cut — “I’m an Indian, Too” — but for the most part the musical barrels right ahead, including passages that make you wince.

That’s mostly OK. The core story here is a feminist fairytale about Annie’s struggles to find true romance with Frank without, ahem, upstaging him. That’s a story we’re comfortable with, and it gives us such wonderful nuggets as “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” and “Anything You Can Do,” which are performed to near perfection by Shirley Andress in the strongest performance I’ve seen her give. Andress is tough, cute and winsome by turns as she sings her heart out about the difficulty of romancing a man who doesn’t shoot as good as she does but thinks he can.

Matt Musgrove is also strong as Frank, whose masculine charms cause the entire female dance ensemble to swoon at various times in the show.

The cultural trouble, of course, comes from the show’s depiction of Indians, and they are as stereotyped here as it’s possible to be. Just one or two nods to the 21st century — a line about Standing Rock, say?– might have helped, but instead the show grinds right ahead, oblivious, even though George Comstock did a presentable job as the stereotypically wise old Chief Sitting Bull, who gives Annie paternal advice.

This is all in the realm of cultural misdemeanor, though. Nothing here is bad-hearted, and the show itself has enough energy to carry us comfortably through its three-hour run time (including two intermissions).

Caitlin Christopher’s choreography is nicely done throughout, and the set, by Janet Whitlow, is simple and elegant, with a few delightful surprises.

The orchestra, conducted by Robert Ashens, was muddy as the play opened tonight, and then appeared to miss some sound cues later in the show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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