Eugene Art Talk

Bob Keefer on art and music around Eugene, Oregon

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‘On the Town’ sizzles at OFAM


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.





Russell Childers’ haunted carvings at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem

'The Wee Mother and Boy.' 1971, wood, 12” x 7.5” x 5”, private collection. Photo/Willamette University.

‘The Wee Mother and Boy.’ 1971, wood, 12” x 7.5” x 5”, private collection. Photo/Willamette University.

Up the freeway in Salem, the Hallie Ford Museum of Art on Saturday opens a retrospective of the work of outsider artist Russell Childers (1916-1998), whose haunted wood carvings gave him a passport to escape decades of unwarranted isolation in Oregon’s state institution for the disabled.

Childers – his name rhymes with “builders” – was 9 years old and living in eastern Oregon in 1926 when he was taken away from his mother and committed to the State Institution for the Feeble-Minded, later known as Fairview Hospital and Training Center. It would be four decades before he was released.

I met Childers in 1992 – he was 76 – and interviewed him for The Register-Guard. A small man, hunched over his workbench, he proudly showed me carving knives from a hand-crafted tool chest he used as he worked on a small carving of a buffalo. Childers was striking in his simplicity and strength of vision, and I found a big part of me envying his focus. He had been given hearing aids and speech therapy when he was released from Fairview in 1965 – he spent the rest of his life in an assisted-living facility, doing his carving at the Willamette Valley Rehabilitation Center in Lebanon – and could hold a conversation, though his voice was was sometimes very difficult for me to understand.

By the time I met him, Childers had been discovered by the academic art world, primarily by University of Oregon sculptor Jan Zach and by art consultants Michael Whitenack and Tommy Griffin. They arranged a small exhibition of Childers’ strange and beautiful carvings that traveled around the West. His work has been shown even in Japan.

His best work is profoundly affecting. Starting at the time of his release from Fairview in 1965, Childers turned from crafting modest but quite ordinary carvings of animals to a series of autobiographical pieces showing, for example, his mother delivering him to the hospital in 1926.

The 1971 carving shown above, “The Wee Mother and Boy,” is a good example. Childers depicts himself in the clothing of early 20th century America, right down to the big heavy laced shoes of the day. In this and similar carvings, in fact, Childers puts a lot of emphasis on details of the shoes; this may be, says Hallie Ford curator Jonathan Bucci, who created the exhibition, because his shoes were taken away from him when he entered Fairview for security reasons.

Bucci explains that he had heard about Childers and his work for several years. “It was like a thread,” he says of researching the artist and putting the show together. “I kept pulling at it and kept reeling it in.”

Little documentation exists to explain why Childers was committed in the first place. A county judge wrote that the boy suffered from “fits,” suggesting epilepsy; he was also called “incorrigible.” In retrospect it seems today he was simply deaf and possibly autistic.

Over the decades he spent at Fairview, Childers began making wood carvings, which he sometimes sold to ward attendants for a dollar or less. Years later he explained that he had been inspired by seeing a magazine article – probably Life magazine – about a wood carver in the 1940s.

'Boy with Shoes,' 1968-1970, wood, 6” x 8.5” x 5.375”. Photo/Willamette University.

The Hallie Ford exhibition contains about two dozen of Childers’ carvings of the roughly 50 that Bucci was able to locate. Some of them seem clearly inspired by photographs he might have seen in magazines such as Life: Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, for example, or a life-sized portrait bust he made of John Kennedy.

But others are more enigmatic. My two favorite works by Childers are both in the show. One, titled “The Long Wool Stocking Days,” shows a line of naked boys walking from left to right, each boy with his hand on the shoulder of the boy in front of him. Childers explained when I met him that this was how the boys at Fairview were required to line up for the showers.

The other isn’t autobiographical at all; Bucci calls it one of the few metaphorical pieces Childers did.

In “Man Climbing a Ladder,” a man wearing a trenchcoat and hat starts up a ladder that seems to have been carved out of a growing tree; at the top, a large cat is perched. The piece seems to have no particular reference other than Childers’ imagination.

“There was definitely a progression as he learned to carve,” Bucci says. “And there is a haunting sadness – and a hopefulness, as well.”

Childers' tool chestAs I visited the exhibition, that sadness was focused on Childers’ painted tool chest, which I had seen him use almost a quarter century ago. It has his name carved into a drawer front, along with other names – Nathan Doe and Donald Caseday. These were men who helped him build the tool chest, Childers told me the day I met him.

In the current exhibition Childers’ wooden chest sits at the door to the museum’s small study gallery, which houses most of the show. It’s protected from prying fingers by plexiglass panels, and it still contains his tools.

Russell Childers: Oregon Outsider” runs through October 23 at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, on the campus of Willamette University in Salem. See more information here.



‘Boy with Shoes,’ 1968-1970, wood, 6” x 8.5” x 5.375”. Photo/Willamette University.

The 28th annual PhotoZone juried show at Emerald Art Center

Emerald Art Center PhotoZone show.

One of the first things that might strike you on touring the PhotoZone Gallery’s 28th Annual Juried Show Exhibition, as I did on Friday, is the large number of black and white prints done in the Ansel Adams/Edward Weston classic landscape mode. In fact, I made a quick count. Of the 48 images still in the show — a couple have apparently been taken away by buyers — no fewer than 15 could easily pass for having been done in the early 20th century.

Photography, of course, isn’t the only artistic medium whose practitioners celebrate and replicate the past. Go to any community art center exhibition and you’ll find would-be Impressionists, Abstract Expressionists and Pop artists by the score. But photography seems to disproportionately attract people who are fond of long-established technique and vision to the exclusion of much else. Those 15 or so photos were, of course, well done, but generally lacked much acknowledgement of the fact that the calendar says 2016, not 1940.

That’s not to say there aren’t also some photos in this show with a contemporary vision. The best example, I thought, was — to my surprise, as I rarely agree with exhibition jurors — awarded Best of Show. That’s Lynn Dean’s striking color photo “Vietnam War Memorial.”

The photograph is so quietly excellent, that, to be honest, it took me a moment to grasp its subtle charms. The Washington Monument neatly divides the upper half of this vertical composition into two not-quite symmetrical sides. The color image is nearly all monochromatic, from the black polished rock of the face of Maya Lin’s much-photographed memorial to the pale gray sky above. But cut across all this gray is a sudden slash of green and yellow lawn. The effect is immensely appealing; the photograph stands nicely on its own without relying on the sentiment around a war memorial for its effect.

Another photo that caught my eye was a small study of two nudes by Paula Goodbar, who is, coincidentally, the executive director the Emerald Art Center. “Running Up That Hill” shows the torso and upper thighs of a couple, facing apart, bound together by a pink sash (and, perhaps, by their relationship). It’s a small, understated, and well done image.

Finally, Doug Martin’s “Rain Gutter Guards on Red Table” seems barely able to qualify as photography, at least at first glance, though I imagine the striking composition does. The image looks like a geometric array of 24 odd shellfish, but I’ll take the title’s word for it that no shellfish were harmed in the making. The picture is odd and appealing.

Finally, one more count. Digital has taken over even at PhotoZone. Of the 48 photos on the wall, 46 were made on digital cameras and printed as inkjet prints. One was scanned from a film slide and printed on an inkjet printer. And there is exactly one old-fashioned darkroom-vintage silver gelatin print made from a film image: Daniel Schlender’s “Silver City School.” The images in this show may not be entirely contemporary, but the medium certainly is.

The show runs through Friday, so you’ve got this week to go see it. More info here.




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

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


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.




The Eugene Biennial opens August 3 at Karin Clarke Gallery. (And I’m in it.)

East of Steens 2016.8: 22x30 hand colored black and white photograph

East of Steens 2016.8 : 22×30 hand colored black and white photograph

Thirty-three works* by thirty-one artists have been selected out of 240 submitted by regional artists for the first Eugene Biennial juried show, which opens August 3 and runs through August 27 at the Karin Clarke Gallery, 760 Willamette Street.

And, yes, one of the chosen pieces is by me — this hand colored landscape photograph from eastern Oregon’s Harney County.

The Biennial was conceived to take the place of the now-defunct annual Mayor’s Art Show, which had been run for years by the now-defunct Jacobs Gallery. The non-profit Jacobs closed earlier this year after losing its annual subsidy from the city.

I entered the Mayor’s Art Show exactly once, many years ago, with a terrible pastel painting I made from a photograph. In those days, the Mayor’s Show required artists to submit the actual work for jurying, which meant that on the day the winners were announced, the losers, including me, had to show up at the Hult Center and pick up their rejected work. This was a bracingly humbling experience for a beginner, let’s just say, and yet I’ve always thought it was a good idea even though the practice of jurying actual art works inevitably gave way to the ease and practicality of jurying from digital images.

Clarke’s new show was juried — from digital images — by a panel that included her, art collector Roger Saydack and painter Jon Jay Cruson.

The artists accepted into the show, according to the gallery website, are Alexander Krajkowski, Beverly Soasey, Bob Keefer, Carol Arian, Dale Karstetter, Edward Teague, Germaine Bennett, Heather L Halpern, Ivan Leontyuk, Janine Etherington, Jody Sibert, Joel Haffner, John Holdway, Judith M. Sander, Judy Ness, Julie Reisner, Karen Russo, Lynda Lanker, Margaret Leutzinger, Martha Snyder, Mavelle Featherstone, Michael Whitenack, Mona Goguen, Rebecca Mannheimer, Sarah Ciampa, Sarah Peterman, Satoko Motouji, Stephanie Ames, Suma Elan, Susan Jane Applegate and Zoe Cohen.

  • An earlier version of this story said 31 works would be in the show.

Vietgone at OSF: The refugee experience, from the refugees’ point of view

Tong (Jeena Yi) prepares to leave Vietnam and move to a refugee camp in Arkansas. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Tong (Jeena Yi) prepares to leave Vietnam and move to a refugee camp in Arkansas. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

There certainly is no time like the present for a serious, fun and energetic play about refugees and immigration. As our xenophobic sociopath of a presumptive nominee blathers about building walls and rounding up foreigners, let’s just take a moment to imagine that we’re not talking about refugees or immigrants or strangers whose tongue sounds like noise.

Let’s just imagine that all those people in the distant camps are actually us. And the incoherent noise is coming from our American hosts.

The strength of Vietgone, which has been running since April in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s small Thomas Theatre, is that is forces us, through the magic of drama, to cross that impassable divide between them and us. It may do so clumsily and awkwardly at times, but in the end this little hip-hop musical sparkles with a fine, original love story that keeps the play from becoming a civics lesson.

As we learn from the moment the curtain speech begins, this is the story of playwright Qui Nyugen’s parents, who fled Vietnam at the end of the war, and met and fell in love in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Delivered by Nguyen (except that it’s an actor playing him), the curtain speech also warns us that anything said here about Nguyen’s parents isn’t necessarily true.

Score one for art over reality.

Directed by May Adrales, Vietgone takes us back forty years to the fall of Saigon and the desperate rush by Vietnamese who had been allied with the United States to escape a country that now saw them as a defeated enemy. And so as the play begins we meet the rough and ready helicopter captain turned American biker Quang, played as a cross between John Wayne, Gregory Peck and Jack Kerouac by the devilishly handsome James Ryen, and his loyal sidekick, Nhan, played by Will Dao.

Quang’s main goal in life is to get back to Vietnam to rescue his wife and children, whom he was forced to abandon in the rush to fly a helicopter full of refugees to a U.S. aircraft carrier. Without his knowledge, on one last flight his helicopter was shoved over the side of the ship to make room for more landings, and he, too, became a refugee.

But while at the refugee camp in Arkansas, Quang runs into the captivating Tong, played by Jeena Yi, and, amid loud protestations of nonchalance from each side, the two fall in love.

This simple, straightforward story lurches forward a bit incoherently in seemingly random flashbacks, using video-projected comic book graphics to add setting and help sort out the confusing time frame as well as ground the tale in a later era, the 1980s, in which Nguyen himself came of age in America.

Quang and Nhan head off on a motorcycle on the classic American buddy road trip, which provides the opportunity for some awkwardly choreographed work with the front halves of motorcycles on stage as the two men try to plumb the American dream.

Paco Tolson, with a comic face to challenge Don Knotts, plays, among other roles, the earnest but condescending refugee camp worker named Bobby. He’s a delight.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t captivated right from the beginning. Too much of Vietgone is obvious, and at first the rest was confusing. Some of this may boil down to the fact I’m not much interested in hip-hop, but I’ve certainly heard hip-hop performed with better energy.

By the time Act II arrived, though, the show was growing on me. And then that ending. I won’t tell you what it was, but it could have gone on a lot longer.

Vietgone is engaging, moving, challenging and well worth seeing. Go see it.

Roe at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival: A dramatic look back at the shifting truths of history

Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Lisa Loomer’s starkly named new play Roe, which opened in April and runs through the season in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s indoor Bowmer Theatre, tells the story of America’s abortion wars through the eyes of two principal characters, both women.

They are Roe herself, a woman actually named Norma McCorvey, and a lawyer named Sarah Weddington who represented Roe when she wanted to have an abortion and Texas law wouldn’t allow her to have one. They were the winning side in the landmark 1970s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that gave women the right to have an abortion in this country.

Already this is beginning to sound depressingly like a history lesson, and, I have to say, much of the play, which I saw over the weekend, is a history lesson, and this is not among the play’s virtues. Directed by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, Roe is stilted and preachy in places, but it saves itself by telling an engaging story – definitely from today’s point of view – about the two women.

Weddington, played crisply by Sarah Jane Agnew, is a young attorney who has never argued a contested case when she is introduced to her new client. McCorvey, played by Sara Bruner, is a hard-edged 21-year-old lesbian who is pregnant, for the third time, and claiming that she was raped.

The dramatic armature of Roe grows out of the relationship between the two women, which is variously exploitative, mistrustful and antagonistic. Weddington sees McCorvey as less a human being than as necessary element for her legal battle; McCorvey, for her part, keeps changing her own account of the case and her role in it.

The play’s main strengths are its agile shifts in point of view, allowing us to examine a moment in history from rapidly shifting perspectives; characters from lawyers to Supreme Court justices talk wryly to the audience about their own obituaries — these events took place so long ago that many of the players are now dead.

The battle, though, is largely predictable, and we know from a myriad of cues which side we are to cheer for (and, in fact, the audience spent much of the performance I saw cheering like football fans for the pro-choice side of the debate).

But Loomer’s tale touches only lightly on the underlying class-war issues involved in the case. McCorvey and her subsequent friends in the pro-life movement – yes, the plaintiff actually changed sides in real life – are, in Roe, always the ones with bad haircuts and drinking problems.

As Roe wraps up, we are treated to a frightening litany of the ways in which the protections of Roe v Wade have been nullified as states have exploited exceptions in the decision. This civics lesson is as dramatically dull, though, as it is politically significant.

The action takes place on a beautiful spare set by Rachel Hauck, making good use of video projections by Wendall K. Harrington.

Roe is one of OSF’s American Revolutions series of new plays commissioned about U.S. history – the same project that brought us the Tony winning All the Way. I don’t see this one headed for Broadway, but it’s an important story, well enough told.

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