Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Portland, OR

January 24, 2008

In Oregon
Photo: mine 2008

My timing is typically not great. Last weekend was no exception in that I had traveled up north to Portland, Oregon on business a week before the highly anticipated reunion of Tashi and their Messiaen/Carter chamber music mini-festival. Still, Out West Arts never rests and I decided to make the most of my time. First up was a performance from the Oregon Symphony in the lovely Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland. The Oregon Symphony is an organization in transition. After decades under beloved music director James DePreist, the artistic leadership of the organization passed to Carlos Kalmar in 2003. This change coincides with the arrival of common pressures facing many arts organizations these days including smaller audiences and decreasing revenue. All of this has resulted in an environment of charges and counter-charges about programming, marketing, and the direction of the symphony. This year, Pink Martini’s Thomas Lauderdale was recruited to help raise the profile of the organization, which has only increased the endless debate about viability and vitality that much of the classical music world seems to thrive on.

But given this weekend’s program, it doesn’t appear that all the squabbling has negatively affected the ensemble's playing. The bill started with James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie a single-movement work concerning the burning of a woman accused of witchcraft in Medieval Scotland. Filled with both liturgical elements and discordant passages representing the immolation, Macmillan’s piece may be about as far from Il Trovatore as you can get. The Symphony sounded great and Kalmar led a dynamic and colorful performance. This was followed after intermission by Mendelssohn’s incidental music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As always, the real debate with such a performance is whether or not and how much non-musical framework to give these short but pretty items. Here, two actors, Maureen Porter and Ted deChatelet, were enlisted to deliver the barest bones dialog - often in the most cloying inflection imaginable. What with all the mealy high-pitched fairy voices, the hour felt like more of a battle than a dream, but the playing was still quite good.

Later on and further uptown, I caught Third Rail Rep’s production of Conor McPherson’s Shining City. McPherson's plays are much more difficult than they seem, often resting on actors who can handle extended monologues that are often about things other than what they say they are about. Their delivery must convey a sense of magic, or at least a belief in magic, that will coalesce with the often supernatural events of the story themselves as if in a dream. That this Third Rail production does not ultimately achieve this is disappointing, although it is an admirable attempt with many charms. The heart and primary monologist of McPherson’s ghost story is John, played here by a quite good Bruce Burkhartsmeier. He is certainly believable even if the the rest of the cast does not always match him note for note. Accents are generally stable, but I found the rest of the play here overly disjointed and at times mechanical. Still, McPherson's points are made, more or less, and overall I'd still recommend it. It's too bad I can't hang around and sample more of Portland's wares, but LA beckons.


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