Two more promising new arts groups in Portland

KO & Co., a dance troupe, and Portland Vocal Consort strut their stuff in a city that is spawning many new companies. The performances, however, left our critic feeling a little stranded.
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The Portland Vocal Consort during rehearsals.

KO & Co., a dance troupe, and Portland Vocal Consort strut their stuff in a city that is spawning many new companies. The performances, however, left our critic feeling a little stranded.

I was sitting next to a prominent Portland arts administrator, and we were having that typical post-concert sort of non-conversation: speaking in broad generalities, averting our eyes, avoiding the subject of the concert itself (a newish chamber choir, which we'd both just heard). The arts person observed that the mere presence of another new classical music ensemble in town was a good and welcome thing. For the Portland performing arts scene, more is more. That's not necessarily wrong. But after watching two weekends of promising shows by two new Portland performance troupes (a dance company and chorus, respectively), I'm not convinced that it's necessarily right, either. Witness the ever-expanding Portland theater scene, much of it chockablock with vanity companies and ill-advised amateur endeavors. But new Portland-based dance companies and classical music ensembles are a more rare species, in part because there are much fewer amateur opera singers than there are amateur actors. The rarity also may have something to do with Portland's lack of a graduate/pre-professional theatre-training program. There's not a major university or conservatory dance program in Portland, either, but Conduit Studio has stepped in as a major player in the cultivation and training of Portland dancers and dancemakers, mostly modern. It was at Conduit's cozy downtown Portland digs that choreographer Katrina T. O'Brien launched her new dance endeavor on February 24, called KO & Co. O'Brien, like so many young hopeful creatives in Portland, is a newly minted resident. She brings a BA in dance (Middlebury College) and a varied résumé to her work. For her company debut, she assembled a rag-tag assortment of Portland area dancers on the fringe. "Convergence" was the title of her show, and it unfolded in two parts: the first, with rows of chairs facing the north studio wall, called "Territory Markings." The second, with the chairs facing south, was called "Getting There." Titling aside, I would be hard-pressed to find any other distinguishing differences between the two program halves in movement, aesthetic, or prurient purpose. O'Brien's movement language is cartwheel-y athletic, tumbling and sloppy, and it was executed by dancers without the training or tension of body needed to make the business crackle with energy. O'Brien packs a lot on stage with six dancers, but often leaves the viewer stranded for clues on where or how to look. The choreographer — a petite, dark-haired company member, and the best dancer of her troupe — does have an ear for music, which the program credited to six disparate individuals or collectives (Dr. Octagon, Gotan Project, Kid Koala, Klezmocracy, Lo'Jo and Unknown — though it's unclear if "Unknown" is an actual artist). Some of the best music included a vaguely Asian-influenced soundscape (Lou Harrison on acid), which O'Brien complemented with raucous crowd-surfing and aborted leaps. To the outrageous wailings of a klezmer clarinet, she merely provides the same athletic jumblings, with some suggestive swivel-hipped turns tossed in. There's also a solo for one woman set to what sounded conspicuously like cellist Yo-Yo Ma's recording of the Bach Cello Suites (uncredited in the program). What else do I remember about "Convergences?" That I ate a really quite amazing home-baked chocolate chip cookie at the intermission. Curiously, there was no intermission offered at the March 8 concert of the Portland Vocal Consort, but that was the least of many curiosities in the chamber choir's final concert of its inaugural season. I was the first critic to praise the PVC, in its debut showing last November at the acoustically resonant St. Phillip of Neri Catholic Church in Southeast Portland. There was a great deal to like about that performance, not the least of which was the enormous promise that the fresh-faced choir and its charismatic conductor, 29-year old Ryan Heller, exhibited at every turn in an ambitious and rangy program. So the Consort's Saturday program was something of a let down. The evening employed the same programmatic formula — four centuries of choral music, standard and lesser-known, loosely tied by a frustratingly ambiguous theme ("Wonder" was their first program; this one was "Passion"). An idea that showed wide-ranging taste and talent the first time out felt merely flat and unimaginative the second time around. It seemed too that the preparation of the choir had slipped somewhat. The dry and unforgiving acoustic of Northwest Portland's St. Patrick's Church may have had something to do with it, but there were serious lapses of intonation and intent, and simply too many sour notes for an ostensibly professional-caliber 18-voice ensemble on the ascendant. The centerpiece of Heller's "Passion" program was Heinrich Schuetz's exquisite miniature, the Johannes Passion. As with the Bach Passions, Scheutz employs a tenor Evangelist to tell long stretches of the Passion story. But unlike Bach's explosive Passion settings a century later — instruments, chorus, and soloists; intricate interweavings of the Passion drama with arias that comment upon them, and supporting chorales — Schuetz's "St. John Passion," a gem-perfect a cappella work, looks inward. There are the requisite dramatic choruses for the jeering soldiers and Jews (which in the PVC's performance lacked the bite and bile so necessary to making them fly) and interminable stretches of unaccompanied recitative in which the Evangelist recounts large portions of the Passion story. A heightened attention to the text and the drama is essential for this all to come off, and this is where Heller faltered: key moments of dramatic "handing off" from Evangelist to chorus stopped or simply dragged, when the music should hurtle ever forward. The audience seemed to pick up on this disconnect in the performance: About halfway through the Passion, all the audience members in my viewing vicinity had taken to skimming the program advertisements or checking their cell phones. Tenor Les Green, an affecting and sweet-voiced singer, offered a simply sung Evangelist, though I wish he had connected more with the text and the audience. Elsewhere on the lengthy program, the chorus found its footing, nowhere more so than in Poulenc's tremulous Timor et tremor, sung with full-throated abandon, and Messiaen's wrenching O sacrum convivium!, in a nicely restrained performance by the choir. At an hour and 40 minutes straight of challenging choral singing, the choir's resources were well-taxed. It's worth noting though, that Heller exerts enough pull to attract first-rate Portland ensemble singers like Tuesday Rupp, Cahen Taylor, and Melanie Downie Zupan to his Consort. Clearly he's on to something, however rough the current outline.


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