Thursday, August 28, 2008

Music to My Ears

After some very unsummery days of wet weather- this is Portland after all- the sun decided to shine just in time for this year's Oregon Symphony in the Neighborhoods. The annual community celebration of the arts boasted an impressive schedule of events- concerts from both the Portland Youth Philharmonic and the Oregon Symphony with accompanying performances from the Oregon Ballet Theatre and the Portland Opera- for free- further proof of how Portlanders are spoiled with all these great programs.

I went down to Waterfront Park just in time to find a choice seat in the shade of a tree. Any later, I might have had to sit in one of its branches. The area in front of the outdoor stage (situated on the south side of the Hawthorne Bridge) was covered with blankets and folding chairs and people with their picnic baskets. The boaters parked along the mini-beach and the guests from the Riverplace Hotel were also there to enjoy the music.

The Portland Youth Philharmonic were first to take the stage. Apparently, the PYP was America's first youth orchestra. Members range from seven to twenty-two years of age and obviously require a committed mindset and intensive practices to learn all the numbers they play and sound good while doing so. Their set consisted of four varied compositions and it was impressive to learn that the violinist who earned a solo performance was just about to enter high school.

In between the concerts, there was a tent set up that people could visit and participate in mini vocal and instrumental lessons. And while not as fancy as other people's meals of sandwiches and salads and platters of cheese and crackers and their bottles of wine, I did have the same idea of bringing food along and brought with me a Snickers bar and a cup of iced coffee. Writing in my journal also helped pass the time during the intermissions.

The Oregon Symphony was conducted by an amusing old man from Austria by the name of Carlos Kalmar. I don't know how necessary conductors really are when the musicians have the sheets in front of them but watching him move around with his wild arm gestures provided another element of entertainment. Listening to the pieces reminded me that classical music was more than what was played during cartoons and used as commercial jingles. And it was interesting to learn that the musical number playing in the beef (“It’s what’s for dinner”) commercials was from a popular ballet- "Rodeo".

The program featured a scene from "Swan Lake" with two of Oregon Ballet Theatre's lead dancers (or principals) playing the roles of the Prince and the Swan Queen. As graceful as the choreography was, all I could think of was how almost obscenely tight and skimpy the costumes were. Ballet to me is very reminiscent of ice skating (without the ice of course)- or vice versa, whichever came first.

Michael Allen Harrison- "one of Portland's most beloved musician"- also joined the Oregon Symphony to play an original piece he wrote- "Starry Night"- for an astronaut friend of his. It may just be because I'm ignorant but I've never even heard of the pianist. Of course, classical music is not my preferred musical genre.

After awhile, all the music began to sound the same. The crowd was getting restless as the night had crept in. I don't think I had any feeling from the waist down after sitting on the grass for so long. But things picked up the Portland Opera played a scene from Verdi's "La Traviata". Even with this being my third time being exposed to opera, I can't say I like it any more but I definitely appreciate it.

The final piece brought the PYP and Oregon Symphony together. I'm sure the kids felt an incredible sense of accomplishment getting to play with the professionals. The "1812 Overture" was followed by the firing of cannons (or howitzers to be exact) and a very lengthy but spectacular fireworks display.

My only suggestion would have been to have some sort of music playing during the fireworks so people like me knew when it was really over. Aside from that minor detail, it was truly another unexpectedly pleasant new experience for me. I am in constant awe and admiration of how Portland treats its people by providing them free access to the arts. And I don't mean imitations of it since even the panhandlers play the violins but getting to see the real deals like the Oregon Symphony and the Portland Opera and getting the opportunity to decide if they like it or not. I never once imagined I'd end up listening to a symphony in a park.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Fun at Festa Italiana

Portland's 17th annual Festa Italiana just came to a close. A grand Mass and a bocce tournament preceded the transformation of Pioneer Courthouse Square into a "Piazza Italia". For the past four days, it was the center to celebrate the Italian culture and all its contributions to the world.

I was reminded of my going to Las Vegas' own San Gennaro Feast some time ago but that was a rather windy and overpriced experience. I was determined to have this be a more enjoyable time. With free admission, it was already looking good as I wanted to see the many events scheduled for the weekend. Naturally, the items at the food court, wine garden, and merchandise booths had to be paid for but I stayed away from those areas but the smells and sights of the food were tempting! Raffles were also being sold to help support the "festa" with the lure of a trip for two to Italy or a Vespa motor scooter.

A concert was held by the Portland State University's Opera Department. While at times it felt like sitting through a school recital, it was still quite impressive that they've dedicated themselves to singing that particular style, which does not look to be easy with the voice control and everything else that goes into it. A few students managed to stand out for me because they did more than sing but actually seemed to give an actual performance. One of them even got a scholarship from the Festa Italiana Association which I thought was nice.

There were a lot of accordionist acts, a few singers, and an eight-piece band from Ohio called the Eurorhythms who really got the crowd going. I liked seeing how the music affected the crowd in different ways. I did my fair share of hand clapping and foot tapping but somehow always managed to miss the beat. There was an old man in particular who seemed to be a performance in his own right with his arm gestures like he was orchestrating the whole affair. All the acts included "That's Amore" in their setlists.

When the band played songs that asked the audience to join and dance in a circle, I wished I could be as free and uninhibited as they were. The high energy of the place also reminded me of the fiestas in the Philippines- or just about any large parties there- which had mostly everyone participating and caught up in the moment.

Another crowd pleaser seemed to be the Italian folk dancers. Although they were rather anemic in number with only six out of their regular fourteen members able to make it from Sacramento, I appreciated the effort they put in to their dancing. Their moves involved a lot of finger snapping, hand clapping and occasional tambourine playing choreography. One of their final numbers was the chicken dance.

Other events included a pizza toss and grape stomp. There was even a street artist flown from Italy. I also watched a marionette show put on by a family from Seattle who runs their own puppet theater company. This was not held in the constructed center stage like the other performances but at the Square's echo chamber. It was quite a charming production of an Italian-style "Cinderella" called "Cenerentola". There were some slight noise issues from the busy traffic and the sound system but overall it was still highly entertaining and professionally put on.

I'm glad the weather held for most of the celebrations- only raining during the final hours of the event- and I'm sure the many people who went had as much fun as I did and perhaps learned a little about the Italian culture in the process.

Long Live Libraries!

Libraries are some of my favorite places in the world. They have been my homes away from home, places where I've worked, and somewhere I knew I could go to to gather my thoughts before continuing on with my apartment search. Central Library in downtown Portland was that temporary retreat for me on my first day in this new city. Opened in 1913, the building underwent major renovations in the mid-1990's adding modern day conveniences but retaining its historic characteristics. Some of the more architecturally interesting features are the first floor stairs with its "Tree of Knowledge" artwork and the Beverly Cleary children's library housing a magnificent bronze statue of a tree carved with images from everyday life and classic literature.

Libraries have the reputation of being these ancient stuffy buildings with out of date books and stern librarians waiting around corners ready to "shoosh" you with the slightest sound from your lips. But that's not the case anymore. Not only do they have the latest releases in books and a whole array of reference materials but they also have the most recent DVD's and CD's ready for check out. They even hold all kinds of free activities like book club discussions, writing workshops, and computer and language classes just to name a few. I think one of the best and smartest things anyone can do is to get a library card and take advantage of all the services it has to offer.

This past Sunday, I attended a special screening of Ann M. Seidl's documentary "The Hollywood Librarian" at Central Library. The film takes "a look at librarians through film" and, in fact, that served as the subtitle. Since it's no secret how much I love and laud libraries, this was definitely something I had an interest in seeing. There was a good turnout for the event- a majority of whom were librarians.

The film was mostly inteviews interspersed with movie clips. It was nice listening to the librarians because they clearly loved what they did and I felt a bond with them since ultimately we were all readers, lovers of books and of the written word.

An interesting segment was how in the town of Salinas, California, famously known as the birthplace of John Steinbeck, an election was held to see if they could overturn the measure that threatened to close its three public libraries. I find it hard to imagine living in a city without one. And it's disheartening to think how funding for their continued presence becomes less and less every year. Fortunately, that little drama had a storybook ending with 61% of the voters deciding in favor to keep their libraries open.

Watching "The Hollywood Librarian" just reinforced my belief how libraries provide such a great and valuable service to their communities, not only as a source of knowledge and information but of enjoyment as well.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Pulling Strings

It's not everyday I walk pass supersized skeletons. Although they weren't actual remains of any previously existing creatures but more like giant cartoon characters let loose in the real world, they were still mighty impressive. I saw them through the windows of the Oregon Historical Society Museum. What one has to do with the other beats me but I was curious about the whole thing. After visiting the website, I found out the skeletons were part of a puppetry exhibit featuring the art of award-winning Michael Curry and his design studio team. Even more impressive than that piece of information was the fact that every third Saturday of the month, the OHS holds a "Barbara Davies Free Day" in which they offer free admission to the museum courtesy of a nice lady who wanted to share its resources with the community. Not needing to pull any strings to see a puppet show for free and with the suddenly sweltering summer weather, a day in a museum never sounded so good.

In the lobby was a table set up for visitors. They were giving away freebies. What use I have for a magnet, a book about sports achievements, and two sets of postcards is anyone's guess but I took them anyway. After stocking up, I headed for the "Puppetry: An Out of Body Experience" exhibit.

There was so much to see. In fact, I needed to do a complete walk around of the whole room before I could fully take in and focus on any individual object and appreciate each one- and then try to form coherent thoughts. There were masks, props, conceptual art, prototypes, marionettes, "meganettes", photos, and, of course, puppets from the various productions he's done. And his list of clients is indeed impressive- Disney, Cirque du Soleil, and the Olympics just to name a few. I was fascinated by the pieces that moved on their own like the paper puppet model from "Cirque Du Soleil- Love". There was a blacklight room in the pieces glowed in the dark. There were also a couple of videos showing behind the scene footage from the studio and the Broadway play of "The Lion King". The words that came to mind were: beautiful, amazing, fantastic, and fantastical. I had to remind myself that for every already incredible costume and prop made, there were people- performers- who made use of them to put on a show. What I liked best about the exhibit was the interactiveness of it. I played with a mechanical prototype of Simba from "The Lion King". My favorite part though was getting to move the skeletons that attracted me in the first place. "El din de Muertos" or "Day of the Dead" is a couple of skeletons- one male, one female- designed for Disney's California Adventure. There were a set of strings and each moved an arm or leg so it was fun to make them move and dance. "Puppetry" was truly innovative and I would have been happy to have just seen that and left but there were many more things to see.

"Hungry Planet" sounded like something I'd be interested in but all it was were photographs of families from various countries showcasing how similar and different our eating habits, choices, and preferences are. It would have been nice if they had food samples from the exotic places but then again I always think things would be better if I had something to eat.

I originally thought those two exhibits were it but looking at a map, I saw the OHS had four floors, the topmost reserved for their research library. I had come in from the Park Avenue entrance and so I was on the second floor. On my way to the first level, there was a display of "Great Athletes, Great Oregonians" on loan from the now closed Oregon Sports Hall of Fame & Museum. The only thing I was remotely fascinated with in the midst of all the memorabilia, artifacts, and photography was the statue of three umpires looking at the sky. Entitled "Bottom of the 6th (or Game Called Because of Rain)", it was based on the famous Norman Rockwell painting which first appeared on the cover of the "Saturday Evening Post".

The Northwest Art Gallery was basically just a hallway of paintings, which I understood they change out from time to time. Also on display was a restoration of "the Benson Automobile"- the first car built in Oregon.

I was lucky I went to the museum when I did because many of the exhibits on the first floor were scheduled to end their run. In "Oregon's Legacy: The New Deal at 75", I liked looking at the artifacts from earlier times. (Although, to me, "artifacts" makes things sound more ancient than they really are. Perhaps "antiques" would be a better term?) There was the "President's Chair" which was specifically designed and built for Franklin D. Roosevelt by the Timberline Lodge. Also there was something called a megohmer- a device used to measure the amount of electrical current leakage. In "Battleship Oregon: Bulldog of the Navy", it was cool to see miniature models of the ship because they must have been time-consuming to create. The other exhibit was dedicated to "Western Native Basketry". Some pieces were on loan from the Museum of Contemporary Craft. Also on the first floor was the Museum store, which had its own entrance on Broadway Avenue.

The other highlight for me after "Puppetry" was the award-winning interactive exhibit "Oregon My Oregon" taking up the entire third floor. There were the usual old stuff including a collection of hats and shoes representing various occupational and cultural communities throughout the state's history. There was "Margaret Frank's Remarkable Wagon" packed full of what they would have needed to hit the trail. It's amazing to imagine how they must have lived their lives back in those days. The best part was being able to get hands on with the surroundings and seeing certain spaces recreated like being in a "Plank House", the "Yasui Grocery Store", and the Hudson's Bay Company trade ship complete with creaking floor boards and trunks you can rummage through. There were also a couple of theaters but my favorite part was the "Newberry Lunch Counter" video presentation. The actual diner it was based on had a downtown location from 1927 to 1996. A menu provided the available videos you can view, each tackling a different modern Oregon issue. The jukeboxes is what the visitors used to play their selection on the large flat screen TV.

The whole experience at the Oregon Historical Society Museum was completely enriching. I was inspired by the beauty of the things I saw. I learned things and was exposed to historical and culturally significant information presented in unique interactive ways. I had great fun and would definitely recommend anyone visiting Portland to stop by the OHS and see for themselves what I can't stop raving about.