All posts by Bob Hicks

I've been observing Portland and its culture since 1974, for most of that time as a writer and editor at The Oregonian and the Oregon Journal. I finally left The O in December 2007 so I could spend more time hanging around coffee shops and catching up on good books. My journalistic wanderings have led me into the worlds of theater, dance, music, the visual arts, literature and food. I'll continue writing about those and broader cultural subjects for Art Scatter. They're terrific windows onto the great mysteries of life, and thinking about them makes the mendacities of our wayward national political culture a little more bearable.

Scatter friends go out on the town

With the summer solstice having hit town at precisely 4:59 p.m. Friday — was that a sylph we saw cavorting in the woods? — it’s a semi-beautiful weekend here in Portland, Oregon.

All right, clouds are moving in. Yet we are undaunted. Some cool things are happening around and out of town involving Friends of Art Scatter (this is not an official organization, but we like the sound of it, though not as much as we like the sound of “The Loyal Order of Moose”) and we would be remiss not to fill you in on the upcoming action. Some of these are this-weekend-only opportunities, so get on your dancing shoes, and don’t let the door hit you on your way out of the house.

Subversive operatics at Someday Lounge: We like Opera Theater Oregon. How much? Read our report on OTO’s winter production of “Carmen,” sung live to a screening of Cecil B. DeMille‘s 1915 silent-movie version of the Bizet opera. So we are happy to report that this seat-of-the-pants company, which dares to believe that opera ought to be fun (its motto is “Making Opera Safe for America”), is throwing a one-night wingding Saturday at Someday Lounge to show off its new season, raise a little money (there’ll be a silent auction) and generally blow the art form’s reputation for stuffiness all to hell.

“Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” will preview the three-show season of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium” (paired with a 10-minute original called “The Head of Mata Hari”) in October, “Camille Traviata” (music from Verdi’s opera accompanying the 1921 silent-movie “Camille” with Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino) in February ’09, and “Das Rheingold” (a scrunching-together of the Wagnerian wallbanger with an episode of television’s “Baywatch”) in June ’09. All shows at the Someday Lounge, where you can drink to all that.

Bonus attraction Saturday night: OTO performs Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” with Classical Revolution PDX and Karaoke From Hell. Ouch, we think.

7 p.m. Saturday, Someday Lounge. $25, $40/couple, 10 bucks if you just show up for the after-party from 9 until the cows come home.

Loie Fuller in the Columbia Gorge: Maryhill Museum of Art, our favorite concrete castle on a cliff with a backside view of Mt. Hood within easy driving distance of Portland (see our report on its affiliated Stonehenge replica) was established by visionary engineering entrepeneur Sam Hill as his home and the center of what he hoped would be an agricultural utopia. That failed, but three of his far-flung friends — Queen Marie of Romania, San Francisco dowager Alma de Bretteville Spreckels (wife of the sugar king) and Loie Fuller, the American girl who became an interpretive dance sensation in Paris — turned the place into one of America’s unlikeliest, and quirkiest, art museums.

On Saturday Maryhill is sponsoring a day-long series of events in celebration of Fuller’s life and art, to culminate in an evening performance in the nearby city of The Dalles by the New York company Jody Sperling and Time Lapse Dance, which will perform three dances inspired by Fuller. 7 p.m. Saturday at At the Dalles-Wahtonka High School Auditorium,
220 E. 10th Street, The Dalles; $7-$10.

Looks like a swell day trip, and if you need a break, some good wineries are nearby. The mammoth Maryhill Winery is just down the road from the museum; we’re also partial to the little, high-quality Syncline Cellars in nearby Lyle, Wash. (The poster shown here, part of the museum’s permanent collection, is by Alfred Choubrac, who with his brother Leon was one of Paris’ first poster designers in the 1880s, anticipating Toulouse-Lautrec. She’s probably doing Le Papillon, her butterfly dance.)

Glass at the Portland Japanese Garden: As many of you know, Portland is Glass City, U.S.A. this summer, with a major retrospective of the work of contemporary master Klaus Moje at the Portland Art Museum through Sept. 7, the annual international conference of the Glass Art Society this weekend, and glass work on view at about 40 galleries and other spots around town.

One of those “other” spots is the beautiful and soul-refreshing Portland Japanese Garden, where work by six Japanese or Japanese American glass artists is on view. The work of five (including onetime Moje students Yoko Yagi and Etsuko Nishi) are inside the Pavilion through June 30. But bigger-scale outdoor installations by one of our favorite artists, Jun Kaneko, remain on the grounds through July 31. “This Kaneko piece seems as if it has always been in the Garden,” Diane Durston says of the serene glass bridge in the photo above. We first got to know Durston, the garden’s curator of culture, art and education, when she was the director of education for the Portland Art Museum, and we trust her taste and enthusiasms.

The return of Chamber Music Northwest: One of Portland’s most congenial summer traditions returns Monday night for its 38th season, and we’re not afraid to say we’re looking forward to it. Sure, the crowd’s heads are largely streaked with silver, but these are geezers (and we count ourselves as part of that category) who know a good time when they see one. Great musicians playing great music under very Portland-friendly conditions: no leader onstage, just a small group of talented artists working on something together, and paying attention to the nuances that requires. Scatter pal David Stabler gives details in The Oregonian; we’re looking forward to festival vet Fred Sherry doing a little Wuorinen and Schoenberg’s first 12-tone quartet on July 12.

Through July 27; Reed College and Catlin Gabel School. (The photo is of cellist Sophie Shao and pianist Pei-Yao Wang in last summer’s “Schubertiade.”)

Feeding the masses: What would Tolstoy do?

Reading William J. Broad’s fascinating report in the Science section of Tuesday’s New York Times about a possible breakthrough in world rice production got me thinking about Leo Tolstoy‘s masterful War and Peace, which I’ve been enjoying, in small gulps of 20 to 40 pages a sitting, in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s lively 2007 translation.

For all of the novel’s cinematic scope and dense cultural and moral observation (the closest thing to an American equivalent of this amazing piece of writing, which Tolstoy himself referred to as an “epic” rather than a novel, is Herman Melville‘s similarly discursive Moby-Dick), Tolstoy could draw a character and an intimate conversation like nobody’s business: Reading this translation, you feel like you’re in the room, observing with the invisible narrator himself, smiling or shuddering at facial expressions, nodding in agreement with Tolstoy’s acute descriptions.

So let’s drop in, early in the going, on a conversation about the old roue Count Kirill Vladimirovich Bezukhov, who is on his deathbed and has no legitimate immediate heirs, although illegitimate ones are apparently scattered across Russia like seed from a flock of migrating birds. One of this prodigious offspring, the fine, fat, clumsy bear of a fellow Count Pyotr Kirillovich, or Pierre, looks to be on the ascent:

“Princess Anna Mikhailovna mixed into the conversation, clearly wishing to show her connections and her knowledge of all the circumstances of society.

” ‘The thing is,’ she said significantly and also in a half whisper. ‘Count Kiril Vladimirovich’s reputation is well-known … He’s lost count of his children, but this Pierre was his favorite.’

” ‘How good-looking the old man was,’ said the countess, ‘even last year! I’ve never seen a handsomer man.’

” ‘He’s quite changed now,’ said Anna Mikhailovna. ‘So, as I was about to say,’ she went on, ‘Prince Vassily is the direct heir to the whole fortune through his wife, but the father loved Pierre very much, concerned himself with his upbringing, and wrote to the sovereign … so that when he dies (he’s so poorly that they expect it at any moment, and Lorrain has come from Petersburg), no one knows who will get this enormous fortune, Pierre or Prince Vassily. Forty thousand souls, and millions of roubles. I know it very well, because Prince Vassily told me himself. And Kirill Vladimirovich is my uncle twice removed through my grandmother. And he’s Borya’s godfather,’ she added, as if ascribing no importance to this circumstance.”

Fine, witty writing. But what’s it got to do with the price of rice in China? Hold on. We’ll get there.

Forty thousand souls, the princess counts among the old man’s fortune. That means 40,000 serfs — in effect, slaves — whose lives and labor are in the power and patronage of a single man. Tolstoy finished writing War and Peace in 1868, seven years after the emancipation of Russia’s serfs; America’s Emancipation Proclamation was even fresher news. But the novel is set during the Napoleonic wars, from 1805 through 1812. And at the beginning of that period the world population was about 1 billion (up from a scant 1 million in 10,000 B.C.E.), or roughly one-seventh of today’s estimate of 6.7 billion. So with the same equivalent of the population, Count Bezukhov today would have directly controlled the destinies of 280,000 men, women and children — an astonishing figure, even in the contemporary world of runaway wealth and the new Russia of extreme fortunes got fast and furious. And how does a master feed 40,000, or 280,000, or 6.7 billion souls?
Continue reading Feeding the masses: What would Tolstoy do?

The high price of art, the cost of keeping up with it

Maybe a dozen years ago, when I was filling in for a few months for the art critic at the daily newspaper that was my bread and margarine, I decided it was a good idea to print the prices of the works of art being discussed in reviews of gallery shows. Seemed reasonable at the time. Why shouldn’t the paper give its readers an idea of whether that new painting by Gregory Grenon, say, was going for $1,800 or $18,000? Why not let the working-two-jobs-to-make-ends-meet art fan know that if she really liked that piece by the brand-new art school grad, she could pick it up for $250 instead of assuming it was going to be swooped up by some dot-com turk because it was out of her price range?

The response around me in my corner of the newsroom was unison and aghast. It amounted to this: Art is for art’s sake. Money has nothing to do with intrinsic value (I wasn’t arguing that it did). To discuss price is to taint the critical process (all I wanted to do was list the prices in the information box). Besides, money is, well, you know, tawdry. I quickly scotched the idea, and pretty much forgot about it: No smudge of commerce would taint the culture pages, where truth and beauty are all you need to know.

So why is it so damned fascinating to read about the high-roller art auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s? The latest report comes from Carol Vogel in the New York Times, and the frenzied buying seems to indicate that, while working-class saps are getting kicked in the rear by the recession, the big spenders are spending, well, big. Real big. Like there’s no tomorrow big. “The market is defying gravity,” Vogel quotes financier and collector Eli Broad.

Follow the money, everyone says, to which you can add, Follow the art — it’s following the money. To Japan in the 1980s, to Las Vegas and the marketing and advertising whizzes of London in the 1990s, to the culture-cloaking Wal-Mart matrons in the ’00s. And to just about anybody who’s cashed in on the biggest upward transfer of wealth since the days of the 19th century Robber Barons (who actually seem a bit like pikers compared to the new bunch of sudden zillionaires).

Continue reading The high price of art, the cost of keeping up with it

Dangerous doves, problematic preachers and four-dollar words

Quick hits on a Tuesday with lots of other things on its agenda:

Mourning the doves: It might seem eccentric verging on preposterous here in proudly liberal Portland, where a John McCain lawn sign is as rare as a cup of coffee out of a Maxwell House can, but dovishness is not a universally admired trait. I haven’t read Louise Erdrich‘s new novel “The Plague of Doves,” but I love the title. A plague of doves? Sounds like it could be the title of a neocon screed, something by William Kristol, say: If only those end-the-war-now wimps had a streak of realpolitik in their heads, they’d realize you don’t win world peace by singing Kumbaya. You gotta be tough, you gotta be mean, you gotta fight fire with fire, even if it takes 100 years. A plague on the doves!

Ever since that ancestral white bird spotted land and an olive branch on the side of Mt. Ararat, we’ve been soft on the species. But it turns out there really is such a thing as a plague of doves, especially if you’re a farmer and they’re eating all your freshly planted seeds. That’s the kind of bird Erdrich is aiming at in her new novel, which takes place in the fading hamlet of Pluto, on the edge of Ojibwe reservation land in North Dakota. Reviews of this multigenerational (and multiply cultural) book have been enthusiastic. I’m putting it on my get-to-soon list. No matter what Ann Coulter thinks.

Them’s fisticuffarian words: This morning’s New York Times contains a front page story by Alessandra Stanley about The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.‘s recent television appearances to expand upon his theories of patriotism and the God-damning of America, and if I could get past the four-dollar words I might have a sense of what Stanley thinks of the whole spectacle. Continue reading Dangerous doves, problematic preachers and four-dollar words

The Kirov takes it on the chin

It’s been fun watching from afar the struggles of Alastair Macaulay, the erudite, entertaining and occasionally uber-quibbly lead dance critic of the New York Times, to explain his love/hate relationship with the Kirov Ballet. The Kirov, that bright and shining survivor of the isolated and inbred Soviet art world (the company is based in the royal-bubble city of St. Petersburg, now a favorite haunt of the globe-trotting old and nouveau riche, and is known on its home turf as the Mariinsky) has spent the past three weeks in residence at New York City Center, and Macaulay has been by turns enthralled and unamused.

Unamused? Downright irritated is more like it. This morning, in his review of the Kirov’s final performance in New York, Macauley gave it to the dancers squarely on the chin — a chin, he complains (and I exaggerate only a little here) that the female dancers hold so resolutely high and upwardly angular that its determined thrust makes it seem almost a fifth limb to be integrated into the five positions. “In consequence,” he writes of dancer Alia Somova’s physical relationship to her onstage lover, “she was literally looking down her nose at him. House mannerisms like this make the Kirov’s kind of classicism seem the least sensible in the world.”

Now, I haven’t seen the Kirov dance since 1999, when I was in St. Petersburg and took in a performance of Marius Petipa‘s supremely nonsensical “Le Corsaire” — a sublime performance in a blatantly showmanlike style that had been rooted out of Western ballet traditions many decades before. It was a bit like jumping into a time machine, and that was a good deal of its charm.
Continue reading The Kirov takes it on the chin

A heavy hand comes down in Sherwood

Good God, will this not cease?

While I was twiddling my thumbs Wednesday in a jury-duty pool, The Oregonian’s Maya Blackmun was breaking the story on the latest development in the Sherwood school censorship case: The school district is investigating Jennie Brown, the Sherwood Middle School drama teacher who wrote the play “Higher Ground,” which in a last-minute decision was kept off the stage by school principal Anna Pittioni.

Ironically, the play is about bullying and how to respond to it.

A few onlookers had said earlier in this running farce that the school was going after Brown and trying to get her fired. I thought that was a little melodramatic. Now it looks as if they were right.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s an old tactic, and I’ve seen it many times: the stacked deck of official procedure forcing out the card that doesn’t fit. It’s always done in private, of course, for the “protection” of the person being investigated, even if that person declares he or she has nothing to hide. In the meantime, the charge and the innuendo do a nice smear job, sometimes irreparably damaging the target’s reputation. The first time I saw it done was in the late 1960s, when a college prof I knew who was a leader in the anti-Vietnam War movement was forced out of his job. It was such a shock to his system that he became a journalist.

Continue reading A heavy hand comes down in Sherwood

Another chance to catch “Higher Ground”

“Higher Ground,” the Sherwood Middle School show about bullying that sold out Brunish Hall on Sunday after being blocked from performance at the school, is getting one more shot in downtown Portland.

It’ll be performed at 6 p.m. Saturday, March 15, once again in the Brunish, a 200-seat space in the Portland Center for the Performing Arts at 1111 S.W. Broadway. Same rules as before: free, but donations accepted; admission at the door; the kids will be collecting nonperishable food for the Loaves and Fishes program at the Sherwood Senior Center. Be sure to show up early: Last weekend, people were turned away at the door.

Art Scatter has written about the controversy surrounding this play here, here and here.

Banned in Sherwood, sold out in Portland

The good news is, I couldn’t get in to Brunish  Hall Sunday afternoon to see “Higher Ground” — it was sold out. Maybe you read about it here, on the front page of Monday’s Oregonian, in another of reporter Maya Blackmun’s continuing series on the off-again, on-again production of a play about middle-school bullying that Sherwood Middle School Principal Anna Pittioni deemed too hot for her tots to handle.

It would have been nice to see this sort-of happy ending, with all the cheers for the hard work of the student performers and tekkies and their drama teacher, Jennie Brown, who wrote the script that Principal Pittioni considered too mature for some of the school’s students to deal with. (The kids in the show argued that the script actually watered down everyday reality in the halls of the Sherwood school, a typical sort of place in a typical sort of town, and, you could further argue, a reality that the typical young teen enrolled in the school is already all too familiar with.) But if I’d gotten in, someone else would have been left out (lots of us were turned away at the door), and isn’t that what every producer wants: a sold-out show?

So everybody won, and everything turned out great, right?

Well, no — and it’s important to remember that.

Continue reading Banned in Sherwood, sold out in Portland

For Sherwood kids, the show goes on — downtown

This from Maya Blackmun at The Oregonian, who’s been covering the flap over a play about bullying at Sherwood Middle School. In brief: The show’s going on, but not in Sherwood, where the school principal ordered a last-minute postponement of “Higher Ground” and said parts of the script would have to be rewritten after parents of three kids involved in the show (out of almost 50) complained about the content. The kids voted to cancel the show, which was supposed to have opened Feb. 22, instead of changing it. Art Scatter wrote about the issue on Feb. 27.

Now you can see it, the way they and their director intend it: The Portland Center for the Performing Arts has donated the center’s Brunish Hall for one performance, at 2 p.m. this Sunday, March 9. It’s free, but donations are being accepted at the door (dig into your pockets) and the kids are also collecting nonperishable food for the Loaves and Fishes lunchtime program at Sherwood Senior Center, where they’ve been rehearsing. As the rock anthem goes: The kids are alright.

— Bob Hicks

Bully pulpit: One more punch to the theatrical chops

“Why do I feel it is important to impress upon young readers their right to freedom of speech? Because so many of them don’t know they have freedom of speech. I’m not sure their peer group leaders give them freedom of speech. And I do know that the school library of the school they attend is under heavier attack than the public library just down the street. I think they are in the thick of the battle and many of them are not aware of it.”

Richard Peck
Newbery Medal-winning novelist, quoted on

If the kids at Sherwood Middle School in suburban Portland didn’t know they were in the thick of the battle, they found out with a thud last week. As Oregonian writer Maya Blackmun reported in two excellent stories — Feb. 21 on the uproar, Feb. 22 on the outcome — you can think what you say but you can’t always say what you think. At least, not from a school-sanctioned stage.

In brief: Principal Anna Pittioni postponed the winter play, “Higher Ground,” after last-minute complaints about its contents by parents of a few students involved in the show.

And that content was?

Continue reading Bully pulpit: One more punch to the theatrical chops