Eugene Weekly : Music : 1.4.07

Evergreen Universal
Odetta is a national treasure

If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta’s would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time. — MAYA ANGELOU

History sure comes and goes. There’s just no way anyone would have the time to personally research each and every song, singer or documented bit of dialog between a fraction of history’s list of genius elite.

Odetta. 7:30 pm Thursday, 1/11. Jaqua Concert Hall, $25-$35

Take Odetta, for instance. She’s been making music for more than 50 years, yet I only heard of her within the last few. I’ve got a lot to catch up on. But I’ve also realized we can pick an historic time frame, say 50 years, and learn as much as we can about the works of important people, then pass that information on, enlightening brand new ignoramuses like me.

I’m willing to help carry Odetta into the next 50 years if you are.

A child of the Depression, Odetta was born on New Year’s Eve in Birmingham, Ala., 1930. A lot of life happened for Odetta since.

She began performing in San Francisco in 1950. Soon after, she moved to New York, where she was discovered by Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger. Performing African-American folk music, Odetta became the impetus for all folkies to come, including Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. Dylan mentions her in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan as his most powerful influence. James Reed of The Boston Globe said, “Odetta is evergreen, her artistry universal.”

Since the 1950s, she’s entertained audiences around the world, appearing live, in films and musicals and on television. Odetta participated in the March on Selma and gave song at Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded Odetta with the National Medal of Arts & Humanities. She is rightly considered a national treasure. She was the first recipient of the Duke Ellington Fellowship Award from Yale University, and received the International Folk Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award. She also holds honorary doctorates from Bennett College, Johnson C. Smith University and Colby College.

No one forgets an Odetta performance. “Human beings have language skills other than just verbal,” she says. “We read each other. When performing, there is true communication. I get energy from the audience, and they get energy from me. We are really doing the concert together, which is very different from a dry studio where it’s just you and a microphone.”

I’ll have to remember that and pass it on.



Classic Venues, Classic Voices
Beall Hall, Shedd host classical, bluegrass giants

For a middling sized town in the upper left hand corner of the country, Eugene gets more than its share of the world’s very finest touring musicians. Why? It’s a convenient stop on a tour up or down the coast, listeners are more sophisticated than our population might suggest, and, maybe most importantly, the town boasts a couple of venues whose acoustics are so rich and whose audiences are so devoted to high quality music that great musicians really want to play them.

Tokyo Quartet

The UO’s Beall Concert Hall is one of the great places in America to hear music and to play it. Since its first concert in 1925, Beall — which architect Ellis Lawrence based on Boston’s acoustically unsurpassed Symphony Hall — has won praise from musicians and listeners alike for its acoustical clarity and intimacy. It’s a big reason why the UO’s Chamber Music Series has annually attracted several of the world’s most acclaimed classical music ensembles — including, on Thursday, Jan. 11, the Tokyo Quartet. In residence at Yale University for three decades, the group has released more than 40 recordings of classic string quartets. At Beall, it’ll play one of Beethoven’s great middle quartets, Op. 18 #3, and another by Robert Schumann, commemorating the 150th anniversary of that Romantic composer’s death. But the exciting news is a brand new work the quartet commissioned from one of today’s leading postclassical music composers, Jennifer Higdon, who intends “An Exaltation of Larks” to express the “intensity and energy of thousands of birds singing wildly.” Since the Tokyo Quartet premiered it only last March, I haven’t heard it, but two other recent works for string quartet (Voices and Impressions) display all the color, pizzazz and graceful melodicism of Higdon’s orchestral music, such as Concerto for Orchestra and “Blue Cathedral” (both performed here by the Eugene Symphony). Audiences and critics around the country have praised this award-winning young composer’s work as among the most accessible yet substantive music anyone’s composing today, and it’s a treat to be able to hear one of her latest creations fresh off the printer, in an ideal venue. On Jan. 18, Beall also offers a potpourri of chamber music for oboe by guest artist Marc Fink, accompanied by various local lights and including works by Benjamin
Britten, Beethoven and others.

Eugene’s other great concert hall is almost as old as Beall but has only recently been converted to a performance venue. The erstwhile Baptist church at Broadway and High now called The Shedd has brought some of America’s finest musicians to town, and on Jan. 6, it hosts two more. Peter Rowan‘s musical experience extends back to his stint with the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe; after all these years, he’s still recognized as one of the finest folk songwriters. Tony Rice is an absolute magician with the guitar and probably the greatest flat-picker now twanging. Bluegrass is certainly one of this country’s greatest contributions to music and art, a fizzing fountain of irrepressible energy and rhythmic drive, and the chance to hear two of its living masters in such a sympathetic setting shouldn’t be missed.

Composers from Europe’s chillier climes have long sought warmth — both climatic and musical — in Italy. Two of Tchaikovsky’s most appealing works were inspired by southern sojourns, as was Felix Mendelssohn’s ebullient fourth symphony, which the Oregon Mozart Players will perform Jan. 13 at the Hult Center’s Soreng Theatre. I don’t know of a more joyous musical voyage than its exuberant opening movement; maybe some moments in Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life come close. Throughout this most popular of symphonies, you can really hear Mendelssohn’s sheer exhilaration from his sunny travels of the early 1830s. The program also features works by actual Italians: the overture to Antonio Salieri’s comic opera “The School for Jealousy” (appropriate for a composer so associated with that emotion today, rightly or not); an even lighter-weight overture by Rossini (about an Italian who went even further south, to Algiers); and Ottorino Respighi’s colorful evocation of Renaissance paintings, Botticelli Tryptich — an appealing tone poem the composer actually wrote while visiting the U.S. in 1927. Maybe inspiration really does lie in the journey, not the destination.