Eugene Weekly : Music : 11.24.10


Seasonal Affections
Disorder, but only in the service of art
by Brett Campbell

The song says it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but that’s not the case for everyone, especially here in Oregon’s winter gloom. Those feeling a little blue this time of year might seek solace at Susan McKeown’s Nov. 26 concert at the WOW Hall. Inspired by a recent visit to a mental hospital and talks with the families of patients there, the Irish immigrant chanteuse has been exploring the history of bipolar disorder stretching back through generations in her own Irish family. It’s often claimed that there is a link between the condition and creativity, but it’s nothing to romanticize. McKeown enlisted friends to help her turn the poetry of famed victims of the disease (English composer John Dowland, Byron, Roethke, Leonard Cohen, Anne Sexton, Gwendolyn Brooks and more) into dark-tinged folk-rock songs that exquisitely suit her sumptuous, cello-like voice. Like the condition itself, the music isn’t all gloomy, ranging from haunting to upbeat and melancholy gradations in between. 

There’s more conventional seasonal fare at the Shedd’s Dec. 3-19 run of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the 2004 live theatrical musical comedy, based on the classic 1954 film that’ll be incessantly occupying the airwaves over the next few weeks, that’s played across the U.S., including on Broadway. This original production was created and performed by Shedd veterans. The score features 17 Berlin perennials, including the title song, “Blue Skies,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” “Steppin’ Out” and a dozen more.

The Shedd also brings the great jazz/bluegrass fusion pioneer Bela Fleck’s holiday show, featuring the banjoist/composer’s Flecktones band performing unusual versions of seasonal tunes like “Christmas Time is Here,” “Sleigh Ride” and more. Appearing with the 18-time Grammy winners: Tuvan throat singers Alash, who’ll unleash their unearthly multi-pitch vocal sounds that mix modern jazz and classical influences with the haunting traditional Siberian sounds. For more world musical sounds, and a good cause to support during the holidays, try Kudana’s annual Dance for Africa benefit at Cozmic Pizza on Dec. 4, featuring Shelley and Cal James and Kudana Marimba, which benefits local nonprofit organizations.

Marco Benevento plays the Axe & Fiddle on Dec. 1

Another jazz fusioneer, keyboardist Marco Benevento, plays Cottage Grove’s Axe & Fiddle on Dec. 1. As his plentiful guest stints, other bands (e.g. Garage a Trois) and one off projects demonstrate, the Brooklyn-based keyboard whiz’s artistic vision transcends his long-running duo with drummer Joe Russo. His four solo albums, including this year’s wide-ranging Between the Needles & Nightfall, maintain the jazz-meets-jam-meets-avant rock vibe, while spotlighting acoustic piano (augmented by guitar pedals and run through a guitar amp), sampling keyboard, poppish melody and atmospheric soundscapes. This show, with long time colleagues bassist Reed Mathis (from Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey) and drummer Andrew Barr, should delight fans of all sorts of improvised instrumental music.

As usual, the end of the year brings the annual end of term musical flurries at the UO. The biggie: the Dec. 5 afternoon concert at Beall Concert Hall, featuring Stanford University’s acclaimed St. Lawrence String Quartet, which in two decades has risen into the upper ranks of American quartets and is particularly renowned for performing music by living composers. They’ll be playing the new String Quartet that the great contemporary California composer John Adams wrote for this very group, along with a Beethoven masterpiece and maybe the greatest of all string quartets: Maurice Ravel’s beauty. This is surely one of the top recommendations of the season. There’s more chamber music on campus on Nov. 29, when various student ensembles play music by Rachmaninoff, Lutoslawski, Libby Larsen and more. And the university hosts what looks to be more of the year’s more fascinating performances on Dec. 1, when barrier-busting music and art students conspire to perpetrate an experimental multimedia extravaganza featuring video art, photography, painting, sculpture, textiles and new acoustic and electronic music.

UO choirs will converge for the annual holiday choral concert on Dec. 3, featuring music by Britten, Rutter and more — including South African sounds accompanied by dances from the country by Dance Africa. The UO Percussion Ensemble’s always-intriguing concert this time includes colorful music by J.S. Bach and modern composers on Dec. 5 in the music building’s room 190. And at 4:30 pm on Dec. 2, the school’s Collegium Music plays and sings Renaissance and Baroque music by Palestrina, Josquin, Monteverdi and Frescobaldi in the intimate venue of the vintage Collier House.

There’s more glorious Baroque music on tap Dec. 6 and 7 when UO violin master Fritz Gearhart, Alice Blankenship and the UO repertoire singers join the Oregon Mozart Players at First Christian Church (1166 Oak) for their annual candlelight concert, always one of the low-light highlights of the season. The all-J.S. Bach menu this time includes his third Brandenburg Concerto, the magnificent Concerto for Two Violins (BWV 1043) and Cantata 36. And you Baroqueholics can score yet another fix — free! — Nov. 27 at 2 pm in downtown’s Atrium building, courtesy of Bev’s Baroque Band. Finally, on Dec. 4 and 5, the Eugene Concert Choir goes green by bringing in Tennessee’s Willis Clan, 10 related kids who combine contemporary sounds and award-winning traditional Irish step dance, with ECC providing the choral accompaniment for their Celtic songs as well as performing Britten’s lovely 20th century holiday classic, Ceremony of Carols.