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Fresh Eyes on A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: Brennan Randel, Matthew Corwin, and Daniel Pollack-Pelzner

On December 6th, Resident Artist Susannah Mars hosted an evening of music with the arrangers from A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS. All seven arrangers, along with Musical Director Andrew Bray, were on hand to play and discuss how they approached creating these new version of classic songs for the show. Fresh Eyes fellows, Matthew Corwin and Brennan Randel were there and shared their observations of the evening.



Last night we attended the extra engagement MUSIC IN THE MAKING hosted at ART. In this event the associated musical arrangers and artists took to the stage to perform some of their own work and explain their thought process behind the creation of the music for A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS. This was an incredible engagement because it brought to light the many different ears and hearts that this production has brought together. From the soulful sound of LaRhonda Steele to the whimsically serious sounds of James Beaton and Holcombe Walker to the tribal tongues of Okaidja Afrosso, I will listen to the pieces in our next attendance and now can hear each composer’s own voice. Hearing Andrew Bray talk about “the message” that he wished to convey with each song was quite powerful because it explained both his thought process and the extensive internal and external soul searching that has helped to create ACWC. The entire production has some very powerful messages and the extra community engagement speaks to ART’s commitment to making art available to all of Portland. I also appreciate that this show has a particularly homey/local feel… It will tug at your heartstrings, but it’s also like a warm Pendleton blanket and a cup of tea. Cheers to all and Happy Holidays.



Last night we had the pleasure of attending MUSIC IN THE MAKING hosted by Susannah Mars.  This is the sort of meta-engagement that excites and delights me as a patron.  Having spent so much time listening to the pieces they had arranged for A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS, I enjoyed the opportunity to hear these artists’ own works and gain insight into what each of their personal experiences and philosophies brought to their arrangements for the play.  The evening opened with Brian Adrian Koch accompanied by Moorea Masa performing a couple of melancholy ballads—a stark contrast to his take on “I’m A-Gone Away to Shiloh,” which he described as wanting to sound “goofily innocent.”  Edna Vázquez was up next to regale us with her Flamenco guitar while asking the question, “Are we living enough?”  At one point she mentioned her strumming represented a dove struggling to be free, even from herself, and in that moment I finally understood the soul of Spanish guitar—a style I’ll admit to having found heretofore inscrutable.  In “Questo é Amore,” as the horse and mule fall in love, Edna said she sought to express how we all can get along, even when we are so different from one another.  Mark and LaRhonda Steele then took us to church, filling the hall with LaRhonda’s sultry, soulful voice layered over Mark’s bluesy piano riffs.  Their haunting performance of “Strange Fruit” is still pulling at my heart, which is bolstered by LaRhonda’s commentary that, even with so far yet to go, “we are better than we were.”

Coming back from intermission, Andrew introduced us to Bill and Thomas, the primary un/builders of the Piano Harp, and we revisited the concept of reconstruction coming out of deconstruction.  Maia stole the show, though, with her interpretation of, “Bowed String.”  That was an adorable moment, and the audience ate it up!  Andrew talked a bit about his role in the process of creating these arrangements.  He said he took each of the songs, examined their purpose within the narrative, and then listened to local musicians’ work to figure out who could best do each one justice.  We learned that the artists didn’t actually work directly with the actors, rather Andrew functioned as intermediary.  James Beaton and Holcombe Waller came on with a bit of improv comedy (“I’m a little concerned; it appears we have President Lincoln in the audience tonight.  I don’t see John Wilkes Booth, though.”  Val:  “I’m over here!”) and a cover show that included a take on “The Star-Spangled Banner” in which they revised the line, “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free/And the home of the brave enough to claim that freedom?”  Spend a moment with that thought.  Write it on the bathroom mirror and recite it in the morning.  It had that kind of impact on me.  Darrell Grant brought us a jazz piano rendition of James Taylor’s “Shower the People” to soften the mood a little, and then he shared with us a long-standing work in progress which the current social climate had brought back to the forefront for him.  Closing out the evening was self-taught guitarist Okaidja Afroso, who explained that he studied as a dancer first, so music for him is a means of conveying motion.  It wasn’t until halfway through his second piece that my Western mind relinquished its need to count beats and bars, and succumbed to the movement within the rhythm.  I eagerly anticipate the next time I see “Children Go Where I Send Thee” in light of this revelation!  By the night’s end, I found a deep appreciation for Andrew’s work as musical director, and his selection of arrangers for each of the play’s songs—and the selection of songs for arrangers—is, in a word, perfect.