Arts & Culture

Celebrating Tacoma in art, dance and song with the Northwest Repertory Singers

Raven Skyriver’s “Descend,” one of the glass sculptures that inspired the Northwest Repertory Singers’ next concert, will be shown onscreen during the concert.
Raven Skyriver’s “Descend,” one of the glass sculptures that inspired the Northwest Repertory Singers’ next concert, will be shown onscreen during the concert. Courtesy

It’s a multimedia kind of spring here in Tacoma. No less than three music groups had the idea to put on a concert that combined classical music with art, glassblowing, even dance. But what sets apart this weekend’s Northwest Repertory Singers concerts are two things: a Tacoma-centric celebration of museums, musicians and dancers and — because it’s a choir — the additional art form of poetry.

“The arts in Tacoma have just mushroomed over the last 10 or 15 years,” says Paul Schultz, the choir’s director, about the genesis for the program. “When my family arrived here in the 1980s, the only arts events you read about (in The News Tribune) were by Seattle reporters on Seattle events. Now we have so many fine museums and artists. We want to celebrate the arts in Tacoma.”

So, a year ago, Schultz sat down with representatives from the Tacoma Art Museum, Museum of Glass and Washington State History Museum to find out what exhibits would be on in May 2017. Three stood out: “Into the Deep,” a show of ocean-related glass art at the Museum of Glass, the Outwin portraiture exhibit at Tacoma Art Museum, and an upcoming show at the Washington State History Museum that includes African American pioneer George Washington Bush, whom artist Jacob Lawrence portrayed in his “Migration” series.

180Images play with music in “Celebrating the Arts in Tacoma.”

Schultz began a yearlong process of assembling the art images, plus other public domain photographs, into slideshows to accompany three sets of choral compositions. But he didn’t stop there. He added a new composition by choir member Tom Walworth (a folksy narrative about Bush’s journey west accompanied by fiddle, mandolin and bass), got the choir playing water glasses for a piece by Êriks Esenvalds about stars, and invited dancers from Tacoma School of the Arts to choreograph a piece.

Running through everything are the words: poetry by Rudyard Kipling, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Sara Teasdale, Langston Hughes and even Paul Simon.

I see the (art) reacting to the music, to the text. But I also see the music embracing what that (art) is saying.

Paul Schultz, Northwest Repertory Singers

“It’s word-painting,” says Schultz, of the interaction between the visuals and the songs. “Say you’re singing the ‘Ave Maria’ — well, you can be moved spiritually by that. But if you sing it in front of the Pieta (by Michelangelo), what does that do?”

The biggest thing that Schultz discovered in putting visuals with music is that that art isn’t just wallpaper.

“It’s a two-way street,” he says. “For instance, the Outwin portraits — they speak to you. That face is sending a message. I see the face reacting to the music, to the text. But I also see the music embracing what that face is saying.”

It’s a powerful interaction.

After opening with Eric Whitacre’s nostalgic “Seal Lullaby,” with images of wave billows and Raven Skyriver’s glowing glass seal “Descend,” the concert moves into three sea-themed works by Gwyneth Walker. With underwater coral reef images alternating with flameworked glass coral, “The Bottom of the Sea” submerges choral clusters over an eerie, semitonal piano ripple. “Gifts from the Sea” echoes a line about a hermit crab with scuttling piano notes and images of crabs and shells; “Down to the Sea” captures the yearning, rising melody and famous words by Nora Mary Holland (“I will go down to the sea again/to the waste of waters, wild and wide”) in stormy sea photographs.

The second set follows the journey of Bush to Oregon and Washington through historic photos, maps, hypnotic Lawrence paintings and choral works like the haunting “Wayfarin’ Stranger,” with amplified recorder soaring overhead like the wind. Walworth’s “A True American” frames the pioneer, who overcame injustices like the Lash Law and the restriction of property ownership to whites, as a true patriot in words and feel-good bluegrass harmonies.

“George Washington Bush certainly made sure that his own family had all they needed,” says Walworth, who researched the pioneer for his composition. “But every story we ran across painted him as being nearly equally concerned with the well-being of other people, of all races ... That’s an example of patriotism. Loving your country means loving the people in your country.”

The third set draws on four very different American compositions to pair with the Outwin portraits.

With the art on a 16-by-24-foot screen behind and musicians and dancers in front, the multimedia is truly immersive.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, because of all the details,” says Schultz, who founded the choir in 2001, with four decades of teaching and directing before that.

And what about those, such as Schultz’s wife Donna, a composer, who wondered if all the images would distract from the music?

“I don’t think so,” Schultz says. “I think they enhance it.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Celebrating the Arts in Tacoma

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (pre-concert lecture one hour prior).

Where: Mason United Methodist Church, 2710 N. Madison St., Tacoma.

Tickets: $18 general; $15 senior, student and military.

Information: 253-265-3042, nwrs.org, bit.ly/2qwwG6U.

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