Stumptown Coffee, check.
Voodoo Doughnut, check.
Storm Large, check.

Not bad for a first day in Portland. And, oh yeah, Rufus Wainright, too.

Hi everyone! I’m so happy to be here for my very first TBA festival. Although, I have to say, I still don’t feel like I’ve quite landed–last night’s concert was the requisite opening night bonbon, a breezy affair designed to bring in the masses (and, no doubt, the money). As such, it was somewhat happily incongruous with the rest of the 2010 lineup.

Still, for a big-ticket item Wainwright certainly has contemporary street-cred, as evidenced by his genre-agnostic approach to music. We got a taste of his first opera, Prima Donna and an all-over-the-map set of folk songs, pop hits and good old razzle dazzle (Thank you, Storm Large; I can see why she’s so popular around here).

Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. One of the most charming moments came when Wainwright had to restart a challenging Berlioz piece, telling everyone “It’s an open rehearsal.” It’s always exciting to see a talented artist stretching and stumbling; how else do artistic traditions stay alive? Watching Wainwright find his way through, I thought of how often I see people sleep right through entire performances at big grand theaters like the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. And then I thought of something Jérôme Bel said about the sort of work he’s after:

If an artist knows ‘what he will produce, he’s not a contemporary artist,’ Bel explained. Audiences who want the comfortable standards, “should go and see ‘Swan Lake’ at the opera — and they will get the lake, they will get the swans.”

TBA’s current artistic director, Cathy Edwards, has spent her curatorial life supporting artists like Bel (New York remembers her fondly for it…). She has done this despite the fact that she and her colleagues, especially in this country, are under enormous pressure to fill up their houses; it’s all too easy for an artistic director to succumb to the tyranny of the bottom line and present comforting, easily digestible fare. Many of them do just that.

Festivals like TBA and curators like Cathy are bright exceptions to this rule. They recognize that art is most likely to succeed (i.e., live) when it courts failure.

And now I’m off. Maybe I’ll see you at today’s Noontime Chat. Or the Wooster Group. Or Mike Daisy. Or Charles Atlas…come say hi.

For more information on TBA events, visit PICA. A more comprehensive list of upcoming events can be found at our Arts & Entertainment Calendar.