Alt.classical in PDX: Beyond the Wall Street Journal

Third Angle pianist Susan Smith at City Dance in 2008

Last week, the Wall Street Journal, for whom I’ve written for more than a decade, published my story about Portland’s alternative classical music scene, and as always, space limitations forced us to leave some important bits on the cutting room floor. The trend the story identified may be news to most of the millions of WSJ readers, but many Oregon arts watchers probably already know much of that tale. But they may not know what we had to leave out: What makes Portland such a hothouse for creative classical music, and what we can do to ensure that it continues to flourish. Here’s the director’s cut.

Venturesome Venues, Collaborative Culture

The WSJ story begins with Classical Revolution PDX’s manifesto, concocted by CRPDX founder Mattie Kaiser late one night in 2007, shortly after the then-24-year-old violist moved here from San Francisco, where she’d been involved in the formation of the original Classical Revolution a few months earlier. Offshoots now exist in several cities, but she says Portland’s is one of the strongest.

Kaiser found not just other sympathetic musicians and listeners but also open-eared and -minded venues, such as the Someday Lounge in Portland’s Old Town, amenable to hosting classical music in nontraditional settings. “I don’t think I’ve had any venue tell me no, ever,” Kaiser told me. “It’s kind of amazing. The venues are run by artsy people — they’re all in seven bands too.”  In fact, the trend continues — two McMenamins brewpubs just started a monthly Classical Pub night.

Kaiser, like almost everyone interviewed for this story, also praised the Portland indie classical scene’s collaborative nature. CRPDX has teamed up with Opera Theater Oregon, Electric Opera Company and other groups.  “Everyone’s so supportive here,” she said. “The more we collaborate, the better art we create — everybody benefits.”

Kaiser also acknowledged valuable grant support from Multnomah County and the Regional Arts & Culture Council. “The alternative culture supports us and the [mainstream] culture supports us,” she said. And she praised Portland’s relative affordability as a key to the indie scene’s success: “We don’t have $7 lattes here,” she said. “I don’t have to get a marketing job. I can eat at the food carts.”

Nourishing Environment

Those factors are part of a bigger picture: the supportive ecosystem that makes Portland a sympathetic place to hear classical and new music. We all know about the city’s superlative symphony, choirs, presenting organizations like Chamber Music Northwest, Friends of Chamber Music, and Portland Piano International. But Opera Theater Oregon’s Katie Taylor also pointed to strong college programs like Portland State’s symphony and opera (not to mention the newly revitalized choral scene there). Faculty groups such as PSU’s Florestan Trio and Lewis & Clark College’s Friends of Rain new music ensemble spread the classical and new music gospels.

Oregon Symphony violinist Ron Blessinger noted how the OSO, Columbia Symphony, and the opera and ballet orchestras support a critical mass of increasingly skilled classical players (both regulars and subs) who earn enough there to enable them to perform for a pittance or less in indie projects like the veteran new music groups FearNoMusic and Blessinger’s own Third Angle, which have lately been joined by Northwest New Music and, soon, the Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project. Symphony musicians also populate such groups as  45th Parallel, Tango Pacifico and others.

And they’re getting better all the time, which permits performances of contemporary and nonstandard repertoire. “The level of available talent has risen and the level of playing has gotten higher,” Blessinger said. “Twenty years ago, [Third Angle] couldn’t have done [Steve Reich’s 20th century landmarks] Drumming and Music for 18 Musicians. The symphony couldn’t have done [contemporary composer John Adams’s] Chamber Symphony.”

The new music ensembles’ track record of showing Portland audiences that there’s nothing to fear from contemporary classical music, and helping them understand it, makes it easier for other alt classical performers to draw open-minded audiences. “Groups like Third Angle and FearNoMusic have been around long enough that we’re getting better at explaining what we do,” Blessinger said. “Time has allowed us to establish a body of work that’s easy for audiences to reference. Don’t just trust what I say, but look at what I’ve done.”

Blessinger also cited crucial support from the city’s pop music scene and lauded “the fact that a creative guy in [Pink Martini’s] Thomas Lauderdale respects the classical tradition and is constantly referencing it in his work. When a leading band like that is searching in those directions, it gives permission to everyone else to bring in elements of classical music. It filters down.”

Lauderdale, a member of the Oregon Symphony board of directors, has staged benefits for the OSO and other city music institutions, particularly schools. And he’s performed with the orchestra many times as a soloist in piano concerti by George Gershwin and Edvard Grieg and other classical gems. And anyone who attended Portland Cello Project’s concerts, like those last weekend, can’t miss the parade of pop stars joining the classical cellists.

Blessinger astutely compared the city’s indie classical scene to its renowned food scene. “It’s a locavore culture. You have intensively creative people using local ingredients and developing a creative dining culture of people who are willing to take chances,” he explained. “This is a special place because of our local resources of talent that can produce a unique taste special this place. It’s the only place you can have that dining experience or that music experience.”

Classical Revolution PDX

Enriching the Mainstream

It was especially heartening to hear the accolades for Portland’s alt.classical musicians delivered from establishment administrators Harold Gray and Linda Magee, whose comments failed to survive the final cut of the WSJ article. “It’s been exciting to watch it evolve,” said CMNW’s Magee. “It’s not something to be feared or confused about. We need to watch it and see where we can fit in.”

Magee acknowledged that her organization saw how much support the indie scene was getting and chose to use some of the same venues for CMNW’s Protege Project, which offers younger performers and often different repertoire from its standard concerts. “Our idea was to try to get out in different places and shake up [listeners’] impressions of what chamber music is,” she said.

But Magee cautioned that drawing younger audiences to Someday Lounge doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll come to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. In fact, CMNW found that the new venues and formats didn’t reduce the average audience age as much as they excited the older core audience, who loved the casual atmosphere, earlier starting times, partnerships with other groups like BodyVox, and other changes from the same old-same old. “It used to be enough to put on [a concert] and assume that this is what classical music is,” she recalled. “It’s such a different world now, so we need to be far more adaptable. You have to move the times, or the train will roll over you.”

Portland Piano International’s Gray found the same receptivity to new ideas among older audiences. “I decided to go for it this past summer and challenge our audiences with mostly new music,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I thought I would have lot of complaining, but almost no one was offended. Several people on our evaluation forms admitted that it was a stretch, but even then thought it was ‘good’ for them.”

Gray also praised David Bernstein’s flourishing Cascadia Composers organization and other Portland new music stalwarts. “I think Portland has a remarkable new music presence considering its size, and the quality is excellent thanks to the artistic imagination of musicians such as Ron Blessinger (Third Angle), and Jeff Payne/Paloma Griffin (FearNoMusic), and others,” he wrote.

Funding the Future

Still, not all the city’s larger classical institutions are so receptive to modern music and new ideas, which is why an alternative scene emerged in the first place. “I think there is a lot more happening now, probably because more composers and young musicians are feeling compelled to be proactive on behalf of their own careers and the art,” explained composer Jackie T. Gabel, who has run Oregon’s primary new music label, North Pacific, for many years. “They feel the established institutions don’t care very much about what they have to say.”

Although, like Katie Taylor, Gabel worries about the paucity of funding for musical innovation, he finds a few causes for optimism. “It’s a typical Portland DIY scene we’ve got going here,” he said. “This bootstrapping thing is great, but at the end of the day, you’re still self-producing, which is like self-publishing: It’s pay to play. But it’s growing and there’s going to be a lot more offerings.” Gabel is in discussion now to start a monthly experimental music series in a gallery in a downtown mall space.

Gabel also made the single most valuable suggestion I encountered in my reporting — mainstream organizations creating reliable funding mechanisms for locally grown music.

“I would like to see more of our regional chamber orchestras involved in programming and commissioning regional composers,” he said. “Those institutions might say ‘our audience doesn’t want to hear that.’ But if they took the effort educate audience about contemporary art music, they’d be more receptive.” Coincidentally, both Third Angle and CRPDX recently announced composer commissioning projects (see their respective websites for details), but those are only for small ensembles, not orchestras.

Gabel suggested that the Oregon Arts Commission sponsor a commissioning fund to stimulate new music in Oregon. “That would be exciting. Ensembles would go through a simple process to apply for modest amounts to commission new works to be played in licensed performances, getting composers a royalty.”

I was happy to bring Portland’s exciting indie classical story to international audiences via the Wall Street Journal. But that article told only part of the story. More of it is here — but the rest remains to be told.

Portland has arrived at a rare crossroads: The city now sports an energetic confluence of classically oriented, collaboratively minded creative musicians and composers, open venues, and adventurous audiences. Various factors like low cost of living and a history of musical experimentation are nurturing this nascent artistic culture. But will the city and its leaders do what it takes to make sure it not only continues to thrive, but expands to fulfill its vast potential? That’s a sequel I’d love to tell Wall Street Journal readers a few years from now.

One Response.

  1. redipen says:

    bravo, Brett -another one out of the park – keep swinging for the fences

Comments are closed.