ARCO-PDX review: Recipe for rejuvenation?

In seeking younger, more diverse audiences, Portland ensemble's concert features amplification, memorization, and repetition -- but can't ensure rejuvenation


The Portland ensemble called ARCO-PDX (Amplified Repertory Chamber Orchestra) has given five performances since their first in July 2014, and with this article, all of them have been reviewed and discussed by this website. “Reviewed” because that’s what we do; “discussed” because ARCO raises new questions for the performance of so-called classical music.

Briefly put, ARCO plays new and old classical music on traditional instruments that are electrified and amplified. Violins, violas, and cellos have hookups like electric guitars; the “piano” is an electronic keyboard programmed to sound like a piano or harpsichord.

Beyond the amplification, ARCO uses other techniques from standard rock shows: colored moving lights, swirling fog, and in some instances images projected on a screen behind them. The goal of all these borrowings is to fuse the atmosphere of a pop music concert with classical music.

Leader and founder Mike Hsu, a very good violinist, encourages his fellow players to show the music in their posture and movements and facial expressions. Further, he urges them to memorize their music (as in a rock concert) to free them from a printed score and maximize their connection to the audience, who are in turn encouraged to dance, cheer, drink, and socialize while the music is playing. Hsu and the others speak of the thrill of getting a rock-concert style ovation (stamping, whistling, standing, cheering) after finishing a concerto by Handel, or even mini-ovations while the piece is playing.

ARCO’s overall hope is to expand the audience for classical music, from an aging group of grey-hairs to a younger, hipper cohort, and at their February 3 show at Portland club Holocene on Southeast Morrison, this strategy seemed to be working. Among a crowd of about a hundred, all of them with micro-brews or mixed drinks in hand, I spotted only four or five oldsters; the average age looked to be mid-thirties, with a good smattering of fans in their twenties.

The choice of a Friday night was purposeful: to avoid the standard Sunday afternoon slot beloved of classical music presenters. So was the choice of Holocene, a high-ceilinged club normally used for pop acts, rather than the usual concert hall or church setting.

Joe Kye opened for ARCO-PDX.

ARCO also began their show with an opening act, just as rock bands do. A young man named Joe Kye, a Korean-born American, played four songs of his own, strumming his violin like a ukulele to foot-controlled feedback loops, and adding his own gentle voice. In the four-minute first song the words “where are you?” and “why did you go?” turned up repeatedly. His second tune, at three minutes, incorporated the the melody to the Edith Piaf hit “La vie en rose.” After a perfunctory and brief third song, a fourth stated “I’ve made mistakes, so have you” against a background of four beats against five or six. At the end, Mr. Kye gave a short, kind, gentle little spiel about loving one another and that sort of thing.

Hsu (l), Falconer and Banks played JacobTV.

ARCO then came on with four violinists, a violist, a cellist, a double bass, and keyboard, and went directly into a slow and then a fast movement of Georg Frideric Händel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 10. All eight of the players — Hsu, Daniel Shen, Viet Block, and Chris Fotinakis on violins; Amanda Lawrence on viola; Hannah Hillebrand on cello; Owen Hoffman-Smith on double bass; and an unidentified keyboardist — played from memory and to different degrees mugged for the audience.

One felt the connection between players and listeners. The concerto grosso itself suffered from the clash of timbres of amplified instruments, which in their natural state, being of the same family, meld more harmoniously; the Portland Baroque Orchestra has nothing to fear here.

A second piece, with the intriguing title Nivea Hair Care Styling Mousse by the longtime avant-pop Dutch composer Jacob Ter Veldhuis (b. 1951), who goes by the name JacobTV, was to this listener the high point of the evening. In two movements — the first speedy and motoric, the second beginning cantabile and becoming faster — violinist Hsu, guest cellist Zach Banks, and keyboardist Mitch Falconer played a complicated piece impeccably from memory, and to great applause from the audience. JacobTV’s quirky and attractive morsel would be a worthy candidate for any chamber concert. The amplification seemed natural for this light-hearted music.

Another essay in Händel followed, announced as his fourth concerto grosso although not identified as from Opus 3 or Opus 6, but this was a hash due to intonation problems by one of the first violinists, Daniel Shen, whose flatness effectively sabotaged the performance. Undeterred, Mr. Hsu and Ms. Hillebrand then sailed into the Passacaglia in G minor on a Theme by Georg Frideric Händel of John Halvorsen (1864-1935). This piece, written in 1897, was not enhanced by amplification and left the audience restive.

Falconer played Glass with ARCO-PDX.

The premiere of a piece called Lullaby by Portland composer Scott Anthony Shell, scored for string quintet (the standard quartet with an added double bass), made little impression on the audience, who were perhaps waiting for the featured piece of the evening and the concert closer, Philip Glass’s Tirol Concerto, composed in 2000 on a commission from a European travel bureau. The keyboard soloist here was Mr. Falconer, who played the 28 minutes of Glass’s interminable patterns from memory; he confessed before beginning that the concerto had taken him a year to learn.

The audience responded as per usual with music by Glass: with varying degrees of somnolent, reflective contemplation. Mr. Falconer played with dedication and flair, but unfortunately it was still music by Philip Glass, sounding as if the composer had learned a few chords on the piano and a few ways of playing them, and then simply repeated himself over and over: music of stupefying banality. At its finish, the audience, awakened from their trance, gave a long and enthusiastic ovation and then went out into the night.

Fountain of Youth?

As for the issues raised by ARCO’s approach, in this concert, as in at least one of their previous ones, the presence of chairs for the majority of the audience discouraged much movement or spontaneity, although a few of those standing at the perimeter could be seen grooving with the beat. There is no question that memorizing the music is ideal; this is why string quartet concerts are generally so much more involving than symphony performances: we can see the players reacting to the music and to each other and, by corollary, to us in the audience.

And there’s certainly nothing wrong with getting a younger clientele to come out to hear classical music. Whether, however, concerts like ARCO’s can perform this function is another question.

It’s all well and good to get a hundred or so people, some of whom (but not all) are utterly unfamiliar with classical music or the whole protocol of attending traditional classical music concerts, and to put them into the proximity of the likes of Händel, not to mention more contemporary composers. But is Händel, particularly Händel in his non-theatrical works like these concerti grossi, best served by playing his music as if it were dance music or, worse, as a background to moving around, drinking, and chatting? I don’t think so.

ARCO has not attempted to program any “old” classical music except baroque concerti grossi, but would other classical music lend itself to ARCO’s methods? Bach’s B-Minor Mass? Beethoven’s piano sonatas? Chopin’s polonaises? Debussy? Ravel? Would all these not be better left alone and played as their composers heard them in their heads? I think so.

The hard fact is that the audience for traditional classical music, whether old or new, will continue to age and finally, perhaps, disappear, unless young people are introduced to the music, as their parents and grandparents were, in school programs. Until public grade schools and high schools put a priority on music teaching, until a substantial percentage of their students play in a band or orchestra, or sing in a choir, the future looks bleak for classical music. Simply programming concerts for young people, as symphony orchestras and opera companies increasingly to, will not do the trick. You’ve got to make the kids go, all the kids and not just those with “enlightened” parents. Kids who are introduced to the delights of reading, or painting, or acting grow into adults who respect these arts and value them. The same is true of classical music. It’s simply not enough to turn a few thirty-somethings onto Händel — you’ve got to get ‘em much younger.

Recommended recordings

Handel: Concerti Grossi Op. 3 and Op. 6
• Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting (Teldec 4509-95500-2), 1981.

TV: Nivea Hair Care Styling Mousse
• JacobTV – Suites of Lux (Basta 3091752).

Handel/Halvorsen: Passacaglia
• Julia Fischer, violin, and Daniel Müller-Scott, cello (Orfeo C902161A), 2016.

Glass: Tirol Concerto
• Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies, pianist and conductor (Orange Mountain Music), 2011.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

Bach Cantata Choir & Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Variety’s virtues

Two very different vocal concerts demonstrate, for better and worse, the value of musical diversity


The chronological span of composers William Billings to J.S. Bach to Claudio Monteverdi and Heinrich Schutz isn’t vast, about 200 years from Monteverdi’s birth in Italy to Billings’ death in New England, but the difference in stylin’, you betcha. This musical diversity should have been the delight of last week’s concert featuring five different composers,  presented by the Bach Cantata Choir under the direction of Ralph Nelson and assistant director Emma Mildred Riggle. For the most part, it was.

“Universal Praise” by William Billings offered a robust opening at Portland’s Rose City Presbyterian church. A first generation citizen of the U.S. and considered America’s “first composer,” Billings (1746-1800) left quite a legacy of hymns, fuguing tunes (not fugal – two different animals), and other secular and sacred pieces laden with his peculiar harmonies and foot stomping rhythms. And, oh, straight-backed, early colonial American text: “Praise Him propagation, Praise Him vegetation, And let your voice proclaim your choice and Testify.” Billings got those colonial Americans a hootin’ and a hollerin’.

Bach Cantata Choir sang music by an impressive variety of composers at their winter concert.

Next up, the precious “O Nata Lux (“O light born of light…”)” failed to shine.  The title represents the glowing, white-hot transfiguration of Jesus in the Catholic faith of its composer, English Renaissance genius Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) survived as a Catholic for 70 years within the turmoil of the religious seesawing in England because his musical talent was transcendent. The piece deserves this consideration.

Since these early scores lack bar lines, or any other expressive markings, sung phrases must be based on word accent and a balance of anacrusic (“upbeatness” and thesis (“downbeatness”). Without those ideas injected into the music-making, phrases become limp and lack direction. This can, and did, lead to lethargy, and some intonation problems.

In the final cadence on the word “corporis” (body), there is a famous harmonic crunch, as the tenor sings an F natural, while the soprano descends to an F# (making for a very dissonant combination), followed by the tenor moving down to an Eb, which makes still another shocking dissonance against a D natural in the bass. Choir and conductor glossed over this passage as if it were a musical commonplace rather than a Tallis signature moment.

There was a nice uplift following the Tallis, as Ms. Riggle returned to conduct the “Hodie Christus natus est” of German baroque composer Heinrich Schutz. Buoyed by four fine soloists and a dance-like repetition of ‘Alleluia’, the “Hodie” zipped along, very well sung by the choir. Sopranos Catherine Bridge and Dorothea Lail, alto Kristie Gladhill, tenors Brian Haskins and David Foley and bass Benjamin Espana were well suited in their roles of one of Schutz’ hallmark techniques, favoriti (his word), meaning the soloists ( favorites) vis-a-vis the choir.


Maria Schneider Orchestra and Kneebody: Many voices, one vision 

PDX Jazz Festival opening weekend bands share fondness for diverse influences. But there’s one big difference.


“I have always loved a lot of different kinds of music,” Maria Schneider said in February from her Manhattan apartment where she’s lived for decades. In her multiple Grammy-winning jazz orchestra’s music, “the colors and forms and textures come from classical, flamenco, and Brazilian influences.” They’re tied together. “I love melody,” she says. “I love tonality.”

Schneider makes her West Coast debut with her orchestra this Friday, Feb. 17 at the BiAmp PDX Jazz Festival. If PDX is her destination and New York her base, the Midwest is her heart’s home, and this tour will include heartland stops.

Maria Schneider. Photo: Dina Regine.

Minnesota is the inspiration for Schneider’s latest much acclaimed album, The Thompson Fields. She grew up on the state’s southwest prairies next to a flax plant that her father ran outside of tiny Windom. She fell in love with the wide-open landscape, which she calls “both surreal and pastoral,” and with the birds. Though the strawberry blonde (her hair naturally remains that vivid color at 56) showed promise as a piano player by eight years old, she told her second-grade teacher she wanted to be an ornithologist when she grew up. She had to explain the term to her teacher and class.

Many of her songs invoke birds, including The Thompson Fields’s  “Arbiters of Evolution.” Expect to hear pieces from this sonic homage to the natural world at the Friday show. But get ready for bleaker stuff, including her brand-new “Data Lords.”

“I’ll wait till everybody gets nestled in before that one,” she says. “It’s very dark and apocalyptic. I’m quite disturbed that companies control us through their analytics. Big data is not a good thing for the world. It undermines our democracy and our own choice.”


Battle Trance/Blue Cranes review: Maximal music

Saxophone quartet’s innovative music blends the visceral with the spiritual 


Every once in awhile, musicians are fortunate enough to have experiences that make us ask some serious questions about what we thought we had already answered. Like, for example, what sounds can be musical? What instrumentation is necessary for an ensemble to convey those sounds? Are clearly delineated structure and form necessary to communicate musical ideas? And, as always the looming existential question in the back of our minds: what is the point of music with these conditions?

Finally: Can spitting into one’s instrument be musical?

Battle Trance performed at Portland’s Mississippi Studios. Photo: Patrick McCulley.

These were the questions I came away with after tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance’s January 25 show at Portland’s Mississippi Studios. People use the term “genre defying” loosely these days when reviewing new music but Battle Trance is much closer to deserving that description than any ensemble I’ve recently come across. They could, of course, be thrown under the umbrella term “experimental” but that doesn’t seem to properly communicate the full import of what I witnessed.

Certainly they experiment. The saxophonists — Patrick Breiner, Matt Nelson, Jeremy Viner, and quartet founder Travis Laplante — seem to have taken a great deal of care to search out every single extended technique a saxophone is capable of and include it in their compositions. Over the course of their 45-minute performance, they played multiphonics that sounded like four giant dogs barking, descending harmonic slurs reminiscent of the sounds of fighter planes in old war movies, and soft, nasally, ethereal singing through their instruments. At times their saxophones would growl, honk, and squeak. In several thoroughly surprising instances, performers began to aggressively spit air through the mouthpieces of their instruments to create sound. You could actually see spit flying out of their mouths and across the stage!

Battle Trance’s extended techniques create a visceral atmosphere in their music.  The idea that the deeply physical can be translated into sound isn’t new, but the quartet capitalizes on the idea in new, thought-provoking ways. This, I suspect, is the foundation for the physio-spiritual band name and the concept behind the title of their new release Blade of Love.


PIFF XL preview: International Film Fest offers insight into global anxieties

The fest's 40th edition comes at a time when global perspectives have increased relevance

It’s that time of year again: February in Portland. The annual reminder that 37 degrees Fahrenheit is the worst possible temperature, that sacrificing small cute animals would be worth it for a small patch of blue sky, and that my own uncanny ability to conjure an Old Testament-style downpour simply by walking my dogs remains unrivaled. It’s also time once again for the Portland International Film Festival, which celebrates its fortieth iteration this year.

The festival, which runs through February 25, and takes place at theaters all over town, includes a typical mix of titles that will be returning to local arthouse screens over the coming months and those which may never pass your way again. (I’m still waiting for someone to release on disc or online the Austrian movie “The Unfish,” which played PIFF in 1999 and then vanished forever.) There are well-crafted middlebrow entertainments, ragged experiments, and a few inevitable dogs.

“I Am Not Your Negro”

Having attended and/or covered the festival for (creak! groan!) more than half of its life, I’ve been as guilty as anyone of trotting out clichés about its significance. Film, more than any other art form, allows viewers to experience quite directly the lives of people, fictional or not, in locales and cultures that would otherwise remain exotic and abstract. Even the most evocative literature or music can only, well, evoke the reality it’s depicting. When Iranian cinema began to gain worldwide cachet in the 1990s, for instance, it was the first time many Western viewers saw what an ordinary street scene in Teheran was like.

So, yeah, it’s always been true that international cinema helps to bind the world more closely together, helps to humanize The Other, and opens our eyes to how alike we all are despite and beneath our diverse and magnificent differences.


Oregon Symphony review: Russian revelation

Violinist Stefan Jackiw's performance of Prokofiev violin concerto with the orchestra brings new insights


Sergei Prokofiev composed his second violin concerto as he was about to abandon a whirlwind international existence as a piano soloist (of his own works and others’) and guest conductor to return to the Soviet Union, which turned out to be more intransigent than he had expected. Yearning to be closer to his Russian roots, Prokofiev hoped that his homeland (he was born in 1891, long before the Bolshevik revolution) would enable him to write music closer to his heart and less beholden to the Stravinskyan and super-modern tastes of the West.

The result was a mixed bag; although hailed on his return to the USSR as a hero, he soon fell victim to Stalin’s absurd strictures for artists and found himself, despite his enormous reputation in the West, tossed from pillar to post, a prize-winner one year and a pariah the next, until the end of his life in 1953.

Prokofiev’s second violin concerto was in a way his homage to a sort of music he hoped to enlarge upon in the future, more overtly lyrical than his famous piano concertos. Before moving from Paris to Moscow, he wrote his concerto for a French-Belgian violinist named Robert Soëtens, and it received its premiere in Madrid that same year, 1935.

Having approached it via a recording by Itzhak Perlman with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I was eager to hear my first live performance. It turned out to radically change my view of the concerto.

Stefan Jackiw performed with the Oregon Symphony.

First, the Oregon Symphony began its Russian-themed concert by playing an American work, but one with Russian connections. The young composer Sean Shepherd wrote Magiya (“magic” in Russian) for the National Youth Orchestra of the USA for its first season and tour with the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. The seven-minute composition for full orchestra makes lavish use of the percussion section in a spirited romp, perfect for an orchestra of young players. Maestro Carlos Kalmar gave the piece the sort of reading any composer loves, attentive to the smallest detail yet in full command of the overall effect. A very effective concert-opener.

Next came what was for this audience member the high point of the evening, a riveting performance of Prokofiev’s concerto by soloist Stefan Jackiw and Kalmar’s Oregon Symphony. Unlike the Perlman recording, which treats the concerto more or less as a traditional showpiece, Kalmar and co. presented a nuanced and more delicate interpretation, but one that still contained plenty of Prokofiev’s muscularity.

The first and third Allegro movements were not racehorses but rather exercises in gossamer filigree superimposed on vigorous rhythms. And the middle movment Andante assai was positively stately. I felt as if I had heard the piece, for the first time, as it was meant to be played.


PDX Jazz Festival preview: Signs of life

Portland jazz scene remains vital despite popular club's sudden closure

The word is out: Jazz is dead. Why, it says so in La La Land, one of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. Even legendary jazz critic Nat Hentoff died last month, shortly after Portland’s — and one of America’s — finest jazz club, Jimmy Mak’s, closed its doors for the last time, the latest in a string (Ivories, Brasserie Montmartre, Blue Monk, etc.) in recent years. Jazz record sales are tiny compared to hip hop and rock, and it’s been decades since the music occupied the center of popular culture. So long jazz, been good to know ya.

Not so fast. Jazz music and musicians are insinuating themselves into pop music (Kendrick Lamar) and movies (La La Land, Miles Ahead). Jazz musicians are embracing contemporary pop sounds and winning new audiences without selling out (Robert Glasper, the Bad Plus, Kamasi Washington, who played to a packed, diverse crowd at Roseland ballroom in December, and many others). Contemporary classical and pop musicians, including the late David Bowie on his last album, are including jazz musicians and ingredients in their work. In Portland, reports jazz’s demise may be greatly exaggerated. The music still resounds in the city’s cafes and clubs, and the 2017 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival, which begins this weekend, offers one of its strongest lineups (see our recommendations below).

Mel Brown performs and leads ensembles at PDX Jazz Festival.

Rather than a crisis, what Portland jazz is going through now is actually “a hiccup,” says veteran drummer Mel Brown, a Jimmy Mak’s mainstay who’s leading several bands at this year’s festival. He worries that jazz mostly happens in restaurants with no stages rather than dedicated venues like Jimmy Mak’s. But having grown up in Portland playing jazz in Northeast Portland’s legendary Jumptown scene as a teenager, he’s seen these cycles before.

“We had a lot of clubs here, then rock came and everything went away,” Brown recalls of the days before went off to study with legendary drummer Philly Joe Jones, perform with Motown, tour nationally before returning to Portland in the mid-1970s. “Now it’s trying to come back. We’ve got enough people pushing, but it takes time to really get the whole thing together.”

Kamasi Washington’s band drew a big, diverse audience to Portland’s Roseland Theater in December.

Jimmy Mak’s closing “does not reflect on the state of jazz in Portland,” insists festival director Don Lucoff, noting that the club closed not because it was faltering financially but because its building sold and its owner fell ill with terminal cancer before he could complete plans it to a new location this month. “Jimmy’s numbers, [local jazz radio station] KMHD’s numbers were up, our sales are up. It’s nothing to do with people not being interested in the music.” The festival shifted its Jimmy Mak’s performances to other venues, and the club’s former managers are busily putting together a new incarnation that jazz lovers hope will open before the year’s out.