by TERRY ROSS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
• 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.