Can classical music ever be hip? This month, two of Portland’s major indie classical subversives infiltrated a Portland indie pop haven with a pair of concerts that demonstrated that classical music can regain its mainstream cultural appeal — if it’s presented in 21st century context.
Premised on the notion that classical music (and we must add, contemporary classical, although that distinction would have struck the vast majority of classical composers in history as unnecessary and even pernicious) is as universally appealing as it ever was except that the presentation is outdated for today’s audiences, ARCO-PDX’s announced goal is to bring rock and roll energy and production to classical music. In this third concert, performed earlier this month in Seattle, Eugene and Portland, it advanced farther toward that goal in some respects, but stalled in others.
The sound design seemed richer and more accurate to my ears than the group’s previous concerts at another indie rock club, Mississippi Studios and rawer party space, Refuge PDX, in Portland’s industrial inner east side. The group seems to have resolved most of the tuning issues that occasionally bugged me in their earlier shows. Provided by DB Amorin and Cymaspace, the visual effects seemed subtler and more sophisticated than I remember from earlier shows, and though it left the stage darker, it also complemented the performance rather than calling attention to the images.
Somehow, though, the energy level seemed lower this time. Not because the musicians (most visibly fiddlers Hsu and Bryce Caster) weren’t trying; everyone played with passion, but unlike in previous performance, most of the players appeared to be reading from scores rather than playing from memory. Granted, memorizing a classical score requires enormous time and effort for most musicians, but as Hsu understood when he founded the ensemble, it makes a tremendous difference, freeing the players to connect more directly with the audience, as ensembles like eighth blackbird have long demonstrated. That might have contributed to this show’s more restrained vibe. We seldom saw them tearing into these pieces like their lives depended on it, as happened often in the debut show.
But maybe it wasn’t that kind of music. The repertoire, mostly mid-20th century music that lacked the easy appeal of some of the Baroque and contemporary works ARCO delivered in past shows. Two movements from Oregon composer Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 got the show off to a rousing start, but the momentum flagged a bit in four movements from pioneering California composer Henry Cowell’s Trio in Nine Short Movements, which has some lovely moments but seems more at home in a lower key chamber music setting than a rock club.
The intensity returned in the American premiere of 90-year-old Russian composer Andrei Eshpai’s Lamento & Toccata for String Orchestra: The hammering repetition really suited the amplification and the monochrome psychedelic light show. You could hear traces of his countryman Dmitri Shostakovich’s dark muse in the welcome if slightly overlong piece, and after intermission, ARCO played the real thing: movements from one of late Russian master’s last works, the bleak Piano Quintet. Again, well played, deeply felt, but somehow not quite fitting the venue or the vibe of Portland’s Holocene club. (Some of his earlier, demented-circus music might have worked better.)
The same went for a personal favorite, Estonian master Arvo Pärt’s pensive Silouan’s Song. Maybe it was the Russian meal I’d indulged it at a nearby restaurant, but the heavy dose of lugubrious Eastern European moodiness, combined with a lack of variety in tempos, felt like a dense Russian rye bread when a light baguette seemed more appropriate for at least part of this summer evening.
Music by still another Eastern European 20th century paragon dispelled the wintry gloom. While his Harpsichord Concerto will never supplant the vast popularity of Polish composer Henryk Gorecki’s third symphony, that rare recent classical crossover hit, it proved to be a crowd pleaser this night, no doubt in part due to soloist Mitchell Falconer’s blistering electric keyboard performance. In introducing the piece, Falconer said it was a dream come true to be able to play a work he’d admired for years, and his commitment really erupted throughout this brilliant performance. After a fusillade of eighth notes taken at a breathless tempo, he stood and stretched during a brief orchestral passage, and it shortly became clear why, as Falconer followed with yet another wild solo, accompanied by fervent shouts and “Wooo!”s from the crowd. Which made the encore by British composer William Walton feel a little anticlimactic, at least until the latter’s intense and daring unison passages propelled the piece (the final movement of his a minor string quartet) and the concert to a potent finish.
In all, it was one of the more satisfying concerts of the season, certainly more interesting and enjoyable than three quarters of the classical shows I’ve seen this year. Yet even though the crowd seemed even younger (I’d guess early 30s average) than at previous ARCO shows (which is already much younger than other Portland classical concert demographics), it seemed much smaller — whether owing the absence of familiar names like Vivaldi and Bach and (in Portland at least) Kenji Bunch (whose music highlighted the group’s previous show) on the program, or the mid-summer timing (although ARCO has performed in the summer before to bigger crowds), or … who knows. But it might have been the menu. Even though the concert pulsed with great music, the selections didn’t necessarily add up to a compelling program — and that’s the next challenge ARCO-PDX will have to surmount as it strives to reinvent classical music for the 21st century.
Holocene also provided the venue for Classical Revolution PDX’s first staged show this year — and it was a triumph. Pace pessimists, this show proved that you can mix classical and new music and draw a solid audience with an enviably wide demographic. I counted about 150 people, aged from 20 to 70s (I’d guess), with the mean age comfortably in the mid-30s and, judging by everything from skin color (including tattoos) to hairstyles, more diverse than most any other chamber music performance around. How did they do it?
The group mostly hosts monthly chamber jams in which amateur musicians perform standard repertoire, though a new music component has been growing even there for the past few years. It seemed as though most of the new music energy had flowed to the monthly spinoff Muse:Forward started by then-CRPDX executive director Christopher Corbell at the same space (the northeast Portland cafe The Waypost) a year or so before he stepped down from his CRPDX position. But evidently not. New music was expressly allowed, as long as it connected somehow to the concert’s namesake, and “must have some creative connection to Debussy or his work, such as a different instrumentation, incorporation of spoken word, electric or synthesized elements, visual aspect (projector, dance),” announced the call for performers.
This performance marked a real step forward for CRPDX, because not only did it mix old and new music, it also put the group in the role of presenter — inviting other ensembles to perform under its auspices. As we’ll see, this turned out to be a genius move.
After a looping video “pre-program” by one of Portland’s most promising young jazz-oriented composers, Barra Brown, the show proper opened with Seattle composer Emily Doolittle’s Social Sounds of Whales at Night, which I really enjoyed when I heard it a couple summers ago at CRPDX’s staged show at the Star Theatre. Although Eugene’s Sound of Late ensemble captured the mysterious atmosphere, especially thanks to Heather Holmquest’s keening vocals, it seemed to drag a bit this time; it may not be suited to an opening slot. It made a wonderful segue, though, into movements from Debussy’s orchestral masterpiece, The Sea (La Mer). SoL’s ingenious arrangement for light percussion and electronic splashes, violin, viola, flute, horn and strings probably came as close as possible to capturing the music’s essence as any chamber arrangement could, and let me hear aspects I’d never discerned amid the orchestral version’s washes of sound. And yet that orchestration is so much a part of the music that for me (yet probably not for listeners less accustomed to the original), this one inevitably felt a little, well, watered down. Still, combined with the smoke-filled haze curtaining the city on this early summer evening, the opening combo transported us into a shimmering impressionist atmosphere appropriate to the music.
We really entered Debussy’s world when Portland composer/pianist Beth Karp followed with original solo piano scores to a trio of short French films made around the turn of the 20th century, when Debussy was at his peak. But her score to Georges Melies’ 1898 The Astronomer’s Dream sounded more like Debussy’s friend, the composer and Montmartre cabaret pianist Erik Satie, appropriate for the film’s music-hall slapstick story. Karp’s Debussian sounds suited the writhing dancer in the 1896 Serpentine Dance and finished with an appropriately Lisztian bang in 1899’s demonic The Column of Fire. Karp’s tight, peppily played set was one of the concert’s highlights.
Portland guitarist/composer Mike Gamble’s Coruscate, which accompanied non-narrative films of birds and other natural phenomena, mixed with some trippy visuals, probably sounded the least Debussian of the set, except to the extent that the composer’s impressionist’s esthetic permeates so much of the sound painting that followed. Gamble (on guitar and keyboards) and percussionist/keyboardist Otto Hauser conjured up some angular, proggy sounds that kept me entranced for the first few minutes, but lost momentum as the visuals shifted from kaleidoscopic to distorted fractured images, and the music accordingly stumbled from swirling to sludgy during what sounded like an extended improv section.
The evening’s zenith: mezzo-soprano Valery Saul’s ravishing rendition of four of Debussy’s songs, which beautifully captured the swooning eroticism of
“Romance” and “This is Languorous Ecstasy,” the sorrow of another Paul Verlaine setting, “It Rains in My Heart,” and the sheer melancholy rapture of “Beautiful Evening.” Saul’s enchanting performance (ably abetted by pianist Kira Whiting) reminded me that when captivating performers really embody the spirit of the greatest European pre-pop songs, they can still seize our emotions a century later and half a world away, and even when a microphone is involved.
Another beguiling Debussy song,“Pan’s Flute,” from poet Pierre Louÿs’s faux-Sapphic Songs of Bilitis, found a more modern yet equally compelling interpretation in the hands of singer Holland Andrews (better known for her Like a Villain persona), laptop electronista Juliana Lanning and trumpeter Douglas Detrick. Trumpet is probably the last instrument I’d think of with Debussy, but Detrick, better known as a jazz oriented composer, made a convincing Pan, applying Miles Davis-style nuance to his obbligato dances around Andrews’s supple vocal lines. Along with Lanning’s electronic textures, they contrived a 21st century impressionist soundscape, complete with a subtle evocation of the croaking frogs in the original text. The evening’s only noticeable tech glitch cost a few minutes and the video element.
We returned to the XXth century with XX Digitus Duo’s performance of Debussy’s 1914 four-hand masterpiece, Six Antique Epigraphs, accompanied by Sharon Lane and Lauren Michelle Sprague from Agnieszka Laska Dancers. The latter pair took a somewhat humorous approach to the music and turned it into a relationship narrative, which maybe in turn inflected the pianists’ performance on a beautiful Fazioli instrument generously provided by Portland Piano Company (a testament to CRPDX’s credibility). I wanted a bit more of Saul’s evocativeness, and a tighter coordination with the dancers (which probably would have meant more rehearsal with all four participants), but it was otherwise a stirring performance and a strong closer to one of the year’s best classical concerts.
Recipe for Relevance
What made this show so successful transcended the quality of the performance, although of course that’s the primary criterion, and it offers lessons to other classical musicians.
• Relaxed venue. Holocene’s intimate setting overcomes that separation between audience and performer that you see even in otherwise hip alternative venues like Doug Fir Lounge and Alberta Rose Theatre. And it gives the proceedings a hip vibe that feels less like a museum than a cool club show. And you can drink beer!
• Mix of classical and contemporary repertoire. Debussy drew the classical crowd, and new music drew fans of the groups that play it. New music makes a show feel relevant to today. Several of the participants hailed from non-classical worlds, like jazz and indie rock, and they brought their fans too. The greater range of eras and moods in this program is one of the reasons this show worked better for me than ARCO’s did at the same venue two weeks earlier.
• Open borders. CRPDX stipulated that each piece feature an unconventional, possibly multimedia performance component — dance, film, etc. Those elements broaden the audience to include those who prefer to gaze upon something more interesting than musicians frowning at their music stands. And again, the dancers, filmmakers and others presumably brought their own audiences.
• Tight production. If you don’t think watching people move instruments for four minutes is too tedious, try it now. Sit quietly and stare at a wall for four minutes. We’ll wait.
OK, are you back? CRPDX board member Susan Peck covered the transitions between pieces with concise, well-thought out and delivered announcements, including quotes from Debussy’s letters, introductions of the following artists, explanations of CRPDX for those who didn’t know, etc. It was a huge improvement over the usual improvised hemming and hawing at too many classical concerts. And CRPDX further tightened the production by using three different stages: Holocene’s main stage in the back, a microphone and screen set up in the front, and a piano set below the main stage, which made it easier to get the next act going while the first was packing up instruments and the following act was setting up. I’ve timed the instrument set ups at shows requiring more than a single instrumental lineup (Cascadia Composers’ recent percussion production was particularly egregious in this regard), and found that enduring non-music sometimes constitutes as much as a quarter of the paying audience’s time, and it feels even longer. They’re paying to experience performance, not meditation moments or watching instrument moving. If you’re going to have a lot of set up changes, then perform in a place that allows you to have more than one instrument set up ready to go, as CRPDX did here, and as I’m seeing more and more often around Portland.
• Building around a community. Another stipulation for performers who wanted to participate: they had to have played in a CRPDX chamber jam. Classical Revolution’s regular events have cultivated a community of devotees who love the music enough to play it, not just passively listen to it. And it’s a democratic community open to anyone, not just those who can afford expensive concert tickets or who boast conservatory pedigrees. They provide the core audience for staged events like this one.
• High performance standards. But unlike some of CRPDX’s earlier efforts at staged concerts, the musicians here were experienced performers beyond CRPDX jams. And judging by the level of playing I heard in most of the music, they took their commitment seriously enough to devote the practice time needed to the music they played.
This show, in fact, could point the way to a successful model that mixes amateur and (near) professional, old and new music. It continues CRPDX’s evolution into more than a place for cheerfully loose, impromptu jams on hoary classics, into a venue for and presenter of performing ensembles try out their stuff off-off Broadway first, both to hone their performances and to cultivate an audience for their own performances.
I came away from this show beaming, and I wasn’t alone. I stationed myself outside the exit and saw crowds of listeners emerging with vibrant grins, chatting animatedly about what they’d just experienced, as I would at any good contemporary innovative rock show. By patiently building a community around classical music, and creating the conditions for strong performances in a welcoming, exciting setting, Classical Revolution PDX is living up to its name. And both CRPDX and ARCO-PDX are proving that chamber music can connect with contemporary audiences beyond the classical insiders’ club.
Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.