Classical Up Close: Connecting with audiences beyond the concert hall

Oregon Symphony musicians perform free chamber music concerts in and around Portland April 26-May 3.

In fall of 2012, the Oregon Symphony was eagerly anticipating its impending return to Carnegie Hall, where its critically acclaimed performance in the previous year’s Spring for Music festival had vaulted the orchestra to national attention and affirmed what Oregonians had known for years: at its best, OSO performances could rival those delivered by top ranked American orchestras.

But at the peak of its national renown, the orchestra suffered a setback: a financial crunch meant it couldn’t afford the return visit to New York for the 2013 Spring for Music festival. With the performance canceled long after the rest of the season had been planned, OSO musicians faced a rarity: a week with no musical obligations.

The cancellation revealed another, less welcome truth: for all its demonstrated musical skill, the orchestra lacked the community support to pay for the New York trip, and in fact the players were facing cuts in pay, possible downsizing, and other challenges — part of a much broader, longer term (and mostly self-inflicted) decline in the classical music establishment’s contemporary cultural relevance.

That was the backdrop when OSO concertmaster Sarah Kwak and a few of her colleagues sat down to brainstorm what to do with their unexpectedly available week. The players could have taken a well deserved break or maybe filled the calendar with teaching, rehearsing, or chamber music gigs, though the late notice might have made that difficult.

Instead, they chose to make a virtue of necessity and turn a setback into an opportunity. A need for community connection, a suddenly available week for symphony musicians… maybe both problems could be addressed simultaneously. During a brainstorming session that fall, OSO musicians tried to figure out how best to use their unanticipated break. They arrived at a goal: “How can we help the symphony to gain more visibility for the orchestra and do something for the community?” Kwak recalls. It would cost way too much for the whole orchestra to perform, the group realized. “So we decided: ‘why don’t we go out and play chamber music instead?’” Kwak remembers. “The ideas evolved into a community engagement project.”

Oregon Symphony cellist Nancy Ives gets up close and personal with young fans at a Classical Up Close event.

Oregon Symphony cellist Nancy Ives gets up close and personal with young fans at a Classical Up Close event. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Inventing Classical Up Close

Several members called various venues about performing during the off week, and several jumped on board, a sign-up sheet went up at the rehearsals, and even though their efforts would be strictly voluntary, “the musicians in the orchestra were so eager to play with each other” that many signed up to participate.

The result was Classical Up Close, which has become an annual series of free chamber music concerts organized and performed by OSO musicians. This year’s edition takes place between April 24 and May 3, with performances throughout the Portland metro area and features both informal, full-length performances in neighborhood venues as well as “thirty-minute concerts in unlikely venues and at unusual hours, meant to meet people where they live, work and play” states the group’s press release.

This year’s venues include American Legion Post #134, Powell’s Books, Meals on Wheels, PDX Playdate, Beaverton City Library, Congregation Beth Israel, St. Mark’s Lutheran, and Lake Grove Presbyterian. This coming Monday, April 20, the Portland jazz club Tony Starlight’s Showroom will be hosting a Classical Up Close benefit concert to raise money for operating expenses so that CLUC can continue producing free concerts for the public.

Orchestras and other classical music institutions around the world have been struggling for years to re-connect the music to today’s audiences. But CUC didn’t draw on any particular existing model, Kwak says. Instead, a group of about eight OSO players organized the series themselves.

Although the OSO has its own education and community outreach programs involving orchestra-sized performances in schools and other venues, the institutions itself isn’t officially involved in CUC. “If the orchestra did organize something like this, they would have to pay us,” Kwak explains. “This is all musician-organized and -produced and we’re just donating our time. People get confused because they’re not sure if we’re part of the Oregon Symphony. We’re doing it ourselves, but they [symphony officials] are supporting us. They help get the word out, like putting us on [the OSO’s] Facebook page. Janet Plummer [now the symphony’s Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of Finance & Administration], our interim CEO, came and handed out programs; [Artistic Administrator] Charles Calmer did the same. They’re eager to help in whatever way we want.”

Building Relationships

Aaron Levere performed at a CUC event at Portland's Old Church.

Aaron Levere performed at a CUC event at Portland’s Old Church.

Kwak sees the program as a way to ”foster new relationships and thank our supporters, and a way for people to know us more as individuals,” she says. “Everything is based on personal relationships, [but] when we’re playing in the orchestra, people see us as an entity. They don’t know us as people.”

To build that intimacy, the musicians provided opportunities for listeners to ask questions — one of the most impressive parts of the first year’s program, which I wrote about on ArtsWatch. “People could get to know us and talk to us,” Kwak says. “The most common questions were ‘How much do you practice every day? What’s your favorite piece? ‘What does the concertmaster do? They’re interested in the instruments and the history of the instruments,” including appurtenances like mutes and the “wolf” tone eliminators that cellists use.

“What it taught us was how many things we take for granted that the audience knows,” Kwak says. “But the audience doesn’t know a lot of these things already.”

Oregon Symphony members perform in Classical Up Close. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Oregon Symphony members perform in Classical Up Close. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Along with answering questions from curious listeners, the musicians get useful feedback. For example, “we hear that the audience loves hearing [Music Director] Carlos [Kalmar] speak before concerts start and in the pre-concert talks,” she says.

The relationship-building seems to be working, Kwak says. Sometimes fans made at CUC concerts come up to the stage at OSO concerts and chat with the musicians during intermission. The group has tried to distribute the performances around the Portland metro area as much as possible. “Our goal is to go into different areas where we haven’t been before and get to know those people and expose them to the symphony and classical music,” Kwak says.

Audience composition varies according to the venue and time of performance, with age ranging from children (at least at performances that weren’t on school nights) to older listeners, and usually include plenty of local residents of each neighborhood they’ve performed in. “But then we also have our groupies,” Kwak says, “people who travel around and see us over and over.” Sometimes fans who first encountered the musicians at CUC performances come up to the stage at OSO concerts and chat with the musicians during intermission.

Kwak believes the program is making relationships deeper as well as broader. “The personal relationships really help. If you know someone and you’ve talked with them, then you want to go talk to them and see them play because you KNOW them,” she says. “We played at Intel the first year, and a week later someone called to the ticket office and ordered $2000 of tickets. They said ‘I hadn’t been to the orchestra before, but after hearing them at Intel, I wanted to bring my family.’ Someone on the staff said to us that they know there’s a direct connection to the [orchestra’s] increased attendance from what we’re doing. I really do believe we’ve made an impact.” If so, that means that OSO musicians have succeeded in transforming a disappointment into valuable connection between the orchestra and its greater community.

Ives, Voglar and pianist Cary Lewis  \at CUC.

Ives, Kwak, and pianist Cary Lewis at CUC. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

This year’s programs are as varied as the musicians who create them, ranging from familiar classics to a few contemporary pieces, including a duet by Portland composer Bonnie Miksch that violinist Ines Voglar and her husband, violist Joel Belgique, performed with FearNoMusic earlier this year. Another OSO violinist, Erin Furbee, who has her own side project, Tango Pacifico, will play tango music. Pink Martini’s China Forbes will sing opera arias at Maranatha Church on April 26. There’s even a humorous piece from the “pimple on the face of classical music,” PDQ Bach. And the orchestra’s popular percussion team will perform. Audiences “eat up the percussion stuff,” Kwak says. “They just love it.” That group will also perform at the Tony Starlight’s benefit. This year’s CUC is sponsored for the first time by Portland’s all classical radio station, KQAC.

As for Classical Up Close’s future, “we’re not really sure where it’s going,” Kwak admits. “We have limited time, given the orchestra schedule, so every year we have to see how many nights we have available. I’d like to see how the audience is this year. Now that we’re in our third year, I hope people are hearing about it more. Eventually, my goal is that we would get enough funding to actually pay the musicians to play. It’d be great if it can still be free to the public.”

Even though they’re not getting paid, though, the musicians still get a lot out of Classical Up Close. “We love playing chamber music because it gives us control over what we want to play and with whom we play,” Kwak explains. “It’s a chance for us to shine individually and for the audience to hear each person play a piece we really love. I love getting the chance to hear all my colleagues play individually. It’s really a joy to hear them all play.”

Classical Up Close takes place between April 24 and May 3 at various venues in and around Portland. Tony Starlight’s Showroom hosts the special CUC fundraiser on April 20 at 7:30 pm at 1125 SE Madison, Portland. For information, including performance schedule schedule, check

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