Portland Center Stage presents Hair at the Armory Portland Oregon

Classical Up Close: sweet & live

As the world opens up, a group of elite Oregon musicians kicks off a series of intimate outdoor concerts.


… and it’s off and running! On a blazing-hot June 1 evening, music lovers and musicians gather amid the verdant shade of Southwest Portland’s Albert Kelly Park for the opening concert of Classical Up Close’s 2021 summer season. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Wake up, world: the music’s on its way. As coronavirus restrictions loosen and live performances tentatively start to tune up again, Classical Up Close kicked off a summer festival series of fourteen free outdoor neighborhood concerts on Monday with an intimate appearance by violinists Greg Ewer and Adam LaMotte. Photographer Joe Cantrell was on hand to capture the moment and pass along his impressions. “Beautiful evening at the verdant junction of Portland’s Southwest 35th Place and Albert Kelly Park,” he noted afterwards.

Indeed, it was a blistering first day of June in greater Portland, with the temperature reaching into the upper 90s. But the greenery cooled things down as the violinists heated things up, playing selections from the 18th century French Baroque composer and violinist Jean-Marie Leclair and the 19th century Belgian composer and violinist Charles-Auguste de Bériot – two composers who knew the possibilities of the violin inside and out. The concerts continue through June 14, in neighborhoods across Portland, Tigard, Milwaukie, Lake Oswego, Oregon City, and Beaverton.

Classical Up Close (which calls itself CLUC for short) is an independent nonprofit group made up mostly but not entirely of musicians from the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. CLUC’s musicians are interested in taking the music out of the concert halls and into workplaces and neighborhoods – places where people can listen to small-scale, intimate performances in a low-key, relaxed atmosphere.

Sarah Kwak, Classical Up Close’s executive director, was in the crowd for Tuesday’s opening concert. Photo: Joe Cantrell

We talked briefly late last week with Sarah Kwak, Classical Up Close’s executive director and board president (she’s also concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony) about the difference between last year’s festival, which was held at the height of shutdowns, mainly outside the homes of musicians, and this year’s, the ninth festival. “I think last year there was kind of a sense of desperation,” she said. “Work has stopped, we’re not allowed to go into the concert hall, it was, ‘well, at least we can de something for our audiences.’ This year, it’s more of a reawakening.”

This month’s festival involves 53 musicians, or roughly two-thirds the size of the Oregon Symphony, working in small groups. With the symphony orchestra preparing for a return to the concert hall in October after more than a year off, it’s something of a warmup for musicians and audiences alike. “We work with them in terms of scheduling,” Kwak commented. “We try not to get in each other’s way. The orchestra is trying to do some outdoor concerts, too.”

And what’ll you hear from Classical Up Close? “Brass quintets, a little bit of jazz, some tango, but mostly, pure classical,” Kwak said. Tuesday’s opening concert provided a tantalizing taste, in a setting where a small group of self-selected music lovers could take it all in in a congenially relaxed atmosphere. And after a year and more of down time the mood was, well, jubilant. “Oh my gosh, it was just fantastic,” Ewer said afterwards. “Everybody was so happy. It was just so much fun. It felt like spring. Even though it’s almost summer.”

Cantrell summed things up. “An audience of about forty people brought lawn chairs or sat where they wished for the program,” he said. “Both the temperature and reception for the recital were unseasonably warm; both featured appropriate breezes that made it all perfect.”

Classical Up Close stalwart Nancy Ives (she’s also principal cellist for the Oregon Symphony) announces the program at Monday’s season-opening concert. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Classical Up Close Summer Festival 2021

The intimate concert series continues through June 14. You can see this year’s full Classical Up Close Festival schedule here. Coming up next:

  • Wednesday, June 2, noon-1 p.m.: Lake Music Parking Lot, 15560 S.W. Boones Ferry Road, Lake Oswego. Inés Voglar Belgique, violin; Hillary Oseas, viola; Trevor Fitzpatrick, cello; Colin Corner, bass; and Martha Long, flute, play music by Franz Anton Hoffmeister, Tom Knific, and Erwin Schulhoff.
  • Wednesday, June 2, 5-6 p.m.: 3216 N.E. 16th Ave., Portland. Pyxis Quartet (Ron Blessinger, Greg Ewer, violin; Charles Noble, viola and Marilyn de Oliveira, cello) and Mousai REMIX (Shin-young Kwon, Emily Cole, violin; Jennifer Arnold, viola; Marilyn de Oliveira, cello) play music by Caroline Shaw, Jessie Montgomery, and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson.
  • Thursday, June 3, 5-6 p.m.: 1805 N.E. 56th Ave., Portland. Violinists Erin Furbee and Peter Frajola, and trombonist Robert Taylor, play tango music.

I spent my first 21 years in Tahlequah, Cherokee County, Oklahoma, assuming that except for a few unfortunate spots, ‘everybody’ was part Cherokee, and son of the soil. Volunteered for Vietnam because that’s what we did. After two stints, hoping to gain insight, perhaps do something constructive, I spent the next 16 years as a photojournalist in Asia, living much like the lower income urban peasants and learning a lot. Moved back to the USA in 1986, tried photojournalism and found that the most important subjects were football and basketball, never mind humankind. In 1992, age 46, I became single dad of my 3-year-old daughter and spent the next two decades working regular jobs, at which I was not very good, to keep a roof over our heads, but we made it. She’s retail sales supervisor for Sony, Los Angeles. Wowee! The VA finally acknowledged that the war had affected me badly and gave me a disability pension. I regard that as a stipend for continuing to serve humanity as I can, to use my abilities to facilitate insight and awareness, so I shoot a lot of volunteer stuff for worthy institutions and do artistic/scientific work from our Cherokee perspective well into many nights. Come along!

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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