Good Fellas

There's a new music mafia in Oregon: meet the godfathers

By MARIA CHOBAN

I dragged myself to my first Cascadia Composers concert on a rainy November night in 2010, tired after a full day of teaching. David Bernstein greeted the audience with a welcome speech pleading with us to take pity on composers – so little respected and liked anymore.

I rolled my eyes. Who’s to blame for composers not being well respected or liked anymore? Could it possibly be. . . . THEY are to blame? For having subjected us for half of the 20th century to sudoku math puzzles or chance games masquerading as music? They called it the Modernist era, after the fact. I call it bullshit. Moreover, the music at that first CC concert sucked, the performances sucked and I stalked home in a bad mood.

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Founder Mattie Kaiser toasts the revolution at CRPDX's fifth anniversary bash.

Founder Mattie Kaiser toasts the revolution at CRPDX’s fifth anniversary bash.

When I first met Mattie Kaiser, she looked haggard. Sitting on a barstool at the Waypost, the founder of Classical Revolution PDX, an indie classical music organization founded for those who defined classical music as something larger than the pin-point of anything old and academic, she was waiting for one of its early-on chamber jams to be over so she could go home and sleep.

Kaiser would also have been easy to underestimate. In these early days of CRPDX, after they’d switched from infrequent jams announced well in advance (at various venues like Red & Black Cafe, Costello’s, Someday Lounge, the Woods) to weekly sessions at The Waypost in northeast Portland circa 2011, there were nights when it was just Mattie who held down the fort, playing solo Bach on her viola to no one in the room. Hard to believe from a personality so charismatic, from someone who understands the importance of physical appearances (and she is beautiful!), from what seems like a performer with a natural ability to draw an audience. Obviously it takes more and as I would soon discover, in Kaiser the tenacity is there.

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Enter Bob Priest, impresario of music festival March Music Moderne. We too started off on the wrong foot. I completely misunderstood his mission, having been completely seduced by the title of the first of his two concerts in his then-weekend festival: “Almost Nothing Like Purple Haze.” He assured me that that 2011 weekend concert series was a one-off, explaining that he was too tired and too burned out from having done this sort of thing in his distant past with disastrous consequences to his health, I nodded disingenuously in false agreement, secretly plotting how to get him to meet me for coffee so I could cajole him into presenting another year of expanded MMM festspielnalia.

Turns out it wasn’t hard. Priest is a festival creator addict. He had been taking notes on his yellow legal pad while waiting for me to show up. Full of ideas, exuberant, clearly in the throes of his high, he left me in the dust – something I’m not used to. Priest knew exactly what he wanted: Modernism! I detest it because of its academic elitist attitude and its misconceived perception that music is made minus feeling or choice.

I knew exactly what I wanted from Bob: a one-month long festival in March, feting up-to-the minute music with up-to-the-minute fresh professional presentations, something that could be marketed as a Portland tourist attraction in our least attractive tourist season. And never the two shall meet, or so I imagined after this fireworks first meeting.

Flash forward a few years. It doesn’t always happen that I build friendships with those I set out to meet, yet now I very much esteem and consider as friends David Bernstein, Mattie Kaiser and Bob Priest. The admiration and respect I have for their accomplishments is huge. But to know them as friends, not as celebrities, is to really understand why they’ve succeeded where others haven’t (even if they think they have). These musical entrepreneurs have bigger hearts than pocketbooks or networking skills – plus, for all their single-minded devotion to their missions, a broad perspective and inclusivity.

I wasn’t the only one who initially underestimated them. It’s not surprising; others over the years have tried to create similar indie classical institutions that eventually flamed out or withered. But March Music Moderne is opening its fourth year in 2014, Classical Revolution PDX its seventh, Cascadia Composers its sixth. On this weekend when Portland is welcoming classical revolutionaries from around the country, we can all take lessons and inspiration from how they’ve revitalized our classical music scene.

Founding Cascadia Composers president David Bernstein

Founding Cascadia Composers president David Bernstein

Meet the New Bosses

Visionaries have control issues. And they should. There was no way David Bernstein was going to ensconce his Cascadia Composers within ivory towers, walling them off from the general public. Even in that first welcome speech that made my eyes roll, he was asking that composers be treated as something other than eccentric outliers. His soft-spoken, rather timorous plea belied a steeliness I underestimated and that you don’t want to mess with.

Within a year of arriving in Oregon from Ohio, where he’d retired from the music faculty at the University of Akron, he had succeeded in doing what no one else in memory had done: started a viable organization of regional composers. Within three years, Cascadia built a roster of top local musicians they paid to perform their works in seven-plus concerts a year.

Bernstein incisively pushed to establish an inclusive consortium of around 60 mostly Oregonian composers now in its sixth year of presenting concerts of locally grown music for a locavore audience. Now, 1980s dance rhythms are presented as viable compositional elements by 30-something-year-old autodidacts (those with no official lineage in composition education), alongside presentations on notating extended techniques for oboe by established academic composers. It’s the autodidacts who push the boundaries of anything, “boldly going where no one has gone before” unhampered by textbooks outlining history, boundaries, possibilities or impossibilities. And it’s those with official lineage that help solve problems encountered by those who boldly go.

I’ve also seen the CC academics loosen up and have fun immersing themselves in aspects of composition they’ve never encountered at a university – clapping and stomping a clave rhythm, for example, perhaps cataloging it for use in a future composition. As Cascadia Composer and ArtsWatch conributor Jeff Winslow says in agreement with Bernstein’s style, it’s the enabling method of running an outfit versus the gatekeeper method. David instituted this early, averting an “us vs. them” organization in the founding process by inviting all those who did NOT want an inclusive organization that encompassed autodidacts or non-academics (although Bernstein is himself an academic) or perhaps part-timers, to leave. And they did.

I also underestimated Bernstein’s tenacity and sky-high IQ, evidenced by his ability to alter the growth pattern of what first looked destined to be a hack amateur group at that first early-in-their-inception concert I attended, and to surround himself with a critically thinking working board of directors matching his intelligence and vision.

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The story of how Kaiser founded Classical Revolution PDX is fairly well known: posting an ad on Craigslist for musicians who wanted to play chamber music in the informal middle ground between someone’s living room and a concert hall – preferably a bar, and which also included what became the organization’s mission statement. Unlike organizations of musicians that gather to play chamber music just for themselves, Kaiser was sure she could also draw a listening audience of neophytes to the genre, with beer, scones, irreverent fun and affordable ticket prices – free to $5 or by donation according to whatever one felt they could afford.

On that night we met, when I stopped in to check out the scene for the first time, already it was late, close to 10 pm, but there were still ten to fifteen people hanging out. They were so young I mistook them for Waypost denizens, so NOT conservatory- or music school- looking — languid limbs draped everywhere, sincerely uncoiffed hair, no hint of desperately seeking attention – nothing uptight.

Kaiser was hunched over in her coat trying to stay warm, imbibing a hot toddy, probably. I played a tango by Stravinsky for solo piano (a derelict instrument with at least one missing key) and the room went electric. But instead of congratulating me, this core group of revolutionaries drifted over to Kaiser afterward to cheer her on for scoring a late hit with me. Then they all left – leaving me to hang back, unnoticed, waiting to introduce myself to Kaiser.

Clearly I misunderstood who the audience was there for. It wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for The Waypost. It was there for Kaiser.

Classical Revolution PDX's Mattie Kaiser. Illustration by Ben Todd.

Classical Revolution PDX’s Mattie Kaiser. Illustration by Ben Todd.

What also isn’t so evident at first is Kaiser’s non-defensive openness to criticism of her baby, CRPDX. When Willamette Week classical music reviewer Brett Campbell aimed a fair shot at the revolution, praising them for their inclusiveness, but warning them that an audience did not want to hear not-ready-for-prime-time performances in more formal stage settings, Kaiser listened. First she maneuvered to get her best feet forward, asking her most compelling performers to take on certain immediate gigs.

But even more inclusively (and the reason she has such abiding and deserved devotion from her followers), she whipped her unruly flock into a tight professional show and put them on stage at the Alberta Rose for her newly devised “DeComposers Night: Halloween Concert 2012” and brought down the house with not just professional performances, but a tightly arced show with acts way outside the norm of classical music – including an aerialist!. . . . IN ZOMBIE COSTUME AND MAKEUP!!! ALL PERFORMERS!!!!!!! Which prompted the same writer to praise this turnabout, having evidently enjoyed himself immensely at this show.

***

After our first, fast and loose meeting, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute I’d get another email from Bob Priest – a new act for March Music Moderne 2012, a new youtube video extolling the eccentricities of little known composer Mauricio Kagel, diatribes, schedules of performances – always reaching out for something or someone new to add to MMM (read: Bob Priest). His enthusiasm is something we’ve forgotten in this age of branding by the numbers: What sells? Who’s the expert I can google on what sells?

Priest is unapologetic about not giving a fuck about what sells. He’s turned his alter ego, MMM, into a month-long funhouse intended to sate his appetite for all things art and entertainment, damn all. Although I instantly recognized his powerhouse enthusiasm, I initially underestimated how Priest is compassionate and inclusive in his own eccentric family way, inviting performing clowns and oddball shops like The Peculiarum into his MMMonth. As with Bernstein and Kaiser, it’s his inclusiveness and need for connection that brings us in. Priest has built a community where more than a dozen organizations that previously never talked to each other now cross-pollinate each other’s audiences, in addition to their members drinking PBR together at MMM’s opening nights.

With minimal resources and maximal willpower, ingenuity and single-minded drive, this composer/impresario has herded a bunch of cats (me included) into the successful makings of this niche festival that has become – almost without him intending it –a de facto contemporary and 20th century Portland near-icon.

MMM master Bob Priest

MMM master Bob Priest

Same as the Old Bosses – NOT!

Although David Bernstein stepped down last year after five years as founding president of Cascadia Composers, he did not step off the board of directors; he now shepherds from a mentoring distance. This is smart and telling. Cascadia, in its sixth year, is the most successful composers consortium within the national parent organization NACUSA: National Association of Composers USA. (Greg Steinke, who served as founding treasurer for Cascadia, now serves as president of NACUSA.) I’ve watched the consortium’s concerts become ever more audience friendly, introducing humor, string quartets with riffs and hooks, mixed media pieces with dancers, compelling and colorful posters that don’t reek of pretentious academia and DO appeal invitingly with autumn leaves or ghostly images of Crazy Jane females.

Crazy Jane is a subset of Cascadia, all women composers, which puts on its own concert yearly. It’s the most non-academic, eclectically encompassing and bewitchingly entertaining of the Cascadia concerts and last year’s was Standing Room Only!!! How’s that for striking a blow for current classic music and building audience?

Mattie Kaiser wisely refused to move the CRPDX monthly chamber jam to a much-lobbied-for southeast Portland wine bar with a better piano and more space, insisting that the intimate dive vibe would be ruined, destroying the primary point of her mission: taking classical music to her younger underemployed peeps in a non-intimidating space, NOT to wine bar denizens.

And she is right. Instead, she successfully delegated the task of CRPDX buying a better piano for the cozy Tardis dive to a capable committee headed by Chris Corbell (who succeeded her at the helm of CRPDX after Kaiser moved to Brooklyn this spring), boosting the performance level and stylistic breadth of the chamber jams. Then she and Corbell expanded the jams to two more places each month, alleviating the crowding bordering on liability issues, and tripling the exposure of musicians and audience to CRPDX. The jams are now standing room only at two of the three venues and the third is steadily building its army of budding young performers.

And Bob Priest refused to give up his love of things Modernist, creating a lovely unique museum piece unlike the ubiquitous others we’re so often treated to: Baroque music on period instruments, Beethoven or Shostakovich string quartet cycles, Classical-era Mozart and Haydn, Romantic Mahleria in Los Angeles.

You CAN Get There From Here

Tenacious, adapting when necessary or snarling when it’s not, the founders of these organizations have given Portland’s classical music scene the gift of a thriving vibrant present. Each keeps growing, drawing in a younger and broader demographic in audience, performers and composers. I feel honored and privileged to work with them.

Our future depends exactly on that kind of expansion and inclusion of those outside the cozy, aging classical music club. Audiences made up of young NW looking lumberjacks or boys in drag listening to a string quartet influenced by Koji Kondo (the king of video game music) or watching a professional clown do her schtick in a March Music Moderne show insures that institutions like the symphony orchestras in our region, the opera companies and the ballet companies have a shot at a future audience. It would behoove them to pay attention to these groups and how they’re run because whether they believe it or don’t, these wobbling established institutions depend on successfully re-inventing themselves given the examples of inclusive organizations with grassroots outreach and risk-taking programs – the models Bernstein, Kaiser and Priest have provided us with Cascadia Composers, Classical RevolutionPDX and March Music Moderne.

Portland pianist Maria Choban performs often at Classical Revolution jams, Cascadia Composers concerts, and March Music Modness.

3 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    holy mc hammerin’ klavier on an evangelical rippin’ a new one kinda tear, you be klazzier than ALL of us, querida!

    wow, wtf of a bullhorn of plenty “mariafesto” you done gone an’ unleashed this time?!

    molto thanxissimo!!!!!!!

  2. Jack Gabel says:

    am I the only one so tired of ubiquitous pop-culture references and philodoxers endlessly sourcing them, as to be virtually poised to exit the country – this time forever?

  3. Jeff Winslow says:

    Thanks, Maria, for this characteristically lively-to-brazen summing up of three vital new forces on the local classic(al) music scene. I want to correct a few minor historical points though.

    To be completely clear, the first Cascadia concert you heard was not our first concert. That was in the spring of 2009, and performance was by FearNoMusic. And most importantly, neither concert sucked!! 🙂

    Also, David didn’t have to invite anybody to leave. During an initial, more social phase of group forming, he observed who supported his vision of a performance oriented group and who didn’t, and simply invited the supporters to re-form elsewhere. That group numbered seven overall, including by some miracle myself, and became the chapter of NACUSA known as Cascadia Composers. As you indicate, we’ve grown a bit since then.

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