Pops Goes the Oregon Symphony

Orchestra's steadily expanding non-classical performances aim for more diverse audiences

by CLAIRE SYKES

The current Oregon Symphony pops season started for me with the crowd-pleasing Storm Large belting out jazz standards—and tossing off her trademark, foul-mouthed jests. I could’ve done with way less of the latter. Then there were the affectionate cougar-referenced jabs at good-sport conductor Norman Huynh. Her insistence on perpetuating her bad-girl persona, though, only detracts from her strong, powerful singing voice and warm stage presence, both of which live up to her name.

Storm Large sang Kurt Weill with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: John Rudoff.

Next up for me was The Music of Prince, the tribute band and the Oregon Symphony wowing people out of their seats and dancing at the stage. But it sent this Prince fan out the door at intermission, irritated by the muddied sound system doing impersonator Marshall Charloff no favor, and only making me wish for the real thing.

Portland’s Tango Pacifico made up for these disappointments. Joining in, the Symphony expanded on the group’s chamber music roots, while the evening’s dance duo stunned the audience with their dips and splits and the bandoneón player, Héctor del Curto, even solo sounded like five of them up there. The three came all the way from Argentina. Tango Pacifico’s vocalist Pepe Raphael lives in Portland, as does founder and leader Erin Furbee, who is also a violinist with the Oregon Symphony. What a mix of tango, from the 1920s to the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla.

The Symphony’s diverse programming continued in March with the latest of its big-screen films accompanied by a live, orchestral soundtrack: E.T. and John Williams’s score. Next came the Grammy-winning Indigo Girls, who joined the Symphony in loyal followers’ favorites. It was part of the Symphony’s pop/jazz-singer series, which recently has featured names like Ben Folds, Gregory Alan Isakov, Bela Fleck, and Large; and tributes to Prince, Glenn Frey and David Bowie. This weekend is Patti Austin’s Homage to Ella Fitzgerald, followed by May 5’s Disney in Concert: A Dream is a Wish. And on May 23, ukulele marvel Jake Shimabukuro transforms the Hawaiian folk instrument into a four-string wonder with the Oregon Symphony, playing Beatles and Queen covers plus his own compositions.

Patti Austin celebrates Ella Fitzgerald Saturday and Sunday with the Oregon Symphony.

These concerts and more this season add up to eight performances of four Pops Concerts programs (subscription) and 34 performances of 28 Oregon Symphony Presents (Special Concerts) programs (non-subscription), the latter including three classical. (The orchestra divides its concerts into four categories: Classical, Pops, Special, and Kids.  This story broadly covers all but classical. Here’s a complete listing of the Oregon Symphony’s concerts this season.) The lineup this season carries on North America’s 132-year-old pops-symphony tradition, while pushing its evolution into a larger, more varied element of the orchestra’s programming.

“If you look at other orchestras in our budget range, we probably do more than most,” says Scott Showalter, President and CEO of the Oregon Symphony. “We’re trying to provide more kinds of concerts to appeal to the wide and diverse audience we have here in Portland.”

For the Oregon Symphony’s Principal Pops Conductor, Jeff Tyzik, “the pops concerts are opportunities to connect with the audience between pieces. They’re less formal than classical concerts. Also, a lot of people love to hear a symphony orchestra, but they’re not ready to sit through Mozart’s Requiem, though they would sit and listen to composer John Williams’s E.T., or other kinds of symphonic music. Pops are a very important and valuable part of orchestras.”

Classic Pops

Pops concerts are nothing new for orchestras, including, since 1970, the Oregon Symphony. Pop music’s symphonic sound first hit audiences’ ears in 1885, with the Boston Pops Orchestra’s Promenade Concerts, featuring light classics and the day’s popular tunes. Then, big band and swing started flying off the strings and through the brass of major symphony orchestras.

Norman Leyden conducted Oregon Symphony pops concerts for decades.

Portland’s own Norman Fowler Leyden (1917-2014), conductor, composer, arranger and clarinetist, “was at the forefront [in the United States] of thinking about the orchestra performing [these] genres, not originally composed for an orchestra,” says Showalter. “He’d take familiar standards and arrange them well for large orchestras, then the Oregon Symphony would present those as concerts. For many years, our pops subscription series revolved around those genres.”

After working as musical director for 1950s and ‘60s names like Arthur Godfrey and Jackie Gleason, and two years with the Portland Youth Philharmonic, Leyden spearheaded the Oregon Symphony Pops concerts, in 1970, and was named Associate Conductor in 1974. He retired in 2004, as the Symphony’s Laureate Associate Conductor, occasionally performing on clarinet with them and also Pink Martini, almost up until the year he died, 2014.

Oregon Symphony principal pops conductor Jeff Tyzik

Two years after Leyden left the Symphony, Tyzik, one of the country’s top pops conductors, stepped in. Based in Pittsford, New York, he comes to Portland four times a year. He also regularly conducts with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Florida Orchestra and Rochester Philharmonic; and he’s guest-conducted with the Seattle Symphony, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Clearly there’s a big appetite for pops programming. When it comes to performing it, says Tyzik, “it’s just like the classical series, where every style of music requires a different mindset to play it, and in how you use your bow or articulate the notes. If you play a contemporary piece of music, you approach it a little differently than you would Beethoven.” The same goes for playing Baroque and Tchaikovsky, early jazz and that of the ‘40s, Benny Goodman and Count Basie, he points out. “Pops requires players to have a lot of flexibility.“

Fresh Blood, New Audiences

As the Oregon Symphony included more pops programs in its Special Concerts series and for its Children’s Concerts, in October 2016 it hired Norman Huynh as Associate Conductor. He moved here that summer from the other Portland, in Maine, there three years as Assistant Conductor with the Portland Symphony Orchestra. He also has conducted the Baltimore Symphony, Toledo Symphony, Charlotte Symphony and the Leipzig Symphony, among others, and co-founded the Occasional Symphony, showcasing innovative music in unique venues around Baltimore.

“Oregon was the perfect step up for me,” Huynh says. “I felt I could do a great job because of my previous experience. And I’ve always wanted to live on the West Coast. I’d heard so much about the musicians here and Carlos Kalmar, and what they and Scott are doing to put the Oregon Symphony on the map. I was really excited to come and be a part of this new fire that’s burning.”

Norman Huynh is the Oregon Symphony’s Associate Conductor. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Huynh knows how to manage the unusual demands of pops conducting. “I get the set list and listen to the songs and get them in my head,” he explains. “And I read the scores about two weeks before the rehearsal and look to see who’s starting the song. Is it the drummer from a rock band within the orchestra, like the ones with Storm Large or the Indigo Girls? Or am I responsible for setting the tempo and navigating tricky parts throughout the song? How ready do I have to be for that first moment? Because with pop and rock music, the tempo is everything.”

For the orchestra’s (growing) live film-score concerts, “I can extract the different layers of sound through a program on my computer—the music, dialogue and special effects—taking out any or all of them,” he goes on to say. “When performing, just the music is removed. If it’s a movie, with almost two hours of live music, there’s a click track, like a metronome, that we all have in our ears. And it stays clicking, and that gives us the tempo for each scene, because the music has to line up with the film. Sometimes there’s wiggle room, but often it has to sync up perfectly. Those moments can be tough. I’m definitely juggling a lot of moving parts. But if it’s a classical concert, I try to be in the zone, like when you’re driving long distances, you can sometimes be in a meditative state. If I think of anything, it’s because I’ve become distracted. So I try to free myself of any distraction.”

Growing Demand

The Oregon Symphony promises to keep Huynh and Tyzik busy, as it’s only adding more non-classical concerts, in answer to a much-lamented problem: “The core, classical subscriber base, those who’ve been coming for years and years, and who are often among our most generous donors, tend to be an older crowd,” Showalter says. Orchestras everywhere are seeing a decline in those numbers. “But overall, when you take into account all ticket buyers [classical and non], our audiences are actually getting younger.”

Meanwhile, the Oregon Symphony’s pops concerts help to underwrite the classical ones, “not hugely, but they are a ‘side business’ to help produce our core programs. Ticket revenues are up 20 percent over last year. I don’t know of any other orchestra in America where this is the case. It’s showing us there’s a real demand for what we’re presenting, not just in the Pops and Special Concerts, but Classical and Children’s Concerts, too.”

Scott Showalter

Showalter attributes the positive numbers not just to the changing programming itself, but also how it’s changing the community’s perception of the Oregon Symphony. “It’s no longer only ‘penguin-suited’ musicians playing your grandfather’s music,” he says. “It’s also Prince, David Bowie, E.T. Concertgoers are thinking, ‘Oh, I haven’t thought of a symphony in that way.’ They see a number of young players onstage, and Huynh and I are younger, as well.

“All this adds up to a vitality,” Showalter continues. “We’re branding this vitality as ‘Your Symphony.’ We want people to feel that this is their band, so to speak, making music they’re familiar with, and that coming to the hall is a fun experience.”

To Showalter, it’s a natural. The orchestra has always been “an evolving art form, for centuries,” he says. “I have faith that it’ll exist long into the future; it’ll just change. I don’t think classical music or subscriptions are going away, but how we’re doing Specials is evolving.”

Ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro performs with the Oregon Symphony May 23.

Next season, for example, the Oregon Symphony will feature New York’s Magic Circle Mime Co., whose Phantoms is basically the story, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Showalter says. “It’s loosely about Halloween and ghouls, and it’s great music. The whole orchestra will be dressed in ghoulish costumes. It’s a theatrical event at the same time the orchestra is playing, and everybody in the orchestra is a part of it.”

The Symphony’s 2017-18 offerings also include live-orchestra shows, “La La Land” in Concert, Donald Fagen and the Nightflyers, and The Music of Led Zeppelin, all in September. Among other symphonic pops treats, there’s Take Me to the River—A Memphis Soul, Rhythm & Blues Revue in October, Mannheim Steamroller the following month and A Johnny Mathis Valentine.

Meanwhile, Tyzik is creating a new pops concert called Women Rock. “There are amazing women songwriters and performers of rock and R&B music,” he says. “They created some of the best repertoire of the ‘60s to ‘90s, and they didn’t get the credit like their male counterparts did. Carole King, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Martha Reeves and the group Heart. I look forward to presenting this new concert here in Portland in a future season.”

All these changes point to the importance of the Symphony’s increasing role as not just an outstanding performer of music, but also as an attractive presenter. “Even if you can’t go to the Symphony, if you don’t have the time or the money, you can feel pride that household-name performers like Renée Fleming, John Cleese, Lily Tomlin and Wynton Marsalis come to your ‘backyard,’” Showalter says. “It’s a way to underscore the value of the Symphony beyond the ticket-buying public. What goes up on the marquee, what you hear around town about the Oregon Symphony, there’s real value in that for our broader community.”

Claire Sykes is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. She covers a variety of subjects for national magazines, organizations and businesses. Her arts-related articles most recently have appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Chamber Music magazine and Photographer’s Forum, and on American Photographic Artists’ website. © 2017 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.

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