Summer Music Survey part 3: Switched-on Bach

ARCO PDX debut seeks to modernize classical music concerts.

Classical music can learn a lot from two sources in particular: theater and pop music. A new organization, Amplified Repertory Chamber Orchestra of Portland, looks to the latter to help bring classical music into the 21st century.

“To those who dig classical music, it’s a portal that takes you into the composer’s mind—through the ultimate highs and the darkest lows, the most hellish storms and the heavenliest peace,” says the ensemble’s manifesto. “The problem is, in order to hear it live, they make you sit still for over an hour—no talking, no coughing, no drinking. Staring at musicians who are staring into their music stands. No wonder so many people never give it a second chance.

“ĄRCƠ-PDX is here to change that. We bring you high-quality orchestral music, with attitude, on a rock-concert stage. Amped up loud enough so you can dance, shout, order a drink without disturbing anyone. All while keeping true to the composer’s intent. Top it off with state-of-the-art intelligent lighting in sync with the music, to create a one-of-a-kind, unforgettable experience!”

ARCO-PDX debuted at Portland's Mississippi Studios.

ARCO-PDX debuted at Portland’s Mississippi Studios.

The musician who wrote that knows what he’s talking about. Mike Hsu is a violinist with the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra and has performed with half a dozen others, recorded a pair of albums whose styles range from bluegrass to hip hop, and is a quiet but important leader in both of Portland’s most creative classical music organizations, Cascadia Composers and Classical Revolution PDX, at whose jams I have personally witnessed him shredding, with just about perfect intonation and ferocious rhythmic power, 18th and 19th century classics as well as his own chamber compositions.

At the end of July, Hsu put his money and mojo where his mouth was, investing what appeared to be considerable quantity of shekels on lighting and sound design, and enlisting as soloist for their debut concert one of Oregon’s finest and most adventurous musicians, cellist Skip vonKuske a stalwart of Portland Cello Project, his own Cellotronik project, Vagabond Opera, and veteran of many collaborations with orchestras including the Oregon Symphony, pop stars, and more. And the band worked for months memorizing the repertoire for that first concert, something rockers do routinely, but much more difficult with the thousands of notes played in a classical composition. Eighth blackbird is the only other classically oriented ensemble I’ve seen that regularly memorizes its performance, which enables the members, unconstrained by the need to follow the score and unblocked from the audience by those annoying music stands, to deliver performances with unparalleled drama and audience connection.

But Hsu was proposing to do it with not only new music — his own — but also with 18th century classics we’re used to hearing played by the finest score-supported musicians, and, ultimately, to reimagine the way classical music is performed. So the stakes were high at Portland’s Mississippi Studios — crucially a rock club, and one of the best — on July 26.

Kiran Moorty opened for ARCO. Photo: Christopher Corbell.

Kiran Moorty opened for ARCO. Photo: Christopher Corbell.

The opening act, Portland accordionist Kiran Moorty, delivered (from memory) dazzling performances of Bach, Piazzolla and other composers, including an original inspired, he said, by the Arctic dawn (and evidently by Steve Reich and, in the second part, Philip Glass). A virtuoso player who’s been a star in Classical Revolution PDX jams, the barefoot squeeze boxer conjured what sounded like a looping phase effect acoustically using a quick pumping left hand tremolo. Impressive as it was, the set extended a little too long for an opener but definitely established Moorty as an Oregon talent to watch.

The main performers followed with a performance as electrifying as the first part of their name, although their numbers (only six) didn’t justify the second part. To celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of J.S. Bach’s most accomplished musical offspring, Carl Philip Emmanuel, they charged into an impromptu concerto contrived from three movements drawn from two concertos, establishing the pattern for the evening: appropriately blistering tempos, intense dramatic feeling, near immaculate solos and muscular cadenzas by vonKuske, and a few noticeable bum notes that, in the moment, felt entirely worth it for the ferocity gained.

Throughout the concert, the band’s obvious joy in playing came across in its stage demeanor, closer to a rock band than the stereotypical stiff, uptight classical ensemble. The rock show touches — enjoyable and undistracting lighting cues, a true “echo cadenza” using (I assume) digital delay, etc. — all added to the experience, and in conjunction with the informal venue itself, where I’ve caught several other shows, made ARCO’s performance feel like a good rock show. And I mean that in a good way.

But I also wonder how much amplification added to Bach. In general I haven’t liked it in most acoustic music, especially in Indian, Indonesian, and others that generate overtones from acoustic phenomena, because if not done right (often by sound designers who’ve gone half deaf from working rock shows), it can flatten out the richness of acoustic sounds. As well balanced and miked as it was, here it produced a kind of boxy soundstage, yet a sound with far more presence and punch than it would have had if unplugged. Of course, it’s great in rock and other music that benefits from the piercing quality amplification can add, and it’s necessary in large venues for the audience to hear clearly. But in the relatively cozy Mississippi Studios, though amplification certainly changed the sonority of CPE Bach’s music, for me, it wasn’t entirely for the better. But just like playing J.S. Bach’s keyboard music on pianos he never contemplated for it can still produce a valid — if different and anachronistic — interpretation, the question here is whether the change worked on its own terms. For me, experiencing it live, it did, but I’d still love to hear this group play this music without it.

Because I suspect that the presentational innovations weren’t the main reason I enjoyed this show so much. It was the group’s memorized performance — extremely unusual for classical music in this town, which is often performed with severely inadequate rehearsal — that made the ensemble feel as thrilling as any chamber performance at these tempos I’ve heard this year. Instead of straining to just get the notes and make sure they fit them in properly, the band was clearly trying to jolt the audience — and they succeeded. Knowing that they were trying to make statement in this debut concert might have amped their adrenaline levels as much as their instruments. This was a performance that, in prioritizing passion over precision, created a visceral connection between the music onstage and the listeners.

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The use of an electronic keyboard gave Mitchell Falconer’s continuo part more prominence than would a historically appropriate harpsichord, but I didn’t mind. The strings’ intonation slipped in the third movement, whether from exhaustion after the breathless pace or from the group’s decision not to tune between movements — a problem that would recur later in the CPE Bach composite symphony that featured similar ups (explosive energy and tight focus) and downs (tuning tribulations).

This raises a crucial issue: I’ve always lamented the realities (humidity, string materials, etc.) that usually require classical musicians to re-tune their instruments between pieces or even movements. It usually punctures the tires of musical momentum, and until classical musicians achieve rock star status and can afford to have roadies run out and toss them perfectly tuned second and third instruments (each of them possibly centuries old), it’s going to be an exasperating reality of classical concerts. (And not just classical, as David Crosby’s famous retort to host Bob Newhart’s complaints about the Byrds tuning up on a Tonight Show appearance — “we tune because we care” — illustrates.) Hsu said ARCO chose not to tune between movements precisely to avoid sapping the energy flow, and while during the performance, I was aware of every intonational slip, amid all that rude energy, it didn’t seem to matter. Heard again on a video at home, though, the tuning issues seem more problematic.

Fortunately, thanks to video, you can decide for yourself, although of course you won’t be able to feel what it was like live, and it’s likely that subsequent performances (this was their debut after all) of these pieces will be more secure. Inasmuch as ARCO is an experiment in performance practice, I’m sure Hsu would be as interested as I am in OAW readers’ impressions: would interrupting the flow to achieve better intonation have made you enjoy the show more, or less? Please give the video a listen/view and let us know your opinion on whether the tradeoff was worth it, and on anything else you think about this noble experiment, in the comments below.

Tempo di Dance Party

ARCO sandwiched Hsu’s own string quartet between the two CPE Bach pieces, and while complexity cravers might find his pop-influenced emotionally direct music too simplistic, it sure worked for me, and I think it’ll appeal to listeners beyond the classical music club — and not in a lowest common denominator way. Hsu’s use of gestures from the popular music of his time used to be the standard approach of composers from Bach to Bartok. The memorable tune that anchors the third movement alone suggests that Hsu is not only one of Portland’s most promising composers, but also maybe the likeliest to find a broad audiences. Before they played the three movements, Hsu said he needed to write the standard fourth movement, but to me, it sounds like a finished product. His vigorous string quintet, “Tempo di Dance Party,” was a delicious treat, too. And for some reason, both seemed to feel more natural on amplified instruments than CPE Bach’s music.

Memorizing such a sizable program and playing it with such intensity requires a tremendous investment of emotional, musical and even physical energy, and personally, I’d have been satisfied with just an abbreviated opening act, Hsu’s quartet and quintet movement, and the CPE Bach cello concerto. Assuming they keep it in their repertoire (and after going to the effort to memorize it, why wouldn’t they?), we can only expect ARCO’s performances to grow tighter.

My takeaways:

  1. the setting, lighting and other touches generally worked great in this music;
  2. I need to listen to more CPE Bach, a composer I’d enjoyed years ago and neglected until a recent Portland Baroque Orchestra performance of his music and this one reawakened my appreciation for his dramatic style;
  3. classical music lost one hell of a cellist when Skip vonKuske chose to pursue other musical directions;
  4. this was the most exciting concert I heard in Portland this summer. I’d say the ARCO experiment is a success, even a triumph.

His vision for refreshing classical music makes Hsu one of Oregon’s most important classical musicians, but he isn’t the only one rethinking the music’s relationship to modern listeners. As the previous episodes in this series have shown, other institutions, including older ones like Chamber Music Northwest, are trying, too. We’ll take a look at another the final installment.

Read part 1 in our summer music survey here and part 2 here.

Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

9 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    The most amazing performances I’ve ever attended that were performed from memory include:

    1/ Ozawa conducting Messiaen’s “Turangalila-Symphonie”
    2/ Rattle seemingly conjuring Mahler’s 7th out of thin air
    3/ Yvonne Loriod’s two & a half hour blaze through Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards”

    I also had the incredible opp. to hear/see Richter play Hindemith, Shosty, Berg, Prokofiev & Szymanowski over 5 concerts loooong ago in Warsaw. The fact that Richter played with scores in front of him for all these works in no way detracted from the absolute mastery & “transcendent” engagement of his performances.

    In other words, if someone like Richter could play “with his nose buried in the score,” well, it seems to me that performing with or without the printed music @ eye is a matter of personal preference.

  2. Mike Hsu says:

    Thank you, Brett, for the generous review.

    What draws you to a live performance of any piece of music? Generally, you can narrow it down to one or more of a handful of things:
    1. Seeing particular performers that you like
    2. Curiosity about the unique interpretation of the piece for that performer in that moment of time
    3. A shared sonic experience with a bunch of other people
    4. You like that style of music even though you don’t know the pieces or the performers

    Since the vast majority of people in this country don’t have a working knowledge of classical music, reasons 1 and 2 don’t work for them. So you gotta make that shared sonic experience all the more worthwhile, and find ways to bridge the style gap. Playing by memory and using intelligent lighting are ways to do this without compromising the integrity of the music.

  3. Jack Gabel says:

    glad it went well, Mike – and really sorry I couldn’t make it – as you may or may not know, I’ve advocated for stage lighting classical music for some time, and when possible to turn stands lateral or lower them so as not to block sight lines between performers and audience

    anyone who’s ever seen a classic swing band on stage should remember their low-profile, art-deco music desks – musicians seated, desks knee-hi – musicians in full view and of course soloists always working from memory

    time for classical musicians to step up to the ‘mis-en-scene’ – your best friend on stage – some upon seeing this will conclude lighting too costly to rent for a small hall, but the spendy articulated instruments aren’t necessary – many affordable options exist

    thanks to Brett for posting the video

  4. David says:

    I can’t help but wonder what percentage of your audience is actually from the first category… Friends or friends of friends.

    I understand that it takes a lot to create a revolution but please don’t oversell it. I would say many performers and composers would be tossing and turning to hear that THIS is “high quality orchestral music.” The ensemble and intonation is all over the place and phrasing seems secondary to showing off.

    This kind of movement of popifying classical music had long been done (see Bond Quartet) with much sexier players and even flashier pyrotechnics with great success so don’t act like it’s revolutionary! Do your homework first.

    I guess my biggest problem is your stance of dissing classical musicians (yes, I’m a professional orchestral player) right from the get go. Can’t these things live independently? You are creating something that can hardly be called classical music… Why do you have to position yourself as the answer to “boring” coaxial music. There are millions of Americans who REALLY enjoy live orchestral musicians. Can you give all those people what they want. NO! BUt will you alianate the couple dozen of those people who may ALSO be interested in listening to you by ridiculing what they already love? You betcha.

    • Mike Hsu says:

      Point taken, David–“boring” was a poor choice of word. But, as an orchestral musician with a pretty good attention span, I find that when I sit in the audience at the symphony, my mind wanders within a few minutes from the start of each piece (unless I’ve played the piece before). Then I’m just sitting there daydreaming and clogging my arteries, when I’d much rather be free to move about and circulate my blood a bit so that I can pay better attention. I am quite confident that many of your regular audience members share the same experience. Perhaps “boring” is not the right word, but the traditional concert hall symphony experience is simply “not stimulating enough” for most consumers of music.

      One “solution” would be to simply add a drum beat, which many groups such as the Bond Quartet have done to “popify” classical music. As a composer, I find that quite offensive, and I would never bastardize any piece of art-music in such a fashion. There is a reason why self-respecting classical musicians are generally not fans of Bond Quartet or Vanessa Mae.

      The most we would be guilty of in terms of altering the music, is arranging a score to be performed by instruments whose tambre differed slightly from what the composer hand in mind (e.g., a single amplified violin instead of a first violin section), in order to perform it in a rock-concert venue. This is as much of a crime as playing a quartet arrangement of a symphonic work, which has been done countless times without criticism.

      Yes, we are aiming for “high quality” and have high hopes, but have much work to do. Or maybe we’re not the right ones to be doing it? I would love it if members of the Oregon Symphony would endeavor to perform by memory in perfect ensemble and intonation in a rock concert venue with all its electronic quirkiness. In fact, I would donate large amounts of money toward such a performance!

  5. I think there is a lot to be said for the long standing tradition of classical music performance. I personally love the experience of performing orchestral and chamber music in the way it was intended. A younger version of me would rail on the establishment for belittling the work that ARCO is doing. I agree a live and let live approach is better than calling a thing boring. Truth be told, I’ve been on the receiving end of criticism from classical teachers for much longer than I’ve spent time calling out musicians for their classical superiority.
    Oddly, I still consider myself a classical musician. I am an advocate for taking that knowledge base into the 21rst century and beyond, but I absolutely respect the “recreation” of masterpieces as close to the composers intent as possible. I see ArcoPdx’s work as a step toward a possible future for less performed works and a sonic reimagining of existent pieces. Thus far, we are not going down the road of a Bond or Andre Rieux. It is a direct from the score amplified re-imaging, as opposed to a pop arrangement of classical music. That said, your argument is salient and well stated. I can’t speak for Mike, but I believe what ARCOPDX is attempting is another approach to repertoire we all respect and appreciate in a slightly different environment, with a different approach.
    In the end, the marketing/sales pitch for such a thing is not what musicians and composers are paid for, but increasingly, we are expected to be all things: promoter, performer, artist

  6. Ginny Feldman says:

    Just the memorization alone should get this group into the Big Time. Plus all the other new/newer things they do. Here’s a toast to their success!!

  7. Terry says:

    In my opinion the entire discussion is very interesting.

    There are many different types of music presented in many different types of venues. I think they all have their place. All have faced criticism, without exception. For instance, the Handel Messiah initial reviews were considered a sacrilege to the bible. Now it is a staple for religious and nonreligious alike at Christmastime.

    In an attempt to assuage David’s concerns, I do sense that Mike’s heart is in the right place. He does play orchestral and chamber music. He just also wants to broaden the template of what is an acceptable musical experience without compromising its integrity. If its implementation left a bit to be desired, its intent and energy certainly did not.

    I would say that Mike did the right thing. Classical music does need to be more and more approachable to be relevant to today’s audiences.

    Our own (and beloved) Oregon Symphony recognizes this by having its members play for kids at libraries, by having small groups play at smaller venues, by having soloists sign autographs at intermission. A place where one can listen to classical music and be able to move around definitely has its place as well. My hope is that the longer ARCO-PDX continues, the more refined will be the vision, and the overall artistic product.

    If it meets with criticism from the classical music community, that should not come as any surprise. The classical music community is filled with critics. And maybe the fire of that criticism will fuel progress, more technically polished performances, more imagination.

    Bravo to a fine first effort ARCO-PDX! I look forward to your next rendition!

  8. Jeff Winslow says:

    Despite being unenthusiastic about much Baroque and most pop (reformed classical snob), and a person who, unlike Mike :-), doesn’t have any trouble sitting quietly and attentively for an hour in a good classical performance, I still had a great time at this show. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next one!

    I just want to underline one point in Brett’s meaty review – Skip vonKuske’s “echo cadenza” was an inspired borrowing from the pop world. He made me believe old CPE Bach would have loved it. Given the cadenza’s the place where the soloist gets to go crazy, improv-wise, I’d like to hear more such intelligent explorations of this territory.

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