oregon symphony

Oregon Symphony & Ben Folds review: The Show Must Go On

Pop pianist shows classical music how to rock audiences.

by MARIA CHOBAN

“While y’all were in your practice rooms practicing eight hours a day,” Ben Folds told the Oregon Symphony on stage at Schnitzer Hall September 20, “the rest of us were out getting laid.”

Best known as a pop pianist and singer-songwriter, Folds sits on the board of the Nashville Symphony. He’s touring a piano concerto he wrote. And he seems to thrive when thrown to the lions . . . . conservatory musicians behind him, a hungry mob in front. He’s a showman on the order of Leonard Bernstein. Eyes rolled when I recently blurted this to a friend who thinks no one will ever match Lenny. He’s right. Folds supersedes him. Only because times have changed and Folds is hipper than thee and me and he takes no prisoners.

Ben Folds rose to the occasion with the Oregon Symphony.

Ben Folds rose to the occasion with the Oregon Symphony.

Folds is obviously not intimidated by the musicians’ pedigrees, displaying his gushing wry affection for them and their prowess, but he also understands that the music itself can still appeal to much bigger than the narrow “classical” audience — if only it’s presented in a way that reaches out to 21st century audiences. As he showed last month in Portland with his piano concerto and his electric connection to listeners, Ben Folds is the perfect evangelist for symphony orchestras, nay, all of classical music.

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Summer music survey part 4: Younger Than Yesterday

Oregon Symphony brings music from today's pop musicians to the concert hall.

Over the past week, we’ve been reviewing summer concerts that sparkled with the promise of renewal. Some of them involved young — even very young! — musicians. But even some of the state’s old-line classical institutions are beginning to seek new audiences. The Oregon Symphony, like other American orchestras, has for the last few years been updating the old idea of the pops concert, once reserved for the Lawrence Welk crowd. Now it’s the baby boomers instead of the 1940s and ‘50s generations whose pop music invades orchestra programs. Often, these have amounted to little but bloated, simplistic inflations of rock band hits for orchestras, but in the last weeks of the summer, the Oregon Symphony presented three different concerts featuring not just the hits but also original music written for orchestra by musicians who made their reputations in non classical settings. (The orchestra also brought back pop singer Brandi Carlile, but that concert announcement didn’t include original works for orchestra.)

Carlos Kalmar congratulates Bela Fleck after performing his music with the Oregon Symphony.

Carlos Kalmar congratulates Bela Fleck after performing his music with the Oregon Symphony.

Unfortunately, I missed OSO’s performance of Phish head Trey Anastasio’s Petrichor (which refers to the scent produced after the first rain in a long time); by all accounts, the audience gave the piece, and the orchestra, fervent shouting ovations. We’ll have more to say about Ben Folds’s surprising early September show soon, but for now, I’ll just note that the feisty third movement of his piano concerto deserves more performances, and not just featuring the composer, who I hope will continue to explore composing for “classical” forces.

At that concert and the preceding week’s Bela Fleck’s guest appearance, the audience seemed to average a full generation younger than usual at the OSO; we’ve asked the symphony to provide us whatever demographic and attendance information it can at the end of the season, but the applause between movements of the banjo virtuoso’s concerto suggested that many were new to the preposterous rituals of classical music. The musicians got into the spirit by shucking the tuxes in favor of what we called “new music black” back in the day — informal black tops and bottoms.

All, that is, except for music director Carlos Kalmar, who strode to the podium resplendent in a blindingly pink shirt that threatened to spontaneously combust, and launched the orchestra into an equally flammable performance of everyone’s favorite (next to maybe Mozart’s Figaro) overture, the stirring kickoff Leonard Bernstein wrote for his operetta Candide, which deserved the raucous woo-hoos and claps it elicited from a crowd (including a dude in a ten gallon hat — first time I’ve seen one of those at an Oregon Symphony concert) that was probably there to hear Bela. The rollicking overture and the rest of the program was brilliantly designed to show any symphony novices the melodic and rhythmic power of some of the best American music, and to place Fleck’s orchestral works in that tradition. The orchestra was smokin’, the house was rockin’, the audience was cheering …

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The Oregon Symphony board and musicians agree on a contract

After a dicey negotiation, board and musicians extend the current contract

Well THAT was an anti-climax! I’m talking about the extension of the Oregon Symphony musicians contract for one year at its current level, engineered by new President and CEO Scott Showalter soon after he hit town in July. Of course, in this case, a nice subdued anti-climax is probably the best possible outcome, though for journalists prepared to hit the mattresses for an all-out, rock ‘em-sock ‘em labor battle…well, even for us it was a relief.

“The congenial relationship that exists among the Oregon Symphony family is impressive and bodes well for our collective future,” Showalter said in the press release, announcing the deal.  “I appreciate the eagerness of the musicians and the union to bring these negotiations to a quick and positive conclusion. With this agreement in place we can focus on building relationships that will ensure the Symphony’s future.”

 

The musicians and board of the Oregon Symphony have reached an agreement on a new contract.

The musicians and board of the Oregon Symphony have reached an agreement on a new contract.

As we’ve written, the relationship hasn’t been all that congenial, really, and the specter of a lockout by the board seemed very possible late last fall and early winter, given the severity of the cuts we heard proposed. At least three things happened to help preserve the peace: 1) the musicians pitched in with some creative ideas for attacking a looming deficit with a series of popular concerts and an increased commitment to audience outreach and education, 2) the board, seeing the engagement of the musicians, kept the faction of “disciplinarians” who wanted to cut salaries drastically at bay, and 3) Showalter built on that hard work and community formation to reach a deal that didn’t involve salary cuts at all.

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The new CEO hire at the symphony might keep the Cutters at bay

Interpreting what the hiring of Scott Showalter by the Oregon Symphony means

The Oregon Symphony has a new President and CEO—Scott Showalter.

The Oregon Symphony has a new President and CEO—Scott Showalter.

The news arrived yesterday that the Oregon Symphony had hired Scott Showalter from the Los Angeles Philharmonic as its new president and chief executive officer.

Showalter comes from the fundraising side of things at the LA Philharmonic, where he was vice president for development and supervised a staff of 25, so the immediate conclusion was that the symphony had landed an ace money wrangler who could do some donor-whispering tricks to corral more cash in the arts fundraising badlands of Oregon. In the lead of his story about the hire, The Oregonian’s David Stabler called Showalter a “heavy-hitting fundraiser,” for example. (Didn’t he get the memo that we were using Western metaphors, not baseball or boxing terms?)

A better way to think of this hire, though, is in the context of the battle going on at nearly every symphony in the country, the battle between Cutters and Re-inventors. At the Oregon Symphony, Showalter represents a victory for the Re-inventors, one that I wouldn’t have predicted last fall when it looked as though the Cutters on the board had the upper hand.

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News & Notes: Catching up on Oregon music and dance news

Oregon Symphony gets out of the concert hall; University of Oregon awards; community support for Oregon composer

Symphony musicians chat with the crowd at Classical Up Close.

Symphony musicians chat with the crowd at Classical Up Close. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Around the country, orchestras are connecting with their communities (particularly members who don’t already frequent their concerts) through various outreach and education programs. Led by Resident Conductor Paul Ghun Kim, the Oregon Symphony this week concluded its “Concerts on the Go” series in Portland-area schools. Last week, orchestra members played a concert built around Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf at two schools whose districts have committed to keeping music in the schools: North Clackamas School District’s Verne A. Duncan Elementary and David Douglas School District’s Gilbert Heights Elementary School, where two young Suzuki students played short violin solos. Yesterday, more than five dozen orchestra member performed a different concert at St. Mary’s Home for Boys that showed “the healing power of music” and the fact that young Oregonians can make a career in making music.

Oregon Symphony  members performed at Portland's St. Mary's School.

Oregon Symphony members performed at Portland’s St. Mary’s Home for Boys.

In another admirable community connection program, tonight (Wednesday), members of the Oregon Symphony Players Association head over to Brunish Hall in the unpronounceable Portland5 Centers for the Arts in an event co-sponsored by MetroArts, Inc., principal percussionist Niel DePonte’s arts education organization. They’ll perform music by Bach, Telemann, Portland’s own Kenji Bunch (what a great example for young Oregonians of how it’s possible for an Oregon native to make a successful life in music!) and more. Oregon Public Broadcasting’s April Baer will ask the musicians questions from listeners and audience members.

It’s the second of eight evening programs the orchestra musicians will present over the next week and a half in the return of last year’s free Classical Up Close programs; they’re also perpetrating “blitz” events in various spaces around Portland, including one at the downtown Powell’s Books last week, others at Portland City Hall and Portland State University and, today at noon, at the Symphony ticket office, 923 SW Washington St, featuring the splendid cellist Nancy Ives, with more to come.

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Nobuo Uematsu and Arnie Roth

Nobuo Uematsu and Arnie Roth.

by MARIA CHOBAN

I am obsessed with a piece called “Cascade.” My 10-year-old student wrote it, sorry he ever did, I’m sure, because he rolls his eyes every time I ask him to play it — which is at every lesson. What I’m particularly charmed with is his ending — out of the blue, two planned cluster chords terminate the catchy rhythmic episodes. He hunts for the same dissonant harmonies every time he comes to the end. And yet, he shrinks from all praise I gush, not because he’s shy; in fact, he’s a born ham. Why?

During Portland’s recent March Music Moderne, I attended an Oregon ComposersWatch event presented by Oregon ArtsWatch. One of the three composers invited to share their creative process with the audience spoke apologetically about the influence of one particular kind of music on his compositions. His music is accessible, nearly new age if it weren’t for the odd harmonic modulations I find in classical music, not in pop.  Other composers in the audience nod when he mentions the influence of a certain guilty pleasure on his music. One in particular also has a distinct, spare but not cliche harmonic style and one piece of his in particular (piano quintet) destroys the box this form once occupied for this configuration of instruments. But why the guilt?

In the program for this month’s Oregon Symphony concerts, you’ll find biographies of most of the composers whose music will be performed, from masters like Dmitri Shostakovich to contemporary film score legend John Williams — except for the composer featured on its April 26 program. Why?

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The Oregon Symphony's Ode to Joy concert. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

The Oregon Symphony’s Ode to Joy concert. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

by KATIE TAYLOR

At the beginning of the evening, everyone’s eyes were riveted on the big nets full of balloons suspended from the ceiling over the orchestra seats. Colorful and festive, the balloons set the tone for the Oregon Symphony’s new year’s eve offering, Ode to Joy: A Holiday Spectacular — and when at the end of the evening they were finally cut loose, they received their very own round of applause.

Ode to Joy was a year-end party for the orchestra’s supporters and community, and on those grounds, it succeeded brilliantly. Mayor Hales and his wife were there, along with two past governors who shamelessly took to the stage, and the Timbers mascot, who put in an appearance to sing “Auld Lang Syne” and pop balloons with his chainsaw.

Thanks to the symphony’s master of ceremonies, Pink Martini’s Thomas Lauderdale, the program abounded in special guest stars. Lauderdale curated a first half of the evening that was fun, well paced engaging and clever, dominated by the usual suspects but including a few fresh faces.

The evening began with a kickass rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” featuring a guest appearance by the 234th Army Band of the Oregon National Guard. Usually associated with Independence Day, Sousa’s patriotic firecracker was actually first lit on Christmas Day 1896. When the piccolo section from the Army Band rose for the final descant with its treacherous leaps and trills, the audience broke out in howls and applause.

On the night I attended (December 30), this was followed by the ubiquitous Storm Large singing a version of “The Lady is a Tramp” in which the lyrics had been Portlandized. The local cliches made me cringe in my chair a little, but Portlanders do enjoy hearing inside jokes about their hometown set to music, and this audience was no exception. Large was in great voice and gave a typically energetic and crowd-pleasing performance.

The dreaded Portlandization cropped up again later in the program with a version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” with words by former Oregon First Lady Mary Oberst. This number was sung (and danced!) by former Oregon Governors Barbara Roberts and Ted Kulongoski and LGBT activist Terry Bean. I was impressed that the three of them had largely memorized all those lyrics — they must have had a blast preparing for this. The clever arrangement by Portland-based jazz artist and composer John Nastos included some entertaining musical jokes, like an officious trumpet voluntary at the mention of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It lasted too long, but the audience didn’t seem to mind.

Equally crowd pleasing was a turn by filmmaker Gus Van Sant, who played guitar and sang “Moon River” in a plaintive and likable amateur voice backed by the orchestra. I really wanted to like this, and again, I applaud the programming choice because it beautifully served the purpose of making the audience feel engaged with their orchestra and their city (even I have felt smug most of my life that Van Sant lives in my home town) — but I was a little too conscious of my heartstrings being pulled to really enjoy it. For the audience, however, I think it was probably the most affecting moment of the entire evening.

The first half also included performances by Pink Martini singer China Forbes, Portland cantor Ida Rae Cahana and, of course, Lauderdale, who manned the keys with his usual virtuosity — but the high point was the appearance by the Von Trapps, great grandchildren of the “Sound of Music” family, who recently relocated to Portland from Montana on Lauderdale’s invitation. The singers, three sisters and a brother, all in their twenties, are in the midst of recording an album with Lauderdale’s band, so he started them out with something very Pink Martini: a version of Francesco and Maria Pagano’s “Black Cat Tango” with the lyrics translated into Japanese. It was a poor fit, leaving me with a first impression of the Von Trapps as cute and wholesome and about as noteworthy as a good high school vocal ensemble.

Fortunately, Lauderdale had them follow this up with a remarkably fresh and highly unusual a cappella number written by the youngest brother, August. “Storm” truly sounded like the wild winds and wilderness, with exquisite coordination among the four singers and sweeping lines that sounded as spontaneous as birdsong. The unconventional yodeling solo at the beginning of the number by August Von Trapp could have misfired, but it was peculiarly gorgeous, only adding to the song’s unstudied-sounding originality.

A few numbers sounded a little recycled and tired, including the Barbra/Judy “Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again” sung by China Forbes and Storm Large that wrapped up the first half, reinforcing the general impression that the priority was to stir the crowd with the beloved and familiar.

After intermission, the symphony reprised its February performances of Beethoven’s  Symphony #9. The Ninth might have fared better as the first half of the concert, or it may just have been a complete mismatch. It’s difficult for an audience to go from a fast-paced and laughter-inducing pops performance full of variety and razzle dazzle to a Beethoven symphony that people tend to forget has three long movements before the big choral finale. However, the crowd listened intently, reserving their coughing for the breaks between movements and rising for the obligatory Portland standing ovation after the thundering close of the fourth movement.

The symphony was played with jewel-like precision under the baton of Maestro Carlos Kalmar. His approach to this work was a little more dynamically subdued than I am used to hearing, which really brought out the luster of the interplay between the winds and lower strings in the third movement but made the vigorous fourth movement sound a little restrained to my ear. Principal oboe Martin Hebert turned in some exquisite soli in a third movement liberally gemmed with lovely feature turns from principal wind and brass players.

The solo singers were an odd assortment. Local operatic favorites mezzo Angela Niederloh and baritone Richard Zeller were both in typically great voice and well matched. Tenor Carl Moe, a promising Portland State University student, spun out a fresh light lyric tone that was out of scale with Niederloh’s and Zeller’s but easy and lovely. Soprano Janeanne Houston sang ably but with a perceptible wobble and a pinched upper register. The overall quality of her voice was no match for Niederloh, Zeller and Moe.

The gigantic chorus, which included Portland State University Chamber Choir, Man Choir and Vox Femina; the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus; and Pacific Youth Choir sang a little sloppily but with great zeal and produced a big, rousing sound.

The encore made me laugh out loud with delight — a version of “Auld Lang Syne,” with maracas! And an army band! And balloons! All of the evening’s performers came out on stage and sang their hearts out, and despite my jaded and curmudgeonly nature, I clapped just as hard as everybody else, proud of my city’s symphony and all of its talented friends.

The hope (my hope) would be that party pieces like this concert raise the support and the money to foster the less popular offerings on the calendar — the ones that might have great artistic merit but no balloons. On New Year’s Eve (and the night before), however, I wouldn’t have missed those balloons for the world.

Katie Taylor is a Portland-based writer, opera singer, director and librettist. An alumna of San Francisco Opera Center, she is the former general director of Opera Theater Oregon.

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