oregon symphony

Oregon Symphony review: going big

Orchestra's season closing concerts feature large scale Mahler and Stravinsky, and a big success in a "Little Russian" symphony

by TERRY ROSS

On May 15, people came for the show, and thanks to dancers and puppets, they got it. And thanks to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, they also got some memorable music.

The “show” in question was the third in this season’s Oregon Symphony series of multi-media events, called Persephone. Earlier installments were based on Bela Bartok’s 1911 opera  Bluebeard’s Castle  and Olivier Messiaen’s 1948 opus Turangalila, and they involved projected images, creative lighting, unusual instruments (an ondes martenot for Messiaen), among other effects. For Igor Stravinsky’s Persephone, which premiered in 1934, the requisite large orchestra, giant choir, children’s choir, tenor soloist, and female narrator were abetted by the puppetry of multiple Emmy award-winning Michael Curry and dancer Anna Marra, from Portland’s BodyVox. The whole bunch were led by OSO maestro Carlos Kalmar.

Oregon Symphony’s ‘Persephone’ featured striking design by Oregon’s Michael Curry. Photo: Brud Giles.

The 48-minute Persephone show came after the intermission, with the orchestra onstage before an evocative set featuring a glowing sun/moon. The text by André Gide was declaimed and sung in French by, respectively, French actress Pauline Chelviller, who did the role a couple of years ago under director Peter Sellars, and American tenor Paul Groves, an opera singer in considerable demand. Gide famously didn’t care for Stravinsky’s refusal to treat his text as poetry and boycotted the premiere.

His point was well taken. Throughout his career, Stravinsky was never enamored of close textual settings, preferring to regard words as merely syllables and to appropriate their meaning in a more general sense. So in Persephone, the outlines of the music follow the heroine, who is the goddess of springtime, as she is abducted from earth and made to be the underworld mate of Hades, god of the dead, then released (for a while) each year to ensure the appearance of spring on earth before returning to her life below. In a generally vapid score (one of Stravinsky’s weakest), the orchestra makes some Stravinskyan gestures (introductory statements by high-pitched brasses of percussion, decorous string writing in his Neo-Classical stage) to accompany the narrative.

But the real heroes of this production were the lively massed choruses — Portland State University’s Chamber Choir and members of the Pacific Youth Choir — the puppeteer, and the featured dancer. Combined with the lighting director, these participants never let the action flag, even when Stravinsky’s music strongly suggests it might. They carry the “show.” I was especially enchanted by Mr. Curry’s flying spirits, by his puppet of Persephone (also known in mythology as Proserpina), and especially by Ms. Marra’s mind-bending contortions as a flying version of Persephone. She flew through the air as if freed from gravity, every gesture lyrical and lovely.

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Oregon Symphony review: a ‘Persephone’ redeemed by puppetry

Non musical elements help flawed Stravinsky music drama succeed

by BRUCE BROWNE

Persephone lends itself wonderfully to interdisciplinary artistic collaboration. Called a “melodrama” by its composer, Igor Stravinsky, it is a ballet, with a tenor soloist, a choir, an orchestra and a grandiose mythological melodrama out of which visual effects can spring.

Persephone was the final production in the three-part SoundSights series mounted by the Oregon Symphony this year, the previous two being the Bartok opera Bluebeard’s Castle and Messiaen’s Turangalila (click titles for Oregon Arts Watch reviews).

Saturday evening’s supersensorium included fabulous optics, impeccable singing, a superb orchestra, solid acting and imaginative and colorful costumes and puppetry. For this gesamtkunstwerk, the best were engaged: Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony, Pauline Cheviler (Persephone the narrator), Anna Marra (Persephone the dancer) and the choirs (Portland State University Chamber Choir and Pacific Youth Choir). The visual concept was handed over to Oregon theatrical designer Michael Curry.

Michael Curry’s puppetry enhanced ‘Persephone.’

In choosing Curry to join Washington glass master Dale Chihuly and Portland media artist Rose Bond as the third SoundSights collaborator, the orchestra again nurtured the tremendous pool of talent in the Pacific Northwest.

Curry’s bold theatrical designs have been captivating audiences worldwide at Olympic events, in theaters, at the Metropolitan Opera and in Disney productions. He and his team toiled in their studio facility in Scappoose, Oregon to offer visual genius to the production.

It’s clear that the SoundSight initiative has drawn many new ears and eyes to the concerts, a generous portion of them younger, as we saw lots of children Saturday night, buzzing about upcoming sightings of flying goddesses, animated trees, a graceful deer and a Brobdingnagian, roseate King of Hades. Ghostly kites, tree human roots morphing into hairdos, and eerily human puppets were stunning, bringing the mythology to life.

And thank the Greek gods, because the non musical elements are absolutely essential to making Stravinsky’s Persephone relatable and digestible.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Really big show

Going big: Perséphone with puppets, an American in Paris, Mahler's grand sweep, the sounds of Cuba and Lou Harrison

At the Portland Showtime Bistro, audiences like things well-done, but often served small to medium. We enjoy our intimacy, from compact ensembles like Portland Baroque Orchestra and FearNoMusic to closeup theater spaces like CoHo, the Back Door, the Ellyn Bye Studio, Shoebox, and Shaking the Tree. Summer’s coming, and with it, once again, that sprawling celebration of good things in small packages, the Chamber Music Northwest summer festival (with a welcome emphasis this year on women composers).

But sometimes you want the whole darned smorgasbord, and only big will do. Portland can provide that, too, and lately it’s been doing so … well, big-time.

Big night on the town: Portland Opera’s “La Bohème.” Photo: Cory Weaver.

Portland Opera’s just completed its grand-scale production of Puccini’s overflowing romantic potboiler La Bohème (Terry Ross reviewed it for ArtsWatch here) and is saddling up for a June musical-theater adventure in giant-windmill territory with Man of La Mancha (featuring Grimm star Reggie Lee as one of the best sidekicks in history, Sancho Panza).

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Great Graham

Revisiting Martha Graham's potent power of the past; a Wanderlust Mother's Day; Michael Curry's "Perséphone" with the Symphony; Brett Campbell's music picks

Martha Graham created her legendary American modern dance company in 1926, and it’s difficult to imagine, more than 90 years later, just how earth-shattering her early works must have seemed. Graham carved legends out of time and space: intense, pristine, pared to the bone. She created a hyper-expressionist, essentially American style of dance, built on the works of Denishawn and other pioneers but reimagined in the movement possibilities and theatrical impulses of her own body.

She collaborated with many of the great composers and visual artists of her time, which was long and artistically fertile: born in 1894, she created her final dance in 1990, the year before she died at age 96. Her bold, emphatic approach to dance can seem overstated to contemporary audiences. Yet it carries the intensity and hyper-expressionism of the great silent movies, and if you just give it a chance, something of the pure rawness of her glory years comes through, as if it were new all over again.

Martha Graham in “Dark Meadow,” 1946. Reproduced with permission of Martha Graham Resources, a division of The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, www.marthagraham.org. Library of Congress.

No company built by a daringly original dancemaker – not Graham’s, or Balanchine’s, or Alvin Ailey’s, or José Limón’s – can survive on memories of its founder alone, and it can be a tricky business to balance the tradition of what was once radical with the need to remain in the contemporary swim of things. The Graham company, under current artistic director Janet Eilber, mixes things up boldly. When the company performs Wednesday evening in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the White Bird dance season the program will include works by a couple of high-profile contemporary dancemakers: the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, who now runs the Berlin State Ballet, and the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. But the core of the program will be two of Graham’s own works, 1948’s Diversion of Angels and Dark Meadow Suite, a distillation of an ambitious 1946 work that ran 50 minutes in its original form (the suite is much shorter).

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Oregon Symphony review: Time for a change

Professional Oregon vocalists could enhance orchestra's growing international standing

by TERRY ROSS

In keeping with an annual tradition, the Oregon Symphony presented a big choral work April 8-10 at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The choir was the Portland Symphonic Choir, founded back in the mid-20th century for just this purpose. In the years following, the Symphonic Choir went on to create an independent identity, giving a regular season of concerts.

Mozart’s monumental Requiem, which takes nearly an hour to perform, constituted the second half of the concert, and let it be said immediately that the performance was entirely adequate. The choir did its thing on cue, the pared-down orchestra played very well, and French Canadian guest conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni led the ensemble with evident appreciation for the music.

And yet… and yet. “Entirely adequate” is not acceptable these days for Oregon Symphony performances. This orchestra has improved immeasurably since the old days, and even more rapidly since Carlos Kalmar became Music Director in 2003. A former minor band has become an accepted major orchestra, perhaps not quite on a par with New York and Chicago, but not far behind. It attracts the same big-name soloists as the orchestras in New York, Chicago, London, and Berlin. Its use, therefore, of the all-amateur Symphonic Choir is a diminution.

In the April 10 performance, after the players and singers had two performances behind them, the effect of Mozart’s gloriously moving music was muted by the choir and by the staging, as well as the hall’s notorious acoustics. The choir should sound more immediate, more piercing, to give Mozart’s brilliant Handelian counterpoint its due. A 25- or 30-voice group of professional local choristers, singers who are paid by the likes of Cappella Romana, The Ensemble, and Resonance Ensemble, would make a far greater impact — and a louder “noise” — in performance than the 70 singers of the Symphonic Choir. And a smaller choir would allow for its being placed on the stage with the orchestra, rather than sequestered in the elevated rear-stage balcony, with its devouring acoustics and rotten sight lines.

The Symphony should profit by the example of numerous Portland Baroque Orchestra performances with chorus, in which 24 local singers (now usually Cappella Romana) never fail to provide a vivid presence. Performances with a giant choir are perhaps suitable for some late-19th-century repertoire and 20th-century extravaganzas like Carmina Burana, but for music of the 18th century and earlier, most conductors have long since abandoned cumbersome overcrowded stagings.

Perhaps the Oregon Symphony routinely brings in vocal soloists from elsewhere, as if to prove that it deserves international attention. But this seems unfortunate, both from a financial and artistic standpoint. First, importing soloists costs more in fees and transportation and housing expenses. In the case of April’s Requiem performances, local singers, auditioned by Carlos Kalmar, could easily have taken the place of soprano Katie Van Kooten, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Jack Swanson, and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams. These four did a reasonably suitable job with the rather meager solo material of Mozart’s piece, but certainly not a better job than a local quartet could have supplied. With a select local chorus and local soloists, the Symphony could thus have maintained its commitment to its community, while at the same time producing a better musical result and benefitting from the attendance of the Portland singers’ family and friends.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: bohemians & other artists

"La Bohème" at the opera, George Johanson & other gallery shows, Brett Campbell's music picks, Miss Julie and Satchmo onstage

Here they come again, those tragic bohemians. Rodolfo with his poems. Marcello with his paintings. Musetta with her songs. Mimi with her consumption. All of them as poor as church mice. Fortunately they can also sing like angels, or like the devil himself, who seems to have it in for them. It’s been eight years since Portland Opera last produced La Bohème, Puccini’s 1896 grand musical potboiler (Toscanini conducted the world premiere in Turin), which is one of opera’s greatest weepers and most enduring hits. Now Portland Opera’s brought it back again, beginning on Friday at Keller Auditorium and continuing for three more performances through May 13. It’ll feature Vanessa Isiguen as poor doomed Mimi, and the young Italian tenor Giordano Lucá, in his American debut, as Rodolfo. Let the singing, and the dying, begin.

Vanessa Issiguen, Mimi in Portland Opera’s “La Boheme,” performing in the opera’s Big Night special in April. Photo: Cory Weaver

 


 

THE MAY FIRST THURSDAY ART GALLERY OPENINGS are this week, and one of the shows we’re looking forward to is at Augen, where George Johanson has an exhibition of recent paintings going up. If we gave artists the sort of titles we used to hand out, Johanson would be a Portland Old Master: Born in Seattle in 1928, he came to Portland in 1946 to attend the old Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art), and with some breaks in New York, London, and Mexico he’s mostly been here ever since.

George Johanson, “Studio with Bunce Mask,” 2016, acrylic and oil on canvas , 40 x 60 inches.

Adept as a printmaker and a painter, he’s chronicled pretty much everything from the city’s rivers to its music to his own studio to other artists (in his 2002 book of quick portraits Equivalents: Portraits of 80 Oregon Artists) to Mt. St. Helens blowing its stack, often with a rabbit or a cat streaking across the image. As he approaches 90 he seems as active and creative as ever. His show opens Thursday and he’ll speak at the gallery at noon Saturday, May 13.

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Among the many openings and continuing gallery shows, a few other likely bets:

Yoonhee Choi and Roya Motamedi at Blackfish. Choi’s installation Sift uses bright colors and recycled plastic cups, straight pins, and the like to contemplate consumption and detritus. Motamedi’s Aptitude of Kindness includes collages of fabric and birch on paper.

James Allen’s Northwest Bound at Russo Lee. Allen “excavates” books in search of history and image – in this show, including a large altered set of bound newspapers from the old Oregon Journal in May 1914. Also: Michelle Ramin’s takes on tourists exploring architectural ruins; Amory Abbott’s charcoal drawings.

Mar Goman and Dayna J Collins at Guardino. Goman’s highly crafted, outsidery images (she calls it “curious art”) have a folk art feel and are made from just about anything she can get her hands on. Collins paints abstract images emerging from the waterlines of rivers and ocean.

Alex Lilly’s Razor Blade Rain at Michael Parsons Fine Art. May Day turned into a pitched battle in downtown Portland, and that’s an extension of what Lilly’s vivid and disturbing paintings are about. This new show is based on drawings and photographs he made while watching earlier Portland protests.

Margaret Lindburg’s Resolution at Karin Clarke Gallery. The veteran Salem artist has a new show of paintings at Clarke’s gallery in Eugene, and Randi Bjornstad has this interesting profile of Lindburg in Eugene Review.

Alex Lilly, “Riot Cops – 3rd and SW Madison,” 2017, oil on composite block, 6 x 6 inches, Michael Parsons Fine Art.

 


 

BRETT CAMPBELL’S MUSIC PICKS OF THE WEEK:

 

The four-time Grammy-winning ensemble, one of the top performers of contemporary American classical music, joins the quirky indie folk singer/songwriter (real name Will Oldham) in his own songs, plus Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang’s learn to fly and Frederic Rzewski’s fierce 1971 American classic Coming Together, which sets a heart-rending text by an inmate killed in the Attica prison uprising. The centerpiece, Murder Ballades, is a fascinating mashup of ancient English/Appalachian folk tunes like “Pretty Polly” along with original music inspired by them, all put together by Bryce Dessner, best known to rock music fans as the guitarist in The National but recently emerging as a formidable contemporary classical composer with music for Kronos Quartet and others. Wednesday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Why, when performers today sing the so-called “American Songbook,” do they seem to stop in about the late 1950s — just as they did when those numbers were actually new? It’s not like they stopped making musicals then. Eugene singer and a cappella music titan Evynne Hollens’s project has been bringing the hits from today’s musical theater — including the hottest new Broadways shows like Hamilton, Waitress, Kinky Boots, School of Rock, and more – to the Shedd and beyond for three years. Performers include professionals from LA & Portland as well as Eugene talent, including a multi-racial chorus of local UO & high school students. Thursday, The Shedd, Eugene.
A multiple winner of all the jazz awards on her instrument, the Israeli clarinetist fell so hard for Brazil and its music that she learned Portuguese, formed her own band with Brazilian musicians, and made several albums of both traditional and original music in Brazilian styles. Stay tuned for Angela Allen’s preview of this PDXJazz show. Thursday, The Old Church.
Maybe the leading classic jazz pianist brings back his wonderful trio with Kenny Washington and Peter Washington celebrating their 20th anniversary. Charlap has worked with Wynton Marsalis, Tony Bennett and so many more of jazz and pop’s finest. “The Bill Charlap Trio is a chamber group of a quality customarily found only in equally long-lived classical ensembles,” wrote eminent jazz journalist Doug Ramsey upon their last appearance in Portland. “In their years together, pianist Charlap, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington have achieved singleness of purpose and unity of thought to a degree rare in any musical idiom.”
Friday, The Shedd, Eugene.
The acclaimed Vancouver, B.C.-based men’s choir, now led by Portland’s own Erick Lichte (a co-founder of the terrific American choir Cantus), sings a Baltic-oriented program of some of the hottest choral composers from one of the coldest areas on earth, including Estonian composer Veljo Tormis, Finland’s Jaako Mantyjarvi, Latvia’s Eriks Esenvalds, and American and Canadian composers, including Leonard Cohen. Read Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch previewFriday, First United Methodist Church, 1838 S.W. Jefferson St.
For its 10th anniversary concert, the superb women’s vocal ensemble briefly welcomes back co-founder Tuesday Rupp, but also looks forward by commissioning world premiere performances of new music by Oregon composers John Vergin, Andrea Reinkemeyer and Robert Lockwood, to go with 20th and 21st century music by Kay Rhie, Ivan Moody, and Gustav Holst, plus a Renaissance classic by Perotin.
Friday, St. Mary’s Cathedral, 1716 N.W. Davis, Portland and Sunday, Proto-Cathedral of St. James, 218 W 12th Street, Vancouver.

Everybody knows The Four Seasons, but Italy’s greatest Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi, wrote literally hundreds more concertos than just that quartet of them for violin, and so did his Italian contemporaries. Violin virtuosa Monica Huggett leads her band in Vivaldi concertos for lute, bassoon, and more, along with concerti by Pergolesi (best known for his Stabat Mater) and Giovanni Mossi.
Portland Baroque Orchestra, Friday & Saturday, First Baptist Church, and Sunday, Kaul Auditorium, Reed College.
New York composer Debra Kaye’s Ikarus Among the Stars was commissioned in memory of former PYP musician Benjamin Yaphet Klatchko by PYP and his parents. Based on Klatchko’s own melodies, Kaye’s 16-minute electro-acoustic composition takes its shape from the Ikarus and Daedalus myth about the boy who flew too close to the sun and plunged to his death in the sea. In this world premiere, clips of Klatchko’s music are woven into the finished composition, with the orchestra sometimes imitating, sometimes accompanying, and at one point resting while a recording of him singing alone plays. The concert also features Dvorak’s popular Symphony No. 8 and the excellent youth orchestra’s concerto competition winner, Annie Zhang, performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto.
Sunday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway.
The Portland new music ensemble’s Young Composers Project, which connects budding composers ages 10-18 with professional musicians to play their music, is one of Oregon’s most valuable musical education ventures. The only program of its kind in the country brings students from all over the United States to work with director Jeff Payne and five professional musicians in a yearlong series of workshops. Over the course of nine months, the young composers complete a piece for the ensemble which includes clarinet, violin, cello, percussion and piano. You might be surprised at how accomplished and appealing many of them can sound. Sunday, Eliot Chapel at Reed College.

 

CURTAINS UP: NEW ONSTAGE

Satchmo at the Waldorf. Salim Sanchez stars as the great Louis Armstrong in the Oregon premiere of Terry Teachout’s drama. Opens Thursday, through May 27 at Triangle Productions.

Miss Julie. Samantha Van Der Merwe directs Craig Lucas’s adaptation of Strindberg’s taut and explosive drama at Shaking the Tree, with Beth Thompson as Julie, Matthew Kerrigan as Jean, and Kelly Godell as Kristine. Friday through June 3.

Pinkalicious. Oregon Children’s Theatre brings back its musical hit about a girl who seems to have eaten too many pink cupcakes. Well, haven’t we all? Saturday through June 4, Newmark Theatre.

The Martha Graham Company. The modern exemplars of the legendary American modernist choreographer come to Schnitzer Hall next Tuesday, May 10, in the White Bird series.

“Miss Julie” in rehearsal at Shaking the Tree. Photo: Megan Nanna

 

 


 

ArtsWatch links

 

Gerald Clayton, family man. Angela Allen talks with jazz pianist Clayton, who plays The Old Church on Wednesday, and is carving his own place among a family of jazz bluebloods.

Mary’s Wedding: a retro refuge. A.L. Adams reviews this Canadian romance, a “refuge from the tempests of modern complication,” at Portland Center Stage.

Fire and Ice: accessible adventure. Brett Campbell talks with three woman composers (Stacy Philipps, Jennifer Wright, Lisa Ann Marsh) who are shaking up Portland’s music scene. “We’re all up for anything,” Wright says. “We found each other because we wanted to do things that don’t look like the traditional thing.”

Medea brings new meaning to catharsis. A.L.Adams reviews Imago Theatre’s fresh take on the ancient Greek classic, whose precarious balances are measured on a constantly tilting stage.

Cascadia Composers: lights, poetry, music. Composer Matthew Andrews takes readers inside the works of some recent contemporary concerts.

Talented. But are they universal? Hailey Bachrach reviews the world premiere of Yussef El Guindi’s The Talented Ones at Artists Repertory Theatre.

Pop goes the Oregon Symphony. Claire Sykes looks at all that “other” programming on the symphony season. Pops concerts? They’re not Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops anymore.

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.”

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