oregon symphony

Weekend Concert Wrap-up: Jazz Infiltrations

Jazz turned up in unlikely places last weekend in Portland.

“Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.”

— Frank Zappa

Jazz is alleged to be a dying art form, but last weekend in Portland, traces of jazz kept turning up in the oddest places: a theater, a symphony concert, even an Indian music performance. As performances by Portland State University Orchestra and Oregon Symphony, David Ornette Cherry and some of Portland’s finest jazzers, and Yashila demonstrated, this supposedly endangered music exerted a powerful and often positive influence far beyond its home base in small clubs, and its creative, rebel spirit still prevails in other 21st century music.

Notes from the Underground

New York’s subway system has long inspired composers, most famously in Billy Strayhorn’s 1941 classic “Take the A Train,” for Duke Ellington’s band. The latest jazzer to derive some notes from the underground: Portland State University professor George Colligan, a recent NYC transplant whose new Existence drew some inspiration from the image of a crowded New York subway station. Colligan wrote out all the melodies and harmonies, but at its premiere at the PSU Orchestra’s Halloween concert, playing trumpet instead of his usual keyboards or drums, he led the student musicians to the Improv Avenue stop part way through the piece, producing a sweet tension over the steady beat, maybe reflecting the rich, occasionally chaotic urban cross currents that await when you disembark.

Norman Sylvester played bluesy guitar in David Ornette Cherry's Organic Nation Listening Party.

Norman Sylvester played bluesy guitar in David Ornette Cherry’s Organic Nation Listening Party.

Along with music by both famous Gabrielis, Ravel’s gorgeous Mother Goose ballet music, which the orchestra will perform with the Portland Ballet later this month, the concert also sported yet another new composition by a PSU faculty member inspired by New York bustle: a “preliminary sketch” of conductor Ken Selden’s Scandal in the Deep, composed to a ballet scenario by the French poet Celine, in which the Roman god of the sea, Neptune, is involved in a scandalous love affair with a mermaid. The students played only a skeletal version of a small portion of this work in progress, so I’m reluctant draw any conclusions about it now, but the unexpected, tantalizing taste of what I did hear makes me eager for the rest.

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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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