oregon symphony

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

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


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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Things get HOT for the holidays

Chris Murray tosses a pitchy log on the Yuletide fire, MORE!

Very occasionally in oh-so-polite Portland arts circles, someone utters an intemperate remark or two. Startling! And then, some infinitessimal number of those very occasional remarks are emailed to a journalist. Oh happy day!

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in "The Aliens"/Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in “The Aliens”/Third Rail Repertory Theatre

So, yes, Chris Murray (who can be gloriously open about his opinions) sent Alison Hallett (the arts editor of the Mercury, who knows fun when she sees it) an email. ostensibly to explain why he’s starting a new theater company called Whizz-Bang. But it didn’t take Murray long to get himself into full rant (and as Hallett noticed, keyboarding on his phone (!)). You should read the whole thing because the issues it raises are really interesting but also because, yeah, intemperate!

Theatre seems produced largely through fear. Fear of the subscriber, the donor, the audience, the squeaky wheels. In most performance houses in America, it’s an old crowd that patronizes theatre. Portland has a ton of hip seniors who love theatre (thank fucking god), but there can nevertheless be a lack of excitement and funding for live entertainment that doesn’t fall into the standard category of theatre.

Now, I don’t think that the financials of what Murray wants to do actually pencil out, but that doesn’t make his observations about the current state of things wrong.


If you missed the terrific tenor Nicholas Phan perform this past year in Eugene and/or Portland, here’s a chance to hear him singing a few folk song arrangements by Benjamin Britten.


David Stabler, the eminence gris of The Oregonian’s arts staff, called up the Oregon Symphony to see how things were going. Maybe he’d heard some of the same rumblings I’d heard. Anyway, the news from the symphony was all good: donations are up, and ticket sales are up $1 million over last year. The only disconcerting note in the story? That these positives “do not point to a balanced budget.” Uh-oh. We’ll be getting into this very DEEPLY in January.


It’s devoutly hoped that the Oregon Symphony doesn’t follow in the footsteps of the Minnesota Orchestra, where while the musicians are playing, management is “turtling.”


Its 2010 “Joy to the World” album is probably playing on more stereos at the moment, but a new mini-documentary about the making of Pink Martini’s 2013 “Get Happy” album is up. Storm Large meets Phyllis Diller!


The New Yorker’s John Lahr, himself a National Treasure, reports on the last show of Dame Edna


The Ensemble sang Victoria's Requiem in Portland.

The Ensemble sang Victoria’s Requiem in Portland.


I was just losing myself in the ornate, azure-flooded sanctuary of St. Stephen Catholic Church in southeast Portland, when exquisite harmony welled out from behind the pews. The Ensemble, a chorus made up of some of the city’s finest singers, had begun to sing Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “Salve Regina,” the first work in an October 20 program that alternated Victoria works sung at funeral services with traditional Gregorian chants for the occasion, and culminating in his requiem mass, “Officium Defunctorum a 6,” written shortly after the death of the Empress Maria of Austria in Madrid in 1603 and dedicated to her memory. The sound filled the church so powerfully that I could hardly believe I was hearing only six individual singers, yet at the same time I was so captivated, helped by Victoria’s intricate yet effortlessly flowing counterpoint, that while I felt an automatic urge to check, I couldn’t bear to break the spell by turning around to look.

By the time I did, they had moved on to a plainsong chant, and were beginning a gradual process that would eventually see them – there were indeed only six – reassemble in front for the latter part of the program. Even the plainsong selections, sung by two voices, filled the space as if coming from all over. Director Patrick McDonough, who also sang, modestly gave credit to the building when we talked after the performance, and no doubt it’s a great fit for them. But  there’s no denying the power of the group, or its precision, which seemed to resound perfectly from every corner. At the same time, they projected a comforting warmth into the cool dimness, as if infused from the early autumn sunshine outside.

Some of the credit for that warmth must go to the composer. Victoria may have been a priest of the Counter-Reformation, but there’s little of the cool detachment  — some would say squareness— one might therefore expect, and which is indeed a signature characteristic of his more famous colleague Palestrina. Instead the music has an almost visceral appeal. Mournful, accented dissonances in the form of suspensions (where the harmony shifts under an initially consonant voice) are common. In the Requiem, these occasionally come so fast in various voices that one gets a hint of centuries later harmonic practice. Sometimes the harmony shifts under a pair of voices, which seems to double the expressiveness. And Victoria was sensitive to the tension suspensions create, often allowing it to dissipate in long melodic lines that may seem to wander, but in enchanting ways. Listening to these lines, it’s not hard to believe the composer was an accomplished singer too.

Aside from these details, the harmony consists of standard major and minor chords, as was traditional in the day, and those mostly even in standard configuration (what musicians call root position). It also shuns technicolor innovations common in the secular music of the day, such as Gesualdo’s. But the concert was almost over before I noticed the limited palette. Somehow Victoria arranged and rearranged it in a way that’s always engaging and never repetitive, and he did know just when to insert some especially colorful detail. This artistry is a gift to any vocal group. The Ensemble took full advantage, returning the favor with sensitive phrasing and fine tuning throughout. I’m sure it was quite a workout for them, but they gave very little evidence of it. I could have listened, happily absorbed, for a lot longer.

A 20th Century Requiem

Fast forward nearly four centuries. An ensemble as large as The Ensemble is small, the Oregon Symphony, along with Portland Symphonic Choir, Pacific Youth Choir, Pacific University Chamber Singers plus vocal soloists, bring us another masterpiece of exquisite harmony and expressive melody, Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” this weekend. The forces are vast and the palette is too.  From the opening panoply of ringing bells, seeming to accompany a procession of bodies being dragged to their final resting places, through brutal depictions of battle (entirely second-hand however – the composer, a dedicated pacifist, was a conscientious objector during WWII), to the final heavenly harmonic transformation, Britten threw everything he had into this 90- minute masterpiece that meant so much to him.

He wrote the “War Requiem” in 1961 to celebrate the re-opening of Coventry’s St. Michael’s Cathedral, which had been mostly destroyed along with much of the rest of the city in the horrific German air raid of November 14, 1940. The cathedral was rebuilt according to a new design that incorporated what little was left of the ruins. Similarly, Britten’s work focuses as much on the aftermath of calamity as on promises of future bliss. It is magnificent, disturbing, and ultimately, perhaps, cathartic.

It’s been a couple of weeks now since I heard The Ensemble sing the Victoria requiem, and I’ve been marveling lately at how their sensitive performance let me submerge myself gloriously in a 400-year-old work of music. I wonder how the “War Requiem” will seem to people a few hundred years from now. The question may be moot given the rapid pace of our technological development and its social consequences. But war seems set to continue indefinitely, if not (barring nuclear insanity) in the concentrated form the citizens of Coventry experienced. It’s not for me to say – after all, as an American just young enough to miss Vietnam, my knowledge of war is even more distantly removed than Britten’s – but I would like to think that, as with Victoria’s immortal requiem, people will still gather to perform Britten’s, and that listeners will still lose themselves in it, glory in its beauty, and find at least a part of whatever healing they may require.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and a board member for Cascadia Composers.

 Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

The Oregon Symphony performed with Portland indie rockers at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The Oregon Symphony performed with Portland indie rockers at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

No, your screen isn’t deceiving you (at least not about Oregon arts); this is a special bonus edition of our usually weekly look at what’s happening in Oregon music. Don’t blame us; blame the profusion of worthwhile events happening Wednesday night!

I was actually tempted to call this one “News and Nose,” or “Nose and Notes” because, although opera fans have a couple of other treats coming up Friday (including Oregon Public Broadcasting’s TV premiere of one of today’s most prominent contemporary operas, San Francisco composer Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick,” on Great Performances, and of course Portland Opera’s “Salome,” which we’ll preview on a silver platter shortly), anyone interested in contemporary visual, theatrical and musical arts should hie herself over to one of the half dozen cinemas in Oregon that on Wednesday are screening the encore presentation of the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival of its acclaimed 2009 production of Shostakovich’s 1930 opera “The Nose.” This latest offering in the Met’s Live in HD series opened last Saturday and will be encoring at theaters in Bend, Beaverton, Happy Valley, Medford, Portland, Salem and Springfield.

Shostakovich’s quasi-Cubist score, which dazzles with everything from a percussion ensemble interlude to a gorgeous vocal chorale to a polka, is a precisely-performed delight, very different from the great 10th symphony he wrote at the end of this career, and performed by the Oregon Symphony last weekend. So is the source material, Nikolai Gogol’s proto-Surrealist 1936 short story, but the real star is the multifaceted visual design by one of the great visual artists of our time, South African theater artist William Kentridge. I’d wanted to catch this runaway Nose ever since I immersed myself for a full day at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s encompassing 2009 exhibit of  the artist’s films and various components of his design for the Met’s production, which Kentridge based on the concept of the opera reflecting, or maybe refracting, the Stalinist politics and violence ravaging Soviet Russia at the time of its original production.

As I discovered in last Saturday morning’s screening, it succeeds brilliantly, with continuous projections, lighting, even supertitles all integrated with the precisely choreographed stage action. Matching the music’s montage style, hints of Terry Gilliam’s work, Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” even filmed cameos of the composer himself flit by, along with too many other images and shadow puppet style silhouettes to sort out. So much is going on at once, in fact, that it’s a little overwhelming to see it live. Which only makes me want to see it again.

However, that would mean missing a harmonic convergence of two ambitious new works by erstwhile Portland composer and pianist Andrew Oliver, who received a commission from Chamber Music America to write “New Traditions,” a new suite for his Kora Band, which for the past few years has made a fabulously fizzy blend of the West African kora harp, trumpet, and rhythm section. The group’s members have scattered to various points around the globe (Oliver to London), but are reconvening for a short West Coast tour, which alights at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s jazz club Wednesday night.

The equally attractive opening act, one of Oliver’s other ensembles, the Ocular Concern, will also be playing yet another brand new multi movement Oliver composition, his “Sister Cities” suite, featuring (in addition to the core jazz quintet) several prominent Oregon classical string players, plus Portland tango master Alex Krebs on bandoneon. Wait, you didn’t know Portland has a sister city in Argentina (the native land of that button accordion)? It doesn’t, but although the suite boasts plenty of global influences, they don’t derive from the music of those countries but rather from the letters of their names. It’s a terrific double bill of jazz-oriented new music by one of Oregon’s most valuable musicians. Let’s hope he returns home often.

Another young Oregon composer, Beth Karp, will perform her evocative original piano score to accompany a screening of Paul Wegener’s 1920 German Expressionist film, “The Golem” Wednesday night at northeast Portland’s Alberta Rose theater. And yet another Oregon composer, Eugene’s Michael Roderick, has written a tart, tango-tinted original score to another silent classic, F.W. Murnau’s Drac classic,  “Nosferatu,” which Roderick’s colorful band, Mood Area 52, performs Wednesday night at Portland’s Mission Theater and Thursday night at Eugene’s Bijou Cinemas.

Beth Karp conducted a chamber ensemble at Classical Revolution PDX's Decomposers Night.

Beth Karp conducted a chamber ensemble at Classical Revolution PDX’s Decomposers Night.

Oregon Originals

Reversing her process with “The Golem,” Beth Karp composed another score (“Things That Go Bump in the Night”) for a string quartet and soprano Arwen Myers, and then chose a scene from a much campier old film called “Genuine” to accompany it at Classical Revolution PDX’S annual Decomposer’s Night Sunday at downtown Portland’s Star Theater. It was one of several new works by Oregon composers at this year’s edition, all enjoyable in their very different ways, and all crisply performed. Decomposers Night has grown tighter and better each year, with last year’s performance proving that CRPDX’s best work deserves a bigger showcase than its valuable monthly jam sessions.

This time, the added value emerged in the sense of freshness and discovery emanating from the solid new works by Oregon composers on the program, some written especially for this performance. Saxophonist Patrick McCulley’s “Chaining the Leviathan” showed compositional promise as well as stupendous solo chops, including multi phonics. It and the opening John Dowland song were accompanied by a projection of a live digital painting created in the moment by Portland artist John C. Worsley, and the magical effect of its gradual development (and especially the way the picture changed to reflect the music’s sudden jagged edges) compensated for the annoyance produced by the jittery cursor flitting about on the screen behind him.

Classical Revolution understands the importance of such complementary visual elements to some contemporary staged musical performances. The Waking Guild’s performance of flutist Jason O’Neill-Butler’s pretty “Sandman” included an aerial performance by Petra Delarocha.

The other new piece on the program, Reed College student Nathan Showell’s incidental music (for clarinet and string trio) to H.P. Lovecraft’s haunting 1922 story, “The Hound,” effectively counterpointed Willamette Radio Theater basso profundo Sam Mowry’s gleefully B-movie style reading of an excerpt from the tale. (As last year, Mowry made an engaging MC as well.) Showell, whose age and OLCC policies conspired to prevent him from attending his own premiere, is a promising new voice on Oregon’s music scene.

All the new works had something to say, but the evening’s highlight was an oldie: early 20th century French composer Andre Caplet’s 1909 “Conte fantastique,” inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s famous chiller “The Mask of the Red Death,” which persuasively added to a string quartet a harp (played here by Kate Petak), of all instruments, to conjure musical chills. I’d love to see this rarely performed music, reminiscent of Ravel, performed as part of a theater or dance expression of Poe’s tale.

CRPDX members also battered at the barriers between pop and classical music in violinist Mike Hsu’s chamber arrangement of a song by the doomy ’80s band The Cure, and by joining in a song by the next act, Portland rocker Myrrh Larsen, although it was hard to hear the acoustic instruments over the amplified rock band. The goth industrial Church of Hive followed, and it was heartening to see how easily the classical music, musicians and audiences blended so naturally with everyone else at the theater. It felt like classical music was part of a bigger story of contemporary Portland music, rather than isolated to an irrelevant tangent.

In fact, Decomposers Night provided one of three encouraging signs for Portland contemporary classical music this month. A week earlier, Cascadia Composers’ fall concert also demonstrated that organization’s increasing vitality. The music, all written by Oregon composers, ranged from academic modernism to atonal to electronic enhanced, and most of it was performed by the Oregon Brass Quintet, who drove to Portland’s Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church from Eugene, continuing a trend toward top local performers at CC shows. Oregon music deserves strong performances, and it’s nice to see that happening both at Cascadia and Classical Revolution concerts. But even some of the state’s finest players need to allow adequate rehearsal time, which, judging by the aural evidence in a couple places, wasn’t always present here.

The strongest works  tended to be the shortest and composed for only one or two players. Pianist Monica Ohuchi’s incisive performance of Eugene composer Mark Vigil’s punchy Fantasy for Piano #1 showed that her husband, composer/violist Kenji Bunch, didn’t provide the only boost to the Oregon music scene stemming from the family’s recent relocation from New York to Bunch’s hometown of Portland. Justin Bulava’s searching solo on Portland composer Dan Brugh’s breezy Fantasia for clarinet and tape (a work written for him, which no doubt explains his fine performance) blended beautifully with the electronic textures. Ohuchi and trombonist Robert Taylor’s duet in Portland composer Cynthia Stillman Gerdes’s wonderfully woozy “Waking Up Slow” made me want it to go on longer, just like a morning slumber — but that would have violated the intent of the piece, which is all about not wanting to get out of bed in the morning (but apparently doing so anyway, darn it).

Despite the occasional stumble, brass ensemble works by Rick Crittenden (“So Far from Home”), Charles Copeland (who also supplied the best program notes among many good ones here!), Liz Nedela (“Cool Breezes”), and David Leetch’s funny fusillade of fanfares all provided enjoyable moments. The most ambitious piece, Michael Johanson’s “Summer Rhapsody,” seemed aimed at an academic modernist audience, but Medford composer I’lana Cotton’s peppy 2001 brass quintet, “Speed Trap Blues” ended the concert on vibrant note. Cascadia is elevating its concerts beyond the vanity showcases composer presentations often amount to; they’re now becoming audience-friendly exhibitions that anyone who wants to know what’s happening in Oregon music need to hear.

Pianist Monica Ohuchi joined members of the Oregon Brass Quintet at Cascadia Composers fall concert.

Pianist Monica Ohuchi joined members of the Oregon Brass Quintet at Cascadia Composers fall concert.

The third promising sign for Oregon classical music I caught this month happened at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, where pops conductor Jeff Tyzik led the OSO musicians in a collaboration with three prominent current and former Portland indie rock singers. The symphony has won something of a reputation in classical circles for its earlier, relatively tasteful work with popsters, which in some hands seem like slumming, often featuring over the hill rockers with goopy strings further bloating already festering prog fare.

The symphony certainly deserves kudos for any attempt to actually engage, on an artistic rather than merely demographic level, other elements of Oregon’s vibrant music scene, but how would it work in practice? Would the orchestra really be helpful or even necessary to the music?

The answer came in the first set. You could tell this wasn’t a standard orchestra concert because the male orchestral musicians were dressed like 20th century bankers rather than 19th century butlers — que c’est casual! But songwriter Holcombe Waller strode onstage resplendent in white (he was joined by guitarist/violinist Ben Landsverk, who has some experience with classical music as well, and drummer Gavin Bowes), and on his songs with the orchestra, the big sound (with generally astute orchestral arrangements by Gabriel Kahane, Jherek Bischoff and Waller himself) really seemed to be what expansive songs like “Down & Cried” and “Moses” wanted. Waller’s ample voice and confident delivery (despite a slippery sustain pedal at one point) kicked the concert off to a promising start. I haven’t always tuned into Waller’s frequency, but his strong performance here made me eager to hear his upcoming collaboration with FearNoMusic at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater next month.

Now, none of this is to say that this is “classical music” per se — but who cares about such arbitrary categories? It was a singer with an orchestra, and the question really is whether the combination made musical beauty. In the theatrical Waller’s case, the combo worked a treat. With the following singer, former Portlander Mirah, not so much — both her small, breathy voice and the scale of her songs were overshadowed by the big band. The final act, one of my personal recent Portland faves, Black Prairie, also possesses a bigger sound that mostly worked fine with the orchestral accompaniment, but the combo didn’t really add much to the music itself.

The concert qualifies as a mostly successful experiment, but even if it hadn’t been, the symphony would have deserved credit for trying something a little different. Such efforts haven’t generally led new listeners to return for classical music concerts, although they often provide a one-time boost to the bottom line. Nothing wrong with that, as long as the product isn’t a travesty, and that was never a danger here. In fact, I would have enjoyed the show even more if they’d cut the non-orchestral pieces that consumed half of each set, though maybe those were needed for the pop musicians’ core audiences in case they didn’t like all those strings and brass. But the show ran a little long, and ultimately, the concept stood just fine on its own.

I hope this commendable, frequently satisfying attempt to connect with Oregon’s larger musical community leads to more such collaborations — preferably involving (maybe commissioned) music by Oregon pop-oriented composers, built from the ground up for orchestra, rather than tacked on as an afterthought. What a splendid opportunity that could provide for Portland’s more creatively ambitious pop musicians to make more complex music than they’re able to compose for a rock band, as well as for the orchestra and for Oregon music lovers who care more about musical quality and freshness than category. Judging by the three concerts I heard in the past couple weeks, this community teems with a wealth of creative musical talent, classical and otherwise, that’s ready to enlist the state’s finest musicians to make new, ambitious homegrown music for Oregon music lovers.

Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

News & Notes: How much does the Oregon Symphony pay Carlos Kalmar?

We don't know, and the symphony isn't telling...why that's a problem

Yesterday in News & Notes, the top story went to the contract extension through June 2018 of Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar. A simple story, really, though one piece of crucial information was missing: The press release never mentioned how much Kalmar was going to be making.

So, I perused the music director salaries on orchestra consultant Drew McManus’s website, Adaptistration, and found Kalmar listed, though the most recent 990 tax form that McManus had was 2010-11. I cited the number and Adaptistration: It was a little more than $450,000, a number I’d seen used for Kalmar before. Given both the increases in music director salaries and Kalmar’s stature with his base in the symphony community, I felt safe in suggesting that Kalmar’s new salary would be larger than the one three years ago.

But at midday, I received an emergency phone call from the communications department at the symphony, and the messenger said I’d have to remove that $450,000 number because it was incorrect. Kalmar’s yearly fee was lumped in with other independent contractor fees. The clear implication was that he made less than what McManus listed.

I told her that ArtsWatch seeks to correct all errors, and I asked what Kalmar’s salary was three years ago. She wouldn’t say. I asked what Kalmar’s new contract called for. She wouldn’t say. She only said that the $450,000 number was wrong.

Why wouldn’t the symphony disclose Kalmar’s salary? Policy. The symphony does not disclose the salaries of its employees.

She invited me to call Janet Plummer, one of the symphony’s co-presidents, for further comment. Plummer and I spent 20 or 30 minutes on the phone, during which I argued for greater transparency at the symphony regarding the salary of its highest-paid worker, and she resolutely restated the policy and asserted that the symphony has met transparency requirements because it complied with the rules of the IRS’s 990 form. (The 990 is the basic tax return that nonprofits file. It contains fairly detailed revenue and expense numbers, and seeks explanations for possible conflicts of interest for board members, among other things. Plummer’s salary is listed, for example. The website Guidestar collects them.)

Finally, I asked Plummer what happened at the symphony when two essential principles came into conflict, the privacy right of the individual and the right of the community to make informed judgments and decisions. At that point, she said she thought I was trying to trap her and that she’d talk to legal counsel and get back to me.

Actually, it was a philosophical question and as such, open-ended. There was no “correct” answer and no “trap.” The lawyers probably wouldn’t be able to help.


Carlos Kalmar/Photo by Leah Nash

Carlos Kalmar/Photo by Leah Nash

At this point, I have to say that, personally, I don’t really care what Kalmar’s salary is. Whether its $150,000 or $450,000 matters a lot to Kalmar, perhaps, but not to me. I wish Kalmar nothing but moonbeams and BMWs!

It’s only important in particular contexts. One of those is the context that McManus provides, the salaries of music directors of American orchestras. The fact that McManus, who knows his way around a 990, was unable to correctly peg Kalmar’s salary on that list is a problem both for the list and for the Portland public’s understanding of where Kalmar fits into the national scheme of things. If he was working for $150,000, we’d consider him underpaid (and symphony management shrewd bargainers). We might decide that $450,000 was the high end of what a symphony with the budget of the Oregon Symphony’s should be paying its music director, but still within the bounds of reason, given Kalmar’s musical success with the orchestra.

McManus says finding music director salaries is “usually a very straightforward process. “The only slight curve ball is when a MD [music director] is a private contractor and has a corporation name other than his/her birth name. But even then, it isn’t hard to find and I have yet to encounter an orchestra that was unwilling to verify the corporate/MD connection.”

Another crucial context, already implied parenthetically, is simply how the symphony conducts its business. If the music director was making $1 million a year at an orchestra the size of the Oregon Symphony, then we’d wonder about its management and scrutinize other decisions it made.

Why should the symphony want to disclose this information? Because it receives public money and support from its own community. Donors of whatever kind (government, foundations, individuals, corporations) want to give to responsible stewards of their money. Another reason: by freely disclosing information about itself, the symphony builds trust.

This all seems obvious to me. The point of my questioning of Plummer was simply to ask why the symphony was acting against its self-interest in this regard? And the answer I was given – because we don’t think we have to reveal Kalmar’s salary on the 990 form – isn’t sufficient, at least for me.


Nonprofits must fill out the IRS 990 form, and they provide a wealth of financial data. I found it interesting that neither Drew McManus nor I could figure out Kalmar’s salary from the Oregon Symphony’s 990. The other symphonies I’ve checked list the music director, either by name or title, either among the top salaries or largest contractors. For example, I just dropped in on the Seattle Symphony 990 from 2011-12 and saw that music director Gerard Schwarz made $583,854. Apparently, the Oregon Symphony wasn’t reading the requirements of the 990 form for 501(c)(3)s in the same way as Seattle was.

It’s possible to do a little digging, of course. On its 2011-12 990, the Oregon Symphony lists Cramer/Marder Artists in San Francisco as a contractor. Carlos Kalmar is represented by Cramer/Marder. The “description of services” for the Cramer/Marder entry reads, “guest conductor and artist agent.” The amount is $326,000. So, presumably Kalmar made less than $326,000 that year (remember, Adaptistration’s number came from the year before). The “guest conductor” must have been on the Cramer/Marder roster that year, and we’d have to subtract his fee from the total to arrive at Kalmar’s salary. I have no way of knowing how much that guest conductor spot paid, but we have a pretty good idea that Kalmar made around $300,000 that year, considerably less than $450,000.

So, why so coy about the actual number?

Well, that’s the point: Transparency is crucial for nonprofit arts groups. The refusal to disclose something as basic as the salary of the music director leads to that other question: why? It’s not a privacy issue: nonprofits are supposed to disclose this sort of information. If Kalmar was hired by the LA Philharmonic, his salary would be public knowledge: Gustavo Dudamel’s was $1,425,088 in 2011-12. I’m not prepared to debate Plummer’s interpretation of the legal requirements of the questions on the 990, but I’d argue that the spirit of the document is to reveal things like the salary of the highest-paid person at the organization.

I asked McManus, via email, why the music director’s salary is important information to disclose in the first place, and his interpretation of the 990 requirements differed from Plummer’s: “The reasons are many but the most important is it is required by law. The IRS and Federal Government have clearly defined reasons behind the need for disclosing compensation for nonprofit employees. The rules are regularly reviewed and updated; case in point, the IRS revised the reporting thresholds a few years back and expanded the reporting categories for employees over that threshold. It all comes down to transparency.”

Transparency again: If the public is going to have faith in the financial and artistic good sense of an orchestra, knowing how much it is paying its top employees is important. It goes beyond that, of course. Releasing attendance figures (which Plummer agreed to do, by the way), average salaries of orchestra members, the amount paid for guest artists (which she refused to do, citing the policy), and the top-selling item at the snack bar are important, too. Well, maybe not that last one. (White wine? Pretzels?) That way, those of us who care about the health of the symphony can track it ourselves. It would answer a lot of questions, and maybe raise a few good ones, too.

Another question follows: If you won’t disclose something this basic, what else are you keeping secret? And why do you feel the need to keep secrets in the first place? Do you think the symphony’s community of audience members can’t be trusted to draw reasonable conclusions from the information? They’re going to think what I think: Kalmar’s compensation, so far as I can figure it out, sounds about right, given the going rate for music directors (which I can find out at Adaptistration, a list that the Oregon Symphony subverts just a little bit by not clearly disclosing Kalmar’s salary).

And the public at large? They’ve grown accustomed to truly massive executive salaries in the corporate world. What’s a few hundred thousand to them, or rather, us?

Another step: If everyone in the symphony’s community was aware of such things as attendance figures and the cost of guest artists, they might offer interesting information in return—about how to attract more people, or how critical those guest stars are to their interest in the symphony. Maybe they’d lay off the white wine and the pretzels and move on to coffee and cookies. And maybe they’d tell you that those huge fees just aren’t worth it.

Don’t you build a community, an engaged community at least, by trusting them with information and asking them for their ideas about problems as they arise? In orchestra after orchestra around the country, board and staff find themselves at odds with musicians and audiences, primarily because they think of them as 1) the help, and 2) the customer. They don’t understand that their subscribers aren’t volume consumers: They are the orchestra itself. Give them the power and the responsibility, and they might surprise you with their flexibility and their creativity. That goes double for the musicians.

I happen to believe that the Oregon Symphony is behind the major West Coast orchestras in its programming evolution. Dudamel, Schwarz, and Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco (the 2011-12 990 lists the music director as an independent contractor with compensation of $2,030,468) conduct more music from the 20th and 21st centuries. But I don’t know for sure what the result would be if Kalmar went that direction.

What would happen if he explained what he wanted to try to his community (staff, board, musicians, audiences) and the public at large, what he hoped to gain by it, how much he needed their responses to the various programs he had in mind? I’m just naive enough to think something good might come of it. And what would happen if he asked the audience for help in solving the “graying of the audience” problem? I have a feeling they’d have some good ideas, and they would respond favorably to experiments the orchestra might try, if they were explained to them.

That’s a different kind of arts organization, and one in which a Red Alert over a salary figure wouldn’t be necessary.


At one point in our conversation, Plummer suggested that I call Kalmar and ask him what his salary was, is and will be. She even gave me his number, and I left a message: Hey, Carlos, how much do you make?

The reality is that I have a close enough understanding of how much he has made in the past to consider it reasonable. The actual dollar figure isn’t that important. I’m more interested in the contract extension, both because it’s interesting to see how the board values his contribution monetarily and how it fits into the increase in music director salaries nationwide. Because I think that the symphony operates in a professional, rational way, I don’t think I’d be surprised by the details of the new deal. They would probably simply confirm my overall impression.

But is the symphony being rational in its decision to keep that information secret? When seemingly no one else does? When it raises so many unnecessary questions? When it runs against the spirit of openness?

And see, this is where it gets me: If they are being irrational in this matter, what other blind spots does the Oregon Symphony have? Is my general very positive assessment of how they do business accurate? What is their rationale for the programming decisions they make?

If Plummer gets back to me with a resolution of the philosophical question I posed, about how the symphony resolves collisions between personal interest and community interest, I’ll let you know. The same with Kalmar’s actual salary and the details of his extension.

It’s actually in the symphony’s interest that you know.

TBA:13: Meow Meow and The Blow

A brief study in diva themes.

Minimalist diva, meet maximalist diva. Left, The Blow. Right, Meow Meow.

Minimalist diva, meet maximalist diva. Left, The Blow. Right, Meow Meow.

Last Friday night at TBA, I saw Meow Meow. Last Sunday, The Blow. And believe it or not, it’s taken til now to organize my notes from these female soloists’ shows in any satisfying way. This may be because the female solo show is so vastly relevant and incredibly dear to me. Having already covered some strong female leads in theater this month, having tried the medium for years myself, and occasionally facilitating others’ shows, that I’d hate to pop off and say these things wrong. When one woman faces down a whole room, it is love AND war, not either/or. It’s exhilarating, and it can be exhausting. So before we proceed, ALL DUE RESPECT.

“Wait,” you say. “Isn’t any solo performance (male or female, song or dance or theater) equally demanding?” Yes, Pet … to a point. But a diva, defined for our purposes, is a woman or female impersonator singing and talking solo who chooses to confront the (nearly inevitable) gendered expectations with intention. She may either meet, exceed, or explode said preconceptions … or she can flip them artfully to her sly advantage. This usually means deciding, before she begins, which of the tropes of womanhood to play with, and to what effect.

I imagine a classic diva like Meow Meow prepares by rifling through all the feminine styles in her literal and literary closet. Femme fatale, matron, and ingenue are, for this Broadway and London luminary, each as well-worn as an “LBD,” and each embellished with details that make them her own. Who to be … who to be? With a pair of kickin’ fishnets, a cloud of jet-black hair and a dizzy demeanor, Meow Meow conjured a classic coquette, yet she entered the Schnitz from the wings with the hasty politeness of an English matron trying to squeeze onto a crowded subway train. (“Excuse me … thank you Darling … do you speak English?”)

Soon she morphed into femme fatale, clutching a cigarette in an elbow-length red glove, bumping and shimmying in a ruched lavender evening gown with a rhinestoned crotch, stripping down to skivvies behind the conductor’s music stand. Fronting the Oregon Symphony and Pink Martini pianist-leader Thomas Lauderdale in a symphony/TBA co-presentation, she sang in French; cooed, bellowed, and whispered; made jazz hands and rolled R’s. “I’ll give you whatever I have in this exquisite sack of a body,” she promised, sometimes emitting little squeals and lurching into panty-flashing shenanigans so manic that they gave the impression that her overexposure was an innocent accident … hence dialing the persona full-circle to ingenue.

Where Meow Meow unfurled an armoire-full of ruffles and roses, the Blow exposed a near-empty contemporary walk-in closet with a full-length mirror. Khaela Maricich’s aesthetic was minimal, her delivery deadpanned. Where Meow Meow was accompanied by an orchestra, The Blow’s stage at the Winningstad was bare save a large triangle of white light and a single mic. For wardrobe, she wore only white jeans, a tank top, a low ponytail, moccasins, and a button-up shirt … and the moccasins and button-up were all that came off. Perhaps she has a sister in Kaj-Ann Pepper, whose “Post-Realness” yen suggests going beyond a presentation of rote womanhood, tossing aside feminine wiles and charm campaigns in favor of a more frank, challenging, and confrontational femaleness. Still, in a telling soliloquy, Maricich puzzled aloud over who to be, and how to please her crowd: “Which Khaela do you guys want to see? Partytime Khaela? Spooky Khaela? Awkward Khaela? New Khaela—do you actually believe there is a new Khaela?” By flipping through her stark boutique collection of parallel personas, Maricich was still performing an abstracted version of the diva routine.

Just as there are classic characters, there are some performative tricks that work (nearly) every time, writ in the diva’s velvet book of dark arts and else rarely spoken of. But I know them when I see them, and I certainly noted crossovers in Meow Meow and The Blow. I defy you to think of a diva who hasn’t played with these techniques in her routine…usually to awesome effect.

Flirting…with death.

Meow Meow, mid crowd-surf, legs akimbo and balance precarious: “I’ve lost my will to live. Can you pass me that whiskey please? Thank you Darling.” At another point, “I feel nothing. Am I alive?”

Maricich, pacing between dance numbers: “See, you get people to worry about you; get people to want you to stay alive. Then when they try to give you mouth-to-mouth, you can make out with them.”


Khaela, back to the crowd, jiggling her hips in a fluid, jiggly version of twerking: “This isn’t even my ass, because my ass doesn’t do this.”

Meow Meow, feigning a struggle to put on a red bustier before looping it around one arm like a sling: “I just have to get this over with … a little … burlesque number. It’s in my contract, you know. Just very quickly, if you’ll bear with me.”

Radical self-reliance + extreme vulnerability

Meow Meow: She frequently repeated “I have to do everything myself,” as she passed out roses for the crowd to throw at her and steamed up the stage with a hand-held smoke machine. But by the close of the show, she was singing a different tune in Patty Griffin’s “All The Girls,” tapering to a whisper: “Be careful how you bend me, be careful where you send me, be careful how you end me…be careful with me. ”

Maricich: “Are you guys scared for me up here all by myself?” and later, “I know that I just invented myself so that I could make out with myself.”

Keeping collaborators on-board

Meow Meow: According to TBA artistic director Angela Mattox, Lauderdale and Meow Meow met at a prior TBA fest, and there was an obvious chemistry between them. Lauderdale, ever the sport, hopped to Meow Meow’s cues. When she chirped, “Skip to the bridge!”—they were there. When she stopped mid-song and said “I’m bored of that one,” he accommodated. Meanwhile, such abrupt transitions seemed to flummox orchestra conductor Carlos Kalmar; it took him a beat to choose soloist over score.

The Blow is a duo formed by Khaela Maricich and her light/sound technician and life partner Melissa Dyne, but Maricich alone addresses the audience. At the Winningstad, despite hogging the literal spotlight, Maricich highlighted Dyne, declaring, “That’s Melissa. Everything that she does happens somewhere else,” later whispering “I feel so close to you right now,” and closing the show with a tandem bow.

“Dom” demands

Meow Meow’s performance regularly cracked a “dom” whip. She’d politely pepper her requests with “darling” and “please,” then theatrically snap and screech, “JUST DO IT!”—then comically slip right back into Miss Manners mode. She briefly insisted that the stage should rotate, and was met halfway with a lazy susan to stand on and a minion to spin it. She requested that someone bring her a bag of chips and then handed them back after she’d licked them. She recruited audience men to be her dressers, her backup dancers, her chair, and her mic-stand—and ultimately, she demanded that Kalmar and Lauderdale disrobe, revealing red long johns under their tuxes.

Maricich, however, took the submissive pose, at one point singing, “I like torture a lot … my endurance is awesome,” and at another point remarking after a (punishing?) lighting stunt from Dyne, “What are you doing back there? I trust you.”

In the end…true love

Meow Meow: Amid several selections about heartbreak and disenchantment, and even a hint of vintage communist rhetoric (“Che, Tango che”) and apocalyptic alarm (“In This City,” a Meow Meow/Grandage original), Meow Meow made love to the room via a wistfully pan-amorous song, “Hotel Amour,” that she penned with Lauderdale. Nearly whispering as a disco ball beamed bubbles of light around the room, she sang, “a leaf that’s shaped like a heart … a simple breeze … a feather … love is everywhere.”

Maricich’s new catalog of songs seems mostly devoted to celebrating her romance with Dyne. Exuberant single “Make it Up” detailed how past romances paled in comparison to the current one, and the feeling that she and her partner have invented love. During the chorus, Maricich literally jumped for joy.


A. L. Adams also writes monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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Guitar gods and circus scores: an afternoon at the symphony

Stravinsky, Piston, and the L.A. Guitar Quartet keep things light and lively at the Schnitz

Los Angeles Guitar Quartet

Los Angeles Guitar Quartet

While Eric Clapton’s pantheon of guitar gods was shredding Madison Square Garden over the weekend (old pals like Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, B.B. King, Vince Gill, and Los Lobos dropped by to peel a little paint) a very different but no less rewarding form of guitar worship was going on in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall: the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, backed by the Oregon Symphony, was getting down and cleanly with a little Joaquin Rodrigo.

In certain quarters the members of the quartet – John Dearman, Matthew Greif, William Kanengiser, Scott Tennant – are guitar gods themselves, though more Apollonian than Dionysian. Not that they can’t get deep inside the emotions of a piece of music. They can, and do. But they come from a different tradition of acoustic and composed music that embraces the present but also circles back to the guitar’s medieval and renaissance predecessors. And while the trademark of Clapton and friends might be to take things higher, faster, and louder, the LAGQ’s virtuosity is rooted in restraint.

The guitar quartet was the guest-star part of a program that conductor and music director Carlos Kalmar called circus music – “except for the Concierto Andaluz, but it’s played by four guitarists, which is kind of a circus by itself.” And so it was – the concert, that is: Igor Stravinsky’s quick and galumphing “Circus Polka” (1942) and the 1947 version of his ballet score “Petrouchka” (originally composed 1910-11) in the first half; Walter Piston’s sly and bouncy 1940 suite from the ballet “The Incredible Flutist” following the guitarists after intermission. It was an all 20th century program, if mostly early 20th century (Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto Andaluz” premiered in 1967, and the guitar quartet’s encore, Manuel de Falla’s bumblebee-quick and ever-popular “Ritual Fire Dance,” in 1915), and there was a time when it might have been considered a first-rate pops program: it made me think of Arthur Fiedler and his emphasis on “light classics” with the old Boston Pops. No matter. On an alternatingly sunny and blustery Sunday afternoon that felt both light and breezy, so did this entertaining and deceptively challenging concert.

The best musical quartets are made up of players who are virtuosic individually but even better as an ensemble, and the LAGQ fills that bill, playing with the speed and synchronicity of a great passing basketball team: sometimes it’s tough to tell who scored the basket and who got the assist. “Concierto Andaluz” moves in ebbs and flows, quick in its fingering (it has complex meters and more than a nod to the primal rhythms of flamenco) but leisurely in its structure; and the quartet, playing a deft little passing game with the scaled-down orchestra, shows off without showing off. It was tough not to smile at this display of easy-sounding but technically difficult dexterity.

“I think ‘Petrouchka’ is my favorite Stravinsky ballet score,” my classical/opera/ballet buff younger son remarked as we settled into our seats. Not “Firebird” or “Rite of Spring”? No, he replied: “Petrouchka” seems more contemporary. Then, in his casual opening chat that is one of the advantages of attending the symphony’s Sunday afternoon concerts, Kalmar noted that “Petrouchka” is also the least popular of the three. Why? Well, the other two wind up mightily and close with a satisfying bang. “Petrouchka,” which tells the odd little tale of a lovesick puppet who is murdered by his loutish rival for the ballerina’s affections, ends not in a whimper but a quiet, caustic jeer: Petrouchka’s ghost appears on a roof above the public square, thumbing his nose at the crowd. It’s a sly, sophisticated ending, precise in its demands, and the orchestra pulled it off deftly. Stravinsky’s score is also very brassy, both in the lower and upper registers (that’s principal trumpeter Jeffrey Work expressing himself so forthrightly) and extraordinarily complex rhythmically, giving the percussionists a healthy workout. In that sense it’s definitely modernist, and it reminded me that later in his career, after he’d left Russia and Europe and moved to the United States, Stravinsky sometimes wrote scores specifically for jazz musicians.

“It seems like only the best conductors record Piston’s ‘Incredible Flutist’ suite,” the younger son said, implying that it takes a brilliant musical mind to realize that this light and impish romp of a ballet score is also a very good piece of music. Kalmar and the orchestra alike seemed convinced. They ripped engagingly and precisely through the passages of this (also) odd little tale, this one about a wandering flutist ­– principal flutist Jessica Sindell is sterling – who charms the pants off the people in a sleepy village. Again, the piece is breezy and blatty and percussive, and you could tell the players were having at least as much fun as the audience. I saw heads a-bobbin’ in the cello section, and when the orchestra got to the Circus March section where the players are called on to burst out in cheers and whistles, there was no holdin’ ’em back. Make a joyful noise, all ye lands.

At intermission the son rushed out to the lobby, took a twenty-dollar bill out of his wallet (all the cash he had) and bought a copy of an L.A. Guitar Quartet CD. “Bring it back after the show,” Michael Parsons, who was manning the sales table, told him. “They’ll be here to sign copies.” So we did, and struggled to get the damnable plastic wrapper off so it could be signed: as it happened, we’d both recently clipped our fingernails short. Eventually we managed. The woman in front of us had the same problem. “I want to get this signed,” she told the quartet’s Greif, who was sitting in the first of the assembly-line chairs, “but I just can’t seem to get this wrapping off!” He took the CD from her, displaying those impressive long and tapered fingernails that guitarists maintain for precise picking. “I can do that.” And … zip.

No doubt Clapton and Richards could do the same. But I ask you: would they stick around after a concert to autograph fans’ CDs?


  • The program repeats at 8 p.m. Monday, April 15. Ticket information 503-228-1353.
  • James McQuillen’s concert review for The Oregonian is here.


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