oregon symphony

Oregon Symphony’s diversity deficit

Orchestra’s 2018-19 classical programming fails to reflect its hometown’s inclusive values

by DAMIEN GETER

The Oregon Symphony opens its 2018-19 Classical Series Sunday with a musically diverse program and a glittering star — Renee Fleming. As varied as the concert selections are, though, they all have one thing in common: they were all written by white people. In fact, in the orchestra’s entire main classical subscription series this season, only one composer of color, out of about 46, is programmed – Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto.

This is not a phenomenon happening only with the Oregon Symphony, or only among Oregon orchestras. African American composer Evan Williams noted that he considers himself among the lucky after landing a commission with the Cincinnati Symphony. That piece, however, was not recorded — and was performed only on a children’s concert.

Composer Evan Williams

“There isn’t a lot of music by black composers being played, and often when it is, it’s in February [for black history month].” Williams says, “It feels like an afterthought.” Unfortunately, no one in the League of American Orchestras, the member organization that supports the nation’s symphony orchestras, or the Oregon Symphony keeps track of the statistics surrounding programming composers of color.

Narrow Expectations

Granted, other special concerts feature a variety of performers and composers of color targeted toward a very specific audience, like gospel Christmas. “The classical subscription series makes up less than half of our total programming,” says Natasha Kautsky, vice president of marketing and strategic engagement for the Oregon Symphony. “Through a wide variety of musical offerings, we target virtually every demographic across economic and social groups. While other larger orchestras may have a majority of classical concerts, our mix is much more diverse.”

Carlos Kalmar led the Oregon Symphony’s season-ending concerts.

But those “special” concerts are not led by the music director, meaning the regular patrons of the Oregon Symphony are not exposed to the music of this under-represented group of composers in its regular, sixteen week classical subscription series — the largest source of revenue for the orchestra, which plays for a mainly white demographic. Orchestra decision makers, like any business operators, work to keep their customers, or in this case, audience happy. And that audience has been trained by many decades of demographically narrow programming to expect a certain product. Continuously programming mostly music from the popular Viennese composers and other 18th and 19th century Europeans has resulted in an audience that wants more Beethoven, and Brahms. That also means, in Portland, Tchaikovsky is sure to make an appearance each season. But not composers of color.

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MusicWatch Weekly: time of the season

As autumn approaches, Oregon orchestras and ensembles play seasonal sounds and more

Yes, the Zombies no doubt played their iconic 1967 hit at Monday’s show at Revolution Hall, but there’s more seasonal music in the air this week. One of those iconic Portland fall traditions is to bring the family and some blankets and marvel at the annual cyclonic return of the migratory Vaux’s Swifts to that chimney at Northwest Portland’s Chapman Elementary School. In their season-opening Song of the Swifts shows, FearNoMusic brings one of New York’s best known new music pianists, Kathleen Supové to play music that touches on themes of migration — and not just by birds.

Kathleen Supové.

Musicians and other artists have joined the response to Republican politicization of immigration, which turned human suffering into human tragedy. For the last year or so, the Portland new music ensemble has been programming contemporary classical music that squarely or obliquely addresses some of today’s most pressing social issues. This time it’s migration. Supové, who grew up in Portland, plays three world premieres (by Portland’s own Jay Derderian, her partner and well known composer Randall Woolf, and Paula Matthusen), composed for Sunday’s pop up concert, which happens a few blocks from the Chapman School chimney that has long been a gathering place for the birds, and for Portlanders who love watching them circle, cavort and finally take the plunge. The performance also features video and visual art.

Those three premieres repeat at Monday’s concert at the Old Church, which also pairs Supové with FNM musicians in migration and/or bird-related music by young Portland composer Katie Palka, the great Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, Michi Wiancko, and Takashi Yoshimatsu.

Tomas Cotik performs with Portland Chamber Orchestra.

• As we head into fall, Portland Chamber Orchestra combines the most famous Four Seasons (Vivaldi’s familiar violin concertos) with an equally colorful 20th century successor. In The Eight Seasons, Portland State prof and Astor Piazzolla expert Tomas Cotik joins the ensemble in his fellow Argentine’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, which uses Vivaldi’s model and Piazzolla’s own pulsating nuevo tango music to paint a vibrant musical portrait of his bustling hometown. The Sunday afternoon show at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel also features longtime Oregon coast resident Ernest Bloch’s moving Prayer for Cello and Strings (with more Bloch coming next week) and Edvard Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies.

• The Oregon Symphony opens its classical season Sunday with maybe the world’s starriest soprano, Renée Fleming, and it’s a credit to both that instead of the usual familiar arias, the concert presents an attractive, substantive program of 20th century classical and theater music along with Richard Strauss’s 1888 tone poem Don Juan. The big news is Kevin Puts’s orchestral song cycle, Letters from Georgia, composed for Fleming in 2016. Puts, a Pulitzer Prize winner who’s one of the most listener friendly of contemporary classical composers, sets five letters the great American painter Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her future husband Alfred Stieglitz or her close friend Anita Politzer that describe New Mexican desert beauty, her own feelings about love and music, and more. What I’ve heard would certainly appeal to Aaron Copland fans, and there’s actual Copland (tunes from his opera The Tender Land) on the program too, as well as a pair of stirring American overtures: Samuel Barber’s 1931 overture to The School for Scandal, and Leonard Bernstein’s inevitable, and irresistible, Candide overture, plus show tunes from Sting, Kander & Ebb, Meredith Willson, Stephen Sondheim, and more — that rare star program that would be almost as appealing even without the star’s celebrity name and talent.

Renée Fleming and Oregon Symphony conductor Carlos Kalmar take their bows.

• While the Oregon Symphony goes mostly American, Portland Columbia Symphony trends Russian in its Friday and Sunday shows at Portland’s First United Methodist Church and Gresham’s Mt. Hood Community College Theater. There’s yet another seasonal number, “Autumn” from Glazunov’s The Seasons, Rachmaninoff’s big second piano concerto starring Robert Henry, and a suite from Stravinsky’s enchanting The Firebird ballet score.

• Rachmaninoff takes center stage — or is that altar? — at this weekend’s Cappella Romana concerts Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, respectively. The superb choir sings one of the 20th century’s choral masterpieces, All-Night Vigil, (sometimes called Vespers) along with psalms and hymn settings by Rachmaninoff’s Russian predecessors, placing the composer’s music in the context of a more complete Orthodox Vigil.

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Accessible Arts 1: restrictions may apply

Despite good intentions, affordability and disability still pose obstacles to enjoying Oregon arts

By DAVID MACLAINE

The system finally caught up with us, right when we were getting comfortable. “Sorry, no seats in that section,” the helpful fellow at Portland’s Newmark Theatre box office told me. The moment we had finally gotten over our anxiety over the uncertainties built into securing affordable tickets in the disabled seating area, we had just wasted a trip.

We had taken the long journey into town on bus and MAX, and had arrived an hour early. That schedule had worked nicely just the week before when we had shown up seeking opera tickets on a Saturday night. Lulled by our earlier success, I had neglected the precaution of calling Portland Opera just to make sure that seats were still available for this performance. They were available for a popular Rossini opera on Saturday: how on earth could they be sold out for a comparative rarity (Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice) on a Thursday?

But there it was: no seats to be had in the wheelchair section, not for ready money. No Gluck for you!

A scene from Portland Opera’s production of Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice.’; Photo: Cory Weaver/ Portland Opera.

During the last seven years, my partner Konnie and I had been slowly getting used to the ins and outs of the wonderful Arts for All program that allows those of us with an Oregon Trail Card, that handy replacement for the old awkward food stamps, to flash said card and purchase tickets to fine arts events for the very good price of $5 a ticket. But of course, as ads for almost anything tend to point out in the fine print, “Some rules and restrictions may apply.” And when you complicate the task of working past the restrictions each arts organization imposes on poor folks who want an affordable crack at what they offer, and then add the equally daunting challenges of wheelchair seating, your degree of difficulty certainly rises.

But we had learned not to be discouraged by the hurdles, and had been slowly adding one more organization or one more venue to the list of those we had successfully tackled. The process had its ups and downs, but never before with a letdown quite so sharp. As we’ll see, it’s since been fixed, but I’m sharing the story, and this new ArtsWatch series on accessible arts, in hopes that knowing some of the pitfalls will let others steer a somewhat smoother path, and that these issues are solvable.

Over the next few weeks here on Oregon ArtsWatch, I’ll provide a guide to making the arts accessible in an increasingly unaffordable city. This series covers three issues: this one on the Arts for All program, then a more detailed look at the specific challenges faced by those seeking seats reserved for people with disabilities. The third and final installment considers the siren song of a torrent of free music, available free in the home from our public library, a serious temptation when the process of taking in a live show starts to feel like its too much trouble, and a wonderful supplement when you want to prepare for an upcoming event. As our culture erodes around us in visible and disheartening ways, few battles are as well worth fighting as that to make great art truly accessible to all.

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MusicWatch Weekly: female gaze

Concerts bringing a female perspective to macho myths and music, and Latin American sounds top this week's Oregon music

Women: bad, deceptive, must be tamed. Seeking knowledge: bad, dangerous to entrenched power. Blind obedience: good.

That’s how a certain sexist serial Twit might regard the Adam & Eve myth, which describes original sin, all right — by a misogynistic patriarchy against half the human race. And it does go a long way to explain why we’ve struggled for millennia in a culture that demeans both women and the pursuit of knowledge. A concert on Friday at southeast Portland’s TaborSpace resists Adam & Eve myth-ogeny via San Francisco composer Jake Heggie’s 1996 song cycle Eve Song , which retells the tale from Eve’s modern, feminist perspective. Heggie, best known for his opera Dead Man Walking, sets Philip Littell’s variously angry, funny, joyous texts to a half-hour of diverse music ranging from lullaby to operatic aria, ballad, and Kurt Weill parody.

Image from forthcoming “Eve Songs” film. Photo: Diana Powe.

EveSong Project’s show raises funds (you can help!) for an original, made-in-Oregon film version of Eve Song produced by Disability Arts and Culture Project, Inclusive Arts Vibe Dance Company and Divergent Opera, which strives to make opera more accessible through diverse casting and rethinking traditional performance practices. Classical singers Jena Viemeister and Vakare Petroliunaite sing in dialogue as Eve and Lilith, Adam’s first wife/demon. Pianists Kira Whiting and Rebecca Stager accompany them in Heggie’s songs as well as music by Eugene composer Susanna Payne-Passmore, and Prayers from the Ark, Vermont composer Gwyneth Walker’s charming 2011 mini-opera setting poet Carmen Bernos de Gasztold’s ten little requests from various animals (cat, bird, goldfish, et al) aboard Noah’s Ark.


The 3rd Annual SHOCK OPERA TEASER (2018) from Guignol Fest on Vimeo.

Speaking of gender-bending singing (which we will do much more of next week in this space), how about an opera based on the career of OG cock-rocker Alice Cooper? Shock Opera: An Alice Cooper Story happens this weekend at Portland’s Paris Theater.

And speaking of women rewriting stereotypical female roles, check out  the Ingenue’s Revenge, which ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley describes as “a cabaret revue that puts forward a classic character type but asks the potent question: What happens when that sweet young thing starts to lose her innocence and reclaim her power? Answering through an array of classic and contemporary showtunes will be Sarah DeGrave, Caitlin Brooke and the ever-dynamic Cassi Q. Kohl.”

Still another female-centric original opera, Tango of the White Gardenia, premieres this weekend at Lincoln City Cultural Center. Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch preview of this Cascadia Concert Opera production.

Think “DJ” or “sound artist” and many will assume “dude.” TBA Festival’s SI performance (in partnership with that valuable Portland arts space) Friday night featuring sound artists The Creatrix ( from San Francisco), Isabella (Boston), and Decorum (PDX), proves otherwise, with S1 DJs adding to the vibe.

Hunter Noack performing outside. Photo: Joseph Ash.

This time of year, we Oregonians often choose outdoor landscapes over indoor soundscapes. But with Hunter Noack’s In a Landscape: Classical Music in the Wild, we don’t have to! You can hear him play classical and contemporary music on his Steinway, with wireless headphones to make it feel more intimate if you like — in a number of alluring alfresco locales around the state this week, including Smith Rock State Park Wednesday, Sunriver Resort Thursday, and Eugene’s Mount Pisgah Arboretum Tuesday. Read my ArtsWatch profile of Noack and his peripatetic pianistic project.

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Oregon Symphony 2018: bridging divides

Orchestra’s 2018 concerts, past and future, appeal to broader audiences than the stereotype suggests

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

I went and heard the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi perform live six times during the first half of this year, from January’s Brahms v. Radiohead mashup to May’s season-closing Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. That’s more than once a month. By comparison, I have seen my favorite living rock band—Santa Cruz ikons Secret Chiefs 3—seven times ever. This regular attendance at the concerts of a single performing group is one of the things that sets classical music apart from its eternal sibling rival, popular music. You’ve got to talk to Deadheads and Phish fans to find that level of devotion in the pop world.

Zoo-bound: Conductor Carlos Kalmar with the Oregon Symphony.

I’ve come to have a few favorite OSO players. Timpanist Jon Greeney is a damn superstar, always in tune, always in rhythm, never too loud (important) but never too soft either (even more important). The cello section is anchored by a dynamite principal and assistant principal duo: Fear No Music’s Nancy Ives and Pyxis Quartet’s Marilyn de Oliveira. The brass section never fails to delight, especially the trumpet-trombone-tuba contingent, playing proudly from their risers behind the basses. I’ve come to expect something amazing from that crew every time: by turns bold and morbid in their February performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, gorgeously operatic all through Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in May (gotta keep up with that tenorhorn soloist!), and downright revelatory in January’s performance of the brass-heavy Rite of Spring.

3D Sound & Star Attractions

The Rite demonstrated another important aspect of the orchestral concert experience: that huge, 3-dimensional sound, vastly varied timbres emerging from all across the stage (in visually identifiable ways) as the band’s 100-odd instruments and occasional voices interweave their solos and duos and tuttis and come together for big polychoral reverberations around the concert hall’s acoustically ornate cathedral of sound. All that makes even a good home stereo system sound like a pair of crappy used earbuds from the Goodwill bins. In the Rite, the brass section’s heralds and hunting calls resounded across the orchestra, trumpets tossing their call over the strings towards the horn section, buried down behind the other winds, harrumphing out their primeval wails in response. Glorious!

And then there’s the guest stars, and I don’t just mean big name soloists like Joshua Bell (blissing out on Bernstein’s beautiful Symposium in May), Natasha Paremski (thunderingly catlike on Prokofiev’s weird, playful Piano Concerto No. 2—another one with some fantastic brassin February), and Elina Vähälä (whose heroic, melancholy performance of Bartok’s brasstastically  anti-fascist Violin Concerto No. 2 left me stirred and genuinely terrified in January).

Colin Currie and the Oregon Symphony’s percussionists teamed up in a John Corigliano piece last spring.

In April, percussion whiz and artist in residence Colin Currie returned for an amusing and impressive take on a too-long Corigliano concerto. A parade of local choirs ran all through the season, from the various impeccable groups Portland State churns out with perplexing regularity (I could listen to them sing Daphnis and Chloe forever) to emergency shelter intake form’s Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics and Maybelle Community Singers.

There’s also the extra-musical collaborations, something the OSO has gone out of its way to cultivate the last several years, culminating in grand experiences like the superprofusion of Rose Bond’s Turangalila in 2016 and Matthew Haber’s less overwhelming but still exciting video projections for the Rite.

And, of course, there’s all the popular music.

Popularity Contest: Apollo and Dionysus in the Concert Hall

Florida Man and famed humorist Dave Barry defined classical music as “music that is not popular.” It’s hard to say he’s wrong, in the sense that raving fans don’t generally scream and holler when Kalmar gets off a plane—at least not the way they do for, say, “Weird Al” Yankovic. But Kalmar does get his cheers, as does the rest of his band, every time they play, every time they come on stage, sometimes several times in one concert.

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MusicWatch Weekly: something in the water

It may be a short dry spell for Oregon music, but there’s liquid relief in sight from Bridgetown Orchestra, plus outdoor shows by Oregon Symphony, Hunter Noack and more

We Oregonians can’t wait to for summer, and then when it gets here, we kvetch — the heat! The smoke! The kids underfoot! Not enough concerts! Wait, that hasn’t been true for awhile. But school’s back, for some, the heat wave is broken, the smoke is starting to recede (digits intertwined), and both classical music and liquid refreshment is on the way!

‘On Being Water’ splashes down at The Vault Thursday through Saturday.

Not rain, mind you, but Bridgetown Orchestra’s On Being Water, which runs Friday and Saturday at the Vault Theater in Hillsboro. (Note: Thursday’s performance has been canceled due to a tech fail. Such is the price of making art on the bleeding edge.) It’s the latest multimedia project by composer/wannabe astronaut/theater artist and Bridgetown Artistic Director Tylor Neist, whom you remember from 2016’s ambitious The Overview Effect, which sent audiences on a musical/theatrical journey through inner and outer space.

Neist in ‘The Overview Effect.’

This time, Neist splashes down at Hillsboro’s new black box theater space, and takes advantage of its state of the art lighting and other tech. In exploring society’s mythic relationship to H2O,
On Being Water immerses the audience in imagery and his original music for live string quartet, which, according to his press release, “resonate[s] through 32 speakers dispersed over 4 floor-to-ceiling projection surfaces, creating a dynamic, 3-D sound spatialization [as] he manipulates the individual string lines on multiple axes in real time for total control, making possible all kinds of extraordinary ‘sound bath’ effects, such as sunrises and sunsets of music.”

As with Overview, Water features visual design by Benjamin Read, creative director at Redhaus Design. Stay tuned for Matthew Andrews’s ArtsWatch review.

Meanwhile, you can read his ArtsWatch review/preview of Friday’s Oregon Symphony reprise performance and recording of Gabriel Kahane’s Emergency Shelter Intake Form.

Part of the set for ‘On Being Water’

Speaking of the OSO, the next day, the orchestra moves the annual unofficial opening of Portland’s classical music season to the Oregon Zoo. Nevertheless, Oregon Symphony at the Zoo keeps the popular format, including Greatest Classical Hits by Richard Wagner, Bizet (Carmen) Gershwin (An American in Paris) and more, including the over-the-top finale, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture — but with bass drums replacing the usual howitzers. No wants an elephant stampede. And no, Carnival of the Animals isn’t on the program.

The Oregon Symphony performs at the Oregon Zoo Saturday.

In a Landscape, Portland pianist Hunter Noack’s itinerant show that takes his classical and contemporary music performances to some of the Northwest’s most beautiful spaces, alights upon Lewis & Clark Timberlands above Cannon Beach Saturday, then Hillsboro’s Orenco Woods Nature Park Sunday, Stoller Family Estate Monday, and Smith Rock State Park next Wednesday.

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Gabriel Kahane’s new oratorio confronts America’s empathy deficit

Commissioned, performed and recorded this week by the Oregon Symphony, 'emergency shelter intake form' humanizes homelessness

Interview by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Since attending its premiere in May, I’ve been thinking a lot about Gabriel Kahane’s latest pop-classical whatsit—not the album that came out last Friday, though we’ll get to that when he returns next year, but his emergency shelter intake form, which the Oregon Symphony performs for the fourth time this year at Friday’s live recording project. (Get your tickets now!) It was also performed last month at Jacksonville’s Britt Festival, which co-commissioned it with the OSO.

The oratorio, I’ve come to realize, is largely a story—told from several angles—about the experience and impact of becoming homeless, a story about how society frames (and thereby misunderstands) the homeless experience, and a story of how we as a society can understand and begin to heal the broken systems of inequality that cause America’s continuing housing and homelessness crises. It is also, incidentally, a very fine orchestral song cycle, in the BrittenBernstein tradition.

Gabriel Kahane performs in his ’emergency shelter intake form’ with the Oregon Symphony./Photo by Yi Yin

We cannot overstate the impact of the juxtaposition between the glorious Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, on Southwest Broadway where the Symphony performs, and the South Park Blocks behind it, often populated by people experiencing the sort of unsheltered homelessness which dominates our attention on the subjects Kahane’s song cycle addresses. Kahane was, of course, well aware of all this, and initially hesitated to take on the project — a co-commission from the Oregon Symphony, part of a series purporting to address pressing social issues — at all. Once he did, he worked at a Manhattan shelter for six months—SOP for Kahane, whose latest album emerged from a similarly immersive experience interviewing fellow Amtrak riders over the course of some two weeks on dining cars.

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