The Arc of ARCO

Portland band ARCO-PDX’s rise and fall and rise offers lessons for classical music success

by MARIA CHOBAN

I’m at 10th and SE Morrison in southeast Portland – check.

It’s 6:45pm – check

There’s a line stretching down the block — wha??

I recognize none of the usual suspects. Am I at the right show?

I ask the 40-something couple at the end of the line if this is the ARCO show.

“Yup.”

Me: “How do you know ARCO?”

Him: “We don’t. We’re from out of town and we heard that Holocene is a great venue.”

Holy cow, people actually go out and take a chance on shows based on the reputation of the curating venue. Do they realize ARCO is a classical music band? That I’ve witnessed the rise and fall of the group across three shows in two years? Two years ago, ARCO hit the scene with a brazen formula and a “Take No Prisoners!” attitude. They were the bomb. Over the course of the next two shows they abandoned some key original ingredients and suffered.

ARCO-PDX. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

ARCO-PDX. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

I’m here at the group’s fourth show nervously betting on a Hollywood hit: ARCO: The Return of the Magic. I’m also here spying patterns — between ARCO’s hits and misses, between concerts filled with hooked newbies or sadly empty space — and sharing that information because…well…I too want to fill my shows with this audience.

Founded in 2014 by Portland violinist Mike Hsu, after years of dreaming and scheming about rock&roll showmanship in classical music, ARCO-PDX (Amplified Repertory Chamber Orchestra of Portland) debuted at Mississippi Studios that July 2014 in the middle of a Portland summer — but not at the Old Church or Lincoln Hall or any other venue already connected with classical music audiences. Divorced from this secure demographic draw, ARCO filled its first show with 150 newbies, oldies and youngies. How did they do it?

July 2014: Committed to Memory

Hsu’s vision for ARCO tightly embraces his excitement as a pop audience fan. That first concert, while not perfect, captured Hsu’s vision — from picking the venue where the audience you want to attract already goes, cultivating charisma, committing the music to memory, emphasizing familiar/accessible repertoire and using 21st century presentation that includes amplification and lighting. Subsequent concerts faltered as one or more of these elements went missing.

1. Preparation/Memorization

Preparation is non-negotiable. Hsu insisted that parts be memorized — no unprepared bullshit. He envisioned players standing and dancing and interacting with the audience and each other as they played, rather than buried in their music stands. The Baroque supergroup Red Priest and acclaimed new music ensemble eighth blackbird also do this, as does the Seattle/New York brass quartet The Westerlies, performing in Oregon next week. But the norm in classical music, sadly, is nearly sight-read concerts; not enough personal practice, not enough group rehearsal, and therefore no real developed personality in the interpretation/performance beyond the histrionic gestures of the players. ARCO may be among the trend leaders; an article in the current issue of Symphony magazine reports that more and more classical ensembles are starting to appreciate the value of memorizing music so they can better interact with listeners.

ARCO's 2014 debut.

ARCO’s 2014 debut.

Hsu memorizes everything he plays BEFORE he starts physically practicing. Unfairly reading “and so should you” into his preparation practice, I bristle toward him as I do toward other band leaders who whine oppositely: that with their busy schedules I should be grateful that they even put on shows at all, much less expect them to adequately practice and rehearse. In addition to being a doctor and husband, Hsu serves on the boards of both Classical Revolution PDX and Cascadia Composers. He’s a very busy guy! Hsu estimates 40 to 50 hours of personal practice time for each musician with an additional 25 hours rehearsal time for each ARCO show.

2. Charisma/Showmanship

Memorizing the music allows the musicians to connect viscerally with audiences — if you pick the right players. And by picking the right players Hsu culls for charisma. Charisma – a disdained word that does NOT mean using wild histrionics to cover the fact that you have not practiced your part. Like choice of venues, ARCO has a house sense of charisma, immediately evident because everyone (cellist and keyboard player excepted) stands while performing. Even with these salient points, you need a hard ass to enforce them and Hsu is that hard ass.

Because he knew they would meet his expectations, Hsu recruited from his Seattle-years string quartet for ARCO’s first show, putting Daniel Shen on first violin and Hai Nguyen on viola while he played second fiddle. I was at that show at Mississippi Studios, July 2014. Enter Shen in blue jeans and black T, unkempt jet black hair and backwards baseball hat. Wielding his axe like John Kay lead badboy from Steppenwolf wields his mic — like they’re extensions — like they’re us — like they’re toying with us in the audience: Minimal, sexual, powerful. And the fangirl screams were genuine. They might have been coming from me too, God knows I was ready to throw my underwear and keys onto the stage.

Mitchell Falconer performs with ARCO-PDX at Eugene's WOW Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Mitchell Falconer performs with ARCO-PDX at Eugene’s WOW Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Filling the remaining spots with locals, Hsu assigned the keyboard job to the obsessive-compulsive Mitchell Falconer, the only other band member who has stayed with Hsu over the course of four shows. Skip vonKuske, one of the two local cellists at the first show, rivaled Shen for stage-stealing charisma (and I mean this in a good way). Soloist in two CPE Bach cello concerti in the debut show, July 2014, vonKuske opened for ARCO in their second show at Refuge PDX, January 2015, and then he took over Portland Cello Project. Later, to replace the too-busy Shen, Hsu carefully chose Bryce Caster, young lead violinist, for his ability to fold like a jack-knife while playing and his integrity to prepare to ARCO standards. While conflicting schedules account for some rotation of band members and guests like vonKuske and Shen, meeting Hsu’s standards amounts to an audition for every ARCO show that many have failed.

3. Amplification

ARCO amplifies its sound not just for volume and ears accustomed to a synthetic pop aesthetic (exploding treble, thumping bass), but also because Hsu wanted “to create an orchestra made up of a single very talented, very motivated player for each independent part,” he wrote in an email, “as opposed to the average community orchestra that is so desperate for string players that they will let the least motivated, least talented players drag the entire orchestra down.”

4. Lights, Camera, Action

Over its amplified 21st century sound, ARCO layers sweeping arcs of colored spots, projected background moving visuals — usually abstract, and, occasionally, rolling fog (not the nasty, headachy stuff though).

5. Venue

Place the show where your desired audience already attends. ARCO has not deviated from this rule. The second show, six months later in January 2015, migrated to the fashionably grungy Refuge PDX, a new warehouse performance space in the inner industrial southeast, and drew 150.

6. Accessible programming

ARCO believes in programming accessible recognizable pieces. Further, they employ the chemistry of concertos, using this soloist-driven type of piece to push the soloing rock stars to connect with the audience and fuel the hysteria. Concertos are as close as they come to following a programming formula. And accessible programming does not mean playing only war horses. When ARCO thinks about the audience, they still inject half their program with new stuff by hip contemporary composers like Portland’s own Hsu and Kenji Bunch or extending geographically further to Tom Johnson and Jacob TV, vetting the pieces and performers for programming arc, charisma and ultimately, our enjoyment in the audience.

January 2015: Cultivating Charisma

I’m in a mosh pit at Refuge PDX for ARCO’s second show, January 2015, and the house erupts as Mike Hsu, the lead amplified violin in the band starts dancing near the end of “Swing Shift.” I’m screaming, you’re screaming, 150 of us sitting and standing are all screaming for . . . ARCO, KENJI BUNCH, MIKE HSU DANCING!!!!!! Colored lights sweep and strobe, the amplified sound has bassed out the thumping keyboard and Hsu is destroying his violin whamming his fingertips on the fingerboard so hard I swear I can hear them breaking the neck of the instrument, spot on like a nail gun except when he wails like Hendrix.

I’d never heard Portland composer Kenji Bunch’s Swing Shift for violin, cello, piano and I was glad I was losing my virginity with ARCO. Hsu wanted more audience, less classical concert polite, so he launched into an Ian Anderson dance…while playing! — starting a firestorm of screams. Offstage, Hsu comes off as understated. His charisma stems from his vision and alpha drive akin to the Steve Jobs reality distortion field. If you stand close enough to see his eyes when he’s immersed playing a passage he loves, they’re crossed. He’s possessed.


[Grooveboxes – 4th movement from Kenji Bunch’s Swing Shift at WOW Hall, Eugene]

Although the ARCO charisma was there for much of the second show, the rock-solid ARCO preparation and memorization on the featured Vivaldi double concerto duel were not. Even with well prepared Hannah Hillebrand’s heroic efforts to anchor the duel, it fell flat for those of us still in thrall of vonKuske’s magic memorized concerto performance at ARCO’s July 2014 debut show at Mississippi Studios. Histrionics masquerading as showmanship were present, along with the memory slips, along with conservative tempos. No wonder guys like Prince and Frank Zappa are viewed as tyrants.

July 2015: Abandoning Accessibility

The third show, the following July 2015, moved up the street to the ever popular Holocene, since 2003 a venue which successfully scouts and curates for a broad spectrum ranging from “folk, indie rock and left-field electronic bands, to sweaty rap dance parties and minigolf-art invitationals… extremely excited about keeping the space fresh with new musical talent from near and far.” ARCO drew…60. WTF??

Discordia (and that name should tell you everything), the title of ARCO’s third concert, dumped accessible recognizable programming and abandoned memorization. Hsu’s hard ass approach toward preparation worked as long as he financed the players to learn and memorize their parts. But labor’s bank-breaking expensive, and Hsu’s local core is young and broke-ish. So for the third concert, Hsu reworked his model, morphing from autocrat to democrat. Pulling the survivors together for a meeting after the second show (Refuge PDX Jan. 2015) Hsu restructured ARCO, giving each core player equal ownership in ARCO, financially and artistically — a trade-off for paying them. Predictably or in hindsight, preparation suffered, because, although dedicated to the cause, the band members still have to pay their rent. Time spent making the rent meant time not spent memorizing pieces.

ARCO-PDX performed at Portland's Holocene in early August.

ARCO-PDX performed at Portland’s Holocene last summer.

One week prior to the third show, at an outdoor warm-up show at the Portland Art Museum, Hsu was visibly and audibly annoyed at his band’s lack of memorization. Then at the Holocene performance itself, only 60 people showed to hear lugubrious winter andantes (slow moving pieces) written by who-the-fuck??? which filled the program while iPads littered the stage — too many players were STILL reading their music from tablets, rather than playing from memory, their attention focused on the screen, not the audience. To me, it felt not simply like a bait-and-switch but a “fuck-you-it’s-about-avant-garde-unlistenable-us” — from entertainment to modernist talent show. Even the remaining original ARCO advantages — amplification and lighting and charisma — weren’t enough. The audience stayed home.

Democritus predicted and named the atom before we discovered it 2500 years later. I maintain that an audience can smell potential success, failure, boredom, shit before it hits the stage. In 2500 years we’ll be able to measure this (in)tangible and we won’t need previews or reviews or hyperbolic concert promotion.

Not that the third show was a total fail. Keyboardist Mitchell Falconer whose cultivated young naivete combined with his obsession with the more modernist (mid-20th century) aesthetic combusts onstage, sincerely sold a favorite piece of his, Gorecki’s harpsichord concerto. Bring it back!

January 2016: Back to the Future

Back in line for the fourth show, again at the Holocene, January 2016, behind the couple assuring me this is indeed the right show, who are also obviously and adorably on a first date. I’m hoping ARCO got their shit back together for these guys who, like me, have no idea what they’re in for.

We file in, all 180 of us! We get our right wrists stamped to prove we paid, with an additional bracelet affixed if we’re of drinking age and want to imbibe at the bar. I scramble for a stool, perch myself against the back pony half wall separating the performance space from the dance space behind and below me. A young daddy with baby in harness is standing in front of the stage. Five 20-something-year-old guys with drinks are blocking my view so I kneel atop my highstool. I see a string of 7 year olds sitting in the front row where there’s enough seating for 40 or 50. The rest of the floor space in this area is crammed, carpeted with people sitting or standing. The saner folks sit at tables in the back room next to the bar, which is lined with customers. This is so NOT the typical classical crowd.  This is the audience EVERYONE wants!

Hsu and Davies at ARCO's Feb. 13 performance at Eugene's WOW Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Hsu and Davies performed Feb. 13 at Eugene’s WOW Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Kaleb Davies, the underage drummer hired for this show, finds me and with his usual laconic excitement admits “we expected 40 of our closest family and friends.” My mind drifts to the couple in line here for the venue’s reputation, Democritus, atoms, radio waves, and other things you can’t see…like success-show waves or shit-show waves. Mitchell Falconer discovered that Esteli Gomez, first soprano in Roomful of Teeth came to the show and jumped up and down moaning “Oh my god, I’m such a fangirl!” This, from the guy who’s playing Portland’s hottest classical show that night. Third Angle’s Ron Blessinger and one of the directors on the board of Friends of Chamber Music, Bill Britton, are also there. It is definitely the show to see, to study, to learn how to draw and keep the audience demographic ARCO stalks. Cannily, Friends of Chamber Music helped sponsor this show.

The opening act is a rehearsed improv with Mike Hsu on violin and Kaleb Davies on drums. Only two pieces to warm us up — THANK YOU! Starting with Mike Hsu’s “Caprice #1” originally for solo violin, now backed with Davies’s drums cutting through the happy chatter, Hsu crawls up the neck of his violin in 19th position (dog whistle high). I cringe at the bad intonation. Simultaneously, I’m awed by Davies’s ability to spontaneously put together a backing drum track to a classical piece. Davies, like Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts, loves jazz and studies jazz drumming with Alan Jones. Like Watts, he’s been asked to impart his gifts in a different genre. Davies has turned into an ‘80s house drum machine, perfectly mimicking the adrenalized synthetic motion. The audience looks like a weird ocean wave, each head bobbing with its own meter. They aren’t listening just to trip Hsu up on four or five clams out of maybe a thousand notes. Mike Hsu is not Yngwie Malmsteen and this isn’t a classical music event. They want to be moved, not bored by passionless perfection. They’re whistling, warming up by the end of the Caprice and Hsu launches into Eugene composer Addison Wong’s “Funky Jazz” again, backed by Davies. Intonation is MUCH better.

Lee and Hillebrand at ARCO's Feb. 13 performance at Eugene's WOW Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Lee and Hillebrand at ARCO’s Feb. 13 performance at Eugene’s WOW Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Stung by their Discordia disappointment in the previous show, ARCO sticks with the three B’s tonight: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. They open the concert proper with a J.S. Bach’s violin concerto with soloist Daniel Shen. I wish I could report that I was again transported by Shen’s magic. The showmanship is evident but either this Bach concerto doesn’t resonate with me or the slight intonation issues bother me or the tempos are too conservative or I simply miss the backwards baseball hat. Also, the harsh amplification of the solo violin grates on my always treble-sensitive ears. The ENTIRE audience feels otherwise, reaffirming the validity of ARCO’s formula with wild applause and cheers.

Pure fun: Tom Johnson’s Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass played by Chang Lee. The duetting of Lee’s exact tempo of intoned text with the tempo he plays Johnson’s melody spurts is probably unintentional and charmingly musical.

Back to the B’s with Andrew Sumitani playing lead violin on Beethoven’s string quartet op. 18 number 4 – first and last movements. Unlike the strident amplification and mixing on the solo violins in both Bach concertos this evening, Sumitani’s pyrotechnics are sonically understated and warm, imbuing the entire ensemble with a fireplace glow I much prefer. He is Kyuzo, the iceman of the Seven Samurai: quiet and dangerously fast and accurate with his axe/sword. He’s a blur in the fourth movement. (The first thing I did when I got home was to youtube for corroboration. Yup, he was way faster than anything on Youtube). He never smiles, he never changes his feet-eighteen-inches-apart stance. I’m afraid he’ll heave his weapon of a bow at me if I clap. Charisma runs cool as well as hot and ARCO knows how to mix it.

It’s also during the two movements from the Beethoven quartet that I appreciate this unschooled crowd igniting spontaneously — sparks of whistles popping here and there, erupting into applause after the first movement, glowing embers murmuring appreciatively at Sumitani’s command of the very fast tempo he takes the fourth movement, roaring at the blazing end.

Intermission means swarming to the bar — another advantage of picking the right venue.

Sumitani and Hsu at ARCO's Feb. 13 performance at Eugene's WOW Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Andrew Sumitani, Daniel Shen, Mitchell Falconer and Mike Hsu at ARCO’s Feb. 13 performance at Eugene’s WOW Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

“Try to be quiet. Try to be quiet,” a voice (apparently coming from the big speakers) commands us. From the stage, interjecting cello (Hillebrand) and keyboard (Falconer) interrupt. The intermissioners drift back, our voices mingling with the recorded, repetitive narrator’s, but Jacob TV’s May This Bliss Never End never really takes the stage. By this point, the show has developed the energy of an outdoor music festival. People are chatting while facing and focusing on the stage, very much taking in the spectacle without consigning it to background music, but also completely un-selfconscious about concert manners or behavior. Bliss draws the most enthusiastic whistles and applause this evening — a testimony to Holocene’s audience.

Rigid classical concert structure continues breaking down as three violinists approach the stage at different times improvising to Davies’s klezmer drum patterns setting up Brahms’s Hungarian Dance #5. Caster enters last playing a minor-key (sad) rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” I giggle. Likeable, smart but too Portland nice for me. Bring on the punk klezmer band, Gogol Bordello! The audience agrees. It receives warm applause but nothing like the Jacob TV squeals.

The Bach double violin concerto in d minor does about as much for me as the opening Bach. Though the second movement is some of the loveliest cinema music I’ve heard, both Bachs lack that breathless, desperate propelling speed of the same style pieces on the very first ARCO concert way back in 2014. Again, the audience disagrees, responding with enthusiastic applause.

Now it gets surreal. Hsu is running out of time. He’s stuck between fulfilling his contract with Holocene, which wants ARCO finished and packing at 9pm in order to prepare for the 10pm show, and fulfilling his contract with us, the audience, who want to hear the final piece, the fourth movement of his string quartet titled “Resistance.” Hsu promises to accompany us as we leave the building to this movement which he turns into a dance number by adding Kaleb Davies and his drum magic. ARCO starts, but no one in the audience moves …except to bob up and down to the dance beat.

I spy the first-date couple across the room and thread my way over. He’s trancing out, eyes closed, quietly dancing to Hsu’s quartet/quintet. Her eyes are aglow.

me: How did you like the show?

she: Loved it!

he (awakened): Terrific! I was expecting more electronica type classical but I really got off on the amplification and effects on the more traditional works.

Earlier I made it a point to ask an older white haired couple behind me peering over the pony wall if they are enjoying themselves. Both beamed and bubbled “Yes!” throwing back “And you?”

Lessons for the Rest of Us

I asked Hsu what he thought contributed to ARCO’s comeback:

  1. Friday show instead of a Sunday show
  2. Recognizable composers
  3. Street postering service
  4. Photo shoot a month prior
  5. posting it on Facebook and tagging the members in it
  6. Posting rehearsal clips on Instagram

I agree with everything Hsu listed. However I doubt any of the other chamber music groups will draw the same broad audience demographic by simply following the six points.

I am also a performer-presenter and have learned a lot about presentation from studying ARCO’s audience and ARCO’s moves since their inception. I’ve also learned a lot about myself as an audience member. While priding myself on making the shift from music insider to audience outsider (and it took years of de-programming!), I haven’t really shaken it all off. Shen’s performances at the debut ARCO show in 2014 compared to his last show in 2016 are a great example of me listening with my head the second time – hearing and seeing all the less-than-keys-and-underwear moments that were surely present in 2014, but at that first show I came expecting magic without defining it as superb intonation or bad-boys-on-stage visuals. If I quell my insider critic and become a dedicated ARCO fan follower, what difference/improvements do I want to see/hear each time their show comes around?

  1. Preparation that keeps getting better, continuing to surprise and excite me!
  2. More outrageous visuals (Lights, Camera, Action): Vary the screen images? narrative choreography for one piece?

As a performer/presenter I am learning to put my personal prejudices and reactions aside in order to assess the crowd’s response as cleanly as possible, in order to apply what works for them in my own shows.

ARCO is like a first self-chosen cherished music experience — my top choice for sending newbies to a classical music show. And I think it will create a substantial new fan base. I also think that at some point a significant number of those fans will (and should) get curious and venture over to other classical music experiences, as long as they are in similar venues and are as well constructed AND PREPARED with that audience in mind. Thankfully, ARCO now has non-profit status which enables them to ask and attract tax deductible donations from fans and funders in order to finance the continued push for higher expectations and surprising, delightful entertainment experiences for their fans.


ARCO is considering forgoing its summer concert in order to turn out music videos like this Prelude from Ernst Bloch’s Concerto Grosso #1.

As a performer-presenter, I have total control in my own productions (MC Hammered Klavier) and only a democratic share of input in my band’s productions (The Mousai). While preparation is always top priority, programming is sometimes a clusterfuck of emotions. Two shows ago I barely lived through my own ensemble’s decision to program a piece of modernist shit. Only the brilliant entertainer, John Vergin, saved us with incomparable voice acting —and I knew it at the time, pleading with him to take the gig.

On our last show, half the band hated one of our pieces because it is ear damaging high and loud (squealing New Orleans raucous funeral parade) and because they didn’t think the audience would understand it, get it. Luckily, it was commissioned by one of our patrons and it stayed! AND IT ANCHORED the show with wild screams!!— as I knew it would.

Creating programs that thrill an audience and satisfy the performers is a never-ending process of trying to find the right balance, often a delicate balance if you’re part of a band and are an alpha asshole with very clear visions of who your audience is (or who you want them to be) and what it takes to get a show over to them. I understand Hsu because I, too, am that asshole. I also feel for ARCO because they’re successfully courting an audience that Oregon classical musicians covet, and this means taking chances, making mistakes and recovering, putting the audience first, and finding that intersection between the show you love and the show your new fans will come back for again and again.

Maria Choban is ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch. 

One Response.

  1. Greg Ewer says:

    Hearty congratulations Mike and ARCO!

Comments are closed.

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