“I haven’t played in front of people since the fifth grade,” Laura McLary announced to the crowd at Elevated Coffee, “and I’ve decided that if you’re not willing to try something new at age 40, you might as well be dead!” Many of the dozens of people crowding Classical Revolution PDX’s first monthly chamber jam at the northeast Portland cafe hooted in agreement, and she whisked us away into jazz legend Billy Taylor’s “Cool and Caressing.”
McLary was one of several performers, ranging from pre-teen to middle-aged, experienced professionals to students, who performed on April 21 at CRPDX’s newest project. Under new executive director Christopher Corbell, Classical Revolution has expanded its chamber jams beyond the long-running series at the northeast Portland Waypost cafe to include the all-ages venue Elevated Coffee.
The evening began with Dunja Jennings’ high school students performing a plethora of clarinet trios and quartets. Later, her daughter, Taylor Jennings of Atkinson Elementary, bravely plunked her thick Mozart volume on the piano rack and performed the first movement of his Piano Sonata in A, K. 331. The cafe erupted in applause. Jaron Chen, a high schooler from the School of Science and Technology, certainly gave all of himself to Jon Schmidt’s “All of Me,” including fantastically percussive arm clusters. Valerie Campbell of Camas High School performed her own composition “Hidden Within.” Her syncopated melodies glowed over her timpani bass lines. Fiona McLary White, from DaVinci Arts Middle School, also performed her composition “Theme for Sundance,” a whirlwind of twisting energy and bright colors. Saxophonist Patrick McCullyand and pianist Mitchell Falconer collaborated on three pieces. Their entrancing blend and phrasing on “Sicilienne” by Pierre Lantier can be heard here.
The thrilling aspect of a CRPDX chamber jam is that anyone can perform, and with a city full of talent you never know who’s going to show up. Brent Weaver, professor of music theory and composition at George Fox University, arrived with pianist Maria Choban and tenor Kenneth Beare to perform three of Weaver’s songs from Caminos, a song cycle based on the poems of Antonio Machado. Weaver’s compositions captured the magic realism of Machado’s images.
The successful new music, new venue, and new performers at CRPDX reaffirm that this revolution is a vibrant force in the Portland music community. ArtsWatch talked with Corbell about his vision for the rapidly expanding organization’s growth, including CRPDX’s new education campaign.
ArtsWatch: What is your history with classical music?
I was eight years old when I first really listened to Beethoven’s fifth symphony. I was sitting in our dysfunctional, chaotic house, put on the headphones, and listened – not just to the first movement, but the entire work without pause. I remember following the emotions I felt during each section, and these feelings told me that there’s a different way to be in life. I’ve carried this experience with me ever since.
I didn’t take music lessons as a kid, but in high school I taught myself classical guitar. By this time we were living in Nashville, Tennessee, and my high school had an awesome music program. I took advantage of the high school’s piano labs, two-year music theory curriculum, and their excellent choir that went on tour in New York City. All of these experiences were such an awesome awakening for me! I wish kids in Portland public schools had similar music programs.
I decided to pursue a degree in music theory and composition at Belmont University using a partial academic scholarship. But after two years I hit a brick wall with academic classical music, especially 20th-century composition. My composition teacher, E. Michael Harrington III was great, a real east coast brainiac who knew everything and expected the same from his students. I was intellectually hungry, and felt like I needed to learn everything. But emotionally and artistically, I was looking for a connection with others, and for my transcendent Beethoven experience.
I left the classical music world after my sophomore year; within a couple of years I was in New Orleans, and played everywhere, busking on the streets, in cafés, bars. I wrote a ton of songs, played with a major label rock band for a little while, and started and managed my own bands.
How did you get involved with CRPDX?
Classical music was always in the background. I moved to Portland and built my current career as a software engineer. For the first time I wasn’t a poor, starving artist and was able to buy my first digital piano. Returning to the piano drew me back to classical music. I began composing and came up with this whole plot to start an open mic and and coordinate classical musicians in order to try out my music, but when I approached an established classical organization with the idea, they said “Oh, [CRPDX founder] Mattie Kaiser is already doing that!” So I jumped right in.
I went to my first chamber jam, and sat nervously, just listening. I went to my next chamber jam and played an original piano piece; I was still super nervous and shaky but people clapped, and I felt validated. Instant gratification! A year later I brought in my first string arrangement, people sight-read it, and I was euphoric!!
What makes people nervous or uncomfortable around classical music?
There’s this pedantic notion that the classical world is somehow legit, that classical musicians are very cerebral and analyze every minutia of a performance. Mattie and [Portland pianist] Maria [Choban] liberated me from these fears one night when they decided that the audience should yell motherf—– anytime someone messed up. Well, they yelled this a lot at me as I played a Bach Allemande that night, and all my nervous energy simply evaporated.
I think about Michel Foucault’s notions on power relations, on how a tension exists between pleasure and power; this tension can be felt in how we talk about art, sexuality, politics, etc. In my experience, so much of classical music leans toward a power struggle: a piece is deemed good if it seems really difficult, if the musicians can prove their prowess by dominating the audience.
In contrast, CRPDX is focused more on the pleasure of classical music. Chamber music historically began in intimate gatherings for the purpose of pleasure. The chamber experience was not about power or impressive institutions, but about enjoying a drink and the company of friends within a creative environment.
Because of my experiences with CRPDX, I am more passionate than ever about classical music.There are a lot of people like me out there, and that’s who CRPDX is for: people who love classical music but who aren’t at home in the more rigorous channels that the music is often performed in.
As a “Classical” revolution, does CRPDX differentiate between classical and pop music?
Whether you call what you’re doing rock, folk, classical, or jazz is really a matter of audience. Music is all the same huge palette, and a good musician is going to listen to everything and be open to everything. The idea of influence is something that rock critics have foisted on us for a long time to make their conclusions seem important; but a creative moment is not a historical moment. It’s not a social or discursive moment. It’s a dreamlike moment. And in your dreams all kinds of ideas mix and mash up and still make sense, a kind of sense that’s usually more meaningful than what your calculating, analytical mind will create.
Classical Revolution isn’t trying to build some bridge between the big-time pop culture and big-time classical culture. It kind of ignores both, by focusing on community, on how musicians interact with and relate to their community in an immediate way. In this manner CRPDX shares a common mindset with the indie music scene. Starting from this grassroots foundation, I hope to build some avenues for conservatory-trained musicians to actually get decent paying gigs. In this regard I’m more like a community organizer than a curator – I’m listening to what the participants in this group want and brainstorming ways to make that happen.
What are your current projects with CRPDX and what are some future goals?
CRPDX is going to explode! We’ve tripled our number of chamber jams now – we’ll be doing 36 a year, maybe more. They’re fantastic events for students, for local composers, and as a mixer for networking professionals.
Our chamber jam at The Waypost has been standing room only for months. That’s why we’ve started two new monthly chamber jams. One is at Eugenios on Division Street. The other one is at Elevated Coffee Company, and they have a baby grand piano. It’s on the third Sunday of every month at 3 pm and we’re targeting the great young students in the area, but obviously everyone’s welcome.
I feel that every neighborhood in the metro area could have its own chamber jam, including Gresham, Beaverton, Hillsboro. The demand is there and the talent is there. Meanwhile we’re also developing our programs, our volunteer list, our professional musician roster, and our approach to fun presented concerts.
We are currently working on raising public awareness and capitalizing on the excitement people already have for classical music. If I talk to twenty people who aren’t in the classical world, maybe one person has heard about CRPDX. Among the rest, half of them think that CPRDX is an awesome idea and want to get involved.
Next year our composer project will offer more interaction between performers and composers, some composing boot-camp sessions for those new to composing, and I’d also like to work with other groups in town if possible, groups like FearNoMusic and Cascadia. We have a huge list of musician contacts. I’d love for CRPDX to eventually have an established chamber orchestra of 11 or 12 excellent musicians and a roster of substitutes that we can call on for periodic concerts, commissioning new pieces, recording and collaborating with other organizations.
What makes Portland especially suited for you as a musician and CRPDX as a nonprofit organization?
Portland is just blowing my mind. Dreams are coming true that I never thought possible. I’m currently working on my first opera and hoping to get it produced. That’s just insane. Ten years ago producing an opera would have seemed like such a remote concept. But in Portland people’s openness is such a positive force. By default Portlanders give you the benefit of the doubt. They’re not looking to poke holes in what you’re doing, and they don’t rake you over the coals for your credentials. If you have a dream and you’re working for it, this DIY culture is completely behind you.