‘Art is a messy process’: Catching up with 45th Parallel Universe Executive Director Lisa Lipton

In which we discuss the virtues of imperfection and risk-taking with the clarinetist, bar-owner, and Opera Theater Oregon executive director.


Lisa Lipton. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Lisa Lipton. Photo courtesy of the artist.

About halfway through a delightful interview with Oregon musician and entrepreneur Lisa Lipton, after hearing mention of “the bar” a few times, the present author had to swallow his pride and ask, ahem, sorry to interrupt, Lisa, but which bar? She took a beat before explaining, rather patiently (for it is a journalist’s job to already know these things), “I own Mendelssohn’s on North Mississippi.”

Ah. Yes. Of course. Please go on.

It is a classical and chamber music bar that features opera karaoke, or “operaoke” as we like to call it. The concept was to popularize this style of music, not necessarily the classical canon that we associate with orchestras and stuff, but it was a good starting point. I would say a lot of new music does happen there, a lot of premieres do happen there, and a lot of people that have been emotionally scarred by this art form in school are re-finding how to love it in their own way, whether that’s just going and watching things or actually participating in opera karaoke or taking a dare and doing a solo night.

The concept was to make it cool and approachable and not uninviting if you don’t know anything about it. The concept was to put it in a place where there’s a ton of things happening at bars, and it’s just part of that framework.

In a sense it’s the exact opposite of The Old Church, and in many ways Mendelssohn’s is a perfect symbol of Lipton’s professional personality. It feels more like a jazz club or even a punk-metal-experimental kind of spot, a bit like grungy Portland joints like Tube or the front half of old Berbati’s–but much better lit. Its visual aesthetic is what patrons call “homey” and bougie designers dismiss as “busy.” It’s been called “the narrowest bar in North Portland” and it certainly is that–it’s the kind of space that would feel more at home in one of San Francisco’s older neighborhoods, perhaps North Beach. If you haven’t been there yet yourself, get a load of a few recent pictures from 45|| shows like their Holiday Pub Crawl and their evening with Alex Ross:

Inside Mendelssohn's for 45th Parallel Universe's 2023 Holiday Pub Crawl. Photo by James Shields.
Inside Mendelssohn’s for 45th Parallel Universe’s 2023 Holiday Pub Crawl. Note outgoing Executive Director Ron Blessinger in the rafters. Photo by James Shields.
Lisa Lipton (center) at Mendelssohn's with (L to R) composers Andy Akiho and Bora Yoon. Photo courtesy of Yoon and 45th Parallel Universe.
Lisa Lipton (center) at Mendelssohn’s with (L to R) composers Andy Akiho and Bora Yoon. Photo courtesy of Yoon and 45th Parallel Universe.

When Lipton’s not busy doing that, she’s making friends with composers and taking over opera companies and executive-directing symphony orchestras–Justin Ralls, Opera Theater Oregon, and Newport Symphony, respectively. And just recently she took the reins of 45th Parallel Universe, making her part of a new generation of leadership in what has previously been (and we seriously mean this in the best possible way) a good old boys’ club.

You can read all about that in our 2018 chat with two of the good old boys, 45|| founder Greg Ewer and Lipton’s predecessor Ron Blessinger, who took over and expanded the Universe after leaving Third Angle New Music. These two are Oregon Symphony violinists–you can usually see them there in the ranks with thirty of their peers–and have decades of leadership experience between them. When Blessinger left 3A he moved right on over to his buddy’s group, taking several “Friends of Greg” with him (including the fabulous string quartet that now goes by the name Pyxis Quartet). It’s been a fantastic run, and we were especially impressed with how they handled The Weird Times circa 2020.


Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

What strikes us as a curious and particularly compelling sign o’ the times is how Blessinger has so far vacated two leadership positions that were then filled by woodwind-playing women: flutist Sarah Tiedemann at 3A (read our most recent interview with Tiedemann here) and now clarinetist Lipton.

The potential promise of Lipton’s upcoming tenure is–or should be, to anyone who knows this corner of Oregon Classical Music–almost overwhelming. Were you there for Filmusik’s Turkish Rambo? For Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project’s When Strange Birds Passing Meet at March Music Moderne 2013? For OTO’s productions of Ralls’ Two Yosemites and The Little Prince and This Land Sings and, most recently, Nu Nah-Hup: Sacajawea’s Story?

That OTO list just goes on and on and on: Damien Geter’s Invisible in 2020; 2021’s WW1: A Song Opera of Remembrance; the work-in-progress Dream Within A Dream, described as an “original twelve-part series of weird, short, experimental ‘opera scenes’ based upon the pandemic dreams of Lisa Lipton, realized by multiple composers, and filmed at Portland’s historic Polaris Hall as well as other environs.” Even when Lipton is being “just” a clarinetist, it’s always rich stuff like the pandemic-era Mirrors Are For Lovers and Lisa Lipton & Friends:

With all this in mind, we called up the multi-hyphenate arts leader and demanded answers about her history, musical philosophy, brazen audacity, and–as always–about her A-Ha moment.

Lipton’s answers have been edited for clarity and flow.

The A-ha Moment

I’ve been playing music my entire life. My dad was a musician. I started piano really, really early–I think four or five–and then clarinet soon after, I want to say 3rd or 4th grade. And I’m going through the middle school and high school moment: I’m in two youth symphonies, chamber music ensemble, marching band, jazz band. I take private lessons at the local university. I know I’m going into music.

I get to college, I’m in music school, and what’s really weird to me is that I’m in school with all these people and the majority of my friends are composers. Quite literally 80% of my friend group is either classical style composers or they write music of some kind. I remember being in music history with Wynn Kiyama, an amazing professor, and thinking “why is it that the canon after 1970 is not as uplifted?” And I had this itch, and I started producing shows. They weren’t great initially, they were just me saying, “I wanna play my friend’s pieces, otherwise I’m never gonna get to hear them!” It started there, and then I started playing a lot for different composers’ recitals. I remember going to a lot of Third Angle concerts at that point. I don’t think that 45th Parallel had started yet.


Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

I was working a lot with Filmusik and all these local groups right after that. And it was like, this is what I want to do. I want to play music by people that are living. I’m interested in people making things now. That for me was an aha moment.

The road to 45th Parallel Universe, part one: Hired gun

I’m often a hired gun, clarinet-wise. I enjoy it–in a way, it’s like reading a book you’ve read 100 times, but you love it. You go through different phases with it. And you remember what you thought when you were 10 when you read that book, and then when you were 18, and then when you’re 35. For me, that’s how playing dead music feels. But when I play pieces that are new or by people who are still alive, it feels like that’s what I’m supposed to do. I’m interested in the intersection between contemporary classical music and the rest of music throughout the world.

I met Justin Ralls when I was at PSU. That probably means to date he’s my longest collaboration. He said, “we just have to put on shows. I’m never going to get my work played unless people like you continue to do what you do and put on shows.” We worked together through Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project, which is a group we founded together, and then eventually he and I both migrated over as a team to Filmusik and did Turkish Rambo

Justin has an art song called “Look Down, Fair Moon” that I think he’s fallen out of love with it a little bit. It’s a great piece.

We participated in March Music Moderne with Bob Priest for a while, and he gave us the weirdest time slot: 12:00 to 2:00 AM. And we were like, whatever, we’re going to make this work. So we put pillows out and lights and made it a place for people to just fall asleep if they needed to. And it was really fun! And I feel like that ignited me. You put a lot of energy into something, you have a lot of passion for it, and you can just do it.

Then I started teaching a lot and working with kids. I worked for Ethos Music Center for a while, teaching band and class piano to a bunch of kids. And I’m producing these shows–and there’s surprisingly a lot of overlap. Because you’re organizing people, essentially, and you’re getting them interested and passionate about what you’re playing and the type of music you’re playing. And so from there I started to work and do a lot more session work and interface with a lot of different communities.

Lisa Lipton performs a vegetable improvisation on “carronet” at CPOP’s March 2012 concert.

Then I volunteered for Opera Theater Oregon, I want to say in 2008 or 2009. And then I played a few shows and I loved it. I loved the concept behind it. When they were going to fold it, they approached Justin, who was leaving his Masters, and he and I were trying to figure out how to put on one of his operas in Portland, and it was a convergence of really nice timing. So we took over Opera Theater Oregon.


Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

We put on that opera, and we thought to ourselves, “OK, I’m going to try out this role as ED, he’s going to try out this role as AD, we’re going to put on the show, and then if it doesn’t work we’ll close the company.” Because at that point we’d been doing things free range, we’d been making these shows and doing these impromptu classical music and new music happenings. But we hadn’t really been given a vehicle or even knew where to start with that. So we started applying for grants. It was successful. We sold out the shows, and we were like, “OK, this is real.”

So I began working as a grant consultant, and writing a ton of grants outside of that position, and going through that I realized I wanted to do larger and larger things. I eventually became executive director of the Newport Symphony Orchestra, and I did that up until December of last year. I opened the bar in June. I applied for the Creative Heights Grant for Sacajawea. I threw a lot of irons in the fire, and all three of them happened at the same time.

Doing an intercultural collaboration on Sacajawea was a highlight, a new experience that I learned a lot from. We were working with the Lemhi-Shoshone tribe, specifically Agai-Dika in Idaho, navigating how to help people do things how they want to do them and still meet certain benchmarks. It was extremely rewarding and a lot easier than I ever imagined it would be. In terms of working with people, when you get 15 cooks in the kitchen, oftentimes that’s really bad. But in this particular collaboration, the more people we invited in to speak what they thought and give an opinion, the better the product and the better the experience was. And so it taught me that maybe there’s something wrong with how corporate America has structured things. Imagine that!

Marion Newman as Sacajawea and Richard Zeller as Toussaint Charbonneau in Opera Theater Oregon's "Nu Nah-Hup" at Hampton Opera Center. Photo by Keith Casper.
Marion Newman as Sacajawea and Richard Zeller as Toussaint Charbonneau in Opera Theater Oregon’s “Nu Nah-Hup” at Hampton Opera Center. Photo by Keith Casper.

I had a really amazing time working with Newport Symphony. The bar focuses on chamber music events, and specifically on performers doing things that they don’t get to do, or they’re not hired to do but they’ve always wanted to do. It’s an opportunity for them to do that and still get paid and feel like they can really own the show or own their night, whatever they’re doing. I think that somewhere along the last year and a half it really made sense to me that, yes, I’m still deeply interested in new music. I really enjoy orchestras, and I think there’s something to be said for going to a show and experiencing that–but I think when you look at a season with a group that size, they do about five full concerts a year and then maybe two chamber concerts and two or three larger outreach events. It’s just not as frequent as I would like, and also not as many new compositions.

The road to 45th Parallel Universe, part two: From fangirl to captain

I’ve known Ron [Blessinger], Greg [Ewer] and Joe Berger almost the entire time I’ve lived in Portland. Mainly because I was just fangirling and going to their shows. Joe and Greg used to go to a coffee shop that I worked at, so I would just chat with them after rehearsal. So there’s been a lot of interesting and organic overlap. Greg had played a few times at Mendelssohn’s, so we had talked about different events coming up, and Ron and I had connected over the past year, and they told me about some of the really exciting things coming up, like the Alex Ross concert and it was pretty enticing.

Then I saw the position was open and got really interested, not only because I’ve known them for such a long time and have really appreciated the things that they’ve done as individuals, but because the group seemed to be headed in a new direction that was really interesting to me. They’ve now got all these ensembles in their “universe,” and I love the idea of a large collective that does things they’re really passionate about. I think when people are passionate about something they do it the best that they could possibly do it. So I decided to apply!

A pathway forward into the future

I’m really looking forward to hearing about everyone’s ideas and how their passions align with what programming could look like. I was talking to James Shields about how in classical music there’s this concept that when you go to the concert hall you will see, hear, and feel perfection. That doesn’t really allow us to really discover new things. So I’m excited to aid and abet and help people try and push their boundaries of what they want to do performance-wise. I think there’s a lot of performance that we do in music that is really safe and really pleasant, and I’m all for that–but I’m also all for breaking walls down and trying new things. So I’m excited to uplift that part of the organization, because that’s where a lot of my passion lies. I’m excited about the possibility of co-commissions with other groups. I’m excited about the possibility of continuing to play pieces by people that are still alive, so they do make it into the canon. Keeping it alive in the same way that we’ve kept Beethoven alive forever.


Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

I’m also excited to see what people really want to play that maybe is sort of pedestrian, but could be revisited in a new way with something different about it. I’m also excited to continue expanding the group. Ron Blessinger, the former executive director, has really done a good job of growing this group both fiscally and in their season. Doing all these different things has provided a really nice pathway forward into the future. So I’m excited about finding out where we are going with programming in the next two years. Are we doing more unconventional spaces? Are we taking it on the road? That’s the conversation I look forward to having with the players.

You have to take a risk and assume that there won’t be perfection and assume that it might get a little messy. And that’s the thing about art. Art isn’t perfect. Art is a messy process. And it’s hard, and it’s difficult, and a lot of people leave it because it’s emotionally challenging. But I think that’s where the meat of what’s really important is. That’s how you get to talk about new ideas. That’s how you inspire people.

I think that what’s missing is this concept of expansion and ingenuity through trial and error. I don’t expect every new music concert that I go to to be amazing. You don’t know what people like until you play it and they decide if they like it. And you don’t know how it’s going to go.

During the pandemic I did a ton of crazy things like digital opera stuff I haven’t released yet. When people that are really interested in listening to music like that, they’re going to get their album, they’re going to not look at their phone, they’re going to sit with a beverage or with some food, and they’re really going to dive into that. And I wonder how alive that still is. If we’re playing the albums on Spotify or on iTunes while we’re doing tasks, is it the same? And is it taking away from the concept of it being a culturally special thing? I don’t know.

How do you successfully continue to make art and be able to pay for it? We have to become more a part of the culture, so that going to a concert weekly is like going somewhere and getting a latte. It should not be different. It should be “this is a thing we do because this is part of our cultural framework, it’s fun and good and makes me a happy human in my community.” So I definitely think that’s a large part of it. Would it be nice if we had more venues of 300 to 500 seats? Yes. Is that a problem? Yes. But I think there are other ways to make that happen. Part of the reason I opened the bar is because I was asking “How do I make classical music more relevant? How do I make people want to give to that or create a culture around consuming it more?”

So I think it looks like responding to your community and figuring out how to be synonymous with getting a latte in somebody’s life. Which is tricky because it almost totally conflicts with my statement of taking risks.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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