Catching Up With: 45th Parallel Universe

ArtsWatch’s series “Catching Up With” asks the long-running local music groups: how the hell have you been doing? …how have you gotten through the last Year of Weirdness? …and what’s next?

For our second installment we spoke to three furloughed Oregon Symphony musicians who over the last year put on live-streamed concerts nearly every week.

We’re date-stamping the entries in this series, because in a sense they are time capsules. The following interview was conducted via Zoom at five in the afternoon on Thursday, May 6, right before their one-year anniversary concert of Terry Riley’s In C. Some events referenced in future tense may have been changed to past tense.

The final concert of 45th Parallel Universe’s digital season premieres Friday, June 25 at 6 pm. This will be their fifty-fourth show since March 2020, and will be a retrospective and thank-you to supporters. You can find the video below.

All answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

Artswatch: How have you all been doing over the last year?

Martha Long: All three of us are musicians with the Oregon Symphony. The OSO has been shuttered, we’ve had a few small projects here and there. So 45th Parallel has been my main artistic output over the last year, my lifeline. We wouldn’t have had anything for the last 14 months if it wasn’t for Ron and his leadership and vision to get Danny Rosenberg involved to get this online platform for concerts. We owe all of our creative souls to him at this point, he’s been somebody to allow us to keep playing when our job hasn’t allowed us to. 

Ron Blessinger: When the pandemic hit, Danny was the one who came to me and said, “I have an idea for an application that would allow musicians to play safely from their homes.” So I said hey, let’s give it a shot. It was really him who made this possible and allowed us to start thinking about and maintaining a creative life. 

I reached out to a really important donor and asked her, “how are you feeling about all these groups that you’re donating to? You must feel kinda devastated that things are brought to a halt?” And she said she’s not, she knows that the artists will find a way, and that people who support the art are very interested in how the artists respond and I took that as a challenge. By the end of June we will have given fifty-four performances and I don’t think anybody anywhere will have come even close to that. 

Long: The only other group I know is a group in southern California who’s been able to capitalize on the weather and get people outside basically all year. We’re right up there with them. 

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Blessinger: We have a lot of time right now. Scheduling rehearsals has been easy since there haven’t been a lot of conflicts. It presented me with the opportunity to be a producer, more so than under normal circumstances with a normal orchestra season. And I think for the players too, we have been able to pursue projects. Greg can speak to this, his interest in the music of Bach for example. Bach is something that many players have gone to during quarantine times. 

Greg Ewer: For many the pandemic has forced us to sort of realign our artistic activities. My own personal journey has been that of embracing becoming a full-time dad. I was a very busy musician up until March 2020, and I have two kids right about that age where they need a lot of attention. My time has disappeared. There were two artistic outlets for me, one was finally being able to return to my interest of playing baroque violin and the easiest way to do that by myself is in the music of J.S. Bach. I’ve been on a quest to re-learn the whole set of six sonatas and partitas and I’m about two-thirds of the way there. And by the end of this I’m hoping to make a recording of it. 

The other major outlet as Martha put it so eloquently was in the early days of the pandemic, Danny had this remarkable platform that allowed us to perform safely. There were days when everyone was afraid to step outside and go to the grocery store. No one knew what we were facing at that point, so the ability to stay home and make music in this distanced and safe way was totally unexpected and remarkable, a total lifeline. Since then we’ve graduated towards doing recorded performances with people in our pod, so to speak. We’ve been using two venues for these shows, Glass Lab and Left Bank.

Blessinger: Pre-pandemic I think we gave twelve performances. During it we will have given fifty-four. This increased real estate has given us an opportunity to present repertoire that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. I’m thinking specifically about Martha’s flute recital and some of the pieces I had the pleasure of hearing that I had never heard before. 

Long: Even though 45th Parallel only did twelve concerts a year before, Oregon Symphony musicians were used to doing three or four concerts a week, plus anything they were doing elsewhere, teaching on the side. To go from twelve to forty-five seems like a lot, but keep in mind what we’re used to doing. Ron has created such a great opportunity for us. The fact that we haven’t had the orchestra to take up a lot of our time and guide us artistically means that we can pursue our own projects. When the pandemic started, I was a little shocked for a little while: I didn’t practice for a week or two out of confusion and I had a lot of emotions, not knowing what to do or what I wanted to achieve.

I sat down and looked at my own repertoire list and I had almost five full pages of music that I had played–not even including orchestral music–and most of it was by white men, most of them dead. But even among those who were living I had very few composers of color, very few women. I’ve done a couple shows for 45th Parallel where I played only music by women composers and I had one in the middle of June by three women composers who lived in France. I’ve had such a great time playing pieces by composers I hadn’t played before! 

Blessinger: We’re just telling a fuller story. The narrative has been so narrow. We gave a whole month of performances in February in honor of Black History Month and that gave us an opportunity to bring pieces forward we would’ve never had a chance to do. The app has given us an opportunity to communicate not only with players in Portland but internationally as well. If we’re able to play violin duos with Greg, and he’s in southwest and I’m over here, why couldn’t we do a piano trio with a pianist here and a violinist in London and a cellist in Bratislava? We’re really testing the technology and we’ve done that. We did a brass quintet with players in Malaysia and New York. Going forward next year, we’re gonna use the app for a concert with Sergio Carreno, our wonderful percussionist. He’s gonna do an experimental percussion piece with colleagues around the world. As we understand what the concert allows us to do, we’re gonna allow it as an accretive means and a platform for further creativity. 

Artswatch: One of my favorite concerts was the one with Chatter in Albuquerque, the Rzewski piece Coming Together. 

Blessinger: Wanna hear a funny story about that one? We get donations regularly from a gentleman practically every week. Every single letter will say “that concert was great, it was so much better than that concert you did with the Rzewski piece. Please don’t ever do that one again.” 

Our clarinettist James Shields is the associate artistic director of Chatter. They’ve done amazing things keeping up their presence with their Sunday morning shows. James is a tremendous resource and collaboration. We did a Magnus Lindberg quintet with him, as well as Workers Union by Louis Andriessen. That’s a piece we’ve always wanted to do. I don’t think I’ll let my donor friend know about that one. Andriessen is kind of a frontal assault. 

We’re not shy about politics. We used a graphic that Greg’s wife Becky designed of the raised fist with a violin in it. We are a collective, we don’t have an artistic director, we’re very proud of our collective artistic process. It’s important for us to do chamber music without a conductor. We think Portland has its roots in socialism, so we vibe with that as an organization. 

Ewer: The events of summer 2020 have influenced lots of groups. I grew up in Houston, Texas. Have you heard of the Parker Quartet? They’re named after the elementary school I went to. It’s a really remarkable magnet school, so many musicians come from there. The thing that’s most remarkable about the time there, which I didn’t realize until years later, was how diverse it was. Our general music teacher was African-American, our piano teacher was too, the student body–and this included the magnet program–was basically a bunch of kids from around the city learning to play musician instruments. It was very diverse. A lot of my African-American friends now were in elementary schools with me at Parker. 

When I got older and began to pursue a career in classical music, I began to notice that it was a little bit unlike what I was used to. It was a little bit less inclusive or diverse, and I didn’t have the words for it then but I felt it. I felt a sense of societal narrowing and isolation. There are obviously remarkable exceptions to that, but for the longest time the career that I chose was remarkably less diverse than my introduction to classical music. I’m feeling for the first time the possibility of classical music becoming less culturally isolated instead of more. 

Long: Something that has struck me when I’ve been listening to these pieces by women or people of color, just the thought of “why didn’t we do this before?” They’re all great pieces, it’s not like we had to dig too hard to find them. I was just struck by everything we played in February and at other concerts, it’s been incredible to hear these pieces that are new for us even if they are decades old, so there’s this lingering question of “why haven’t we done this yet?” And not just 45th Parallel, but the whole classical music world. We’re not looking to replace the greats, but we’re looking to have a more full broad perspective of art and what everyone’s life has been like and how they represent that with music. 

Artswatch: There’s this desire to continue improving the diversity of the repertoire, but people still wanna play Bach and Beethoven, all the old classics. How do you find a way to find balance between those things?

Blessinger: That’s one of the reasons we took on the word “universe”–Parallel Universe. Our tagline initially was, Greg do you remember, “Embracing tradition even as we challenge it?”

Ewer: Yeah something like that. 

Blessinger: That matters because you can’t understand where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. One perspective informs the other. We don’t play contemporary music well unless we understand tradition. Chamber orchestra concerts exemplify that. Something old, something new, some variety, of great interest stylistically. 

Long: Since we program collectively, we get different preferences from people. There are some people in the group who just want to play the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, the big masters. It all evens out in time, and you end up with a season that has a little bit of everything that represents everyone’s artistics desires. For the Arcturus Quintet we often program by asking ourselves, “what’s on your bucket list?” We get these programs that a month before the concert we are like, “what were we thinking?” but it ends up being very fun and diverse. Well, some of our older concerts were not very diverse but our upcoming concerts are. Because we program together, we get all those different priorities and desires and viewpoints and they all balance each other out. 

Blessinger: Steve Reich used to say he didn’t want to hear what he called the “brown music” of Schoenberg and others. We want to hear the music of drive-ins, bebop, all that. That’s not to say that the real austere ivory tower music isn’t possible. I mean we did a Lindberg clarinet quintet. And I look forward to the challenge of making the case for the extreme emotional content of that piece, which can not be so apparent on the first listen. 

I’m from Hermiston. I didn’t have an arts magnet school. My parents used to drive me six-hours round-trip for violin lessons. I love introducing Bartok and Lindberg to people who would never have heard it otherwise. I like the challenge of making the case for that music to them. And I’m always pleasantly surprised that it’s so well received. 

Artswatch: Do you have any personal favorite concerts you’ve put on in the last year?

Long: I’m behind, I still need to watch them all. 

Blessinger: Don’t worry, at the end of June we’re gonna do a telethon where we play them all. Zack Galatis and Maria Garcia playing flute and then singing Broadway tunes was magical. Talk about making a connection! It was so cool. 

Long: My favorite was the CelloCracker. I’m not a huge Christmas nerd, but in my previous orchestra, the San Antonio Symphony, we played about fifteen Nutcrackers a year in November and December. We don’t do it here and I miss it, it’s something that feels so seasonal, warm, fuzzy, Christmassy. Hearing six cellos playing arrangements from the music from the Nutcracker with hats on their scrolls was so delightful and I think they’re gonna do it again. 

Blessinger: The rights to the music were all public domain. It was by an amature cellist and physician, so when he passed away he gave the rights away so anyone can play those arrangements. Trevor Fitzpatrick’s dad is an arranger who’s gonna add more pieces to that set. And those cellists also played in a program we called Octocello where they did arrangements for eight cellos.

Long: They need to do Fratres next time they get together. 

Blessinger: We want Octocello to be around. They’ll do weddings! I’m kidding. 

Ewer: Quite early in all this, we had Micah Fletcher for a reprise of the concert we did with him two years ago. Any opportunity to hear him read poetry is worth taking. He’s an incredible wordsmith. Obviously there’s so much emotion behind what went down, and it was totally not planned this way, but the concert where we had him was very close to the sentencing of Jeremy Christan. So it was particularly poignant and timely and charged. I think that’s one of the highlights for me.

Artswatch: I know you did a concert with Kenji Bunch a while back, have you thought about doing more music by local composers? 

Blessinger: Can’t stand them [laughs]. Personally my heart is there. We did a premiere of a phenomenal piece by Kirsten Volness. It was all Portland composers for the Micah Fletcher concert: Nicholas Yandell, Bonnie Miksch, Kenji Bunch and Texu Kim. We’re doing a project with our string quartet Pyxis, the world premiere of a work by Scott Unrein. So yeah absolutely, we are committed to that. And very intrigued in the role we can play in the development of what we call the “Portland School.”

Long: We’ve been talking a lot about that lately. One of the consistent themes in our conversation has been this theme of the Portland School of composers. There are so many fantastic composers here and we’re trying to put them on the map and help them get more attention more locally and nationally. 

Artswatch: So who do you consider to be among the Portland School of composers? What do you think that is? 

Blessinger: I don’t know yet. There’s a lot of questions there. How do we serve humanity musically? What do we bring to the table? And does geography create fertile ground for a certain kind of musical style? I’d love to be in the middle of that conversation. As for Portland, Gabe Kahane and Andy Akiho have moved here. Kenji came back here. I mean I go back further than that with Tomas Svoboda and Bryan Johanson. And Tom is still around, and I love his music. Oregon has a rich tradition for classical music which very easily can be considered in terms of whatever a school is. This is an ongoing conversation and I couldn’t be happier about being in the middle of it.

Artswatch: Are there any local composers who you haven’t had the opportunity to play yet that you would like to at some point? 

Long: I’ve played some of Andy’s works, some of Kenji’s both in orchestra and in chamber music, and Robert Kyr. Maybe but that’s about it, that’s about all I’ve played. So yeah Portland composers: come find me!

Blessinger: There’s great music being created in our midst. And we want to be right in the middle of it. Send us suggestions, help us stay connected. 

Long: We’ve talked about having a call for scores, and that idea got sidetracked by the pandemic. 

Blessinger: It’s gonna sound like a weak answer, but we are absolutely committed to supporting the work of local composers. This is central to who we are. The interesting thing for me coming out of a new music organization and into an organization that is not so narrowly defined has been very liberating. And it’s been surprising to me talking to colleagues about James Shields, who seems to know every fucking piece written for clarinet and every related instrument. He’s played them all! We’ll say that we’re doing a concert of Asian music and James will email me back a list of forty pieces. And he seems like the kind of guy that’s just gonna be a new music nut, but you’d be surprised. At Chatter, he’s the one who is advocating old stuff.

Long: I think James is a shark: he doesn’t stop learning new pieces, just like a shark can’t stop swimming. 

Blessinger: We’ve come a long way in just a few years. Things are starting to fall into place. And we love Oregon Composers. We love you! It’s one thing to have the technology to get together and play, and it’s another to switch completely from a live performance organization to being a broadcaster, knowing who to film and edit yourself, how to manage a youtube channel, how concerts function in that medium. The learning curve has been immense. 

We have such tremendous players, it’s a blessing to dream big and not be constrained. A few years ago we did Le bourgeois gentilhomme by Strauss, and even an extreme challenge like that, it’s never a question of whether we have the players to do it. This will be my thirtieth year with the Oregon Symphony. And I can tell you it would’ve never been possible back then. The Oregon Symphony, their evolution and growth, bringing in talented players, has brought in the resources [for us] to do Music for Eighteen Musicians, Les Boréades, that sort of thing. We did In C for our one-year anniversary. Thirty players are able to come together and celebrate together. 

Artswatch: What are the plans for returning to live concerts?

Blessinger: Our live season will begin in October. We’ll be doing two concerts a month, on Thursdays. We’ll be doing garden concerts in August and September. At the Jacob’s Center in October in the wonderful atrium, we’re doing live shows twice a month there through June. Our universe is organized with five constituent ensembles, each group gets two concerts. We have some more stuff we’re preparing with Danny, some percussion shows where we have the technology to have some fun with percussionists from all over the world. We’ve developed a lot of pieces, and now we have a library of pieces we’ll be able to draw from. We can probably program the next three years with pieces we haven’t gotten to play live. 

The way we formatted the Les Boréades concert in the PICA building, having the audience surrounding us, will be done again for Music for Eighteen Musicians. We’ve talked with architecture firms about how we can be creative in those environments. 

I’m reading Alex Ross’ book on Wagner right now, and I’m intrigued by Wagner’s idea of a total artwork, gesamtkunstwerk. I love the idea of us being the hub of a creative wheel of dance and film–the percussionists did an amazing project on the Shostakovich Fifteenth symphony, and we collaborated with Scott Ballard the filmmaker. We did a concert where we engaged an artist Zak Margolis to work with our string quartet. Aeryn Santillan was one of Gabriela Lena-Frank’s composers, we performed such a cool rock and roll piece of hers with an electric guitarist from Canada. Our idea of what a Portland school will have something to do with the entire creative community of Portland and Oregon.

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About the author

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Portland State University with a degree in Sonic Arts and Music Production in 2019. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. In addition to composing, he is a sound engineer for chamber music group FearNoMusic and is an editor of the Portland State music journal Subito.

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