Classical Up Close 4: High on a hill

An open-air concert lifts spirits with the sounds of Brahms and Strauss and contemporary percussionist Andy Akiho.

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Violinist Chien Tan: when the movement gets swift, the swift get moving. Photo: Joe Cantrell

“I want to take you higher,” Sly and the Family Stone sang way back in 1969, and on Friday night that’s just what Classical Up Close did, ascending the appropriately named Hilltop Road in Oregon City and, on a wide expanse of open lawn amid swing sets and trees, playing the heart out of some sextets by Brahms and Strauss and a quartet of contemporary percussion pieces by the young composer Andy Akiho, who was also one of the musicians, playing steel pan. It was enough to make you want to lift up your eyes unto the hills – and if you had, you’d’ve seen Mt. Hood looming bright and clear to the east.

“It was quite an experience last night, I’m telling you,” said photographer Joe Cantrell, who’s been documenting all of the concerts in Classical Up Close’s June series of free, small-scale outdoor concerts in the greater Portland area. The festival of 14 concerts began June 1 and continues through June 14. On Friday evening, the music was played from the large deck of a private home whose owners are friends of some of the musicians, and who opened their yard to a relaxed yet attentive gathering of about 75 listeners sitting on folding chairs or blankets or just standing around.

Violinists Searmi Park (left) and Ruby Chen, leaning into the music. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Besides Akiho’s contemporary percussion pieces, the program featured a couple of favorite works of chamber musicians: movement four of Brahms’s Sextet in G Major, Op 36; and the sextet from Richard Strauss’s final opera, Capriccio, which debuted in 1942. The combination of contemporary, modern and Romantic attracted a stellar lineup of musicians in addition to Akiho: violinists Sara Kwak (who is Classical Up Close’s executive director and concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra), Chien Tan, Searmi Park, and Ruby Chen; violists Charles Noble, Vali Phillips, Kelly Talim, and Leah Ilem; and cellists Marilyn de Oliveira, Trevor Fitzpatrick, and Antoinette Gan.

Most of the evening’s musicians are also members of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, which, after a year’s worth of lost concerts because of coronavirus restrictions, is getting ready to start a new season of live performances in October. Akiho, who is a friend of violinist Ruby Chen from their days together at the Yale School of Music, is based in New York City. “He’s a raging genius, there’s no doubt about it,” Cantrell declared after listening to Akiho’s quartet of compositions on Friday evening. Akiho’s interest in drumming began when he was a kid, and after his undergrad college days he began to spend time in Trinidad, soaking up the rhythms and complexities of the steel drum bands, and finally beginning to compose his own music. To Cantrell’s ears, his music also carried a hint of Japanese taiko drumming – “not with that intensity, but with that virtuosity, certainly.”

And without doubt, it further elevated an evening that had already begun almost sky-high.

From a hill to a mountaintop: the view east to Mt. Hood from the concert site. Photo: Joe Cantrell

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Classical Up Close Summer Festival 2021

The intimate concert series began June 1 and continues through June 14. You can see this year’s full Classical Up Close Festival schedule here. Coming up next:

  • Saturday, June 5, 2-3 p.m.: 6318 S.E. Lincoln St., Portland. Rose City Brass Quintet (Joe Klause and Logan Brown, trumpets; Dan Partridge, horn; Lars Campbell, trombone; JáTtik Clark, tuba) plays music by Jennifer Higdon, Axel Jorgensen, Joyce Solomon Moorman, Joey Sellers, and Jack Gale’s arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite.
  • Saturday, June 5, 7-8 p.m.: 2966 N.W. Telshire Terrace, Beaverton. Emily Cole, Ruby Chen, Shin-young Kwon, violin; Charles Noble, viola; Ken Finch, cello; Karen Wagner, oboe and James Shields, clarinet, perform Bartok’s Duo for Two Violins; Dohnanyi’s Serenade in C Major for String Trio, Op. 10; and Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370 and Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581.
  • Sunday, June 6, 2-3 p.m.: 4037 S.W. Iowa St., Portland. Greg Ewer, Emily Cole, violin; Charles Noble, viola; Antoinette Gan, Marilyn de Oliveira, cello; Martha Long, flute, perform Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major;  Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Assobio a Játo; and Mozart’s Flute Quartet in G Major.
  • Monday, June 7, 5-6 p.m.: 9516 S.E. Winsor Drive, Milwaukie. violinists Sarah Kwak and Greg Ewer; violists Charles Noble and Vali Phillips; and cellist Nancy Ives perform a duo and quintet by Mozart and Witold Lutoslawski’s Bucolics for viola and cello.

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