SATURDAY WAS A DOUBLE-CONCERT DAY in Classical Up Close‘s festival of free outdoor shows across metropolitan Portland, and although the temperature had dropped considerably from the upper 90s of opening day on June 1, it still felt like things were warming up. For audiences and musicians alike, the concerts have had a celebratory feel, a sense of reawakening, like a modern-day Sleeping Beauty yawning and stretching and getting back on her feet after more than a year in a coronavirus slumber. Until Wednesday’s rehearsal, said Oregon Symphony cellist Ken Finch, who hosted Saturday’s evening concert outside his Beaverton home, “I hadn’t seen some of these musicians since March 12 last year,” when Covid-19 restrictions shut down the symphony’s season.
Classical Up Close’s small-scale neighborhood concerts of classical and contemporary chamber music, performed by some of the city’s finest musicians, are emblematic of a general revival of live performances in Oregon and across the nation, from professional baseball and basketball games to pop concerts to Shakespeares-in-the-Parks. Aided by the advent of summer and the relaxation of mask requirements outdoors, most of these shows are out in the open.
In Portland, Chamber Music Northwest is moving back to a live-show summer season, with virtual options, in July. The new outdoor space The Lot at Zidell Yards is hosting a summer’s worth of live shows, including a scaled-back Waterfront Blues Festival over the July 4 weekend. Just across the Willamette River, at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s newly built, outdoor Jordan Schnitzer CARE Summerstage, Portland Opera will present Frida, its long-anticipated production of Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s opera about the great Mexican artist Frida Kahlo; and Oregon Ballet Theatre is in the midst of its OBT Live performances, including world premieres from Jennifer Archibald and Nicolo Fonte.
Classical Up Close’s role in the reawakening has been a little more intimate, a little more free-form, a little more driven by the musicians’ own interests and passions, which often means that classical and contemporary, sometimes brand-new, music mix it up on the same program. Made up primarily but not exclusively of musicians from the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, it’s an independent nonprofit organization, and rather than being part of a carefully balanced and calibrated major-company season its concerts tend to take the shape of the enthusiasms of its member musicians.
Saturday afternoon’s concert, in a little sloping meadow at the southwest edge of Mt. Tabor Park, attracted about a hundred people, many arriving by bike or chancing upon the music while riding their bikes in the popular park – another form of emerging Portland revivalism. It featured the five musicians of the Rose City Brass Quintet, a three-year-old ensemble that, as trumpeter Joe Klause explains it, “got together because we wanted to play some of the great music of the brass quintet repertoire.”
That repertoire, Klause adds, is surprisingly modern, even though brass instruments go back to the Baroque, to medieval music, to the walls of Jericho, which the sounds of trumpets brought tumbling down. “Most of our music has been written in the last 60 years,” he said, following a technological breakthrough: “Valves, which allow you to play chronologically, without a slide, weren’t invented until the Industrial Revolution. As the instruments got better you could write more interesting music” – and musicians correspondingly got better at playing the better music.
On Saturday, Klause and his fellow quintet members – trumpeter Logan Thane Brown, tuba player JáTtik Clark, horn player Dan Partridge, trombonist Lars Campbell – played an hour-long concert including works by Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon, Axel Jorgensen, Joyce Solomon Moorman, Joey Sellers, and Jack Gale’s arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite.
In addition to the existing repertoire, Klause said, “We try to find composers to write for us.” Sellers, the Los Angeles composer and trombonist who has family connections in Portland, is one: He wrote his piece on the program, the movement “SE” from the larger work “Portland,” for Rose City Brass Quintet. Moorman’s piece, written in the late 1970s, was “performed just once, and then it existed on onionskin paper.” The quintet tracked it down, got in touch with her, and got her permission to revive it. Saturday’s performance was its fourth ever – and three of those have been by the Rose City Brass Quintet.
“THE MAIN THING ABOUT THIS CONCERT,” cellist Ken Finch said of the Saturday evening performance outside his Beaverton home, “was bookends of Mozart. And woodwinds.” The bookends consisted of Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370 and Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581. The woodwinds included oboe player Karen Wagner and clarinetist James Shields, who joined an ensemble of violinists Emily Cole, Ruby Chen, and Shin-young Kwon; violist Charles Noble; and cellist Finch. Sandwiched (or shelved) between the bookends were Bartók’s Duo for Two Violins, and Ernst von Dohnányi’s Serenade in C Major for String Trio, Op. 10. “Just your basic dead composers,” Finch said with a smile you could almost see over the telephone connection, “having fun.”
Dead they may be (though Bartók, who died in 1945, and Dohnányi, who died in 1960, were modernists), but they and Mozart are part of the great essential core of chamber music, composers whose music remains fresh and vital to contemporary ears. Like Rose City Brass’s Klause, Finch is a fan of Classical Up Close’s musician-driven approach – an openness, he observes, that embraces music by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ composers, and music that addresses such contemporary movements as Black Lives Matter. “That is the most wonderful thing about musician-run things,” he said, “is to follow what it is we want to do.”
The ability to think and act nimbly, Finch believes, is another mark of do-it-yourself musicmaking. When concerts and almost everything else shut down more than a year ago, at the height of the coronavirus crisis in March 2020, symphony musicians started contacting one another and setting up an impromptu series of porch and yard concerts for friends and neighbors, all of them masked and distanced. It wasn’t an official Classical Up Close series, but many of the same musicians were involved. Finch and his wife, violinist Lynne Finch, were among them: “I gave seven hours’ notice on Nextdoor, and we got a hundred people.” It was about the same number of people, it turns out, as showed up for Saturday’s concert, filling the Finches’ yard and stretching up and across the street.
In Classical Up Close and similar concerts, he added, you have the freedom to play the music you want to, but performing outdoors presents its own challenges and limitations. Music that can’t stand up to the distraction of passing traffic, for instance, can get lost. “Mozart works well outside. That’s one of the things we’re learning,” he said. “Things that go very quiet, they don’t work so well when cars are going by.”
Of course, the cars could stop and listen. After a long slumber, the music’s in the air again.
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:
- 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.
- Wednesday, June 9, noon-1 p.m.: 3779 S.W. 96th Ave., Portland. Jeffrey Work and David Bamonte, trumpets; Joe Berger, horn; Robert Taylor, trombone; JáTtik Clark, tuba; Sergio Carreno, percussion perform upbeat brass favorites from the Renaissance to the Jazz Age.
- Classical Up Close: sweet & live. The kickoff concert on Tuesday, June 1: violinists Greg Ewer and Adam LaMotte get things up and going.
- Classical Up Close: Bassist Instinct. In the outdoor festival’s second show, on June 2, bassists Colin Corner and friends ave kids dancing in a parking lot.
- Classical Up Close 3: Tango Plus. A pair of concerts in Northeast Portland neighborhoods – one sparked by some sassy tango, one featuring music by Black and women composers.
- Classical Up Close 4: High on a hill. Percussion pieces by Andy Akiho highlight a hillside concert in Oregon City, with Mount Hood’s peak visible in the distance.