Chamber Music Northwest Orion Quartet The Old Church Portland Oregon

Classical Up Close 6: Noble sounds

The festival soars past its halfway point with a pair of shows – and violist Charles Noble's in the middle of the mix.


If a songbird were flitting from bush to bush across greater Portland, bent on catching every musical note of this month’s Classical Up Close festival of free outdoor chamber concerts, it would hear and see a lot of Charles Noble. How many of this year’s 14 public concerts is he playing in? On Monday morning – the day after he’d played an afternoon concert in Portland’s Southwest Hills built around Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, and before picking up his viola again for the concert he and his musician wife, Stephanie Noble, were hosting that evening outside their Milwaukie home – he needed to stop to figure it out.

Cellist Nancy Ives and violist Charles Noble, performing Witold Lutoslawski’s Bucolics for viola and cello, outside at Noble’s Milwaukie home on Monday. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Let’s see: Sunday was No. 4; Monday’s show would be No. 5. And then, coming up were shows on June 12 and the finale on the 14th. “Seven,” he concluded – or, half of this summer’s shows. “It’s kinda nuts,” he added. “At some point I guess I thought, ‘I’m busy enough already. I may as well just keep saying ‘yes’.”

Some Classical Up Close musicians (most, but not all, also play in the Oregon Symphony Orchestra) are doing just a show or two, although they may well be among the audience for other concerts. But while Noble’s among the leaders in concerts played, he’s not alone in the musical multiverse. Violinist Sarah Kwak, who’s also Classical Up Close’s executive director, is a frequent festival flyer, either onstage or in the audience, as are her husband, violinist Vali Phillips; violinist Greg Ewer; cellist Marilyn de Oliveira; cellist (and group co-founder) Nancy Ives, who on Monday performed Witold Lutoslawski’s Bucolics for viola and cello with Noble; and a few others. And photographer Joe Cantrell, who’s shot all nine shows so far, expects to do the same for the remainder of the festival. But Noble’s seven concerts as a player are right up there.

Violinists Sarah Kwak and Greg Ewer wind up with a flourish on Monday. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Noble’s been a key player in Classical Up Close for a long time. He couldn’t recall offhand whether he’d been involved the first year – “the way things are right now, last year seems like 10 years ago,” he said with a laugh – but his involvement runs deep. Ordinarily, the group’s concerts are indoors, with a few shorter and generally even more casual “blitz” concerts sometimes outside. This year, moving everything outside made sense: “A lot of things are different this year, just out of necessity. We had moving goalposts in terms of what the governor was saying about what was going to be allowed. And we didn’t know what vaccine levels were going to be.”

Cellist Marilyn de Oliveira, another frequent festival player, at Sunday’s concert in Portland’s Southwest Hills. Photo: Joe Cantrell

So this year the concerts are what they are – and so far, what they are has worked out well. The all-outdoor format has made the weather an unpredictable factor. Temperatures have fluctuated sharply since the festival began on a 97-degree day June 1, and the festival has ducked a couple of rainstorms since, getting its concerts in either before or after the storms. If anything, the weather’s underscored the festival’s creative provisionality.

What’s a little weather when there’s music in the air? The sky threatened on Monday, but the audience ignored it and the musicians played on. Photo: Joe Cantrell

“Sometimes there’s a plan,” Noble said. Bassist Colin Corner put together everything about his bass-centric June 2 program, and cellist Ken Finch’s June 5 concert (one of the five so far in which Noble’s performed) “was very much a curated thing.” But a great deal of fluidity and even serendipity also are involved. “It’s so democratic. Sarah (Kwak) just puts out a call,” Noble said of the process. People sign up on a list for pieces they’d like to play – “you put it into the hopper” – and then projects are put together into programs. Which pieces will fit well together? Which can be combined to make up about an hour’s worth of music?

Cellist Antoinette Gan and Noble perform side by side in Sunday’s concert. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Sunday’s concert was a case in point. Fanny Mendelssohn’s quartet was the centerpiece, buttressed by Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Assobio a Játo and Mozart’s Flute Quartet in G Major, which featured flautist Martha Long. “We were planning to do the Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet at last year’s CLUC, which of course was cancelled,” cellist Antoinette Gan wrote in program notes, “so it only seemed right that we owed a performance this year to Fanny! The Mozart Flute Quartet in G Major is a short and sweet Mozart that is perfect to balance out the slightly denser works on the program. Perfect for a moderate summer day outside!” Joining Gan, Long, and Noble in the ensemble were violinists Ewer and Emily Cole, and cellist de Oliveira.

Violinist Emily Cole and flautist Martha Long performing Sunday in Mozart’s Flute Quartet in G Major. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Monday’s program was a satisfying one for Noble, and not just because it was at his home. Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, K. 174, “a piece I grew up with,” was its linchpin. It “was the first of his string quintets, written when Mozart was just 17,” Noble wrote in program notes. “It’s gorgeous, full of the vitality of his youth, free from any worry or care in the world.” He continued in his notes: Lutoslawski’s viola and cello Bucolics, which he performed with Ives, “are delightful little pieces in folk style that are perfect for hearing in an outdoor garden context.”  (“They’re called ‘Bucolic,’ so we thought, ‘how nice to do that outdoors’,” he added Monday.) And Mozart’s Duo in G Major for Violin and Viola, K. 423 “was written 10 years after the B-flat Major String Quintet. Despite there only being two instruments instead of five, Mozart provides a remarkable lushness and variety of textures, showing his full mastery of the difficult duo medium.” 

Noble is one of the busiest classical musicians in town. In addition to Classical Up close he’s a member (and board member) of the musically omnivorous chamber group 45th Parallel Universe, and a member (with Ewer, de Oliveira, and violinist Ron Blessinger) of Pyxis Quartet. He keeps up a widely followed web site, Noble Viola, and does podcasts (including this recent one about Classical Up Close, with Kwan and Ives). And he’s the acting principal violist of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, an ordinarily intense and concentrated job that suddenly dried up last year when coronavirus shutdowns began and the orchestra canceled its season.

Now, things are heating up again, and suddenly Noble seems at least as busy as ever. “It’s feast or famine after more than a year,” he said. With the symphony beginning rehearsals in early September for its new, live-performance season, which begins in early October with a new new music director, David Danzmayr, and new audio enhancements in the orchestra’s home Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, it’s tasting more and more like feast. If music be the food of love, dig in.

Sign of the times. Photo: Joe Cantrell


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:

  • 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.
  • Thursday, June 10, 5-6 p.m.: 3512 N.E. Tillamook St., Portland. Violinists Erin Furbee and Peter Frajola and trombonist Robert Taylor play tango music.

Previous stories:

I spent my first 21 years in Tahlequah, Cherokee County, Oklahoma, assuming that except for a few unfortunate spots, ‘everybody’ was part Cherokee, and son of the soil. Volunteered for Vietnam because that’s what we did. After two stints, hoping to gain insight, perhaps do something constructive, I spent the next 16 years as a photojournalist in Asia, living much like the lower income urban peasants and learning a lot. Moved back to the USA in 1986, tried photojournalism and found that the most important subjects were football and basketball, never mind humankind. In 1992, age 46, I became single dad of my 3-year-old daughter and spent the next two decades working regular jobs, at which I was not very good, to keep a roof over our heads, but we made it. She’s retail sales supervisor for Sony, Los Angeles. Wowee! The VA finally acknowledged that the war had affected me badly and gave me a disability pension. I regard that as a stipend for continuing to serve humanity as I can, to use my abilities to facilitate insight and awareness, so I shoot a lot of volunteer stuff for worthy institutions and do artistic/scientific work from our Cherokee perspective well into many nights. Come along!

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

Chamber Music Northwest Orion Quartet The Old Church Portland Oregon
Kalakendra An Evening of Indian Classical Music First Baptist Church Portland Oregon
Portland Center Stage presents Hair at the Armory Portland Oregon
Seattle Opera, Alcina, Handel's Story of Sorcery, McCaw Hall, Seattle Washington
Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Crow's Shadow Institute of the Arts Biennial, Willamette University, Salem Oregon
Hallie Ford Museum of Art at 25, Highlights from the permanent collection, Willamette University, Salem Oregon
City of Hillsboro Walters Cultural Arts Center Guy Davis Hillsboro Oregon
Hand2Mouth Theatre Home Land Live Performance Portland Oregon
Portland Playhouse Roald Dahl Matilda the Musical Portland Oregon
Literary Arts Presents the Portland Book Festival Portland Oregon
NW Dance Project Sharing Stories Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon
The Dalles Art Center Lori Mason A Life In Pattern The Dalles Oregon
Maryhill Museum of Art Columbia Gorge Washington
Portland State University College of the Arts
Lincoln County Historical Society Pacific Maritime Heritage Center The Curious World of Seaweed Newport Oregon
Oregon Cultural Trust tax credit donate
Arts Education series
We do this work for you.

Give to our GROW FUND.