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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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?
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- Classical Up Close 5: Bikes & Brass: A pair of Saturday concerts draws the committed and the curious (and a bunch of bike enthusiasts) to sounds of brass and woodwinds.