Classical Up Close’s June series of free, casual, intimate neighborhood concerts in and around Portland entered the home stretch on Wednesday and Thursday with a pair of shows that shifted from trumpets to tango and brass to sass.
Wednesday’s concert, beneath a brooding but ultimately benevolent sky on the driveway of trumpeter Jeffrey Work’s Southwest Portland home, was a brassy sort of thing. It featured Work, principal trumpeter of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra; and four fellow members of the orchestra’s brass section: assistant principal trumpeter David Bamonte; associate principal horn player Joe Berger; assistant principal trombonist Robert Taylor; and principal tuba player Ja’Ttik Clark; plus orchestra percussionist (and assistant principal timpanist) Sergio Carreno.
The musicians were set up in front of the garage door, the fans were scattered and sprawled across the lawn, and it just felt good, Work said, “doing music for a lovely, enthusiastic audience.” It’s been a while. After well more than a year of doing no live concerts, practicing on their own, maybe doing some videos “as a way of working back into things,” he said, “we’re enjoying reminding ourselves, ‘hey, we really are musicians.’”
Wednesday’s casual concert was also something of a prelude to much more music to come. On June 18 and 19 the symphony brass players will play a full-blown concert including music by Joan Tower and Astor Piazzolla, Bizet’s suite from Carmen, and more at The Lot at Zidell Yards. “That will be the full brass section,” Work said. “A very large ensemble.” And even that will be a prelude. Come September, the entire orchestra will beginning rehearsing together, for the first time in about a year and a half. And come October, the full, concert-hall 2021-22 symphony season will begin.
In the meantime, on this intimate and makeshift homegrown stage, the band played on – and not without some situational adjustments. As pleasant and inviting as an outdoor concert can be, acoustics, and a lot of other factors, are more difficult to control than on an indoor stage. “We had some direct sun, which is a bit of a trial for musicians, but we liked it, because we’re Oregonians,” Work said. And, luckily, no wind to speak of: Think about a blustering breeze, and sheet music on a stand, flapping from page to page and off the stage.
What did the quintet (plus percussionist) play? The event schedule kept its description simple: “A varied program of upbeat brass favorites, ranging from the Renaissance to the Jazz Age, will be announced by the musicians.” That’s pretty much the way it went down, Work said: “We started with Renaissance era or early Baroque pieces, and then worked our way up the brass repertoire.” Percussionist Carreno joined the quintet when it got to “what I call pre-jazz, ragtime.” The group played one of its favorites, Luckey Roberts’ “The Junk Man Rag.” It played “the classic bit of music from ‘Peanuts,’” Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy.” It played some music it sometimes does on kids’ concerts, including “Maria” from West Side Story – “a way to reveal the mellow sound of the French horn.” It played its regular closer, Lew Pollack’s 1914 ragtime hit “That’s Aplenty.” “That is a favorite of the group,” Walk said. “A Roaring ’20s-sounding jazz tune. Very peppy and very fun.”
A program running from Renaissance to contemporary, as this one did, spans not just markedly different styles but also markedly different sounds from the instruments, which have changed radically over those centuries. “Oddly enough, the trombone is one of the least altered instruments of all,” Work noted: It works and sounds very much like its Renaissance and Baroque predecessor, the sackbut. Trumpets and other horns, on the other hand, didn’t become keyed until around 1800, and it took another several decades for the newly valved modern designs to work their way fully into ensembles. The horns’ new possibilities also changed the way composers wrote for them. “When we play Gabrieli,” the 16th and early 17th century composer, “it’s a different animal,” Work said. The sound is different. But there are many valid approaches to performing historic music, he believes, including playing it on modern instruments: “Being historically informed is more related to where we take our breaths” than to playing valveless horns.
Once the orchestra musicians get back inside their home performing space, downtown Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, things will be the same as they were before the coronavirus shutdown, and also different. They’ll be playing for a new music director, David Dansmayr. And they’ll be working in an acoustically transformed Schnitzer Hall, a space with a beautifully restored interior but also a small stage and a history of sound challenges for musicians and audiences alike. On their return the musicians will be greeted by a new Constellation sound-enhancement system designed by Meyer Sound Laboratories in Berkeley, Calif.
The music critic Alex Ross wrote in a 2015 essay in The New Yorker, “Wizards of Sound,” about the Meyer systems, including Constellation. It’s enabled by a highly complex and powerful computer system that can be adjusted to the needs of specific performances and performance halls. As company co-founder John Meyer told Ross, the computer is “calculating twenty thousand echoes a second, and that information has to stay in the memory for four or five seconds—a huge amount of data. Only a few years ago could we pull off the sacred-space setting, which is the most complex of all.”
Work was among the Oregon Symphony musicians who traveled to the Meyer lab in Berkeley to check out the system when the orchestra was considering it – and he took his trumpet along, to try it out in one of the lab’s spaces. “It’s a replacement of acoustics,” he said of the new design. “My understanding is, it’s not a sound system. It’s a replacement of acoustics with another acoustic. The people at Meyer said, ’We can make it better for the performers, first of all, and we can make it better for the audience, second of all.’ And we said, ‘Both, please!’”
After a long and difficult layoff, you can feel excitement building. For musicians, the forced shutdown of the pandemic has brought different responses. For some, it’s been a sort of refresher, a chance to do music, as Work puts it, “how I want. What I want. When I want. And occasionally even if I want. But there have been others who’ve been genuinely depressed.” For musicians and audiences alike, the Classical Up Close mini-concerts, and other small live shows, have offered a foretaste of getting back to a full musical life.
The biggest impact of Wednesday’s concert? “It had a feel to me,” Work said, “of maybe this pandemic is getting over.”
THURSDAY’S CONCERT, IN THE FRONT YARD of a house tucked between the Grant Park and Hollywood neighborhoods in Northeast Portland, was a back-by-popular-demand engagement of sorts. The same three musicians who played an earlier Classical Up Close show on June 3 a little farther east in Northeast Portland – trombonist Robert Taylor, violinists Erin Furbee and Peter Frajola – were back in the swing of things. And, as they did in the earlier concert, they let fly with a flurry of tango music.
Once again, the magic worked. Looking through his images from the show, photographer Joe Cantrell, who’s documented every concert in this month’s Classical Up Close series, mused: “They all remind me of how Real-Portland charming the evening was. As a matter of fact, about two-thirds of the way through the recital one of the women sitting in the narrow street, in the lawn chair she’d carried, said, ‘Now THIS is why we’re in Oregon,’ and the gallery around her vigorously affirmed it. Two neighbors graciously moved their cars so that people had a better view of the musicians on Robert Taylor’s lawn; people there for the concert helped push and guide them safely. There was the old sweet feeling of Portland-sharing, from folks helping late arrivers to the best vantage points to even the hanging blossoms beside CLUC graphic maestra Susan Sheppard’s banner arranging themselves to mimic the flute. Imagine that (you have to).”
“We did a few new tunes,” Furbee said afterwards, noting that some of the people in the audience had also been at the June 3 show. “We did some new tangos. A little jazz, a little classical, a little Harry Potter music. We mixed it up a lot.” Some rhythm, some swing, some dance music, some concert music, some Piazzolla, something more. Once again, trombonist Taylor wrote the arrangements for the unusual combination of instruments, and once more, it all came together with a touch of style and sass. What more could a neighborhood ask?
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 12, 2-3 p.m.: 4810 S.E. Raymond St., Portland. Violinists Emily Cole and Greg Ewer, violist Charles Noble, cellist Kevin Kunkel, bassist Jeffrey Johnson, and bassoonist Carin Miller Packwood play Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Ciranda “Das Sete Notas”; Wynton Marsalis’s “Meeelaan”; Haydn’s String Quartet Number 46, opus 20, number 4, and Jean Francaix’s “Divertissement.”
- Monday, June 14, noon-1 p.m.: 810 S.E. Oak Grove Blvd., Milwaukie. In the festival finale, violinist Emily Cole, violists Charles Noble and Kerry Kavalo, cellist Kevin Kunkel, bassist Jeffrey Johnson, clarinetist James Shields, horn players Joe Berger and Alicia Waite, and bassonist Carin Miller Packwood play Carl Nielsen’s “Serenata in Vano”; Alec Wilder’s Duets for Horn and Cello; and Louis Spohr’s Octet in E Major, Op. 32.
- 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.
- 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.