UPDATE: Cary Lewis was diagnosed with an aortic dissection – a tear in the inner layer of the large blood vessel leading to the heart – and underwent emergency open-heart surgery. On Tuesday he was still in the hospital’s intensive care unit, but was also able to sit up in a chair.
The high-powered trio of violinist Sarah Kwak, violist Vali Phillips, and pianist Cary Lewis on keyboard was deep into the opening piece of Friday afternoon’s 12th concert in Classical Up Close’s June series of 14 free outdoor shows when something went wrong. Lewis, the veteran and highly regarded classical pianist, was in pain.
“I was sitting right next to the stage in case the wind blew Vali’s music off his stand,” Nancy Ives, the principal cellist of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra and a co-founder of Classical Up Close, said the following morning. “I could see that Cary was having problems with his right hand.” She thought it was a flareup from an old climbing injury that sometimes still causes him problems. “And then I heard him say, ‘I can’t even quite lift my right arm’.”
Something was very wrong. “Real life, you know, gets in there,” Ives said. The music stopped. Somebody called an ambulance, which rushed Lewis off to the hospital. Everyone, fellow musicians included, was stunned. “It’s just surreal,” Ives said. “Here you have a friend having a crisis, and you don’t even know. I just know without asking, Cary had that ‘the show must go on’ thing. He is a trouper among troupers.”
Lewis is reported to have had “a critical heart incident” and was taken into emergency open heart surgery. A report on Saturday from a friend of the family said that “it seems that they have been able to manage the situation.”
There was confusion after the ambulance carried Lewis away. Should Kwak and Phillips keep playing? The question struck to the core of the musicians’ life, and the traditional belief that in an emergency you carry on. The other musicians were conflicted, but decided to continue. Kwak thought, “That’s what Cary would want.”
The question was complex. “Times have changed,” Ives commented. “I think our society wants to be more conspicuously compassionate. And I don’t mean that as performative,” but as a genuine shift in communal values. Yet the musicians believed Lewis would want the music to continue. And, Ives said, of the 70 or 80 people gathered to listen in the Tigard cul de sac where Kwak and Phillips live, “a good 40, maybe more, stuck around.”
So Phillips and Kwak kept on, as a duo – and, of necessity, with an improvisationally revised program. “They literally raced down the street to their house, and grabbed some music,” Ives said.
It was out of character, she added. Ordinarily, Kwak and Phillips like to come to a concert well-prepared: “They’re not fond of winging it.” But wing it they did, quickly putting together a program of music for violin and viola that they were familiar enough with to play without preparation.
While they were back home rooting around for music to play, Ives picked up the microphone and started talking with the audience. “I was in full emcee mode,” she said. “It was a very engaged audience.” There were questions, and answers, and then Kwak and Phillips came back. And the music began again.
Lewis had played through the concert’s first scheduled piece, Ignaz Lachner’s Piano Trio No. 1 in B flat Major, Op. 37. The scheduled followup, Ludwig Thuille’s Piano Trio in E flat Major, had to be scrapped. Then began the “emergency program,” with Kwak on violin and Phillips switching back and forth between viola and violin. There was music by Jean-Marie Leclair, the 18th century French violinist and composer; and Lachner, the 19th century German composer; and Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia, based on a theme from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite in G Minor; and a concluding piece by the Austrian-born 19th century French composer and piano builder Ignaz Pleyel. “So they did quite a complete performance, actually,” Ives said.
Ives also spoke on Saturday about the pandemic and its effects on musicians, and the role that Classical Up Close has been playing.
Most of Classical Up Close’s musicians come from the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. But the symphony hasn’t performed in 15 months, and a lot of other gigs, including summer festivals, also dried up. So, for this series of outdoor concerts, “We had the freedom to pick a time of year when the weather would be better.” As it turns out, the weather and the concerts have been playing a game of hide-and-seek. June 1, opening day for the Classical Up Close outdoor concerts, was in the high 90s, and then things cooled down. It rained some days, but the concerts managed to find the dry stretches in the rainy days. And the musicians came prepared. “We have the canopy,” Ives said. “I bought one about a year ago; I told myself, ‘I’d better get one before they’re all gone.’ So that’s been really helpful.”
Until this month’s outdoor shows, she hadn’t used the canopy. But it’s come in handy, more to protect from the sun than the rain. “These are Oregonians,” she said of the musicians. “We can stand a little drizzle. It’s our instruments that can’t take the rain.” Or, for that matter, too much direct sunlight.
Ives talked a bit about how musicians have survived the pandemic, and the fears they might have coming out of it. Some who are susceptible are wondering about stage fright, an issue they’ve largely learned to deal with when they’re playing regularly. After a long layoff, will it come roaring back? Some are concerned that they haven’t practiced enough, or that the regular practicing they’ve done isn’t a substitute for the strenuous work of getting in and playing the music in a real concert: practice and playing have different stresses and make different physical demands. Will they be unprepared, in spite of their efforts to keep in shape? Will there be a lot of injuries in the coming season among the symphony players? It’s a bit like the glut of injuries to NBA basketball players after a very short layoff between seasons, or maybe more like the injury-plagued major league baseball season, in which, after a long layoff and a short spring training season – a time when players ordinarily round into playing shape – they suddenly were going full-bore in a full-length regular season. Many of their bodies simply weren’t ready for it.
There are great expectations for the return to “normal,” but nervousness, too. “People keep asking me, ‘Is the symphony really going to start up again in the fall?’” Ives said. “And I answer, ‘I have to believe yes’!”
Indeed, the orchestra’s scheduled to open its 2021-22 season on Oct. 2 in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with the first of three performances of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, plus the premiere of a fanfare by Portland composer Kenji Bunch and a piece by contemporary composer Gabriela Lena Frank, with new orchestra music director David Danzmayr conducting.
In the meantime, for musicians and audiences alike the Classical Up Close concerts have been a tonic, a promise, and a release. Ives expresses it simply: “Just the joy that everyone has.”
You can hear Cary Lewis and his wife, cellist Dorothy Lewis, in performance in this 1999 recording:
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 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.
- Classical Up Close 7: Brass & sass. As the festival enters the home stretch, the brasses come out to play and the tango music does an encore.