Classical Up Close 9: A wet finale

The company of elite musicians closes its two-week festival of human-scaled outdoors concerts on a high note – and in the rain

Classical Up Close‘s June festival of free outdoor concerts wrapped up in style on Monday with one violin, two violas, one cello, one bass, one clarinet, two horns, one bassoon, three chamber compositions, and several buckets of rain.

The festival had been playing peekaboo with the rainclouds for several days, but had managed to duck all but a few drops. At Monday’s festival finale, at noon along the east bank of the Willamette River in Milwaukie, music and weather finally bumped into each other for real. The clouds burst, and the rain came tumbling fast and furious.

In their element in the elements: Classical Up Close’s performers make music amid the cloudburst in Monday’s final concert in the 14-show outdoor series. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Well, maybe not that fast and furious. “It was a light rain,” violinist Sarah Kwak, the executive director of Classical Up Close and concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, said on Tuesday. “The skies didn’t get dark and ominous. It was a summer rain.”

Call it a steady rain, then – the sort that even Oregonians can’t pretend isn’t there. Fortunately, the musicians and their instruments were safely stationed on a large covered deck overlooking the river. Less fortunately, the audience was out among the elements, seated in folding chairs and wearing rain gear, with a few umbrellas for added protection. No matter. The music played on, against and above and through and beyond and entwined with the elements.

The afternoon’s nine musicians – violinist Emily Cole, violists Charles Noble and Kerry Kavalo, cellist Kevin Kunkel, bassist Jeff Johnson, clarinetist James Shields, horn players Joe Berger and Alicia Waite, bassoonist Carin Miller Packwood – leaned dexterously into three ambitious chamber works: the late 19th and early 20th century Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s “Serenata in Vano”; the 20th century American popular-music, film, and classical composer Alec Wilder’s Duets for Horn and Cello; and  the 19th century German composer Louis Spohr’s Octet in E Major, Op. 32. 

“Today was a minor miracle,” commented photographer Joe Cantrell, who documented all 14 festival concerts. “We had a lot of those over the last two weeks, and all went our way. When we arrived, a street repair crew was nearby with one of those jackhammer levelers and front end loader, making lots of noise. But they were rushing to lunch and we started at 12. … We were blessed by the rain. Only one motorboat and one distance swimmer, across the river and at 300 yards or so not noisy, passed by that I saw. We had our first rooster crow during a recital, ravens squawking; it was so nice.”  

A parade of umbrellas …

… and a makeshift head covering

Photos by Joe Cantrell

Monday’s festival finale was much more than the culmination of a two-week mini-festival. It was also, in a very real way, a beginning – among the first sproutings in a freshly planted garden of live music and other performance. The festival was a rebirth after a long, coronavirus-necessitated fallow period of isolation, virtual music-making, or no music at all. And musicians and audiences alike were thrilled.

Like theater and dance, music is a communal thing, something people do together, and some of the Classical Up Close musicians hadn’t seen their fellow musicians in well more than a year, since the Covid shutdown of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, in which most of them also play. “Honestly, we were exhilarated by the whole experience,” Kwak said. “We were just amazed at the turnout of people. It was more successful than we ever expected.”

Unlike earlier versions of Classical Up Close, this year’s concerts were entirely outdoors – in city parks and cul de sacs and people’s driveways; in the city and the suburbs; on a hilltop and on the riverfront. People walked from their homes in the neighborhood, or drove miles to hear a specific composition or a specific player; or arrived by bike; or just stumbled across the scene while out and about, and stopped to listen. There was stirring brass music, and tangos, and classic chamber quartet or quintet pieces, and music by contemporary Black and women composers, and a program of music featuring bass viol that had kids dancing in a parking lot; and contemporary drumming. And, yes, there were dogs.

Crowds were small but significant – a high of about 160 in Mt. Tabor Park, and otherwise mostly between 80 and 100, meaning that the music reached more than a thousand people, Kwak said. But small was the point. It’s Classical. Up Close. – music to experience intimately, close to the musicians, in a small setting with a few other people, the way music’s been played and passed along for millennia. These were not arena shows. There was no jacked-up sound system or juiced-up mosh pit. This was music on a human scale.

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The players at work

Violinist Emily Cole.
Viola player Kerry Kavalo.
Clarinetist James Shields.
Bassist Jeff Johnson.
Horn player Alicia Waite.
Violist Charles Noble, playing his seventh festival concert.
Cellist Kevin Kunkel. Photos by Joe Cantrell

There was disaster, too. On Friday, June 11, during a neighborhood concert with Kwak and Vali Phillips, the veteran pianist Cary Lewis had a medical emergency and was rushed to the hospital. He was diagnosed with an aortic dissection, Kwak said – 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. “That was just so emotionally draining,” Kwak recalled. “I’ve never been through anything like that.”

Running the festival outdoors was born of necessity, but in spite of weather and acoustic challenges it turned out spectacularly well, Kwak said: “My sense is that we were all surprised to realize how nice it was to be outdoors. Just a real nice neighborhood feeling. We made a lot of new friends. The people were just so joyful at being able to hear live music again.”

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THINGS LINED UP NEATLY AND NUMERICALLY for Classical Up Close’s Saturday afternoon show in Southeast Portland: It was June 12, and this was the 13th of 14 festival concerts. Unlike the festival finale two days later, on Saturday the musicians and audience managed to duck the rain. The afternoon also featured an intriguing program, ranging from that prince of 18th century composition and reliable old standby Joseph Haydn (Quartet Number 46, opus 20, number 4) to American jazz classicist Wynton Marsalis (Meeelaan); plus Brazilian composer, cellist, and classical guitarist Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Ciranda Das Sete Notas and 20th century French neoclassical composer Jean Francaix’ Divertissement.

Indoors/outdoors: Through an open garage door, musically. Photo: Joe Cantrell

The concert’s six musicians included five who also performed in Monday’s festival finale: violinist Cole, violist Noble, bassist Johnson, cellist Kunkel, bassoonist Packwood; plus violinist Greg Ewer. And how did it all feel? Let Joe Cantrell tell the tale in photos:

Musicians on the loose …

Violinis Greg Ewer and violist Charles Noble.
Violinist Emily Cole and bassist Jeff Johnson. Photos: Joe Cantrell

Bassoonist in triplicate

Carin Miller Packwood, playing …
… reacting …
… and celebrating, with cellist Kevin Kunkel. Photos: Joe Cantrell

Meanwhile, back on the lawn …

An English Mastiff and its persons stop to take in the sights and sounds. Photo: Joe Cantrell

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Classical Up Close Summer Festival 2021

The intimate concert series began June 1 and concluded on Monday, June 14, with its concert in the rain. ArtsWatch has followed the festival from its beginning, hoping to give readers a sense through this one accessible outdoor series of how it feels for performers and audiences as coronavirus restrictions begin to fade and the cultural world begins to open up again. Previous stories in our series:

About the author

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!

About the author
Senior Editor

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

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