Classical Up Close: Bassist Instinct

In a free outdoor show, classical bassist Colin Corner and friends have young fans dancing in a parking lot.

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The music flows: Bassist Colin Corner leads the party in the parking lot of Lake Music in Lake Oswego on Wednesday, and young fans leap in on the action. Photo: Joe Cantrell

And then came the bass.

On a balmy Wednesday early afternoon in the surprisingly comfortable parking lot of a Lake Oswego music store, Classical Up Close embarked on a deep-toned musical adventure. “The bass is sort of front and center for a lot of it,” Colin Corner, a Classical Up Close regular and principal bassist of the Oregon Symphony, said shortly after the show. That was pretty much how he planned things for this second concert in Classical Up Close’s summer festival of free outdoor concerts, which began June 1 and continues through June 14.

After a sweltering beginning for the festival on Tuesday, when the temperature spiked into the high 90s, things eased off a little on Tuesday, and musicians and audience alike took advantage of it. There was dancing in the parking lot, mostly by people with very young feet, and a lively, rumbling swing from the makeshift stage. And the blend of instruments – violin, viola, cello, bass, flute – was a little different from your ordinary chamber quartet stuff.

Sounds good: The music prompted smiles from pianist and composer Marek Harris, whose piano prelude “Gypsy Dance” was performed as a concert encore. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Joining Corner in the program’s four pieces of bass-centric composition were violinist Inés Voglar Belguique, violist Hillary Oseas, cellist Trevor Fitzpatrick, and flautist Martha Long. Classical Up Close (or CLUC, for short) is an independent nonprofit group made up mostly but not entirely of musicians from the Oregon Symphony Orchestra: violist Oseas, for instance, is principal violist for the Portland Opera Orchestra. CLUC’s musicians are interested in taking music out of the concert halls and into workplaces and neighborhoods – places where people can listen to small-scale, intimate performances in a low-key, relaxed atmosphere.

Dance to the music: A young fan joins in. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Corner organized the concert of what he calls “bass-centric chamber music” himself. That meant choosing the pieces, bringing the players together, arranging rehearsal times and spaces (he booked space in the American Federation of Musicians Union Local 99’s rehearsal hall, which had been shut down for months but reopened, with improved ventilation, in the spring) and finding a place to perform the concert. “It was kind of a new experience for me, in a lot of ways,” he said. “I kinda had to scramble to find a space.” One possibility was the yard at a friend’s house in Beaverton. But there were already CLUC concerts set up in Beaverton, and Classical Up Close likes to spread its shows around the metro area. So Corner posted a notice online on Nextdoor, and that’s how the concert got to Lake Oswego. “The owner of Lake Music said, ‘Yeah, sure, you can do it in my parking lot.’” It worked out really well.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing: Violist Hillary Oseas gets in the groove. Photo: Joe Cantrell

A smaller-scale plan for this concert was delayed a year when the pandemic shut down a lot of activities. “I had this piece I wanted to do, Hoffmeister’s Solo Bass Quartet No. 4,” he said, as one of Classical Up Close’s “blitz” concerts – short, quick-hitting shows at out-of-ordinary spots for concerts but familiar everyday places in “ordinary” life: Corner had a bakery all picked out. Then the world shut down, including the blitzes, and after a year a bigger plan emerged for a full-blown summer festival show: Sarah Kwak, Classical Up Close’s executive director and the concertmaster for the Oregon Symphony, “pulled me aside and said, ‘You know, you can just do the whole program.’”

That ended up including the Hoffmeister, a pair of duos for violin or violin/viola by Corner’s bassist colleague Tom Knific, and Erwin Schulhoff’s Concertina for Flute, Viola and Contrabass. Knific’s Zhang Song, Corner writes in his program notes, “is dedicated to the family of DaXun Zhang, who is an incredibly accomplished bassist and professor at Juilliard in Tianjin. He and I went to school together, and he is one of my oldest and best friends in the world, so I have a deep personal connection to this piece. Tom’s Duo for Violin/Viola and Bass was written for Thomas Martin, who was principal bass of the London Symphony. The composer went to visit him, and describes the feeling of nostalgia in the quaint town, Henley-On-Thames, in which Martin lives, in the first movement. The second movement, “The Event,” describes an equestrian outing they attended, as Thomas Martin is a horse owner.”

Made in the shade: Cellist Marilyn de Oliveira and kids relax with the music. Photo: Joe Cantrell

The program closed with Schulhoff’s concertino, which the Czech-born composer wrote in just four days in 1925. “The Schulhoff has become a staple of bass repertoire,” Corner said. “There’s a lot of really cool stuff for the bass to play.” For the other end of the spectrum, too: The quartet includes a flautist, in this case Martha Long, who sometimes moves up the scale to piccolo, creating a bottom-to-top sound. The piece represents a move into modernism: Music writer John Mangum notes that, after World War I, Schulhoff moved to Dresden, “broke with the late Romanticism espoused by his conservatory teachers,” began to create “expressionist, atonal” music, and joined the company of forward-thinking artists including the painter George Grosz (with whom he listened to American jazz records) and Otto Dix. “Following his return to Prague in 1923,” Mangum writes, “Schulhoff began to compose works synthesizing all of these influences – Czech music, Russian and eastern music, late Romanticism, expressionism, and jazz – into a compelling, personal style.” Or, as Corner puts it: “It is so much fun to play, and the mix of voices between the flute, often doubling on piccolo, viola, and bass really go well together.”

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Well enough, on a sunny late spring day, to get you dancing in a parking lot.

Colin Corner bends over the score …
… which marks the music. Photos: Joe Cantrell

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Classical Up Close Summer Festival 2021

The intimate concert series continues through June 14. You can see this year’s full Classical Up Close Festival schedule here. Coming up next:

  • Thursday, June 3, 5-6 p.m.: 1805 N.E. 56th Ave., Portland. Violinists Erin Furbee and Peter Frajola, and trombonist Robert Taylor, play tango music.
  • Friday, June 4, 5-6 p.m.: 16306 Hilltop Road, Oregon City. Sarah Kwak, Chien Tan, Searmi Park, Ruby Chen, violin; Charles Noble, Vali Phillips, Kelly Talim, Leah Ilem, viola; Marilyn de Oliveira, Trevor Fitzpatrick, Antoinette Gan, cello; and Andy Akiho, percussion, play sextets by sextets by Brahms and Strauss, and four contemporary pieces by percussionist Akiho. Limited parking; carpooling suggested.

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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 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."

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