Classical Up Close: intimate circle

Oregon Symphony musicians’ neighborhood pop up performance connects listeners, classics, and performers

By DAVID MACLAINE

Photos by Joe Cantrell

Southeast Portland’s Mt. Scott Presbyterian Church was filling up pretty quickly when I got there for the April 24 performance in the Classical Up Close program. Now in its seventh season, the annual spring series brings Oregon Symphony players to venues around the Portland metro area for chamber music concerts free of the formality of downtown halls, and with free admission too. (Read ArtsWatch’s story about CUC’s origins.)

 I reached my destination a bit early. No problem: the convenient location was no small part of the attraction of this concert. I could use the spare minutes sitting in the sun at a bench in Mt. Scott Park. Children climbed and slid down slides, the sun slid a bit too, and it was time go see what Classical Up Close was all about.

Turns out that “Up Close” is not just a slogan. The church is a pretty cozy venue in the first place, so when MC Christa Wessel let us know that the row of seats at the back of the podium were for fans, not musicians, and implored us to occupy them, I took the plunge, abandoned my place in the more distant pews, and endured a couple of awkward minutes sitting on-stage alone, staring out at the crowd, before others worked up the courage to take that walk up the aisle and join me. By the time the concert was ready to begin children were darting up there too. 

MC Wessel and hornist Joe Berger talk horns from the stage at Classical Up Close.

Six feet away from the players is a pretty choice location for chamber music, and not one I have enjoyed for a while. It has been decades since fans could enjoy the intimate view of Chamber Music Northwest events from the cushions on the floor of the Reed College cafeteria.

From my vantage point on stage I could survey the crowd. It was a better turnout than most free events, and although the gray-haired demographic was still in the majority, we at least fell short of the veto-proof supermajority found at most classical concerts. The presence of children and young parents was a welcome mood booster. 

So too was the insistence by our emcee that this was to be a holiday from conventional concert decorum. Take pictures or tweet if you want, applaud whenever you feel the urge, come and go as you please, and above all, have fun. It was a good test of what I think of as the Choban Theory that classical music is essentially smothered by the people who love it, swaddled in deadly formality, and that the antidote is an audience that feels free to express itself, passionate performers and music that flows from a living source instead of a distant past. On this occasion all those elements came together to provide more evidence that the theory might be true.

Blessinger & Noble
Blessinger & Noble

Bohuslav Martinu is not a serious contender for my personal list of the the Top Forty Classical Composers, but whenever I do stumble across the 20th century Czech composer’s work I always wonder why we don’t hear more of him. His Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, performed by violinist Ron Blessinger and violist Charles Noble, provided not just the back and forth dialogue you tend to expect when two string instruments are asked to play catch without the safety-net of an accompanist, but also an infectious ability to build toward a climax. I began to worry that from my position right behind the players I might become a distraction, as I felt myself swaying and tensing as the music drove toward its payoff. I was too indoctrinated to accept the invitation to applaud between movements, but the audience happily felt no such inhibition.

Questions and Connections

After the final applause came the question period, another feature of these events that worked like the proverbial charm in breaking down barriers between the performers and their fans. These two were Oregon Symphony veterans, Blessinger of 29 years, Noble just two fewer. A question about their practice schedules offered a window into the array of other regular and occasional gigs on the players’ busy schedules, and made it clear that the life of a classical musician is by no means one where early hard work leads to a relaxing sinecure.

Corner & Jones

Another pair of string players, Colin Corner and Braijahn Jones, followed, members of the bass section who revealed that they had been playing with the Symphony for eight months and one-year-and-eight months respectively. Their program was fresher too, from a living composer, Dave Anderson, described as a friend, whose assortment of amusingly titled movements–including “Kibbles and Kibits” and “Blew Cheese”– showed off the instruments to charming effect. Their answers to questions about their instruments and the stories of how they chose them drew warm and widespread laughter. Halfway through the program, the personal connection these events were designed to produced had clearly been made.

There were tears in my eyes during the third offering on the program, but that was an accident of my own history. I am not a special fan of Robert Schumann’s music, and his Adagio and Allegro for Horn and Piano is not among those of his works that remind me why others rank him higher than I do. But it was the first time in decades I had sat so close to a French horn playing chamber music, and it was my memory of that other place and time–a performance of the Brahms Horn Trio in a basement in a Chicago townhouse, home of a college classmate who died last summer–that drew my mind away from the music at hand, where the horn’s mellow tones and the composer’s typically over-busy piano part did not suffice to tug my attention back to the here and now. But the question period was enjoyable again, and the mood was light as we approached the evening’s climax.

Samuel Park was soloist in a Vivaldi Violin Concerto.

This was a performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin in e-minor, RV 278, which was, we learned, a work unavailable in published score. That meant that the parts for this small ensemble of soloist, two violins, viola, cello and bass, had to be prepared by special arrangement, in this case through a connection that our lead violinist Samuel Park had made during his time in Texas, with someone who happens to enjoy turning facsimiles of autograph scores into parts suitable for modern musicians.

The concerto in question turned out to have family likeness to some of Vivaldi’s better-known works that have acquired nicknames such as “The Storm at Sea” (“La tempesta del Mar”) which is to say that it is vigorous and intense, with double stops (where the violin bow plays on two strings at the same time) and energetic action that require a high degree of skill. Park mastered these challenges in a display of just how far the Oregon Symphony has come during the decades I have followed it, with section players now blazing through music that would have sorely tested the principal violinist of an earlier generation. The applause was appropriately thunderous.

The delight in this display of virtuosity carried over to the final question period. There we learned about the way the score was put together, a bit about the two schools of bowing the double bass, and which of the children in the audience were Park’s own, including the infant who watched a bit from the balcony and the little boy who brought him roses after the music came to an end.

Family and Friends

It was the family-friendly side of things that lingered in my mind when I headed home afterwards. This was not one of those landmark events destined to linger in memory for years to come. (That came a few days later, when the Portland Baroque Orchestra’s Mozart program joined my pantheon of live orchestral events). But my prevailing mood after the Classical Up Close event was simple and direct. I felt happy. This was music-making that gave simple and direct pleasure, burnished by the extra warmth of joy reflected by a circle of family and friends. 

The event might not have lured in the masses who remain unaware how much delight they are missing in this vast and varied sphere of musical creation, but it was at least an occasion for strengthening ties between the various generations, the different constituencies of the art, from those in the younger generation wondering where their practice on these difficult instruments might lead, and those of their grandparents’ generation fretting, as all generations, do about where the fans of the future will come from.

We all know the stories about how behemoths of popular music emerge from groups of friends practicing in their garage, but this concert was a vivid reminder that classical musicians are also prone to get by with a little help from their friends. There were the string-section colleagues returning to a piece they had first performed years earlier, the friend whose composition for double bass offered a showpiece for instruments that get precious little time in the spotlight, and that other friend in Texas who produced the printed score that made the last performance possible. 

That the audience might be heavy on family and friends and music students of the players seemed in this cheerful context not a sign of insularity but of connection. This was a diverse assortment, onstage and off, of generations, nationalities and ethnic origins, but we were there together sharing the sheer delight that this great music can provide. It was a Wednesday night in a neighborhood church where a bunch of music lovers got together to share, and the net result was a lot of people heading home with smiles. Mission Accomplished, I would say. 

David Maclaine first attended the Oregon Symphony in the early 1970s and began covering it in print in 1980. During the last two decades of the old millennium he put in more time as a regular reviewer of classical concerts in Portland than any other writer who was not employed by a daily newspaper.

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