Oregon Cultural Trust

Classical Up Close’s sonic smorgasbord

Greater Portland's homegrown chamber music festival winds up its spring season with delightful samples of familiar and contemporary classical music in a variety of churches.


Musicians and fans mingle freely at Classical Up Close concerts. Here, bassist Colin Corner talks with an audience member after a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Piano Quintet in C minor at Red Sea Community Church in North Portland, the fifth of six full concerts in the festival's 2024 season. Photo: Joe Cantrell
Musicians and fans mingle freely at Classical Up Close concerts. Here, bassist Colin Corner talks with an audience member after a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Piano Quintet in C minor at Red Sea Community Church in North Portland, the fifth of six full concerts in the festival’s 2024 season. Photo: Joe Cantrell

It’s a dream come true for many classical music lovers to attend a concert for free, but once every year there’s an opportunity in the Portland metro to attend six concerts gratis – courtesy of an independent non-profit organization called Classical Up Close – and on top of that, they are performed by musicians of the Oregon Symphony with a few select friends.

Each concert is unique, offering selections of chamber music, and they are informal, allowing the audience to ask questions of the performers. They are typically held in Portland area churches, rotating among neighborhoods for folks who may have rarely heard a classical performance. For extra measure, the group also offers pop-up performances by individuals and small ensembles at libraries, coffee shops, book stores, and other locations.

You may wonder how Classical Up Close came about. Well, it started after the Oregon Symphony’s trip to Carnegie Hall in 2013 fell through. Rather than mope about and fall into a slump, Concertmaster Sarah Kwak, her husband, violinist Vali Phillips, and Principal Cellist Nancy Ives hatched Classical Up Close (or CLUC for short) as a way to fill the two weeks with music and make connections with the symphony’s patrons and people who might be new to classical concerts – including kids. (Read about CLUC’s origin story.)

So each year, the CLUC board figures out a schedule of dates and places to perform, and Kwak posts a sheet with that schedule in the back hallway of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall – not far from the elevator. Her colleagues at the symphony scribble various pieces of chamber music that they would like to perform. The filled-out sheet goes to the board, and voila … the schedule becomes set (although there might be some last-minute changes).

This year I attended the festival’s first four concerts. All had packed audiences, and I think that the merchandise table, where concertgoers could purchase caps, t-shirts, CDs, and other items, did a brisk business. Concertgoers are given a ticket at the door, which is then raffled for a pair of tickets to an upcoming Oregon Symphony concert. Not a bad deal if you are the lucky winner!

Opening concert at First Immanuel Lutheran Church

All Classical Radio host Christa Wessel usually emcees the CLUC events, but she was indisposed for the evening of April 23. In stepped Martha Long, principal flutist with the Oregon Symphony, who made her debut in that role with aplomb, although she admitted beforehand that she was nervous.

Long graciously introduced violinists Greg Ewer and Adam LaMotte, who expertly played the first movement of Charles De Bériot’s Duo Concertante in G Minor for 2 Violins, in which LaMotte had to turn one of the pages while Ewer dispatched a lengthy and complex run. During the talkback session, they elicited much laughter as they recounted riding the bus to school to rehearsals in Texas, where both grew up. 


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Next came a stirring rendition of Edvard Grieg’s String Quartet in G Minor (violinists Kwak and Chien Tan, violist Phillips, and cellist Pansy Chang), which was a lot more robust than a lot of Grieg that I have heard.

After intermission came Shelley Washington’s SAY for string quartet (violinists Keiko Araki and Ewer, violist Amanda Grimm, and cellist Nancy Ives). This challenging piece involved body percussion (clapping, slapping, stomping, etc.) and singing. As Ives noted in her introductory remarks, the composer didn’t want trained singers, and the quartet handled an a cappella segment perfectly. I have heard this piece twice (first at a Fear No Music concert) and it contains thoughtful text about being biracial in America, but it was difficult to understand the words.

The Rose City Brass Quintet (Logan Brown and Doug Reneau, trumpet; Dan Partridge, horn; Les Campbell, trombone; JáTtik Clark, tuba) closed out the evening with Uruguayan composer Enrique Crespo’s Suite Americana No. 1. The suite transitioned from a jaunty ragtime to a sultry bossa nova followed by a Peruvian waltz before ending with a festive Mexican number.

Second concert at Hillsdale Community Church

The concert at Hillsdale Community Church on April 26 drew an overflow crowd, with some folks sitting in the choir loft. They were closest to the action, which was guided by Martha Long once again in the emcee role. Violinist Kwak, cellist Ives, and pianist David Danzmayr, the music director of the Oregon Symphony, kicked things off with the brisk and playful Allegro movement from Haydn’s Piano Trio in A Major. The same ensemble followed that with Arvo Pärt’s meditative Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror), which reached a hypnotic level. During the Q and A, the audience found out that Danzmayr took a lot of piano lessons as a kid but wanted to be a conductor from early on.

Norwegian composer Trygve Madsen’s Quintet for violin, two violas, cello, and horn received a stellar interpretation from violinist Vijeta Sathyaraj, violists Grimm and Maia Hoffman, cellist Kevin Kunkel, and hornist Jeff Garza. Garza terrifically conquered a very challenging horn part, and it was great to hear a piece with two violas. Next came the first movement of Quintet in D Major for piano, clarinet, horn, violin, and cello, featuring clarinetist Ricky Smith, hornist Joe Berger, violinist Greg Ewer, cellist Marilyn de Oliveira, and pianist Maria Garcia. They wonderfully expressed the expansive Romantic style of the piece.

Violinist Ewer and violist Charles Noble collaborated marvelously to deliver Mozart’s Duo in G Major for violin and viola, exchanging phrases in a seamless and effortless manner. Beethoven’s Wind Quintet in E-Flat Major for oboe, bassoon and three horns was the most unusual configuration of the concert. Played by Ben Brogadir, oboe; Kai Rocke, bassoon; and Garza, Berger, and Alicia Waite, horns, the piece offered blended horn passages – including some fox hunting calls – and lovely melodies for the oboe.  Brahms’ Piano Trio in C Major, played with élan by Ewer, cellist Travor Fitzpatrick, and Garcia, rounded out the evening.

One of the fun things about this concert was the second wave of applause for the musicians as they walked down the center aisle to the back of the church.


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This year's Classical Up Close festival also included several pop-up shows in more casual settings. Above, Classical Up Close’s Shin-young Kwon leads a movement of the Mozart String Quintet in an afternoon concert April 23 at Powell’s City of Books. Photo: Joe Cantrell
This year’s festival also included several pop-up shows in more casual settings. Above, Classical Up Close’s Shin-young Kwon leads a movement of the Mozart String Quintet in an afternoon concert April 23 at Powell’s City of Books. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Third concert at The Old Madeleine Church

The concert on April 30 marked the first time the festival has taken place at The Old Madeleine Church. Christa Wessel was back in the driver’s seat as the emcee. Venezuelan composer Teresa Carreno’s String Quartet in B Minor led off the concert with music in the Romantic style. Performed by Mousai REMIX (violinists Shin-young Kwon and Emily Cole, violist Jenifer Arnold, and cellist Marilyn de Oliveria), this piece was infused with beguiling melodies. In her introductory remarks, Arnold noted that the piece contained some solo passages for the viola – an uncommon thing. She consequently received some applause whenever she finished one of those segments.

Two Rhapsodies for oboe, viola, and piano, by Charles Martin Loeffler, overcame a cell phone call interruption with impressionistic sonorities. It was performed by oboist Ben Brogadir, violist Amanda Grimm, and pianist Monica Ohuchi, and the style reminded me a times of Ravel and Debussy.

Shelley Washington’s “Middleground” for String Quartet took listeners across the Midwest in a car that was filled with interesting conversations ricocheting from those sitting in the front seat and those in the back. Violinists Inés Volgar Belgique and Keiko Araki, violist Grimm, and cellist Nancy Ives gave the piece plenty of verve to trigger the imagination as the car motored along. Kudos to Grimm for an exceptional solo passage that was picked up by her colleagues.

Fourth concert at Moreland Presbyterian Church

A very large crowd spilled into the choir loft for the concert held at Moreland Presbyterian Church on May 3. The program avoided new works, relying on the familiarity of golden oldies by Haydn, Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart. Christa Wessel marshaled the program with her bubbly voice and appealing laughter. The concert began with Haydn’s Divertimento in G Major, highlighted by the energetic and sensitive playing of violinists Emily Cole and Inés Volglar Belgique. During the Q and A, one member of the audience asked about signals that players give to each other so that they are in sync, whether or not a conductor is really needed, and favorite women composers.

Violinist Kwak and pianist Cary Lewis evoked a large range of emotions in the first movement from Brahms’ Sonata No. 1 in G Major. Afterwards Kwak talked about her violin and bow, and the continuous necessity of practicing every day. The second and third movements from Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 4 in B-flat Major (“Gassenhauer”) were played with panache by Kwak, Ives, and pianist Susan Chan, even though the piano kept moving away from Chan. That was solved when the stage crew reset the locks on the wheels.

Peter Schickele’s witty Eagle Rock Sonatina for cello and piano received a charming performance from Ives and Lewis. Also representative of Schickele’s serious side was his New Goldberg Variations for cello and piano, which contained some subtle jazzy elements. The first movement from Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major brought the evening to a close, with Volglar Belgique, Ives, and pianist Susan DeWitt Smith (aka the Palatine Piano Trio) fashioning terrific dynamics to keep the listeners on the edge of their seats.



All Classical Radio James Depreist

The festival intends to keep its concerts moving to different locations throughout the Portland metro area. So next year it might have another set of venues. Be sure to check the Classical Up Close website. As Tom Peterson, the former iconic TV pitchman used to say, “Free is a very good price!”


Also see “Classical Up Close: It’s all about those basses (and a lot more),” Joe Cantrell’s photo essay on the festival’s final two full-length concerts of the 2024 season, at North Portland’s Red Sea Community Church and St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Beaverton.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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