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End of Summer Music News & Notes: New leadership at Portland Opera and Oregon Symphony

As summer’s end draws near and a new arts season approaches, some Oregon music institutions are welcoming new leadership, while others have suffered losses.

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Priti Gandhi. Photo by Christine Dong.
Priti Gandhi. Photo by Christine Dong.

• In a still unexplained move, Portland Opera Artistic Director Priti Gandhi left the company at the end of last season. The company broke the news in a single sentence midway through its fall newsletter, issuing no press release about Gandhi’s departure (after only two years) or her successor’s arrival, with no explanation about the reasons for or impetus behind her abrupt exit. 

This marks the second woman-of-color artistic leader of note to depart from a leading Oregon cultural post recently after short service, following Nataki Garrett at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Both were replaced by other leaders of color, Garrett by a Black man, Tim Bond, and Gandhi by a Black woman, Alfrelynn Roberts, who has joined the company as Director of Artistic Planning and Operations, and will assume Gandhi’s duties. 

Roberts comes to Portland Opera from her position as Interim General Director for Fort Worth Opera (where she prepared choruses for Portland composer Damien Geter’s An African American Requiem and other major productions) and Artistic & Choral Director for South Dallas Concert Choir. The Dallas, Texas native, who boasts an extensive resume as a concert vocalist and stage, film and TV actress, has worked in municipal, nonprofit, church and college administration positions, and also has considerable experience in private and public teaching and choral artistic leadership. She’s also created virtual and video productions for music organizations.

Alfrelynn Roberts. Photo courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

Karen Slack and Geter (who’s also PO Interim Music Director) will continue in their roles as the company’s Co-Artistic Advisors.

• Portland’s classical music scene lost another valuable and much-admired longtime contributor this month when pianist, Portland State faculty member, and Portland Piano International founder Harold Gray died August 7 at age 79.

Portland Piano International founder Harold Gray in 2009. Photo by James Bash.
Portland Piano International founder Harold Gray in 2009. Photo by James Bash.

Gray founded what was originally called the PSU Piano Recital Series in 1978 and directed it for 35 years, retiring after the 2012-2013 Season. He also served as pianist in the university’s resident Florestan Trio (with violinist Carol Sindell and cellist Hamilton Cheifetz), as an esteemed professor and chairman of the PSU music department, and as a mentor and source of inspiration for uncounted musicians through the decades. We mourned the loss of his longtime partner, Mary Kogen, last year, and will publish a memorial story with contributions from some of his long-time colleagues soon.

Siletz Bay Music Festival artistic director Yaacov Bergman suffered a heart attack while preparing rehearsals for the closing concert of this summer’s festival. Portland Opera assistant conductor and chorus master Nicholas Fox stepped in to conduct. The Israeli-born New York resident also leads Portland Chamber Orchestra and Walla Walla Symphony. Bergman, who is also battling cancer, remains in intensive care at Portland’s Providence St. Vincent Medical Center.

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Portland Chamber Orchestra leader Yaacov Bergman. Photo courtesy of PCO.
Portland Chamber Orchestra leader Yaacov Bergman. Photo courtesy of PCO.

• As we reported earlier, the Oregon Symphony has appointed Isaac Thompson as President and CEO, beginning next month. Thompson, who grew up in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, began music study (piano, violin) early in childhood and continued through high school. Intending to become a professional musician, he continued violin study at Cincinnati Conservatory and the University of Texas at Austin, where he found opportunities to work in cultural institution administration. He decided to make it his career path, “though I consider myself at my core a musician more than an administrator,” he told ArtsWatch. “I’m a recovering violinist.”

Thompson was familiar with the OSO’s recordings conducted by former music director James DePreist. Like many surprised non-Oregon observers, he was impressed by the ecstatic response to the Oregon Symphony’s breakthrough performance at Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music Festival a decade ago, which put the orchestra on his radar. Several OSO guest conductors he knew had raved about the experience. “So when the rare opportunity opened up at a major orchestra, with an artistically excellent organization, and in a vibrant community at this point in my career, I viewed it as a place of real possibility,” he explains. Conversations with David Danzmyer left him inspired by the OSO Music Director’s vision.

Oregon Symphony president Isaac Thompson.
Oregon Symphony president Isaac Thompson.

Newly appointed directors understandably insist they must first converse with stakeholders and get to know their new community before announcing any specific plan, and Thompson is no exception. But even his general philosophy offers strong hints at the community-oriented vision he brings to the OSO.

“The pandemic forced orchestras and cultural institutions to take a step back and ask: what are the needs of the community they serve?,” Thompson says. “Orchestras need to find intersections between those needs and their artistic and social imperatives, find a real connection between their repertoire — old and new — and deepen those connections. Portland faces a unique set of challenges. As one of the largest Oregon cultural institutions, it’s incumbent on the orchestra to not sit back but to really participate in addressing them.” That suggests a continuation and maybe even expansion of the orchestra’s recent path of programming — and even commissioning — at least some music that speaks to Oregon’s social needs.

Thompson has some experience doing exactly that in his previous positions as Vice President of Artistic Planning and Managing Director of the New York Philharmonic. (He also served in leadership positions at the Cincinnati and Milwaukee symphony orchestras, and created a Composer Institute at the latter.) From the OSO’s statements: “During his six-year tenure, he developed two new contemporary music series, and was responsible for commissioning more than 30 world premieres including multidisciplinary works by Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Julia Wolfe, and a collaboration with Tazewell Thompson exploring the Black experience as part of the first season of the new David Geffen Hall…. He expanded the New York Philharmonic’s multidisciplinary offerings with major staged productions, and planned a variety of community-focused initiatives.” 

Thompson also led the NY Phil’s diversity, equity and inclusion work. “In conversations with orchestra, staff, board members, we realized we had some cultural work to do in how we were being inclusive and open to diverse communities,” he recalls. 

Increasing inclusiveness can in turn help OSO achieve another Thompson goal: broaden the orchestra’s audience. “We do need to reach out and bring in younger and more diverse audiences,” he insists. But he’s no doomsayer. “I can remember over many years these conversations around audience demographics and symphony audiences aging. But despite predictions this was going to be the end, we’re still here.”

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As income and interest have declined, some orchestras have cut back on the number of performances. But even though Thompson plans to run analytics to find the sweet spot, for now at least, “my sense from talking with board members and staff is that the Oregon Symphony is in a pretty good place,” he says.

Another challenge for orchestras and other legacy cultural institutions is declining revenue from subscriptions, as audience members increasingly make their entertainment choices based on each offering rather than investing in an institution’s entire season. “People consuming culture are not planning six to nine months out as much anymore, so orchestras have to be responsive and re-tool how subscriptions are sold,” Thompson says. “More orchestras are offering flexibility, finding creative ways of optimizing the role subscriptions for their changing marketplace.” 

Inasmuch as he hasn’t even started work in Portland yet, Thompson’s statements are necessarily general. But his track record and announced intentions suggest that he agrees with those of us who believe that cultural institutions in general and orchestras in particular must seek relevance by increasing their responsiveness to the diverse communities that surround them, and by investing in contemporary artistic expressions that respond to them. For the 2019 project involving Pulitzer Prize-winning Bang on a Can co-founder Wolfe’s acclaimed NY Phil commission, Fire in My Mouth, “we framed around it a slew of community collaborations with a variety of New York City based organizations dealing with issues around immigration,” Thompson says. “That was a meaningful artistic project where we were able to find musical connections to an important issue in New York City. I’m looking forward to diving into the Portland community and working with our musicians to find points of connection there too.”

• Speaking of the Oregon Symphony, ArtsWatch reported earlier this summer that Cleveland Institute of Music was conducting an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment by erstwhile Oregon Symphony Music Director Carlos Kalmar, who has directed CIM’s orchestral and conducting programs since 2021. 

The institute announced last month that the investigation, led by Carole Rendon, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, “included written reports, voluntary written statements, videos, interviews with more than thirty CIM students, faculty, and staff, and additional evidence provided by both parties,” the Institute announced.

Based on the evidence found in the investigative report, CIM has concluded that the specific allegations against Carlos Kalmar did not violate the Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment, and Sex Non-Discrimination Policy Under Title IX.

The investigation found that the alleged conduct could not constitute sex discrimination or sexual harassment as prohibited by Title IX because the conduct did not have ‘the purpose or effect of substantially or unreasonably interfering with a person’s participation in educational programs or activities…’ Moreover, the conduct was not on the basis of sex, nor was it so severe or pervasive as to create an objectively offensive environment such that it denies anyone equal access to educational opportunities at CIM based on gender. Therefore, the Institute was obligated to dismiss the Formal Complaint of Sexual Harassment in this matter.

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Oregon Symphony conductor Carlos Kalmar. Photo: Joe Cantrell.
Former Oregon Symphony conductor Carlos Kalmar. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Kalmar recently announced his intention to step down as principal conductor of Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival, led by former Eugene Symphony executive director Paul Winberg, after 20 years.

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus appointed one of its singers, Mark McCrary, as its new Executive Director, succeeding Richard Jung, who stepped down after an eight-year run. Along with performing with PGMC, ”his professional career has been focused on arts management, which includes running arts councils and performing arts centers, and several years leading a nonprofit management center,” the 44-year-old chorus announced in a press release.

• Like so many performing venues, The 1905, one of Portland’s pre-eminent jazz clubs, is struggling to regain its pre-pandemic mojo. Jazz fans and other supporters of intimate live local music can help, both by checking out its excellent shows and by contributing to its crowdfunding support campaign.

• And finally, speaking of jazz, Portland’s Montavilla Jazz presented the first-ever Nick Fish Jazz Community Award to drummer Ron Steen before the jazz festival’s September 2 concert featuring Darrell Grant.

Portland jazz legend Ron Steen. Photo: Reed Ricker.

Fish, who died in 2020, earned a reputation and many awards as Portland’s most pro-arts (and pro-jazz) city commissioner during his dozen years on the city council. He raised funds for and attended the Mount Hood Jazz Festival, PDX Jazz Festival, Montavilla Jazz Festival, and jazz concerts in Portland parks.

Veteran jazz drummer Steen is one of Portland’s most recognized jazz artists, having led a well-known series of weekly (at least) jam sessions for four decades. He’d earlier been named the 2020 Portland Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalists Association, received PDX Jazz’s Portland Jazz Master award, and been selected to both the the Oregon Music Hall of Fame and the Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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One Response

  1. As a senior who does not drive but must take public transport, I have not been able to attend many of the symphony concerts during the virus and it not being safe at night to be out.
    I think I went to two. I am not able to get to Sunday afternoon concerts.
    I dont know what to suggest : some earlier hours for concerts perhaps. I’m not even sure I would do that as I must take a bus and street lighting is not that good.

    So, I’m sorry. But I wanted you to know why some people have not been able to attend concerts, and we miss them.

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