Washougal Art & Music Festival

Free-range musicians go wild: Up close with Classical Up Close

The Oregon Symphony series celebrates its 10th anniversary with a string of concerts throughout April and May.

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Rose City Trio (Sarah Kwak, Susan Chan, Nancy Ives) perform for Classical Up Close at Bethany Presbyterian Church, May 2019.
Rose City Trio (Sarah Kwak, Susan Chan, Nancy Ives) perform for Classical Up Close at Bethany Presbyterian Church, May 2019.

Every year for the past 10 years, musicians of the Oregon Symphony have presented Classical Up Close, a series of fun and informal free chamber music concerts, usually over a two-week period between April and May. It’s been a spectacular success that gives music lovers a chance to meet the music-makers, hear a variety of pieces, and ask questions. (Here’s our coverage of CLUC’s origin story.)

To find out more about this year’s festival, we talked with Oregon Symphony concertmaster Sarah Kwak, who honchos the effort, and the orchestra’s principal cellist Nancy Ives, who serves as vice president of Classical Up Close.

Events begin tonight and this weekend and continue through May. For a complete list of dates, event programs and musicians, visit the Classical Up Close website. 

Oregon ArtsWatch: How did Classical Up Close start?

Sarah Kwak: The orchestra was supposed to play in Carnegie Hall in May of 2013, but that appearance was canceled because the finances didn’t come together. During the two week-period that we would’ve been in New York City, we thought that the orchestra would schedule something in Portland, but it didn’t. We thought that we should do something! We thought that a series of chamber music concerts would be a great opportunity for us to get out into the community. Show our appreciation and get people interested in classical music.

Nancy Ives: We overcame a disappointing situation with something really constructive and positive. This has been valuable for our group morale. This orchestra has a lot of camaraderie.

Nancy Ives performing outside the Oregon Symphony ticket office in Portland for Classical Up Close in 2016.
Nancy Ives performing outside the Oregon Symphony ticket office in Portland for Classical Up Close in 2016.

OAW: So how do you get the musicians and the programs figured out?

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NI: The signup sheet is posted in January, and orchestra members put their names next to dates and the pieces that they could do. 

OAW: How do you determine what pieces will be played at each concert?

SK: We have a small programming committee with four of five of us. We look at who signed up for which venue, and it always magically works out. It’s incredible! We always have a well-balanced, varied program in every venue for six concerts. We haven’t had to turn away anyone. 

We leave the programming up to the players. These are pieces that they want to play. We just have a time constraint. They might suggest an entire quintet, but we can only give them 15 minutes. So they might have to choose one or two movements. We encourage them to play the music that they want.

NI: Yes, the only adjustment we have to make is to reduce the scope. Most of the time we have just the right amount of music. It’s amazing! 

SK: I really want the public to hear the pieces that I’ve selected. They might not know them. Like the Eric Ewazen Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano that we will do at Hillsdale Community Church on May 2. That’s a great piece! And the Paul Juon Four Trio Miniatures for Violin, Viola and Piano that we will play a Vine and Sparrow on May 3. Cary Lewis found that piece, and it is terrific!

NI: The principal strings of the orchestra will play a movement from Dvořák’s lovely Piano Quintet with David Danzmayr at the piano at the Rise Church in Tigard on April 28. 

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OAW: Very cool! It looks like every concert has a different program. 

SK: That’s right, even if you go to every concert, they are all different, and all programs are about the same length.

NI: We also have some special guests like Suzanne Nance of All Classical singing, and programs that feature pianists Maria Garcia, Monica Ohuchi, Cary Lewis and Susan Chan, and guitarist Cameron O’Connor. There’s everything from Baroque music to brand new pieces like the U.S. premiere of a string quartet called Inner Life by Finnish composer Jaani Helander.

OAW: How do you determine the locations?

SK: We try to move around to different neighborhoods. We want to have equal representation in all parts of the Portland metro area. We have to rotate. We can’t stay in one neighborhood for more than three years. That is our limit. It’s a community and neighborhood thing. If I don’t know the neighborhood, I just call up possible venues and ask if they would like to host us. 

We have to find something that is just the right size. Too big or too small won’t work for us. Usually it’s a place that can accommodate 150 to 200 people.

We have our Classical Up Close fans who follow us around every year, but there are still people who have not heard us. Surveys showed that people heard about us on the radio, and the next popular method is word of mouth. 

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Classical Up Close at Powell's City of Books in Portland, April 20, 2019.
Classical Up Close at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, April 20, 2019.

NI: We have a lot of people who come because they are curious about us as musicians. They see us on stage at the Schnitz. We do ask if this is the first time that people in the audience have attended a classical music concert, and we always get a few. There is no question that making concert experiences accessible to people is a good thing to do.

OAW: And you have Christa Wessel as your emcee. 

SK: She is a huge reason that makes the concerts fun!

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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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