I went and heard the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi perform live six times during the first half of this year, from January’s Brahms v. Radiohead mashup to May’s season-closing Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. That’s more than once a month. By comparison, I have seen my favorite living rock band—Santa Cruz ikons Secret Chiefs 3—seven times ever. This regular attendance at the concerts of a single performing group is one of the things that sets classical music apart from its eternal sibling rival, popular music. You’ve got to talk to Deadheads and Phish fans to find that level of devotion in the pop world.
I’ve come to have a few favorite OSO players. Timpanist Jon Greeney is a damn superstar, always in tune, always in rhythm, never too loud (important) but never too soft either (even more important). The cello section is anchored by a dynamite principal and assistant principal duo: Fear No Music’s Nancy Ives and Pyxis Quartet’s Marilyn de Oliveira. The brass section never fails to delight, especially the trumpet-trombone-tuba contingent, playing proudly from their risers behind the basses. I’ve come to expect something amazing from that crew every time: by turns bold and morbid in their February performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, gorgeously operatic all through Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in May (gotta keep up with that tenorhorn soloist!), and downright revelatory in January’s performance of the brass-heavy Rite of Spring.
3D Sound & Star Attractions
The Rite demonstrated another important aspect of the orchestral concert experience: that huge, 3-dimensional sound, vastly varied timbres emerging from all across the stage (in visually identifiable ways) as the band’s 100-odd instruments and occasional voices interweave their solos and duos and tuttis and come together for big polychoral reverberations around the concert hall’s acoustically ornate cathedral of sound. All that makes even a good home stereo system sound like a pair of crappy used earbuds from the Goodwill bins. In the Rite, the brass section’s heralds and hunting calls resounded across the orchestra, trumpets tossing their call over the strings towards the horn section, buried down behind the other winds, harrumphing out their primeval wails in response. Glorious!
And then there’s the guest stars, and I don’t just mean big name soloists like Joshua Bell (blissing out on Bernstein’s beautiful Symposium in May), Natasha Paremski (thunderingly catlike on Prokofiev’s weird, playful Piano Concerto No. 2—another one with some fantastic brass—in February), and Elina Vähälä (whose heroic, melancholy performance of Bartok’s brasstastically anti-fascist Violin Concerto No. 2 left me stirred and genuinely terrified in January).
In April, percussion whiz and artist in residence Colin Currie returned for an amusing and impressive take on a too-long Corigliano concerto. A parade of local choirs ran all through the season, from the various impeccable groups Portland State churns out with perplexing regularity (I could listen to them sing Daphnis and Chloe forever) to emergency shelter intake form’s Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics and Maybelle Community Singers.
There’s also the extra-musical collaborations, something the OSO has gone out of its way to cultivate the last several years, culminating in grand experiences like the superprofusion of Rose Bond’s Turangalila in 2016 and Matthew Haber’s less overwhelming but still exciting video projections for the Rite.
And, of course, there’s all the popular music.
Popularity Contest: Apollo and Dionysus in the Concert Hall
Florida Man and famed humorist Dave Barry defined classical music as “music that is not popular.” It’s hard to say he’s wrong, in the sense that raving fans don’t generally scream and holler when Kalmar gets off a plane—at least not the way they do for, say, “Weird Al” Yankovic. But Kalmar does get his cheers, as does the rest of his band, every time they play, every time they come on stage, sometimes several times in one concert.
And the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall is usually packed tight with enthusiastic followers, some of them veteran audients who’ve been following the group for decades. Get there a half hour before showtime and you’ll see a line for tickets stretched up SW Broadway, scalpers and buskers animating the street, OSO’s usual mixed-income crowd of well-dressed patrons rubbing elbows with shabby college students like your humble reviewer, a general atmosphere of metropolitan congeniality, more egalitarian than most symphony orchestras.
Name another band that routinely sells out the same 2,700-seat venue, three weekend performances at a time, a couple dozen times a year, to audiences all across the various spectra of generation and gender and class and so on. They seem pretty goddamn popular to me.
At the same time, Barry (and more serious critics of the problem of classical music) has a point. It’s not just the stuffiness, perceived or otherwise; I’ll admit to belonging squarely in the “please don’t clap between movements camp” (for reasons we will come to), but that oh-so-familiar sense of shame and stifled enthusiasm can definitely make the concert hall feel a lot like the worst kind of pharisaical church service. Not a very welcoming environment, especially if you think the point of a concert is to enjoy yourself.
No, the issue is much deeper than clapping etiquette and the like: we’re deep into the Apollonian-Dionysian realm mapped by son-of-a-preacher-man Friedrich Nietzsche in his The Birth of Tragedy. The basic idea, in elevator friendly terms, is that human creativity springs from the interaction of two primary sources: the wild, earthy, chaotic Dionysian element and the formalized, transcendent, ordered Apollonian element. All the usual dichotomies can be hung on this (admittedly simplified) framework: emotion and intellect, intuition and reason, the Dog and God in Man, etc.
What the hell does this mean in the real world? I’ll illustrate using the Appropriate Applause example. Part of the reason clapping between movements is frowned upon—in favor of clapping after the whole symphony is over—lies in how these two energy circuits operate. We build up a charge of Dionysian energy when we get excited, and when we get too excited that energy overflows into applause (or laughter, tears, etcetera, depending on the situation). Clapping disperses the energy, releases it, keeps it from building up.
This is where the Apollonian circuit comes in: its function is to keep us focused on the excitement, to keep it contained, to organize it, to let it build up. The more you can exercise your Apollo spirit, the more you can expand your Dionysus consciousness; the restraints of reason and concentration allow you to stoke that fire even hotter before letting it tip over the horizon of experience to set your soul ablaze with ecstatic delirium. That’s one of the secrets behind all this long-form classical stuff, from well before Bach to well after Wagner: we classical enthusiasts train ourselves to experience this exquisitely elongated art form precisely because of its massive payoff.
Of course, I’m not saying you shouldn’t clap when you want to. Haydn wanted you to clap, and so did Mozart. I clapped all the way through that technicolor Turangalila last year, because it was that kind of show (I also wanted to see how many times we could get Carlos to shush us with his hair). Clap whenever the hell you like, and if anyone judges you for it I’ll fight them in the park out back. I only wish to draw attention to the different modes of consciousness available to us in varied settings.
For example, it’s revealing that we music enthusiasts typically sit down at classical concerts and stand up at pop shows. This has become institutionalized: there are chairs in the Schnitz, even when we don’t want them (the seats were, for instance, a definite handicap at last year’s Black Violin concert). This is a result of—and, conversely, a contributing factor to—our habit of rarely listening to the two art forms in anything like the same way.
There’s something to that, of course. We sit at classical concerts for the same reason we sit when we meditate or drop acid: the experience is too intense to let physical concerns impede what is fundamentally an internal process. Classical music is not a party drug, at least not most of the time.
And the opposite is generally true at pop concerts: we drink our little drinks, we smoke our little smokes, and we stand up and shake our assess in order to partake of the music’s Dionysian physicality, to participate in the orgiastic ritual of spectacle and celebration. To sit down in this space is unusual, heretical, spoilersporty. To breach the etiquette of either situation is to disrupt the ritual. Try dancing during the Rite of Spring, if you dare. Try sitting down next time you’re at Dante’s for a metal show.
But maybe we should be dancing to the Rite of Spring. One of the things I like most about OSO is how good they are at problematizing and bridging this whole questionable divide. And it’s a good thing they do: for the last few decades, symphony orchestras have been partnering with film composers, pop bands, puppeteers, playwrights, video game makers, and so on, all in a so-far-successful attempt to stay relevant and thus alive. The OSO excels at this, last year bringing in the likes of Rick Springfield and Johnny Mathis (I skipped both of those, sorry) and performing pop-classical mashups like Steve Hackman’s overtly syncretic and totally satisfying Brahms v. Radiohead (omfug there’s a Bartók v. Björk) and Gabriel Kahane’s considerably more organic emergency shelter intake form.
At all these concerts it’s perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to clap and laugh and sing, to stand or move around, to dance in the aisles if the ushers are hip enough to partner with you. One charming aspect of a group like ARCO-PDX: when they play Fratres in a bar instead of Lincoln Hall, no one cares if you sing along. Frankly I’d like to see a little more of this at the symphony.
This weekend, the orchestra puts on a Boston Pops Orchestra style concert, playing popular selections by Wagner, Bizet, Gershwin, Tchaikovsky, Williams, and a few others at the Oregon Zoo; next weekend they’re back at the Schnitz playing, at long last, the first, the original, Star Wars.
The season to come promises more of the same. Renée Fleming will be here for opening night later this month, singing her usual assortment of hits and classics along with Letters from Georgia, a setting of Georgia O’Keeffe letters by Pulitzer-winning composer Kevin Puts. Then it’s Brahms again, straddling September and October, bracketed by Copland’s obligingly jazzy Piano Concerto, another of Haydn’s million symphonies (which, admittedly, the OSO always plays with wit and elegance, as evidenced on last year’s recording), and—be still my heart!—a premiere of another new work, this one by a composer younger than I am, Katherine Balch.
I’ll probably go check out the Star Trek concert in October, even though I prefer a lightsaber to a phaser, and I’ll almost certainly go check out former Contemporary Christian Music singer Tony Vincent performing a bunch of orchestrated U2 songs (I haven’t heard Vincent perform live since I saw him open for Newsboys in 1995).
I will definitely be there later in October to hear Karen Gomyo perform the Sibelius Violin Concerto, although I have to admit I’m more excited about the pair of short pieces by Polish composers (Kilar, Lutosławski) and the prospect of hearing that magnificent brass section play Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9.
October closes with more Tchaikovsky and another monosyllabically titled Andrew Norman concerto, this one composed for a more familiar percussion instrument—the piano. After that we’re into November’s SoundStories Petrushka puppet show and the return of Hackman with Tchaikovsky v. Drake—but that’s a story for another time.
Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.