Portland Wind Symphony review: free is a very good price

Growing orchestra's strong performance gave the audience greater value than many paid concerts

by MARIA CHOBAN

Musician: Oh my gosh, it’s been too long since we last saw each other! I’m retired!!

Me: That’s fantastic! You must be filling up all your time with playing.

Musician: (Sheepishly) Yeah, but it’s all free stuff now.

Me: Why are you apologizing?! This free concert is better than the last ten concerts I attended that charged admission!

Free is a very good price. But a free concert might also come with reservations. The show might not be quite ready for prime time, right? When I recommend a show or a band, I’m aware of how little free time folks have. I am just as likely to answer the uninitiated who ask for my recommendation with “No! Do not go to this overpriced under-rehearsed show” as I am to shepherd them away from many free and reasonably priced events — because it’s not just about money anymore. Is it worth their most precious commodity — time?

Chris Chapman leading Portland Wind Symphony. Photo: Phil Pasteris.

What particularly thrills me, though, is when I can exuberantly recommend a great free show like the one last week, where the above conversation took place at intermission of a concert of the Portland Wind Symphony at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall.

As I partook in punch and cookies and mingled with the musicians (and donated a shekel or two to the organization, helping defray the costs and continue offering free shows to the public), I told my old friend what blew me away about the first half: Intonation within the group was pristine and blend was uniformly mellifluous. I learned later that the group begins every rehearsal with a different Bach Chorale. Which is like warming up singing a barbershop quartet: You have to listen to hear whether or not you’re singing in tune and whether or not you’re louder than everyone else. The band then tunes after they’ve played through the Chorale, taking those three minutes or so to sink into listening to each other for intonation and blend. I’ve never heard of this practice before. This short warm up could help a lot of groups.

Crisp was another virtue. After some starting jitters where entrances sounded a little ragged, the 41 member group revved up, rounding corners adroitly, starting and stopping like a Formula One car instead of a peloton of bikes. This kind of tight I do not expect even from most small to mid-sized Portland professional ensembles, much less an amateur group charging nothing.

Chris Chapman conducting PWS. Photo: Phil Pasteris.

Conducting PWS since 2015, Oregon State University professor Dr. Chris Chapman’s easy, self-effacing rapport with the audience, droll with plenty of asides and great stories, charmed all of us.

Chapman: (rocking side to side listening to floorboards squeak before he mounts thepodium): Clearly, I need to lose weight.

Ready to Grow

Yes, we heard a march. One. And believe it or don’t, it wasn’t by Sousa. PWS should’ve started with the third seed on the program, Edwin Franko Goldman’s 1922 peppy Chimes of Liberty March (arr. Schissel). Instead, they began with two slow pieces, showing off their controlled juicy blend, clean intonation and crisp cut-offs. But they nearly put me to sleep. (Click on the links to hear the orchestra’s May 14 performances.)

Ordering the program to vary the slow with the fast would’ve helped. Chang Su Koh’s dramatic opener, Lament for Wind Orchestra (2002) starts with ominous French horns. It’s the Death Star approaching. Drums enter pretty quickly to underscore the peril. Clarinets plead for mercy. It could be the soundtrack to the bleaker parts in a Star Wars movie. But it needed to breathe, to stretch and compress time. And I think this group is ready to grow beyond the tight, square beat Chapman now drives.

PWS’s French horn section. Photo: Phil Pasteris.

Ditto the second slow piece, Richard Strauss’s All Soul’s Day (arr. Davis). Happily, Chapman is pushing the band to improve, even though the ambitious program frayed where reach exceeded grasp, as in the third movement of Howard Hanson’s second symphony.

The conversation between band and flute soloist in the Gershwin-meets-Khachaturian Concerto in D by Otar Gordeli (arr. Singleton) also suffered from lack of rubato (stretching / compressing time). When you’re not used to doing this as a musician — especially playing in a group — you’re not listening beyond the strict metronome tick of a mechanical clock or a baton geometrically and mechanically cutting the air in front of you. This also might be a leftover legacy from marching bands where you can’t deviate from strict time because it’s impossible to march and chew gum at the same time.

The soloist, my sometimes band mate Dawn Weiss, expressive in gently laying down the ends of phrases, was often steamrolled by the bullying 4/4 baton and band jumping in brusquely. Issues like this need to be nailed in rehearsals.

But when freed from the band’s straitjacket in the cadenza, Weiss showed off her ability to tell us a musical story fraught with suspense, weaving a taught cat and mouse game of hide-and-seek. Joined by the band at the end of the cadenza, she was running for her life, chased by them as they both ripped through to the end, perilously fast, perfectly together, generating wild applause and pop concert screams of excitement.

Dawn Weiss performed with Portland Wind Symphony at Portland State.

Chapman and the band brought out the humor in Charles Ives’s Variations on ‘America’ for Band (arr. Rhoads from William Schuman’s orchestral arrangement). I laughed out loud several times.

Oddly, the last piece on the program, Pillar of Fire, written in 2016 by 24-year old Patrick Lenz, sounded cleaner even as the band tossed the fiddly fast passages around just as frenetically as in Hanson’s finale movement. Chapman discovered Lenz while googling to find a new piece for his band at Oregon State University. Chapman regaled us with Lenz’s surprise that his award winning piece written for the Baylor University Band was going to get a second performance with the Oregon State Band, thanks to Chapman trolling the web, scouting for the exciting new instead of defaulting to the easy old! Little did we know what we were in for as he sent us giggling at the end of his intro: “Pillar of Fire is about that guy in the Old Testament who wandered around for forty years, who did that thing in the desert; you know, that thing….” Portland Wind Symphony gave Lenz his third performance of what feels like a seven-minute, time-lapsed version of the Battle of Verdun.

The caliber of PWS’s playing has escalated several levels through five artistic directors / conductors since I soloed with them twenty or so years ago, conducted by their founding visionary Daniel Cole, who created what was then called Pacific Crest Wind Ensemble on the Eastman Wind Ensemble model: one person to a part and playing as much original new music as possible. Their imprinted desire to play new scores now, as then, is proof that Cole’s spirit continues to haunt these halls.

Many free concerts aren’t worth it. For me, most paid classical concerts aren’t either, not because of the music, but because of poor performances. Portland Wind Symphony’s free concert was worth our time. Put their free summer show on your calendars right now!

Portland Wind Symphony performs at 7 pm Friday, August 3 at the Beaverton Main Library, and 6 pm Sunday, August 5 at Portland’s Director Park. Check their youtube channel and facebook page.

Portland pianist Maria Choban, ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch, blogs at CatScratch.

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