Colin Corner

Classical Up Close: Bassist Instinct

In the second show in Classical Up Close's free outdoor festival, bassist Colin Corner and friends have young fans dancing in a parking lot

The music flows: Bassist Colin Corner leads the party in the parking lot of Lake Music in Lake Oswego on Wednesday, and young fans leap in on the action. Photo: Joe Cantrell

And then came the bass.

On a balmy Wednesday early afternoon in the surprisingly comfortable parking lot of a Lake Oswego music store, Classical Up Close embarked on a deep-toned musical adventure. “The bass is sort of front and center for a lot of it,” Colin Corner, a Classical Up Close regular and principal bassist of the Oregon Symphony, said shortly after the show. That was pretty much how he planned things for this second concert in Classical Up Close’s summer festival of free outdoor concerts, which began June 1 and continues through June 14.

After a sweltering beginning for the festival on Tuesday, when the temperature spiked into the high 90s, things eased off a little on Tuesday, and musicians and audience alike took advantage of it. There was dancing in the parking lot, mostly by people with very young feet, and a lively, rumbling swing from the makeshift stage. And the blend of instruments – violin, viola, cello, bass, flute – was a little different from your ordinary chamber quartet stuff.

Sounds good: The music prompted smiles from pianist and composer Marek Harris, whose piano prelude “Gypsy Dance” was performed as a concert encore. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Joining Corner in the program’s four pieces of bass-centric composition were violinist Inés Voglar Belguique, violist Hillary Oseas, cellist Trevor Fitzpatrick, and flautist Martha Long. Classical Up Close (or CLUC, for short) is an independent nonprofit group made up mostly but not entirely of musicians from the Oregon Symphony Orchestra: violist Oseas, for instance, is principal violist for the Portland Opera Orchestra. CLUC’s musicians are interested in taking music out of the concert halls and into workplaces and neighborhoods – places where people can listen to small-scale, intimate performances in a low-key, relaxed atmosphere.

Dance to the music: A young fan joins in. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Corner organized the concert of what he calls “bass-centric chamber music” himself. That meant choosing the pieces, bringing the players together, arranging rehearsal times and spaces (he booked space in the American Federation of Musicians Union Local 99’s rehearsal hall, which had been shut down for months but reopened, with improved ventilation, in the spring) and finding a place to perform the concert. “It was kind of a new experience for me, in a lot of ways,” he said. “I kinda had to scramble to find a space.” One possibility was the yard at a friend’s house in Beaverton. But there were already CLUC concerts set up in Beaverton, and Classical Up Close likes to spread its shows around the metro area. So Corner posted a notice online on Nextdoor, and that’s how the concert got to Lake Oswego. “The owner of Lake Music said, ‘Yeah, sure, you can do it in my parking lot.’” It worked out really well.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing: Violist Hillary Oseas gets in the groove. Photo: Joe Cantrell

A smaller-scale plan for this concert was delayed a year when the pandemic shut down a lot of activities. “I had this piece I wanted to do, Hoffmeister’s Solo Bass Quartet No. 4,” he said, as one of Classical Up Close’s “blitz” concerts – short, quick-hitting shows at out-of-ordinary spots for concerts but familiar everyday places in “ordinary” life: Corner had a bakery all picked out. Then the world shut down, including the blitzes, and after a year a bigger plan emerged for a full-blown summer festival show: Sarah Kwak, Classical Up Close’s executive director and the concertmaster for the Oregon Symphony, “pulled me aside and said, ‘You know, you can just do the whole program.’”

That ended up including the Hoffmeister, a pair of duos for violin or violin/viola by Corner’s bassist colleague Tom Knific, and Erwin Schulhoff’s Concertina for Flute, Viola and Contrabass. Knific’s Zhang Song, Corner writes in his program notes, “is dedicated to the family of DaXun Zhang, who is an incredibly accomplished bassist and professor at Juilliard in Tianjin. He and I went to school together, and he is one of my oldest and best friends in the world, so I have a deep personal connection to this piece. Tom’s Duo for Violin/Viola and Bass was written for Thomas Martin, who was principal bass of the London Symphony. The composer went to visit him, and describes the feeling of nostalgia in the quaint town, Henley-On-Thames, in which Martin lives, in the first movement. The second movement, “The Event,” describes an equestrian outing they attended, as Thomas Martin is a horse owner.”

Made in the shade: Cellist Marilyn de Oliveira and kids relax with the music. Photo: Joe Cantrell

The program closed with Schulhoff’s concertino, which the Czech-born composer wrote in just four days in 1925. “The Schulhoff has become a staple of bass repertoire,” Corner said. “There’s a lot of really cool stuff for the bass to play.” For the other end of the spectrum, too: The quartet includes a flautist, in this case Martha Long, who sometimes moves up the scale to piccolo, creating a bottom-to-top sound. The piece represents a move into modernism: Music writer John Mangum notes that, after World War I, Schulhoff moved to Dresden, “broke with the late Romanticism espoused by his conservatory teachers,” began to create “expressionist, atonal” music, and joined the company of forward-thinking artists including the painter George Grosz (with whom he listened to American jazz records) and Otto Dix. “Following his return to Prague in 1923,” Mangum writes, “Schulhoff began to compose works synthesizing all of these influences – Czech music, Russian and eastern music, late Romanticism, expressionism, and jazz – into a compelling, personal style.” Or, as Corner puts it: “It is so much fun to play, and the mix of voices between the flute, often doubling on piccolo, viola, and bass really go well together.”

Well enough, on a sunny late spring day, to get you dancing in a parking lot.

Colin Corner bends over the score …
… which marks the music. Photos: Joe Cantrell

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Classical Up Close Summer Festival 2021

The intimate concert series continues through June 14. You can see this year’s full Classical Up Close Festival schedule here. Coming up next:

  • Thursday, June 3, 5-6 p.m.: 1805 N.E. 56th Ave., Portland. Violinists Erin Furbee and Peter Frajola, and trombonist Robert Taylor, play tango music.
  • Friday, June 4, 5-6 p.m.: 16306 Hilltop Road, Oregon City. Sarah Kwak, Chien Tan, Searmi Park, Ruby Chen, violin; Charles Noble, Vali Phillips, Kelly Talim, Leah Ilem, viola; Marilyn de Oliveira, Trevor Fitzpatrick, Antoinette Gan, cello; and Andy Akiho, percussion, play sextets by sextets by Brahms and Strauss, and four contemporary pieces by percussionist Akiho. Limited parking; carpooling suggested.

Previous stories:

Making music in a time of isolation

As the world shuts down and the Oregon Symphony faces a stark financial crisis, musicians create a series of mini-concerts from home


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


AS AN ODD AND NERVOUS QUIET SETTLED over greater Portland and most other places from coast to coast in the past several days, small islands of sound broke the spell, scattered here and there like grace notes or staccato exclamations. They were counter-ripples against a tide of silence, little bursts of defiant pleasure, sounding carefully yet emphatically: Even in a time of plague, the music would not die.

These small musical uprisings were especially compelling considering the Oregon Symphony Orchestra’s announcement last Friday that it was suspending its current season, which was to run into June, and laying off its 76 contracted musicians, along with 19 staff members and two conductors. The situation, symphony President and CEO Scott Showalter told The Oregonian/Oregon Live, is dire. “We need emergency funds now,” he told reporter Nathan Rizzo. “What we’re staring down between now and the end of June is a $5 million loss.” Showalter had written to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Rizzo added, urging state economic support for the orchestra as the coronavirus crisis takes its toll, and the symphony is actively seeking private funds as well. The danger of collapse, it seems, is very real. And the orchestra is not alone. Across Oregon and the nation, cultural groups of all sorts are staring nervously into what seems a daunting economic abyss.

An invitation to the neighborhood: come close, stay apart, join us at a distance as we make some music.

So on Friday through Sunday, in what was not quite a coincidence, a large handful of those recently furloughed symphony musicians went small. In Portland and its surrounds, seven musical mini-events took place, on musicians’ porches and in their yards, at neutral neighborhood gathering spots where listeners and players alike could keep their social distance and yet also be together, sharing something both sophisticated and elemental: the joy of music.

Continues…

Classical Up Close: intimate circle

Oregon Symphony musicians’ neighborhood pop up performance connects listeners, classics, and performers

By DAVID MACLAINE

Photos by Joe Cantrell

Southeast Portland’s Mt. Scott Presbyterian Church was filling up pretty quickly when I got there for the April 24 performance in the Classical Up Close program. Now in its seventh season, the annual spring series brings Oregon Symphony players to venues around the Portland metro area for chamber music concerts free of the formality of downtown halls, and with free admission too. (Read ArtsWatch’s story about CUC’s origins.)

 I reached my destination a bit early. No problem: the convenient location was no small part of the attraction of this concert. I could use the spare minutes sitting in the sun at a bench in Mt. Scott Park. Children climbed and slid down slides, the sun slid a bit too, and it was time go see what Classical Up Close was all about.

Turns out that “Up Close” is not just a slogan. The church is a pretty cozy venue in the first place, so when MC Christa Wessel let us know that the row of seats at the back of the podium were for fans, not musicians, and implored us to occupy them, I took the plunge, abandoned my place in the more distant pews, and endured a couple of awkward minutes sitting on-stage alone, staring out at the crowd, before others worked up the courage to take that walk up the aisle and join me. By the time the concert was ready to begin children were darting up there too. 

MC Wessel and hornist Joe Berger talk horns from the stage at Classical Up Close.

Six feet away from the players is a pretty choice location for chamber music, and not one I have enjoyed for a while. It has been decades since fans could enjoy the intimate view of Chamber Music Northwest events from the cushions on the floor of the Reed College cafeteria.

From my vantage point on stage I could survey the crowd. It was a better turnout than most free events, and although the gray-haired demographic was still in the majority, we at least fell short of the veto-proof supermajority found at most classical concerts. The presence of children and young parents was a welcome mood booster. 

So too was the insistence by our emcee that this was to be a holiday from conventional concert decorum. Take pictures or tweet if you want, applaud whenever you feel the urge, come and go as you please, and above all, have fun. It was a good test of what I think of as the Choban Theory that classical music is essentially smothered by the people who love it, swaddled in deadly formality, and that the antidote is an audience that feels free to express itself, passionate performers and music that flows from a living source instead of a distant past. On this occasion all those elements came together to provide more evidence that the theory might be true.

Blessinger & Noble
Blessinger & Noble

Bohuslav Martinu is not a serious contender for my personal list of the the Top Forty Classical Composers, but whenever I do stumble across the 20th century Czech composer’s work I always wonder why we don’t hear more of him. His Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, performed by violinist Ron Blessinger and violist Charles Noble, provided not just the back and forth dialogue you tend to expect when two string instruments are asked to play catch without the safety-net of an accompanist, but also an infectious ability to build toward a climax. I began to worry that from my position right behind the players I might become a distraction, as I felt myself swaying and tensing as the music drove toward its payoff. I was too indoctrinated to accept the invitation to applaud between movements, but the audience happily felt no such inhibition.

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