Erin Furbee

Classical Up Close 3: Tango Plus

A pair of shows in the series of free summer outdoor concerts spotlights Black and contemporary woman composers, and some tingling tango, too

From left: Robert Taylor, Erin Furbee, and Peter Frajola get in the swing. Photo: Joe Cantrell

On a comfortably warm Thursday evening about a hundred people gathered outdoors in Portland’s Hollywood/Rose City Park neighborhood for a decidedly different show in Classical Up Close‘s June series of intimate outdoor concerts – a breezy program of tangos, a little bit of Elgar and Haydn, some Duke Ellington (including his 1931 jazz classic It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing), and some movie music by John Williams from the Harry Potter films. As eclectic as the music was, the instrumentation was just as agreeably offbeat: two violins (Erin Furbee and Peter Frajola) and a trombone (Robert Taylor).

Indeed, the joint was jumping. “I think we had about a dozen tangos,” Frajola said in a telephone conversation the next day. “Mostly they’re two to three, maybe four minutes. What we played were more dance pieces than concert tangos. And then, some Astor Piazzolla, which are concert pieces.”

Not much, of course, is written for two violins and a trombone, which meant a lot of arranging needed to be done. Taylor mostly did the arrrangements, Frajola said, and did them well. The trombone took the bass lines, Furbee played the melodies, and Frajola emulated the inner chords of the piano to cover the range of compositional sound with the particular resonances of the three instruments. As Furbee noted in the brief program notes, “We had a lot of fun putting this together!”

And after more than a year of Zoom meetings, maybe a little recording, and a lot of practicing on their own, there was something more than simply fun about the actual performing: The evening was as much of a breakthrough for the musicians as it was for the audience. After fifteen months of almost no live performances, “it was just so great to get out playing,” Frajola said. All three musicians are members of the Oregon Symphony (Frajola is associate concertmaster, Furbee is assistant concertmaster, Taylor is assistant principal trombonist), and with the symphony musicians set to gather September 1 after more than a year off for their first rehearsal of the new season, it felt like a door opening. “It’s just exhilarating to know we’re on our way back,” Frajola said. “Performing is what we do.”

With increased vaccinations and relaxed coronavirus restrictions, Thursday’s neighborhood concert felt like a door opening in a lot of ways: a recalibration of broken habits; a sense of emerging, if tenuously, from a social isolation; a reconnection with the act of gathering. “Most people in the crowd were a little closer together than a year ago,” when many of the Classical Up Close musicians performed in a series of very small porch and yard concerts, Frajola noticed. “A year ago, everyone carefully distanced.”

Is a new, or renewed, reality around the corner? “It just felt great to be in front of people,” Frajola said. “Trust me, it felt fabulous.”

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Jennifer Arnold, violist in the ensemble Mousai REMIX. Photo: Joe Cantrell

ON THE PREVIOUS EVENING on a spacious side yard in Northeast Portland’s Irvington neighborhood, a couple of miles away from the tango concert, the festival’s third concert broke away from classical music stereotypes in its own way. The program consisted of works by actual young and adventurous living composers (the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, violinist and singer Caroline Shaw’s Enre’acte; violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery’s Voodoo Dolls) and by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (String Quartet No. 1 “Cavalry”), a leading 20th century composer who, like many great Black musicians, spanned genres.

Perkinson, who was born in 1932 and died in 2004, was comfortable in the worlds of jazz, pop, dance, and classical music. He played piano for the great jazz drummer Max Roach, composed dance music for Alvin Ailey and Jerome Robbins, did arrangements for Harry Belafonte and Marvin Gaye. Shaw and Montgomery are active composer/performers who know this neck of the musical woods: Shaw’s performed with Chamber Music Northwest and the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival (see Matthew Neil Andrews’ ArtsWatch interview with her); Montgomery’s appeared with Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival (see Angela Allen’s ArtsWatch interview with her).

Wednesday evening’s concert attracted a crowd of neighborhood people and a goodly share of the city’s musical luminaries. The players were local luminaries, too: The Pyxis Quartet (violinists Ron Blessinger and Greg Ewer, violist Charles Noble, cellist Marilyn de Oliveira) and Mousai REMIX (violinists Shin-young Kwon and Emily Cole, violist Jennifer Arnold, cellist de Oliveira). The evening sounded something like America, in its roots and in its moment now.

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Classical Up Close Summer Festival 2021

The intimate concert series began June 1 and continues through June 14. You can see this year’s full Classical Up Close Festival schedule here. Coming up next:

  • 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 Brahms and Strauss, and four contemporary pieces by percussionist Akiho. Limited parking; carpooling suggested.
  • Saturday, June 5, 2-3 p.m.: 6318 S.E. Lincoln St., Portland. Rose City Brass Quintet (Joe Klause and Logan Brown, trumpets; Dan Partridge, horn; Lars Campbell, trombone; JáTtik Clark, tuba) plays music by Jennifer Higdon, Axel Jorgensen, Joyce Solomon Moorman, Joey Sellers, and Jack Gale’s arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite.
  • Saturday, June 5, 7-8 p.m.: 2966 N.W. Telshire Terrace, Beaverton. Emily Cole, Ruby Chen, Shin-young Kwon, violin; Charles Noble, viola; Ken Finch, cello; Karen Wagner, oboe and James Shields, clarinet, perform Bartok’s Duo for Two Violins; Dohnanyi’s Serenade in C Major for String Trio, Op. 10; and Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370 and Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581.
  • Sunday, June 6, 2-3 p.m.: 4037 S.W. Iowa St., Portland. Greg Ewer, Emily Cole, violin; Charles Noble, viola; Antoinette Gan, Marilyn de Oliveira, cello; Martha Long, flute, perform Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major;  Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Assobio a Játo; and Mozart’s Flute Quartet in G Major.

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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.

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Contemporary Classical at the Planetarium

Third Angle brings latest John Luther Adams string quartet to OMSI

By AARON SHINGLES

From birdsong to sky to ocean, John Luther Adams‘s music venerates the natural world and reflects nature’s splendor. His 2018 string quartet Everything That Rises feels like a warm afternoon lying in the grass and staring at clouds. On April 10-11, Third Angle New Music gave the work’s Northwest premiere at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry Kendall Planetarium, continuing a Third Angle tradition of bringing contemporary classical music to unique venues throughout Portland.

Third Angle performs John Luther Adams at OMSI. Photo: Jacob Wade.
Third Angle performs John Luther Adams at OMSI. Photo: Jacob Wade.

Most people associate listening to music in a planetarium with the Dark Side of the Moon Laser Spectacular (which I personally experienced most recently in 1997), but when Third Angle announced the show as a “360° explosion of color, sound and sky,” it offered the chance to experience Adams’s distinctive contemporary classical idiom in a terrifically appropriate setting, with a visual component designed by the erstwhile Northwest composer, who recently left his decades-long Alaskan abode for residences in Mexico and New York.

There in the dark, close quarters of OMSI’s planetarium, we settled in for a meditative journey through time and space. The string quartet members, surrounded by the audience, sat together in a circular formation at the center of the room, a configuration reflecting the music’s spiraling nature.

The show began in total silence and darkness, followed by an image of the Earth as seen from space accompanied by a brief pre-recorded prologue from the composer, inviting the audience to lose themselves in the experience. Following another brief period of emptiness, the cello bowed its first long, breathy note and ushered in a scene of daybreak color under a slowly passing cloud ceiling. This skyscape became the primary visual element for almost the entire show—until close to the end, when we finally broke through the clouds and ascended into a spiral galaxy and starfield.

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