greg ewer

Classical Up Close: sweet & live

As the world starts to open up, a group of elite Oregon musicians kicks off two weeks of intimate outdoor concerts in and around Portland

… and it’s off and running! On a blazing-hot June 1 evening, music lovers and musicians gather amid the verdant shade of Southwest Portland’s Albert Kelly Park for the opening concert of Classical Up Close’s 2021 summer season. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Wake up, world: the music’s on its way. As coronavirus restrictions loosen and live performances tentatively start to tune up again, Classical Up Close kicked off a summer festival series of fourteen free outdoor neighborhood concerts on Monday with an intimate appearance by violinists Greg Ewer and Adam LaMotte. Photographer Joe Cantrell was on hand to capture the moment and pass along his impressions. “Beautiful evening at the verdant junction of Portland’s Southwest 35th Place and Albert Kelly Park,” he noted afterwards.

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MusicWatch Weekly: What (else) is going on?

ARCO turns up, Geter turns on, “Kevin” takes the night off

Last week we talked all about how everyone should be making albums right now, and hopefully you all nodded your heads and muttered, “hell yeah!” Okay, good, we’re happy to have you on board. You know what you can do to make that happen? You can support the artists who will make it happen–by supporting what they’re doing right now.

And what are they doing right now? Well, the big news on our desk today is ARCO-PDX performing Beethoven in Pioneer Square at 6:30 this Saturday evening (tomorrow!), playing for–ahem—whoever happens to be downtown just then, all while keeping distant in local artist Bill Will’s Polka Dot Courthouse Square installation.

ARCO says:

Thanks to technological advances, passersby will be able to enjoy the music either from their seats on the semicircular steps, or by weaving their way through the players for a one-of-a-kind immersive experience!

This is clearly the exact right ensemble for Polka Dot Square: among other things, the “amplified” part helps a ton when you’re not only outside but six feet away from the other players, and the “repertory” part helps when the point of the concert is not about building the repertoire but putting it to use.

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MusicWatch Weekly: Welcome to Digital Heaven

Hermit like a champ with Oregon’s virtualocal superstars

These days we’re toggling between two extremes: on the one hand, digitally mediated mass socialization via zoom, youtube, social media, and all the rest of the burgeoning digital (after)life; on the other hand, some truly next-level hermit action in the form of baking, yoga, quilting, meditation, prayer, journaling, self-reflection, self-recording, and the simple joy of sitting and catching up on all those books you’ve been meaning to read since, like, the eighties.

Of course, most of us are splitting the difference one way or another–for instance, we know dozens of musicians who are spending their quarantine listening to and sharing their favorite albums, a perfect example of how a fundamentally isolated endeavor can be transmuted into an eminently social experience. Same goes, mutatis mutandis, for book clubs and TV show binge-watching parties (let me know if I can spoil Battlestar Galactica for you).

We’ll be talking in some depth about this nascent digital afterlife starting next week, when we’ll discuss: 45th Parallel Universe’s new friend Kevin; defunct Portland cyberpunk indie trio Menomena; recent and timely Matrixy entertainment like Devs, Westworld, and Upload; and media guru Douglas Rushkoff’s “Ten Commands for a Digital Age.” That’s all in the first of several new series we schemers at ArtsWatch have planned for your next few months of quarantined music reading. Stay tuned.

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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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MusicWatch Monthly: American mestizaje

Caroline Shaw, nyckelharpa and hardanger fiddle, Carnatic voice and violin, harps and drums, and American gothick

As we said a few weeks ago, American musical culture–whether we define “American” as USA, North America, or the entire New World–is above all immigrant musical culture. This seems to hold true for a broad interpretation of “immigrant” which includes, at the very minimum: Puritans and other English-speaking immigrants, with their blend of English, Irish, Scottish, and European traditions; abducted Africans with their own blend of classical and folk traditions; indigenous Peoples across North and South America who found their musical cultures decimated, consumed, and alienated by the arrival of Wendigo; and the successive waves of cultures pouring out of war-torn regions across the world, from Italy and Russia to India and Japan, all bringing their cultures with them and adding to the great and glorious New World Melting Pot.

To be fair, there’s another word that covers all this melting pottedness, and we’d like to follow Gabriela Lena Frank’s lead and adopt a term she borrowed from Peruvian anthropologist José María Arguedas: mestizaje. So let’s go all out and say that American culture is mestizaje culture. Sound good? Great!

The week ahead

Of all the living traditions that thrive in fair Oregon, the one we most enjoy paying attention to is the Contemporary Classical Tradition. We just love the way contemporary composers–like Portland’s David Schiff and this month’s guest star Caroline Shaw–tend the gardens of American Classical Music by embracing both the musicks of their predecessors and the distinctly mestizaje aspect of American culture. (Read more about Shaw and Schiff here and here).

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45th Parallel’s real-time music video

An interview with Ron Blessinger

It’s such a weird thrill going to Oregon Symphony concerts, looking down into the string section with its fifty-odd neatly seated performers, and seeing 45th Parallel Universe Executive Director Ron Blessinger, buried in the violins, attentively warming up his bow with the rest of the office. That’s how it goes with this orchestra: scan the rest of that string section and you’ll see local composers Nancy Ives, James Shields, and usually Kenji Bunch. Up in the back, Niel DePonte tightens cymbal stands and organizes mallets. Supergroup!

In 2018, when Blessinger took the reins of local music organization 45th Parallel (founded ten years earlier by his fellow symphony violinist Greg Ewer), he immediately expanded the relatively loose-knit group into a Universe of ensembles drawn mostly from the ranks of Oregon Symphony principal players. The Parallel Universe has exploded all Marvel crossover-like in the last season and a half, with a wide range of classical music concerts all across the Old Versus New abyss. Our personal favorite highlight (so far) was 45||’s double concert last year pairing Mousai Remix’s beautifully economical black composer history lesson with a Pyxis Quartet concert featuring new work by local composers created in collaboration with local poet Micah Fletcher.

Micah Fletcher and Pyxis Quartet at The Old Church in 2018. Photo by Seth Nehill.
Micah Fletcher and Pyxis Quartet at The Old Church in 2019. Photo by Seth Nehill.

Tonight, 45th Parallel presents the latest result of their restless creativity: Les Boréades, an evening of French music performed on a square stage inside the PICA building, two sides open to the audience and a pair of projection screens on the others. We’ve just learned that the concert is down to standing room only, which suits this eternally peripatetic music journalist just fine. Come early for a discussion of The Frame with the concert’s visual/psychological collaborators, and wear comfy shoes for your circumambulatory musical adventure.

We spoke with Blessinger by phone; his answers have been condensed and edited for flow and clarity.

On collaboration and performance space

I go way back with Brad Johnson, the lead artist. He used to be the principal of Second Story Interactive, and I did a project with him where we used existing technology to create what you could call a virtual venue. We did something similar just about 15 years ago. This time around we came up with a musical program–a survey of French music–and then we were thinking of where to perform it.

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Mousai REMIX & Pyxis Quartet: expanded visions

45th Parallel Universe concerts feature music by Portland and African American composers

When 45th Parallel reached its 10th birthday this season, the Portland classical music organization expanded its name (to 45th Parallel Universe), its ranks, and its artistic vision, becoming a collectively run umbrella organization comprising five ensembles: two string quartets, a woodwind quartet, a percussion duo and a chamber orchestra.(See Matthew Andrews’s ArtsWatch story.)

mousai REMIX

The expansion produced a corresponding broadening of artistic vision, with a season packed with diverse concerts. On Friday, two 45th Parallel ensembles play back-to-back concerts embracing compositions that classical music institutions are often rightly accused of ignoring: music by African American composers, and new music responding to the concerns of here and now rather than there and then.

“Sons of the Soil”

To play classical compositions you need scores, and the lack of available scores by black composers is both a symptom of the racism that long excluded them from the classical canon, and one of many continuing obstacles to redressing that exclusion. When 45th Parallel founder Greg Ewer asked Jennifer Arnold to program a concert of works by African American composers for her string quartet Mousai REMIX, her biggest challenge was obtaining music.

“In my research I realized how many string quartets by black composers were out there,” Arnold recalls, “but finding and buying them was very difficult.” (Stay tuned for Damien Geter’s ArtsWatch story about all the composers on the program.)

mousai REMIX violist Jennifer Arnold

The oldest composer featured on the 7 pm concert, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, wrote dozens of string quartets, but only a few were available for purchase. A renowned violin virtuoso, swordsman and military leader in his time, Bologne “was called the Black Mozart for a reason,” Arnold notes, praising his Classical era-style melodies.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasy Pieces aren’t in print, so the group is playing from a downloaded database score. “If you like (William) Walton, (Ralph) Vaughan Williams and other British Romantic music, you’ll love Coleridge-Taylor. He was highly regarded by them.”

Admirers of the folk-inspired Romantic music that the 19th-century Czech composer Antonin Dvorak wrote during his American sojourn will appreciate 20th-century American composer Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, Arnold says. She says the program’s sole contemporary composer, Daniel Bernard Roumain, is “really great at crossing genres.” His fifth string quartet, Rosa Parks, offers a mix of contemporary “electronic-sounding things played on acoustic instruments. It’s not typical classical music,” she says. “Anyone who likes a groove can relate to it.”

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