play it forward

Play it Forward: restoring music education

This month's Virtual Supper Club event supports pianist Michael Allen Harrison's program to bring music lessons to Oregon students

When Michael Allen Harrison was growing up in 1960s Portland, arts education enriched his life. “All the public schools had band programs, strings programs, choir, theater, painting, sculpture,” he remembers. “There were piano teachers in every neighborhood. We had everything at our fingertips to figure out what we were good at, what inspired us.”

What inspired Harrison was playing piano and composing music. He used the skills and qualities he gained from his arts education to become one of the most successful pianists in so-called New Age music, found his own record label, record more than 60 albums, score musicals, films, ballets, theater productions and orchestral compositions, and much more. He was recently inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.

Michael Allen Harrison

But as his own star rose, Harrison watched with disappointment and then alarm as his home state systematically dismantled the public school arts education system that had so enriched his life and helped him create the music that delighted so many listeners. 

Harrison decided to do something about it. He resolved to help restore access to music education to Oregonians who couldn’t afford it. Two decades ago, he created the Snowman Foundation program to support music education in Oregon and eventually Seattle, then the Ten Grands fundraising concert to bring pianos to students whose families couldn’t afford them. And three years ago, his Play it Forward program embarked on the culminating phase of his original vision. 

But like so many other worthy educational and musical efforts this year, Play it Forward has had to shift gears — though the engine is still running strong and moving forward. And this week, Oregon arts lovers can help.

Continues…

I feared this installment of our occasional news roundups should really be called Music Rests instead of the usual Music Notes. Like others recently, it’s peppered with postponements and cancellations — but scroll down a bit and you’ll also find some happier tidings, as musicians and music organizations creatively adapt to this year’s somber new reality.

Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: Jennie Baker

As you peruse the gloomy news below to the sound of sad trombones, you might wonder: what can I do to help Oregon music survive this crisis? Well, you might tell your lawmakers to support allocation of Coronavirus Relief Funds to help venues survive this extended closure. Portland’s invaluable Old Church Concert Hall, whose existence is threatened along with many others, has a template letter to your State Representatives, who are considering voting on such measures very soon, that explains the importance of independent music venues to the state’s economy. You can find your own rep here. Reps from the Old Church testified before a legislative work group this month, but lawmakers need to hear from all Oregonians who cherish arts in smaller independent venues.

The Bad News

•  To the surprise of no one but the disappointment of many, Portland Opera announced the postponement of the first two operas of its 2020/21 season, necessitated by Oregon’s pandemic-provoked prohibition on large public gatherings through at least September. I suppose we can all live without Tosca for awhile, since she seems to spring back to life every few months in endless resurrections/recyclings, but it really stings to have to wait longer for the Oregon premiere of a chamber opera by an actual living composer, Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s 1991 Frida, about the eventful life of the great Mexican painter. Both powerful women should appear on Portland stages sometime next year, with exact dates to be announced later. Meanwhile, enjoy this video of Portland Opera Resident Artist Camille Sherman singing Rossini’s “Una voce poco fa” from the balcony of the company’s building on the Willamette River.

• Another seasonal opera source, Portland SummerFest, also announced the cancellation of its Opera in the Park, a consequence of Portland Parks & Recreation’s pandemic-induced cancellation of all summer activities in city parks.

• After the cancellation of the Oregon Bach Festival and Chamber Music Northwest’s live performances, another — and much newer — summer classical music institution is on hold. In a Landscape, which happens outside at various scenic Oregon natural venues, would seem a good candidate for the kind of physical distancing needed to safely attend, but “concerns about travel and crowd limitations, along with the risk of exposure for our audience and crew” have induced impresario/pianist Hunter Noack to hold off on this summer’s series, with hopes of possible resumption of a few performances.

•  Another Oregon classical music institution, Musica Maestrale, announced the indefinite suspension of its concert plans, pending some level of certainty about the resumption of live Oregon musical performance. During the meanwhilst, founder/lutenist Hideki Yamaya has, like many other performers, been scouring the Renaissance/Baroque organization’s video archives and posting past performances on YouTube

• The Newport Symphony is taking a similar tack for its annual Independence Day show, replacing live performance with a radio broadcast of an encore performance on KNPT and KYTE at 4 pm July 4, followed by a 7-10 pm posting on the orchestra’s website.

• Given the almost complete cancellation of live music this year, it’s not surprising that American Public Radio has also canceled its weekly live radio show, Live from Here, hosted by Portland mandolinist/ singer/ composer Chris Thile. The ebullient successor to A Prairie Home Companion reached 2.6 million listeners per week over 600 public radio stations, but “while this news fills me with sadness, I understand the decision,” Thile told Billboard, “ as my extraordinary teammates and I conceived of Live From Here as a celebration of live, collaborative audible art, and there’s just no telling when it could be that again.” The silver lining might be more time for Thile to make music, like his just released album with Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan, and with other projects like his Punch Brothers band.

Chris Thile. Photo: Brian Stowell

The Good News

On Sunday, the Oregon Symphony inaugurates a free weekly online series. The seven-part Essential Sounds spotlights “people who are holding our community together during this time of crisis,” the orchestra’s press release explains. “Over the course of this free, seven-part series created by Oregon Symphony Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane and director Holcombe Waller, you will experience dozens of heartfelt musical performances, each accompanied by stirring imagery inspired by the stories of essential workers in a particular sector. You will hear stories like that of an Oregon Symphony percussionist, whose cousin went from frontline healthcare worker to COVID patient – and his musical dedication to her.”

Special guests include Portland songwriters Storm Large and Amenta Abioto, and recurring segments like “Composers in Quarantine Making Dinner” spotlight how prominent contemporary American composers like Nico Muhly, Jessie Montgomery, and Missy Mazzoli are responding artistically to the pandemic.

Gabriel Kahane. Photo: Josh Goleman

• The Oregon Symphony is also premiering Symphony Storytime, an original video series designed for kids seven and under. Each episode presents a children’s story narrated by a master storyteller, with accompaniment by an OSO musician performing the book’s “soundtrack,” as well as a lesson about the instrument featured in the episode. Nine English episodes and four Spanish episodes will be released on June 25, July 2, and July 9.

Eugene Symphony music director Francesco Lecce-Chong has added a Thursday night live show, featuring talks with other musicians, to the orchestra’s educational Musical Mondays stream.

• Portland’s Big Mouth Society is hosting weekly online community salons Tuesdays at 6 pm, featuring music, spoken word content and “heartfelt conversation.”

 • Live jazz is scarce these days, but Driveway Jazz Series, a socially distanced outdoor jazz series, is bringing top musicians like singer Marilyn Keller and pianist Darrell Grant to a driveway in front of a bungalow in Southeast Portland, and streamed out to the universe.

Portland Baroque Orchestra is planning to stream its entire next season, reserving the possibility of returning to live audience productions if virus and authorities permit. And it’s also going to use its spiffy streaming technology to allow other Portland artists to do the same.

•  One more Oregon classical music institution holds out enough hope that the music will resume to extend the contract of its artistic director. Eugene’s Oregon Mozart Players announced that Kelly Kuo will remain as artistic director and conductor through the 2023-2024 season.

Kelly Kuo re-ups with Oregon Mozart Players.

•  Though Sunriver Music Festival has suspended its August concert series, it’s still planning to stage its annual Young Artists Scholarship Concert in late August, and to award $35,000 to classical music students for next school  year. The organization has reopened its offices and plans further announcements about upcoming performances soon.

• Fueled by strong reviews, Portland vocal ensemble Cappella Romana’s new CD , The Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia, topped the Billboard classical charts for three weeks during its 15-week run there. You can watch a documentary about the making of the world’s first vocal album to be recorded entirely in live virtual acoustics, as well as video from the original live concert, at the group’s website.

•  Many ArtsWatch readers have enjoyed performances at Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, including Newmark Theater, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and the rest. They and other visitor venues found themselves with lots of unconsumed food and beverages for canceled events. So Metro, the regional planning organization that runs the venues, donated those perishables to groups that are feeding hungry Oregonians. The donations “have helped in providing 11,549 meals to our houseless guests here at the mission and for our search and rescue program,” said Lori Quinney, Union Gospel Mission food service director.

• Portland pianist Michael Allen Harrison has long staged an annual benefit concert and other programs to boost music accessibility to children of all economic backgrounds. Harrison’s July 25 Play It Forward virtual fundraiser supports no-cost music lessons and instruments for Portland youth by delivering to donors homes a music-filled “supper club” featuring live music, dinner and wine pairings.

• Two Portland-based music organizations, Chamber Music Northwest ($20,000) and My Voice Music ($15,000) were among the 14 Oregon arts recipients of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts this month. And Cappella Romana just scored a a $68,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the work of Cappella Romana’s music director and founder, Dr. Alexander Lingas, who will lead a team of scholars to produce a volume of medieval Byzantine chants from the Greek monastery of Grottaferrata near Rome. He’ll also conduct research to create “Christmas 1400: A Byzantine Emperor in King Henry’s Court,” a new concert program of Byzantine and Latin music, slated to be performed in 2021.

• George Floyd was many things: family man, religious man, athlete, friend, victim of homicidal racist police state violence, maybe symbol of long overdue change. But he was also a musician. In the wake of his murder and the national protest movement it sparked, even more than usual, we need to hear from artists of color. Eureka Ensemble has compiled a useful guide to African American composers and organizations that offers “ links to either a) music by Black American composers created as a counter to the racism they faced; or b) information about Black-led/Black-founded groups working towards inclusion and equality.” Music from Other Minds offers a more contemporary oriented playlist of Black composers here.

Musicians aren’t the only performers stifled by the virus crisis, but music is no doubt providing solace to them too. Of course, Oregon’s top major professional team boasts a bona fide professional artist, rapper Dame DOLLA, in its starting lineup, and along with being a good dad to his young son and joining a protest against racist police violence across Portland’s Burnside Bridge, he’s been laying down some tracks — including this one speaking directly about the continuing racist outrages perpetrated against African Americans.

Another perennial NBA All Star, Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, who grew up in Oregon while his dad Mychal patrolled the painted area for those same Portland Trail Blazers, is recuperating from injury and presumably getting through this season’s virus-enforced hiatus with the help of meditation, nature sounds (of course), and classical music. We await a study that would provide arts advocates ammunition by documenting a causal relationship between listening to, say, Chopin, and sinking three point shots at an alarming rate. 

•  Those of us who miss the chance to hear live musical theater like opera and musicals can sympathize with a pair of Oregon Broadway music fans who made a parody video of show tunes they loved (from Frozen to Sweeney Todd to Hamilton and more) – rewritten about life during quarantine. Actor/singer Julia Belanova and writer/director Joel Kwartler ask that if you enjoy their video “please consider a donation to the actors fund.”

Have some more news about Oregon music that ArtsWatch readers should know? Let us know in the comments section below, or email music@orartswatch.org. Meanwhile, enjoy a little serendipitous patriotic musical harmony from Portland State University, whose graduation ceremony fell victim to the virus. But that didn’t stop the music, thanks to a Portland Opera singer and a PSU grad student.

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