portland music

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.”


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.


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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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


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.

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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.


The sound of dance across borders

"The Way Out," Portland violinist and composer Joe Kye’s latest single, brings dance, Zoom, and social justice together to address the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border

It all started last Spring in a Zoom meeting. Joe Kye, a Portland violinist and vocalist, listened with perked ears as high school student Diego Garita described his vision of creating a dance piece that would tell the story of the current crisis at the United States-Mexico border. 

“I knew immediately I wanted to work with him,” recalls Kye. 

Composer, violinist, and vocalist Joe Kye. Photo: Jason Sinn

The two were on the Zoom call as a part of a program run by New York City’s Young Dancemakers Company, an organization that pairs professional composers like Kye with high school students in New York to collaborate and produce original dance pieces. In the past, only composers based in New York participated, but with the pandemic Kye was able to join from across the country. 


MusicWatch Monthly: March of Progress

Virtual house shows, American composers, a micro-opera festival, and more

I don’t have much experience of the “good old days” of Portland. I was a toddler when Powell’s City of Books renovated in 2002 and barely a teenager when IFC’s Portlandia premiered–two events I have heard heralded as the beginning of the end for our true underground culture. The nineties and early 2000s economy that allowed for our Elliott Smiths and Dandy Warhols among a hundred others to blossom was short-lived, and we can attribute the shift to Portland’s cultural discovery by the rest of the country, gentrification, the boom of the housing market, the influx of tech companies wanting to avoid Seattle and Palo Alto…or some combination of those things. It can sometimes be hard to remain forward-looking all the time.

One of the lesser-thought-of social casualties of this shift–and especially of the last year–has been the world of house shows. Thankfully, KPSU is hosting a virtual house show on March 6th from 6-8 pm, an imitation of what once was but still a welcome chance to hear some young local talent. This includes local experimental synth duo Sea Moss (a pun on the CMOS batteries computers use to keep time), named by Willamette Week as one of Portland’s best new bands of 2020, and Songs for Snow Plow Drivers. Nothing will match the experience of standing in a crowded basement somewhere in Northeast, reeking of mildew and tobacco smoke, listening to great music by your friends, your friends’ friends, the band that friend of yours knows from work.

To some that sounds awful, to others heavenly. You can find their virtual house show online here. There is also a bit of a scavenger hunt: on the days leading up to the show, PSUaffiliated instagram accounts will be giving out clues, leading to letters and eventually leading to a word. Guess the word right and you’ll get entered into a drawing for a $50 gift card.

This month’s installment of Fear No Music’s Tomorrow is My Turn series is its own sort of house show, a livestream featuring flutist Amelia Lukas. The concert is available for forty-eight hours from its premiere at 7:30 pm on Monday the first, so tune in now while you have the chance. The program features Valerie Coleman, Carlos Simon, Allison Loggins-Hull and Joshua Mallard. A friend of mine compared Lukas’ playing to a shredding metal guitarist, which sounds awesome–and after hearing it myself I have to agree.


Looking for light, packing a punch

Fertile Ground 2021: In the brief but powerful "Livin' in the Light," opera singer Onry seeks a space for a Black man to breathe

One morning last June, the opera singer and multi-hyphenate artist Onry could not get out of bed. Amidst the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, Onry says, “I, like so many other African Americans, had a moment. I was afraid, both for my life and for what the world would think of me and view me.” This impasse, Onry recalls, led him to the realization that “I was living in the truth of others versus living in the light of myself.” 


Livin’ in the Light is the title of Onry’s film, which premieres on Saturday, Feb. 6, as part of Fertile Ground’s 2021 online festival of new works. Directed by Hannah Hefner, the short film is a stunning musical journey of self-actualization. It opens on Onry in a cloistered world, which seems to be constructed from dark pink cloths—rays of sunlight are trying to break through. Soon the scene shifts to the outdoors. “A river, a giant field, a forest,” Hefner says, “Each has these particular heavy and beautiful and romantic physical qualities.”

Onry moves through these spaces as if in search of an unknown destination. We see him running his hands through the grass, pausing to admire wildflowers, sprinting through the woods. A chorus sings background to Onry’s solo, (My soul never burned so damn bright / I wanna be livin’ in the light). Eventually, Onry returns to the same closed space from the beginning, but now he’s changed. He looks directly into the camera. He inhales and exhales, his breaths deep and certain. 


Clap good and hard from home

Portland Opera ends livestream recital series with Isiguen and Bakari

In November 2020, Portland Opera premiered its “Live From the Hampton Opera Center,” a series of free, virtual recitals featuring artists who call the PNW home. Read the ArtsWatch review of the first two–featuring Camille Sherman and Damien Geter–right here. The recitals are archived for one month following their premieres; be sure to catch the last one before it disappears this week.

Martin Bakari wastes no time in his introductions. The moment the show is live the tenor lists the program’s composers and invites the audience to “clap good and hard from home.” Clearing his throat, he jumps into a lovely rendition of “Un’aura amorosa” from Cosí fan tutte. After a clipped piano arpeggio from Portland Opera’s chorus master and assistant conductor, Nicholas Fox, Bakari sings with Mozartian lightness. On the return to the opening phrase, the camera stays close on Bakari’s face. His eyes are closed, yet he communicates a love-sick emotion just as effectively. As the song ends, Bakari takes a deep breath in – a “breath of love” – then lets it all out. You want to sigh with him.