Sam Park

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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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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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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