Skip vonKuske

Summer Music Survey part 3: Switched-on Bach

ARCO PDX debut seeks to modernize classical music concerts.

Classical music can learn a lot from two sources in particular: theater and pop music. A new organization, Amplified Repertory Chamber Orchestra of Portland, looks to the latter to help bring classical music into the 21st century.

“To those who dig classical music, it’s a portal that takes you into the composer’s mind—through the ultimate highs and the darkest lows, the most hellish storms and the heavenliest peace,” says the ensemble’s manifesto. “The problem is, in order to hear it live, they make you sit still for over an hour—no talking, no coughing, no drinking. Staring at musicians who are staring into their music stands. No wonder so many people never give it a second chance.

“ĄRCƠ-PDX is here to change that. We bring you high-quality orchestral music, with attitude, on a rock-concert stage. Amped up loud enough so you can dance, shout, order a drink without disturbing anyone. All while keeping true to the composer’s intent. Top it off with state-of-the-art intelligent lighting in sync with the music, to create a one-of-a-kind, unforgettable experience!”

ARCO-PDX debuted at Portland's Mississippi Studios.

ARCO-PDX debuted at Portland’s Mississippi Studios.

The musician who wrote that knows what he’s talking about. Mike Hsu is a violinist with the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra and has performed with half a dozen others, recorded a pair of albums whose styles range from bluegrass to hip hop, and is a quiet but important leader in both of Portland’s most creative classical music organizations, Cascadia Composers and Classical Revolution PDX, at whose jams I have personally witnessed him shredding, with just about perfect intonation and ferocious rhythmic power, 18th and 19th century classics as well as his own chamber compositions.

At the end of July, Hsu put his money and mojo where his mouth was, investing what appeared to be considerable quantity of shekels on lighting and sound design, and enlisting as soloist for their debut concert one of Oregon’s finest and most adventurous musicians, cellist Skip vonKuske a stalwart of Portland Cello Project, his own Cellotronik project, Vagabond Opera, and veteran of many collaborations with orchestras including the Oregon Symphony, pop stars, and more. And the band worked for months memorizing the repertoire for that first concert, something rockers do routinely, but much more difficult with the thousands of notes played in a classical composition. Eighth blackbird is the only other classically oriented ensemble I’ve seen that regularly memorizes its performance, which enables the members, unconstrained by the need to follow the score and unblocked from the audience by those annoying music stands, to deliver performances with unparalleled drama and audience connection.

But Hsu was proposing to do it with not only new music — his own — but also with 18th century classics we’re used to hearing played by the finest score-supported musicians, and, ultimately, to reimagine the way classical music is performed. So the stakes were high at Portland’s Mississippi Studios — crucially a rock club, and one of the best — on July 26.