Arts organizations and bands large and small have gone through a serious reckoning over the past two years as the ongoing pandemic continues to cause immeasurable damage to the creative community. Contemporary classical ensemble ArcoPDX is no exception.
But the group, led by violinist Mike Hsu, survived thanks to some outdoor performances, including a program of Beethoven works that saw its membership balloon to 27 players and a setlist of film music this past summer. But when they take the stage this weekend for their first indoor shows since March 2020, the inner workings of ArcoPDX will be much different.
“We’re no longer a nonprofit,” Hsu said recently. “We decided to downsize and keep a core group of dedicated people that didn’t have to be paid. When we became a nonprofit, we were sustained by donations so that we could pay our musicians a fair wage for each rehearsal and concert. We just lost momentum.”
Hsu also cites the reality that he and most of his ArcoPDX bandmates aren’t full time musicians, subsisting on day jobs — he is a physiatrist while cellists Emma Wood and Kyle Grant teach high school and practice real estate law, respectively.
To ease the burden on them all, Hsu chose to loosen the reins of ArcoPDX’s programming and share the duties with his bandmates. To that end, keyboardist David Brokaw (by day, a pharmacist) is responsible for Incantation, the program that the group will perform at Show Bar on Friday the 21st and at Holocene the next night. Staying true to their core concept of mixing more familiar classical fare with works by lesser known composers, new pieces, and pop music, the shows this weekend will be delightfully motley.
The concentration for these performances is on 21st century composers–including the beloved Estonian minimalist Arvo Pärt, who will be represented by a violin piece that was written to fit for any lineup of players. ArcoPDX will be presenting it, according to Hsu, as “an extreme quintet version. It’s very virtuosic. Because I’m the soloist, I’m going to have to prep basically every single day in order to pull this off.”
Thanks to a YouTube search, the group was introduced to Alexey Kurbatov, a prolific Russian composer in his 30s who apparently conducted his first performance at age 11. ArcoPDX will be offering up the U.S. premiere of his work “Train,” a clarinet sextet inspired by Tolstoy’s masterful novel Anna Karenina that is, says Hsu, “immediately gratifying and just takes you in right away. We love playing this.”
Rounding out the performance will be a piece inspired by Lake Samish in Washington State, written by Armenian/American composer Alan Hovhaness; a trance-like work from the Bay Area-based Durwynne Hsieh; and something written by David Baker, a composer who won the Pulitzer Prize in in 1973 and was Brokaw’s jazz piano teacher.
What hasn’t changed for ArcoPDX is their desire to add a little rock concert flair to their performances. As with previous gigs at Holocene, the ensemble will make use of the club’s dynamic sound system and accompany each piece with an eye-popping light show.
“We have an actual lighting designer who’s going to be there who’s listened to the music beforehand and knows when to put in the strobe effects and change colors Since we have the video projector, we will have some film footage playing, and we’re going to work with sound responsive software that listens to everything coming at it and responds in various ways,” Hsu says before adding, with a laugh. “We’re just gonna try and make it tasteful.”
ArcoPDX performs at Show Bar (1300 SE Stark, Portland) on Friday, January 21 at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $10 adv/$15 day of show. Entry to the space requires either proof of a full course of COVID vaccination or proof of a negative PCR or antigen COVID test taken in the prior 72 hours. Test must be medically administered. At-home tests not accepted.
ArcoPDX also performs at Holocene (1001 SE Morrison, Portland) on Saturday, January 22 at 7 pm. Tickets: $12 adv/$16 day of show. The venue requires proof of full COVID vaccination, plus boosters for those eligible (or negative rapid COVID test) for entry.
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