ARCO-PDX & Cascadia Composers review: Ready for Prime Time

Oregon classical music innovators' quality performances deserve broader audiences.

The house lights went down, the multicolored stage lights beamed psychedelic rays over the audience and the amps, the band hit the stage and launched into a big hit that featured a pair of shredding soloists, dueling away while the electric keyboard pumped up the volume and pushed the beat furiously forward. Even before the last notes faded, waves of whoops, rabid applause, and even a high pitched shriek or three erupted from the ecstatic audience.

ARCO-PDX also played this program at Seattle's Royal Room.

ARCO-PDX also played this program at Seattle’s Royal Room.

Just another night, another rock show at one of inner Southeast Portland’s gritty warehouses-turned-impromptu concert venues. Almost. The lights were colorful, the amplified instruments loud, the players mostly unrestrained, the audience entranced. But the opening hit with the two shredding soloists was actually a double cello concerto written centuries ago in Venice by Tony Vivaldi, the rock star of his time and place, and the band was composed of musicians who played in classical orchestras and ensembles.

Welcome to the future — or at least one future — of 21st century classical music. ARCO-PDX’s concert last weekend at Refuge PDX was only the second in its brief history, but it revealed a bold band and concept — playing classical music with rock amplification, lighting, and attitude — that’s ready for prime time.

Just before the opening act, cellist Skip vonKuske’s solo act Cellotronic, the PA was piping in “Young Folks,” Peter, Bjorn and John’s inescapable hit from a few years back. and the crowd demographic did look a generation or two younger than you usually see concerts featuring the music of composers 300 years dead.

They certainly got a performance that would excite listeners of any age, even if the Portland Cello Project/Vagabond Opera cellist’s set (as often happens at dance party shows before the harder partying late night crowd trickles in) started pretty low key “with the oldest cover song I know, by JS Bach,” he said before launching into the Baroque master’s most famous cello suite movement. vonKuske followed with original tunes — “Nightfall,” “Threnody for Dre” and the Middle Eastern flavored “Black Pepper Chicken” — in which played over prerecorded tracks including plucked cello bass line and percussion. He also whipped out his mandolin (nicknamed “Mando Calrissian” ), fired off a solo riff over pre-recorded baseline, looped it, then laid down a cello line over both. The mandolin track dropped out just as a train rattled by (Refuge PDX lies next to the tracks), and vonKuske responded in kind with another cello riff. The train made him think of Johnny Cash, he said, but instead of “Folsom Prison Blues” (“I hear the train a-comin’, it’s comin’ round the bend…”), he covered Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”

Portland cellist Skip vonKuske.

Portland cellist Skip vonKuske.

Then after a short intermission, the Amplified Repertory Chamber Orchestra of Portland seized the stage. However, in one respect, it still felt a bit too much like a stereotypical classical concert, because (in response to audience requests at the last show), the group provided chairs, which certainly were more comfortable than standing (at rock shows, you can relieve the stiffness by dancing), but still seemed to make the audience more passive than ARCO’s exhilarating performance cried out for. Maybe next time, instead of arraying the chairs in neat rows side by side, they can just scatter a few around the floor to signal that this is a show you want to experience on your feet.

The players sure did, just as they do in most Portland Baroque Orchestra performances where, as in Vivaldi’s time, the fiddlers generally stood, unlike in most of today’s classical concerts. (Cellists and keyboardist sat, of course, although since the latter used an electric keyboard anyway, they could have raised it to standing level.) Like at PBO, their unrestrained swaying and even occasional rocking out — ARCO founder and violinist Mike Hsu even launched into a little onstage dance at one point — sure goosed the performance level up several notches.

And even though this was hardly a “historically informed” performance like PBO’s, what with the amps, electric keyboard, and psychedelic lighting that would have horrified the masters of the Devout Hospital of Mercy (a home for the bastard female offspring of dallying Venetian noblemen) Vivaldi drew his students from, it was even powerful enough to persuade a proponent of historically informed performance like me.

It’s a treat that we get to hear lots of different interpretations of great music, but to my ears, HIP performances sound better not just because they’re more “authentic” but because their authenticity allows the beauties envisioned by composers like Vivaldi and Bach to shine through, whether that’s in allowing more interpretive freedom (as the composers would have expected), ear-pleasing tunings lost in the miasma of today’s equal temperament, balanced sonorities drowned by today’s steel strings, more transparent and energetic performance styles than the solemn and sentimental readings that ruled in the 19th through mid–20th centuries, etc. They were great artists who wrote for a particular combination of instruments, tunings, and styles, so it’s no surprise that the closer today’s performers can approach them, the better they sound.

But ARCO shows (like pianist Glenn Gould did a couple generations ago) that many of those virtues can also be achieved by channeling the attitude inherent in the score, and connecting it to today’s ears. The young Vivaldi was regarded as a rock star in his day, and ARCO’s performance made us in the 21st century understand why. In contrast to the bloated, over Romanticized interpretations that dominated and weighed down many Baroque performances before the early music movement put the sparkle back into them, ARCO’s electrified — and electrifying — take felt more authentic to the spirit of the Baroque than do many staid, risk free classical concerts played on acoustic instruments.

The group’s ramble through one of Vivaldi’s double cello concertos, bursting with immense vitality and verve, drew rock star applause, even though one of the cellists was clearly much better prepared and attuned to the ARCO approach than the other, and the overamped electric keyboard (here set to sound like a harpsichord) drowned out some of the solo passages. In this kind of Baroque music, unlike most rock shows, the harpsichord is more a texture than an equal partner with the string players, but that doesn’t matter so much in a performance like this, as long as you can hear the other instruments. Of course, ARCO is making this up as they go — sound engineers with experience miking and balancing amplified classical instruments seem likely to be in short supply for some time — so some tweaking is necessary, and ARCO is blazing a trail for future performers.

The engineer evidently learned pretty fast, because by the time ARCO played Vivaldi’s “Storm at Sea” concerto, some audience members actually started dancing a bit and others emitting occasional shrieks more common to rock clubs than classical concerts. ARCO apparently has already learned some lessons; unlike at the last concert, the players actually tuned up (briefly) between pieces, risking breaking the momentum in order to achieve more accurate intonation than they managed last time. It was a worthwhile trade: The performance was vigorous, tight, even thrilling, with just a few obvious slips. Even Vivaldi’s hoary Winter concerto from his inevitable The Four Seasons pulsed with the tension and drama that explains why it became so popular in he first place. On that and other pieces, the keyboard sounded like an organ, which was also used in that era to provide an underlying texture and chord structure.

Electric Current Sounds

Naturally, ARCO’s tight, exciting approach also worked great in three pieces from much closer to our own time and place. It’s too bad that Kenji Bunch’s day job in the Oregon Symphony’s viola section prevented the terrific Portland composer him from hearing the highlight of the concert: this taut, blistering performance of his exhilarating String Circle, but you can hear it below. Be warned, though, that the recording came out poorly because of tech malfunction, and anyway, ARCO-PDX is a prime example of why live music still beats listening at home, at least when the performances are as visceral as these.

After Hsu played the piss out of young Eugene composer Addison Wong’s vivacious “Funky Jazz,” from his Dances for Solo Violin. VonKuske rejoined ARCO for a reprise of Hsu’s ripping Tempo di Dance Party, which shows why of all the Oregon composers I’ve heard, Hsu, along with Bunch, may be the best poised to reach beyond the hermetic classical music club to broader audiences. The quintet elegantly melds “classical” techniques with modern rhythmic sensibility without in any way dumbing down the music, which sounded like it galloped along even faster than in last year’s performance, at the expense of a few intonation wobbles that didn’t at all impede my enjoyment. It made a potent capper to a show that would have wowed most rock audiences.

The group also took this show on the road to Seattle and Oregonians have another chance to hear it at another rock music venue, Eugene’s WOW Hall, Feb. 27. With but a few tweaks remaining (the chair situation, instrument balance and Hsu, who makes an energetic and eye grabbing frontman, could tighten up his between-song patter and make sure the vocal mike is working), I think ARCO-PDX is ready for prime time — that is, to move beyond the classical and contempo classical ghetto. This is a band that needs to be opening for arty rock and pop bands like Pink Martini or the Decemberists, or Zoe Keating, David Byrne, Sufjan Stevens, Kishi Bashi or Andrew Bird. Hearing ARCO could dramatically change pop music fans’ notion of what classical music can be. Why, even those Young Folks might dig it.

Music Made in Oregon

Hsu’s music also closed the following weekend’s Cascadia Composers concert at Portland’s Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church. It’s a nice acoustic space, but any church is going to give the music a different vibe. Nevertheless, this show — one of Cascadia’s best — also shows a group ready to branch out beyond the new music ghetto, though in a different direction than ARCO.

The concert offered as much variety as any chamber music show I’ve heard this year. Lisa Marsh’s compellingly melodic three movement Desert Etudes evoked open roads and expansive landscapes. David Leetch’s lush piano trio, Prayer of Faith, would appeal to fans of any of the Romantic composers who still dominate chamber performances here, but who probably wouldn’t dream of coming to a contemporary music concert. Aaron Bernstein’s cooler mood piece Divergence was the opposite of Leetch’s fervid neo Romanticism, yet the performance received the most (and much needed) dynamic variation of any of the pieces.

Maxixe by Charles Copeland, the most fun piece on the program, was the first that really got toes tapping. XX Digitus Piano Duo (Momoko Muramatsu and Maria Garcia) delivered a dynamite performance of a tribute to the great American composer George Antheil, a Brazilian tango that seemed to touch both the Bad Boy of music’s intentionally mechanical (as in his dizzy Ballet Mecanique) and jazzy (like his Jazz Symphony) sides. I’m happy to see that this dynamic duo, apparently new to the Oregon music scene, has a great-looking program coming up May 14 at Portland’s The Old Church featuring four hand works by Ravel, Stravinsky, Latin American composers, Milhaud and a premiere by Portland composer and conductor Ken Selden.

Spiced with passing dissonances, Jan Mittelstaedt’s peppy Apple Family was a delight from start to finish, and quite different from anything else I’ve heard from this veteran Portland composer. Something about it made me thing it would make a great soundtrack to an animated film. The mood darkened in Choral Arts Ensemble music director David De Lyser’s A Soldier’s Passage, which set four Emily Dickinson poems “to form a loose narrative about the futile death and subsequent events and remembrance of an unidentified solider,” according to the program notes. Ranging from tense and brusque to gloomy, the chromatic piece at times seemed to look back to the first great American composer, Charles Ives. Eugene composer Paul Safar played his own pensive Intermezzo #2, the shortest and one of the loveliest pieces on the program, which he said was inspired by a blue heron. Save for a few flutterings here and there, its heron-ness escaped me, but not its beauty.

A rough performance undermined David Bernstein’s sly, whimsical, intricate A Little Threeness for winds, which is laced with rhythmic traps and unexpected rests that apparently make it tricky to pull off without more rehearsal. Some raggedness also scuffed but didn’t really mar Hsu’s propulsive new concluding movement to his appealingly rambunctious first string quartet. In general, Cascadia’s performers have been improving markedly, but the music merits more expressive playing and in some cases more rehearsal.

Nevertheless, this concert, whose quality greatly exceeded the group’s recent show at First Presbyterian Church and almost rivaled its delicious Crazy Jane concert last fall, showed that Cascadia Composers now boasts a solid roster of diverse, accomplished composers and a coterie of performers. Even the other pieces I didn’t mention almost all offered some rewards, particularly for classical music fans. What Cascadia lacks at this point is a broader audience for its best work, although some recent shows have drawn significantly higher audiences than I recall from earlier years, and its last one found fans among kids, teens, twenty-somethings and up. At their best, Cascadia Composers can supply music that would enchant audiences at any of the major Oregon classical music presenters concerts.

Which offers an opportunity for renewal and better community to connection to the directors of, say, Portland Piano International, Chamber Music Northwest, the Oregon Bach Festival, and the rest, who might at least contact Cascadia for recommendations for pieces that might fit some of their touring performers’ instrumentation and approach. If those worthies are willing to take our Oregon money on their trips down here, they should also be willing to play some of our Oregon music — even a short lagniappe that, once in their repertoire, they might perform elsewhere on their tours, bringing Oregon music to the world. (CMNW, at least, has a history of playing the music of the great Portland composer David Schiff and, as we’ll be telling you more about soon, is doing considerably more of it this summer. It’s a fraction of the total program, but it’s a start.) If the players are too busy lining up putts on the Eastmoreland golf course to bother to learn what Oregonians are composing, then perhaps the presenters could offer a short opening slot to local performers to play Oregon music before the main course, as rock bands do.

Cascadia Composers and ARCO have now repeatedly shown that lack of quality and broad listener appeal aren’t the obstacles to bringing Oregon music to wider audiences. With the exception of groups like FearNoMusic, Third Angle New Music, and recently 45th Parallel, what’s missing is commitment from Oregon’s major music presenters to give their audiences adequate opportunities to hear what a variety of their fellow Oregonians are creating — not out of tokenism to the locals, but because many of their listeners will enjoy it. As our locally sourced craft brewers, restaurateurs, and coffee roasters have demonstrated, the best homegrown fare can provide local customers delights no national brand can match. One road to the future of classical music may run through Oregon.

What do you think? Would any of the music in the videos above appeal to listeners beyond the contemporary classical music core audience? Let us know in the comments below.


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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch. 

4 Responses.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    congratulations, Mike – keep up the good work

    Brett, actually there are some seasoned classically trained ears around that also know how to mix electronics but for now the pop-rock-punk-alt attitude may carry the day, at least in the night clubs

    ultimately, unless the engineer understands the music, it’s probably going to suffer – I’m sure Mike will get his pop-rock engineers trained – till then, it’s “roll it over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news” – and maybe pick up some ear-foam buds for the band

  2. Terry says:

    I went to the concert at WOW in Eugene. As the article says, thoroughly enjoyable. There were no sound engineering issues in Eugene. And any playing wobbles didn’t overshadow a pleasurable overall sensory experience.

    Looking forward to the next show!!

    • Thanks so much, Terry, for telling ArtsWatch readers about the Eugene concert! Great to hear that the group is learning from experience and developing its act.

  3. Gary Ferrington says:

    I throughly enjoyed the Eugene performance last night! Kudos to all and especially Bryce and Mitchell for their performance of Kreisler’s “Praeludium and Allegro” which resulted in a standing ovation.

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