Chamber music crossovers: Anti-Genrefication activists

Ensembles win broader audiences by embracing wider range of music

“Crossover” is a dirty word in classical music. To some old-guardians, the c-word implies some kind of sell out or dilution of the purity of great music. Although many of us are still willing to pay a considerable sum to sit quietly and watch a few musicians play music from previous centuries (music now easily available at home with a click) on a stage for a couple hours, chamber music presenters and performers are increasingly enhancing/diluting (depending on your point of view) the “classic” chamber music experience with other kinds of music and even non musical elements — theater, visual art, video, and more.

Chamber Music Northwest and/or Portland5 (the city’s performing arts center) this year have brought Black Violin (classical meets hip hop), Frye Street Quartet (classical meets climate change), 2Cellos (classical meets hair gel), Igudesman & Joo (classical meets comedy) to town. Local musicians like Darrell Grant, Portland Cello Project and ARCO-PDX cross classical with jazz, pop, and rock-show presentation, respectively.

The Dali Quartet performed at The Old Church in Friends of Chamber Music's Not So Classic Series. Photo: John Green.

The Dali Quartet performed at The Old Church in Friends of Chamber Music’s Not So Classic Series. Photo: John Green.

Friends of Chamber Music started its Not So Classic series in the 1999-2000 season because “we felt there were no many chamber ensembles out there that didn’t fit into the traditional string quartet/piano trio programming on our Classic Series,” executive director Pat Zagelow told ArtsWatch via email. “And since our Classic Series has a strong subscriber base and people are quite happy with that programming as it is, rather than change that around or just add to it, we started a separate series that would allow us to offer some different instrumentation and/or different chamber music programming … [from] contemporary groups like eighth blackbird, Kronos Quartet and So Percussion to jazz-influenced groups like Turtle Island String Quartet to unusual quartets like the Rastrelli Cello Quartet and Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, eclectic instrumentation like Quartetto Gelato, and groups that take ‘traditional’ chamber music and shake it up, like Red Priest, or groups that focus on non-traditional repertoire, like the Dali Quartet and their Latin-American program.”

Though the series started at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, “we really think these concerts are better experienced in a more intimate setting, which is what has drawn us to [downtown Portland’s 300-seat] The Old Church recently,” Zagelow explains. “The recent renovation with wood flooring on the stage and better lighting and sound makes it an even better option.”

As hoped, “the audience for Not So Classic concerts is younger and more diverse than for our Classic Series,” Zagelow wrote. You can hear a recent crossover — between Chinese traditional and contemporary classical music — for the next couple weeks on Portland All Classical Radio’s Played in Oregon program, featuring the Shanghai Quartet and pipa virtuosa Wu Man playing music by Tan Dun and more.

Last month saw a flurry of crossover shows in Portland that mixed classical music — or at least “classical” instruments, and they leave me hopeful about the future of chamber music.

Brooklyn Rider with Gabriel Kahane

“Please open your hymnals to page 239,” singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist Gabriel Kahane joked to the audience at Portland’s Newmark Theatre after his touring mates Brooklyn Rider finished playing one of the few subdued pieces on their Feb. 2 program. While the theater’s more formal atmosphere inhibited the kind of intimate connection possible at venues like the Old Church, their informal, genre-busting show (sponsored by Portland5 and Chamber Music Northwest) nevertheless succeeded in winning over an appreciative and substantially younger looking audience than normally spied at chamber music concerts.

Kahane has classical cred — his dad’s a well known pianist conductor and Oregon favorite thanks to many appearances at the Oregon Bach Festival, with the Oregon Symphony and more — and many of his own compositions use classical forms and techniques. But he also writes smart, sometimes poignant piano ballads that appeal to fans of, say, Paul Simon or Randy Newman. He’s living disproof of the notion that songs are either “art” or pop.

Kahane actually spent as much time wielding his guitar as in front of the keyboard. Attired in de rigeur hipster stocking cap, beard and jeans, Kahane emerged from his detached ironic persona to deliver real emotive, sometimes theatrical verses in a soft, clear voice that often gently fluttered into falsetto range, whether on songs that sounded more like accompanied poetry or on verse-refrain numbers.

Gabriel Kahane performed with Brooklyn Rider at Portland's Newmark Theatre.

Gabriel Kahane performed with Brooklyn Rider at Portland’s Newmark Theatre.

Those guitar and/or piano-accompanied songs blended easily with Brooklyn Rider’s instrumentals and with the music they played together, in which the strings felt integral to Kahane’s music rather than merely inflated arrangements of guitar pop originals. Longtime friends and collaborators, Kahane and the Riders each delivered relaxed introductions of the music, which came mostly from their new collaborative album as well as Kahane’s cinematic 2014 Los Angeles history-drenched album, Songs from the Ambassador, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac, and selections from Kahane’s Come On All You Ghosts and Bradbury Studies, named after the famous downtown LA (where Kahane grew up) hotel that’s featured in the movie Bladerunner. (“Imagine me as Rutger Hauer,” cracked violinist Johnny Gandelsman before they played a song inspired by a scene from the film.)

Brooklyn Rider crosses over by mixing classical and contemporary music, which helps break down the barriers between the audiences for each. However, playing classics can’t help but raise sometimes-unflattering comparisons — at least for the classical audience — to performances and recordings by veteran ensembles that play nothing else. While BR’s shaky performance of a late Beethoven quartet that’s one of the greatest of all chamber works marred their last performance in Portland, they served another 19th century classic much better this time. “How about that Franz Schubert?” Kahane said after attentively watching from the piano bench as BR played the composer’s “Rosamunde” quartet.

BR cellist Nick Cords noted that Schubert’s music was originally performed in similar settings as Kahane’s songs — among friends in homes, or in taverns. Thanks to their informal presentation, moving from contemporary folk influence songs to a Schubert string quartet (without the ritual stage exit and re-entrance) felt utterly natural, not like some contrived collision between two incompatible styles or eras.

Schubert wrote original songs and expanded them into larger forms, most famously with “The Trout,” a song that became a piano quintet. Kahane did something analogous with Bradbury Studies, simultaneously elaborating and deconstructing his original song (from Songs from the Ambassador) in a very 21st century way. Brooklyn Rider’s tight performance made the crossover explicit, again demonstrating the silliness of rigid genres. In the expansive, multi-musical world of 20- and 30-somethings like Kahane and Brooklyn Rider, shuffling the playlist between Schubert and a folk-pop song cycle is nothing new. Was this a classical concert, a pop concert? Who cares?

Turtle Island String Quartet

The San Francisco Bay Area-based foursome has been crossing classical music with jazz and more for three decades, but this year marks a reboot, as half the group, including one of the founders, departed, to be replaced with a pair of strong young voices: Corvallis native Alex Hargreaves, a national prizewinning bluegrass fiddler and cellist Malcolm Parson, late of the excellent retro folk/blues Carolina Chocolate Drops.

What hasn’t changed is founder/composer/violinist David Balakrishan’s consistently engaging arrangements of jazz combo music for string quartet. In their Feb. 11 Portland5 / Chamber Music Northwest concert, the band played several from their new album, which covers midcentury music from Miles Davis’s (with a lot of help from John Lewis and others) landmark Birth of the Cool recordings: “Subconscious-Lee” (named for cool jazz pioneer Lee Konitz), “Jeru” (for the great Birth of the Cool saxophonist Gerry Mulligan) and “Israel.”

Portland5 brought Turtle Island String Quartet to Winningstad Theatre.

Portland5 brought Turtle Island String Quartet to Winningstad Theatre.

The program warmed up with later postbop jazz classics (Wayne Shorter’s sweet “Infant Eyes” (with Parson and violist Benjamin von Gutzeit alternately leading and plucking), Horace Silver’s reverse-eponymous “Ecaroh,” and John McLaughlin’s mid-’70s jazz/Indian music fusion classic with his band Shakti, “La Danse Du Bonheur,” which involved all sorts of strumming, plucking, and bowing, the musicians batting quick tremolo-tinged riffs back and forth like a tennis doubles rally with all four players at the net.

Balakrishnan’s originals ventured beyond straight jazz, from the bluegrassy “Alex in A Major” to “Rebirth of the Holy Fool,” (which borrowed from bluegrass, classical, cool jazz and Balakrishnan’s Indian music heritage) to the intricate “Confetti Man”; named after the central image in one of his wife’s paintings, its blend of various musical styles added variety to the monophonic all-strings textures.

The islanders crossed back over with a “Ray Price meets Wayne Shorter” version of Mozart’s famous vocal showcase, “Exultate Jubilate,” which had the apparently knowledgeable audience grinning at various Mozartian moments. The encore, Jimi Hendrix’s famous version of Bob Dylan’s haunting “All Along the Watchtower,” added a jolt of rock to a beyond-category concert that effortlessly traveled ‘twixt Indian, jazz, classical, bluegrass, and unclassifiable music. With Balakrishnan beaming like a proud dad, musicians of different generations and backgrounds (bluegrass, African American roots, Indian, classical) all met on the common ground of American jazz. Evidently recharged by the infusion of youthful energy, Turtle Island embodies the American melting pot in music, with musical blends so organic that they contradict the very concept of crossover. In their hands, there’s nothing to cross from or to; it’s all one place.

Rachel Barton Pine & Mike Block

Of the many sparkling shows I’ve experienced in Friends of Chamber Music’s Not So Classic Series, none validated its crossover philosophy more than the violinist and cellist’s Feb. 12 show before an ecstatic, sold out audience at Portland’s Old Church. Thankfully eschewing the usual introductory lecture, the pair simply strode onstage and launched right into what we came for: music. They did talk between numbers, briefly giving some concise personal impressions of the music they were about to play, like the dance origins of a Bach solo sonata. The admirably diverse program featured chewy classical standards (Kodaly’s famous violin and cello duo, Bach to Bach solo showcases), flashy crowd pleasers by Sarasate and Vieuxtemps, folky fun (Scottish fiddle tunes, an original by Block’s sometime bandmate Mark O’Connor), covers of Bill Monroe and Metallica. Like Brooklyn Rider, Pine noted from the stage that back in the day, composers on the program wouldn’t really have rigidly separated music into pop and art music.

But it wasn’t just the programming that made this show so broadly appealing, as evidenced by the instantaneous cheers and shouts and claps. For one thing, they move. Rather than imprisoning themselves in chairs (which Pine has every reason to use) and behind music stands, Pine and Block have rehearsed their music so well that they can actually pay attention to the people, not the page. Casually dressed in an open-neck red shirt rather than the standard tux, Block danced to Bach, thanks to a strap attached to his cello that allows him to stand, sway and stroll while bowing, strumming and even drumming his instrument (which, he explained, was hastily provided by a local shop after his own arrived in pieces, courtesy Southwest Airlines).

Rachel Barton Pine and Mike Block dazzled the crowd at Portland's Old Church.

Rachel Barton Pine and Mike Block dazzled the crowd at Portland’s Old Church. Photo: John Green.

Pine radiates that unquantifiable charisma (and a huge sound) you see in stars like Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and she and Block are relaxed virtuosos whose easy rapport with the audience matches their well-honed chops. Unlike so many faux flamboyant fakers whose phrase-ending flourishes can’t disguise their insufficient preparation, or the under-rehearsed automatons desperately glued to their scores, just barely getting (most of) the notes, Block and Pine’s skill and obvious preparation affords them the freedom to really connect and communicate with audiences, who responded rapturously. You always see how much joy the music brings them, how much fun they’re having playing it, and how hard they’re working to bring that joy to the audience.

Here as in other shows like last fall’s Dali Quartet performance, the venue’s intimacy really brought the players closer to the audience, which did seem a bit younger and more diverse than the usual chamber music crowd, though still a lot older and whiter than what you’d see in most non-classical music venues. FOCM’s Not So Classic series may need a catchier name, but it’s succeeding in broadening the audience for classical music by widening the ambit of the music onstage, and bringing assiduous performers who know how to sell it to music lovers of all kinds. And this month of chamber music crossovers, with classical music consorting with jazz, folk, pop and more, shows that when open-minded musicians combine creative cross fertilization with fierce commitment to audience connection, it’s not so much crossing over as a reunification of musical styles that should never really have been separated into arbitrary categories in the first place.

Friends of Chamber Music’s Not So Classic Series closes April 14 when the terrific Harlem String Quartet plays music by Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie, Buena Vista Social Club’s Compay Segundo and more at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater. Maybe someday we won’t need a separate but equal series for musicians like these, and there’ll be no more artificial categories to cross.

The Harlem Quartet Changes the Notion of What a Classical Musician Looks Like from Voice Media Group on Vimeo.

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