Futurists and Librarians: Classical Revolution PDX shows growing up often brings growing pains

Violist Grace Young at Classical Revolution PDX's December jam. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

Violist Grace Young at Classical Revolution PDX’s December jam. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.


It’s early December and I am at The Waypost, a Portland coffeehouse by day that turns to a tavern at night, occasionally repurposed by the founding fearless leader of Classical Revolution PDX, Mattie Kaiser for nefarious activities like kicking out the jams with chamber music open mikes. Tonight, as every first Sunday of every month, classical music mods and rockers gather to lustily quaff a few and make a joyful ruckus.

But I’m worried about tonight, because it’s happening at a moment when CRPDX’s tribes of mods and rockers threaten to turn into Sharks vs. Jets.

It didn’t start this way. In the beginning there were only rockers, or Jets, or rather, Librarians. Like the original Classical Revolution in San Francisco, which provided the model for Portland’s, CRPDX jams provided a hip underground public venue/dive (The Waypost in Portland, The Revolution Cafe in San Francisco) where music school and conservatory trained musicians met to play prepared or sight-read library works — established repertoire that “everyone” knows: “What Does the Fox Say,” Beethoven string quartets, arrangements of Piazzolla tangos . . .  Classical Revolution took its joyful noise public — not into traditional (and often exclusive, expensive) “classical” concert venues, but rather, into neighborhood cozy dives, where musicians and listeners mingled comfortably and casually as they imbibed beer or munched scones and conversed.

The caliber of performances at Classical Revolution (PDX, SF, wherever) generally exceeded that found in ACMP (Amateur Chamber Music Players) gatherings in private homes, which also emphasize sight-reading library literature, but by non-professional musicians. There is some intersection in activities (and confusion) between ACMP and Classical Revolution groups.

Classical Revolution jams aren’t based on the background-music model of wine bars and intimate bistros, but rather on rock, jazz and pop music open mikes: you come, you listen, maybe you play. But you don’t have to worship at the altar as with a classical music concert in a classical music concert hall or church. You can actually enjoy a multi-dimensional experience: listening, eating, drinking, chatting, interacting with the musicians.

Enter Christopher Corbell.

Appointed in March 2013 by Kaiser and approved by the CRPDX board as her successor to lead CRPDX when the vivacious violist followed her dreams to New York, Corbell, or don Corbellioni as he’s known affectionately, is a game changer — but most important, a team player and community builder. He’s led CRPDX into the future, and the future is Now!

Beginning college life as a music theory and composition major at Belmont College in Nashville, “Corbell became frustrated with the very specialized and cerebral composition-game of the ‘serious music’ world.” He reacted by ditching classical music and checking out the other side of the tracks, joining folk, rock, punk bands and starting his foray into the DIY life by delving into songwriting and booking performances in bars for his bands.

Christopher Corbell. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

Christopher Corbell. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

This served as great training for his contribution as executive director of CRPDX. When he eventually returned to classical music and his first love, composing music, two worlds collided — and sparks flew.

Corbell invited those musicians/players who were also composers to share their own original works. Using the google groups board as a way to announce upcoming new pieces and solicit instrumentalists for those works, Portland composers now had a way of immediately hearing their creations realized, in a low-pressure, informal setting. It was free, it was immediate and it was every friggin’ month!!!

Word got out.

Under his leadership, CRPDX’s demographic began changing dramatically. The average age dropped by a generation, hair color went beyond earth tones to jewel tones, genders bent, enthusiasm grew. The numbers soared so high at the Waypost that tables had to be removed because of liability issues, and CRPDX added two more monthly jams in other Portland neighborhoods.

Mind you, these composers were NOT music school academics. Holding day jobs in retail at Fred Meyer, like 26 year old Jedadiah Bernards, or looking for jobs, composers were bringing in freshly minted or in process creations like Bernards’ Satie-inspired chamber work “Portland Journals”composed for string trio and piano. This was the rule, not the exception.

Growing Pains

In June 2013, Corbell announced the theme for the July 2013 jam: brand new pieces composed for this event! And the first wave of panic struck.

In the CRPDX google group, a few Librarians lobbied for a consecrated block of time to be allocated for reading library literature. The Futurists responded with “Grow Up!”  Corbell resists being the parent. If the Librarians wanted more library literature at CRPDX, all they had to do was make it happen — no one was stopping them. “Bring the literature and players to the game and Play!” Corbell said.

I must digress here. The king of Spain, Juan Carlos, established a constitutional monarchy in 1977 following 36 years of dictatorship under Francisco Franco. Amid the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, Juan Carlos weathered an attempted coup early on. In his pajamas in the middle of the night as the crisis broke, the king ordered his entourage to get him on national radio pronto! And he rallied the Spaniards, cajoling them to fight for their democratic future against the Carlist conservative military “leaders” trying to overthrow the peoples’ democracy in order to bring back the conservative dictatorship and their own elite niche reactionary views of how life should be. Juan Carlos told the Spaniards he believed they had grown up, WERE grown up and did not need a parent or parents to tell them what to do or not to do! And the Spaniards rallied. Hence today’s democratic Spain.

Corbell went one or two or three steps further. He added education and outreach programs to spread the revolution beyond the insiders club to young students and people not privileged with elite musical educations. He took up learning cello, piano and voice–and dared to put his brand new chops on stage at the jams with library works by Bach, Beethoven, and Handel, very well practiced and rehearsed though still amateur compared to his guitar playing. This provided much needed role-modeling for folks in the audience too afraid to take the stage and experience the thrill of doing something new or something from their past in front of a lively engaged audience.

This lively engaged audience is also something new. I’ve not seen it at worshipful classical music concerts nor have I seen it at traditional open mics. This audience weighs in on new works by composers present at the jam. It’s convivial, it’s praise-ful, it’s full of great ideas. Everyone feels like a peer — composers, performers, audience. This is different even from pre-Corbell CRPDX. Before, there was plenty of love from the audience toward the players and it was raucous, but it was strictly love and cheerleading. In this new laboratory setting, the audience (relaxed by beer, of course) feels worthy of actually adding their thoughts regarding how they experienced the composition, even where it worked and didn’t for them. I blogged about the new atmosphere last summer:

“And then all hell broke loose!

“Ensembles which included combinations of clarinets, strings, pianos, voices (not always in the same ensemble) read through BRAND NEW MUSIC!

“The electricity was wild. People weren’t buzzing out of boredom, they were cheering on the toreadors conducting their own pieces! Running up to mob the composer-bullfighters afterward, inundating them with their ideas, insights, impressions.”

From Alitisa: “For the Love of Music

Fright Night occurred at last month’s November Chamber Jam when the Librarians once more anxiously complained about the diminishing presence of library repertoire at the jams. And once more, the Futurists rebuffed their request to exclusively dedicate one hour of the three-hour jams to library works. We already have ACMP for library lit, and no one was forbidding it at CRPDX. The Futurists rejected the notion of a special set aside entitlement that discriminated against and specifically excluded contemporary music.

Corbell, ever the team player and community builder, put a young, hip violist Grace Young in charge of December’s jam, just one month later. Young primarily embraces library literature, yet her positive attitude about everything new combined with her “git-er-dun” energy and counter-culture spirit and look brought successful marriage counseling to this spat.

Coming Together

And at December’s first Sunday Waypost jam, rather than pouting, the Librarians, desiring more standard repertoire at the jams, brought the players and made it happen!

Gulchin Tarabus and Maria Choban at Classical Revolution PDX. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

Gulchin Tarabus and Maria Choban at Classical Revolution PDX. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

Following a delightful opening act (Piazzolla for guitar and flute), a string quartet took the stage with the first movement from Brahms’ second string quartet. The Librarians’ long overdue feasting frenzy seemed partially sated as the string quartet that performed Brahms checked out several more standard repertoire works that Marion, the head Librarian disguised as violist Grace Young, had brought. As low-key host/MC, Young used her projecting voice to encourage people to take the stage, contributing her viola chops when needed. But most of her heavy work had been done behind the scenes earlier in the day, when she hied herself to the Multnomah County Library (which, by the way, has one of the greatest score collections I’ve ever seen) and brought along more quartet literature.

Newbies popped in to check us out. As the Universe would have it, one of the Newbies is a vocalist. No amount of me cajoling him to take the stage that night worked as well as Christopher Corbell and David Leetch taking the stage. Each is new to or reintroducing himself to singing (the latter in Leetch’s case); Corbell on Handel, Leetch with Vaughan Williams. Both evident amateurs in their new medium, each delivered tight, well-rehearsed performances. Newbie’s eyes sparkled watching and listening to the two role models. Newbie is obviously a perfectionist but not a snob. He promised to take the stage next time.

Library literature coexisted with contemporary, even popular, music. Gulchin Tarabus and I regaled the crowd with local composer Arletta O’Hearn’s setting of “Jingle Bells” for piano duet. O’Hearn is a jazzer. What makes her holiday settings so fun is that they stop just short of being cheesy. It’s a gift. The crowd ROARED! Stomping their feet, wanting more, I turned to Gulchin and said “You pick the next one!” Gulchin asked the Waypost denizens “Fast or slow?”

You know the answer.

“We could do ‘Silent Night’ three times as fast,” I quipped. The crowd ROARED! You know what?? It works!! It wasn’t until much later that I realized I’d missed an opportunity to have total participation with an audience sing-along.

Mitchell Falconer played a moving tribute to John Tavener. His trills in the recently deceased British composer’s “Ypokoe” for solo piano would have made world master teacher John Perry proud (Perry’s stance on trills: “as fast as possible at all times!”)

Robert Bomstad, star of Piano!PushPlay! events, finished off the night and us with his finger flying mania. Starting with the third movement from Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata, he moved into his own sonata, mirroring the whole night: fluid movement from library music to contemporary and back and forth.

Bomstad is wired for death metal…which is kind of funny because his own demeanor is soooooooooooo laid back. I had a horse when I was younger, a half-Arab, half-Morgan hybrid. Cocoa was so calm that she almost looked like a sway-backed nag in the field, letting little kids crawl up her legs, oblivious to flies buzzing around her eyes, biting her butt, or other horse neuroses. BUT, when I climbed on her back, she was all race horse! Jittery, fast, tightly wound and sprung, like Bomstad’s own piece, which reminded me of a Liszt/Nancarrow concoction: lots of arpeggios and passages that sounded player-piano-ish and FAST – nothing a human ought to be able to play! Bomstad closed the evening with Scriabin.

Robert Bomstad performs at Classical Revolution PDX. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

Robert Bomstad performs at Classical Revolution PDX. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

Last Sunday night was a coming together. We’re all Librarians;  we’re all Futurists. Revolutionaries all, we rejoiced in the variety of instrumentalists — string quartets regaling us with Brahms and woodwind quintets regaling us with Ravel and Handel. Contemplative contemporary Tavener rested in peace alongside the very current Bomstad’s pyrotechnics (which brought down the house and disturbed Tavener’s peace in the afterlife). Brand new vocalists joyfully participated, so jazzed that one was moved to say after he performed: “If you’ve never gotten up here to do something brand new, I URGE you to do it! It’s the greatest high you’ll ever feel!!”

What makes classical music great isn’t the Library/Museum;  it’s the fact that it constantly grows and reinvents itself — based on, but not restricted to, the greatness of the past. The Librarians want old, the Futurists want new, but both NEED each other. We cannot create the new in a vacuum without the history and timeline of continuity, and we cannot insist on existing only in our antediluvian, 150-year-old library comfort zones exclusively if we’re going to grow and stay plastic and open-minded and joyful.

Upcoming CRPDX events focus on both library literature, like the annual Bachxing Day on Thursday, December 26 at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater, and on today’s music, like at the Composers Revolution conference Corbell is debuting this summer.

Last Sunday’s repertoire wasn’t divisive. Rather, it gave the feeling of continuity, from Handel, through Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel, Piazzolla, Scriabin, Tavener, O’Hearn, Bomstad, but not necessarily in that order.

What this month’s CRPDX jam lacked, the fireworks of edge-of-my-seat NEW that’s made so many recent jams so exciting, it made up for in the conviviality of continuity and all of us who find ourselves on every part of that timeline of music.

You can’t always get what you want.

“But if you try, sometimes you find you get what you need.”

Pianist Maria Choban has participated in alternative classical music in Portland, including the beginnings of CRPDX, for a quarter century.

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4 Responses.

  1. Jeff Winslow says:

    In the same spirit against divisiveness, let’s put to rest the use of the word “worship” in reference to traditional classical music concerts. Yes, tickets are expensive. Yes, in a hall with hundreds, or thousands, of other people trying to hear music which can sometimes be very soft, common sense and common courtesy – NOT mindless ritual – make quiet highly desirable. (I’d hope no one in informal Portland would think dress code is still much of an issue.)

    But worship? No. “Worship” is something one does with respect to an unknowable entity. What goes on at a classical music concert is very different. It’s all about something you can know, about total sensing and concentration. (Which is why people get so annoyed when extraneous noises disturb it.)

    This is not to boost one way of listening to this music over another. Both have their place and both are needed. Like the Librarians and the Futurists, the Traditionalists and the Revolutionaries NEED each other.

  2. bob priest says:

    as for me, i don’t wanna hear even one peep out of ANYBODY @ a classical music concert – don’t care much for chat @ jazz or pop shows, either. i have ZERO patience for chatter, clinking of glasses or noisy phartz. in other words, zip it, droogies!

  3. Art Resnick says:

    First let me say I agree with both Jeff and Bob’s statements above although if it’s supposed to be a party, then party your asses off!
    I love all kinds of music and it depends solely on whether or not it reaches my soul or at least touches me someplace. I see no reason why a balance can’t be reached between the two “camps”. I think the ambiance at the jam sessions (in terms of the depth of the music)can be a bit distracting and it doesn’t always bring out the best qualities of classical music. Also, as a composer having brought one of my pieces (a few years ago) to a session I found that an unrehearsed rendition left much to be desired. This is no reflection on the performers but if there is depth in an unfamiliar piece, it requires some study unless it is obvious (of course this does not apply to composers that perform their own compositions). So personally, I’d rather hear familiar music at the jam session than poorly rendered new music. As a unique musical hangout I give the Waypost (CRPDX) two thumbs up. It’s a fun ride.

  4. Art Resnick says:

    PS: I despise the “Librarian” and “Futurist” nomenclature.

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