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News & Notes: Oregon classical music on the move

By Brett Campbell
July 4, 2013
Music, News & Notes
Hampton Opera Center will be the new home of Portland's all-classical radio station.

Hampton Opera Center will be the new home of Portland’s all-classical radio station.

See me, hear me / Don’t you know you can’t get near me / You can only hope to hear me / On your radio. –Joe Jackson, “On Your Radio.”

If you’d been reading ArtsWatch’s Facebook page Monday morning, you’d have been among the first to get the early word about a big move in Oregon classical music: namely, that Portland’s KQAC, one of the nation’s few classical radio stations, is moving from the bunker-like building it’s leased for two decades from Portland Public Schools to the second floor of the Hampton Opera Center, when its lease expires in December. As Elvis Costello sang, radio is a sound salvation, but this move’s importance goes beyond what Oregonians can hear over the airwaves and the intertubes. It could open up new possibilities for Oregon music.

Station communication director Mary Evjen told ArtsWatch that the move will double the listener-supported station’s space for operations, raise its public profile as a separate entity from PPS (and for that matter Oregon Public Broadcasting, with which it’s too often confused by potential donors), and allow in-studio live performances and more social functions – not to mention providing a refreshing dose of sunlight to the on-air hosts who have long labored in mole-like conditions.

“Every nook and cranny [in the station’s current space] is filled, including an old storage attic,” Evjen said, adding that the station’s semiannual open houses are “stuffed to the gills. It’s like inviting 200 people into your home with no reception area.”

The opera building, located next to Oregon Museum of Science & Industry on the east bank of the Willamette River, used to be a television station (Fox 12), and having that broadcast infrastructure in place will make the renovation much easier, she said. According to the press release, “the $2 million renovation cost is being funded by gifts from individuals, corporations, and foundations.” The planning, renovation and move are slated to be completed by the end of December.

“We’ve looked around for a long time,” for a new home, Evjen told ArtsWatch, checking at least ten different buildings. The new building will give the station’s on-air hosts a glass enclosed broadcast booth that lets in natural light. And doubling its current space allows the station to invite its listeners to live performances by local and visiting musicians.

“This new home will not only change the setting in which we work, giving our professional staff a healthier environment, but it will also change the entire dynamic of how we serve the people of our region,” said station president and CEO Jack Allen in a press release. “Updated broadcast booths and production rooms will improve the focus of work and the quality of our sound. Adding a performance studio will allow for intimate live concert broadcasts. We are thrilled to be taking this important step into the future.”

KQAC's Jack Allen.

KQAC’s Jack Allen at the mike.

The centrally located space at one of the city’s busiest bikeways  is guaranteed to raise the station’s visibility. The opera has staged public events both inside and just outside the building, like its Bikes and Brews promotions along Portland’s Eastbank Esplanade riverside walk and bike trail.  For All-Classical radio, there’ll be no more “can’t get near me,” in Joe Jackson’s words. “It seems like a dream come true,” Evjen said.

The station had been courted by the opera for years. “We’re thrilled to welcome All Classical Portland into the Hampton Opera Center,” said Portland Opera’s General Director, Christopher Mattaliano. “Portland is a hub for creativity and innovation. This move will encourage even greater partnerships, and greater access to the incredible work being done here in Portland in classical music. It will make a positive difference for the arts here.”

The station’s move potentially opens up new avenues for Oregon voices, and an opportunity for KQAC to contribute even more to the state’s creative community. The station used to host in-studio performances but lacked space for an audience. Now, Oregon musicians have a new venue for live performance, perhaps with a small studio audience, and a megaphone that can extend the range of Oregon music to thousands more listeners; the station claims 15,000 members and 200,000 weekly listeners.

Radio stations in Austin, where Allen once headed that city’s classical radio station, have long provided a crucial outlet for that city’s fertile pop music scene, and KQAC could do the same for Oregon in general and Portland in particular. It could also help build and reach new audiences for classical and Oregon music by tapping into Portland’s vibrant alternative classical music scene (such as Opera Theater Oregon, which the station has already partnered with in a production last year, and Classical Revolution PDX), and by hosting performances of music by contemporary composers (including those performed often by Third Angle, FearNoMusic and other groups) – and especially Oregon composers. With Cascadia Composers and Classical Revolution PDX now both committed to the creation and performance of locally sourced sounds, and creative Oregonians composing listener-friendly new music in the classical tradition every day, a revitalized Oregon classical music radio outlet could help complete the infrastructure for nurturing and disseminating Oregon-born classical music.

Focusing more on Oregon by including more original programming that explores Oregon classical music education, performance, and composition could win the station new listeners as well. With more and more listeners getting their music online, there’s less and less reason to tune into KQAC, or any station that offers the same music by the same composers (and often recordings) as any of the myriad outlets for classical music available for free streaming – unless it offers something listeners can’t get elsewhere: homegrown classical music. Let’s see whether the station’s fresh new digs will also produce a fresh new voice for Oregon music.

More classical comings and goings

Like All Classical 89.9, the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra is facing changes that open new possibilities for building new audiences and contributing to Oregon classical music. Last week, the CSO announced its finalists to replace Huw Edwards, who resigned last year. Each will lead an audition concert during the CSO’s upcoming season.

• James Fellenbaum, resident conductor of the Knoxville Orchestra and director of orchestras at the University of Tennessee, October 11 & 13;

• Scott Seaton, music director of the Minot Symphony Orchestra, October 26;

•  Steven Byess, music director of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, and Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra, November 22 & 24;

• Jeffery Meyer, Artistic Director of the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic, March 7 & 9, 2014, and

• Peter Shannon, artistic director of the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, May 2 & 4, 2014.

Let’s hope that a primary hiring criterion is the candidates’ familiarity with contemporary music and composers, and willingness to reach new audiences by making contemporary music – and in particular Oregon music – a significant part of the CSO’s hitherto often-stodgy programming. Such a focus would give the orchestra a distinctive identity it’s long lacked. After all, with the  exception of the Eugene Symphony’s performance of Tomas Svoboda’s new Clarinet Concerto last season, it’s hard to remember any Oregon adult orchestra playing a work by an Oregon composer in the past few years. In this respect, the grownups, in fact, have lagged behind the teenagers in Portland Youth Philharmonic, which in recent  years has performed plenty of music by Oregon and other American composers.

Suppose CSO committed to performing a work by an Oregon composer on every concert, and maybe even annually commissioned a year-long series of short Oregon overtures –an endeavor which might garner support from grant makers that value Oregon arts? It could reach out to locavore listeners who care about the music of their own time and place, and who want to hear more than just another version of that other big Portland orchestra.

I can see the marketing campaign now: “CSO: The REAL Oregon symphony,” since, unlike that other one, it actually plays, y’know, OREGON music.

Speaking of the Oregon Symphony, we inquired whether its music director would join the orchestra’s musicians in forgoing next year’s pay increase, needed to keep the orchestra in the black. The response from the OSO’s Jim Fullan: “While we wouldn’t normally comment on anything regarding anyone’s salary, I think it important to note that Carlos is a major donor of the Symphony and annually gives back a percentage that exceeds this musician contribution.”

Finally, ArtsWatch extends best wishes to pianist Paul Roberts, a frequent Portland visitor whose upcoming July 10 lecture-concert (one of Portland Piano International’s most popular recurring programs) has been postponed till February after he suffered a very slight stroke, and to veteran Portland classical music writer James Bash, who recently announced that he’d be taking a break from Oregon Music News to focus on other writing projects. Bash’s move comes just days after I left my post as Willamette Week’s classical music editor in order to work on a book project. With classical music losing its privileged position as a separate part of the paper’s coverage of Portland’s music scene, it’s likely that WW will provide less overall space for classical music coverage.

And even before its recent purge, The Oregonian had reassigned its astute classical music writer David Stabler to writing features, and it seems that the paper is allotting less space for James McQuillen’s insightful reviews of late. It’s reassuring to know that the indefatigable Bash will at least occasionally be weighing in via his blog, but in general, it’s looking more and more like anyone who wants significant coverage of Oregon classical music needs to be reading – and supporting – Oregon ArtsWatch.

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