State of the Revolution


Coco Cobra sings Mozart at Classical Revolution's Summer Showcase. Photo: Gene Newell.

Coco Cobra sings Mozart at Classical Revolution’s Summer Showcase. Photo: Gene Newell.

The crowd whooped and hollered as a punk rocker named Coco Cobra, barely attired in fishnet stockings, platform boots, and black leather jacket belting out the Queen of the Night’s famous aria from Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute,” accompanied by a motley orchestra of various strings and electric guitar, the latter wielded by a Mozart-bewigged and beshaded- axman who turned out to be the leader of one of Oregon’s most important classical music institutions.

That was the climactic scene at the summer showcase concert that culminated Classical Revolution’s second annual national conference. It certainly showed off the plucky movement’s irreverent yet respectful (the slinky Ms. Cobra, actually a member of the female classical vocal trio Bergerette, nailed the famously difficult aria) approach to classical music, as did the fact that it happened in a rock/cabaret club instead of a traditional classical concert hall.

But what went on behind the scenes at the conference itself might have been more significant. About nine other directors from other Classical Revolution chapters met to exchange ideas and plan the revolution’s next phase. They shared success stories and concert models, fundraising strategies and outreach endeavors and more. CRPDX board member Michael Hsu, a composer and violinist, and executive director Christopher Corbell, a composer and multi-instrumentalist (as well as occasional electric-guitar thrashing Mozart impersonator) told ArtsWatch what they saw at the revolution.

American Idol Model?

Hsu said the conference gave him a national perspective on Portland’s revolution, which is distinguished from the others by, among other things, its theme events (like Decomposing Composers on Halloween and Bach-sing Day after Christmas) and Classical Jam sessions rather than prepared performances.

Portland has recently added contemporary music to its menu, which could turn into a transformative development in contemporary music, yoking the organization’s democratizing of classical music to the creative element of new music, which not only gives composers an affordable way of getting their music performed much more frequently than before, but also connects CR’s younger, broader audiences to contemporary music, a nexus that could benefit both listeners (who gain access to the refreshing relevance of contemporary composition) and composers (who can reach a broad audience of general music lovers, not just the relatively narrow niche of classical music geeks, new music enthusiasts, and academics who generally populate new music concerts). It also prevents Classical Revolution from suffering the same museum mentality that’s slowly draining classical music of listeners and contemporary relevance. CRPDX also sponsors a composition competition in which composers write new works for string quartet.

But Portland’s isn’t the only chapter to embrace new music. “Phoenix has an interesting take on the competition contest,” Hsu explains. “They model after American Idol. They call it Comp Comp.” Rather than making every composer write a string quartet, as CRPDX does now, composers draw five names of willing instrumentalists out of a hat, and can throw out one of the names – producing a random instrumental combo for they have four weeks to write music. At the contest itself, each finalist’s work is played twice before a panel of judges sitting at the front of the stage, while the Classical Revolution president acts as MC/translator between performers, judges, and audience. The panel can criticize or offer advice to the performers, and at the end, the audience and judges vote, and the winners get to have their pieces performed by Classical Revolution that season.

The chapters in Phoenix and Chicago have also innovated in audience outreach efforts that Portland can learn from, including instrumental petting zoos, incorporating food trucks at outdoor events, and so on. And Chicago’s chapter brought musicians from Tunisia and performed with them in an east meets west concert.

The various chapters – nearing 40, including branches in Europe – are also organized in different ways, Hsu said. Portland and Chicago Classical Revolution are nonprofit organizations that hold periodic fundraisers and do public outreach as part of the nonprofit mission. Phoenix’s group, on the other hand, is a for-profit entity supported by a Tempe museum. “They’re in a sense freer by not having to worry about the bottom line, but at the same time, they’re tied to the history museum’s mission,” Hsu explained.

6-24 CRPDX Ben Wallek

Ben Wallek performed at CRPDX’s Summer Showcase. Photo: Gary Stallworth.

Which model is better? As with any adaptive response, it depends on  local circumstances. “We agreed each chapter has its own model that’s going to work differently because of the different local culture and arts organizations in each particular city,” Hsu said. “That’s why we’re moving toward an open forum model, rather than dictating that ‘Classical Revolution should look like this everywhere.'”

Open Source

Hsu was referring to another hot topic on the conference agenda. Although groups at Classical Revolution’s stage of development often move toward uniformity, hierarchy, maybe even establishing a governing body, the directors seem to be embracing Corbell’s proposal to create an open source platform, hosted at, that will allow the various chapters to share arrangements, fundraising and promotional strategies, concert ideas and more on an ongoing basis, not just at these annual meetings.

“The second Classical Revolution conference delivered the biggest thing on my wish-list,” Corbell says. “I’m really happy that we were able to move away from insular, private communication and organizing toward a very transparent, open-source ‘bazaar’ model. We are in the early days of a soft launch of a website where the conference attendees will be trying out online boards, catching any configuration bugs and starting a few early discussions. Once the beta period is over, the site will be opened up to anyone who wants to collaborate and contribute to the movement–any individual or ensemble or organization.”

Corbell’s effort reflects how Classical Revolution suits the 21st century much better than many of its classical music predecessors. In a paper presented at an April conference at Lewis & Clark College convened by musicology professor (and one-time Portland rock musician) Marianna Richey,  Stanford University’s Nate Sloan noted that “Classical Revolution is redrawing a centuries-old map of the musical city. Rather than classical music emanating from one sole beacon, the concert hall, a decentralized, rhizomic network of “serious sound” emerges throughout the city.” Sloan pointed out how old-line institutions like the symphony and opera tend to resemble mid-century Detrois’ top-down Industrial Age model, while Classical Revolution, born in San Francisco, reflects a more decentralized, Silicon Valley perspective.

This “let a thousand flowers bloom’ philosophy,” however, doesn’t mean that there’s no room for cooperation among chapters. The directors discussed the notion of Classical Revolutionaries touring to various other chapters’ cities, and possibly taking the Composers Competition national – with winners from different cities competing against each other and the winning entry getting played at the national conference.

Hsu came away with an encouraging impression of the state of the revolution. “It’s very alive and growing very fast,” Hsu says. “A lot of these chapters just started in the last year or two and they’re already building a huge following and showing a huge commitment to it. It was so inspiring to see so many people who are just scraping by as musicians still dedicating their lives to bringing classical music to the community.”

Staging the Revolution

Unfortunately, the culminating concert only sporadically captured CRPDX’s spunky spirit. Part of the problems was the venue; although downtown Portland’s Star Theater, a sort of hybrid between a concert setting and a nightclub), boasted just the right size (around 200 souls), location (downtown), ambience (rock club) and set up (both row seating and tables), its deadening acoustic (probably set up for acts that rely on amplification) seemed to muffle the excitement. (The sound-stifling effect might be ameliorated by adding an onstage acoustic shell to reflect sound toward the audience, and if possible removing the velvet curtains covering the walls.)

But the program itself also plodded a bit, with most of the music relatively quiet and in protracted tempos. Bergerette made an attractive opening act, but half an hour of Renaissance a cappella (or lightly accompanied by cello) music felt too long. Brent Weaver’s “Caminos” may be one of the most accomplished new music creations to come out of Oregon in years, but its five movements, performed here by tenor Ken Beare and pianist and ArtsWatch contributor Maria Choban, were all pretty slow, even in the dance movement. The program would have been enlivened had both these acts presented only half their repertoire, with faster paced works interpolated. It would also have felt more like CRPDX’s renowned classical jams– a sampler more than a concert.

Still, the music itself was attractive and diverse, the performances generally compelling and often much more, especially Seattle composer Emily Doolittle’s inventive “Social sounds from whales at night” for oboe d’amore, chimes and electronics, winningly performed by Catherine Lee, who gave an outstanding performance, as did bassist Ben Wallek’s in Peter Askim’s “Edge.” Host Leo Daedalus gamely tried to keep the pace snappy without lagging, even resorting to an impromptu duel with a visiting Boston percussionist with the weapons being colorful pitched plastic tubes. And the closing Queen of the Night aria was easily one of the most memorable classical performances of the year, pulsing with the sense of fun and excitement that have made CRPDX such a refreshing jolt to Oregon music. As the weekend’s activities, both on and offstage, revealed, that electricity is already re-energizing classical music around the world.

One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    maybe re-mount wolfie with darcelle as drag queen of the night?

Comments are closed.

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