classical revolution pdx

ArtsWatch Guest Post: A Tale of Two Conferences

What Classical Music Can Learn from Open Source

Classical Revolution PDX & Electric Opera Company

Classical Revolution PDX & Electric Opera Company

By CHRISTOPHER CORBELL, Classical Revolution PDX

On July 22, the 15th O’Reilly Open Source Conference (OSCON) will kick off here in Portland with more 3,000 software industry professional in attendance. They come from different angles and with different agendas but one thing they will all have in common: a community-based, inclusive, and non-hierarchical creative culture called “open source.” This is a very broad movement in the software industry that promotes universal access, collaborative development, and redistribution via free license to a product’s design. Open source has revolutionized the tech industry.

On June 22, exactly one month before OSCON, another, much smaller conference will convene in Portland: the second World Classical Revolution conference, attracting a handful of iconoclastic musician/organizers. We too come from a variety of backgrounds and will bring a number of different agendas, but one thing we all have in common is a love of creating and sharing classical music in more open, informal, and inclusive ways.

The Classical Revolution conference agenda is open to attendees to determine. In considering what to bring to the table, I have found myself musing more and more about my day job, which for the past 13 years has been in the software industry. This is an industry of extremely rapid evolution – not just in technology itself, but also in the ever-more-open ways that technologists share knowledge and amplify their productivity. But it is also an industry of rigor and meritocracy – and one that is thriving on paradigms that challenge our assumptions about the relationship between hierarchy and quality.

Portland is a major center of both open source software and of one of the most vital grassroots classical music scenes in the country. Maybe it is time for classical musicians, educators, audience members, and other stakeholders to take a look at open source thinking as a productive cultural model, and question our own assumptions about how excellence and creativity emerge and flourish.

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The Revolution Continues

Classical Revolution PDX’s new executive director brings an expansive vision

Mitchell Falconer and Patrick McCully perform at Classical Revolution PDX's chamber jam at Elevated Coffee.

Mitchell Falconer and Patrick McCully perform at Classical Revolution PDX’s chamber jam.

By JANA HANCHETT

“I haven’t played in front of people since the fifth grade,” Laura McLary announced to the crowd at Elevated Coffee, “and I’ve decided that if you’re not willing to try something new at age 40, you might as well be dead!” Many of the dozens of people crowding Classical Revolution PDX’s first monthly chamber jam at the northeast Portland cafe hooted in agreement, and she whisked us away into jazz legend Billy Taylor’s “Cool and Caressing.”

McLary was one of several performers, ranging from pre-teen to middle-aged, experienced professionals to students, who performed on April 21 at CRPDX’s newest project. Under new executive director Christopher Corbell, Classical Revolution has expanded its chamber jams beyond the long-running series at the northeast Portland Waypost cafe to include the all-ages venue Elevated Coffee.

The evening began with Dunja Jennings’  high school students performing a plethora of clarinet trios and quartets. Later, her daughter, Taylor Jennings of Atkinson Elementary, bravely plunked her thick Mozart volume on the piano rack and performed the first movement of his Piano Sonata in A, K. 331. The cafe erupted in applause. Jaron Chen, a high schooler from the School of Science and Technology, certainly gave all of himself to Jon Schmidt’s “All of Me,” including fantastically percussive arm clusters. Valerie Campbell of Camas High School performed her own composition “Hidden Within.” Her syncopated melodies glowed over her timpani bass lines. Fiona McLary White, from DaVinci Arts Middle School, also performed her composition “Theme for Sundance,” a whirlwind of twisting energy and bright colors. Saxophonist Patrick McCullyand and pianist Mitchell Falconer collaborated on three pieces. Their entrancing blend and phrasing on “Sicilienne” by Pierre Lantier can be heard here.

Sicilienne

The thrilling aspect of a CRPDX chamber jam is that anyone can perform, and with a city full of talent you never know who’s going to show up. Brent Weaver, professor of music theory and composition at George Fox University, arrived with pianist Maria Choban and tenor Kenneth Beare to perform three of Weaver’s songs from Caminos, a song cycle based on the poems of Antonio Machado. Weaver’s compositions captured the magic realism of Machado’s images.

The successful new music, new venue, and new performers at CRPDX reaffirm that this revolution is a vibrant force in the Portland music community. ArtsWatch talked with Corbell about his vision for the rapidly expanding organization’s growth, including CRPDX’s new education campaign.

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The "Mattie Takes Manhattan" party at The Waypost gave Kaiser a chance to bid Classical Revolution a fond farewell.

The “Mattie Takes Manhattan” party at The Waypost gave Kaiser a chance to bid Classical Revolution a fond farewell. photographer: Gary Stallsworth

Last Friday, Classical Revolution stomping-grounds The Waypost hosted “Mattie Takes Manhattan,” an exuberant sendoff for violist and “fearless leader” Mattie Kaiser. During the evening’s karaoke, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” became “Our Hearts Belong to Mattie”. Sporting a too-sexy-for-symphony off-shoulder black dress and swearing like a sailor through her many farewell speeches, the irreverently passionate woman of the hour said goodbye—for now—to Classical Revolution PDX, the first offshoot of the original Classical Revolution (SF) that she founded in 2006 and quickly grew to 300-odd members under the mission statement:

“We love classical music.

We love playing classical music.

We love listening to classical music.

We are tired of the elitist and inaccessible nature of the classical world.

We believe that there are many that would enjoy classical music if they could access it in a setting that is comfortable for them.

We believe classical musicians should be allowed to perform in a setting that is more casual – where the audience is allowed to have a drink, eat a scone, laugh a little, and clap a lot.

We believe everyone can enjoy the music that we love.”

The Itinerary

Yesterday, Mattie departed for Bloomington, Indiana, where she’ll serve a two-day stint as Indiana University’s entrepreneur-in-residence, hopefully inspiring students to start their own Classical Revolution chapter. Then she’s on to Classical Revolution Chicago for a concert featuring young Egyptian composers who’ve created new work in response to the Arab Spring.

Next week, she’ll arrive in Manhattan—and immediately catch Icelandic mega-band Sigur Ros in Madison Square Gardens. “That just seemed like something very epic,” she said of the timing. “From there, I want to hit the ground running.”

Ceding her post as Classical Rev’s executive director to composer and longtime group member Christopher Corbell, Kaiser will retain her role as creative director, hopefully leveraging it alongside more opportunities from afar. She’ll take private lessons from fellow violist (and sometime Classical Rev guest) Jessica Meyer and continue her training in Dalcroze Eurhythmics at Carnegie Mellon this summer (her second swipe at grad school there; she attended briefly before her Portland adventure).

“One of my students got me a year-long membership to MoMA, and I just wanna go hang out there every weekend and study Kandinsky paintings! I want to get to know the musical community there…and…I’m looking forward to growing. I know that sounds really cliché, but I’m really excited about what’s out there.”

The Goal

“My ideal longer-term setup would be bicoastal, working in music promotion. Basically, I’ve created a bunch of musical relationships on the east coast, and while I’m learning things in New York and experiencing that [larger] scene, I also want to funnel all the great things that are there back through Portland—but I don’t know how easy that will be. My parents still live in Portland, so for sure I’ll be here for every single Bachxing Day [Classical Rev’s holiday staple show].”

Fond Regrets

“Aw, it’s just heartbreaking to leave my students,” says Kaiser. “I have 15 students from 5-70 years old, and they all give me the googly-eyes. But many of them saw Jessica perform when she came to town, so when I tell them, ‘Look, I need a teacher too!’ they understand why I have to leave.”

“I’ll miss Portland’s opennness and the inclusiveness, and the rapport between the performers and the audience. There’s a really amazing connection that’s happening there that I haven’t witnessed in any other city except San Francisco. Especially at The Waypost, there’s no disconnect between musicians and audience; everyone is interacting w/ performance whether they’re playing an instrument or not. Portland also has an openness to new classical music that I haven’t ever seen before. It doesn’t matter if you’re professional, semiprofessional or amateur, we can all be creating things together. I’ll also miss the food—and, oh! I’m leaving plenty of unfinished romances….

Moment of Truth

“If there’s anything I can leave you with, it’s just ‘give, give, give,’ gushed a tipsier Kaiser from the Waypost stage on Friday. Upon further reflection on Monday as she finished final packing, she simply said, “We created something really really beautiful. It’s overwhelming to me what Classical Revolution has become, and the relationships that have formed with everybody. It’s a pretty incredible thing, and I’m grateful for it.”

The last time I heard a Classical Revolution concert at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater, I found some of the results underwhelming. Although I endorse the idea of bringing classical music (back) to informal (read: beer) spaces like its monthly jams at northeast Portland’s Waypost, I also discovered at last year’s Alberta Rose show that amateurish performances that I might have enjoyed in a bar or club seemed to wilt on the big stage. Maybe, I thought, I was a victim of my own unconscious expectations, cultivated over attending hundreds of performances in theaters over the decades. Maybe the disappointment derived from the greater focus viewers apply when we’re staring at musicians onstage in a theater rather than hearing them play in a bar.

Or maybe, it turns out, the players just needed to raise their game. That’s the conclusion I drew after Saturday night’s CRPDX Decomposing Composers concert, which happily combined the fun and relaxed vibe the group has brought to Portland classical music with performances that didn’t need excuses. 

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The Parenthetical Girls go for the fantastical

Now, about those technical difficulties...

Zac Pennington fronts the Parenthetical Girls/Nim Wunnan

By Nim Wunnan

To be grand is not the same as to be massive, loud, or ambitious. Grandness lives or dies by scale and tone, and requires more careful balance than a simple spectacle. Wednesday night’s TBA performance by Parenthetical Girls and a starry roster of collaborators didn’t need to be big or loud to complete the world opened by their cycle of five, expansive Privilege EPs; it needed to be grand and spacious and mythical. It was, and it was worth the hype.

The mix of dance, classical instrumentation, performance, and a stage band was thoroughly mashed and shuffled — the dancers and the orchestra were used in earnest rather than simply standing in as signals that This is Serious and Artistic. Besides a few moments when members of Classical Revolution PDX played up the straight-backed reserve expected of people holding classical instruments perhaps a bit too much, each member of the party was on equal standing.

The long and ambitious evening began with a contemporary orchestral score by Jherek Bischoff performed by Classical Revolution, leading to a solitary but powerful dance by Allie Hankins, then a set by members of Golden Retriever, and finally everything was put to bed by the Parenthetical Girls performance, which fit every name on the program on stage at once at least for a moment.

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Graham Reynolds and G0lden Arm Trio play Duke Ellington at March Music Moderne. Photo: Gene Newell

There’s one last chance to see Portland Opera’s engaging Galileo Galilei Saturday night at Portland’s Newmark Theater. Although it’s not the deepest take on one of history’s most powerful stories — one that still resonates today, when powerful political figures knowingly deny scientific reality that clashes with their political and financial interests — Portland Opera’s first 21st century opera definitely worth seeing, preferably from the balcony where you can best appreciate the set design. As I wrote (approximately) in Willamette Week:

Philip Glass’s 2002 chamber opera views Galileo through the wrong end of the telescope, rendering one of history’s most dramatic stories smaller than life. Unlike the composer’s earlier grand scale metaphorical evocations of famous historical figures like Gandhi, Einstein, Akhnaten and Columbus, PO’s 90-minute, relatively literal, intimately scaled production (15 instrumentalists, nine singers, single set) necessarily skims the surface, distancing us from Galileo’s relationship with his daughter, his world-changing experiments, and above all his dramatic, near fatal confrontation with the church/state’s view that the sun revolved around the earth. (Just substitute “climate change” or “evolution” for “heliocentrism” and they could have staged the inquisition scene at a 2012 Republican primary debate.)

But Anne Manson’s crisp conducting, designer Curt Enderle’s gorgeous set, Mary Zimmerman’s imagistic concept, Kevin Newbury’s clever, briskly circling stage direction, and generally strong performances in multiple roles by the company’s young studio artists (especially cardinals/oracles Matthew Hayward —outstanding in the show I caught — and John Holiday, Nicholas Nelson’s Pope and Andre Chiang’s Galileo) overcome occasional instrumental intonational lapses and Glass’s static stretches, plus some really tough vocal writing that taxes plucky leads Richard Troxell and Lindsay Ohse. After hitting cruise control about halfway through, the music and action burst back to life in a dazzling horn and percussion fueled final opera-within-an-opera that makes even this distant if colorful view of humanity’s greatest scientist well worth a gaze.

Also on Saturday at Portland’s Old Church, Portland’s 45th Parallel stages a tribute to Chamber Music Northwest founder Sergiu Luca, who died last year. One of his proteges, 45th Parallel and Oregon Symphony violinist Greg Ewer, will join veteran pianist Cary Lewis in music by Seattle native William Bolcom and Norwegian composer Christian Sinding, and then jazz violinist James Mason and colleagues from the delightful Portland band Swing Papillon will join them for a tribute to the jazz violin pioneer Joe Venuti.

Lindse Sullivan grabs it at Blue Monk. Photo: Gene Newell.

Categories Don’t Mean a Thing

Jazz and classical music were also trysting and shouting last weekend at one of the closing concerts of March Music Moderne. Illness and concert conflicts unfortunately kept me from a reportedly superb East Coast Chamber Orchestra concert sponsored by Chamber Music Northwest, the Oregon Symphony’s performance of Mozart, Haydn and Shostakovich, and what sounded like a fascinating happening at Northwest Portland’s Peculiarium and MMM’s closing event featuring 20th century music in films. But the last show I did catch, at the Blue Monk, a jazz venue, was one of the most diverse of the bunch. It opened with Dutch composer Jacob TV’s arresting 1999 Grab It!, in which tenor saxist Lindse Sullivan duetted with barking vocal samples from the documentary Scared Straight. Owing much to the influence of Steve Reich’s landmark 1967 tape classic Come Out and a bit to Laurie Anderson’s work, the aptly titled Grab It! certainly seizes listeners’ attention, making a terrific concert opener, even if it does stretch a bit long for the material. Sullivan’s bravura performance reminded me of trumpeter Brian McWhorter’s intense solo showcase in the previous evening’s MMM concert at BodyVox Studio.

Members of Classical Revolution PDX followed with a trio movement by Dvorak, a Piazzolla gem, and songs from veteran classical accompanist Naomi LaViolette’s new album, which crosses into singer-songwriter territory. Accompanied by cellist Erin Winemiller and violinist Lucia Conrad, the singer pianist was in good form on her winsome piano ballads. As often happens in CRPDX performances, the dizzying stylistic range of just this opening set felt like a live version of an iPod shuffle, and I didn’t mind a bit. Today’s listeners seem far more comfortable experiencing music based on its quality rather than its category.

Classical Revolution members Erin Winemiller, Megan Moran
and Lucia Conrad. Photo: Gene Newell

The second set featured Austin-based pianist/composer Graham Reynolds, whose work I’ve admired since an Austin friend sent me some of his CDs last year, and I heard his music for Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun at last summer’s Time Based Arts Festival (and earlier, his score for the movie A Scanner Darkly). A stalwart of the city’s new classical scene who’s produced dozens of indie classical concerts, Reynolds comes to alt classical from the jazz side, and his rock rhythmed, barrelhouse piano-fueled reimaginings of Duke Ellington’s magnificent music at the Monk showed just durable those tunes can be — a point reinforced by Reed College music professor David Schiff’s new book, The Ellington Century, about which we’ll tell you more later. Famously “beyond category” himself, Ellington knew only two kinds of music: good music, and “the other kind.” He makes as persuasive a patron saint for MMM as John Cage.

Before his robust quintet (including Blue Cranes’ Joe Cunningham) unleashed rollicking versions of “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Caravan,” “Old King Dooji” and more, Reynolds led his Golden Arm Trio and a pickup orchestra of string players in his own uncategorizable triple concerto, The Difference Engine, inspired by Charles Babbage’s famous Victorian proto-computing concept, which in turn inspired a pretty good speculative fiction novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Reynolds’ music swung from a long, sweet string intro to his own dramatic Lisztian piano solo to a percussive string section to delicate piano and violin duet. His soundtrack background showed in cinematic chase sequences and a penchant for abrupt transitions and endings. Reynolds is making some of the most appealing genre defying music around. I wasn’t able to stay for all of Blue Cranes’ closing set, but what I heard at the Monk and in their opening set for Tim Berne at Alberta Rose theater last month certainly reaffirmed the band’s status as one of the Northwest’s most enjoyable improvising ensembles.

dtq quartet performs at Multnomah County
Central Library. Photo: Gary Stallworth

That was end of MMM, whose impact we’ll assess in another post soon, for me, at least, but those irrepressible Classical Revolutionaries were at it again on Saturday afternoon at the Multnomah County Central library, playing for an audience that, judging by admittedly superficial cues such as dress, race, age, and the presence of young children, looked mostly unfamiliar with the stodgy standard classical music set up. Apparently no one told them that they were supposed to flee in fear and confusion from modern and local music, because the audience seemed as gripped by the dtq quartet’s renditions of music by Shostakovich, last year’s CRPDX composition competition winner Lawrence Tsao, and former Portlander Scott Ordway as by the Mozart and Brahms — maybe more so. Congrats to Classical Revolution and the Multnomah County library for bringing today’s sounds and classical music to places where everyone can hear it.

Third Angle pianist Susan Smith at City Dance in 2008

Last week, the Wall Street Journal, for whom I’ve written for more than a decade, published my story about Portland’s alternative classical music scene, and as always, space limitations forced us to leave some important bits on the cutting room floor. The trend the story identified may be news to most of the millions of WSJ readers, but many Oregon arts watchers probably already know much of that tale. But they may not know what we had to leave out: What makes Portland such a hothouse for creative classical music, and what we can do to ensure that it continues to flourish. Here’s the director’s cut.

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