norman leyden

Pops Goes the Oregon Symphony

Orchestra's steadily expanding non-classical performances aim for more diverse audiences


The current Oregon Symphony pops season started for me with the crowd-pleasing Storm Large belting out jazz standards—and tossing off her trademark, foul-mouthed jests. I could’ve done with way less of the latter. Then there were the affectionate cougar-referenced jabs at good-sport conductor Norman Huynh. Her insistence on perpetuating her bad-girl persona, though, only detracts from her strong, powerful singing voice and warm stage presence, both of which live up to her name.

Storm Large sang Kurt Weill with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: John Rudoff.

Next up for me was The Music of Prince, the tribute band and the Oregon Symphony wowing people out of their seats and dancing at the stage. But it sent this Prince fan out the door at intermission, irritated by the muddied sound system doing impersonator Marshall Charloff no favor, and only making me wish for the real thing.

Portland’s Tango Pacifico made up for these disappointments. Joining in, the Symphony expanded on the group’s chamber music roots, while the evening’s dance duo stunned the audience with their dips and splits and the bandoneón player, Héctor del Curto, even solo sounded like five of them up there. The three came all the way from Argentina. Tango Pacifico’s vocalist Pepe Raphael lives in Portland, as does founder and leader Erin Furbee, who is also a violinist with the Oregon Symphony. What a mix of tango, from the 1920s to the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla.

The Symphony’s diverse programming continued in March with the latest of its big-screen films accompanied by a live, orchestral soundtrack: E.T. and John Williams’s score. Next came the Grammy-winning Indigo Girls, who joined the Symphony in loyal followers’ favorites. It was part of the Symphony’s pop/jazz-singer series, which recently has featured names like Ben Folds, Gregory Alan Isakov, Bela Fleck, and Large; and tributes to Prince, Glenn Frey and David Bowie. This weekend is Patti Austin’s Homage to Ella Fitzgerald, followed by May 5’s Disney in Concert: A Dream is a Wish. And on May 23, ukulele marvel Jake Shimabukuro transforms the Hawaiian folk instrument into a four-string wonder with the Oregon Symphony, playing Beatles and Queen covers plus his own compositions.

Patti Austin celebrates Ella Fitzgerald Saturday and Sunday with the Oregon Symphony.

These concerts and more this season add up to eight performances of four Pops Concerts programs (subscription) and 34 performances of 28 Oregon Symphony Presents (Special Concerts) programs (non-subscription), the latter including three classical. (The orchestra divides its concerts into four categories: Classical, Pops, Special, and Kids.  This story broadly covers all but classical. Here’s a complete listing of the Oregon Symphony’s concerts this season.) The lineup this season carries on North America’s 132-year-old pops-symphony tradition, while pushing its evolution into a larger, more varied element of the orchestra’s programming.

“If you look at other orchestras in our budget range, we probably do more than most,” says Scott Showalter, President and CEO of the Oregon Symphony. “We’re trying to provide more kinds of concerts to appeal to the wide and diverse audience we have here in Portland.”


Choral Arts Ensemble sings songs from the stage.

Choral Arts Ensemble sings songs from stage musicals and operas.

One often overlooked value of Oregon classical music is its frequent appearance in benefits for noble causes, especially for students. The weekend offers several opportunities to hear good music and help good causes.

On Friday and Saturday, Portland Chamber Orchestra plays music from classic films — including arrangements by venerable Portland classical music legend Norman Leyden, who’ll be there Saturday to receive a lifetime achievement award. The Saturday concert is also preceded by a fundraiser for this important Oregon music institution.

The other big symphonic show this weekend is the Oregon Symphony‘s performance of Beethoven’s Symphony #2, Paul Hindemith’s colorful “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber,” and Franz Liszt’s Romantic Piano Concerto #2, with the solo part graced by the much-lauded virtuoso Stephen Hough.

Another good cause benefits from Moussai Remix‘s Sunday performance of string quartets by Prokofiev and Mendelssohn at Portland’s Ivories Jazz Lounge: proceeds will help pay for a young string quartet to go to summer music camp. And still another worthy beneficiary, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, gains when Greg Lief plays piano music by Debussy, Beethoven and Chopin Saturday at Milwaukie’s Classic Pianos.

While PCO looks to the screen, the Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland draws inspiration from the stage. On Saturday and Sunday at Portland’s St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, the choir sings music from operas and stage musicals by Bernstein, Copland, Berlin, Verdi and more.

Portland’s fabulous Resonance Ensemble will be singing and three different organists playing music by some of Oregon’s finest living composers Sunday afternoon at Marylhurst University’s St. Anne’s Chapel when Cascadia Composers convene for performances of music by the excellent Oregon composers Tomas Svoboda, Bonnie Miksch (from Portland State), Michael Johanson (from Lewis & Clark College) and more.


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