March 30, 2015

New Scenery, New Sounds

It’s the first day of July, and the ninth day of our residence in Suite 200 of the Hampton Opera Center.  If you’ve visited the All Classical Portland Facebook page recently, then you’ve no doubt seen some of the photos and video that I’ve posted as we packed up equipment, documents and 25,000 Cds, and moved into this beautiful new space.  Or, maybe you haven’t?  Well, here’s an illustration…

The old FM booth, where your hosts made radio for over 20 years at Benson high school:

Old FM booth

Now, to Master Control, facing the Willamette River and with a view of the new Tillicum Crossing bridge:

Taken June 23 at 6am, just moments after Brandi Parisi signed on for the first time

Taken June 23 at 6am, just moments after Brandi Parisi signed on for the first time

Some of you know that I’ve worked at “89.9 FM” for a long time.  I use that term, because the station, while consistently classical for 30 years, originated as an outgrowth of the KBPS high school radio program at Benson.  That’s where the station broadcasted from, until June 23 of this year.  The station ceased to be licensed to Portland Public Schools in December 2012, after nearly a decade of fundraising to pay off the license.  Free and clear, we still inhabited our studios on NE 15th, on the school’s campus, and rapidly feeling less and less a part of the scenery there.  It was time for a new home.

When I started at KBPS, my “office space” consisted of a file drawer and a mail slot.  When we moved out of the gym wing (early history, here) , and into the newly-built facility in 1992, I graduated to having a two-door cabinet and some table space.  Wow!  Well, in 1997, I did get a desk, in a room shared with three of my colleagues:

John Pitman, having cleared his desk and packed up tens of thousands of CDs, gets ready to move to "Suite B"

John Pitman, having cleared his desk and packed up tens of thousands of CDs, gets ready to move to “Suite B”

Now, thanks to the generous contributions of many dedicated listeners, some of whom I will probably never meet, but am eternally grateful to; and also to the vision of our managers and hard work of engineers, this is the loom where I now weave the sounds we hear each day:

Suite B:  Music director John Pitman's new office, complete with sound mixing console for recording

Suite B: Music director John Pitman’s new office, complete with sound mixing console for recording

The second floor of the Hampton Opera Center is the new home for your hosts, staff and volunteers of All Classical Portland.  It’s the place where “we love this music” more than ever.

Thank you, for helping to make it a reality.


Alison Roper

Extended interview: OBT dancer Alison Roper

In this wide-ranging interview, veteran dancer Alison Roper discusses her impending retirement from the Oregon Ballet Theater.

She talks openly about the transition from stage to office (she’ll be taking on an administrative and teaching role at OBT) and the awkwardness of now not being able to “punch people in the face” at work, as well as weight and body image issues that haunt those in her profession.

Click below to hear this charming, thoughtful and articulate woman discuss what lies ahead for her –after 18 seasons with OBT– as she prepares to take her final bow on April 26.

Christa Wessell

Get To Know The Hosts: Christa Wessel

As All Classical Portland’s mid-morning host, Christa Wessel has brightened up the workdays of many listeners with her distinctively bubbly voice. When she’s not on air, she can usually be found interviewing local artists for Northwest Previews, or busy with production for On Deck with Young Musicians.  


Christa talks about how she got into radio, her favorite pieces, and what she’s discovered about today’s young musicians:


Hometown: Indianapolis, IN
First Job: A fast-food chicken joint in Indy. (The first job I was proud of was as Box Office Manager for a small Chicago-based ensemble, Music of the Baroque.)
Years in Radio:  I started volunteering at a free-format community station in Durham, NC around 1994. I took my first job as a professional classical radio host in 1998 at WCPE in Raleigh, NC.
Years at All Classical: I came aboard at All Classical Portland in the summer of 2007.

How did you become a radio announcer?
It as a total fluke! I studied classical music in college with the hope of becoming a professional French horn player, but when that dream fell apart I was left with a music degree and nothing to apply it to. I started working in Arts Administration (principally in IT and Box Office) and to pass the time in those office jobs I started listening to free-form “college” radio. I began volunteering as a DJ at a community station in Durham, NC, and LOVED it. After a few very happy years there, exploring all kinds of genres, I noticed a job posting on the bulletin board: the classical station one town over looking for an announcer. Something clicked in my brain: “I love radio and I love classical music. I wonder if they’ll hire me?” They did. Answering that job notice was one of the best decisions of my life.

Christa in the Studio

Do you remember your first time on air? What was it like? 
The first time I was on the air as a volunteer at the community station, it was absolutely no big deal.  That station had a broadcast radius of about 10 square blocks and my first air-shift was from 2a-5a. I figured no one was listening! But the first time on the air as a professional, classical radio host? That was TERRIFYING. I remember putting my headphones on as I watched the timer on the CD player count down to zero, and my heart began to race. The only thing I remember is that the composer I was announcing was Richard Wagner. Everything else is a blur.

Do you do anything special to keep your voice in shape for radio?
Not really, though I have learned that keeping a humidifier running in the house really helps. And when I start to feel that tickle in the back of my throat indicating an oncoming cold, I immediately pop one of my favorite cough drops, made by a company in Beaverton: Golden Lotus Lung & Throat Drops. They’re amazing!

You’ve done interviews with many people in the classical community over the years. Anyone you’d still like to interview?
I would love to interview Jordi Savall, the Spanish viol player. He’s a major figure in the world of early music, and I’m utterly captivated by his drive to continually unearth Medieval and Renaissance music. Also, from his photos, it appears he has very kind eyes.

For many years there’s been concern about the aging of classical music audiences. Do you think that classical music can connect with younger people?
Absolutely! It’s just a shame that it’s becoming more difficult for young people to discover classical music in their schools. The thing that really helped propel me into a life of music was participating in school music programs – making music with my peers. It’s an incredibly rich, bonding experience that I wish for all humans, young and old.

What have you discovered about young musicians since you started On Deck?
I’ve learned that kids love being a part of something bigger than themselves. That they deeply enjoy creating something with their peers. And I’ve learned that they’re not interested in thinking of music in firmly delineated genres – that for them, the term “classical music” has morphed into something that also includes fiddling, beat-box and electronics. I can’t wait to see where this generation takes us!

You also host Divaville on KMHD, which features jazz vocalists from the 1920s-1960s. Are there any similarities between classical and jazz formats?
Generally speaking, I think that classical and jazz work on similar parts of the brain. They are both complex musical forms, with dense chords and fast-moving progressions. Divaville, though, really highlights great old tunes, with simple lyrics and delightful turns of phrase. Those classic songs performed by those legendary voices – Ella, Frank, Louis – well, I never get tired of hearing the artistry of those musicians.

What is the last concert you attended that really blew you away?
Oh goodness, there is so much going on in this town that I feel like I have a new favorite every week!  One of the most memorable, though, was Third Angle New Music Ensemble’s program “In the Dark.” They performed –in utter darkness at the OMSI planetarium—Georg Hass’ String Quartet No.3. That experience was, for me, as much about the experience of attending a concert blind as it was about the music itself.

What are some of your favorite composers or pieces?
Until recently I would have answered that my favorite composers are the Romantics (the ones who tended to write great French horn parts!) – Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Mahler. (OK, well Mahler is still on that list.)  But these days I can’t get enough Baroque music. The math and buoyancy of Bach and Vivaldi kick-start my brain in a really delightful way.

What is some of your favorite Non-Classical music?
I adore old jazz vocalists, of course. But I also am a HUGE Talking Heads fan. Don’t get me started.

What do you do when you aren’t at the station? 
I see as many cultural events as possible, and I try to get out to explore the Pacific Northwest whenever I can. I love hiking and camping and just taking long, winding road trips to the far reaches of the state.

What excites you most about All Classical’s impending move to the Hampton Opera Building?
At our current location we have been lacking a performance space, and I can’t wait to invite music-makers into our new facilities to share their art with the world!



Get To Know The Hosts: Andrea Murray

If you stay up all night listening to All Classical Portland, you might be familiar with the voice of Andrea Murray, who hosts the coveted 12 to 5 am slot. During the day, Andrea can usually be found sitting at her desk wearing big headphones, busy with production for The Score and editing interviews with local artists for Northwest Previews. After midnight, she is a soothing companion for a late night spent listening to classical music. 

Andrea Murray talks about how she first got into radio and tells us about some of her favorite artists and composers:


What was your first job?


How did you get into radio?

There may be two answers to this one. 1)  My dad got me and my sister a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder when we were little.  We used to spend a lot of time pretending we were on the radio, and creating skits that were pretty much plagiarized straight from the pages of Mad Magazine. 2) I volunteered at my first real radio station, playing new wave and punk rock records for my college campus.

Where did you grow up? What radio stations did you listen to as a kid?

I guess I spent most of my formative years in St. Louis.  I don’t remember particular stations, but I remember that before the internet came along, I liked to listen to stations in other cities and countries on a shortwave radio.  My parents introduced us to classic radio dramas and comedy, and we listened to recordings of a lot of those too.

Do you remember your first time on air? 

I remembering feeling something like, “Oh, wow.  Everything makes sense now.”  For me, being on air feels more natural than real life, somehow.  I’m not saying that’s a healthy thing, but there you have it.

Before coming to Portland, you worked at WETA in Washington DC, what did you do there? 

I produced arts features, was a substitute classical announcer, and was host and producer of a weekly arts magazine program.

What is a typical workday for you now?

Preparing for my on-air shift; producing interviews with local artists for Northwest Previews; doing the final mix of this week’s The Score.  At the moment, I’m working on a 3-part audio documentary that will be hosted by Edmund Stone about the evolution of symphonic film music.  At lunchtime, I go home and let my dog, Louie, out for a quick walk.

What do you think differentiates the nighttime broadcasts from the daytime broadcasts?

I think the intimacy between audience and announcer is even more pronounced in the overnight hours.  Yes, it’s daytime for our overseas listeners, and some local folks are working the third shift, while others are natural night owls. But many of my listeners are awake reluctantly – plagued by insomnia, or worry, or illness.  I try to provide a sense of ease and continuity for them.  I’m trying to be a good companion – polite, reassuring, pleasant – rather than a Radio Personality.

Andrea says her name into a microphone.

Andrea says her name into a microphone.

How did you get interested in Classical music? Do you play any instruments?

Music was a big part of my early life. I was extremely lucky to have parents who could afford to take us to the occasional concert, and give us music lessons.  I took piano beginning in first grade, then later took flute and classical guitar.  I consider myself to be a musical person, but not really a musician per se.

What are some of your favorite episodes of The Score?

My favorite so far has been the one about the music for the old b-grade horror films from England’s Hammer Studios. I’m a huge fan of classic monster films, so this was especially fun for me.

What is some of your favorite Classical music?

Ravel, Debussy, Satie, Poulenc, Arvo Part, Osvaldo Golijov, lots more.

What is some of your favorite Non-Classical music?

Nina Simone; Neko Case; Bjork; PJ Harvey; Sweet Honey in The Rock. I would give anything to be able to sing like Mavis Staples. My favorite local songwriter is Rachel Taylor Brown.

What do you do when you aren’t at the station? 

Listen to music. Write poems. Volunteer at the Humane Society. I’m currently practicing ear training with an Android app I stumbled upon. And I nap like a champ.

John and Hali Nov. 27, 2013

Get To Know The Hosts: John Pitman

John Pitman has been working at All Classical Portland since 1983, back when the station was little more than a small FM booth inside a converted classroom. After taking a radio station class at Benson Polytechnic and working part-time at the AM station, John realized that radio was what he wanted to do in life. He currently works as Music Director at All Classical, responsible for choosing the music we hear, and fills in as on-air host when needed.

I spoke with John Pitman about his first time on the radio, how he first got into classical music, and the particulars of being All Classical’s Music Director.


What was All Classical like 30 years ago?

Well, it was a very simple setup thirty years ago compared to what we have now. A very small staff, and a lot less equipment. We didn’t even have a studio at the very beginning; we were just out in a room. It was sort of like, if you went down the halls here, where the rack machines are and all that noise, and just sat there for eight hours, that’s what it was like. It was noisy. There were a lot of distractions and, because we’re in a high school and KBPS AM, which we were affiliated with at the time, has a broadcast course, every 40 to 45 minutes a troupe of students would come and go. Those were the kind of things that went on all day. And then a few months after that they built an FM booth. And we were there from ‘83 to ‘92. So just about the first nine years of the station was in this converted classroom.

And what did you do?

At the very beginning, I was not on the air; that didn’t happen until about three years later. I was playing the tape recorded programs that we had. And we had a lot, many many more than we do now. We were much more reliant on outside material to fill our broadcast hours.

Do you remember your first time on air?

Your John PitmanI do actually. What I remember most is waiting to leave my house. I was about twenty years old and still living at home. I didn’t drive yet, so my mom would drive me down to the station every day. It was the first day where I was going to have a really significant amount of time on the air. I was quite nervous about it, but I had all my music selected and I can remember sitting in the living room and feeling like ‘I think we need to go now.’ So my mom drove me down here and I had to wait around for a while before I finally went on the air. It was very intense. I think it was like, if you have ever performed on stage before, unless you have no nerves at all, you get this kind of sense of time standing still. In one sense it seems like you’re there forever and in another sense it just flies by. I can’t really explain what it’s like, but it certainly doesn’t feel like time is passing in a normal sense when you’re on the air.

What kind of feedback did you get?

In order to get on the air, you have to make a recording as though you were on the air. Fortunately, you can just go into a studio and make an aircheck, as it’s called. I had already done that, handed it in, got some feedback from the program director, and he gave me one or two tips. One of them was don’t over-pronounce the names and the other was just basically don’t over-elaborate your explanations of what’s going on.

Did you have a ‘Radio Voice’?

Oh yeah, I think so. I think it was very different from what it is now and very different from my conversational voice. Back then you went by most of the announcers that you tended to hear, either the program director, or broadcasters from other networks. By and large, it was very formal. It wasn’t really as conversational as it is now. It was very professional, but very formulaic. There was a very particular way you went about saying whose piece it was and who performed it.

Do you think it’s better to be conversational?

I do. It’s easier for the listeners to approach the music in the first place. And that’s what we want them to do; we want them to connect to the music. It’s nice that they connect to us, and it’s nice to hear from them in emails, and from postings on Facebook, and meeting them, no doubt about that. But we’re there to connect them primarily to this great music, so that they’ll appreciate it, and love it, as much as we do.

Growing up in Portland, do you remember what radio stations you listened to?

I actually didn’t listen to the radio that much as a kid. It was coming to Benson and finding out from a couple of friends that a) there was a radio station here and b) there was a radio station class that you could take here, that got me more interested in radio. Then in 1983 I graduated and was working part-time on the AM station and they said there’s an FM station going on in August and would I be interested in continuing on and working there. So after two years in the class and three months working on the radio, the radio bug had definitely bitten me. And I immediately said yes, absolutely.

So what do you do now, as music director?

I receive the latest releases from all the different classical labels, and I do what I call “auditioning” them, deciding, first of all, is this music we want to play on the air, is it performed well, and is the recording up to our standards. The other part of the job, is going back into the existing library and finding things that we’re not yet playing on the air. I know a lot of what we have on the shelves, but there are thousands of CDs that I still have never listened to.

So you’re the Decider?

Yeah, that’s it in a nutshell; I decide what goes on the air. But I don’t have total autonomy. This is a collaborative effort with John Burk, our program director. He has developed a very clear vision of the sound of the station, so working with the set of ideas that he has actually informs my decision about what to recommend to add to the playlist.

Do the other hosts ever give recommendations?

Yeah, all the time. Because they’re interviewing visiting artists, or in the case of Christa Wessel, receiving local recordings, they’ll recommend from time to time something that they’ve come across. They’ll say, you know, ‘give this a listen.’

What’s the best part of working here?

Getting to listen to all that music!

John Pitman puts his feet up in the FM Booth in 1991

John Pitman puts his feet up in the FM Booth in 1991

How did you get into Classical music?

I credit my dad. He was a serviceman in World War II. He went into the service loving Glen Miller and the big bands, Boogie-woogie and things like that – popular music. A fellow serviceman was into classical music, which got my dad into classical music. And after that he just plunged head long into classical music for the next couple of decades. The only group that ever distracted him was the Beatles. He was crazy about The Beatles from the time they hit the scene until they broke up, and then it seems like once they broke up, he wasn’t interested in any other pop music, he just went back to classical. My dad played me Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms records, and he also took me to my first concerts. My first Oregon Symphony concert was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and my first opera was The Barber of Seville.

So it was actually my dad and my next door neighbor, an Italian American who loved opera and had old 78 RPM records. He would put these records on and play for us these singers – I mean, Caruso and Gigli and these golden age singers. So by the time I got into KBPS, I knew who Toscanini was, I knew who Caruso was, and how to say some of these names. And I understood the form, too. I understood that there were four movements in the symphony, and three movements in the concerto.

But you never studied music?

Not ever seriously, no. I took clarinet for part of a year around sixth grade, but didn’t stick with it. My dad tried to teach me piano. We had a lot of fun at the piano, but I didn’t get very far. Finally, in the mid 90s, after I had been at the station for some time and had kind of settled into a routine, I thought, well I’m kind of interested in learning a new instrument. Tania Thompson had started taking cello lessons, she was our original live announcer, and she recommended a couple of guys who might be good teachers. I chose Jerry Bobbe and took lessons for about three years. I kind of plateaued. I still have the cello with some vain hopes of getting back into it, but other interests diverged me from that.

I gained a huge amount of respect and appreciation for real musicians, serious musicians, almost from the first time I drew the bow across the strings. I thought, oh my gosh, I can’t believe how hard this is. I hadn’t even done anything yet and it was hard! That was a really good learning experience for me because now I feel like I can listen to music and have a better appreciation and understanding of what it’s like to learn the language of the music, and stick with it. And also an appreciation for people who have musical talent.

If you weren’t working at All Classical, where would you be?

Well, it’s a very good question. I majored in electronics here at Benson and up until I got the job in radio, I thought, well, it will be something in electronics but I don’t really know what it will be. Maybe it will be, you know, soldering circuit boards or something like that. I didn’t really have a clear idea then what it was going to be.

What is your favorite Non-Classical Music?

The Beatles, thanks to my dad. I went through a phase in the early 90s, my last foray into what was then the music everyone was listening to, and that would be the Seattle grunge scene – Nirvana, and Pearl Jam and those guys. But then when Kurt Cobain died, I kind of lost interest after that. I love jazz, the jazz of the 40s, primarily. I appreciate Miles Davis. I think Duke Ellington is a genius. And I like world music. I like music of different cultures. Latin American music is a big favorite of mine.

So no Top 40?

Okay, in the 80s, my formative years, I was listening to, you know, the Eurythmics, Duran Duran, and stuff back then.

What is your favorite Classical music, if you had to choose?

My favorite? Mozart. Even before you’d finish your sentence it was Mozart. Orchestra wise, I’d be happy with anything by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, or The Academy of St Martin in the Fields. I never get tired of listening to those orchestras. I could also go for a long time listening to Beethoven and never get tired of him.

Do you have a favorite era of recordings or conductors?

I’m continually interested in what the latest conductors are bringing out. There are a lot of really dynamic, young conductors right now. I’m really happy that we have conductors right now who aren’t just the Americans, the British, and the Europeans. I’m happy to see South American conductors. I’m really happy to see women conductors, not just getting attention for the novelty that they are women, but because they truly are good conductors – JoAnn Falleta, Marin Alsop, a couple of examples.

And, finally, what is your dream Jeopardy Category?

Classical Music, of course.

And, embarrassingly, Star Wars…something else from my formative years.


Mark O’Connor 2013

All Classical Portland is pleased to bring Mark O’Connor to Portland this Holiday Season for two amazing events!

  • An Appalachian Christmas Concert, perfect for the whole family
  • A three day intensive seminar for music teachers on The O’Connor Method for Strings

See below for more details!

Three Day Teacher Training Seminar Dec 20-22: O’Connor Method for Strings

Mark O’Connor has authored a method for Violin, Viola, Cello and String Orchestra consisting of sequenced tunes, and exercises, theory, history and ear training. The Seminar will cover Books I and II as well as Orchestra Book I, taught by veteran string teacher Melissa Tong. Thanks to Portland State University School of Music for their partnership in hosting this seminar at Lincoln Hall.


Registration fee of $295 will include:

  • 3-Day Intensive Seminar Dec 20, 21, 22, 2013
  • 1.5 hour Lecture & Demo with Mark O’Connor
  • Ticket to see An Appalachian Christmas on Friday, December 20th
  • O’Connor Method Books I and II
  • O’Connor Method Certification and listing on www.oconnormethod.com

register button 3

Questions? Prefer to pay by check? Get in touch with Andrea Rennie: andrearennie@allclassical.org, or 503.802.9406

Event Flyer – print and share with your colleagues!

O'Connor Seminar Flyer PDX Dec 2013

Holiday Concert: An Appalachian Christmas with Mark O’Connor & Friends

Join us Friday, December 20th at The Scottish Rite in Portland for a fantastic holiday experience! With all the hustle and bustle associated with this time of year, it’s a real joy to find something as simple and pure as this holiday offering from Mark O’Connor.

Joined on this tour by Carrie Rodriguez, Cia Cherryholmes, Forrest O’Connor, Joe Smart, and Kyle Kegerreis, Mark O’Connor brings a wondrous mixture of Christmas carols, fiddling, bluegrass, and other traditional American music to the stage with An Appalachian Christmas.

group on stage

This concert is selling out around the U.S. – reserve your seats today!


Tickets via phone: 1-800-838-3006

All Classical members save $5 – call the station at 503.943.5828 or email andrearennie@allclassical.org to get your special event password!


Purchase the #1 Album An Appalachian Christmas
CD cover

Christa Wessel takes a break to pose for a photo.

Behind the Scenes at All Classical’s Fall Fundraiser

Last week, as Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik played through the offices at All Classical, everyone found themselves humming along, perhaps involuntarily, to the iconic opening bars. Being continually surrounded by classical music, the All Classical staff is very accustomed to humming while they work. Whether it’s to a somber sonata or the Toreador’s Song from Carmen, there’s something about this music that entices participation. Humming, it seems, is a way to let the music vibrate through us, helping us to truly experience the music rather than just listening to it. For our Fall Fundraiser, we ask our listeners to do more than just listen. We ask that they feel the joy of experiencing the station as a full-fledged supporter and truly let the station become part of their lives.

Here’s a little look behind the scenes at our Fall Fundraiser:

During a the any fundraising drive, the usually quiet offices become loud, bustling with food and balloons and ringing phones. Volunteers come in and out, each more excited than the next. After a quick training session with the shift’s lead volunteer, they make their way to call room right next to the on-air booth to take calls from listeners. Some volunteers can’t help but get a bit star struck from hanging out with our hosts and being so close to the action.

Jack Allen

Jack Allen reads comments from our listeners on air.

On a normal weekday, Robert McBride and Christa Wessel host separate programs on All Classical. But during the drive they join forces with each other and ask listeners for support in between musical jokes and banter. One listener who donated to the station requested more of the “Robert and Christa comedy hour.” Fundraising drives are some of the only times our hosts get a chance to open up about themselves and, in doing so, often share their more humorous sides with the listeners, from Ed Goldberg’s infinite Lenny Bruce quotes to Robert’s wry musical commentary. We even hear Jack Allen, the President & CEO at All Classical, on air alongside our hosts, sharing his thoughts on the importance of community funded radio. And most importantly, we hear the names and comments from our listeners, which always seem to have the most profound effects.

In the fundraising room

Back in the call room, staff can often be found sneaking in to say hi to the volunteers and grab a cookie, or two, or three. As the phones start ringing, it’s hard not to overhear the great conversations being had. A listener calls in to tell us their toddler couldn’t help but bounce in their car seat along to Funiculì, Funiculà as it played through the car radio. A listener whose mother was an organist and taught her to love classical music. A listener whose son calls Mozart his favorite band. A listener who tells us we are her cat’s favorite station. And even calls from listeners whose reason is purely to show their support.

Volunteers who have been with the station for a while often comment on how quickly everything seems to change. Listeners can now call us, click us, or even tap onto the station website on their tablets and phones. We now get people listening to our online stream from all around the world. But All Classical retains its commitment to the local listeners, who tune in every day on analog radios. I’m always happy knowing that when I go home, I can turn my dial all the way down to 89.9 and just hum along.

If you missed out on our fall fundraiser, remember it’s never too late to give!

Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994)

Lutosławski at 100

As the Bard Festival in New York concluded over the weekend, we are reminded again of the importance and multifariousness of its subject this year, Igor Stravinsky.  As his iconic Rite of Spring turned 100 this year, the classical music world, Portland not excepted, has examined the eminent composer’s oeuvre once again.  The Oregon Symphony concluded their 2011-12 season with a full (sold-out) performance of The Rite, and this year has seen performances by the PSU orchestra and many March Music Moderne concerts feature Stravinsky’s diverse works.

However, the Stravinsky celebrations have largely overshadowed the centenaries of the births of two other incredibly important composers.  One, Benjamin Britten, has nevertheless enjoyed a handful of high-profile performances including his Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings by Nicholas Phan, a Britten appassionato, at Chamber Music Northwest’s Summer Festival and an upcoming performance of his monumental War Requiem this coming season at the Oregon Symphony.

The other, Witold Lutosławski, is understandably overshadowed – not because his contributions to the music of the 20th Century are less important, but because of his unassuming attitude and unwavering artistic integrity. “Not to be modest is ridiculous,” Lutosławski, a hero of Polish music and the Solidarity movement, is quoted as saying.  As a composer, Lutosławski crafted meticulously devised music, which he called an “internal truth,” not subject to changes in popular taste. This is perhaps another reason why his centenary has sparked fewer celebrations than Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, whose modernist inflections have been altogether normalized by the countless film scores which have mimicked it.  Lutosławski’s music is a rare exercise in redefining not only the technical basis for composition, but also the aural demands placed on the listener.

I asked our music director at All Classical, John Pitman, if he had any thoughts about Lutosławski, and he recounted his first encounter with the composer, which was not unlike my own. Here is what he had to say:

Listening to Witold Lutoslawski’s works found in All Classical Portland’s library brings back memories of my earliest days working for the radio station.  I was around 20 or 21 years old, and by this time had heard a wide range of music on the station, especially the syndicated orchestra programs.  Occasionally, the station received donations of LPs from listeners, and one person must have had a strong affinity for 20th century music:  there were many recordings of symphonies by Shostakovich and Prokofiev, as well as Allen Petterson, and British composers such as Arnold Bax and Williams Alwyn.  Most of these LPs had no timings to them, which are essential in creating a classical music program.  So, I was assigned to use a stopwatch, set the needle down on the record (CDs were just starting at this time, and LPs still provided the bulk of our locally-produced programming), and play the record from start to finish.  I would then add up the times of each symphony and write them on the jacket.   This was the only way to determine the correct time of an LP.

One multi-record set was an anthology of Lutoslawski’s chamber and orchestral music; probably 6 records were in the boxed set.  We no longer have the LP, but the CD set we have now (“The Essential Lutoslawski”: Philips 464 043), is very likely the same set of performances.  I have to say that, even after all the other symphonies and contemporary music I’d heard, I’d never heard music such as this.  To my 21-year old ears, it was extremely weird-sounding.  And it seemed to take forever to get through this boxed set of LPs.  I couldn’t understand how anyone could get any enjoyment out of such music.  However, something did make an impression on me:  the variety of styles.  Even though I didn’t care for the music, I could detect that not every piece sounded the same, as it were.

John Pitman's first encounter with Lutoslawski

John Pitman’s first encounter with Lutoslawski

 Now I’m listening to Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, with James DePreist conducting the Oregon Symphony Orchestra.  By now I know that this is one of the composer’s more “conservative” compositions, and with good reason:  he had already had his first symphony condemned as “formalist” by the Soviet authorities, and this happened the same year that Shostakovich and Prokofiev were censured for their works in the U.S.S.R.  So here, Lutoslawski was towing the line, so to speak.  However, even if he was trying to please those in power, it’s easy to hear the quality of the work.  This Concerto stands on a par with many of Shostakovich’s works for its structure, as well as its ability to communicate with the audience.  But even his more adventurous works, such as the Symphony No. 3, are more understandable now.  This is a common effect of listening to a composer’s work:  no matter how alien the sounds may be at first, if  you stay with it, and give a composer a chance to communicate, you begin to understand and eventually appreciate what he’s trying to say.  It can help to have some context of the composer’s life (such as Lutoslawski struggling under the communist system’s restrictions), but ultimately not really necessary.  All that’s required is the willingness to hear what’s being said in the music.  The payoff is a broadened understanding of humanity.”

I agree with Mr. Pitman, that context is not necessary to understand the depth of humanity conveyed by Lutosławski’s music (though it may not hit you until the fourth or fifth time through a piece).  However, the composer’s story and personality are rather compelling.  As a high-profile public figure in Soviet-occupied Poland, Lutosławski joined the Solidarity movement by participating in the Polish artists’ boycott, refusing to conduct his own music in Poland or meet with Soviet ministers and declining state-sponsored awards in what the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians calls a role of “unofficial moral leadership.” He was awarded the Solidarity Prize in 1983, and was the second person to receive the Polish Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honor, after the award’s post-Soviet reinstatement; Pope John Paul II was the first.

While Stravinsky’s fame was augmented by his cult of personality outside of his native Russia, both in Paris and Los Angeles, Lutosławski lived out his life in Poland. However, he is not without New-World connections, even in Portland.  In the midst of Rite of Spring celebrations, Lutosławski received some due attention this year at March Music Moderne.  Bob Priest, composer and organizer of the yearly festival, studied with Lutosławski in Poland, and paid homage to the man in a concert featuring his piece “Bucolics.”  Priest also spoke about Lutosławski’s generosity as a teacher. (You can read a review of the performance in Oregon Music News.)

Lutosławski’s centenary, which comes a year after that of John Cage, also gives us an opportunity to take another look at the connection between these two pioneers.  Though both men are known as innovators in modern music, the sounds of Poland and Cage’s West Coast experimentalism are aesthetically rather distant.  However, an interesting idea links this somewhat dissimilar music – that of chance. Lutosławski and Cage are both known as forefathers of aleatory, or “chance” music.

This connection itself is the result of an interesting chance; Lutosławski, in fact, happened to hear a rare broadcast in Poland of Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, which is organized by the principles of chance music.  Though  Lutosławski’s resulting chance experiments sound nothing like Cage’s, he admits the debt of inspiration he owes to Cage: “Composers often do not hear the music that is being played…we are listening to something and at the same time creating something else,” said the composer (Charles Bodeman Rae, The Music of Lutoslawski).   Lutosławski’s first aleatory music, Trois Poemes d’Henri Michaux, is a challenging, but rewarding listen.  Though he employs principles of chance, his rigorous organizing methods are far from improvisatory, and Lutosławski, a former mathematics student, creates the kind of limited chance more reflective of game theory than simple improvisation.

In addition to Lutosławski’s loose affiliation with Cage, he is connected to the West Coast in relation to his Symphony No. 4, which was commissioned in 1993 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In February, the Oregon Symphony will honor Lutosławski on the same stage that has honored Stravinsky and Britten recently, giving a full performance of this symphony.  Lutosławski is paired with Beethoven on the program, an apt choice, as Lutosławski acknowledged Beethoven’s symphonies as the blueprint for his understanding of musical form.

Lutosławski has also been receiving major recognition at this year’s BBC Proms, which honors him and many of his Polish compatriots.  Of note is a new composition in honor of Lutosławski by Thomas Adès, Totentanz, on a 15th-Century text which accompanied a frieze bombed in Poland during World War II.  It is an impressive work, reflectively distilling Lutosławski’s diverse musical language alongside his deep interest with Polish history and compassion for the losses of war.

Totentanz Frieze, formerly in Lübeck

Totentanz Frieze, formerly in Lübeck

While it is unlikely that Lutosławski’s music will ever be heard as often as Stravinsky’s (there is no legend surrounding any of his premieres as potently as the riot caused by The Rite), Lutosławski’s impact is heard subtly throughout modern music, from the symphonic tradition to film music.  His historical significance is similarly deserving of attention, as one of the foremost 20th-Century composers of Poland’s inconspicuous but rich music culture.  If you’re interested in hearing more Polish music in the next couple of weeks, be sure to check out our recent episode of Played in Oregon, which features old Polish music.


The Shape of Things to Come: New Music at CMNW

One of the many perks of being the intern at All Classical Portland is the opportunity to interface with the vibrant arts community and the listening audience we serve.  That is, I get to go to free concerts.  I recently worked the All Classical table at a couple of Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival concerts, and, though the performances were certainly worthy of review from a musical standpoint, the audience reception of the chosen works were what piqued my interest the most.

CMNW premiered Liebermann's "Four Seasons" on July 20, 2013.

CMNW premiered Liebermann’s “Four Seasons” on July 20, 2013.

The concerts I saw were “Artistry & Innovation” and “A Little Night Music” on July 20 and 22, respectively.  Both of these programs were structured similarly to most of the concerts throughout the season: they paired some repertoire standards with some more adventuresome 20th-Century and contemporary works.  The contrast of old and new was particularly marked on July 20, when a world premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s “Four Seasons” for Mezzo-Soprano, Clarinet and Piano Quartet on a text by Edna St. Vincent Millay was bookended by Bach’s Flute Sonata in B Minor and selections from The Art of the Fugue.  Tara Helen O’Connor and Pei-Yao Wang performed the flute sonata beautifully, and were duly recognized.  The entire atmosphere of the hall changed, however, from the beginning of Liebermann’s piece, which opens with a strident, upward gesture from the piano.  The audience was engaged in the piece, which is accessible, but far from conservative, through the final bars, at which point a standing ovation for mezzo Sasha Cooke and the composer, who was in attendance, felt anything but obligatory.

Resuming my post at the All Classical table, I chatted casually with some audience members who were entering our CD drawing.  Their response to the first half of the concert was largely praise for Cooke’s performance of “Four Seasons” and surprise at the potent lyricism and expression of Liebermann’s composition.  One concertgoer called the piece “very melodic – not atonal like a lot of new music.”  While I certainly can’t deny the lyricism, the second half of her comment  illustrates a failure of the classical music establishment to move past the stigma – and vocabulary – it gave to new music a century ago.

Sasha Cooke is one of many young stars featured at CMNW's Summer Festival.

Sasha Cooke is one of many young stars featured at CMNW’s Summer Festival.

It is true that “Four Seasons” is not atonal of the early Schoenbergian variety, but it  (like the Joan Tower and György Ligeti works played at the next CMNW concert I attended) is just as harmonically distant from the Bach on the same program as it is from the thorny atonal music of the early 20th Century.  Many of Liebermann’s works delve into polytonality and other modernist devices, but these certainly do not preclude his lyricism.  In fact, the Liebermann piece achieved a much more immediate, emotional impact than did The Art of the Fugue, which was somewhat clumsily broken up by explanations from the violinist, Daniel Phillips, of Bach’s manipulation of his fugue’s subject.  As often as contemporary classical composers are accused of elitism and writing overly academic music, it is interesting to note that Liebermann’s work in a post-tonal idiom was effective without such an explanation.

While I was unable to take a statistically sound poll of the audience at the CMNW concerts I attended, I did notice that a particular buzz surrounded the newer pieces on the programs, and this was definitely true of the younger members of the audience, few though they were.  As is frequently the case, many of the musicians on stage were a generation or two younger than the average audience member, and their performances of the newer works certainly seemed more inspired than the tried and true pieces from the canon.

Perhaps the reception of such commissions, particularly from younger composers, like Liebermann, can provide some insight to the classical music community.  James McQuillen writes in The Oregonian that the Club Concerts project “hasn’t made much of a dent in CMNW’s audience demographic” (i.e., an aging demographic) simply by updating the presentation of classical music.  Updates to the content, on the other hand, may prove a bit more alluring to younger audiences.  For my part, at least, these top-notch commissions are what will keep me coming back, even when I no longer get a free pass from All Classical.


Music for the Fourth

Here at All Classical Portland, we are convinced that nothing accompanies the rockets’ red glare like some classical music. If there is anything as American as fireworks, it surely must be the iconic 1812 Overture, that bombastic, canon-firing hurrah that accompanies the grand finale of every Fourth of July spectacle, signaling that the sulfuric constellations will soon be turning red, white, and blue and fade to smoke and applause.

After all, the 1812 Overture seems a perfect fit – the War of 1812 proved that The United States was here to stay. We beat the British (again!) and even wrote a national anthem in the process. It is only logical that we celebrate with the most American of all composers: no, not Bruce Springsteen, but Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, of course. As it turns out, the piece’s history is not quite so convenient. The 1812 Overture or Festival Overture in E-flat Major, Op. 49, is, in fact, about a different war of 1812, the Napoleonic Campaign of 1812 between France and Russia. Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write the piece in 1880 to commemorate the Russian victory over France.

Monument to Tchaikovsky’s War of 1812 in Moscow

Monument to Tchaikovsky’s War of 1812 in Moscow

Almost as incredible as the music itself is the musical hijacking we have accomplished with Tchaikovsky’s piece; not since turning “God Save the Queen” into “America” have we so deftly commandeered a piece of music. The premiere of the piece in Moscow in 1892 did occur just after Tchaikovsky’s visit to America, but, unlike Dvorak’s New World Symphony, it bears no residual Americanisms, as it was written just before Tchaikovsky’s New World appearance at Carnegie Hall. The 1812 Overture is not only a textbook example of Russian nationalism in music, characterizing the “Scythian” aesthetic and quoting folksong, but also incorporates God Save the Tsar, the Russian National Anthem at the time of the composition (though, interestingly, not in 1812) and the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise (another anachronism: this was not the anthem during Napoleon’s reign, though the Beatles also quote it in “All You Need Is Love”). Sorry, Francis Scott Key.

Now that we have established an image of Paris burning at the hands of the Russian Imperial Army, maybe 1812 Overture does seem an odd choice for your Independence Day playlist. Then again, we could also hold the French accountable for claiming to invent the bistro, another yield of the Russian invasion, when Russian soldiers shouted, “Bystro, bystro!” – Russian for “quickly” – to the harried Parisian cafe owners during the invasion. We would also have to admit that Aaron Copland, the architect of the open-spaced American sound was born to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents (originally Kaplan), and that Leonard Bernstein, the face of mid-century American music also came of recent Ukrainian origins. Philip Glass and John Cage studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach were pupils of Darius Milhaud in Paris, as well. Even Portland’s own Lou Harrison studied with the Viennese Arnold Schoenberg and made his reputation as a champion of Southeast Asian music.

It seems that American musical genealogy has rather strong Eastern Hemisphere ties. However, it also becomes increasingly apparent that American musical culture exhibits a richness only possible in such an immigrant nation. Stravinsky, who immigrated to Los Angeles along with Schoenberg and many others, tried his hand at jazz just as Charlie Parker was known to infuse his solos with Rite of Spring quotes. It is safe to say that the French won’t be giving back the bistro, so we’ll take advantage of Russia’s loose copyright laws and keep Tchaikovsky for our own patriotic devices.

We’ll still play the 1812 Overture for you on the Fourth at All Classical, as well as a lot of great American music. If you’re bold enough to sample some more 20th Century works by composers from the United States for your Independence Day playlist, here are a few starters:

The Afro-American Symphony by William Grant Still is the first symphony by a black American composer to be played by a major orchestra in 1931. This blues-infused orchestral romp is great for the concert hall, but wouldn’t be bad for your backyard badminton, either. You can also hear some of Still’s other works by listening to All Classical on the Fourth.

Charles Ives’s entire catalogue is appropriate for Independence Day, as he was the first internationally recognized innovator in American art music (and the insurance industry, his day job). Much of his music is based on humanistic and patriotic themes, and The Fourth of July is a delightful example of his simultaneously nostalgic and experimental idiom, and an ideal grilling soundtrack. We’ll also be playing Ives for you several times on Independence Day, including Songs My Mother Taught Me.

Charles Ives, American composer, engaged in America’s favorite pastime

Charles Ives, American composer, engaged in America’s favorite pastime

Vincent Persichetti’s Lincoln Address for orchestra and narrator, based on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is a reverent reminder of the Civil War and that remains just as relevant today as when it was commissioned for and subsequently dropped from the program of Nixon’s inauguration in 1973. This could make a good pre-bbq history lesson for the kids.

Ronald Lo Presti’s Elegy for a Young American, dedicated to President John F. Kennedy, has become a standard of wind band repertoire, and will amaze newcomers to the genre with its expressive depth. This is a sobering reminder of one of the more tragic episodes of the American chronicle.

Jazz Symphony by George Antheil, recently performed by the Oregon Symphony could be considered somewhat of a boisterous answer to Rhapsody in Blue. Antheil, who entitled his autobiography The Bad Boy of Music, was also recently featured on an episode of Club Mod with Robert McBride. This is a great accompaniment to your fireworks show if you ever can’t find your Tchaikovsky record.

“Wild Nights” from Harmonium by John Adams is my pick for the finale of the fireworks on the Fourth. Based on a poem by Emily Dickinson, this quintessentially American work by the president of contemporary American music is rousing, uplifting, and characteristic of the broad United States.

Happy Independence Day, and happy listening from All Classical Portland.

David Salkowski, intern