Music city

Hot jazz, cool classical: hear Portland swing

Steven R. Lorton

Classical Portland: Ready for the next step

The houselights dim in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland. Carlos Kalmar, the new music director of the Oregon Symphony, lifts his arms, baton in one hand. His eyes sweep the orchestra, and each player stares back, instruments at the ready. Kalmar's arms surge into motion, and Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 21 gushes forth with the power of Multnomah Falls.

Kalmar personifies the electricity in the city's classical music scene. The Oregon Symphony produces more than 140 performances a year for 320,000 people (second in its attendance only to that of the Portland Trail Blazers). Kalmar comes to Portland from Vienna, where he maintains a residence. His list of conducting credits crisscrosses the globe, but he is high on Portland. "Here I found an orchestra at a very good level, ready to take another step," he explains. "I like the city and its people, and the overall approach to work is one of extreme commitment."

But the symphony is hardly the only classical game in town. At Reed College and Catlin Gabel School, Chamber Music Northwest is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. The organization puts on a five-week chamber music festival each summer and presents a half-dozen other concerts throughout the year, drawing performers from around the world.

"People think in Portland," says Linda Magee, executive director of Chamber Music Northwest, explaining the program's longevity and success. "To be a part of an audience listening to and watching live music is our idea of a glorious evening."

Eclectic Portland: "This place grabs you"

At 8 p.m. on a Friday night, a crowd has assembled in the lofty performance room of Artichoke Music, a shop in Portland's Hawthorne District. Steve Einhorn ― owner, songwriter, performer, and raconteur ― takes the stage and plays an original composition on his guitar. Soon he's joined by his wife, Kate Power, also a songwriter and co-owner of Artichoke, for a 40-minute set. Two more artists follow in an evening of music that has echoes of the '60s but remains strikingly contemporary.

"I'm a happy man," says the 54-year-old Einhorn, "especially when I'm making music with Kate." It's impossible to distrust the statement.

Now nearly 35 years old (Einhorn has owned it for almost 25 years), Artichoke is a Portland institution. Up front, the retail shop is a wonderland of beautifully made instruments: guitars, banjos, violins, mandolins, dulcimers, Irish wooden flutes, concertinas. Behind that area are teaching studios. And the Backgate Stage offers a busy schedule of performances. Education is a continuous thread running through the Portland music scene. Obo Addy, a drummer from Ghana who landed in Portland in 1978, is the patriarch of an African music and dance group called Homowo African Arts & Cultures. He and his company not only perform, they teach drumming to adults and African dancing to children. A recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship Award ― with a framed letter of congratulation from Bill Clinton hanging in his dining room ― Addy plays with other groups too, such as Okropong, which performs traditional Ghanaian music, and Kukrudu, an African jazz band.

On the road frequently and in high demand, Addy and wife Susan could live anywhere in the world. Why do they stay in Portland? "This place grabs you," he says, shaking his fist. "It sits you down and won't let you leave."

And then there's Pink Martini. The band started in 1994 to play at political fund-raisers for progressive causes. Their music borrows freely of melodies and rhythms from around the world, creating a sophisticated sound that is gin and vermouth with a puff of smoke.

With a music scene so varied, so vibrant ― well, as Obo Addy says, it does grab you. Why would you ever want to leave?

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