Thursday, August 28, 2008

Music to My Ears

After some very unsummery days of wet weather- this is Portland after all- the sun decided to shine just in time for this year's Oregon Symphony in the Neighborhoods. The annual community celebration of the arts boasted an impressive schedule of events- concerts from both the Portland Youth Philharmonic and the Oregon Symphony with accompanying performances from the Oregon Ballet Theatre and the Portland Opera- for free- further proof of how Portlanders are spoiled with all these great programs.

I went down to Waterfront Park just in time to find a choice seat in the shade of a tree. Any later, I might have had to sit in one of its branches. The area in front of the outdoor stage (situated on the south side of the Hawthorne Bridge) was covered with blankets and folding chairs and people with their picnic baskets. The boaters parked along the mini-beach and the guests from the Riverplace Hotel were also there to enjoy the music.

The Portland Youth Philharmonic were first to take the stage. Apparently, the PYP was America's first youth orchestra. Members range from seven to twenty-two years of age and obviously require a committed mindset and intensive practices to learn all the numbers they play and sound good while doing so. Their set consisted of four varied compositions and it was impressive to learn that the violinist who earned a solo performance was just about to enter high school.

In between the concerts, there was a tent set up that people could visit and participate in mini vocal and instrumental lessons. And while not as fancy as other people's meals of sandwiches and salads and platters of cheese and crackers and their bottles of wine, I did have the same idea of bringing food along and brought with me a Snickers bar and a cup of iced coffee. Writing in my journal also helped pass the time during the intermissions.

The Oregon Symphony was conducted by an amusing old man from Austria by the name of Carlos Kalmar. I don't know how necessary conductors really are when the musicians have the sheets in front of them but watching him move around with his wild arm gestures provided another element of entertainment. Listening to the pieces reminded me that classical music was more than what was played during cartoons and used as commercial jingles. And it was interesting to learn that the musical number playing in the beef (“It’s what’s for dinner”) commercials was from a popular ballet- "Rodeo".

The program featured a scene from "Swan Lake" with two of Oregon Ballet Theatre's lead dancers (or principals) playing the roles of the Prince and the Swan Queen. As graceful as the choreography was, all I could think of was how almost obscenely tight and skimpy the costumes were. Ballet to me is very reminiscent of ice skating (without the ice of course)- or vice versa, whichever came first.

Michael Allen Harrison- "one of Portland's most beloved musician"- also joined the Oregon Symphony to play an original piece he wrote- "Starry Night"- for an astronaut friend of his. It may just be because I'm ignorant but I've never even heard of the pianist. Of course, classical music is not my preferred musical genre.

After awhile, all the music began to sound the same. The crowd was getting restless as the night had crept in. I don't think I had any feeling from the waist down after sitting on the grass for so long. But things picked up the Portland Opera played a scene from Verdi's "La Traviata". Even with this being my third time being exposed to opera, I can't say I like it any more but I definitely appreciate it.

The final piece brought the PYP and Oregon Symphony together. I'm sure the kids felt an incredible sense of accomplishment getting to play with the professionals. The "1812 Overture" was followed by the firing of cannons (or howitzers to be exact) and a very lengthy but spectacular fireworks display.

My only suggestion would have been to have some sort of music playing during the fireworks so people like me knew when it was really over. Aside from that minor detail, it was truly another unexpectedly pleasant new experience for me. I am in constant awe and admiration of how Portland treats its people by providing them free access to the arts. And I don't mean imitations of it since even the panhandlers play the violins but getting to see the real deals like the Oregon Symphony and the Portland Opera and getting the opportunity to decide if they like it or not. I never once imagined I'd end up listening to a symphony in a park.

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