Update on Oregon Symphony: Five suggestions for new directions

An earlier article on the OSO generated lots of comment, and the plea for some positive suggestions. The author responds.
An earlier article on the OSO generated lots of comment, and the plea for some positive suggestions. The author responds.

I've received voluminous responses to my recent Crosscut article on the Oregon Symphony. Among the many emails and website comments, one refrain prevailed: "If you're going to criticize the Symphony, why not at least offer some suggestions or recommendations?"

Sure thing. Here are five things the Oregon Symphony might consider as it trims the organizational fat and reinvents itself for the future.

Get out into the community. The Symphony needs a bigger and more diverse audience. Portland neighborhoods and surrounding communities need more opportunities to hear and participate in first-rate classical music. The Symphony has recently begun engagement programs with the Eastern Oregon communities of La Grande and Cove, but what about engaging in residencies, partnerships, and chamber music concerts in Portland's urban core? Also, individual Symphony members could be empowered as a more active voice of the Symphony through Symphony-sponsored public school outreach, increased appearances on local concert series (or on the MAX streetcars?), and maybe even by blogging on the Symphony website.

Bring in a composer in residence. There are two bright, sophisticated, and articulate Oregon composers who could ably assist the Symphony in its programming of new music, and in finding the right balance and context in its contemporary programming. David Schiff - erudite writer/critic, accomplished composer, lover of jazz, and Reed College professor - is one. Robert Kyr - a smart composer based at University of Oregon, involved in the Oregon Bach Festival's contemporary programming - is the other.

Put the music in context. Sure, cute program titles like "Classical Elegance" and "Spanish Splendor" might be eye-catching. But if you look deeply into the musical, historical, and other thematic elements that tie Oregon Symphony programming together, you'll come up empty-handed. What if the Symphony organized its programming in a more creative and cogent way, offering audiences new ways of making connections between, say, a Haydn Symphony and a new work by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho? What about trying out a mini-festival organized around a composer, a time period, a trend or a place?

Get clued into hot American classical artists, and bring them to Portland. I'm not sure where Oregon Symphony artistic administrator Charles Calmer gets his ideas about what guest artists to bring to Portland, but he might consider booking some of the best and brightest young American classical musicians on today's scene. Singers such as Joyce DiDonato, Nicole Cabell, and Thomas Meglioranza. Conductors including Marin Alsop (can you believe she spent several years at the Eugene Symphony and yet never appeared once in Portland?) or James Gaffigan (hugely talented assistant conductor in San Francisco). Pianists like Jeremy Denk, Pierre-Laurent Aimard or Bruce Brubaker; violinist Gil Shaham; or how about rock-star cellist Matt Haimovitz?

Use a pop figure as consultant and spokesperson in a full and meaningful way. Forgive me for not stating this before, but I'm a huge Thomas Lauderdale (of Pink Martini) fan. Since publishing last week's screed, I've been gently reminded of his classical background and his deep history with the Oregon Symphony. That doesn't make me less skeptical about how his great talents will (or will not) be fully utilized by the Symphony - that remains to be seen. Let's have his exciting and singular new ideas.


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