Meet the dynamos who make Portland's art music snap and crackle

Four who are scene-shifting classical musicians talk about why they came to Portland, and why "a big small town" can be a more promising place than bigger Seattle for an art-music revolution.
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Ryan Heller, conductor of the Portland Vocal Consort chamber choir and the Southwest Washington Symphony.

Four who are scene-shifting classical musicians talk about why they came to Portland, and why "a big small town" can be a more promising place than bigger Seattle for an art-music revolution.

Let's do a bit of crystal ball gazing. Ten years from now, let's say.

Portland, Oregon has further transformed itself from a sleepy Seattle little sister to a fully cosmopolitan city offering the country's most efficient public transit system, the most green-collar jobs, and a robustly supported arts scene where institutional glamour and downtown grit rub friendly weekend shoulders. Can you see it?

It may be closer than you think. As Portland continues to scoop up national acclaim for its advances on the pop music, film, and food fronts, the classical or "art music" scene hums along with just the same ear-popping vibrancy. In addition to the regular roster of touring circuit appearances by the current A-list classical music stars — Lang Lang and Joshua Bell next season at the Oregon Symphony; Dawn Upshaw with Friends of Chamber Music — a number of class-act musicians are roosting in Stumptown, and happily so. Some come for institutional connections: as a section member in the Oregon Symphony or member of Portland Opera's Studio Artist program, for example. Others, scrappy self-starters, come because Portland's rep as an affable, affordable city for young creatives is well-deserved. The latter is what lured me here from Boston two years ago.

As for who's leading the charge, I'd like to nominate four Portland-based musicians — a music administrator, blogging Oregon Symphony member, young conductor, and ambitious educator — as having especially promising potential for growing into scene-shifting classical-music leaders. I asked each to talk about why they're committed to making art music work in a wonky "big town," where they feel they can make an impact, and who they consider to be important other folks making noise on the PDX classical circuit.

If not for music, Ryan Heller could have been a used car salesman, or a gesticulating talk show host in the mold of Graham Norton. He's that charismatic, and he's got the chops. The 30-year-old conductor has charged ahead in Portland as one of the city's most ambitious choral and orchestral conductors of recent memory. He currently heads up four separate ensembles, the fast-emerging Portland Vocal Consort chamber choir and the Southwest Washington Symphony among them.

Heller says supporters rally around him because people know he has "a vision," and that his work will never fall below "at least a certain level of quality." He's also smart enough to know he doesn't know it all, and Heller's considering a number of professional advancement possibilities: returning to school for Doctor of Musical Arts studies, or an apprenticeship with conductors Gerry Schwarz in Seattle or Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco. If Heller's vision is half as strong as his will, he'll be a major Portland music scene player in years ahead.

Four Portland musicians/administrators Heller admires: Scott Tuomi (voice program director at Pacific University), Gil Seeley (conductor, Oregon Repertory Singers), David Thomas (director, Portland Boychoir), Monica Huggett (artistic director, Portland Baroque Orchestra)

Charles Noble never met a musician he didn't have an opinion about. As author of the highly-read blog "Noble Viola" and associate principal violist of the Oregon Symphony, Noble is emerging as the type of 21st century musician orchestral administrators dream of: fiercely committed to their home team orchestra, plugged in to new technology, and a strong, respected voice among the local and national classical music community. He's not afraid to prod the Symphony as much as he cheers it.

"I wish that there were more great, or great-in-waiting conductors in the world, and especially in America," Noble writes in a recent blog entry. "There are some very bad ones, for sure, and some that are merely mediocre. As a member of a major orchestra ... with a less-than-major ability to pay for artists, we see many of the latter, and a few of the former each season."

The question is whether the Symphony can capitalize on Noble's unique voice and position without muffling it, and how Noble himself can use his position to further conversations on cultural philanthropy, orchestra-community relations, and the Symphony's role in the greater Portland arts community.

"Portland is on the verge of becoming 'something,'" Noble says. "It might just be the 'next big thing' in urban centers. I think that at least as far as the Oregon Symphony goes," he adds, "there are going to have to be some major, major stakeholders who decide to invest in the symphonic infrastructure of this city." With Noble as pointed Symphony spokesperson and engaged musician, these stakeholder conversations might finally get started.

Four Portland musicians/administrators Noble admires: Elaine Calder (president, Oregon Symphony), Thomas Lauderdale (bandleader, Pink Martini), Ron Blessinger (artistic director, Third Angle New Music), Carlos Kalmar (music director, Oregon Symphony).

Mark Powell is a powerhouse administrator who exerts a major influence on the Portland art music scene, mostly in his work with small to mid-sized ensembles. "I moved here from Seattle in 2006, and I think one of the best parts of Portland's classical scene is the possibility for small and mid-size operations to find and build an audience," Powell says. "Even though Seattle is a larger city, it seems to me that the 'big small town' character of Portland allows for more access and is a fertile ground for creating buzz about classical music."

Powell should know. Between his work in marketing and development with the top-shelf Portland Baroque Orchestra and as singer and executive director of internationally touring chamber choir Cappella Romana — long the only Northwest-based classical ensemble to present a standing concert series in both Portland and Seattle — Powell has an extraordinary grasp of what is needed to further art music in the Northwest. "I think the scene for art music in Portland will grow," he says. "I'd also hope that we wouldn't always talk in binary propositions, of mainstream/fringe, pop/classical, and so on." He also recognizes that "the large institutions are very, very important. Were they ever to go away, the small- and mid-size organizations would not simply receive a windfall. I've seen this firsthand in Seattle when one larger orchestra folded, and the smaller orchestras didn't simply gain all those orphaned listeners as new audiences."

Four Portland musicians/administrators Powell admires: Elaine Calder (president, Oregon Symphony), Tuesday Rupp (founder, In Mulieribus and active professional freelance singer), Erik Jones (marketing director, Oregon Ballet Theatre), Ron Blessinger (artistic director, Third Angle New Music).

Early in his career, Ken Selden got some good advice from Joseph Polisi, long-serving president of New York City's famed Juilliard School: Shun the big-city spotlight and find instead "the place where you can make the most impact with those working with you." Hello, Portland. In 2006 Selden arrived from New York City, where he was an assistant conductor with Eos Orchestra and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, to take a job as Portland State University's new director of orchestral activities.

"I came to an orchestra program that completely needed to be started from scratch," he recalls. "I tried to set it up so that the goal wasn't a perfectly polished performance; the goal instead was to expand the repertoire." And expand it he has. The student orchestra now plays important modern composers like Peter Lieberson, Kaijo Saariaho, and Magnus Lindberg alongside the major warhorse works, and has picked up two consecutive ASCAP Adventurous Programming awards.

Between leading rehearsals, teaching private students, and cover conducting for the Oregon Symphony, Selden is active as the public face of PSU's music department, and busy recruiting new students to his program that don't just have an interest in becoming virtuoso players, but in setting other people afire about classical music.

"PSU's an amazing place," he says, noting the "world-class faculty right in the middle of Portland." He wants to further uncork the campus for all musical comers, whatever their interest or ability. And, once his two young children have grown a bit, he'd like to play a more active role in the Portland scene as a whole, as conductor, coach and educator.

Four Portland musicians Selden admires: Carlos Kalmar (conductor, Oregon Symphony), Hamilton Cheifetz (cello faculty, Portland State University), Carol Sindell (violin faculty, Portland State University), and all those folks in the Portland Youth Philharmonic.


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