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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

A Tale of Five Concerts

I hope everyone has a lovely Christmas and New Years and ditto for those of you who celebrated other holidays such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. It just stopped snowing outside and it is January 3rd so not in time for Christmas or New Years but close! I was fortunate to be able to attend a number of concerts this season, more than any other holiday season that I remember, so I thought that I might share a few of my experiences and observations to you.

First, a bit of a shout out to our friend, Oregon Symphony violinist Greg Ewer, who is the artistic director of 45th Parallel organization. The concert that I attended was a rendition Beethoven’s String Quartet Op.59, No.1 ‘Rasumovsky’ and Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 1 in A major. Okay, the concert was late in October so “holiday season” is a bit of a stretch but since I never got the chance to review it and it was quite wonderful so I wanted to mention it here. This particular concert featured Oregon Symphony Concertmaster Sarah Kwak and Principal Cellist Nancy Ives along with the 45th Parallel Chamber group. You can imagine the participants of the ensemble were brilliant and their performance was absolutely outstanding. The concert was held at the Portland music venue the Old Church. It would be hard to imagine a better or more beautiful venue in which to experience great music in an intimate setting. The sound of the sanctuary is perfect, not too reverberant and just “live” enough. If a beautiful church isn’t going to be used for services then giving it a second life as a place to enjoy beautiful music is to be preferred over any other use. If you haven’t had the opportunity to hear the ensemble you really do it because much of their repertoire is unique and the musicians are first rate. Considering the very reasonable cost of the tickets and the quality of the performances 45th Parallel must be one of the best entertainment values in Portland. Also, this would be a great way to introduce your favorite young person to serious music without breaking the bank.

Learn more about the organization here: and here:

My wife and I were incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to attend the solo concert of virtuoso cellist Yo -Yo Ma at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall. Most of you probably know that he is considered by most classical music aficionados to be one of the world’s pre-eminent cellists with what amounts to rock star status in the classical music world. Of course, the maestro’s performance of the Bach suites was amazing but this was not the most striking thing about the concert to me. The most striking thing was Yo-Yo Ma’s generosity and camaraderie. The cellist was surprised upon entering the ‘Schnitz’ (what everyone in Portland calls the venue) earlier that day to hear a string ensemble performing, especially since he was scheduled to perform solo. Apparently, it has now become common at the Schnitz before the official concert program for some of our local young musicians to perform for the early birds. I think that it is a great idea. Not only did Ma watch the 15 young performers but he moved behind the players to observe the cello section and wound up entering into an impromptu performance of one movement with them on a borrowed instrument. After the little performance he spent time speaking with them and encouraging them and even offering them suggestions and little tips. None of the young people, members of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony or MYSfits, had tickets for the Yo-Yo Ma concert (spendy) so he had the stage hands set up 15 chairs in two semi-circles flanking him onstage so that all the kids could literally have the best seats in the house. In the rarefied air of world-class classical music soloists egos, at times, can get stoked up a bit. In contrast, Yo-Yo Ma is the model of the gracious and giving mentor.

Not long after the Yo-Yo Ma concert we were again blessed by a friend with tickets to the Gospel Christmas at the Schnitz. This is an astonishing event and they have been putting it on annually for eighteen years and counting. In contrast to Ma’s nuanced and completely acoustic solo performance this was a hair raising, roof raising, electrifying celebration featuring the Oregon Symphony, an outstanding rhythm section (piano, organ, bass, drums) and a huge and powerful choir made up of some of the area’s finest Gospel singers drawn from greater metropolitan Portland churches. Charles Floyd, conductor since the performances began in 1999 should be declared a national treasure and his co-conspirator, Musical Director Gary Hemenway, a natural resource. I don’t care what your beliefs are this concert was the musical equivalent of an electronic defibrillator. If this music doesn’t get your heart thumping and your blood pumping bring in the sheet and roll away the gurney cause your not breathing. Once, when the orchestra was not performing and they were just using the rhythm section, some of the members of the symphony left their chairs and got up and sang with the choir. This is a premier cultural/musical event that I wish every Portlander could experience.

Now, they’ve got catfish on the table They’ve got gospel in the air …And they asked me if I would Do a little number – And I sang with all my might She said, “Tell me are you a Christian, child?” And I said, “Ma’am, I am tonight!”

Marc Cohn Walking in Memphis

We also went to the Groto in NE Portland for their Christmas Celebration. You should catch it next year. They have one of the best light displays in all of Portland. It’s dazzling. In the chapel they always have wonderful choirs come in, mostly from various Oregon public and private schools and also community youth choirs. They have music every night of the festival. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name of the children’s choir that performed that evening but they did a very good job and there is just something about all those children singing that is very special to me.

Finally, we had a little variety show the last Sunday evening before Christmas at my church. For a small church we have some very talented people. It helps that we have a couple professional caliber musicians and our good friend Madoria ‘Dodie’ Gloud sang a number. She was one of the featured soloists this year for the above mentioned Oregon Symphony Gospel Christmas and we’re very proud of her. I mention this last little concert of ours because making music is for everyone. Not everyone who performed at our little show was professionally trained but so what, music not just for the virtuoso and recording artist. It is about bringing joy to the players and the hearers. New Years might not be a bad time to make a resolution to take your music to the next level, whatever that is.

Keep Practicing,

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