You’re gonna be on campus this Saturday, right? Hanging out in the library, finishing papers, scanning textbooks, cramming for finals, checking out our astounding Dark Horse Comics holdings? Maybe you’ll take a break and mosey down to get some sun and hang out in the Park Blocks for the weekly Farmer’s Market, where you’ll usually hear, among all the organic free-range chatter, bits of guitar and ukelele and folk singing. This weekend, though, you’re going to hear something else: a full size symphony orchestra. At noon on Saturday, June 10, the Portland State University Orchestra will set up at the south end of the Park Blocks, right by the library, where they’ll be playing Miles Davis and Ludwig van Beethoven.
Dude. Beethoven in the park. It does not get grander than that. And it’s not just some piddling selections from this or a movement from that. They’re playing the whole damn Eighth Symphony. Sure, it’s not the big fateful dun-dun-dun-DUN Fifth or the “gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh” Ninth, but the Eighth is still pretty great. And they’re playing the whole damn thing at the Farmer’s Market. I love this university.
The Vanguard talked to Director of Orchestral Studies Ken Selden and Zach Banks, the graduate teaching assistant and cellist spearheading the concert.
The Farmer’s Market
“We are told that this is the first time an orchestra has performed at the Farmers Market, so we are excited to reach a new audience there,” Selden said. “In the past few years, the PSU Orchestra has been abandoning the concert hall in favor of alternative venues such as the Crystal Ballroom and the Mission Theater. The idea here is to celebrate spring by bringing this event outdoors.”
“The whole impetus was one I pitched to Ken,” Banks said. “We want to start trying to bring the music to the people, rather than building on the expectation they’ll come to your concert.”
Rain, Rain, Go Away
Unfortunately, due to impending thunderstorms (thanks, Portlandia) the concert may be moved inside to the familiar Lincoln Recital Hall (room 75). “Because the forecast is increasingly worse and worse for this weekend, we are 95 percent sure we’re not playing in the Park Blocks,” Banks said.
The orchestra may schedule a make-up show with the Farmer’s Market, but because it is a student group they might not get another chance until next spring. “Students are going home,” Banks said. “We have to let everybody off the hook at the end of term.”
It’ll be a shame if the concert has to get moved indoors. “Farmer’s Market has been very supportive and receptive,” Banks said. “It would have been the largest audience we’d ever played for, just because of the foot traffic. Maybe the same size as when we played at Crystal Ballroom, maybe even more. Every time I’ve been there it’s been hundreds of people. If I heard a Beethoven symphony at a Farmers Market I’d run over. People can come and go, kids are welcome, it’s very open. A place people have already decided to come.”
But if the thunderstorm does come, what better way to step in out of the rain? Lincoln Hall is on the north end of the Farmer’s Market, right by the streetcar stop and/or on your way back to the car. Set your groceries down, get off your feet for a minute and listen to some music.
Selden often combines classical with popular in his programs. Last fall it was Bizet and Bowie; this time it’s Beethoven and Miles. In addition to Ludwig van’s glorious Eighth (did I mention they’re playing the whole thing?), the orchestra will perform Davis’ “Moon Dreams.”
“I love programs that bring together great music from across the centuries, from across the globe,” Selden said. “In this case, we are juxtaposing two musical giants: Beethoven and Miles Davis. Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony is an exuberant symphony in four movements, which requires tremendous energy and expertise to perform. It has all the hallmarks of Beethoven’s style, including rhythmic energy, humor and adventure, and I think it will translate well to the Farmers Market! ‘Moon Dreams’ is probably best known in the Gil Evans arrangement featured on a 1948 Miles Davis album called Birth of the Cool. This is an absolutely unique piece in terms of exploration of harmony and color, and it’s definitely something that has never been heard before at the Farmers Market.”
Banks recently performed Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony as principal cellist of Pendleton’s Oregon East Symphony. “It was interesting knowing I’d be conducting the Eighth later in the month,” he said. “It made that experience different, to see it and hear it and feel it from the inside, taking time to zoom out, making sure I’m hearing all the moving parts. That’s something the best orchestral musicians already do, not just listening to your own parts.”
Banks said this experience helped him transition from playing with the cello section to conducting the whole orchestra. “Ken helps foster that, listening across sections, listening to the form as a performer. It’s not that jarring because he often encourages me to use my own instincts and the training I’ve already gone through. In the same vein but doing something a little different.”
Banks, like so many PSU students, took a circuitous journey to our university. Originally from Indiana, he started school as an elementary education major, but found that “it was not for me.” He moved to Portland in 2010 and started at PSU two years later, earning his B.M. in Cello Performance in 2014. “Your education is what you make of it as an individual; it’s a welcoming environment,” Banks said. “Once you assert yourself, your professors start to trust you, you start taking on more responsibilities and testing your abilities, understanding what you can do, what you’re capable of.”
Banks is now working on his M.M. at PSU, continuing his studies with renowned cellist and PSU professor Hamilton Cheifetz, who was himself a student of the legendary cellist and pedagogist Janos Starker. “Hamilton has opened so many doors for me since I’ve been here: performance gigs both in concert halls and at events,” Banks said. “Now I’m much more self-sufficient; he fostered that ability to assert myself as a self-employed musician.”
UPDATE: PSU Orchestra has officially decided to move the concert inside. Visit the event page for updates and more information.