History made: PSU Orchestra plays Crystal Ballroom

The Portland State Orchestra brought the high arts to local legendary rock palace, the Crystal Ballroom in a historic performance on Thursday, Feb. 25 . The venue was a first-time show for the orchestra and a showcase for Conductor Ken Selden’s masterful compositions which blended the classical scores of Rachmaninov and Mahler with the music of Frank Zappa. The ensemble played to a full house while the iconic murals, chandeliers and aura of the Crystal Ballroom set the stage.

Selden noted the significance of playing live and unplugged at this over 100-year-old local landmark.

“The students were super excited to play on the same stage as legends like the Grateful Dead, Tina Turner, Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Hendrix, and of course the Crystal Ballroom continues to be a major destination,” Selden said.

The venue is a landmark for Portlanders with its baroque circular wall murals and low-slung grand chandeliers. The sandy beechwood floor insinuates generations of dance hall history.

Crystal Ballroom music booker Jimi Biron commented on the rarity of a full, acoustic orchestra playing the room, known as Cotillion Hall when it opened in 1914.

“Disallowing a ‘youth jazz orchestra’ and artists like Pink Martini, Ottomar Liebert, Rodrigo y Gabriella, I would say that this qualifies as the first full orchestra during the 17 years I have booked the venue,” Biron said. “But have never had a full classical orchestra to my recollection since we opened.”

In addition to Selden and his orchestra were pianist Saelin Ho and PSU vocal staff member Harry Baechtel. Assistant Conductor Lisa Castleman brought performance fire to the ballroom as well.

Selden explained that the orchestra wanted to create music that would fit well with venues like the Crystal.

“There is a real sense of history and atmosphere just walking into the building, so we were really focused on developing a natural symphonic sound that would work in a hall that is usually amplified,” Selden said.

A sterling highlight of the concert was pianist Saelin Ho, a PSU Concerto Competition winner. Ho’s standout segment was her rendition of the first movement of Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 2, which brought the audience to its feet.

Ho, a guest student from South Korea, has studied Western classical music in the United States since 2008 and actively participated in musical events on campus as well as throughout the Portland community with performances such as Portland Chamber Orchestra, Chopiniade Recital and Franz Liszt 200th Festival. Ho described her excitement at performing this first for the orchestra and the university as a new and enjoyable experience.

“There was also some fun contemporary music other than the traditional classical ones. I hope this unique setting encouraged the audience of all ages to relax, enjoy and have fun!” Ho said.

The concert proved a multi-faceted deluge of genres and styles, as PSU voice faculty member Harry Baechtel delivered his baritone vocal boost to the concert, singing Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. Selden described the performance as an overall success.

“The Mahler songs were a big challenge because those are quite intimately orchestrated—the instruments are combined in bits and pieces like a chamber ensemble—so we were interested to hear how we could blend the voice and the instruments in such a cavernous space,” Selden said.

Both of the Rachmaninov pieces, on the other hand, resonated quite naturally. As for the Zappa, those were Professor Selden’s own orchestrations adapted with the space of the Crystal Ballroom in mind.

Castleman contributed her own enthusiastic leadership of the orchestra with the Fledermaus Overture, a preview of an upcoming production with the PSU Opera.

An added bonus for concertgoers to the Crystal Ballroom was the beer, wine and food menu available for enjoyment during the performance. The rows of seats were full while close-huddled couples and onlookers filled the benches and wings throughout the ballroom. When the music started, there was very little movement or sound in the house.