To call the Oregon Symphony innovative would be an understatement.
Laughing in the face of headlines that deliver such messages as "Classical music is dying," or "Where have the orchestra audiences gone?," its secret sauce is not outright defying tradition, but infusing the old with the new in creative ways. It has gone broader in terms of repertoire, opting to play everything from country western music to music from video games.
That open-mindedness has elevated audience attendance; between 2013 and 2017, their budget grew by 35 percent and ticket sales by 55 percent, according to the organization.
"They've been talking about the death of classical music for the last 400 years ... so I don't wholly worry about the end of the art form, but I do think we need to evolve," says Scott Showalter, president of the Oregon Symphony.
And they have, and not only by experimenting with new technology — such as their partnership with Intel just last year — but also tackling deeper social issues through the power of music.
"The challenge, of course, is always, how can you translate these topics? Or others that might be similar, into a classical concert, because that's what we do," says Oregon Symphony Music Director Carlos Kalmar. "I think our solutions are going to be very, very interesting, because they're very different from one another."
They'll be tackling complex social issues in the symphony's upcoming season in the forms of playlets (short-form plays), visual arts and outside-the-box compositions, as well by collaborating with local organizations.
A new dimension
In its 2017-2018 season, called "A New Dimension," the symphony will focus on three topical themes: immigration, environment and homelessness.
The themes will culminate in a three-part series called the "Sounds of Home," which will be performed at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall three times each. The performances focus on "the power of music on the subject of home."
While immigration serves as the search for home, environment symbolizes our "collective" home, and homelessness, the need for a home.
Starting in November is Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," as part of the immigration theme; in January, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," highlighting the environment; and in May, Joshua Bell, violinist, will give music to the topic of homelessness.
Mayor Ted Wheeler is serving as the honorary chair of the series.
"The Oregon Symphony is taking an impressive civic leadership position, drawing attention to issues that all of us in Portland care about," Wheeler said in a news release. "I encourage organizations and individuals to get involved. Their work will help our city, already strong in the arts, to become even stronger."
The symphony plans to collaborate with a range of local social service agencies, arts organizations and environmental agencies as part of the new season, as well as feature performers who have living experience in any of the three topics.
They include Kalmar — an immigrant from Uruguay, and then Vienna, Austria, before moving to the United States. His parents were also immigrants, who had to flee Vienna during World War II due to their Jewish heritage. But the issue of immigration isn't the only thing that hits home for Kalmar, so to speak — so does homelessness. His time living in Europe caused him to reflect on residing in close quarters and minimal space.
"With the little space we have in Europe, we're going to have large problems ... so that kind of environment really speaks a lot to me, and of course homelessness," Kalmar says. "Unfortunately I think it's another thing that speaks to all of us, because all you have to do, having the privilege and honor of living in Portland just walking the streets, you see it."
For those wondering what it might be like to hear an audible interpretation of the already somewhat abstract state of being — homelessness — they might listen to violinist Bell as he serenades audiences with Hindemith's "News of the Day" overture.
Bell has an interesting take on homelessness — or rather, the state of being alone and ignored. As part of a 2007 social experiment organized by The Washington Post, he performed in a Washington, D.C., metro station, where, despite being world famous, he was ignored by more than 1,000 people as masterpieces emanated for 43 minutes from a $3.5 million violin. He made $32.17 in tips.
On immigration, audiences will have the chance to hear Gerswin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which adds a "powerful theatrical element" to the musical experience, and highlights musicians with a foreign background.
"A good portion of our orchestra are immigrants, so the idea is the joy that musicians the world over bring to our lives," Kalmar says.
Walk the line
Careful to walk the line of art and making political statements, organizers of the "Sounds of Home" series want listeners and observers to think deeply about these issues, but know the symphony isn't out to change minds.
"It's not about Syrian refugees and the Mexican wall, it's about the value that immigrants bring to the world," Kalmar says.
Showalter adds: "These were plans long before Nov. 8 (the election of President Donald Trump) that perhaps have particular poignancy after the election ... we're not trying to change people's minds, just giving people an opportunity to reflect on the beauty of our world and the people around us."
The "Sounds of Home" series will deploy other to-be-announced engagement programs outside of the concerts, including with three local celebrities: "Grimm" star Sasha Roiz, whose parents are Russian Jewish immigrants; Cheryl Strayed, the Pacific Northwest-born author who battled the elements while hiking 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail; and Storm Large, a singer-songwriter working on a program called the Lullaby Project, in which musicians work with homeless and incarcerated pregnant women and mothers to record lullabies.
"Some new synergies and programs (will) come out of it," Showalter says. "We're not trying to change anything they're already planning. They can tie up in one or more ways to these themes."
Both Kalmar and Showalter see a concert hall as a safe environment to "think about these things without having, at first, to take a stand," Kalmar says. "We can all come together and let the music speak to us."
While the "Sounds of Home" series is the staple of the Oregon Symphony's new season, there are plenty of other highlights, including a concert by former "Star Trek" cast member George Takei, classical concerts, returning soloists, kids concerts, its subscription concerts and a great deal more. Find out more at www.orsymphony.org or call the ticket office at 503-228-1353.