“You won’t see a concert like this anywhere else in the world,” said conductor Jeff Tyzik last Saturday at the concert Portland’s Indies. And he was right.
The Oregon Symphony teamed up with Mirah, Black Prairie, and Holcombe Waller at the Schnitzer last Saturday for Portland’s Indies. It was mostly wonderful. Waller opened the show with a shout-out to his niece in the audience and an anecdote about his bachelor-related frustration with attending weddings. During her set, Mirah referenced a show she recently played at a punk rock house in Philadelphia; her mom attended and helped herself to cleaning the punkers’ grungy stovetop. Basically, it was the stereotypical soft-voices and overt-authenticity stuff that people tend to talk about when they talk about Portland. Only it was in a big concert hall with Technicolor stage lights.
There was no mistaking the hominess last Saturday, but more importantly, there was no mistaking the fact that it was an interesting move for the Oregon Symphony’s programming, to pair up with local indie acts (although not entirely unprecedented: In May the symphony paired up with local band Blind Pilot). It’s no secret that symphonies across the country are having serious financial troubles—the Oregon Symphony included—and are seriously examining their budget and their programming to make ends meet. However, whereas other orchestras might bring in well-known, outside acts to generate sales, the Oregon Symphony booked a show with local acts. Which, you have to hand it to them, is kind of risky, but also smart, as it's in touch with the general ethos and tastes of a city that takes a lot of pride in its homegrown.
As for the music itself, each band played six songs, some on their own and some with the symphony. The string music of Black Prairie—their virtuosic musicianship and dense, layered Americana sounds—seemed the most natural pairing with the symphony. Mirah’s rushing Cold Cold Water sounded the way it was meant to sound: a building epic, with the galloping of string instruments behind her. Waller paired his melancholic crooning with Ben Landsverk on guitar and Gavin Bowes on drums; most notable of his set was a stirring rendition of his song Moses Says. (Waller, who has released five albums on his own label, is no stranger to ambitious, interdisciplinary projects. Last month he shared the stage with Nick Hallett’s hypnotizing piece Rainbow Passage, performed at this year’s TBA Festival. In November his project Wayfinders, a collaboration with FearNoMusic, will be at the Alberta Rose Theater.)
Needless to say, Saturday’s audience was not your standard symphony audience. In the balcony of the Arlene Schnitzer, I was sandwiched by a twenty-something girl in front of me, sporting an ‘80s thrift-store dress and an iPhone, snapping pictures of Black Prairie which she promptly and successively Instagrammed, texted, and e-mailed to everyone ever. By contrast, behind me were two older women who insisted Holcombe Waller was "just adorable.” They were right.