an island of calm

Alban Gerhardt performs Bach at Portland's Pioneer Place mall on Friday. Photo: Charles Noble.

Pioneer Place in downtown Portland. A place abuzz with all manner of people doing all manner of things. People hurrying to catch a movie, a bus, the last hours of a sale at a favorite store. Soccer moms talking on cell phones, businessmen tapping out emails on their Blackberries, a clutch of school girls cruising the mall after school, chattering raucously…

A man playing the cello with the grace and simplicity borne of utter mastery.

Small children on their parent’s lap, in wonder at the sounds and the vision of seeing this mysterious and beautiful instrument only a few feet away. A high school violist, sitting with her case, utterly absorbed by the great Bach suites for solo cello. Oregon Symphony members, relaxing and enjoying the music. Music lovers of all kinds, sitting closely together, huddled against the gale of noise that swirls about the atrium, seeking shelter in the music of JS Bach – speaking anew after over 300 years.

This was the magical atmosphere of Alban Gerhardt’s one-hour performance in a unique public venue – a busy mall in downtown Portland. It was part of his six day residency with the Oregon Symphony. As my wife (a cellist) and I watched from the level above, she turned to me and whispered “when I see the faces of the people listening, it makes me feel good about what we do”.

After this observation, I spent as much time looking at people as they entered the space as I did Alban when he played. Some people were drawn as though by a gravitational field – the power of the music was like a giant celestial body that they were powerless to ignore. Others looked on briefly, but their other concerns were greater than their curiosity, and so they passed on to wherever and whatever they were going to do next. Still others seemed to consciously look away in a gesture that seemed to say that they were almost overpowered by what was going on, and they couldn’t invest the emotional capital to get involved. But most often – I saw this especially among the teens that were going by – they were immediately intrigued by what they were seeing and hearing. They would text their friends, take a photo on their phone, or a short video, and take a minute or two just to absorb what was happening.

This reminded me of the basic truth about our young people that is often trivialized or ignored: they are voracious in their appetites for everything musical or novel (or most of all, both). They are also drawn in by quality, passion, and commitment. These things Alban Gerhardt has in spades, and so does the Oregon Symphony. I can’t help but think that we can pull these succeeding generations into a lifelong love of classical music if we aren’t afraid to talk to their level, or even challenge it a bit. We need to stop dumbing down and worry if they’ll ‘get it’. They will if what I’ve seen today is any indication.

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