I wasn’t able to attend the Oregon Symphony’s annual membership meeting this afternoon due to teaching commitments, but I did read the summary by local arts journalist James Bash, and I have some thoughts of my own.

First of all, it must be said that the financial situation of the symphony is undeniably precarious. It is a very serious threat to the future health of the orchestra, and steps must be (and have begun to be) taken to improve the financial underpinnings of the organization.

This having been said, the orchestra continues to perform at a very high level, and we are performing interesting, engaging programs. In addition, I feel that in Elaine Calder we have found just the kind of no-nonsense leadership that we need to get ourselves out of this financial mess. In a remarkably short time she has really gotten a feel for what works and what doesn’t within the organization, and is rapidly developing a snapshot of the inner workings of the arts scene in Portland.
I also feel that the musicians are cognizant of the issues facing the organization, and are willing to be partners in finding unique, collaborative ways to solve these problems. I don’t think (as someone with no special or advance inside knowledge) that there will be major changes in what symphony patrons see when they go to concerts, but there will doubtless some changes behind the scenes that will enable the organization to grow and thrive in the coming years.

My biggest fear is that, in the short time of transition and restoration, the symphony will fall out of the top echelon of arts organizations that create buzz and excitement in the community. We’ll continue to be the largest, in terms of budget, but in the arts coverage of the past year or so I’ve noticed much more focus on innovation at the Oregon Ballet Theater, exhibitions at the Portland Art Museum, and other such organizations as Body Vox, Whitebird Dance, and Portland Center Stage. I hope that we’re able to keep a good balance between ensuring survival and creating new and interesting experiences at and around our concert presentations.

a living legend reaches 90

Wow. I am stunned – and I’m ashamed that I’m stunned. I went to the Norman Leyden 90th birthday concert at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall this evening (which was presented by the Oregon Symphony). I don’t know what I was expecting, but I got a master class in what it is to be a consummate professional who still shows joy in music making after a sesquicentennial in the business.

The high points? Hearing maestro Leyden sing for the first time in my 12 years with the orchestra – and he can! He’s no Sinatra, but he hit the notes, the phrasing, and did so with elán. His clarinet playing is a bit grainier in texture than a few years ago, but he still effortlessly turns a phrase like those giants he played and arranged for in the 40’s and 50’s.

The big band he assembled was also in great form, very tight and some great solo turns, especially from trumpeter Mark Gaulke and saxophonist Dick Saunders.

Vocalist Reneé Cleland was superb, having shown much growth from her days as a member of the Leyden Singers, and a sparkling presence on stage. Rod Lucich was steady and reliable, but his voice didn’t sparkle, and he was slightly under pitch for many of the songs.

Norman always found time to promote local young artists who were worthy of notice and who shared his love for the music of the big band era. Reed player Hailey Niswanger is a sax and clarinet player to watch – she has got the goods: great sound, pure intonation, and a sure hand around a turn of phrase. And she’s only a senior at West Linn High School. Back for her second performance with Leyden was Aubrey Cleland, daughter of Reneé, who made her pops debut at the age of 10. Now 14 she’s on her way to being a seasoned performer. She has a young voice, but time will take care of that, and she has the presence and quality (and beauty) of her mother, so look out world!

Dance West of Beaverton provided several large-scale dance set pieces – the up tempo numbers were the most effective, but the choreography proved a bit repetetive and didn’t always match up to the mood of the music.

In retrospect, I feel I owe Norman an apology. I didn’t take him seriously enough – I respected him and liked him very much as a person, but I didn’t or couldn’t see what was before me: a master and legend.

I stand corrected.