China Forbes (of Pink Martini fame) burst onto the stage with the Portland State University Orchestra to give a lucky audience a dazzling display of opera last Thursday, Dec. 11.
The concert, “A Room with a View,” represented a lot of new territory for the singer and songwriter, whose arias at the First Congregational Church showed a marked departure from the style of her work with Pink Martini.
According to Ken Selden, conductor and music director of the PSU orchestra, plans for the event started after he met Forbes at an Easter egg hunt last year, where he saw her perform opera with the Oregon Symphony.
“I was really surprised because, like many people, I knew her only as the singer for Pink Martini,” Selden said.
From there, Selden and Forbes decided to collaborate and started planning for the concert, which would ultimately include arias written by composers ranging from Giacomo Puccini to Alfredo Catalani.
“We talked about some things that we could do and put together this program,” Selden said. “Then it was just a matter of finding a good location for it and finding the right sort of music that would fit for the event.
Selden said his work with Forbes—who he described as “down to earth,” “kind” and “supportive”—presented a great opportunity for him both as a musician and as an educator looking to give his students someone to look up to.
“Between rehearsals [and] during rehearsals, she was really serious about ‘What are we trying to accomplish, how do we present this music and how do we listen to each other and create a great performance together?'” Selden said. “Many people commented to me—students and faculty—about her role as kind of an example of something to strive for.”
Selden said that one of the things that interested him about working with Forbes was the difference in professional backgrounds between him and his students and Forbes, Forbes having played music before audiences of thousands of people with Pink Martini.
“I think for the students to see somebody who’s coming from that perspective, of a highly successful musical career, that was really interesting for us to see her finding her way so that she could present in the way that she wanted,” Selden said.
Performing with such a high profile musician was a novel experience for many of his students.
“When she came out, she just lit up the stage and there was this roar of excitement from the audience,” Selden said. “I think there was nobody in my orchestra who expected that or has seen anything like that up close, so that was very exciting.”
Sam Arnold, a PSU senior studying music education and who played in the orchestra for “A Room with a View,” said that working with Forbes presented a unique opportunity.
One of the things that struck Arnold about Forbes was the genre gap between her older work and the arias that he rehearsed alongside her.
“Pink Martini and all that—it’s just fantastic music—but it is not classical music,” Arnold said. “Having her come in with her style from Pink Martini and then infusing it with classical was something that was just really interesting and a lot of fun to work with. It was a pleasure to be on the same stage as her.”
Arnold also spoke of some of the challenges presented by vocal-driven music, like opera, relative to some of the orchestra’s purely instrumental music.
“We had a lot of rehearsals,” Arnold said. “China started rehearsing with us maybe the last three or four rehearsals, and a lot of it was just preparing for if she might take time on a certain phrase or if she would hold out a note. Working with her dynamics and following her—that was a lot of the process of preparation.”
“A Room with a View” marked the first time that Arnold had played music at the First Congregational Church, but it was not the first time that he had performed with the orchestra at a large venue.
Amongst the few things that made Arnold’s latest performance stand out from some of the orchestra’s previous events was the diversity of music.
“I think what was really interesting about this concert was it was such a diverse amount of music,” Arnold said. “Nothing we played was really very similar.”
In spite of some of the challenges of preparing for “A Room with a View,” Arnold said that he was glad to have had the opportunity to play music with China Forbes.
“It was just a pleasure to be on the same stage and play in an ensemble with her singing with us,” Arnold said. “It was a lot of fun, [a] once in a lifetime experience for sure.”