PSU Orchestra ‘Remix’ features David Bowie

How does one erase months of classroom-induced stress? By basking in the wondrous reverberations of the Portland State Orchestra, performing downtown on Dec. 7 and 8 at the Mission Theater. Joining us to discuss what made this Remix possible, Portland State Orchestra conductor Ken Selden.

The Vanguard: Before diving into the upcoming PSU Orchestra Remix event, will you tell us about your own backstory/history? You’ve been with Portland State since 2006. Is there a certain change or accomplishment that stands out from then to now that you’re most proud of?

Ken Selden: The PSU Orchestra has done some great things in recent years. I’m most pleased about our many collaborative projects including Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” with the Agnieszka Laska Dancers, Messiaen’s “Oiseaux Exotiques” with pianist Orli Shaham, and Italian Opera Arias with Pink Martini’s China Forbes. Last year, our biggest event was a program of Mahler, Rachmaninov, and Frank Zappa at the legendary Crystal Ballroom.

VG: The PSU Orchestra Remix explores the music of Piazzolla, Glass, and Bizet: What influenced your decision to go with those conductors/pieces, for the PSU Remix?

Ken: When we hired Tomas Cotik as our new violin professor, we wanted to find the most exciting way to introduce him to the Portland musical community. Tomas is from Argentina, and he has already recorded a wonderful Piazzolla album for Naxos, so when we spoke about repertoire, the ‘Seasons’ was the first thing that came up. The rest of the program was built around the Piazzolla, with the Mission Theater in mind.

Georges Bizet is, of course, most famous for his opera, Carmen, but we will be presenting his incidental music for L’arlesienne, or The Girl From Arles. Bizet’s music for L’Arlesienne incorporates folk music in an exploration of the seasons and landscapes of Provence, France, and concludes with some fantastic Christmas music (“The March of the three Kings”). I think of these Provence seasons balancing well with Piazzolla’s seasons, which are set in Buenos Aires.

VG: David Bowie passed away in January 2016—”Abdulmajid,” reimagined by Philip Glass, seems like an especially thoughtful selection. Are you a fan of Bowie? What made you go with “Abdulmajid”?

Ken: I don’t know if true fans of David Bowie would consider me one of them! I didn’t grow up with his music, but discovered him more recently. On the other hand, I agree with everyone who considers Bowie to be one of the most influential and important rock musicians of that generation. I love his music, and I think everyone can hear in it why the world was so devastated when he passed away last year. Philip Glass has written two massive, multi-movement symphonies inspired by the music of David Bowie. “Abdulmajid,” from the Heroes Symphony is probably the most hypnotic and exotic of those. I feel that it is a great tribute from one artist to another.

The original “Abdulmajid” is a work without a text. It was an outtake from a recording session that was later included on the Heroes album. The title is actually the last name of David Bowie’s wife, the Somalian fashion model, Iman. It is a deeply personal work. Philip Glass treats it with utmost reverence, and the result is perhaps the most personal expression of David Bowie that we hear in this symphonic context.

VG: What are you most excited about for the upcoming event?

Ken: Well, our Crystal Ballroom show last year was the first time that we played outside of concert halls and churches, and we were very pleased about the enthusiastic and energetic audience that turned up. I want to keep bringing the orchestra to new places, to build new friendships and to reach more people in our community. It’s one thing to hear an orchestra in a concert hall setting, but we are bringing a new experience with a variety of music, with youthful energy, and a more casual and relaxed atmosphere, where our audience members can order food or beer and enjoy the company of their friends and family along with our music.

VG: How long does it take, typically, to organize and prepare for an event like the Remix? Biggest challenges to overcome?

Ken: The PSU Orchestra includes music performance and education majors as well as students studying a variety of subjects at PSU. We put together several performances each term, including one ballet production and one opera production every year. For each event, they are juggling their orchestra rehearsals with their own jobs and family responsibilities and classes, so it is a tremendous commitment that the students make in order to participate in these events. We had six sold-out shows with the Portland Ballet over Thanksgiving weekend, so it’s a big challenge to recover from that busy weekend and have just this week to prepare for the Remix.

VG: Anything else you want PSU to know about for the upcoming event?

Ken: Although there are a lot of holiday concerts and holiday music in December, I am excited to be presenting something more substantial. In particular, the Piazzolla ‘Four Seasons’ with Tomas Cotik is a great reason to come out to the Mission Theater. The Remix concerts happen during Wednesday and Thursday of finals week. We are hoping that many students will take time off from what can be a stressful time to come enjoy a night on the town with us.

Event kicks off Dec. 7–8 at the Mission Theater, downtown Portland. Open to all ages.
Student Tickets: $10 advance purchase/$15 day of show.