top of page

The Test of Time: the Future of Classical Music in Portland

Updated: Jun 9, 2018

By Ellie Chang

The theater reverberates with excited chatter and the cacophonous sounds of the orchestra warming up. The telltale dimming of the lights quiets thousands of people in a matter of seconds. This silence, though jarring, crumbles rapidly into a resurging thunder as the conductor marches into position. With the first flick of Norman Huynh’s wrist, the flutist brings to life the melodic opening motif of Barber’s “Second Essay.” As textures begin to layer and complicate the initial melody, Barber’s exploration of complex rhythms and contrasting orchestral colors provokes profound emotion through pure technical skill. As the orchestra transitions into Beethoven’s third piano concerto and Sibelius’ fifth symphony, the odd details that initially stood out to me—empty seats, the abundance of elderly audience members, and their smattering of canes and walkers—all take a back seat to the art created in front of me.

This performance takes place in one of the most visited locations in Portland, Oregon: in the heart of downtown, only a few blocks away from Pioneer Courthouse Square (also known as “Portland’s living room”). Yet, to many residents, the classical music concert experience is foreign; the sight of the iconic illuminated 'Portland’ sign on SW Broadway is merely an aesthetic enjoyment, and what the brick-red building attached to that sign holds beneath its dull exterior is even more unfamiliar.

The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall carries nearly a century of deeply-rooted musical traditions and brilliant artistry from countless soloists, chamber groups, and orchestral musicians. In contrast to its seemingly mundane exterior, sleek marble tiles, long intricate archways, and a high cantaloupe-veined ceiling decorate the interior of the concert hall. This hall is home to many great performing arts groups—the Portland Youth Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, White Bird Dance Company, Portland Arts & Lectures, and most notably, the Oregon Symphony, which performs everything from the full soundtrack of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to Barber’s colorful and melodic “Second Essay.”

The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

On the corner of SW 10th and Yamhill, across from the Multnomah County Central Library, Dee Bierschenk bursts into Case Study Coffee Roasters wearing a violet raincoat despite the uncharacteristically dry weather. I spot her easily as she pauses at the entrance to scan the room, a faint grin touching her rosy face framed by blond curls. Bierschenk, the Oregon Symphony’s Audience Development Manager, grew up playing the trumpet in a music-oriented family. Originally majoring in music with a degree in performing arts at the University of Iowa, Bierschenk decided senior year that she instead wanted to do development and marketing for arts organizations.

Sipping her coffee, Bierschenk begins to describe the Oregon Symphony’s new “Sounds” series, where classical music is juxtaposed with another art form or idea. This season was the Sounds of Home, programming pieces on “three themes related to the idea of home: immigration, environment, and homelessness,” she tells me. In addition to their Sounds series, the symphony now also has a series called the “Popcorn Package,” where they play full length movies without sound and the orchestra performs the soundtrack live. Bierschenk says that the motivation for these series is simple: revenue, and their ability to bring in new audiences that would not come to a standard classical concert, since these concerts, Bierschenk believes, can appear “more engaging than the idea of just going to Brahms No. 1.”

At a typical classical concert, the Oregon Symphony’s audience falls around the industry average of 65, Bierschenk tells me. In the arts, the audience for classical music comprises the oldest demographic. The Oregon Symphony concerts that draw in a younger audience are also the most popular because “everyone loves the music of Star Wars, and they don’t realize that it’s orchestral music until they sit down and listen to it” (Bierschenk).

Bierschenk is certainly not the only one who notices this generational gap as Dana Gioia, the then-chair of the National Endowment of the Arts, succinctly explained in a 2007 NPR interview that classical music’s aging audiences are “disturbing” (quoted in “Classical Music”). Bierschenk thinks one reason for this generational gap is the fact that we are all becoming more and more visually dependent, and she says that “if there isn’t something to look at, then it’s hard to give it your full attention.” For young people wary of attending a concert, the biggest misconception is that it would not be visually stimulating. However, people mistake not knowing what to look at for a lack of visual stimulation, when in fact, watching each musician perform should be incredibly visual, but “so many people have only experienced classical music aurally—they’re listening to Chopin as they’re studying—and so it’s hard to understand that it’s not just that.” After all, classical music is a performing art.

Another unforeseen obstacle to the younger generation’s attendance at classical music concerts comes from the aging population of the majority of concertgoers. There are many traditions in classical music that can seem intimidating to the outsider, such as not clapping between movements. Most regular concertgoers, however, do not even know where this tradition originates from. Yet, this applause is still taboo to many. The perpetuators of these traditions “can often be the older, more experienced audience members,” Bierschenk tells me. She believes that the current audience can sometimes be the biggest deterrent to a younger audience, despite some of them also advocating the hardest for younger participants.

The decline of education in music and other arts in public schools has come hand in hand with the lack of a younger classical music audience. “You can no longer take it for granted that every public school has a band, has a chorus, has a program in musical theater,” says Gioia, who finds “the decline of education in music [...] in public schools [...] more disturbing” than the aging classical music audience (quoted in “Classical Music”). Since the late 1990s, many Oregon schools have drastically reduced or eliminated arts education programs due to budget cuts (Oregon Arts). A Gallup poll on “American Attitudes Toward Making Music” showed that only 9 percent of respondents learned to play an instrument by joining a school band or orchestra, compared to 61 percent who were independently taught outside of school (NAMM). There are several obstacles that schools face including a lack of funding, lack of space or time, and prioritizing other curriculum (Oregon Arts). Nevertheless, underlying all of these challenges is a need for greater advocacy and stronger appreciation for arts education.

Acknowledging the recent adverse developments in classical music education, Gary L. Ingle, executive director of the Music Teachers National Association, characterizes its current state with the classic Dickens line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (Ingle 4). The recent proliferation of discoveries on how music benefits both intelligence and wellness is indicative of classical music’s “best of times.” A study in 2005 found that instrumental music reverses stress at the genome level and exists among “our armamentarium of stress reduction strategies” (Bittman 1). Recreational Music Making (RMM)—playing musical instruments without the goals of mastery or performance—is a stress amelioration strategy even “for individuals who do not consider themselves ‘musical’” by emphasizing personal expression, group support, and quality of life enhancement (Bittman 32).

Because of similar studies, thousands of “nonmusical” individuals are now participating in the personal satisfaction and health benefits of music making. RMM occurs through programs at local music retailers, recreational centers, community colleges, and independent music teachers (“Recreational Music”). Oregon also hosts several large events for RMM, such as Make Music Day PDX, an annual festival where all musicians are invited to come together and share their music with one another. This event, held at multiple locations in Portland, joins an “informal confederation of cities worldwide” to celebrate recreational music as a larger community (Make Music).

However, as Ingle accurately describes, classical music now also faces the “worst of times” on a variety of levels, including economic support (Ingle 4). The current abundance of arts groups tests our ability to sustain all of them, which in turn, pressures the music scene all across the country (McCarthy 60). Only two extremes can survive this generation: groups with large budgets or groups with limited resources that are small enough to survive on donations from their devoted audiences or listeners (McCarthy 79-80). As Ingle puts it, “classical music was never intended to compete,” but that is what it has to do now—against popular music, sports, and even between classical music groups (Ingle 5).

Even on the radio, classical music has “lost a lot of ground over the [last] 20 years,” Gioia says, jeopardizing “the availability of classical music in a free, democratic, open medium” (quoted in “Classical Music”). Public radio is where many people first encounter classical music because it is a free service for everyone, not determined by the commercial environment (“Classical Music”). Not only have commercial stations faced a steep decline of classical music, the amount of classical music played on non-commercial stations has also decreased (Iyengar 2-3). About 27 percent of markets have lost classical musical stations; 8 of the top 30 radio markets lost public classical stations between 1990 and 2005, including Washington, D.C., Baltimore, St. Louis, and Portland, Oregon (Iyengar 8). Even so, over the past few years, the All Classical Portland radio station has defied the national trend of classical radio stations, growing to become another one of Portland’s remarkable musical additions.

Located on the waterfront on the East Side, the All Classical Portland radio station resides on the second floor of a modern building surrounded by flat industrial complexes and half-empty parking lots. After swinging open the small door perched above a carpeted stairwell, I come face-to-face with the Tilikum Crossing—a newly built pedestrian bridge—that sits on the Willamette River in front of the city skyline. To my left, small rooms branch off from yellow-green painted corridors that each hold some unique feature—from sound-absorbing hexagonal magnetic tiles stuck to walls covered in magnetized paint, to green lighted signs attached to each glass room that turn red when occupied. In the midst of all this technological innovation, I meet a young woman named Amelia Lukas.

As the Director of Community Engagement for All Classical Portland, Lukas is responsible for strengthening the station’s relationships with its listeners and the broader Portland community by producing all of the events that include live broadcasting, handling partnerships with other arts organizations, and managing all communications and marketing, e.g. writing out the weekly eNotes. “Though it’s a lot, it’s a really fun job,” she tells me, while tying her auburn hair back into a low ponytail. Although Lukas had never considered working in radio, she soon began to appreciate “the fact that [radio] provides a service for people in the way that concerts can’t, necessarily.” Radio presents a distinctive opportunity—a way to meet people no matter where they are. It can be a service to those who are homebound, struggling with grief, or even to someone trying to sleep; anyone can turn on the radio and find solace or companionship.

Lukas tells me that All Classical Portland is unique for being one of the few remaining independent classical radio stations in the country. This independence means that they are not just a section of a larger station’s broadcasts, but a standalone organization. She believes that this fact alone is responsible for its widespread audience—over 5 million hits on their website from over 150 countries around the world, all plotted on a large world map on a wall in the reception area. Due to its large audience, All Classical is able to sustain itself as a 94 percent listener-supported station. “Pretty much all of our funding comes directly from our listeners giving donations, whether it’s $5 a month or $5000 if they have it,” Lukas says, laughing. “But, you know, we are not a corporation, we are not making lots of money. We are basically just making the money that we need, to keep the music on the air.”

The bulk of these worldwide listeners are over forty, mirroring the demographics of the concert industry. Given the lack of young listeners, another one of Lukas’ responsibilities is to bolster their youth audience through programs such as their Joyous Outreach to You/Youth, which engages high school students in arts journalism. Lukas tells me that because kids are now able to access the arts through all kinds of media right at their fingertips, “they are engaging with the arts in a really different way.” Despite not knowing yet whether this transformation is a positive one, Lukas does believe that “there needs to be a way in which arts organizations harness the power of the Internet and social media to bring people back into the concert hall,” because experiencing music live, as part of an audience, “stimulates emotional intelligence and abstract thinking in a way that engaging on a device by oneself does not.”

In addition to young audience programs, Lukas believes the traditional approach to concertizing needs to adapt to young “people’s brains in 2018.” She claims that these days “[young people] are conditioned to expect overstimulation and multisensory experiences,” which makes it much harder to engage with one specific medium at a time. Audiences are more interested in multimedia shows like Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light,” whose performance was a collaboration between the Northwest Film Center, In Mulieribus (a female vocal ensemble in Portland), three Portland State University choirs, All Classical Portland, and Camerata Portland Youth Philharmonic. Even just experiencing a film with a live film score presents a way in for many people. Nodding to herself, Lukas tells me that “we need to rethink the container in which we are presenting [classical music] to people.”

Even though advocates like Lukas and Bierschenk believe in the importance of classical music’s evolution, they are not quite ready to give up on its current state. “They’ve been saying classical music has been dying for 100 years and it hasn’t died yet,” Bierschenk tells me. She believes that in the arts, “there are always people to fill those shoes.” She, among others, believes that one way of continuing the legacy of classical music is through youth orchestras. These orchestras are not just the training grounds for the next generation of musicians, but are also a way to foster an appreciation of classical music among the youth.

At a time when 76 percent of Americans who play a musical instrument begin their musical training between the ages of 5 to 14 (NAMM), these youth orchestras are especially relevant to the participation of the younger generations in classical music. Lukas, who was in a youth orchestra growing up, believes that they are incredibly transformative, as she says they allowed her “to meet like minded-people and feel a sense of camaraderie.” She tells me that she believes these orchestras can change lives and empower young people “in whatever walk of life they choose, whether it be music or something else.”

In contrast to Lukas, Bierschenk grew up in an area without a single youth orchestra, which has led her to believe that Portland is “very lucky” to have two: the Metropolitan Youth Symphony (MYS) and the Portland Youth Philharmonic (PYP).

The Portland Youth Philharmonic is America’s oldest youth orchestra as conductor of the philharmonic, David Hattner, likes to joke at their concerts. Mary V. Dodge, a violinist and music teacher, founded what was then known as the Portland Junior Symphony in 1924 (“A Legacy”). The organization, similar to the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, now boasts over 300 musicians in five different ensembles: two full symphony orchestras, a chamber orchestra, a wind ensemble, and a string orchestra that each vary in level and exclusivity (“A Legacy”). The organization believes that membership at the highest level, the PYP Orchestra, requires “outstanding players [...] who are capable of the discipline necessary to perform in one of this country’s premier youth orchestras” (“A Legacy”).

Hattner once told the audience at intermission that classical music means “having stood the test of time,” and other music professionals share this sentiment as well. “Classical music has a long history of reinventing itself,” despite what now appears to be its lugubrious decline (Ingle 5). John Corigliano, an American composer, says that what he is seeing now is “not so much the dying of classical music, as we call it, but the reestablishment of it in other venues” (quoted in “Classical Music”). Though what exactly classical music becomes might change—such as the incorporation of popular music—the tradition of music for the concert hall will continue to thrive and new audiences will emerge. Bierschenk says that perhaps even the stigmas and traditions around classical music will slowly go away, leaving classical music “as a much more inviting area.”

Even in the radio industry, regardless of the lack of independent stations themselves, the appetite for classical music remains steady. There still are “a lot of people that are listening to [classical] and want to listen to it” (Iyengar 18). Two decades ago, All Classical Portland occupied a small janitor’s closet at Benson Polytechnic High School. Now, they have listeners from every part of the world and an entire floor filled with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that look out over the river. Even the Oregon Symphony is challenging the supposed negative trend of classical music as their concerts often sell out, bringing first-time concertgoers to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with every new series they create.

There is a reason behind why names like Beethoven and Mozart are recognizable to those who have no background in classical music centuries later. Even though classical music may be evolving, the legacy of these names will still continue whether it be through the radio industry, youth orchestras, or other forms of music education. Although the end result of the supposed evolution of classical music is still unclear, Portland’s unique position as the home to one of the only independent classical radio stations, the first youth orchestra in America, and an ingenious, yet technically distinguished symphony, allows us to remain certain that the ‘Portland’ sign on SW Broadway will not dim anytime soon.

Works Cited

“A Legacy of Excellence.” Portland Youth Philharmonic,

Bierschenk, Dee. Personal interview. 28 February 2018.

Bittman, Barry, et al. “Recreational music-making modulates the human stress response: a

preliminary individualized gene expression strategy.” Medical Science Monitor, vol. 11, no. 2, 2005. Journal Citation Reports, DOI:10.12659/MSM.883807.

“Classical Music at a Crossroads.” Talk of the Nation, Hosted by Neal Conan, National Public

Ingle, Gary. “In Unison: The State of Music in the United States.” American Music Teacher, vol. 55, no. 6, 2006, pp. 4-5. JSTOR,

Iyengar, Sunil, and Bonnie Nichols. Airing Questions of Access: Classical Music Radio

Programming and Listening Trends. Report no. 92, Sept. 2006. National Endowment for the Arts,

Lukas, Amelia. Personal interview. 26 February 2018.

Oregon Community Foundation, and Oregon Arts Commission. Oregon Arts Education

Snapshot. Jan. 2016. Oregon Community Foundation,

Make Music Day PDX.

McCarthy, Kevin, et al. The Performing Arts in a New Era. PDF ed., RAND.

National Association Of Music Merchants. “Gallup Organization Reveals Findings of ‘American

Attitudes Toward Making Music’ Survey.” NAMM, 21 Apr. 2003,

"Recreational Music Making." National Piano Foundation, making/.

128 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Welcoming Ola Khalid!

We'd like to extend a warm welcome to our new Olivenbaum member, Ola Khalid! Ola is now 22 years old and a graduate from dental school. She currently works in a clinic, and absolutely loves her job. D

bottom of page