The huge “Portland” sign that dominates Southwest Broadway in downtown Portland belongs to the city’s most important theater space, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The concert hall is home base for the Oregon Symphony and several other large performing arts groups. Close to downtown parks and restaurants and part of the city’s Cultural District, the Schnitz (as locals call it) resounds with large-scale music, dance and lecture events.
History of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
Designed for vaudeville shows and silent movies and opened in 1928, the 2,776- seat space switched gears in 1930 and became a “talkie” movie palace. Then called the Paramount, it also hosted occasional performances by big stars (Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan, among many others). As the movie business declined, the Paramount shifted gears in the ‘70s, becoming a central rock ’n’ roll tour stop. The era’s rock royalty, from Stevie Wonder and Queen to Frank Zappa and Talking Heads, held court in this hall.
In 1983, the city purchased the Paramount, began a major renovation, and restored the theater to something close to its original splendor, the last of the old vaudeville and movie houses that once dominated Southwest Broadway. It was named for the leading private donor for the renovation, Arlene Schnitzer, a leading local arts philanthropist.
Resident Companies at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
Oregon Symphony Orchestra
The Oregon Symphony, the oldest symphony west of the Mississippi River and the sixth oldest in the country, is a prime tenant of the concert hall. Under the baton of music director Carlos Kalmar, the Oregon Symphony offers a busy schedule of classical concerts, an innovative pops program, and multimedia concerts designed for families.
Portland Youth Philharmonic & Metropolitan Youth Symphony
Two youth orchestras also call the concert hall home. The Portland Youth Philharmonic is the oldest orchestra of its kind in the country, established in 1924, and is known for its adventurous programming, which began with legendary conductor Jacob Avshalomov, whose 43-year tenure (1954-1995) was marked by collaborations with many composers, including Leonard Bernstein. The orchestra regularly graduates its student musicians into major music academies and adult orchestras. So does the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, now in its 44th year, which also includes jazz ensembles among its many musician groupings.
The city’s biggest dance presenter, White Bird, began in 1997 with a concert of dances by the late Paul Taylor. The company now brings both large-scale modern dance and big showcases of dance from around the world to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. (White Bird also presents at the Newmark Theatre, across the street from the Schnitz, and Lincoln Hall, five blocks away).
The central producer of lectures by visiting authors is Literary Arts. A key sign of the importance of literary matters to the city is how often it fills the concert hall to overflowing with its readings and lectures. Literary Arts also stages the Portland Book Festival each November, bringing marquee authors to the stage at the Schnitz.
Touring Performances at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
Although resident companies occupy much of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall’s calendar, the venue also hosts many other events and touring shows. Lectures (Dan Rather, Madeleine Albright, and Anderson Cooper, for example), concerts (Tony Bennett, Andrew Bird, Thom Yorke), regular showcase events from the Portland Jazz Festival, and many others, pop up through the year.
Carlos Kalmar leads the orchestra in Mahler’s thrillingly brooding Sixth Symphony, which captures such passion that Mahler’s close friend Bruno Walter found himself unable to conduct it. Violinist Alexi Kenney balances the program with a cheerful rendition of Mozart’s charming Violin Concerto No. 3. Presented by Oregon Symphony.
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