Home > Art, Museums, Music, Travel > Portland Art Museum and Tony

Portland Art Museum and Tony

I wrote Thursday night about how, in getting ready for our Friday-Sunday trip to Portland, I looked up what was going on at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. I discovered that the center has several components, the principal one being the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, which abuts the Heathman Hotel, where we would be staying. The hall seats 2776 and is home to the Oregon Symphony, which gets a rave review from Alex Ross in the latest New Yorker for their recent appearance in Carnegie Hall.

I thought maybe we could see them, but they weren’t performing this past weekend, at least not in Portland. Instead, the symphony was sponsoring a special appearance by Tony Bennett and his band. After consulting with Gail, I bought tickets. There were no pairs together on the main floor, so we checked in the balcony and got the last two seats in the dress circle, which consists of the first four balcony rows. (As we would discover, they hang down below the level at which one enters the balcony. The rest of the balcony seating rises way above the entry level.) I had never thought I would go out of my way to see Tony Bennett, but this didn’t qualify as out of the way. All we would have to do was walk next door from our hotel. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got.

Friday, we pulled out around 11 AM and headed south, stopping for lunch in Centralia and arriving at the hotel around 2:45. The Portland Art Museum is just a couple of blocks from the hotel. Once we were unpacked and settled, we headed over. The museum has an older building and a 2005 addition, connected underground. We wasted a few minutes figuring out how to get around, but eventually worked our way through the underground passage to the new building. I think we might have proceeded differently if we took even a moment to look at the map the receptionist handed me. The old building houses the older art — Asian, Native American, American and more — but we found ourselves embedded among the newer art, from a modest display of impressionists on to contemporary artists. An enthusiastic guard urged us to take the elevator to the top and work our way down, which we dutifully did, but which had the consequence that we viewed the art in reverse chronological order.

Highlights? Let’s see. Among many, a 1981 George Segal sculpture, Helen with Apples, that I can’t seem to get a decent image of from their online catalog. A Roy Lichtenstein Goldfish Bowl that I can’t find an image of. A large 2010 piece by Anselm Kiefer, Entrance to Paradise, that dominates the basement passageway between buildings. This seems to be on loan from Eli Broad. I can’t find an image of it either at the museum site or the Broad Foundation site. Oh well. Maybe I should move on. One more thing. There was an excellent selection of photos from the Fae Heath Batten Photography Bequest.

We headed back to the hotel. It was 5:30 by then, with Tony starting at 7:30, so we had to figure out a dinner plan. Just get room service? Go down to the hotel restaurant? We decided to go down, got changed first, and then headed to the lobby. To our alarm, but not surprisingly, what with those 2776 people due to descend on adjacent Arlene Schnitzer Hall within the hour, all the hotel eateries were packed — restaurant, bar, lounge. It was hopeless. We decided to retreat to our room for room service. As we waited for the elevator in the library, Gail nudged me. I couldn’t figure out why. The elevator door had opened, but a couple was coming out and I couldn’t very well run over the couple standing in front of us who were also waiting to get on. I looked at Gail in puzzlement. Then the couple blocking our way moved on to the elevator and we followed. Suddenly I knew what the nudge was for. The door shut and there we were, sharing the elevator with Tony Bennett and his wife. I said hi, he said hi back, we ascended. We had 8 pushed. They had 9. Do I make conversation? Leave them in peace? We chose silence. Then, as we reached 8, Tony wished us a good evening and I reciprocated. If I didn’t know it was him — if moreover I hadn’t checked concert events the night before and had no idea he was in town — I would have known the moment he spoke to us. There was no mistaking that voice.

I proceeded to spend the next few minutes imagining all the missed opportunities, all the comments I could have made, like that we were definitely going to have a good evening, we were going to hear my favorite singer. Maybe it’s just as well we didn’t make a fuss.

After dinner, we walked over to the concert hall and took our seats. Just after 7:30, the lights went out and the band came on: Lee Musiker on piano, Gray Sargent guitar, Harold Jones drums, Marshall Wood bass. A voice over the PA system then asked us to welcome Antonia Bennett, Tony’s daughter. That was a surprise, and not an entirely welcome one, especially because we had no clue how much of the program she would occupy. Four songs, as it turned out. She was okay, but nothing special. On the other hand, the band was fabulous. She thanked us after the fourth song, headed off stage, and Tony came on. I can’t imagine a more receptive (or older) audience.

The rest was pure magic. Okay, so, he’s 84. His voice is fading. His stamina too, no doubt. But he sure knows how to pace himself, how to entertain us, how to put on a show. For many songs, he would barely sing, which is to say, he changed pitch a little, but it was as much talking as singing. That voice, though. And the band. It worked. He would sing quietly, the band would play at just the right level to ensure audibility, then perhaps he’d hit a climax and shout out three words, leading into a musical interlude during which they cranked it up, and just as quickly they’d settle down and he’d sing softly for the rest of the song. Add in a few well timed twirls, a few steps, and he had us in his hands. Antonia came out once for a duet with her father of Sondheim’s Smile. He wove in some of the expected songs: The Way You Look Tonight, The Best is Yet To Come, I Left My Heart in San Francisco. And for his final encore, he talked to us about how this hall, this intimate setting, is where he likes to perform, not arenas or TV shows to millions. (It turns out that he was on TV just the night before, on American Idol.) He then asked the tech to shut down his microphone, and he closed with an unmiked performance of Fly Me to the Moon. I didn’t really think a concert hall that seats 2776 was quite the level of intimacy he had in mind, though it sure beat a sports arena, and he was indeed audible. Hearing him unmiked was a splendid way to end the evening. We walked out grinning, in awe of his consummate professionalism. If he makes it to Seattle, I will happily hear him again.

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Categories: Art, Museums, Music, Travel
  1. May 31, 2011 at 8:01 PM

    I just loved this post, I love painting to Tony Bennett. I have a wonderful CD of him and KD Lang singing duets together and I play it over and over and sing at the top of my lungs with them. I was gobsmacked when you posted about him in the lift with you, I think I would have done the same. My daughter and I did a trip to the US last year and I was hoping we could have caught him in concert somewhere but it was not to be-I can only imagine his flight to the moon. Cheers Sue

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