Like it is in everything else these days, Brooklyn is all the rage in classical music. It's an old story, really: For a century at least, if you wanted to be at the forefront of contemporary classical music, you moved to New York.
And yet, one of Brooklyn's best musicians is reversing the brain drain and moving back to his hometown of Portland. To welcome back Kenji Bunch, the Portland Youth Philharmonic's chamber orchestra, Camerata PYP, will perform his 2011 work, Supermaximum, at its April 28 concert. And next month, the Corvallis Youth Symphony will premiere his new piano concerto, performed by Bunch's wife, Monica Ohuchi.
It's an appropriate homecoming for Bunch, 39. He played viola in PYP—the nation's oldest youth orchestra—for five years before heading off to Juilliard in New York 22 years ago and becoming one of the country's best-known young composers and arrangers. The Wilson High School alum's energetic, original music—increasingly influenced by pop, world and other nonclassical styles—has been performed by important ensembles like the Eroica Trio and more than 40 orchestras, and he plays often with experimental, rock, jazz and other nonclassical musicians, even in Broadway shows. He's that rare composer who can make a living in music while living at the epicenter of American classical music.
So why leave?
"You realize that certain things the rest of the country takes for granted are luxuries here," Bunch says, "like a backyard and having space to be able to go out and play." He also realized he doesn't have to live in New York to maintain a career. "You get conditioned to thinking that you need this New York presence to be legitimate or something," he says. "That may have been true 20 years ago, but with the Internet, it's now less the case. And other parts of the country have really emerged as compelling centers for the arts, and I really believe that Portland is one of them.â
Bunch has returned to Portland at least twice a year for performances and family visits. "What excites me about what I'm finding out about the music world there now is that it's not, 'Oh, look at little Portland doing what N.Y. is doing.' It's the opposite," he says. "Portland seems to be setting the trends, inventing new ways of presenting classical and classically based music, and new ways of finding audiences and presenting this music to the public. And there's no denying that it's working—there's a real buzz. I think it's something really special, and I'd like to be a part of that."
Bunch increasingly performs his own music and plans to do more of that here, and the veteran music teacher also hopes to work with young musicians via the Youth Philharmonic. "I want to do what I can to help nurture young musicians," he says. "I feel lucky that I've had the career I've had so far, and it's been due in large part to a lot of fortunate circumstances that began when I was a kid in Portland. I want to give back to that community that helped me get where I am."