French-horn player Leander Star and his partner, flutist Elise Blatchford, had already rented a truck to move from Chicago back to his hometown of Portland when they got the news. Their year-old wind quintet, the City of Tomorrow, was among 12 wind groups selected from more than 120 entries to compete in the annual Fischoff Competition, the world's biggest chamber-music contest.
"It was our first competition, and we didn't know what to expect," Star says. "We were all really poor, and so we shared a single hotel room between the five of us. "
They were even more surprised when they won the gold medal—the first wind quintet in a decade to take the top prize, which brought national acclaim and a victory tour, making the group one of only a handful of wind quintets that plays new music and tours.
That 2011 victory convinced the young band members (all then under 30) they had a future—even though one member left to join the Navy band, and the rest scattered: Blatchford and Star to Portland, others to New York City and San Antonio, leaving only oboist Andy Nogal in Chicago.
Can a group that requires rigorous rehearsal really sustain itself despite geographic dispersion? "It is unusual, but at this point, thanks to technology, it's less of a problem than it would have been years ago," Nogal says, noting that rock bands such as the aptly named Postal Service have maintained long-distance relationships by exchanging ideas via Bandcamp and email. "It means that all the ideas have to be big, because just to bring us together requires so much time and energy and money."
This year's big project is the quintet's first West Coast tour, which includes tonight's headlining show at the Alberta Rose Theatre and two March Music Moderne concerts. The group will play medieval-influenced, pastoral music from a 1939 film score by great French composer Darius Milhaud, and several works that use modern rhythms and harmonies in playful ways. These include "Arabesques" by contemporary Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg (a one-time '80s Berlin punk-rocker), which swings from gentle to boisterous and back; and Italian modernist Luciano Berio's joyfully jittery "Occurrences." Fiercer than other chamber music, it's not afraid to be fun.
Despite challenges posed by distance, living in relatively low-cost Portland offers its own advantages. Star and Blatchford quickly found gigs in the city's burgeoning indie-classical and theater scenes, and the band participated in Portland Cello Project's live performance of Radiohead's OK Computer last fall.
"The way we live here is very cheap, so we have the freedom to do the quintet stuff," says Star, a former Portland Youth Philharmonic member. "You can be grounded in this really grounding place and be nomads the other half of the year. That is a luxury that Portland has given us."
SEE IT: The City of Tomorrow plays the Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St,, on Wednesday March 20. 7:30 pm. $10-$17.