Oregon Symphony: Christmas concert at Coffee Creek

Photos and story by BENJI VUONG

Editor’s note: Just before Christmas, musicians from the Oregon Symphony (violinists Shin-young Kwon and Emily Cole, percussionist Sergio Carreno, bassoonist Evan Kuhlmann, cellist Marilyn de Oliveira, and violist Jennifer Arnold) gave a performance to inmates at Oregon’s Coffee Creek correctional facility for women. Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and his wife Nancy were among those in the audience. Oregon ArtsWatch photographer Benji Vuong contributed this photo essay.

The event was held in a medium level security of the facility and only women were in attendance. Men are sent to Coffee Creek as well, but only for evaluation before being sent to their place of residence elsewhere. Photographers, reporters and musicians had to be escorted by security personnel through multiple check points — and of course — we went through heavy, rigorous screening to make sure everything that was brought in to the facility was cleared, and re-checked once we exited to make sure we did not leave anything behind, intentional or not. Visitors were told that our every move would be watched. I did feel uneasy at times moving around the tight corners to get a good shot while being watched over by the officers nearby, but I suppose this is because it was my first time inside a prison so it was a little intimidating.

The concert itself was truly inspiring. The musicians were extremely welcoming, even humorous at times, pulling jokes at their expense. The crowd was very receptive and respectful. Some were rather young and some could be my grandmother’s age. It took a little while for them to warm up initially, but after a few songs, they really got into the spirit and sang along exuberantly during the caroling section. There were times when I thought I saw Nancy Hales and some of the inmates teary eyed. I genuinely thought that the musicians’ warm and jubilant performance brought some comfort to these women.

During the Q&A, many of the inmates asked thoughtful questions. Some wondered about the differences between a viola and a violin, what sound a certain note made and why, the history of the bassoon, etc. Quite a technical and inquisitive bunch, they are. I saw a spinet piano in the chapel and was told that some women do come in and play on occasion. So I am sure there are at least some musicians amongst them, but I think the Oregon Symphony is really quite a highlight of their season, if not year.