by JEFF WINSLOW
Portland’s choral music fans got a serious double treat a week ago last Sunday afternoon. First, Cappella Romana took on Alfred Schnittke’s huge, demanding Verses of Repentance (often translated Penitential Psalms), composed for the thousand-year anniversary of the Christianization of Russia in 1988, at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. A few hours later, the Portland State University Chamber Choir presented David Lang’s magnum opus The Little Match Girl Passion at St. Stephen Catholic Church across the Willamette. Both works challenged these top groups to give their absolute best; both performances did full justice to the composers’ visions.
As if this weren’t enough, both choirs filled out – maybe overfilled — their programs with several other works. Cappella Romana’s program went well over two hours, including a long intermission, and with great regret I had to leave before the second half in order to be on time for the PSU group. Thus I missed an early Sergei Rachmaninov Choral Concerto, and recently composed works by Galina Grigorjeva and renowned guest director Ivan Moody. I’m sure the singers had recovered sufficiently from Schnittke to give them beautiful performances, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for them. The drive across town helped bring me back to the world, temporarily.
The PSU choir provided a Rachmaninov fix in the form of a generous excerpt from his 1915 All-Night Vigil, one of the last works he wrote before leaving Russia for good. Other warm-ups to Lang’s work were director Ethan Sperry’s sensitive arrangement of Ara Lee’s song “Aho” and Jester Hairston’s rather syrupy arrangement of the African American spiritual “Give Me Jesus.” All were performed with the finesse and feeling one expects from this prize-winning group.
After Lang, they treated us to Gyorgy Sviridov’s ineffably lovely “Inexpressible Wonder,” and three roof-raising encores: showy arrangements of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and the spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” and Eric Whitacre’s “Water Night,” which ultimately calmed us down but could have been half its length. No roofs were actually raised, but that physical fact seemed a miracle. Whatever acoustic magic makes small choral groups shine at St. Stephen turned 40 lusty well-trained young voices up to rock concert volume, no amps needed. In the loudest passages, I even imagined I was hearing distortion! The choir repeated the program Tuesday evening in Portland’s Waterfront Park, and I suspect they were preparing their outdoor voices.
The most powerful impacts, however, were provided by Schnittke and Lang, even though their two works are much quieter and unfold only gradually. In both, composers of Jewish ancestry engage weighty Christian themes.
Beyond these vague similarities, they stand in stark contrast. Soviet composer Schnittke took on repentance, atonement and forgiveness, contemplating the millennial anniversary of Christianity in Russia – an anniversary not even the Soviet Union, despite its repression of religious observance, felt it could ignore. Schnittke was a searching figure who was neither ethnically Russian nor religiously Orthodox — he was actually a Roman Catholic of German ancestry, though he himself said “I look like a typical Jew” — but he was profoundly interested in Russian Orthodox spiritual traditions. Though officially discouraged by the tenets of Socialist Realism from including significant chromaticism, Schnittke laid it on to an extent most choral composers, even today, avoid of their own free will for a practical reason – it creates big tuning challenges for the singers.
Lang, as a citizen of the U.S., bastion of capitalist plenty, took on poverty and lack of charity, which we Americans usually prefer to ignore. Coming of age at a time when extreme chromaticism was expected from American classical composers, at least by the academic establishment, he famously rebelled against those expectations. Though close listening to The Little Match Girl Passion reveals a surprising number of chromatic shifts, its harmony rarely strays from typical choral practice.
Its 2008 Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding, close listening to Lang’s work can be frustrating, even tedious. The harmony remains static for long periods. In many sections the voices pause again and again in a way that seems arbitrary both musically and expressively. We naturally expect pauses to mean something significant is about to happen; when afterward the same old pattern continues, it’s also natural to be puzzled. When this happens repeatedly it can get frustrating, as if a boy was repeatedly crying “wolf!” These feelings take us away from the music rather than drawing us in. Lang may have rebelled against the intricate pitch arrangement processes his professors tried to foist on him, but it sounds suspiciously as if he’s working out some equally soulless rhythmic processes.
Sperry came up with a simple arrangement masterstroke that, by closely relating the Passion to its historical models – the St. Matthew and St. John Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach – largely ameliorated such frustrations and highlighted the undeniable beauty perfusing much of the work. Its fifteen movements alternate between narration of the Hans Christian Andersen story, and reflections and reactions as if by observers on the scene. In existing versions for solo ensemble or choir, all fifteen are sung by the same forces. Sperry’s arrangement, which he told us was approved by the composer during a phone conversation, apportions them into alternating solo ensemble and choir movements respectively. Also, to aid the immediacy of the story, the narration was projected sentence by sentence in supertitles behind the group, even though that wasn’t strictly necessary with their fine diction.
Just as in a Bach Passion, reflections and reactions poured out in colorful, flowing, and expressive choruses, set into dramatic relief by the matter-of-fact segments of narration between, corresponding to Bach’s recitatives. Most of the static, interrupted material set the narration, but it still had an interest beyond, or at least different from, recitatives of Bach’s time — sing-song phrases that typically meander between stock openings and endings, often adding little of musical interest. And when the laconic narration left off and the full choir again contemplated the little match girl herself, drawn into brave dreams and eventually hallucinations of love and warmth as she slowly dies of cold, I was often profoundly moved. The composer will have much to thank Sperry for if this arrangement becomes the standard one.
It’s also an eminently practical arrangement, since the more complex harmonies of the choruses get the support of all the voices, while the solo ensembles only have to deal with simpler narrative material. Which is not to say the narratives are easy. They still require agility and a good rhythmic sense, and the few missteps I heard in the performance were all by soloists in their first few phrases, before they got into the swing of things. The numbers for full choir, even at tricky chromatic shifts, were radiant and essentially flawless. The composer should certainly be grateful to the singers for their excellence and commitment.
Performance naturally has a huge effect on the audience impact of difficult works such as Schnittke’s also, though in “Verses of Repentance,” the interpretational leeway given the director is restricted to the usual matters of phrasing, tempo and volume. One potential issue is that the entire work, twelve movements totaling nearly an hour, is set in a steady, chant-like rhythm which risks plodding. Nor is there a lot of indicated tempo variety among the movements.
Such economies are offset by the music’s many riches. Textures vary from single solo lines to eight-part harmony and beyond. Often when there are just a few voices, they stick together in close harmony, ever-shifting intervals sliding chromatically downward like paint oozing out of control – or blood. Such passages effectively evoke the sorrow of repentance, as in the opening movement, whose text begins “Adam sat weeping at the gates of paradise.” Sometimes the thicker textures are built on simple, standard harmonies, piling up like a Gothic cathedral, but sometimes they do without such supports, thrusting dissonantly into acoustic space from a constant drone like daring cantilevers in modern architecture. Often the text shifts from expression of sorrow to a prayer for mercy, and at such times dissonance evaporates, leaving crystalline, spine-tingling consonances as if the prayer were already answered.
That may seem a little hokey, but it worked in Sunday’s performance, not least because the singers settled unerringly on each consonance, even when there was a short silence between moods. Only a tin-eared deity could fail to be moved by such offerings. (I can’t vouch for the dissonances to the same degree, but there were hardly any moments when even the densest harmonies sounded random or out of place.) In the final movement, over a constant drone from the low basses, the other voices, singing wordlessly with mouths closed, seemed to waft up into the heavens like clouds of incense. Consonance and dissonance were no longer distinct, but melded into one heartfelt expression that eventually found repose, not quite in, but one might say enfolded by the key of D major.
My one reservation about Cappella Romana’s performance was that they did not more fully exploit what tempo variety there is. Maybe we were expected to fall into a mystical trance, inspired by the performance space. But the music is just too rich, and that, along with the spacious, perfectly complementary acoustics, and not least, the exquisitely controlled voices and sensitive ears of quite possibly the city’s finest two dozen choral singers, carried the day and made the performance an experience which cast its spell long after the last note faded away.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer who has had the pleasure of hearing many of Cappella Romana’s singers realize his own work, though as part of other ensembles.
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