Concert reviews: Oregon Repertory Singers, The Ensemble, PSU Opera

in PSU Opera's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Alan Smith and Whitney Steele perform in PSU Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: John Rudoff.

by BRUCE BROWNE

If “fear no music” were not already taken, it would be a perfect title for much of what went on this past weekend in Portland choral music. Not only were The Ensemble, Oregon Repertory Singers, and Portland State University Opera unafraid to tackle new, recent and unusual repertoire, they also showed their audiences that there was nothing to fear in the choral and vocal music of our time.

The Ensemble

The composers — Ferko, Pärt, Gjeilo, Paulus and O’Regan — in Friday night’s concert by The Ensemble are part of a cadre of contemporary on–the-edge choral scribes who have led, and are leading the vanguard of what’s new in choral music today. Their pieces — Hildegard Triptych of Frank Ferko, Threshold of Night and The Ecstasies Above by Tarik O’Regan, and Dark Night of the Soul by Ola Gjeilo— cast new light on the choral scene in many ways. 

The close harmonies of Ferko, the busy rhythmic badinage of the strings in the Gjeilo, and the spectacularly inventive O’Regan piece kept things heady and alive throughout. The harmonic spirits of 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc seemed to haunt the Ferko Triptych. Not a bad model, that. The often dense harmonies were made crystal clear by the incisive intonation of the choir.

Patrick McDonough conducts The Ensemble in rehearsal for Friday's concert.  Photo: Corbett Niedfeldt.

Patrick McDonough conducts The Ensemble in rehearsal for Friday’s concert. Photo: Corbett Niedfeldt.

A feature of some of the pieces, in particular the Gjeilo, was slower, sometimes static harmonic rhythms, layered  beneath ultra-fast surface rhythm. The adept conducting of artistic director Patrick McDonough made the potentially dangerous rhythmic challenges behave perfectly well. The Ensemble singer/artists were able to meet the vocal and musical challenges, and then some. Both O’Regan and Gjeilo offered ample opportunities for solo voices. Jo Routh, Hannah Penn, Cahen Taylor and Michael Hilton were very effective in the former, Catherine van der Salm a standout in the latter.

Seamless phrasing, and again, superb intonation distinguished the Pilgrims’ Hymn of Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus. Estonian legend Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat was perhaps less well suited to the sanctuary of the First Christian Church. With its repeated rests and tintinnabular disposition, it needed more room to breathe and bloom.

A thoughtful program, beautifully arched, beginning and ending with the stimulating music of British composer Tarik O’Regan (what a name!) and perfectly proportioned Pärt in the middle.  Both singers and conductor were well equal to the task of letting us hear the totality of forward looking choral composers. O’Regan and Gjeilo really are new, if being but 34 and 29 years old respectively, counts as anything. Certainly worth more than one hearing – would that The Ensemble could have repeated the concert.

Oregon Repertory Singers

The program title “40” (XL) connoted the anniversary of ORS, and also as a unifying device for the entire program: the 40-voice Tallis motet Spem in Alium concluded the first half and the U2/Bono song, “40” ended the concert. 

Sergei Rachmaninoff and American composer Eric Whitacre dominated the program, particularly in the first half with three movements of the former’s All-Night Vigil. Then followed the William Byrd motet Civitas Sancti Tui, edited by Benjamin Espana, beautifully sung by the choir, and a good counterpoint to the block chords of the previous Russian excerpts. The opening of the second half featured a new motet by another under-40 composer, Latvia’s Eriks Esenvalds, Stars, arranged for mixed voices and pre-tuned wine glasses (no, really, wine glasses) “played” by each member of the choir — a lovely piece, beautifully executed.

Re-creating sounds that have aged for four or five centuries is always a challenge, particularly with those pieces from the short period of “gigantism,” using multiple choirs and voices in choral music (see also: Striggio;  Carver; Andrea Gabrieli). Forty voice parts grouped into eight choirs may be a record! Choices for voices is the name of the game here. First is the matter of pitch: the notated key is D. But what “D”? That pitch in Tallis’ time may well have been ½ step lower, making it easier on the sopranos and tenors.

Moreover, taken as whole, a choir that listens well and balances very well perforce, may become less able to do so when challenged with a score that divides their forces so drastically — especially in unsympathetic venues. The great English (and other European) cathedrals often have an acoustical halo that rounds out the edges and creates a plumminess of tone. But the sanctuary of Portland’s First United Methodist Church is not so friendly as to offer a cathedral-like aura for the benefit of this piece.

ORS artistic director Ethan Sperry’s thoughtful idea for keeping the singers together under such circumstances was to have a conductor for each choir. He conducted from the back of the choir to the conductors facing him, and they conducted each choir in turn. This solution did indeed keep the tempo in lock-step, but it also kept the phrases in the same yoke: the 1-2-3-4-ness preempted a flow and legato line here.

Other composers represented on the program included Eric Whitacre, whose Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine and With a Lily in Your Hand were sung with incisive rhythms and well balanced added-note harmonies, a trademark of this composer.  Sperry’s interpretations were right on target.

The iconic Bogoroditse Devo, under the masterful hands of Gil Seeley, rounded out the Rachmaninoff  stamp on the program. Seeley is the conductor associated with ORS for 35 years, from 1976-2011.  In the final four numbers, ORS was joined by some 50 former members of the group, representing the first 40 years of the organization. The bigger choir sounded youthful and musical, under the direction of both conductors Sperry and Seeley. Here’s to the next 40, ORS, and more.

PSU  Opera

The final event of the weekend was a feast for the eyes and ears: Portland State University’s production of Shakespeare and Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Nights Dream. Full disclosure: not only is this my favorite Britten opera, I performed the role of Lysander (ahem, cough, cough) a few decades back. Another guy, a country boy named Samuel Ramey, sang Bottom.

Without a first rate orchestra, this opera – as well as many others – cannot, and should not be considered. The PSU orchestra, under the direction of Ken Selden, was superb, one of the stars of the show. Woodwinds sparkled, and strings and harp were perfect in realizing Britten’s orchestration.  Britten employs great instrumental effect here: the brass fanfares, the retro music accompanying the rustic’s “play” in the third act (faux Handel; quasi-Mozart; Victorian echoes) are brilliant.

The singers have made good friends with the composer’s synthetic scales and often angular melodies – Verdi this is not! In particular, Ben Espana’s “Bottom” was beautifully sung and loaded with dramatic charisma. Titania, in the person of Hannah Consenz, was perfectly cast, looking regal, meeting every challenge of the high register and demanding tessitura of the part. Loren Masanque, as Oberon, King of the Fairies, handled the countertenor part with ease and conviction.

Haley Maddox (Hermia) and Maria Piro (Helena) were equally well chosen, and displayed a rich wealth of tone throughout the vocal lines.  In Shakespeare’s play within a play, the rustics were wonderfully homespun, without being corny, with Andre Flynn and Kimani Troy Iba especially effective. Iba’s is a tenor voice with promise.

Sets and costumes were visually appealing, and Carey Wong has outdone himself in his minimal but inventive set design.  I myself did not “get” the costuming of the four lovers in 20th century clothes. (Full disclosure #2: I prefer period costuming as much as I do period instruments.) The players’ lines refer at least three times to the “weeds of Athens.” The 1950s-’60s business suits of the men were not very weedy, nor were they B.C. Athenian, at least to this viewer.

All that aside, this was a production of which not only PSU but also the musical community of Portland can be very proud. Selden, Douglas Schneider (interim opera director), Christine Meadows (opera program director on leave this term), Carey Wong, Peter West (lighting design) and Jessica Bobillot (costume design) deserve highest encomiums.

As we view these all artistic efforts through one glass, they do represent a few common threads:  the singers in all of the performances, choral and opera, have been youthanized – many more young people are appearing in choirs, as well as in the audiences. I, and I hope many others, were often smiling out loud just to hear the artistic singing, the grace of the acting, and the conquered challenges of the music. And this music – Britten, Ferko and O’Regan, Esenvalds and Tallis — is as much a challenge (for the singers, though not for the listeners) as you’ll be likely to hear in any city. Bravo to all!

Portland’s Bruce Browne headed the choral programs at Portland State University for many years, directed Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties, and has led choirs around the world.

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One Response.

  1. Thanks so much for your review Mr. Browne. I am glad you enjoyed our show. I just wanted to make a small edit, if I may. Doug was the interum opera program director. The stage director was the amazing David Edwards.
    Thanks again,
    K. Heller
    Assistant Stage Director
    A Midsummer Nights Dream
    PSU Opera

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