Concert reviews: The Ensemble, The Esoterics, Cappella Romana

The Ensemble.

The Ensemble.

by JEFF WINSLOW

April bowed out with a hot week in Puddletown, and it was a hot week for contemporary choral music too. The first weekend heard The Ensemble, Friday at First Christian Church downtown, singing music all from the last 25 years, followed by the spring concerts of Oregon Repertory Singers (at First United Methodist) and the Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland (at The Old Church), each in two shows that at least nodded in that direction. Cappella Romana kept things simmering with their concert the following Friday at St. Mary’s Cathedral, featuring Eugene composer Robert Kyr’s environmentally themed magnum opus A Time for Life. The next day, as they reprised it in Seattle, one of that town’s most adventurous groups, The Esoterics, returned the favor at Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall with a program of mostly new music celebrating the forest world, “Sylvana.” The woods may be cool, dark and deep, but the heat was on to the finish.


The Ensemble threw down a formidable gauntlet in a program of music by living composers Tarik O’Regan, Arvo Pärt, Ola Gjeilo, Stephen Paulus, and Frank Ferko. O’Regan and Gjeilo are in their thirties still, but making names for themselves nonetheless. The Ensemble hasn’t been around many years either, but they’re already in the handful of Portland’s best, and this outing may have been their best yet.

They began and ended with O’Regan. Threshold of Night is a poem by Kathleen Raine that draws a dark, inverted parallel between a child about to be born and a stranger, surrounded by storm and rain, who wants to enter a sorrow-filled house. The womb is the storm and rain outside, and the house is life itself. Just inside the door, the mother questions who is there, and vainly urges them back. It’s mysterious and more than a little disturbing, and O’Regan captures the essence admirably with an evolving refrain of soft whole-tone scale clusters. There is drama too, in competing arguments from the lowest and highest voices, climaxing at one point with a deliciously agonizing dissonance high up. Eventually the work closes with calm resolve as the last cluster sails into the home key’s safe harbor.

The text was somewhat hard to follow, but that didn’t seem to be the fault of the group, which deftly and sensitively negotiated all these turbulent tonal seas. Rather, this subgroup, now that, ran ahead in the poem while the rest lagged behind, or even took another run at it. And so a male composer honors the capriciousness of the birth process, wisely leaving any commentary about the pain of it to those who know better.

Or maybe he just likes to treat text that way. The evening’s finale, The Ecstasies Above, O’Regan’s setting of the Edgar Allan Poe poem, was full of the same tricks, but didn’t come off quite as well. Whether because there wasn’t the same expressive connection between subject and text treatment, because of extra-difficult musical details, or because it came at the end of a challenging program and it’s a big work with no respites outside of a few string quartet interludes, it seemed somewhat diffuse and meandering. The British composer does have a fertile imagination for musical gestures and their counterpoint. Even though the piece is a little bland harmonically, and the second half is broadly structured as a repeat of the first half, there was always something interesting happening. That is no mean feat, even if a couple climaxes carried a whiff of musical theater — effective in their way but stuck uneasily amid more intimate surroundings. And there were many beautifully done solos, especially in the later sections, so it doesn’t seem anyone was getting tired. Maybe the group just needs to live with it longer, internalize better how all the variety flows together. I hope to hear them tackle the work again before long.

The two Pärt works, The Woman with the Alabaster Box and Magnificat, also were less impressive, despite the obvious commitment of director Patrick McDonough and the engagement and precision of his singers. Possibly it’s tempting for a composer to think, when setting long verses from the Bible, that the text is so profound that it doesn’t need much help from the music – that one’s task should be pretty much limited to clear lines, demure harmony and workmanlike counterpoint. Or maybe the composer’s Estonian asceticism just doesn’t consort very comfortably with the easygoing pleasures of life in Portland. It didn’t help that here and there were apparent precursors of the non-expressive pauses and mannered text setting I’ve come to dread in the choral works of David Lang and his acolytes. The one standout part was Jesus’ lesson regarding the Woman, launched with an astonishing, uniquely rich, full spectrum harmony animating “Verily I say unto you…,” eventually coming to rest on a blissful accord anchored by the group’s awesome low basses. No apostle who somehow heard it would ever forget that lesson!

Gjeilo’s Dark Night of the Soul, on a poem by St. John of the Cross, erred in the opposite — the flashy — direction perhaps, but the group showed it off at its best. I could quibble about the often relentless piano part and the rather Hollywood aura of the piece overall. But the Norwegian composer managed to avoid outright cliches, did provide variety when necessary, and there’s no denying he has a fine ear for effect and voicing, which the group put across enthusiastically. I was moved despite my initial resistance.

The finest sense of proportion among the overtly religious works was evident in the simplest, Minnesota composer Paulus’s Pilgrim’s Hymn. After a couple of fluent phrases setting a couple of standard prayer phrases, the harmony hangs in an unexpected place as the prayer suddenly waxes ecstatic, and then all heaven breaks loose on the word “surpassing,” launched by an exquisite dissonance introduced in the bass. All is sweetly resolved, but then it builds again, this time cutting loose on “beyond.” It’s a glorious one-two punch (like the apparent partnership between the composer and poet Michael Dennis Browne). I needed a little more help coming to at the end than a couple of repeated octaves on “Amen,” but that is no fault of The Ensemble. Their performance was lyrically shaped, perfectly tuned, and powerfully moving.

Ferko’s Hildegard Triptych brought a similar experience to a much more complex and sophisticated context. St. Hildegard of Bingen’s texts, while as devotional as Browne’s or St. John’s, seem to speak of a wider world and experience, and the American composer’s music likewise leavens the asceticism of medieval chant with a generous helping of delicious harmonies reminiscent of Francis Poulenc and Olivier Messiaen. Often these bloom suddenly and then vanish, which is quite a challenge for singers’ ears and voices, but the group negotiated all with sure agility.

Two passages in particular amazed me, and can stand as exemplars for the group and the concert. The second movement begins with the words “Caritas abundat” – love abounds – on a rising phrase of parallel Messiaenic chords, rising on the same whole-tone scale which begins the famous Lutheran chorale tune “It is enough.” Whether or not an ecumenical comment was intended (Messiaen was a devout Catholic), the exotic and difficult combination evoked a shimmering feeling of fullness and benediction, not least because of the group’s smooth execution.

Ferko divided the forces into two choirs for these works, and the interplay between them was fascinating. In the first movement, starting what was possibly the most moving and inspiring climax of the evening, quick undulating triplets passed back and forth on the first three words of “Oh how great is the benevolence of the savior” (“O quam magna…”). These built inexorably in harmonic richness until one choir burst out in an arresting chorale while the other amped up the triplet energy even further. There was something miraculous about it, as if a circling flock of brightly colored birds had caused a rainbow to burst out of the ground underneath them. The group clearly enjoys themselves in the big moments, and they absolutely reveled in this one.

These were but two of the many beauties of Ferko’s triptych, which itself was the highlight of The Ensemble’s ambitious and formidable program. How would the other groups of the week compare? Bruce Browne caught the Oregon Repertory Singers and reviewed them for Oregon ArtsWatch. I held out for Cappella Romana’s reprise of Kyr’s oratorio, performed in celebration of their long-awaited CD release.

Conductor Alexander Lingas, composer Robert Kyr and Cappella Romana bask in the applause.

Conductor Alexander Lingas, composer Robert Kyr and Cappella Romana.

Cappella Romana: A Time for Life

“Oratorio” can be misleading, if the word conjures up images of grand choruses and blasting trumpets in the tradition of Bach and Handel. Kyr’s model seems to have been the church music of a much earlier period, or at least typical current performance practice of that music, which is far more intimate. The hour-long work was originally created for eight of the principal singers of Cappella Romana, which specializes in the music of Eastern Orthodoxy, and the ensemble Medieval Strings. Also, its narrative is strongly reminiscent of medieval morality plays, although the forces of good and evil aren’t personified into specific characters. The opening Creation section celebrates the beauty and goodness of the Earth, the middle Forgetting section details a panoply of environmental insults and evils, and the final Remembering section offers hope and a prayer for future remedy. It certainly has the scale of an oratorio, and throughout, Kyr, a long-time member of the University of Oregon music faculty, demonstrates a mastery of vocal counterpoint that can stand with the finest models of the genre.

The current production was adapted for the modern instruments of Third Angle violinist Ron Blessinger, violist Charles Noble and cellist Hamilton Cheifetz. Singers at various times also beat drums and rang delicate, high-pitched wind chimes. The latter may not be terribly medieval, but they were an inspired addition to the atmosphere of the work.

I first heard A Time for Life  soon after it was written in 2007, also at St. Mary’s, and at the time I came away somewhat conflicted, which is pretty normal for such a major new work. On the one hand, there were many sections of manifest and overpowering beauty, and on the other, there were many sections that seemed on first hearing to spin out their material without contributing much to the overall impact. Nevertheless I was happy to see it finally released on CD, and bought my copy even before this month’s reprise.

My main concern this time around was that the work tended to disappear somewhat into the cathedral’s vast space, which surprised me; I didn’t remember that happening before. It does seem to be written for a space in which the faintest sound reverberates into the corners even when full of people, a more medieval structure perhaps. Also I think the work would benefit from a few additional, judiciously placed, uptempo or otherwise contrasting subsections. I’m as much an environmentalist as most folks, but I actually enjoyed the evils, thanks to rare dramatic numbers such as “Howl, You Shepherds!”

Still, Kyr’s work really shines in the atmosphere it creates. The very beginning is understated, with strings alone. But as the voices come in, starting with the low tenor, the string harmony starts to take flight. A haunting spirituality arises, not least thanks to those wind chimes, which don’t sound like they’re hanging off anybody’s roof. Instead, they seem to reverberate gently throughout the heavens like a host of wonders. Entering last among the eight voices, the top soprano comes in over arching gestures in the strings and cuts loose, her notes wordlessly floating up and down the harmonic series. The strings join her, echoing and intertwining like waves of the ocean or a powerful river’s flow. Then they build again, with the soprano on a pentatonic scale, and she subsides and undulates sweetly in the background as the starting tenor returns with the final words in praise of Creation. The section reaches its exquisite, final climax as the other singers all enter in overlapping waves, rising and falling in mighty arcs supported by the richness of the strings.

It’s so impressive that you’d be tempted to think the composer and the performers couldn’t possibly top it, but you’d be wrong. After all the hand-wringing, after the howling, after a number almost too ravishing for its subject – “The Joyless Land” – for soprano and two altos in close harmony, after dancing steps back and a series of prayers for guidance, some sense of rejoicing at the beauty of Earth returns. The finale of the Creation section returns, intensified, and the work ends with an exalted duet between the top soprano and the low tenor, the strings ecstatically shimmering up and down perfect fifths, and the host of wind-chiming wonders suffusing throughout. As the soprano fades out into the stratosphere, the tenor softly intones, over and over, “Remember…,” remember to appreciate our great gifts, even after the beauty of the music fades and we’re heading for our transport home.

For music to come across like this, composers and performers need each other, and Cappella Romana’s performance was masterly. Balance and blend were top-notch at all times. It was no surprise to read in the program that seven of the singers were from the original group of eight which Kyr wrote for, and he prides himself on knowing their voices and writing specifically for them.

The Esoterics: Sylvan Sounds

Cappella Romana’s concert, having both and spiritual and environmental components, provided a nexus between the largely spiritual works on The Ensemble’s program and the joyous, sensuous appreciation of the natural world that animated The Esoterics’s “Sylvana: Music of the Forests, Flowers, and Trees.” Almost entirely devoted to music of the last 30 years, the program proved to be a more than worthy intercity response. Unfortunately, too few Portlanders showed up to hear it, which is a sad loss all the way around, but especially for Portlanders. Admittedly it’s not easy to get them to come to a Saturday afternoon concert, but if they had, they would have heard the equal of anything Portland can produce in the choral line, and these days that’s saying something.

The Esoterics couldn’t have opened with a better number than Seattle composer Greg Bartholomew’s The Tree, on a poem by the minor American transcendentalist Jones Very. It fell well within the bounds of today’s standard choral language, but it shone by virtue of its well-sculpted phrases and deft and fluid counterpoint, as if to say “this is how it’s done.” Eric Banks, the director, pointed out a slight obsession with a particular chord, known to musicians as a major 6-5, when I praised the piece after the concert. But I’ve heard much more obtrusive harmonic obsessions in less effective music by choral big names such as Morten Lauridsen, and anyway, I happen to like that chord. (Full disclosure: like me, Bartholomew is a member of Cascadia Composers.)

The title of the next work was similar: trees (on a poem by e. e. cummings) — but that’s where similarity ended. Cummings’s offbeat poetry poses a challenge for any composer, and 20th-century Swedish composer Lars Johan Werle rose to it with a delightful hodgepodge of effects and evocations, including some that were highly challenging to sing. Quickly rising and falling chains of thirds were at the edge of the group’s ability, but everything else was solid, including some very high soprano touches, octaves attacked with astonishing purity, and sudden efflorescences of jazzy harmony. One instance of the last, on the word “shine,” made me wonder if they were about to break into an homage to “Shine On Harvest Moon”! There were other bits reminiscent of classic American pop tunes too. I’m not convinced it all hung together, but it was certainly entertaining.

Even more entertaining was living British Columbia composer Stephen Chatman’s Due North, a setting of five nature pictures composed to his own text. “Mountains” piled up gestures in fourths and fifths. “Trees,” on a simple list of common tree names, seemed to grow into a majestic forest while we listened. “Woodpecker” whacked away at it riotously, sometimes on downbeats, sometimes on upbeats, sometimes nearly impossibly fast like a flicker. In “Varied Thrushes,” soloists imitated that species’ reedy whistles on three rising pitches. The last number, “Mosquitoes” was a bit of a lie though. They buzzed humorously, and even alluded to the “Mountains'” fourths and fifths, before being squished with a slap at the end. The only “problem” was, mosquitoes don’t buzz, they whine, and they’re far, far more annoying than this little gem was. The choir dove into each movement with gusto, and it turns out they can whistle and buzz well too.

Eric Banks conducted The Esoterics at Portland State University.

Eric Banks conducted The Esoterics at Portland State University.

Serious sensual pleasure was added to entertainment in Banks’s big work Twelve Flowers, composed only five years ago. This being so, it was surprising to learn that the work’s structure was as complex as any of its subjects. The texts are haiku on flowers important in Japanese culture, and in each of the twelve movements, four parts sing the haiku in Japanese in strict canon while four parts sing the English translation in freer but simpler counterpoint, like a fragrance wafting up out of the original language. (It was easy enough to follow the English text, at least.) Not only that, the delay between the voices is a different number of eighth notes for each of the first six canons, and that sequence of entry delays is reversed in the final six canons. Much more generally, some striking gesture which is prominent a certain number of flowers before the middle of the work, often has a roughly corresponding striking gesture the same number of flowers after. From the conversation I had with Banks after concert, I’m guessing these were largely intuitive, unlike his (flower) arrangement of canons.

This description is rather cerebral, but the music didn’t come off that way at all. It was a thorough pleasure from one end to the other, with many unique evocative moments. I seemed to hear apricot blossoms bursting forth, cherry blossoms whirling around me like snow, and the camellia’s petal falling slowly into a deep well. At the very center, two aleatoric passages, in which six voices at time repeated the Japanese name of six different flowers on six different wide-ranging melodic gestures at random time intervals, dare I say, bloomed with spectacular effect. (It was fascinating to watch Banks cue each voice and hear the resulting buildup.) A calmer echo of these passages, using the English names and plainer, more speech-like gestures, made a satisfying conclusion.

Sphragis, or The Seal, by Heinrich Poos, a German composer little-known on this side of the Atlantic who turned 85 last Christmas, seemed to be the heart of the program for Banks, but it didn’t leave as deep an impression with me. The text is on the death of Orpheus as described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with a postscripted Franco-Flemish folksong on the healing power of love, attributed to Josquin des Prez. The one striking thing about it on first hearing was the composer’s knack for unexpected, chromatic shifts between full voicings of common major and minor chords. Which, of course, the group sang with unerring clarity.

Clarity was also, as it should be, front and center in their final performance of the day, Maurice Ravel’s well-known Three Songs (Trois Chansons). The group projected a sound more like a small close-knit chamber choir than what I’d expect from their 32 voices — indeed, more like the eight voices Cappella Romana employed in Kyr’s oratorio. “Nicolette” sparkled, as she avoided the clutches of the wolf and the handsome young page to fall into the arms of the rich old man, and the tricolor birds of paradise visiting the love of the soldier who has gone to war acted out their brief tragedy through four moving solos. (Ravel wrote the set during World War I.) Clarity suffered just a little in the final number, as the old men and women vainly try to keep the youngsters from going into the forest by jabbering the names of all the monsters that live there. But that was mainly because the group took it at a truly insane pace, no doubt to make a sizzling finish to such a high-impact program.

Not only was it a hot week for choral music, but I continue to be impressed and heartened by the commitment shown locally and regionally to new choral music, both by performing groups and by audiences. I have to believe The Esoterics’ small audience was much more a function of unfortunate timing (with so many other choral concerts happening around the same time) and insufficient publicity than anything else; the cognoscenti who sussed them out were thrilled. St. Mary’s Cathedral was very full for Cappella Romana and Robert Kyr, and First Christian downtown was mostly full for The Ensemble, and those audiences were enthusiastic too. New classical music may not be out of the woods yet, but maybe choral music is leading the way.

Jeff Winslow is a composer and pianist who serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. You can hear more hot choral music on Sunday afternoon, including his own work and that of six other Cascadia Composers, performed at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall by the Resonance Ensemble.

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