Holiday Choral Wrap 1: Portland choirs sing for the season

Cappella Romana joined Portland Baroque Orchestra in Handel's "Messiah."

Cappella Romana joined Portland Baroque Orchestra in Handel’s “Messiah.”

By BRUCE BROWNE

Editor’s note: The holidays are peak season for choral performances, so ArtsWatch asked regular contributors Bruce Browne and Jeff Winslow to hear as many as possible and report back to our readers. Here’s part one, with a bonus assessment at the end.

Portland Baroque Orchestra/Cappella Romana “Messiah”: Old Bottles, New Wine

It’s a pleasure to hear a “Messiah” that gets the respect it deserves, being invested with new ideas, ornaments, and a few surprises. Trumpets from the balcony, vaulting cadenzas, and of course, the requisite da capo arias, treated with enough ornaments to deck a Christmas tree.

Taut pacing and compression of space in segues is a trademark of outstanding oratorio concerts. Julian Wachner, conducting without score, is a master of both, moving the music with conviction and certainty through the denouements in each movement, then through to the next, with barely time for a sigh.

Soloists were led by bass Christopher Burchett, whose arias in Part I (“For Behold…” and “The People That Walked in Darkness…”) were resplendent with changes in color and effortless phrasing. Later, he used a hushed sotto voce to introduce “Behold I Tell You a Mystery,” followed by a stentorian, daring “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” In “If God Be for Us,” a movement often omitted, the brilliant violin concertmaster Rob Diggins) and soprano (Shannon Mercer) duo were blissfully wedded in phrasing.

Laura Pudwell, a Canadian mezzo-soprano with the tonal purity of a boy soprano dipped in caramel, had much to offer in “He was Despised,” taking full advantage of onomatopoetic spots such as “shame and spitting,” and shone most brightly in the dramatic aria “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth.” The high point of tenor Zachary Wilder’s singing began with the several recitatives in the Second Part (“Thy Rebuke…, et seq.”) In fact, many of the soloists’ recitatives were the most dramatic parts of the evening, invested as they were with onomatopoetic, invective-like outbursts combined with compelling pacing. In the Easter portion, the phrase shaping in “All We Like Sheep” was beautifully extravagant. Suspensions were elasticized to the nth degree in “Surely He Hath Borne Uur Griefs.”

The choir, composed of singers under the banner of Cappella Romana, was insistently rhythmic, and responsive to Wachner’s every nuance. In a few instances, the men were unable to handle cleanly the very fastest tempi, which are always more challenging for male voices – those pesky longer vocal chords! We occasionally heard a blur rather than clear sixteenth notes. Should Wachner therefore have opted for something a few points slower in “For unto us…,” for example? For those who applaud pushing the envelope, the answer must be “no.” But I’m one who prefers clarity.

Throughout Handel’s oratorio, the singers from Cappella Romana, as expected, were by turns slicing and dicing the rhythms, churning out challenging tempi, and sensitively responding to Wachner’s command at the podium. This writer was yearning for a bit more splicing, and a tad less dicing when, “for lo,” there came relief in the uber-legato “Amen,” closing this work. Instead of deadheading home, the ensemble kept lifting and dipping, then soaring to a breathtaking conclusion.

Bach Cantata Choir: Bold Step Forward

At BCC’s December concert, conductor Ralph Nelson brought us an informed, balanced, and unbroken arch of music. Orchestra and conductor were completely in sync throughout. Winds were particularly sensitive and expressive. The continuo component of singer John Vergin, cellist Dale Tolliver, and Garrett Jellesma, string bass (at times, a bassoon was added for color changes), offered unrelenting support. The trumpets, led by Jerry Webster, were first rate. The only problem appeared in the first movement of opening cantata, when trumpets, placed towards the front of the orchestra, sonically marginalized everything else. This is not the fault of the brass. An alternative placement could have solved the problem.

The soloists deserved plaudits. Laura Thoreson, a new voice in town, was luminescent, showing a stunning stage presence. Jacob Herbert, who sings often with this group, realized perhaps his most appealing appearance, in J.S. Bach’s cantata “May Our Mouth Be Full of Laughter,” BWV 110. Another new voice to Portland, soprano Arwen Myers, was stellar in her solo, and in a duet, partnered with Nan Haemer, who also sang with great effect.

Kudos to Nelson for the alacrities of omitting most of the da capos (repeated passages), and for moving tempi forward where appropriate. He has also upgraded his commentaries from past years. Here, they were delivered in one short burst, at the opening of the concert. No additional oration from the podium was necessary, nor should it be.

The choir, of course, is the real star of the show. The singers managed the laughing fioraturae of the Bach quite nicely, and later, shone in the Eccard a cappella motets presented between the cantatas. Vivaldi’s famous “Gloria,” which closed the concert, was clean and vibrant throughout. A greater variety of articulation could have offered more interest, and less use of “American” vowels rather than strictly focused German sounds could have brightened things up, but those are minor carps. Taken as a whole, this concert was a good step in a positive direction for the Bach Choir, its instrumental confreres and its conductor.

Oregon Repertory Singers: The Whole is Greater than the Sum

Ethan Sperry conducted Oregon Repertory Singers.

Ethan Sperry conducted Oregon Repertory Singers.

The 92-voice Oregon Repertory Singers brought joy and ebullience to their performance, both sonically and visually. Faces lit up with the portrayal of each text, something audiences don’t always get, and this reviewer loves to see. In first-night performances especially, there’s a tendency for singers to become married to their scores, looking unengaged or anxious. Not so this time.

ORS is vested with good amateur voices, in healthy independent groupings of male and female, but after a few moments in their presence, the human ear experiences an entirety — that sound, that enthusiasm, combined with program flow and, from somewhere almost imperceptible, that charismatic personality — that leaves the audience satisfied and wanting to come again.

Music director Ethan Sperry crafted a well developed choral concert, with a perceptible arc, an organic development that transported the listener on a sonic journey. We savored smaller moments when our collective breaths were held subliminally, when pregnant silences followed final chords just right for all tastes.

The choir really seemed to bloom fully after the first three pieces. Contemporary composer Arvo Part’s “Magnificat” is a tough piece to bring alive as the first a cappella motet of the concert. Its consummate tintinnabular pealing —continuity of repeated phrases, rests defining pulse, triads feeding each other relentlessly — must be flattered by an acoustic that simply is not present at this venue. Benjamin Espana, the choir’s promising new assistant conductor, led that Pärt performance and Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Veni Sancti Spiritus,” which showed the choir to good advantage, although word accent and interior lines could have been more assertive.

Oregon-born composer Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium” receives a great deal of attention especially during this season, but I have seldom heard a more effective performance of it than here. Another a cappella crowd-pleaser, a tradition at ORS holiday concerts, was the well-known double male choir “Ave Maria” of Franz Biebl. The choir-member soloists, the balance, the bravely executed tempo made this piece a jewel. Placement toward the middle of the sanctuary took better advantage of the acoustic.

In other highlights, the sopranos aced their high notes in “O Holy Night,” and elsewhere. While soloists were good but occasionally uneven, we heard a choral balance and blend that produced a consummate artistic whole. It’s an accolade to the choir and its conductor when first time soloists are used to good effect.

The choir shifted into overdrive beginning with Anton Bruckner’s “Virga Jesse.” It was buoyant, dynamic contrasts were expansive, and as a whole was just right for Bruckner’s mystic, Catholic setting. Another revelation was Stephen Paulus’s arrangement of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” with brilliant accompaniment, played artistically by ORS accompanist Naomi LaViolette.

Sperry, a composer and arranger himself, cleverly chose to highlight several local and living composer/arrangers. Stacey Phillips, LaViolette and Espana deserve commendation for their new musical ideas brought to us through these performances. The Centennial Middle School’s “Middle Cs,” directed by Brice Cloyd, was a heartwarming addition to the concert I attended.

ORS singers bring a sense of spirit and pure joy in “acting out” the texts as they sing. The arrangement of “Twelve Days of Christmas” was a nice surprise, and a hoot, ending with a kind of pop/rap by three of the singers — entertaining in the extreme and a holiday pleasure. Heavy on the Gestalt(z), not too schmaltz; this reviewer finds no faults.

Portland Symphonic Choir: Dressed for Success

Like a kaftan over loose skin, the broad acoustic of Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral can cover a multitude of sins, but it also presents challenges which were very well attended to by Steven Zopfi and Kathryn Lehmann in PSC’s annual “Wintersong” concert.

The most compelling piece of the first half was Lehman’s first rate realization of the arrangement of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” by Sven-David Sandstrom. Originally a short, simple motet by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), it’s been morphed by Sandstrom into a gossamer of added notes and hints of the original melody, which elevate it to a new level.

Early in the first half, vitality was becalmed by time-consuming choir movement, a lengthy and static Lakota melody, and later, and a time-worn “Jeg er saa Glad.” However, the half ended with three fresh and culturally diverse pieces directed by Zopfi: two by Elliot Levine, and finally, offering a Hispanic flavor, “Gloria a Dios,” by Michael Medoza, which deserves to be heard more often. Harpist Denise Fujikawa provided solid and inspired accompaniment here.

In the second half, some of the celebrated Kirk Mechem international carols, sung well by the choir, lacked the flair of similarly based Shaw/Parker arrangements. Emily Kalteira, however, was a superb soloist in the first arrangement, “This is the Truth,” and Fujikawa again added spice and spirit to the Japanese New Year’s carol.

Grant High School’s Royal Blues, led by John Eisemann, were a nice addition to the program, with the two soloists, Ethan Eisemann, in the “Wexford Carol,”and Sophia Morrow, who evoked a convincing response from the audience in “Ukuthula,” especially effective.

The whole evening was a diverse olio of choirs (2), conductors (3), speakers (2), and singers (several hundred, counting audience sing-alongs). It was encouraging to watch a good high school choir be acknowledged, and to watch two conductors share the stage with equal effect.

Portland Chamber Orchestra/Choral Arts Ensemble: Light and Buoyant

In the “Messiah” collaboration between Choral Arts Ensemble, led by David DeLeyser, and Portland Chamber Orchestra, PCO music director Yaakov Bergman asked for, and got a lightness and buoyancy from choir and orchestra that worked very well for the smaller size of both organizations.

Tempi were upbeat without being too fast for the male voices. The occasional “outtake” from instrumental members was far overshadowed by the overall musicality and virtuosic soli passages, such as from the trumpet. Maestro Bergman’s elegant gestures reflected a warmth and breadth of expression that was a happy combination of “classically trained” conducting and personal emotion.

The soloists were well chosen: bass Anton Belov, from New York, sang evenly, with dark chocolate timbres; his “The Trumpet Shall Sound” was outstanding. Soprano Anne McKee Reed was warm and luminescent in “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” Tenor Brian Tierney was especially effective in the recitatives, notably the opening “Comfort Ye.” The fioratura demanded in the arias presented a challenge. Mezzo-soprano Angela Niederloh, a veteran of many opera and oratorio performances in the Northwest, was at her finest in “O Thou That Tellest,” especially in the da capo, showing off many lovely oranaments. The “alto” part in this work does not always flatter even the best mezzo-sopranos, of whom Niederloh is most definitely one. Some of the arias were not in her wheelhouse, and this intimate and beveled hall does not easily disperse an operatic vibrato.

This choir has come a good distance recently under DeLeyser’s baton. They still are desperately in need of tenors, who were audibly MIA on many occasions. The men in general might have benefited from being placed in front or in blocks, rather than being masked by two rows of women. The sopranos were clear and clean throughout.

Something that distracted this writer was the obvious omission from the written program of the names of the choristers! This is offensive to the choir and confusing for the audience. An oratorio is a showpiece first and foremost for the singers, and whatever led to this gaffe is not acceptable, and smacks of the old time mentality of “the singers and the musicians.” Ouch!

Wrapping Up the Holiday Gifts

Holiday musical offerings are finished. Like holiday decorations, it is time to store them away until next year. And, like holiday decorations, we are happy to just tuck them away until the last moment they are needed next year. Seems reasonable. Or is it?

Often, the holiday concert is the most heavily attended and most widely known. Perhaps it is the seasonal cash cow. As the year turns the corner, arts boards and conductors take a look in the rear view mirror to see what worked, what didn’t – what are the takeaways. Here are this listener’s top ten takeaways from Holiday Concerts 2013.

10) Conductors who talk between numbers — please have a very good point that MUST be made to enhance the overall concert. Otherwise…shush. And please don’t tell us how we should feel as we hear an upcoming piece. Spoiler alert.
9) In an acoustical “play-off” between voices and brass, team brass is always going to end up at the Super Bowl.
8) You believe you’re hearing a fun, perhaps great, performance, when the singers LOOK like they’re enjoying themselves. Who me? Yes, you! No budget line necessary for this fix.
7) A good (see successful) holiday program will include new ideas, innovative surprises and, perhaps above all, some new and reimagined choral literature.
6) Many choral works, and almost all Baroque (see “Messiah”) pieces, are based on the dance. Singers should feel, even show, that they are connected to that idea when appropriate.
5) W. C. Fields was wrong. Whenever possible, DO share the stage with children in your holiday offerings. [editorial: Support Music Education].
4) Showcasing new arrangements and compositions by local, living composers is a great investment in choral music– and very cool.
3) Excess choir movement within the concert = dead time. Compounded with further inter-concert commentary = dead audience.
2) Most of the people who are performing for you (especially singers), most of the ushers, many of the behind-the-scenes doers of programs and logistics, are unpaid. Their holiday offering is a generous gift to us all out of their love for the art.Bless them one and all. And thank you, donors!
1) Portland boasts many wonderful, committed and well-trained choirs, and not just at Christmastime. Directors, too, are way above average. Readers: support this great art form! Or better yet, become a part of it: sing, subscribe, volunteer!

Renowned choral musician Bruce Browne conducted the Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties, and directed the Portland State University choral programs for many years. In March 2012, he received the Lifetime Award for Leadership and Service from the American Choral Directors Association.

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