Holiday Choral Wrap 2: In Mulieribus and The Ensemble, Alternative Christmas music

In Mulieribus

In Mulieribus

by JEFF WINSLOW

Editor’s note: this is the second in our two-part coverage of Portland’s annual holiday choral music effusion. See Bruce Browne’s overview of other top choral concerts here.

England and Christmas go together like the holly and the ivy, at least in the American imagination. On the wet side of the Cascades, both plants spread like the proliferation of Dickens and Handel this time of year. Such worthies have their place, but In Mulieribus’ program of songs and carols from medieval and contemporary England, “Nowell Syng We” at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church just before Christmas, was a blessed relief – a joyous and beautifully presented alternative view down the centuries towards the roots of our musical traditions.

The heart of the Portland-based female vocal octet’s program was a baker’s dozen of works from the 13th through 15th centuries, mostly unattributed to any particular composer, in every conceivable arrangement of voices. Whether in unison or in several voices, whether sung by three women or the full group of eight, the group’s warmth of tone and purity of intonation filled the well-matched resonant space with delight after delight. It hardly seems fair to mention a slight fraying at the start of a few verses of the long unison “Cherry Tree Carol,” considering that in such passages as the extensive unison verse in “Angelus ad virginem,” in rollicking triplets no less, the group sang as a single voice. Harmony was unerringly tuned to the task at hand, from soft chains of thirds to brilliantly consonant towers soaring into the stratosphere.

The fine tuning was especially felicitous, for it seems the English cultivated a sense of key somewhat in advance of the Continent. Even the simple carol “Edi beo thu” from the 1200s conveyed a sense of classical tonal center with only two voices, and in a work redolent of the roughly contemporary French composer Perotin, “Flos regalis virginalis,” the middle voice escaped the customary severe fifths at the final cadence, mellowing it by rising in two steps to the now-familiar third. Thirds were also very much at the foreground of “Qui creavit caelum” from the same century, in long chains surmounted by a third voice completing the chord that is known among Western musicians today as “first inversion.”

Several generations after these three works, the enigmatic Leonel Power wrote “Beata progenies,” which bracketed two verses of unison plainchant with a verse in deft and highly varied counterpoint. Somehow the reprise highlighted all the latest (for his day) thirds and sixths, while the first time through, the antique open fifths drew attention.

But the standout from the perspective of classical musical rhetoric as well as sheer musical beauty was the cantilena “Generosa Iesse plantula,” identified only as coming from the royal chapel of Edward III in the mid-14th century. The cadences, in open fifths, seemed carefully distributed on the different degrees of the scale in an overall plan worthy of Haydn or Mozart, rather than merely dictated by the tones of some underlying chant. One was even approached through a harmonic device well-known to those later composers but very unusual in medieval times, the “dominant of the dominant” – a kind of musical procrastination, like preparing to get ready to arrive. In between cadences, three-part counterpoint flowed like a stream on the moors, the voices coordinated smoothly rather than tangled in relentless crossings as in Perotin’s day. It’s easy to believe, as hinted in IM director Anna Song’s program notes, that these innovative currents eventually influenced the rest of Europe and contributed vitally to what is called tonal music today.

The music of living composers was well represented too. Local composer Craig Kingsbury refracted the pure plainsong “Hodie Christus natus est” into a highly colorful and engaging arrangement, dense but still clear, judiciously mining the catalog of contemporary choral dissonances without falling into the Whitacre soup. Britisher Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Fader in heven” was a restrained prayer in sparse counterpoint, made touching by a mere handful of the edgy sonorities characteristic of his more famous works.

The star of the show, however, was the premiere of Ivan Moody’s “Cum natus esset Iesus,” commissioned by In Mulieribus (whose name is Latin for “among women”) and clearly written with every confidence in their outstanding abilities. The clarion chords of the opening, by themselves and together in gentle opposition, spread an incandescent elation throughout the space, and thanks to the group’s exquisite tuning, shot off high harmonics like lightning bolts shooting sprites up above the clouds. (When a particularly high and clear one rang out in a reprise near the end, it brought smiles to the faces of audience and singers alike.) The angel of the Lord came upon the shepherds in a sweetly undulating passage, and before they could take it all in, the chords built back with redoubled brilliance. Nor was harmony the only pleasure; Moody gave the angels real tunes to sing, and spread “Glorias” throughout the rest of the work like remembered joys. The shepherds ran off to the manger in Bethlehem in delightfully contrasting scales, and the work expanded to gently radiant conclusion. The audience cheered enthusiastically. Composer and singers have every right to be pleased with each other.

A few more short medieval works, their exotic distance now heightened by such a heady dose of the present day, brought us gently back to earth. I came out into the blah that Portland offers for Christmas weather – wet 40s – nonetheless warmed by the glow of the music and at peace with the world. Blessings on all of us, the reformed Scrooges, the shouters of Hallelujah, and on our treasure In Mulieribus.

The Ensemble performed December 29.

The Ensemble performed December 29.

The Ensemble: Colorful and memorable

Christmas is a holiday that is intended to stick with those who celebrate it. On the fifth day of 2013’s Christmas, barely 50 hours before the end of the old year, chamber choir The Ensemble gave a committed performance of 20th and 21st century music of the season at St. Stephen Catholic Church that still glows in my memory.

An opening trio of Benjamin Britten works made one last homage in the centennial of his birth year. The group came in singing the processional, his arrangement of a Gregorian antiphon, from “A Ceremony of Carols,” and continued with a vivacious and agile performance of the theme from “A Boy Was Born.” Alleluias rolled through the space like waves of the ocean, ebbing on perfectly timed and placed octave drops. The climax came with “Chorale after an Old French Carol,” which Britten withdrew from performance for many years because of its difficulty. It didn’t faze this group. The widely spaced harmonies of the outer verses were tuned with haunting purity, and the richly crossing voices of the middle verse had a spine-tingling impact. It was an auspicious launch to an ambitious program.

A downside to starting this way, though, is that Britten can be a tough act to follow. Little in the wide variety of compositional voices which followed lived up to this first set, even though the group kept to a high performance standard throughout. Still, works were clearly carefully chosen for the occasion, nothing seemed out of place, and there were many high points.

One slight disappointment was Hugo Distler’s “Chorale Variations on ‘There is a Rose Ever Blooming,’” though my own hopes were somewhat at fault. There is a magic moment in the traditional harmonization (made by late Renaissance composer Michael Praetorius) of this ancient tune, and I was looking forward to hearing Distler’s response to its spell. But the composer ignored it entirely, and as a result the work seemed colorless, despite its contrapuntal facility and a ravishing solo by Laura Thoreson.

Still, there was plenty of color served up to warm us against the chill settling in outside. Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus deployed a wide variety of textures – unisons, simple chords, rich counterpoint, and delicious heaps of thirds – with extraordinary sensitivity to the text in his “Splendid Jewel.” Appropriately for a 14th-century Marian psalm, the crowning glory was an ecstatic passage on the words “Virgin Mary,” when a full voicing of a simple major triad gyrated through exotic keys as if about to fly off into the heavens. The group performed it flawlessly.

Kenneth Leighton’s “Of a rose is all my song” was not so inventive nor as elegant, but it did feature an inspired solo refrain on the title line, which yearned and vaulted, soaring over many-hued harmonic seas. Soloist Catherine van der Salm’s equally inspired delivery took it straight to the heart.

The contrast between two juxtaposed simple settings, Niels La Cour’s of the traditional “Hodie Christus natus est” and John Tavener’s of Blake’s “The Lamb,” was so considerable that it took awhile to sink in. Ultimately the subtle shadings and filigrees of La Cour warmed much more than the schematic, blocky Tavener. Peter Warlock’s “Bethlehem Down” displayed the typical simplicity of a carol; the music for each of its five verses was nearly identical. But its fluid counterpoint and wistful harmonic shadings so well evoked each passing verbal image – Bruce Blunt’s poem is equally fluid and musical, almost too sensuous for a Christmas carol – that I happily welcomed it each time. 

Fluid and sensuous also was the latter of two Herbert Howells numbers, the one the concert was named for, “A Spotless Rose.” The group glided effortlessly through almost Debussian harmonies when contemplating the rose; dissonances evoking the cold winter ached exactly as they should. In this piece and the Warlock (which followed), the group seemed to slip into a groove and speak directly from the composers’ pages. Of course this is an illusion. As in any art, the less the audience is aware of work, the more likely it is that the composers and performers alike put a lot into it! And we, the audience, reap the joys.

The work showed more in the final trilogy of Abbie Betinis works, “In This Tyme of Christmas,” “Dormi, Jesu,” and “The Babe of Bethlehem,” both by composer and choir. Yet there were many beauties, such as the sopranos soaring in thirds at the reference to baby Jesus being suckled by Mary in the first work. “The Babe of Bethlehem” didn’t quite live up to the wonderful recording which can be heard on the website of the composer, a young Minnesotan who has made her mark in the choral repertory. But it was plenty rousing, and soloists Mel Downie Robinson, Kristen Buhler, and Cahen Taylor all shone as announcing angels.

This last work, with its joyful echo effects, deft harmonic coloration and other skillful writing, would make a spectacular finish for any choral concert. Finishing this one, it was like the last log on a fire finally bursting into brilliant flame. I carried its warmth with me out into the cold, fading twilight.

Portland writer Jeff Winslow is a composer, pianist, and a founding member of Cascadia Composers.

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