Stocking Stuffers: Oregon classical music recordings

Of course you didn’t mean to, but the holidays can be hectic, so many cards to send, gifts to give. Fortunately, there’s still time to give  that music lover a gift (via actual CD or downloadable file) of homegrown music by Oregon musicians — including some holiday sounds, though not always the most conventional.

dropintheocean“A Drop in the Ocean,” Portland State University Chamber Choir:  Anyone chancing upon this music without knowing who’s singing would be shocked to discover that it’s a college choir. This sometimes luminous new CD provides tangible proof that director Ethan Sperry has restored the PSU to its former ranks among the nation’s finest collegiate choirs. Recorded in the (occasionally overly) reverberant acoustics of Portland’s First United Methodist Church and St. Stephens Catholic Church, the disc radiates a plush, reverent sound, from the striking opening “O Salutaris Hostia” and title track by contemporary Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds through the closing Haitian voodoo songs that regularly spice the choirs often thrilling live performances. The disc would have benefited from another of those upbeat numbers to break up the rich but poky sequence of tracks — Thomas Dorsey’s gospel classic “Precious Lord” and works by Rachmaninoff, Verdi and Georgy Sviridov’s “Having Witnessed a Wondrous Birth,” which nearly sends the album into a stall before it picks up with Sperry’s clever arrangement of the inevitable “Hallelujah” (which like every cover I’ve heard loses some of Leonard Cohen’s original slyness amid the earnestness) and a strong closing stretch run.

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“Now make we joye: Renaissance Christmas and other Celebratory Music,” Ensemble De Organographia, Oregon Renaissance Band: Phil and Gayle Neuman not only study Renaissance music, teach the other members of their bands to play it in the manner it was intended by its creators, and play many of the archaic instruments themselves — but they also make their own replicas of those original curtals, sackbutts, douçaines, racketts, ayacachtlis, tartolds, cornamusens, krummhorns (quack!), schreierpfeifes, violas da braccio, cants, shawms, and more. The album also boasts more familiar sounds of violin, guitar, recorders, bagpipes and Gayle Neuman’s affectingly and appropriately artless voice. And if you want to see as well as hear those colorful noisemakers, you can check out their CD release concerts Friday and Saturday at Portland’s Community Music Center or Sunday at Gresham’s St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, which will likely contain much of the music on this disc, by Europeans such as Michael Praetorius, William Byrd, and even composers from Latin America.

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“This England,” Oregon Symphony:

After its triumph with last year’s program of music by British composers Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and American John Adams, the OSO goes all-English. Billed as a “super audio CD” by Pentatone Classics, it still struggles with the acoustic limitations of the recording venue, Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and even if these live recordings (made in live concerts there in February and May of this year) can’t quite match the power I experienced hearing these recordings in person, they achieve admirable depth and clarity that bring out unexpected elements in both major 20th century English compositions. Unlike last year’s rendition of Vaughan Williams’s previous, knottier symphony, this excellent new recording can’t surprise as many listeners who are doubtless more familiar with the more popular 1943 Symphony #5. But the OSO’s taut performance doesn’t wallow in superficial pastoral pleasures, finding depths that some other performances miss. Their even fiercer performance of Benjamin Britten’s popular “Sea Interludes” from his great opera “Peter Grimes” fully captures its drama. Both major works and the engaging opener, “Cockaigne,” Edward Elgar’s postcard to London circa the English equivalent of the Belle Époque, demonstrate the tightly wound expressiveness and sharp ensemble that music director Carlos Kalmar and the current crew (notably here the brass section) have developed in recent years, and this recording can proudly stand alongside other top versions by the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra. But the fact that these last-century works have been much recorded by other major orchestras raises another question: how about an album from our taxpayer-supported orchestra called “This Oregon”?

PSGBy Request … Girlchoir Favorites,” Portland Symphonic Girlchoir: These selected live performances (accompanied by pianists Kay Doyle and Tamara Still) from concerts in 2008-10 covers a remarkable range of territory, from spirituals to contemporary choral works to Duke Ellington tunes — a nobly ambitious effort in which the girls catch the bluesy feeling but not the swing; we’re so spoiled by the flexible phrasing of some of the greatest solo singers in this repertoire that square choral performances can come off a little stiff — and more. Even the very young choristers turn in surprisingly affecting performances in a disk that demonstrates the value of one of Oregon’s most beloved institutions for young musicians.

singnswingsmall-148x148“Sing & Swing the Season,” Portland Gay Men’s Chorus: The 130-voice choir sings 18 carols and Hanukkah songs ranging from Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” to Morten Lauridsen’s shimmering “O Magnum Mysterium.” The chorus sounds focused and engaged for such a large, non-professional group, and a small band lends lively accompaniment. Artistic director Bob Mensel builds the sound to impressive heights in Franz Biebl’s famous “Ave Maria,” even if he makes the unusual decision to take different tempos for different verses. A party breaks out for “Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells” and the final track, “The Merriest.”

One Response.

  1. Nancy Ives says:

    I appreciate this thoughtful review of our CD “This England,” especially the great idea of the next one being “This Oregon.” The reason for that would not, however, be taxpayer support, which is minuscule at best. (Yes, it will likely grow thanks to the Arts Tax.) The best reason is that we have some great composers here. Svoboda’s “Vortex,” which we premiered a few years ago, comes to mind.

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