cappella romana

Cappella Romana review: Musical time travel

Vocal ensemble's Passion performance transports listeners to millennium-old sacred service.

Cappella Romana, Portland’s premier choir, is on a roll. They’ve been stepping up their touring schedule with high-profile engagements around the country and abroad, gave the world premiere of Maximilian Steinberg’s 1923 Passion Week last season to a glowing Wall Street Journal review by Artswatch’s Brett Campbell, and added several recordings to an already substantial discography. Their 20th CD, Good Friday in Jerusalem, was released last week and vaulted to the top spot among vocal new releases (it’s currently sold out); it also debuted this week at no. 8 on Billboard’s classical chart. So you can imagine the CD release concerts the weekend before—cases of Krug, stretch limos, the usual.

Actually, they were exactly the kind of affair you’d expect from Cappella, with solemn processions and superb performances of melismatic chant cloaked in antiquity.

Cappella Romana sang medieval Byzantine music in Portland last week.

Cappella Romana sang medieval Byzantine music in Portland last week.

Many years ago, I wrote that Alexander Lingas, Cappella’s founder and artistic director, “has a gift that most classical concert promoters would kill for: an uncanny ability to assemble large and devoted audiences for programs that the vast majority of the concert-going public would find hopelessly arcane and excruciatingly dull. It is difficult to imagine anyone else turning the earliest chant into le dernier cri.” (I learned years later that—a highlight of my professional life—the phrase “hopelessly arcane and excruciatingly dull” was printed on a t-shirt worn by Lingas himself.) That was apropos a program of Roman chant; this program reached even further back into the past, with excerpts from a 10th-century Passion service including chant from the eighth century derived from earlier compositions.

On a strictly sonic level, the concert at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral was magnificent (though I’d love to have heard the matinee performance in the spacious, ringing acoustic of St. Mary’s Cathedral as well). As with last year’s concerts of Finnish Orthodox music, it was especially satisfying to hear the singers perform music they’d already worked to a fine polish for committing to disc. The ten men filled the space with dark resonance, making effortless work of melismatic unison melodies and rock-solid drones, and the pacing was measured but unflagging.

Beyond just the sound, however, was the humbling realization that this was a telling of the Passion as it would likely have sounded over a millennium ago in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Jerusalem complex built around the site of the crucifixion and entombment of Christ. There are limits to sound recreation, of course, but this configuration of Cappella had impeccable credentials as a kind of Byzantine supergroup of cantor-scholars including Lingas, his City University of London colleague Spyridon Antonopoulos, frequent Cappella collaborator and composer Ioannis Arvanitis, protopsaltis Stelios Kontakiotis (first chanter of one of Greece’s leading pilgrimage sites), and John Michael Boyer, protopsaltis of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco. (Listening to Boyer’s voice develop its regal presence over 15 years with Cappella has been one of the more gratifying benefits of following the ensemble.)

GoodFridayInJerusalem-300x300The concert also invited a listener to delve into the expressive potential of this ancient music, a kind of artistic expression that, because the rigors and self-negating ethos of the medieval church are worlds away from the nakedly personal poetry of, say, Schubert, we have little ability to grasp. But it was impossible not to hear the laments of Mary at the foot of the cross and not be moved.

My first experience of Cappella was a performance of another setting of the Passion, Arvo Pärt’s, over 20 years ago; the journey from that to this has been profound, through many layers of musical history. I am reminded of the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome, where an 18th-century coffered ceiling covers a medieval basilica, which itself sits atop a 4th-century church with a former Mithraic temple in its basement. Standing there, on what was originally a republican-era private house, you can hear a trickle of water from an ancient source. Good Friday in Jerusalem went deep, and it sounded close to the spring from which poured centuries of sacred music.

James McQuillen is the classical music writer for The Oregonian.

Cappella Romana review: A Falling Star Shines Bright

Portland vocal ensemble excels in hometown performance before major European festival appearance.


Just past what the Greeks called “dog days of summer,” Cappella Romana shone like Sirius in our Portland sky. Saturday night the premier choral ensemble presented a thoughtful, dramatic performance of Greek and Latin compositions written before and after the fall of Constantinople, the title of the concert.

The entire program was meant to transport us to the years prior to and just after the final downfall in 1453, the year of the final siege upon Roman Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks. The Eastern Mediterranean’s political climate, heated for decades, was well documented by composers, some making clear their personal sympathies, such as Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474), a justifiably famous musician from the Netherlands school, and the Greek Renaissance scholar John Plousiadenos.

Cappella Romana performed in Seattle and Portland before taking their music to The Netherlands.

Cappella Romana performed in Seattle and Portland before taking their music to The Netherlands.

All ten voices in Cappella Romana were remarkable. Jon Boyer, Mark Powell (and conductor/artistic director Alexander Lingas) were first rate in lead roles as Priest or Deacon. Mel Downie Robinson and Catherine Van der Salm were pristine, mellow in their intermittent roles.

Two pieces stood out. While working for the Malatesta family, the peripatetic Dufay, who worked for several mid-15th century princes and courts around Europe, wrote “Vasilissa ergo gaude” (Empress, therefore rejoice), in celebration of a dynastic marital coupling in Rimini.

The other, “Lament for the Fall of Constantinople” (c. 1458) was composed by Manuel Doukas Chrysaphes, a 15th century singer and composer of the Constantinopolitan Courta and the most prominent Byzantine musician of the 15th century. My ear was struck here, and at other places, by the absolute clarity and confidence of the soloists in negotiating some very tricky passages. The mode (was it Lydian?) presented no problems for the singers, who clearly expressed the sighing and emoting reflective of the text.

Some of the features of Byzantine music echo what we know from Gregorian chant as it developed in the second millennium, with attenuated pedal tones (similar to “drones” as on a bagpipe) and parallel movement (where the pitch distance between two voices remains constant as the melody line continues) of perfect fifths and octaves the rule — for which today’s freshman theory student would receive a grade of “F.”

Among many things which separate this music from other, later choral music, say of Bach, Byrd, or Brahms, are the numerous ornaments that must be executed, spot on, in a quarter second. The exacting execution of these ornamental elements showed the scholarship and vocal tenacity of Lingas and the choir. Another twist in this music’s style is the disequilibrium produced by chromatic (deviation from scale tones) and micro-chromatic (quarter tones) nature of the melodies. These was either written in, or quite possibly products of Lingas’s educated guesses. When singing in unison and in octaves, it is a real challenge.

Ironically, this music sometimes asks the singers to do what all high school/college choristers are asked never to do. One stylistic element, for example, is the proclivity to attack the note from below at the beginnings of phrases. What is extraordinary about this practice is the virtuosity of ensemble scooping. Choral directors out there, think about it: scooping in unison. Egads.

“Canon in honor of Thomas Aquinas” by John Plousiadenos (1429? – 1500), consisted of several verses with seemingly more advanced melodic features parceled out variously to the men, then the ladies of the choir, offering similar modal inflections at most of the cadence points. “Ecclesiasticae Militatis” (The Church Militant), Dufay again, was a spirited, strong vehicle with two tenors, Leslie Green and Blake Applegate, leading the way, artfully and sinuously, the two vocal lines meshing like snakes making love. There was no avoiding the “diabolus in musica” (diminished fifth); the modes dictated this very often throughout the concert (as accidents of modal use, not to enhance the text). Another feature of this motet and others was the hopping back and forth from triple to duple meter, handled expertly by choir and director.

At the end of the program, appropriately, came the most impactful piece, perhaps both musically and historically: “Lamentatio Sanctae Matris Ecclasiae” (Lament to the Holy Mother of Constantinople). This multi-layered Dufay piece was a model of the early polytextual motet (French and Latin), and cantus firmi (a pre-existing melody forming the basis of a polyphonic composition.) in a lower part, poised against one or two upper contrapuntal melodies. This was the precursor of the “modern” (again Bach, Byrd, Brahms motet. But there is no bass part per se. So, to the 21st century ear, the upper parts sort of hang in the air, pining for the anchor of the bass.

Kudos to Cappella Romana, which last month received a $90,000 grant from the Oregon Community Foundation. And bravo to the Foundation for recognizing that Cappella Romana is a worthy ensemble led by one of the world’s leading scholars in Byzantine music, a Portland treasure, Dr. Alexander Lingas.

My pew-mate for the concert, a Portland visitor from a small town of 5,000, said hearing this music was like going back in time, being immersed in an era – a period- piece concert. The only thing missing, she said, was a stone cold church and a gentle snowfall. OK. I get that. Transported is good.

This week, the choir takes off for Holland to sing at the Festival of Early Music in Utrecht — signal honor for a singly good choir. Bon voyage.

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led the Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties, and Portland State University’s renowned choral programs, and has conducted choirs around the world.

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The Ensemble.

The Ensemble.


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.


An international news and notes: Juicy, too

A night with Cedar Lake, Artists Rep's new season, Debra Beers, 'Tartuffe', Cappella Romana, Shakespeare's canon

Debra Beers, 'Cleo’s Farewell', 2013, at Lewis & Clark's Hoffman Gallery through March 9

Debra Beers, ‘Cleo’s Farewell’,
2013, at Lewis & Clark’s Hoffman Gallery through March 9

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet breezed into Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Wednesday night for a couple of hours and danced the living daylights out of three demanding and fascinating pieces.  Presumably, the company is winging its way to some new locale today where it will do the same.  If they were performing here tonight again, I’d change my plans and make sure I saw them, even if they were just repeating the same program, just to see the way the three contemporary choreographers employed those superbly trained bodies one more time. We have reached a new age of virtuosity on our dance stages, and choreographers who have grown up with it, know how to use to create effects and moods that weren’t possible before, in quite the same way.

I remember when Twyla Tharp pushed her dancers to the very limit in the ’70s, and I still love those dances and dancers. But this level of athleticism and technique, that’s another story completely. I won’t go into last night’s program at length, because, well, it’s gone. And if you saw it, you saw this apex dance company dancing the new international style brilliantly and compellingly. This isn’t the only way to dance, of course, but it’s what the major touring companies are doing, and though I may have some reservations still, I have to say I was delighted and moved by last night’s show, which included Hofesh Shechter Violet Kid, Alexander Ekman’s Tuplet, and Crystal Pite’s Grace Engine.

But we have so much more on the docket today!


Portland choir Cappella Romana sang Finnish Orthodox music at St. Mary's Cathedral.

Portland choir Cappella Romana sang Finnish Orthodox music at St. Mary’s Cathedral.


For some reason the Christmas pageants at my Salem grade school always began with Jean Sibelius’ patriotic Finlandia-hymn, but fitted with words which instead described a sad state of affairs – undone work and crumbling walls – which the birth of Jesus promised to remedy. As a child I found this almost unbearably poignant, and preferred the music to nearly all the Christmas carols which followed. So Cappella Romana, in opening their concert with it last Friday evening at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, established an instant rapport just as if I were one of Sibelius’ fellow Finns. The work has been criticized as hard to sing, mainly by those who don’t want it to become Finland’s national anthem, but the group didn’t give the slightest evidence of it.

The rest of the concert celebrated January’s gradual return of light to Portland skies with Orthodox church music mostly from Finland, a land whose extremes of lighting, both day and night, put Oregon’s to shame. Between direction by renowned visiting Finnish conductor Timo Nuoranne, informative program notes by British composer Ivan Moody (who also selected the works), and the usual cadre of top-flight local singers, a packed house was transported irresistibly to the promised land of Arctic Light. Founder Alexander Lingas can be proud.


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

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


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.

Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Although the winter solstice and a couple of major winter religious holidays have just passed, as the title of Portland Cello Project’s new EP suggests, every winter has an extended play in Oregon, so these seasonal CDs should still hold water, as it were, till around Independence Day. Other Oregon recordings here would make fine gifts regardless of the season.

Portland Cello Project, Winter (The Best Nine Months of the Year).

PCP’s most “classical” project yet — what with the starring role of Oregon Symphony principal cellist Nancy Ives and the band bringing the music last week to her band’s home base, Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (one of those temples of classical music that PCP had hitherto avoided in its quest to boldly go where no cellos had gone before) — the 7-song EP’s style suits its seasonal subject. If rock is the quintessential summer music, maybe it’s no coincidence that we turn to classical chestnuts like “Messiah” and “Nutcracker” around winter’s fires in order to fully express the wet season’s more complex moods. West side Oregonians will chuckle ruefully at the EP’s subtitle, but you can hear Hawaii-born-and-raised PCP founder Douglas Jenkins’s genuine if paradoxical fondness for his now-home state’s long grey season in his affectionate arrangements of music from Benjamin Britten’s classic “A Ceremony of Carols” (including “This Little Babe,” which rocker Lindsey Buckingham filched for his pre-Fleetwood Mac “I’m So Afraid”), the recent Fleet Foxes hit “White Winter Hymnal” (graced by omnipresent Portland trumpeter John Whaley), the familiar Renaissance carol “Riu Riu Chiu,” to the Chanukkah standard “Shalom Chaverim.” My only complaint: this EP isn’t extended enough. Maybe they’ll stretch out in live performances and give this wintry music the room it needs to breathe.

The Twelve Days of Electric Opera Company.

One of Portland’s leading alt classical institutions, which delighted rock and classical fans with its imaginative original arrangements of classical standards for rock band instrumentation, returns after too-long a hiatus with a new studio recording by its Electric Guitar Orchestra. Released, one day at a time with a different video each day, on YouTube and Facebook, the videos feature its signature switched-on takes on Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” ballet music and the exhilarating “Winter” concerto from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” and more, which does the music the favor of making the familiar strange and much more fun than a partridge in a pear tree. Metalheads can especially rejoice at the hilarious latest installment.

Michael Charles Smith, The Nutcracker Suite for Marimba Quartet.

First, all cellos, then mostly electric guitars, and now this! What a coincidence that the same music EOC arranged for guitars also appears in an arrangement for four marimbas and crisply played by another Oregonian, who adds J.S. Bach’s famous “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” to boot. Smith also has another new CD of marimba arrangements of the great doomed Portland composer Elliott Smith’s music.


David Friesen,“Morning Star.”

Oregon Jazz Hall of Fame jazz bassist and composer Friesen has been presenting Christmas season concerts in Portland for four decades now, and even if you’ve had your fill of Christmas music, his deep blue new arrangements of standards like “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night,” and others, performed by an all-star band including saxophonists Rob Davis and Tim Wilcox, pianist Dan Gaynor and drummer Charlie Doggett, transcend the source material and the season.

Cappella Romana, “A Time for Life” and “Divine Liturgy.”

Robert-Kyr_A-Time-For-LifeBest known for its sublime performances (and often exhumations) of ancient sounds, especially Byzantine and Orthodox music, the Portland-based vocal ensemble releases a pair of disks by living composers that will appeal to fans of both old and new music. The more familiar name to Oregon audiences belongs to University of Oregon professor Robert Kyr, one of the Northwest’s finest and most prolific 21st century composers. Cappella commissioned and premiered his moving “environmental oratorio” “A Time for Life” in 2007, and happily will reprise it this spring, when we’ll have more to say about Kyr’s ambitious setting of texts from the Greek Orthodox Service of the Environment, the Bible, and Native American songs, chants, and prayers. Unlike the Catholic Church in Galileo’s time, or Fox “News” and other corporate-funded ideologues today, the Eastern Orthodox church doesn’t deny ecological science; Kyr has drawn some texts from the church’s environmental protection proclamations.

‘A Time for Life’ is a ‘musical play’ that traces a journey from the glory of Creation as it was given to humanity (Part I) through our destructive behavior as demonstrated by the current global environmental crisis (Part II: Forgetting),” Kyr’s notes explain. “The final phase of the journey (Part III: Remembering) moves towards a hopeful future in which humanity serves as a responsible steward of the earth and thus realigns itself with the creative forces of existence.”

The singers of Cappella Romana and players of Portland’s Third Angle New Music, both expert long-time interpreters of Kyr’s music, excel in music that sounds tailor made for Cappella’s unique strengths. Despite some over-earnest and over-solemn moments, understandable given the grave subject matter, “A Time for Life” stands as one of today’s most accomplished musical responses to humanity’s greatest 21st century crisis, especially in the third section’s spiraling passages of virtuoso vocal voluptuousness and the unforgettable final ecstatic “Beauty before me…behind me…below me…above me…around me…”

Tikey-Zes_Divine-LiturgyCappella’s other new CD brings another ambitious work by one of its favorite composers, Southern California’s Tikey Zes, whose “The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” the ensemble premiered in 1992. Sung in Greek, it presents Zes’s musical portions of the liturgical setting of the words of one of Orthodox Christianity’s most sacred figures, but, due to CD space limitations, omits some parts of the service that Zes didn’t set and would be spoken in the actual Pentecost religious ceremony. Much of it is a dialogue between a priest or deacon and the chorus, with occasional organ accompaniment, and will doubtless primarily interest listeners who share the church’s spiritual inclinations. But Zes’s original music, though sometimes based on ancient Orthodox chants, sounds  less austere than the old stuff and richer in its use of counterpoint and other, later musical techniques. Performed with real skill and commitment here by some of the Northwest’s finest singers, it sounds both ancient and modern, timeless.

“Galileo Galilei,” Portland Opera.

Portland Opera scored a coup when America’s most prominent living composer, Philip Glass, impressed with its 2011 production of his opera about the great Italian scientist and his battle with religious orthodoxy, asked the company to make the first recording. The packaging and recording are as sumptuous as PO’s striking set design, and while the music isn’t top-rank Glass—too many by-the-numbers songs do more to advance the plot than to excite the ear, and too many stretches just chug along in Glass’s familiar signature style with too little variety—it’s a worthy monument, even if it doesn’t quite ascend the heavenly heights (or plumb the Stygian depths) of the company’s previous Glass opera recording, “Orphee.”

That’s no fault of the cast composed mostly of Portland Opera’s 2011-12 resident artists, with baritone Andre Chiang and tenor Richard Troxell especially excelling in younger and older versions of the title role. One scene pushes poor Lindsay Ohse as Galileo’s plucky daughter, Maria Celeste, to the top of her range and beyond, resulting in occasional shrillness, but she and the rest of the cast and orchestra, conducted by Anne Manson, generally sound quite convincing.

As in the production itself, the music really reaches escape velocity toward the end (here, on the second of two disks), after his showdown with the Catholic Church’s perennial (and in this case potentially fatal) insistence on dogma over evidence and reason, as the story sails backward in time toward the gobsmacked young Galileo’s initial sense of astonishment at the universe’s manifold, mysterious wonders—which is what excited the composer about the man and his story in the first place.

Terra Nova Consort, Frutos del Amor, Music of Medieval and Renaissance Spain.

Frutos del amor copy copyLike Electric Opera Company, Ashland’s TNC, which provided the music at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Green Shows from 990-2007 has been missing in action for too long, and like PCP, the award-winning, internationally acclaimed early music ensemble, consciously re-establishes the vital link between so-called classical and popular music unfortunately severed over the past century or so, to the detriment of all concerned. “In these early recordings, the blurring of the line between folk and classical idioms was cutting edge,” says music director Pat O’Scannell. “I am a great believer in the gritty and raw, the music of the people if you will. I like to bring in vocal sounds and timbres that are not what the modern classical listener is accustomed to hearing.”

She also follows historical practice by encouraging the band to improvise, as the sparse notation invites and composers of the time would have expected. Fans of Portland Baroque Orchestra and other historically informed bands that emphasize music’s dance origins will also appreciate Terra Nova’s approach to rhythm. “Rather than smoothing out syncopated rhythms by slowing them and thereby lessening their intensity, I have opted to go for faster tempi on pieces that seem to lend themselves to this, and let the rhythms strongly lead,” O’Scannell says. Three band members play percussion, and most double on various period instruments and vocals. The recording also benefits from the relatively rare sound of the hurdy gurdy (a string instrument that uses a wheel to create a drone and keys to play melodic tones), wielded by one of the masters of that archaic instrument, Ethan James, who also had a foot in pop music as a producer and engineer working with groups from Sonic Youth to Black Flag and also composing new music. The band recorded this performance with him two years before his death in 2003.

The authentic, folk-fueled approach animates Terra Nova’s versions of some of the most famous music of the Middle Ages, the “Canticles of St. Mary” compiled (and probably partly composed) by Spain’s King Alfonso the Wise, which recount tales of alleged miracles perpetrated in the name of Christianity’s holy virgin. Sometimes it sounds folkish, sometimes Middle Eastern, sometimes Iberian, mostly beyond superficial categories. In this recording, Terra Nova lives up to its name, making this music sound like it must have originally: earthy, and new.


Swarmius in Starlight

Former Portland State University prof Joseph Waters has been crafting his category-cracking music from southern California for the past few years. Unfortunately, his singular band Swarmius doesn’t make it to Oregon often enough; their recent appearance at PSU was one of my favorite shows last year. No two Swarmius numbers sound much alike, but most share a certain kaleidoscopic sensibility. Which is why I should have known better than to expect the deliciously unpredictable band’s new three-track mini album to sound anything like Waters’s recent work. Instead, the tripartite mini-suite of tone poems — “Icicles in Starlight,” which Waters calls “Buddhist impressionism”; “Snowfall in Starlight,” and “Aurora in Starlight” — luminously evokes (via vibes, harp, and soft saxophones) the shimmering images suggested by their titles and forces yet another reassessment of Waters’ impressive compositional range.


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