oregon repertory singers

in PSU Opera's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Alan Smith and Whitney Steele perform in PSU Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: John Rudoff.

by BRUCE BROWNE

If “fear no music” were not already taken, it would be a perfect title for much of what went on this past weekend in Portland choral music. Not only were The Ensemble, Oregon Repertory Singers, and Portland State University Opera unafraid to tackle new, recent and unusual repertoire, they also showed their audiences that there was nothing to fear in the choral and vocal music of our time.

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Round-up: Wiggers steps down and a choir’s missing records

An eventful day in Portland arts: Namita Gupta Wiggers won't head the Museum of Contemporary Craft and Oregon Repertory Singers' case of the missing money data

Oregon Repertory Singers is missing its financial records.

Oregon Repertory Singers is missing its financial records.

Yesterday in the arts was “eventful,” though most of the events we heard about aren’t complete and certainly not our understanding of them.

OK, that’s not very concrete. How about: In Portland yesterday, we learned that Namita Gupta Wiggers was leaving her dual posts of chief curator and director of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, and that the Oregon Repertory Singers couldn’t find its financial records or some of the money it thought it had.

Eyes at the Oregon Repertory Singers turned toward to Jed Shay, former executive director, who left the choir in January to lead the Portland Youth Philharmonic, though no charges have been filed and it may all be a big misunderstanding. Or not. The investigation is just starting.

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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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Sing Awakening: Portland’s flowering choral landscape

The City of Roses is also a city of choruses.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble at Portland's YU Contemporary in March.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble at Portland’s YU Contemporary in March.

Editor’s note: this is the second in ArtsWatch’s spring look at contemporary choral music. See Jeff Winslow’s analysis of today’s choral compositions here.

by BRUCE BROWNE

“There is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and make new ones like them.” – Marcus Aureluis ‘Meditations’

A happy insight came to me indirectly last spring, from an event where hundreds of choral musicians appeared together, representing eight choirs. All Saints Catholic Church was the venue for an outpouring of spiritual and financial support for one of our own, Brian Tierney. Reflecting afterward on the variety of sounds that we had heard, I became aware of the several changes that had come about in six years my family had been gone from Portland. And in that time, Portland had cultivated a new choral landscape. Significant. Dramatic.

There are new faces in front of two of Portland’s heirloom choirs. Oregon Repertory Singers and Choral Arts Ensemble have new directors, Ethan Sperry and David DeLeyser. And these two join a cadre of new, smaller choirs conducted by energetic new talents who have blossomed on the scene: Katherine Fitzgibbon, Resonance Ensemble; Anna Song, In Mulieribus; Patrick McDonough, The Ensemble; and Ryan Heller, Portland Vocal Consort.

These new, downsized groups are what I would call “boutique choirs,” not at all a pejorative insinuation. I think it’s a good word that meshes with Portland’s boutique-y wine, beer and visual arts scene and general quirkiness, as seen on say, “Portlandia.” With these newbies comes the infusion of new ideas and styles. And they share similarities.

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Sing Awakening: New directions in vocal music

Today's choral composers explore new sounds

Ryan Heller conducted Portland Vocal Consort's 2013 Best of the Northwest concert.

Ryan Heller conducted Portland Vocal Consort’s 2013 Best of the Northwest concert.

Editor’s note: This is the first in ArtsWatch’s two-part look at contemporary choral music. See Bruce Browne’s appraisal of Portland’s choral scene here.

By JEFF WINSLOW

New choral music is hot, no doubt about it. And in Portland, new choral ensembles are hot too. Recent years have seen the inauguration of several top-flight groups such as the Resonance Ensemble, Portland Vocal Consort, The Ensemble, and In Mulieribus. Established groups such as Choral Arts Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers have passed the baton to ambitious new directors, and the incomparable Cappella Romana has expanded forces and repertory. While none of these groups devotes itself exclusively to new compositions, they tackle them regularly and show no signs of losing interest. Portland Vocal Consort even has an annual “Best of the Northwest” show, with music written entirely by living Northwest composers. (Full disclosure: PVC included my “The Sun Never Says” in its 2011 “Best of the Northwest” program.)

On the national scene, publicity genius Eric Whitacre continues to woo and wow the choral singing multitudes, and for only the second time in its 60-year history (the first was only five years ago), the Pulitzer Prize in music was just awarded for an a cappella (unaccompanied) choral composition. Any local composer like me, who has written a few choral works and who wants to write more, or any fan of contemporary classical music, should be excited about the future, right?

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ArtsWatch guest review: Bruce Browne on Portland holiday choral concerts

Portland choirs try different approaches to the traditional Christmas concert

Ethan Sperry conducted Oregon Repertory Singers in December concerts.

Ethan Sperry conducted Oregon Repertory Singers in December concerts.

by Bruce Browne

“Chacun a son gout!” (Loosely: “To each their own.”)  That may be the best thing to say about all tastes in music. Especially at Christmas.  From “Rudolf” and  “I saw mommy kissing Santa,” to Handel and Bach, there’s a wide range out there. We still cling to our childhood memories at any age, and most of us go to Christmas concerts to stimulate those sentiments, unencumbered by cultural duty.

Nevertheless, Portland’s major choral directors avoided Rudolph, Frosty and other anthropomorphic seasonal beings this holiday season. Following Emerson’s dictum, “Break the monotony; do something strange and extravagant,” they turned instead towards multi-cultural music, and traditional and not so traditional classics. New and local composers (Bonnie Miksch, Vijay Singh, Erick Lichte) were drawn on as well. All the choirs aimed at diverse targets in the process. In Mulieribus was the quixotic finding the exotic: a 12th C. Czech codex. Bach Cantata Choir, in an opposite gesture, sighted in on a bigger target, some 2/3 of Bach’s output for the Advent and Christmas seasons  (excluding his cantatas).

But what’s the overarching goal of any of these composite musical offerings? The best programs are a graceful matching of choral artistry with the soul of the music. The goal is to offer the audience the composer’s best intentions. When we attend a concert, do we not wish most to let the composer’s tone bath wash over us, without worry about any misconceived or under-rehearsed artistry?

What’s clear is that each choir profits (rises or falls) by first, finding its choral niche, then identifying the exact music that fits that niche, and the choir’s special talents. Finally, that music must somehow establish a connection with the audience by crafting an arch of contrasts and fidelity to the composers’ ideas.

Oregon Repertory Singers

What grabs audience interest, alongside artistic precision, is diversity: not only of repertoire, but also of style and tone. In its December 9, 14, and 16 “Glory of Christmas” concerts, Oregon Repertory Singers did this particularly well in three medieval pieces by bringing another type of musical gesture to the fore. “Gaudete“ and “There is no rose” were especially effective here. Other choirs achieved the same result through the use of music of different cultures and religions.

The Oregon Repertory Singers (and Portland Symphonic Choir) programs might be described as populist, in a good way. While eschewing bombast or bullhorn, ORS music director Ethan Sperry brought together a homogenous mix of pieces, many small bon-bons of Seasonal sweetness. Foremost among the smaller pieces were Ariel Ramirez’s “Los Pastores,” a blend of mariachi and percussion-enhanced singing, and ebullient program opener, “Nowell,” arranged by Sperry himself. The really moving pieces were the ORS’s capture of Sandstrom’s ingenious “er is ein Ros entsprungen,” (led by Associate Conductor Erick Lichte) with a blanket of lush harmonies supporting the original chorale melody of “Low how a Rose.” In that same groove was Morten Lauridsen’s “Contre qui Rose,” using the poetry of Rilke, which the choir sang with great care and nuance.

At the December 9 ORS show, at least one young audience member was entranced by the Oregon Episcopal School choir, conducted by Jeri Haskins.

At the December 9 ORS show, at least one young audience member was entranced by the Oregon Episcopal School choir, conducted by Jeri Haskins.

The Cleveland High School Choir, under the direction of Diana Rowey, was equal to the task of  singing with a semi-professional choir. (Oregon Episcopal School choir and Vivo Choir performed at the other two ORS concerts.)

Portland Symphonic Choir

The Portland Symphonic Choir began this season’s choral concerts. This time under the direction of Kathryn Lehmann, the choir made thoughtful, creative use of space, processing to Gustav Holst’s “Christmas Day,” and later, in the second half of the program, pitting the women against the men grouped around the large space of St. Mary’s Cathedral, singing the rousing “Mojuba” arranged by Brian Tate, evocative of Nigerian rhythms and folk tunes. These are no mean accomplishments with more than 100 people trying to move and sing at the same time.

The most artistic and telling moments occurred in Charles Villiers Stanford’s “Magnificat,” featuring a crystalline, floating solo by soprano Nan Haemer, and the rendition of Daniel Pinkham’s “Christmas Cantata,” for brass, organ, and, in the final movement, vocal octet). Both were nicely balanced, well tuned, and expressive, if a bit slower than usual, in the first and third movements of the Pinkham. (A more lively acoustic combined with a large number of singers must, as a trade-off, accommodate slower tempi).

“Mi y’maliel” was an arrangement typical of Bob Chilcott’s excellent talents. Harmonic shifts and imaginative voicings lent electrical impulses to the delivery. Less interesting was the first of the two pieces for Hanukkah, contemporary composer Joshua Jacobson’s “Aleih Neiri.” When the material is already so lugubrious and uninspired, it becomes difficult for any choir to rise above the natural deficits of the composition.

Two pieces from the first half of the program offered perhaps the most stark contrast of the afternoon: “O Nata Lux” of Morten Lauridsen, and “Ai nama mamina,” by Latvian composer Andrejs Jansons. The latter piece was all energy and drive, using typical folk rhythms and a kind of rhythmic ostinato. The more introspective Lauridsen work was beautifully in tune and blended, but lacked forward direction and sensitive word accent.

The entire affair was punctuated by narration from an articulate and erudite speaker, Rev. John Salmon (retired). Even though this writer is one who feels as did Robert Shaw, who never spoke during a concert and said, “let the music speak for itself,” this verbal glue helped give forward thrust and dramatic verisimilitude to the whole event.

The concert ended with Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus from “Messiah,” sung by the PSC, and the guest choir from Lakeridge High School, conducted by William Campbell, with literally everyone in the house a very willing participant: brass, organ and audience.

Bach Cantata Choir

Ralph Nelson’s intrepid Bach Cantata Choir presented the longest program of the season, at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church. J.S. Bach’s “Magnificat” was sung clearly and supported well by the chamber orchestra. Soloists were in fine voice, especially Byron Wright, tenor, Jacob Herbert, bass, and Vakare Petroluinaite, soprano.

The second half of the program was also all about Bach: selections from his “Christmas Oratorio” with orchestral accompaniment, and a fine contribution from John Vergin on positiv organ, in particular on the recitatives. Although the cello held back the recitatives at times, Wright was again very effective as the “narrator” of the Christmas events. This was a long program, and the choir appeared to tire towards the end, but held their own with German enunciation and clear melismas.

With a Bach orchestra for such works as the “B Minor Mass” and “Christmas Oratorio,“ D trumpets are used for the celebratory sections. Here, you either have excellent players, or you have a disaster. The players this night were first rate, in particular Jerry Webster on first trumpet.  In several of the chorales, the audience was invited to sing along, and most did, to good spiritual effect.

Choral Arts Ensemble

The Choral Arts Ensemble’s program was thoughtfully selected – interesting and contrasting. Two standouts were composer Ola Gielo’s new wine in older bottles: “The Holly and the Ivy” and later “The First Noel,” compelling in their rich harmonies and imaginative settings. The second half of the program was the most memorable: Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” for harp and choir, and “Four Motets for the Christmas Season,” by the great French composer Francis Poulenc. “Ceremony of Carols,” originally set for boychoir, was a fine effort for CAE. Soloists were very good, and the choir and harp made a lovely combination supporting Britten’s old english texts. The Poulenc motets are huge mountains to climb. The choir succeeded nicely in the first and last motet, but was unsteady in the middle two. Poulenc’s harmonies are never easy.

The bookends for the concerts at Portland’s First Unitarian Church were English carols from two different generations:  William Mathias’ “Sir Christemas” opened, and Vaughan Williams’ “Wassail Song” closed the event. Daringly, the choir sang the first piece in a circle around the room, and did so with great finesse. Jennifer Creek Hughes offered an excellent organ accompaniment.

The remainder of the first half was occupied by Tomas Luis de Victoria, the 16th century Spanish composer, much in the mold of Palestrina. The Victoria motet “O Magnum Mysterium,” and the parody Mass (using the same material and title of the eponymous motet) following, were by definition very much alike. The programming of an entire Renaissance mass lent a sameness of color and polyphonic repetition to a large part of this program. Perhaps a more vibrant acoustical venue would have allowed phrases to bloom and soar more voluminously.

the ensemble

The Ensemble closed Portland’s holiday choral concert season.

The Ensemble

When nine voices sing repertoire composed with two or three times that many vocalists in mind, some compromises must be made. The Ensemble is the newest, and the smallest group in the beehive of choral activity in Portland. For their December 29 concert, the final choral offering of the season, the conductor, Patrick McDonough, compiled a diverse and enticing program, most of it well suited to the ensemble.

A double choir motet by Benjamin Britten, a very early motet, began the concert, followed by two motets of Stephen Paulus and Kenneth Leighton, respectively. McDonough chose his soloists very well, as revealed with the lyric and silky voice of Catherine van der Salm in the solo of the Leighton.  The Ensemble’s version of the Britten was differently realized than most, the reverberant acoustics of Portland’s Grace Memorial Episcopal Church amplifying the second choir as if in loud affirmation of the statements from the first choir. Throughout the performance, the church’s vibrant acoustics made a fine sonic impression for the most part.

“Three Carol-Anthems” by Herbert Howells were the second grouping, featuring the gorgeous motet “A Spotless Rose,” with a creamy, velvet baritone solo by Erik Hundtoft.

Most interesting for this listener were the two motets completing the first half of the concert: Niels La Cour’s ”Hodie Christus Natus Est,” with heavy borrowing from the original chant, and the “O Magnum mysterium” of Frank La Rocca, a real treat, flattered by the choir’s careful singing of the lengthy opening notes, and expressive, well-tuned harmonies throughout.

This is a choir that ought to be heard often. As they move forward, they will learn to listen more carefully for balance between the women, whose natural voice types are lyric and light, and the men, whose voices are more naturally dramatic. In some places, that meant that the men overshadowed the women. The Poulenc motets, which closed the program, are daunting for any choir. When singers have to sing two to a part, there are inherent blend and balance problems. Add to that the challenges of intonation with which Poulenc ensnares the singers, and we have a set of difficult challenges.

A new offering for Christmastide was the three carols by Abbie Betinis, the grand niece of Alfred Burt. In the 1940s and ’50s, Alfred and Bates Burt composed a new carol for each Christmas, and would send them to their friends and family as Christmas cards. This tradition has now been extended by Betinis, using a new tonal language and reawakening a particularly lovely tradition.

Perhaps the very best thing about all the concerts taken together, were threefold: Excellent preparation on the part of each of the choirs; good deal of inventive programming; and, full houses for the performances I attended. This is a good omen for the years to come!

***
Editor’s Note: Recently returned to Portland, 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.

 

 

MusicWatch reviews: Less is more

The holiday concert season: Cappella Romana, In Mulieribus, PBO, PSU Chamber Choir, Shanghai Quartet, more...

Portland Baroque Orchestra ended 2012 with three different concert programs.

Portland Baroque Orchestra ended 2012 with three different concert programs.

My mother, who I’m visiting for the holidays, has, like many seniors who live in retirement communities, downsized considerably. That must explain the surfeit of edible Christmas presents she received this year. Most of it is candy. Strictly in the interest of de-cluttering her small apartment, of course, I’m doing my best to help her consume as much as possible. Some of it (especially the handmade stuff her loving son brought from Portland) is really rich and tasty. Much of the rest, though, offers at most fleeting pleasures, and the surfeit actually reduces the pleasure of the best.

I’ve had similar feelings in attending the past month or so of classical music concerts in Portland. Many have been stuffed with musical pleasures, but often, in long programs, the mediocre works have undermined the gems. It makes me wonder whether classical music too often offers too much of a good thing — and whether that discourages audiences from appreciating, or even hearing, the good stuff. And to prove my point that you can have too much of a good thing, I’m going to make it in our longest post of the year!

***

The feeling began creeping in during 45th Parallel‘s November 15 concert, which had a lot a going for it: accomplished orchestral musicians from the Oregon Symphony and other worthy institutions, most with chamber music experience; a good cause (supporting Portland’s all-classical public radio station); a buoyant certified classic (Mendelssohn’s familiar Octet), and a pair of short, dazzling works by one of 20th century’s towering composers (Shostakovich). Because these are primarily orchestral musicians who lack the time to really develop chemistry with each other or interpretive depth in a given piece, we can’t expect the same level of mastery of chamber works you’d see in, say, a Friends of Chamber Music or Chamber Music Northwest concert; one member admitted that the group had spent only a week with one of the pieces, Bruch’s seldom performed Octet.

It turned out to be a pretty thin piece anyway. I’m all for playing more than just the usual warhorses (like the Mendelssohn octet), but the time spent rehearsing Bruch’s octet would have been more profitably used to give the Mendelssohn classic an interpretation with more character than the relatively bland one offered here. Booting the Bruch would also have allowed the concert to last an hour, without an intermission, which in turn would have permitted more time for socializing at the reception afterward. And the audience would have left energized rather than enervated; I spotted several dozers during the Bruch — quite a contrast from the spontaneously explosive applause that erupted for the one really exciting performance — the Scherzo, from Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet Op. 11.

***

Denise Dillenbeck and Nikolas Caoile performed at Portland's Old Church.

Denise Dillenbeck and Nikolas Caoile performed at Portland’s Old Church.

Violinist Denise Dillenbeck and pianist Nikolas Caoile gave a much spicier performance of music by Stravinsky (an alternately buoyant and caressing performance of his “Italian Suite,” from his “Pulcinella” ballet score, with just the right dash of Stravinskian bitters), Messiaen (“Theme and Variations”), frequent Oregon visitor and New York jazz legend Dick Hyman (the bluesy “Minotaur”), and leading contemporary composer John Corigliano (Violin Sonata). The last, an early work, turned out to be a surprisingly more exciting piece than much of Corigliano’s later work, or maybe it was the performance itself that ignited it. The two Central Washington University faculty members demonstrated a real rapport and I hope to see them in Portland again with a similarly creative program. But again, the intermission seemed unnecessary, at least from the audience’s perspective.

***
It’s hard to blame Portland composer Jan Mittelstaedt for devoting a full length concert to her music on her November 18 at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church — such single-composer showcases are a rarity. She might never get another chance to display the full range of her music. But inevitably, some pieces were stronger than others, and I bet listeners would be more likely to attend a concert of unfamiliar music by an unfamiliar name if they knew they’d only be risking an hour of their time. Thanks to the knotty reputation of much post World War II classical music, some listeners are still afraid, however unjustifiably, of being trapped for too long in a concert of newfangled sounds.

Not that this was a risk at Mittelstaedt’s concert in church’s admirable Celebration Works series. “Maybe I should have been born in the 19th century,” she said in introducing one of her songs, and much of what was played here did resembled what might be called 21st century parlor music, packed with quotations from songs of earlier eras.

Highlights included Mittelstaedt’s mostly pastoral Saxophone Quartet, the breezy string quartet “Crosscurrents,” and, although the closing movement’s exultation felt a little blatant, her heartfelt “Journey Through a Shadow,” which deals with the turbulent emotions of a family facing a member’s life threatening illness. It gave flutist Gail Gillespie some lovely moments, and pianist Rhonda Ringgering also excelled. It must have been hard to resist the lure of the church’s mighty organ, but tacking the long “Resurrection” to the end of the program, while the audience (as often happens in organ concerts) stared at the empty stage (the organist was invisible in the loft) sapped the concert’s momentum.

A coffee and cookies intermission is one of the most appealing features of the Celebration Works concerts, but even if it had been retained, this was another case where less would have been more.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Even the next week’s concert by Oregon’s most accomplished orchestra, Portland Baroque Orchestra, could have been boiled down to an hour of the really good stuff. The program featured a welcome dose of mostly relatively lesser known Italian composers such as Falconieri and Gregori, plus more familiar names Vivaldi and Geminiani. The group added interest by changing instrumental forces (and once even tunings) with each number, and PBO’s usual lively performance style was in evidence. A concert omitting some of the less interesting obscurities (not the way-cool, almost modern sounding Dario Castello works, though) and even the much-played Geminiani variations on the most famous tune of the era (“La Follia”)  would have been a lot tighter.

PBO proved the point in its next performance, accompanying Trinity Choir’s December 2 performance of J.S. Bach’s most famous cantata (#140, often translated as “Sleepers Awake”) and his ever popular “Magnificat.” The band’s expert use of period instruments and conductor Michael Kleinschmidt and the three-dozen-member choir’s ability to avoid overwhelming them created an intimate atmosphere despite the capacious Trinity Cathedral space. World renowned instrumentalists Gonzalo Ruiz (oboe) and Janet See (flute) put their customary mastery completely in service to the music, with the latter’s liquid tone perfectly complementing alto Laura Thoreson in the “Magnificat’s” “Esurientes implevit bonis.” Thoreson and soprano soloists Arwen Myers and Amanda Jane Kelley, tenor David Buchanan and bass David Stutz contributed to the intimate atmosphere by using conversational rather than declamatory styles. Kelley’s solo accompanied only by organ, cello and oboe reached heavenly heights. Yet the musicians produced appropriate grandeur when the music demanded, such as the chorus “He has shown the strength of his arm.” This “Magnificat” lived up to its name, especially in the spiraling “Gloria.”

At relatively brisk tempos, the two works totaled about an hour of music — which left time for wassailing afterwards. With music and performances as rich as these, any more would have produced the musical equivalent of indigestion by overeating. In fact, I wish they’d skipped the intermission, although maybe that was more for the singers’ benefit than the audience’s.

iSing Choral Excellence — and Excess

Other recent choral concerts could have benefited from such shorter programs. Beaverton’s inventive iSing chorus’s fall concert began with one of the group’s hallmarks: multimedia elements, including a brief, self-produced video preview of its March 2013 concert. The singers entered the hall of Beaverton’s Bethel Congregational church from the rear, singing iSing music director Stephen Galvan’s arrangement of the traditional Scandinavian song Sankta Lucia, and the event was further enhanced with subtle lighting effects, more video (including a gorgeous one picturing a masked Japanese dancer) and moving the singers to different parts of the church. Other choirs might well take a cue from iSing, and remember that concerts can also be visual experiences without distracting from the music.

Unfortunately, the concert’s ambitious centerpiece, the acclaimed contemporary English composer James Whitbourn’s big, challenging “Luminosity” (which includes parts for viola, gong, organ and tamboura) came off a little kitschy, though that might have more to do with the music itself than the performance. The all-volunteer choir did a nice job in works by two homeboys — including three beauties by great American choral composer Morten Lauridsen, who grew up going to that very church (and whose “O Nata Lux” produced the evening’s loveliest singing), and iSing’s own David B. Walters, who conducted his own attractive “A Song of Light.”

But the concert seemed to stretch on and on, in part because not everything ascended to that level, and in part because almost everything proceeded at approximately the same stately tempo — even the closing “This Little Light of Mine,” taken here at a hushed crawl instead of the usual uptempo arrangement. It’s not just the length that can make a program feel too long.

***

Like iSing, Portland’s Choral Arts Ensemble opened its December 15 concert by singing (William Mathias’s rousing “Sir Christemus”) from the aisles. Then conductor David De Lyser read aloud Leonard Bernstein’s famed words occasioned by an act of violence that shook the nation much as did the one that happened the week of this concert: “This will be our reply to violence. To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

There’s always room to hear the music of the great Spanish composer Tomas Luis de Victoria, even though Renaissance polyphony can be tough on the best of singers and resulted in a few shaky moments at the generally satisfying performance I saw. And including both Victoria’s mass and the motet it was based on made the concert’s first half feel extended and diffuse.

The choir also turned in pretty good performances of a pair of 20th century classics, Benjamin Britten’s classic “A Ceremony of Carols” and Francis Poulenc’s “Four Christmas Motets,” and were energized by some simpler music, including some cool carol arrangements by the hot young Norwegian choral composer Oja Gjeilo and Ralph Vaughan Williams. But again, I couldn’t help but feel that taking on fewer works would have resulted in stronger, better rehearsed performances of the best pieces (particularly the difficult Poulenc), and, without an intermission, a tighter concert.

***

The Oregon Repertory Singers’ December 9 concert offered a plusher sound and more variety, including yet another offstage opening (choristers singing from the aisles, a drummer and trio entering from the rear). The choir sang while walking up to the stage to join a percussion trio, and they followed with excellent performances of medieval carols, a Palestrina gem, beautiful music by Portland composer Bonnie Miksch and Lauridsen, with the orchestra changing configuration again (splitting into two choirs, one on stage and one in back) for the inevitable “Ave Maria” by Franz Biebl. ORS music director Ethan Sperry smartly covered the shifts with brief, cogent explanations. The visual variety made the show feel shorter.

The musical and visual changes continued throughout — guitar, percussion and electric keyboard appearing with small vocal ensembles in “Los Pastores,” a quick musical joke based on the dreaded “Twelve Days of Christmas,” kids choirs joining in on a couple of pieces, pianist and ORS accompanist Naomi LaViolette joining on her own new “Noel” arrangement, and a propulsive, penultimate African work before the closing “Silent Night.”

Sperry, who directs choral programs at Portland State University, applied a similar inventive formula to last month’s concert with his other group, the PSU Chamber Choir. The concert paired classical compositions with choral arrangements of pop tunes — a false distinction, as Sperry pointed out from the stage, that emerged only recently. Moreover, the PSU program mixed not only pop and classical, but also old (Rachmaninoff, Monteverdi, Debussy) and new (rising composers Eriks Esenvalds, Eric Whitacre and Gjeilo). It even included world music (from Haiti and Bulgaria), jazz (courtesy of a brilliant cameo appearance by PSU prof and jazz piano master Darrell Grant), an upright bass, drum kit, congas, and more — including music binders flung to the floor in unison (and politely picked up again after the number was over).

 

Monkeying around: PSU Chamber Choir's energetic winter concert.

Monkeying around: PSU Chamber Choir’s energetic winter concert.

Most of all, it had performers who really threw themselves into the performances, not just Leonard Cohen and Stevie Wonder songs (and there’s nothing wrong with including some pop on classical concerts) but also the old stuff, although I actually would have liked to have seen more of the unbridled energy in the former  (including PSU Man Choir members jumping around like apes when singing “I Wanna Be Like You” from “The Jungle Book”) applied to the latter.

Welcome Abundance

Like the PSU show, some concerts justify longer programs. Case in point: the Shanghai Quartet‘s superb December 4 performance of music by Schubert (a tight yet singing performance of his single movement quartet), Bartok (an intense take on his brilliant, otherworldly fourth quartet, featuring one movement played with mutes and another entirely plucked), and Beethoven (one of his last, magnificent quartets, Op. 132.) The Friends of Chamber Music program offered further variety in Yi-Wen Jiang’s arrangements of Chinese folk songs, one of the group’s specialties, which ranged from galloping to wistful.

The Beethoven quartet alone traverses a considerable range of emotional territory, and the Shanghai players nailed them all, including the famous slow movement — ponderous in the wrong hands — which they conveyed with a kind of noble sadness, one of the most moving performances here in recent memory. The Shanghai Quartet doesn’t boast the biggest sound or the most pristine execution or the most flamboyant stage presence. They’re simply terrific players with a special sensitivity to dynamics who seem able to adapt perfectly to whatever musical landscape they’re surveying.

For Ever and Ever

The year ended for me with three of the most enjoyable concerts of 2012 — one of them, ironically, given my theme here, the longest of all.

And in fact, the best thing about Cappella Romana and Portland Baroque Orchestra exhilarating performance of Handel’s oratorio, “Messiah” this month was the end. Not the end of the second act, which climaxes in the rousing “Hallelujah” that’s probably the most famous chorus in classical music. Not even the beautiful “amens” that conclude the third and final act. It’s not even the fact that it’s finally over, although clocking in at three hours, “Messiah” can in some performances really seem to go on “forever and ever,” as the penultimate verse goes.

No, the best part of this weekend was what happened even before those final “amens” had died away, when the audience (many of whom may not attend many other classical music performances all year) spontaneously erupted into rapturous applause, audible gratitude for the hard working musicians and their visibly energetic music director and the exultant experience they had just created.

Once again, as in their fall concert, the combination of the state’s finest instrumentalists and singers produced a spectacular result in Handel’s music. The combination of its grandeur and Monica Huggett’s crisp direction, which characteristically emphasized the music’s rhythmic thrust and, instead of making each movement sound similar, highlighted their differing character. Despite the jam-packed First Baptist Church venue, it also shared that marvelous sense of intimacy that Huggett has cultivated with PBO. Handel’s music is grand enough on its own, and only suffers in overwrought, Romanticized performances on modern instruments. The transparency afforded by period instruments allowed the wonderfully rich textures of Baroque instruments, particularly oboe, horns, percussion and bassoon, to emerge clearly.

Although not an experienced choral conductor, Huggett has a way of getting what she wants, using sweeping gestures, sometimes even stamping her feet (no doubt to the annoyance of the engineer recording the performance for later broadcast) to signal the musicians. She employed extreme contrasts in tempo and dynamics to create dramatic contrasts where appropriate. It was a glorious performance, by far the best I’ve ever heard of Handel’s chestnut, but I have to confess that, like my distinguished colleague Bob Hicks, my appreciation might have been enhanced by the circumstances; the concert came a day after a horrific national tragedy in Newtown, Conn. The audience response to this performance showed the immense power classical music can still exert, especially in times of crisis or despair.

Yet even PBO itself understood that even in a masterpiece, less can be more, by offering a reduced, two-hour version that trimmed the least interesting portions of Handel’s masterpiece. Even Shakespeare plays are regularly trimmed in contemporary performances. Especially for non-connoisseur audiences, shorter concerts can lower the barriers to entry.

***

I did see another traditional sacred music performance from a different tradition on December 14. An ensemble of visiting Turkish musicians brought by the Mevlevi Order of America performed traditional Turkish music on authentic instruments in the Sema Ceremony of Intimacy at one of Portland’s lovely old ballrooms. This ritual includes the famous dance of the whirling dervishes, and that beautiful visual element, along with the music itself, kept me mesmerized throughout. I wish more concerts included dance elements — a multimedia tradition that goes way, way back.

I attended one more concert before year’s end: the women’s vocal ensemble In Mulieribus’s “Christmas in Bohemia” show at Portland’s St. Philip Neri church. Pietro Belluschi’s reverberant space proved ideal for the eight-member group’s sound, giving it enough bloom to fill the ears of the capacity audience without blurring the sound, as would likely happen with a larger ensemble. Most of the concert was devoted to works from the Codex Specialnik, a medieval manuscript recently discovered in a Prague monastery, and the group made a convincing case that much of that music should be heard more often.

However, the concert’s highlight — and one of the year’s — was “one of the monumental works of Western music,” as IM’s Anna Song said, accurately, from the stage before the group launched into the 13th century French composer’s “Viderunt Omnes,” one of the earliest known polyphonic works (and a big influence on minimalist pioneer Steve Reich and other modern composers) but one encountered more often in music history books than onstage. Given the vocal demands it places on the singers and the sheer sublime strangeness of the piece to modern ears, it’s easy to see why. In Mulierbus sang this spectacular masterpiece beautifully, with the singers in the front row cleanly navigating the rapid, melismatic lines while those in back chanted the long drones that form the work’s bedrock.

As usual with this amazing group, everything else on the program sounded lovely, although I could have used some more uptempo works to provide greater contrast. Or perhaps a couple of the shorter works, and the intermission, could have been omitted. It was a glorious way to end 2012 in Portland music.

Is Less More?

During this stretch of late fall concerts, Bruce Springsteen gave one of his usual three-plus hour extravaganzas in Portland. I’ve experienced a couple of those myself and never felt bored for a moment. But the degree of concentration that longer classical compositions demand (of me, anyway) is much higher than that required by a lineup of pop songs, however accomplished. Too often, I’ve come away from classical music concerts having experienced so much powerful music that I simply can’t really hear it anymore. I need space to assimilate the riches I’ve already imbibed before indulging in more. Too much candy.

Moreover, as I was reminded at another concert around the same time, shorter concerts leave audiences with more time and energy to digest and discuss what they just saw, rather than worrying about paying the babysitter overtime. Camille A. Brown and Dancers 45-minute performance left time for a fascinating audience talkback. Granted, most concerts won’t present the conversational opportunities (either onstage or at a post-show bistro table) that Brown’s provocative take on racial stereotypes did. But even without the discussion, I felt fully sated. My date and I continued our discussion at a post-concert dinner.

Better rehearsed performances, less audience exhaustion, lower barriers to entry, maybe even lower ticket prices (less music should equal less cost, right?)… but what about the drawbacks to shorter performances? Would audiences (particularly those who, unlike musically overstuffed music journalists, attend only a few shows a year) feel cheated by performances that lasted only an hour? Would skipping intermissions (if the show lasted, say, 90 minutes or fewer) be harder on singers and players — and listeners?

I’ve been noticing an increasing number of shorter shows in recent years. Springfield’s estimable Chamber Music Amici, for example, always gives one-hour, no intermission classical concerts — with a little party onstage afterwards. Obviously some shows — operas, full-scale “Messiahs,” Mahler and Springsteen extravaganzas and so on — need to run over two hours and have intermissions. But should more of our classical music organizations make a New Year’s resolution to schedule shorter concerts, jettison the intermissions, and give listeners more, while giving them less? What do you think? I’m especially interested in hearing from singers, players and administrators — what are the practical reasons for intermissions, and to what extent are they relevant given classical music’s 21st century predicament?

Please give us your thoughts in the comments. As for me, I think I’m ready for some more candy. Or, on second thought, maybe not.

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