The Ensemble review: Children of their time

Portland vocal ensemble performs a pair of Passion settings composed half a millennium apart 

by BRUCE BROWNE AND DARYL BROWNE

A Palm Sunday program offered by the Ensemble of Oregon brought two disparate renderings of a Passion, one about Jesus, the other not –  to Portland’s Old Church. Apart from their shared theme of redemptive suffering, the only similarities between these choral works, composed almost 500 years apart, were the four sonorous voices of Catherine van der Salm, Laura Beckel Thoreson, Nicholas Ertsgaard and director Patrick McDonough. Both pieces were unmistakably children of their respective eras.

The Ensemble performed passion settings by Lang and Lechner in Eugene, Portland, and Vancouver WA.

The first was the 16th century a cappella Story of the Passion and Suffering of our One Redeemer and Savior Jesus Christ” (“Historia der Passion und Leidens unsers einigen Erlosers und Seligmachers Jesu Christi), set in precise sequence by Austrian composer Leonhard Lechner, with a modicum of cuts to the text from the Gospel of St. John.

Lechner was a disciple of the justly more famous Orlando di Lasso, but judging from this Passion, quite a bit less adventuresome. Di Lasso, who had the freedom and interest in writing secular pieces, was able to introduce more innovation of harmony and style. Perhaps Lechner, whom we have to thank for cataloging di Lasso’s works, did not feel such freedom from within the liturgical setting. To today’s ears, the repeated cadential formulae and predictable harmonic movement, make for a stasis bordering on the quotidian. Looking back through the lens of Bach’s Passions (St. John and St. Matthew, the two fully extant ones), we are struck by any lack of word painting, much less the harmonic development that had appeared by the time of the high Baroque, some 125 years later, as in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

McDonough inserted chorales from that masterpiece, linking this early polyphonic work to a musical “grandson,” J.S. Bach. It was a good move, breaking up the Lechner. The chorales were transposed from the original so as to move harmonically smoothly within the Lechner key signatures; this placed voices quite high in the vocal range. But all the singers made easy work of that. Ms. Van der Salm was especially adroit in the higher soprano range.

The Passion was sung from the back of the sanctuary of the Old Church which turned out to be a nice acoustic. Two drawbacks, however. First, lack of optics, no visual stimulus. Second, McDonough acting as singer (bass) and conductor was facing his three colleagues, which created occasional balance problems.

On the other hand, it was well performed by our four vocal artists, the tuning and phrasing always in sync. The quartet then carried this elegance into their portrayal of The Little Match Girl Passion.

A Passion for Our Time

David Lang’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, the main draw of the program, is set in the dead of winter. In some ways an opera (and soon to be performed in that guise by Portland Opera in a full production with sets, costumes, lighting and original orchestration), it tells the Hans Christian Anderson story of the bereft little girl who leaves her home to sell matches, and ultimately freezes to death on New Year’s Eve, after experiencing visions (hallucinations?) of her long-dead mother, a holiday goose walking towards her, and a flaringly lit Christmas tree.

If the Danish tale of H. C. Anderson seems an unlikely fit for Passion week, consider David Lang’s decision to invoke the spirit of the choruses of the St. Matthew Passion in his composition. “What would it be like to tell the passion story, but take Jesus’ suffering out and put some other person’s suffering in?” Lang has said.  “Would that make the story universal?”

One particular musical reference is the serene benediction of “rest soft” in the final movement “We sit and cry” which evokes the “Ruht Wohl” lullaby chorus conclusion to the Bach St. Matthew.

Composer David Lang.

Fragmented in its handling of text and music, and minimalistic in many movements, it comes across something like an e.e. cummings poem. The music is brittle, ice cold, stark, passionately and painfully exquisite.  Its jagged, pointillistic deliveries were perfectly rendered by all of the singers. Dissonances cut like knives through the thin harmonic textures, the clangy minor and major seconds and sevenths evoking the spikiness of the winter, and heightening the emotion of the suffering here.

There were no drawbacks, nothing missing, in the performance of Lang’s Little Match Girl.  Each singer played at least one percussion instrument, so there were two layers of musical multi-tasking going on all the time. The singing and the playing were terrific. This is a piece for its time, and not just because of it being Passion Week. It speaks to homelessness, poverty, and yet somehow, hope and dignity.

Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer. Bruce Browne is a conductor and educator. He is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties.

Read Brett Campbell’s 2011 profile of David Lang. Read his and Jeff Winslow‘s ArtsWatch reviews of Portland State Chamber Choir’s performance of the choral version of Lang’s Passion.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

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