Treasures from the Desert, part 2: Singing Shakespeare

Ideas for Portland from Santa Fe's renowned summer choral festival

by BRUCE BROWNE

“The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds…Let no such man be trusted.”

While the works of Thomas Morley and Robert Johnson are the only surviving settings from Shakespeare’s time, the playwright’s words have been set and sung throughout the ages since. Shakespeare was indeed “[held] in perfection but a little moment” for the Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s August 4 performance of “Sounds and Sweet Airs,” commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. It was outstanding.

Guest director Richard Sparks and 16 members of the Desert Chorale brought to bear their mutual authority, bringing out the subtle and elegant settings of some of the finest chorale settings of Shakespeare’s text. Outstanding among the selections were the Songs of Ariel by the Swiss composer Frank Martin and Three Shakespeare Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams (coincidentally, the same 20th century composers paired in Portland’s Oregon Repertory Singers’ concert this past spring).

Richard Sparks led the Desert Chorale in choral settings of Shakespeare's words. Photo: Chelsea Call.

Richard Sparks led the Desert Chorale in choral settings of Shakespeare’s words. Photo: Chelsea Call.

The Vaughan Williams was the best I’ve ever heard, live or otherwise. One of the gifts of the 20th century English composer’s a cappella choral music is its accessibility to singers and audience. Vaughan Williams’s technique balances a rich and varied harmonic [palette] with an intuitive sense of what is organic and grateful for the human voice and ear,” writes San Francisco Conservatory of Music professor and scholar David Conte of these pieces.

Richard Sparks reminded me that their creation was almost “not to be.” In 1951, Vaughn Williams was asked, along with other elite composers of his time, to compose a test piece for the British Federation of Music Festivals choral competition. Choirs would be rated on their rendering of the new compositions. Vaughan Williams was disinclined to compose for this pedagogical purpose and replied no further about it. There arrived, however, at the home of Armstrong Gibbs, competition director, a bound package with these Shakespeare settings and a note.

“Dear Armstrong. Here are three Shakespeare settings. Do what you like with them… Yours ever R.V.W.”

The Martin cycle of 1950 is considered among the best works the choral world has to offer, the sine qua non of Shakespeare settings in a choral cycle. Each movement is drawn from The Tempest, with its vibrant characters such as Caliban and Ariel, and here, Martin seized many opportunities for colorful musical representations. The choir held in check their shared vocal puissance, rather hinting at it so as to capitalize on other facets: variety of articulation, dynamic shadings and the biggest challenge of the cycle, persnickety vertical tuning. (This essential idea refers to each singer’s tuning his or her part to the ones above and below them, en passant.)

The fourth movement, “We are three men of Sin,” is one of the most striking. It demands a fine alto soloist, and there she was: Mitzi Westra, alto out of Indianapolis, possessor of an orotund vocal sound, was just the right choice for this signal solo. Just as handsome here were the rich supporting sounds of the tenors and basses.

Other movements, such as “Where the Bee sucks” and “Before you can say come and go,” are saturated with both verbal and matching musical onomatopoeia. In the former, the singers all use “mmm” on fast passages to become temporary “bees.” The latter has Shakespeare’s text zipping through our ears in a flash — and it’s over in a moment of fleeting joy.

The concert was well conceived by Dr. Sparks, who is choral division chair at University of North Texas. With so many choices from the Shakespeare choral repertoire, Dr. Sparks’ choices were varied and appropriate for audience and musicians.

Young actress Anna Farkas inserted some 15 short readings before many of the pieces throughout the concert — a welcome addition to the program. But the interpolation of some of these readings between movements of what is clearly meant to be a choral cycle broke the mood for this listener. I doubt whether Martin ever meant to have his brilliant songs interrupted, and it did pose a distraction.

The opening set of Shakespeare, Fancies 1, was drawn by composer Swen-Erik Johanson from As You Like It, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. Nathan Salazar made a strong contribution with his lucid piano accompaniment. Johanson was a member of the Swedish Monday Group of the 1940s who sought to discard Romantic and Neo-classical music styles in favor of the more modern. These songs are set with a kind of gentle 20th century style with a few added note harmonies here and there against the more angular accompaniment. It was a good way to begin.

For perhaps the only time in my hearing of this choir, there was some overparting between the baritones and the basses, as the steely baritone voice could be heard over the ladies and tenors. This may only have been due to the placement of the baritones, who were facing directly out to the audience, and, in the first couple of movements, to the choir’s having to retune the hall. Anyway, small moment in time.

Jazz Jollity

In a bow to a more popular idiom – American jazz – the choir sang the hilarious “Witches Blues” by Bob Applebaum, written in 2002 in response to a Shakespeare choral competition. The piece is but a small thing but the choir was faithful to it and perhaps no choir but this one could have brought this off in the way they did, which was jolly, but retained artistic integrity. They sang with the nimble playfulness of ABBA and caressed each “meow” and “hiss” with dramatic intent. It was a fun counterpoint to its predecessors on the program.

SFDC. Photo: Chelsea Call.

Santa Fe Desert Chorale sang at this summer’s 34th annual festival. Photo: Chelsea Call.

The last cycle of the concert was also a gesture to our jazz idiom, in the great British pianist George Shearing’s Songs and Sonnets. Again, Salazar was stellar. These pieces, taken as a whole, are perhaps too much of a good thing. The style wears thin after lengthy listening, and we could have done with one or two fewer of the movements, particularly the longish “Who is Sylvia?”

These singers were comfortable in all of the styles presented on this concert. Commendably neither the Shearing nor the Applebaum were “tossed off” because they were jazzy or lighthearted. This group tackles every piece with committed artistry.

Richard Sparks’s no-nonsense conducting is clear, to the point, and easy to follow. He has a good way with the choir: one can feel a relaxed and plaintive delivery from them, but an enlivened result withal.

In this 400th Shakespeare anniversary, bring on the choral settings, operas, the songs…. especially if they are as well performed as in this concert by the Santa Fe Desert Chorale and Dr. Richard Sparks. “Like softest music to attending ears! Give me excess of it.”

Summer Season for Portland?

So what to make of all this, dear Oregon choral aficionado? How best to build Portland’s choral art model? Or is it already at its peak? Santa Fe and Portland are both successful choral cities, but in different ways.

The SFDC concerts are all full, or nearly full; I’ve attended recent concerts in PDX where there were 100 people or fewer, in a venue for 500 souls.

The SFDC is fully professional, the best of the best; I have heard some fabulous concerts of PDX choirs by both professional and amateur groups, and I’ve heard others by “professional” groups, that were pretty average, and truth to tell, we have amateur groups, including university choirs, in and around Portland, that are pretty darn good. (Remember, “amateur” simply means “lover of”, not “less than”.)

There is one and only one opera company in Santa Fe. There is one, and only one professional choir in Santa Fe. We have, like Santa Fe, Seattle and San Francisco, one opera company (which has recently contracted its season, apparently successfully).

In Portland choral music by contrast, we enjoy a vibrant artistic community, starting with the city’s many non professional choirs. Choral singing, like golf, is a participant sport; (and like sex, as the saying goes, “it’s best left to the amateurs.”) More people sing it than actually hear it,  in churches, community choirs, company choirs (like Beaverton’s original ISing), the inevitable choirs from local universities and high schools, and finally, yes, the half-dozen – count ‘em – professional (meaning only that the singers are paid) choirs in the Portland area. We are counting several justifiably celebrated groups and conductors here: In Mulieribus, The Ensemble, Male Ensemble Northwest (founded by and for choral directors in 1985 and still rolling), Resonance Ensemble, along with our pro-am choirs, where there are some dozen or so paid singers, appearing alongside of 100 amateurs, such as with the Portland Symphonic Choir.

Portland then, unlike Santa Fe, has a strong choral culture from top to bottom, but only from September-May. Santa Fe has a world class professional choir that draws visitors from around the world, but, save for a brief Christmastime program, only in the summer.

Is there opportunity for Portland choral music growth in the summer? Portland, like Santa Fe, is a “happening” summer destination but currently the Portland summer music scene is an untapped field for general choral music. The exceptions are the continuing niche success of the William Byrd Festival, with myriad choral offerings and Portland Symphonic Choir’s “summer sings.” The choral/orchestral offerings at Oregon Bach Festival continue to draw crowds, but no longer travel to Portland. And, of course, we have Portland Opera this year embarking on a festival format like that established 60 years ago by the Santa Fe Opera.

It is comforting to know that Portlanders can choose from several excellent choral concerts through the year (except for summers), each indulging in its own niche. Cappella Romana, for example, sings mainly early, often Orthodox-centered music. In Mulieribus sings small vocal ensemble music mostly from the Renaissance. The Ensemble concentrates on works for smaller groups, particularly early music (although they’ve branched out recently). Several of these choirs, like Resonance, are interactive with other groups in town.

But imagine if all of those resources were, like Santa Fe’s, poured into one large vessel of one, and only one, professional choir, with a full season of offerings.

Unfair, sure! But remember, we’re only supposing. Based on what has happened in Santa Fe over the past 37 years, in which, like many music festivals, in concentrated in the summer, usually late July to mid-August, it works handsomely.

Portland has accomplished this in the chamber music realm over the past few decades, and is just beginning to establish a summer beachhead in the opera world. Now though, it may be time to reexamine our multitude of choral offerings that take place from September to May, and like the water supply, turns off its artistic tap for three months until September comes round, and choirs of all stripes return.

Next up for the Santa Fe Chorale is its Christmas concert series. Next summer, one of the highlights for the choral festival is the Figure Humaine by Poulenc. For more about the choir and its performances, go to desertchorale.org

Portland choir director Bruce Browne directed Portland Symphonic Choir and choral music programs at Portland State University for many years and was founder and director of Choral Cross-Ties, a professional choral group in Portland.

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