Tudor Choir review: Seattle ensemble sings Renaissance and Baroque classics

In a mostly admirable concert, performance doesn’t always match programming excellence.

by BRUCE BROWNE

Seattle vs. Portland: In this season of soccer, them’s fightin’ words. Not so in the choral arts, where musical groups actually help one another to flourish.

Last week, Portland’s Cappella Romana sponsored one of Seattle’s best known classical vocal groups, the Tudor Choir, to sing at St. Mary’s Cathedral. This was a friendly exchange between two justifiably reputable choirs.

Seattle's Tudor Choir performed in Portland. Photo: Mark Powell.

Seattle’s Tudor Choir performed in Portland. Photo: Mark Powell.

The program, a representation of the choir’s recent appearances at the Mt. Angel Abbey Bach Festival, was beautifully conceived. Its arc reflected the development of choral style and substance from 1550 to c. 1750—that is, from the dates of the earliest composer on the program, Palestrina, to the latest, J.S. Bach. One could easily hear an evolution of form and tonal language as the program progressed.

In the first half, featuring Renaissance motets, conductor Doug Fullington’s programming and tempo choices were noble, his rigorous choice of gesture less so. It seemed all the pieces in the first half were to be carefully guided by the beating of each quarter note, four to a bar for instance. Music should be much less democratic. (Not all notes are created equal!) We know that the common unit of temporal expression prior to around 1600 was the half note, not the quarter. (The great musicologist Alec Harmon wrote that all early music should be thought of—and performed—with the half note as the guiding unit of pulse). Phrases did not always dexterously bloom and decay. Then too, vocal line was sometimes conspicuous by its absence.

A delightful unifying thread of the program was the recurrence of the Magnificat text: three settings by Renaissance composers Marenzio, Palestrina, and Praetorius. For me, the most interesting of those was the last. It’s broken into short vignettes with several echo effects, each introduced by a short chant, sung here by the very capable sopranos.

Also compelling in the second half was the  Short Mass (Missa Brevis) of the German-Danish Baroque composer Dieterich Buxtehude, a backward-looking piece, but progressive in its use of chromatic movement i.e., pitches outside of the tonal norm within the piece.

The concert concluded with works of two good “friends” who represent the middle and high Baroque styles of Germany: Heinrich Schutz and J.S. Bach. Both Blessed Are the Dead and Come, Jesus, Come are frequent visitors to the choral banquet. The latter is one of Bach’s elaborate double choir motets of which only seven survive. Like many of Bach’s pieces, it is very much like a suite of dances. While displaying virtuosity of delivery, the choir was able to wring most of the emotion out of the text without getting too preachy. But they sometimes failed to take advantage of some of the natural affekts (the Baroque notion that music could represent inner human passions) inherent in Bach’s music. For example, the phrase “Die kraft verschwind’t je mehr und mehr” (“My strength fails me more and more”), suggests that singers should apply a strong diminuendo (that is, decrease their volume to represent failing strength) through the words “fails me more and more,” but that was not discernible in the four expositions of that short subject. And why not use the time-honored device of “throwing away” the less important syllables, for instance, the final syllable of “leben”? (Portland Baroque Orchestra’s own Monica Huggett would certainly insist on that.)

Too, one may have hoped for the perquisites of some period-instrument accompaniment with the Bach—at least a Baroque cello and keyboard. Singing the Bach motets a cappella was popular in the 1960s and ’70s, but that performance practice has long been superseded by more recent scholarship. Anyway, it’s more fun to perform, and to listen to, colla voce (with instruments doubling). Perhaps those are minor cavils, but with such a well-known piece, the devil is in these details.

I also wonder whether the choir shortchanged itself by using only two singers per part on the men’s voices. The sopranos sang as one; the altos too. The basses were not always unified and the tenors often seemed to be dueling. There is an unwritten rule in ensemble: that one, or three, is better than two. This proved to be the case in this concert, as the sopranos cut through with razor-like clarity, always perfectly blended, and the altos the same. Maybe the paucity of male singers was a matter of budget, or attrition.

We can say, though, that notwithstanding any of the above small shortcomings, the literature of these periods deserves hearing more often. I was happy to experience the sound and pitch of Seattle’s Tudor Choir, just as we do the Sounders on the pitch of the soccer field. I would love hearing them again in Seattle with all their usual home team singers.

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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