Vocal Arts Series: Bringing great classical singing to Portland

This year's edition of Friends of Chamber Music's annual concert series opens with a farewell performance by Anonymous 4


Friends of Chamber Music has long lived up to the amiability in its name, not only by enticing top classical chamber groups of the usual sort from all over the world to visit Portland, but also by generously defining a “chamber music” that happily crosses over into the vernacular and even occasionally into territory traditionally held by other local presenters such as Portland Piano International. FOCM’s Vocal Arts Series last season was full of satisfying excursions, every one a winner.

This season’s vocal series looks equally promising. In its auspicious beginning is an ending many will regret: The (mostly) early music group Anonymous 4 is making its farewell tour after nearly 30 years of superlative performances and prize-winning recordings, and this Saturday’s performance, 7:30 pm at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, will be their last visit to Portland. Fans of their pure, beautifully blended sound and the musical glories of the Renaissance and earlier (as well as contemporary music written to resemble it) have already made quite a run on the box office, but I understand there will likely be tickets available at the door.

Anonymous 4 performs Saturday at Kaul Auditorium.

Anonymous 4 performs Saturday at Kaul Auditorium.

Last season’s series started off, dare I say, on a high note also. Tenor Matthew Polenzani sang to a nearly full house at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall at the end of January, in musical partnership with pianist and accompanist Julius Drake. The human vocal instrument is as variable as personalities, and tenors may be the most variable of all. Operatic powerhouses like Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti were tenors, but so are dulcet songsters like Ian Bostridge, who Portland audiences may remember from a few years ago. Polenzani showed off his versatility with a program that included both near-murmurs and rafter-shaking power.

For those who know both the ethereality and bombast of Franz Liszt’s piano music, it will come as no surprise that both extremes were on display in a generous helping of his songs, nine in all. Yet it’s apparent Liszt respected the human voice. Though some of the piano parts gave Drake a serious workout, they never distracted attention from the beauty of the singing, for which credit must fairly be given to both composer and performers. A lesser accompanist might have sunk into a muffled, constrained tone, but Drake didn’t hold back. Besides, Polenzani’s power was more than a match for a mere nine-foot concert grand, as he showed off stunningly at pianistically busy climaxes in “The winds rush (Es rauschen die Winde)” and “Child, if I were king (Enfant, si j’étais roi).” Yet at the conclusion of the iridescent, almost impressionistic “How lovely the lark sings (Wie singt die Lerche schön),” his voice faded out as gradually as the last glowing piano chord.

Matthew Polenzani gave a Friends of Chamber Music master class last spring in Portland. Photo: Steve Bilow.

Matthew Polenzani gave a Friends of Chamber Music master class last spring in Portland. Photo: Steve Bilow.

Versatility of a different sort marked Polenzani’s excursions to the very different worlds of French composer Erik Satie and American composer Samuel Barber. He had no trouble slipping from the extravagant poetry of Liszt into Satie’s straightforward and amiable settings of arch references to the digestion of a bronze frog, a tree growing weeping birds, and a mad hatter who lubricates his watch “with the best butter” and is surprised when it runs slow. All three songs got laughter out of the audience, which testifies to Polenzani’s expressive stage manner, and maybe even more to his clear diction. My French is almost nonexistent, but I easily followed the lyrics printed in the program.

He seemed equally comfortable with the intense intimacy of Barber’s Hermit Songs, on English translations of ten slice-of-life texts left by anonymous Irish monks and nuns from the Middle Ages. Here again, for example in “St. Ita’s Vision,” he thundered when the music called for it, and yet faded slowly to nothing at the end, while Drake, playing full out, gave each song its own strongly etched personality. A line from “The Monk and his Cat” seemed to sum up the performance: “Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other.” They melded as one for a gripping performance of the final song, “The Desire for Hermitage.” The text by itself seems almost idyllic, but Barber responded strongly to its dark undercurrents: “nobody near me,” “an end to evil when I am alone,” “among tombs far from the houses of the great.” After an impassioned solo piano climax, a simple key change cuts straight to the heart, and the monk muses, “Alone I came into the world, alone I shall go from it.” Nobody in the hall dared make a sound for many seconds after it was over.

In all these songs and more (Beethoven’s “Adelaide” and Maurice Ravel’s “Five Greek Folk Songs”), Polenzani’s tone was warm and rich throughout the range, and his sense of pitch was always absolutely clear even in leaps and within complex harmony. Showing no signs of tiring, after an enthusiastic ovation, he and Drake gave us two encores, Reynaldo Hahn’s “The Little Boat (La Barcheta)” and Frank Bridge’s “Love Went A-Riding.” Their high-energy performance of Bridge’s brilliantly colored swashbuckler brought the audience to its feet in one final, roaring, well-deserved ovation.

Just three weeks later, Portlanders were treated to the six-voice chamber group Nordic Voices. The Baltic and Scandinavian regions have long been associated with the highest artistry in choral singing, and as Alice Hardesty relates in her Oregon ArtsWatch review, the group easily lived up to that heritage.

Chanticleer, that perennial favorite of Portland audiences, gave us the grand finale, singing to a packed house at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium the last Friday evening in April. “The Gypsy in My Soul” program featured works that evoked the wandering experience, especially when it’s bittersweet. As usual, they traversed the choral repertory from the Renaissance to modern times, finishing off with a selection of folk, pop, and spiritual arrangements.

But they actually opened with “Wayfaring Stranger,” adapted from the songbook Original Sacred Harp, drawing us in instantly. The scene being set, they jumped into the Renaissance with the richly expressive “By the Waters of Babylon” by iconic Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Chanticleer’s performance made two years in a row they’ve confounded my stereotype of Palestrina as a masterly but cold technician. Spanish Renaissance composer Tomás Luis de Victoria’s more intricate work on a longer version of the same text, and his English contemporary William Byrd’s “Your holy city has become a desert,” seemed a bit pale by comparison, though all were beautifully sung. Staggered rising and falling musical scale fragments in the Palestrina, often arranged to create poignant passing dissonances, easily evoked a sighing crowd of displaced Israelites while also faintly suggesting flowing waters.

Friends of Chamber Music often brings Chanticleer to Portland.

Friends of Chamber Music often brings Chanticleer to Portland.

Chanticleer has never been careless in fast passages, and it seems that lately they’ve been working especially hard on agility and the precision that requires. The rest of the first half showed off the results. English composer Thomas Morley’s madrigal “Fyer, Fyer!” crackled, and after they shifted from the 16th to the 20th century, all four selections from Francis Poulenc’s folksong arrangements Chansons Françaises featured voices acting more like fingered instruments, evoking the grinding of barley, the clicking of wooden shoes, flirtatious banter, and the busy hands of weavers at their looms (and at their mistresses). On the very last beat the sopranos popped out a high note, right on the nose.

But the group surpassed itself in Ben Jones’s arrangement of 20th century Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’ well-known “Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5”, nearing the crispness of the original work’s cello ensemble with its pizzicati and Baroque arpeggiation, while soloist Cortez Mitchell poured out the seductive soprano line like any chanteuse. The crowd loved this brilliant example of the group’s “orchestra of voices” sound.

In the second half, the most notable set was a trio of Spanish language songs, only one written by a Spaniard. The eponymous cries, sliding upwards in Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s intense setting of Federico García Lorca’s “El Grito” (The Scream), seemed to catch a few audience members off guard, who tittered nervously (or cluelessly). Note to Chanticleer: next time make it scarier, even a little harsh. In contrast, American composer Steven Sametz sensitively wove together simple materials in his “Niño de rosas” (Child of the Roses), from the set Three Mystical Choruses, to create six minutes of sheer loveliness, not least thanks to Kory Reid on the solo part. Such beauty from simplicity recalled the earlier Palestrina work. But the most emotionally powerful presentation was that of Manuel de Falla’s “Nana,” arranged by Chanticleer member Jace Wittig from de Falla’s well-known set of seven Spanish folk songs. It’s nominally a lullaby, but in it we seem to hear the sorrows of an entire people. Maybe it just takes a native to do it up right.

The following delightfully high-energy Serbian / Romani folksong arrangement (by Grammy-award winner Evan Price) gleefully dispelled any lingering sorrows, albeit with lyrics that hint at potential trouble for someone, as a man sings frankly about finding a one-night stand at the local public baths.

FOCM's Vocal Arts series brought Nordic Voices to Oregon last spring.

FOCM’s Vocal Arts series brought Nordic Voices to Oregon last spring.

The group finished off with arrangements of jazz, pop, and two spirituals, the second an encore. They had fun making the Mills Brothers’ arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” sound like it was coming over a Depression-era radio, and the crowd laughed too. San Francisco up-and-comer Mason Bates’ arrangement of Peter Gabriel’s “The Washing of the Water” began well, but after a few minutes became repetitive and eventually seemed to trickle off into the weeds — nothing some judicious editing couldn’t fix. The spirituals — Brian Hinman’s breezy, gospel-tinged arrangement of “Swing Down, Chariot” and Joseph Jennings’ soulful arrangement of “There is a Balm in Gilead” — were much more satisfying, helped by the fine solos of Eric Alatorre and Marques Jerrell Ruff respectively.

Chanticleer has just recorded a CD of pop arrangements, and this may explain a trend I first noticed last year. They’ve lately seemed to shy away from works that involve unusual harmonic materials and vocal sounds, even while working hard on their rhythmic chops. This year we barely got a taste of the delicious jazz harmonies that so spiced up last year’s final set, or the searing power contemporary composers can bring to the mix, such as Stacy Garrop’s “Give Me Hunger.” I hope, now that the group’s rhythmic precision machine is purring along, they’ll hit the edgier harmonies hard and wow us with the exotic atmospheres they can create. Maybe the group’s next appearance, a holiday-themed concert in early December that is also the very next concert in this season’s vocal series, won’t be the best outlet for such adventures, but there’s plenty of time. While mourning the end of Anonymous 4’s long run, I look forward to many more visits by Chanticleer and the other performers in FOCM’s Vocal Series in the coming years.

Friends of Chamber Music brings Anonymous 4 to Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium on Saturday, October 17. Information is available online.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer, mostly of works that include at least one singer.

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