Weekend MusicWatch: F*** Santa, Let’s Dance!

Choral music and Christmas concerts both have a deserved reputation for conservatism — soothing, traditional sounds that wouldn’t startle anyone with a new idea. Oregonians, however, are lucky to have top-notch choral organizations that favor expansive programming, even during this most tradition-bound of seasons. Former Portland State University and Portland Symphonic Choir director Bruce Browne reviewed one of them, Oregon Repertory Singers, here last week; that program repeated last weekend. Browne himself led one of Portland’s other major vocal groups, Choral Arts Ensemble, in concerts last weekend at the city’s downtown First Unitarian Church.

Bells rang and singers streamed up to the stage from the pews and doorways as the concert kicked off with music by the composer Officially Decreed by the New York Times to be the most awesomest ever, then continued with a plush but not weighty  version of the most popular work by perhaps America’s most renowned living choral composer, Portland-born Morten Lauridsen, one of several versions of O Magnum Mysterium purveyed. Except for a couple of brief, early shaky moments in the altos, CAE sounded more sonically secure than I’ve heard them over the past few years, displaying rhythmic buoyancy in Ideo Gloria in Excelsis Deo by Richard Kraehnenbuhl and real expressive power in the program’s highlight and rousing first-set closer, Monteverdi’s magnificent Gloria, with accompanying organ by Jennifer Creek-Hughes and strings. An excellent small accompanying ensemble of harpsichord and fiddle occasionally added welcome textures throughout the concert.

CAE commendably included several other local guest contributors — buy local! Browne dedicated a plangent version of the O Magnum text, set to the familiar Nimrod variation (from Edward Elgar’s popular Enigma Variations), to its arranger, Portland’s Elinor Friedberg, who died shortly after completing the arrangement. Portland’s Ronn Pricer contributed a fresh arrangement that almost but not quite made me welcome the inevitable rum-pa-pum-pums of the dreaded “Little Drummer Boy.” And Gresham High School’s Overtones showed why they’ve won honors in statewide competitions in a couple of stellar guest takes, including a nifty arrangement of “Joy to the World,” with at least one unnamed soprano clearly destined for further musical accolades. Even the teenage basses were entirely convincing in Lux Arumque by the world’s hottest choral composer, Eric Whitacre. And even the audience sounded solid in a couple of singalong carols.

Other highlights included a glowing performance of Three Far Eastern Carols by British composer Malcolm Sargent, a rhythmically rollicking Magnificat by Mannheim Steamroller co-founder Jackson Berkey, a couple of Alfred Burt’s jazzy mid-20th century carols and the most out-there piece of the afternoon, contemporary Spanish composer Javier Busto’s partly aleatoric version of the O Magnum, with whispered, skittery textures, spicy modern harmonies and an exhilarating climax; both the composition and performance left me optimistic about the future of choral music in general and Choral Arts Ensemble in particular.

That kind of good cheer in the face of darkness is a hallmark of this season, of course, and there’s more reason for it coming up in Portland this week. For some reason, the classical performance schedule seems to have tailed off a bit this weekend — some sort of post-solstice interregnum, I’m told by the large, red-suited man in the white beard. But just as we’ve turned the corner and are now getting gradually more light (or so scientists tell us, but that would imply that the earth is roundish and travels around the sun, concepts currently being debated in Tea Party circles and the Republican Presidential primary debates), the music begins to return on Sunday.

There’s one more chance to worship the Messiah Friday, as he’s returning to Hillsboro’s St. Matthew Catholic Church in Handel’s still stirring oratorio, performed by the Portland Chamber Orchestra with veteran Portland/ Metropolitan Opera baritone Richard Zeller and other soloists, the Oregon Chorale, and Hillsboro Community Youth Choir.

Michael Allen Harrison’s annual holiday concert commences its third decade at Portland’s Old Church Friday, Saturday and Monday. Guests this year include Portland jazz sax stalwart Renato Caranto, popular Portland pianist Tom Grant, soulful singer Julianne Johnson, rock violinist Aaron Meyer and more.

A popular slogan in my college days went, approximately, F[ie on] Art — Let’s Dance! That seems to be the motto of Portland Youth Philharmonic’s annual post-Christmas concert, substituting “Christmas” for “Art,” which seems to happen a lot this time of year, actually. PYP’s December 26 concert at downtown Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall leaves behind the carols and focuses instead on classical dance music (not an oxymoron), including Aaron Copland’s Danzon Cubano, the now obscure 20th century American modernist composer Wallingford Riegger’s best known work, New Dance (1932), and the Dance of the Hours, music by Italian opera composer Ponchielli that fueled one of the most famous dances ever to appear on film: the delightful pirouettes of ostriches, alligators and hippos in Disney’s animated classic Fantasia. PYP alums will convene for Tchaikovsky’s Slavonic March.

Also on December 26 — Boxing Day, which we routinely used to remind readers was a non pugilistic experience, although perhaps that’s changingClassical Revolution PDX presents its fifth annual Bachsing day, which brings classical musicians to Old Town Portland’s Someday Lounge to perform music of The Officially Proclaimed Most Awesomest of Composers, with arrangements including a chaconne for dueling ukuleles, gavottes for mandolin, an aria from Johann Sebastian’s Christmas Oratorio arranged for bassoon and piano, a Brandenburg Concerto, selections from one of the great solo cello suites and other famous works, plus audience participation kazoo eruptions and prizes for the most egregious Bach haikus and puns. Bach on!

*** That’s “Farewell, Santa,” of course.

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