45th Parallel, Bach Cantata Choir reviews: new music, old strings; old music, new strings

A pair of Portland concerts present new music on ancient instruments, and vice versa


The players of 45th Parallel don’t recognize musical boundaries. They’re as likely to play Beethoven or Mozart as they are to tackle music written yesterday.

On May 12th in the cozy confines of Portland’s Grace Memorial Church, an excellent venue for chamber music, they borrowed a leaf from the Portland Baroque Orchestra’s playbook and presented a string quartet concert using old-fashioned strings: Quartets with Guts. Two of the players — violist Adam LaMotte and cellist Joanna Blendulf — are regular members of the PBO, and therefore well used to gut, rather than steel, strings. The two violinists — 45th Parallel leader Greg Ewer (a onetime PBO player) and Sam Park — play with the Oregon Symphony on modern steel strings.

45th Parallel played Haydn, Beethoven and Bunch on period instruments. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Of the three pieces on the program, two lend themselves naturally and historically to being played on period instruments, because they would have been played on such instruments when they were conceived of and written. Josef Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 76, No. 5, a mature work written in 1797 by this 18th-century inventor (or at least popularizer) of the string quartet, was an excellent opener, with just the right amount of heft in the three fast movements. The 45th Parallel quartet presented the lovely second-movement Largo with extremely delicate and apposite playing, suitably cantabile e meso (“singing and melancholy”).

The other “old” piece, which ended the program, was Beethoven’s familiar, very early String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 1 from 1800, in which the young man, with his mentor Haydn still active as a composer, began to push the relatively new form of the string quartet in unexplored directions. The 45th Parallel players demonstrated the advantage of gut strings in the second-movement Adagio affettuoso ed passionato with a very smooth and warm beginning, sans vibrato, and all the more lovely for it.

Between these two classics came the world premiere of a new piece by 45th Parallel composer-in-residence Kenji Bunch, a violist and composer much honored in Portland, his native city. Apocryphal Dances is an apt title for this five-movement suite in an “old” style, which is to say each of the movements, two to three minutes long, is presented with a baroque title and structure. Both the first two (Entrée Grave and Rigaudon), in the same key, end with a pizzicato pluck from all four instruments. The third-movement Pasacaille sports a wonderful glissando upwards. The Musette that follows emulates its title by evoking a bagpipe-like drone, and the closing Tambourin obliges with Mr. LaMotte tapping on the back of his viola as if it were a drum. Although Mr. Bunch has referred to his piece as a “love letter to the 18th and 19th centuries,” the amour resides mainly in the forms. The musical harmonic language, tonal throughout, is thoroughly modern. Apocryphal Dances is a small (12 minutes) but potent addition to a very impressive oeuvre.

Who knows? Perhaps someday composers will write for instruments with gut strings because they like the comparatively mellow sound, not because they want to imitate Baroque or early Romantic music. If they do, they may help change or at least modify the current taste for fat, heavy, and wide vibrato on steel strings that to some listeners mars the beauty of so much contemporary playing. Players use vibrato on modern strings because it warms the tone and because they can; vibrato is far less noticeable on already-warm gut strings.

Gutless Bach

With his 48th Bach Cantata Choir concert, Artistic Director Ralph Nelson has now performed 66 of the master’s cantatas since 2006; he aims to do all 200 of them over a 30-year period. He is hardly alone in this quest. John Eliot Gardiner performed and recorded — on 56 CDs! — all of the extant cantatas (of some 500 that Bach wrote) in 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. Other “superstars” have accomplished the same feat over a longer period, and uncounted less-known choir directors worldwide have set themselves the same task. John Eliot Gardiner, Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and others have recorded the “cycle” using period instruments; others, like Helmuth Rilling, have done the deed on modern instruments. Nelson falls into this latter category.

In a Mother’s Day Concert on May 14 at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, Mr. Nelson and his Bach Cantata Choir saved the familiar Cantata No. 4 Christ lag in Todesbanden (“Christ Lay in Death’s Bonds”) for last and opened their program with a fistful of non-Bach selections, none frequently programmed. A short cantata by Bach’s contemporary Georg Philipp Telemann, Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (“Praise the Lord, All Nations”), got the choir, chamber orchestra (eight strings plus organ), and audience warmed up. A little Sonata for Flute and Continuo  in D Minor by King Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786), an avid amateur flutist and composer, was ably played by flutist Abby Mages and cellist David Tolliver, with Mr. Nelson on piano.

Bach Cantata Choir

The rarity of the program came next, the Magnificat in G Major by the Italian Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704), one of the most productive female composers of her time. This eleven-minute piece featured vocal soloists Arwen Myers, soprano, Laura Beckel Thoreson, alto, Brian Tierney, tenor, and Jacob Herbert, bass, plus orchestra and choir, all conducted in a very lively fashion by Bach Cantata Choir assistant conductor Emma Mildred Riggle. The lady soloists were, as these two always are, extremely good, and Mr. Tierney seemed to enjoy his lovely duet with Ms. Thoreson. The piece ended with a brisk choral fugue ending on the word “alleluia,” which also ended every other piece on this Easter-tide program, including all of the movements of Bach’s piece.

Bach’s Cantata No. 4, written when the composer was just 22 years old for an Easter Sunday service, is based on a hymn by Martin Luther that animates the entire piece, which runs about 23 minutes. Luther’s seven stanzas take the form of seven movements for chorus and soloists. After a very brief (one-minute) opening orchestral sinfonia, the choir launched into the best music of the cantata, an elaborate five-minute contrapuntal chorus setting of the first verse of the hymn. The choir’s sopranos and altos then sang the serene music of the grim second verse (all about death’s hold over us before the arrival of the Savior) by way of introducing the short tenor aria, nicely sung by Mr. Tierney, in which Jesus Christ comes. Another chorus follows in which the miracle of the Resurrection is celebrated, which leads to a bass solo by Mr. Herbert, all about blood and “burning love,” which would have been more effective if the singer had the requisite basso low notes. Choir soprano Nan Haemer and Mr. Tierney gave us the seventh of Luther’s verses (“Thus we celebrate the high feast”), and then it was time for Luther’s hymn as chorale, sung first by the choir and then again with the audience joining in, as is customary with Cantata Choir concerts, emulating the participation of the congregation in Bach’s time.

Two African-American spirituals framed the concert, stylistically out of place but both on message (“I Hear the Harps Eternal” and “Saints Bound for Heaven”) and both arranged by the prolific Alice Parker, still working at age 92.

This was a free concert, as are all five of the shows in each of the Cantata Choir’s seasons, with the exception of their annual Christmas Oratorio concert. All featured cantatas are performed on dates connected to the Lutheran church calendar for which they were originally written. So this concert was another labor of love and worship through music — the 65 members of the choir, except for four section leaders, pay annual dues of $150 per person. These funds and foundation and individual donations pay for the instrumentalists and soloists, and Mr. Nelson is to be commended for furnishing Portland with a healthy annual dose of this splendid music, whatever kind of strings his players use.

Recommended recordings

• Haydn
Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 76 Nos. 1-6 (complete), Takács Quartet (Decca 4756213), 2004.

• Bunch
Bunch, K.: String Circle / Drift / 26.1 / Luminaria / Boiling Point, Alias Chamber Ensemble (Delos DE3430), 2012.

• Beethoven
Beethoven: The Early String Quartets, Budapest String Quartet (Bridge BRIDGE9342A/B), 1943-1962.

• Telemann
YouTube: Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden.

• Frederick the Great
YouTube: Frederick the Great, Flute Sonata in D Minor Presto.

• Leonarda
Isabella Leonarda: Vespro a cappella della Beata Vergine, Nova Ars Cantandi, Giovanni Acciai conducting (Tactus TC623702), 2012.

• Bach
English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner conducting (Apex 749754), 2006.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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