An intersection of people, ideas, and music

Nexus Vocal Ensemble premiere concert brings impressive technique, emotional and spiritual power to Shaw, Buxtehude, and Barnwell

By MARK POWELL

The Nexus Vocal Ensemble, founded and directed by singer-conductor Lennie Cottrell, presented its debut concert To the Hands on Saturday, November 16 at St. Mark’s Parish in Northwest Portland. This is an ensemble to watch. In a day when new groups come and go, I hope this one will stick. Its young singers (“no one is over 35,” said one of them to me at the reception) primarily make their livings as choral leaders, directing choral activities in schools, singing professionally, or both.

It shows. Singing of the highest caliber was on full display, with only a few intonation lapses that the fairly dry acoustics of St. Mark’s Parish might have heightened. Ensemble Esprit, a string group featuring some of the region’s best players, joined forces with Nexus in the two primary works of this no-intermission program. Nexus helpfully provided a beautifully presented program book with all the original texts and translations.

Rather than performing choral music of every style and every era and every tradition at the highest standard—an all-too-common and frankly boring approach—this ensemble clearly has a “why” for their work. They state in their biography: “This is what Nexus is: a meeting point; a connection between things; an intersection of people, ideas, and music.”

“Displaced peoples” was the stated intersection here, a theme explored in the program’s titular work: Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw’s To the Hands. Shaw is known for her work as a composer and singer with the sensational vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, and also maintains part of her multifaceted career as a professional violinist, having trained at Rice and Yale. The award-winning choir The Crossing commissioned the work; its director Donald Nally is one of Cottrell’s mentors, whom he met when he was at Northwestern University.

The Crossing commissioned Shaw (along with six other composers) to write responses to Dieterich Buxtehude’s 1680 Membra Jesu Nostri, whose sequence of seven cantatas form the first Lutheran oratorio. To the Hands is Shaw’s impressionistic, up-close response to Buxtehude’s cantata of the same name, “Ad manus” (“To the hands”), which preceded it on Saturday’s program. While the cantata prompts believers to dwell personally on the hands of Jesus Christ and their salvific work, the music makes universal the cantata’s other dominant theme: compassion (literally “suffering together”) for humankind.

Tension and displacement

The players in Ensemble Esprit brought their excellent playing to the fore, emphasizing harmonic tension with limited vibrato, yet I hoped for at least some modest historically informed ornamentation from both singers and players. If funds had allowed, a positiv organ or theorbo would have been welcome to brighten up the patina of the continuo. A special shout-out goes to Portland Baroque Orchestra cellist Adaiha MacAdam-Somer and sopranos Allison Bassett and Jen Milius for two heartfelt solo arias performed with intimate style and flawless technique.

Shaw’s virtuosic work, scored for the same forces as the Buxtehude, transfigures the texts as well as melodic and harmonic gestures from “Ad Manus.” Nexus gripped the audience with Shaw’s unrelenting, repeating, and constantly shifting music, which underscored the broader image of displacement. This piece, like most of her work, reveals her interest in extending the expressive capacities of the human voice, but also betrays her deep internalization of Baroque style as well as extended string techniques (e.g., using the wood of the bow to strike the instrument for a percussive effect). To these serious musical demands Nexus and Ensemble Esprit seemed perfectly matched.

The textless chants that opened the work were particularly effective. Nexus shifted from humming to open vowels as a collective cry, employing Baroque harmonic procedures to create tension—but leaving that tension unresolved. Their reserved, almost sublimated reading of Shaw’s treatment of selected phrases of Buxtehude’s Latin devotional texts and her own poetry only seemed to increase the music’s power. Nexus gave itself over with abandon to the lush harmonies employed on Shaw’s paraphrase of the sonnet “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus (“… Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”) inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Frenetic string arpeggiations, wandering from player to player and sliding from one harmonic center to another, opened the movement “Litany of the displaced.” Over these tortured textures the individual singers of Nexus spoke simple numbers of displaced peoples around the world (drawn from current statistics, without national attributions), starting with the smallest numbers and escalating quickly to the millions. The effect was breathtaking, followed by sublime singing of the melancholy final movement “I will hold you,” again with its slow repetition of Buxtehude’s reframed harmonic gestures, finally resolving gloriously from intense dissonance to a sonorous D-major chord. A single violin then plucked a quiet pattern on the note D that sounded like a heartbeat. This music is about real, living human beings:

The program began and ended with pieces for voices only. The first was “Would you harbor me?” by polymath Ysaÿe Barnwell (it is an understatement to call her merely the world-famous American singer and composer from Sweet Honey in the Rock). Every line begins “Would you harbor,” followed by “me…you…a Christian…a Muslim…a Jew…a runaway…an exile…a refugee…a person with AIDS…a lesbian…a trans…a gay…a poet…a prophet…a king…me…you.” I couldn’t help comparing “Would you harbor me?” with Hugo Distler’s 1934 halting Totentanz, a musical reflection on how death too is no respecter of persons, including “me, you, a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a runaway, an exile… me, you.” The modest dignity of Ms. Barnwell’s short work grows as the core of the poem is sung twice. Nexus was spellbinding in this arresting piece, and set a high expectation for the rest of the concert.

The final number was one of the justifiably favored closers of the vocal ensemble Chanticleer, “Calling my children home,” arranged by its longtime and erstwhile director Joseph Jennings, which was given an emotion-filled but unmannered interpretation by Nexus, ending with the words “I’m lonesome for my precious children / They live so far away / Oh may they hear me calling, calling / and come back home some day.”

Technically astonishing, deeply moving

Further to its mission to find “a connection between things,” the concert called attention to IRCO, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, who had representatives on hand to share materials about their work in the community.

Cottrell is director of choirs at Valley Catholic School and assistant director of the Oregon Repertory Singers, and received his master of music from Portland State University–as did a number of the singers in Nexus, many of them graduates of the choral program led there by ORS Artistic Director Ethan Sperry. Cottrell is to be commended for assembling a top-flight group of singers and leading them with what is obviously a clear vision and, on the podium, a clear gesture.

Photo courtesy of Nexus Vocal Ensemble, pictured.
Photo courtesy of Nexus Vocal Ensemble, pictured.

Throughout my career in music I’ve been in concerts in which the music was technically astonishing but not necessarily moving, and those in which I’ve been deeply moved and technical prowess wasn’t the point. In this debut concert, Nexus Vocal Ensemble and Ensemble Esprit performed both with impressive technique and with real emotional and spiritual power. 

At the close, Cottrell announced that another concert is in the works for spring 2020. Be sure to look out for it—if the debut concert was any indication, you won’t want to miss it.

Mark Powell is executive director of Cappella Romana Vocal Ensemble and Cappella Records and has been a professional ensemble singer for over 30 years. He has served in artistic and administrative capacities at Portland Baroque Orchestra, Early Music America, the International Federation for Choral Music, and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. He continues to perform as a professional ensemble singer with Cappella Romana and other ensembles, to write about music, and to advocate for the field.

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