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Choral Arts Ensemble: celebrating past, present, and future

Portland choir's winter concert focuses on 20th and 21st century seasonal sounds, including new music by Northwest composers

By BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Portland’s Choral Arts Ensemble is celebrating its 50th season. Congratulations to the organization. It’s a milestone that prompts reflection and appreciation. This past weekend’s concert, the second of CAE’s four-concert season, wound a long garland around songs of the winter season and the holiday, reigniting for their audience the memories of holidays past and suggesting those yet to come.

Dr. David De Lyser offered pieces written or arranged within the years of our living families. Our grandparents might have sung Britten’s newly composed Ceremony of Carols at Christmas in the 1940s. Our friends had sung the music of Stephen Chapman and Morten Lauridsen, in particular, in college. And our children might well perform in years to come the music of two of the Northwest resident Cascadia Composers on the program, Lisa Neher and William Whitley.

Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland

A sweet and gentle arrangement of an English melody “A Winter Carol” opened the program and was immediately followed by two well-known choruses from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, “There Is No Rose” and “This Little Babe.” The first was very well done and allowed the serenity of the season to settle over the audience. The second, a driving, very close set canon, was disadvantaged rhythmically because of the distance between the soprano and alto sections. (Sopranos were in row four, altos in row one.) The program then continued to the great mystery of Christmas.

Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium written in 1994, was a commission from the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Programmed often, including in several previous CAE performances, it is deceptively challenging in keeping the intervals of the 4th tuned against open held notes. Dr. De Lyser conducted a sensitive performance. The phrases were elastic, with growth through each, all building to the intimate climax so expertly scored by Lauridsen, a Northwest native who grew up in the Beaverton area.

Born in the 1980s, Jake Runestad (given a full concert by CAE last year) and Joshua Shank are contemporaries, both composing primarily for voices (chorus, opera and choral orchestral). Their “Sleep Little Babe, Sleep” and “Gabriel’s Message,” respectively, rounded out the first half.

But a little elfish humor snuck in right before the intermission with “The Sleigh” (a La Russe) of “Woody Woodpecker” cartoon fame (yes, as in Walter Lantz). It’s a favorite CAE holiday offering. Woody and choir exit stage left.

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MusicWatch Weekly: American holidays

Along with abundant traditional European Christmas music, Oregon concerts offer American angles on holiday music, music mixed with theater, film, dance, and more

Millions of Americans celebrate Christmas, but let’s face it, the Yuletide is hardly an American original. Sometimes it seems that about all we’ve contributed to a story that began in the Middle East and was St. Nicked by Europeans, is our characteristic commercialization of what was once a spiritual occasion.

Actually, Americans have over the years made the mid-winter holiday — like so many other cultural artifacts that originated elsewhere — our own through music, and you can hear some of it on Oregon stages this week.

• Based on the memoir by iconic Portland stripper / author Viva Las Vegas, Viva’s Holiday scored a surprisingly young and diverse audience in its 2015 and 2016 performances. Set in her family’s Minnesota home during a Christmas visit, Portland composer Christopher Corbell’s intimate, one-act Christmas opera recounts Viva’s declaration of independence from family expectations, socially approved careers, and occasionally clothing — a perfect Portland-style twist on standard holiday themes. Already revived once, Corbell’s lyrical music, which embraces both classical traditions and his own singer-songwriter background, has now received a splendid recording by a twelve-piece orchestra and four opera singers conducted by former Opera Theater Oregon artistic director Erica Melton. This Cult of Orpheus concert (i.e. unstaged) performance includes all the music, minus costumes, sets and stage action, plus a set by Portland’s early French sex music trio Bergerette (which has a close connection to Viva), plus a chance to buy the newly released CD. Let’s hope Santa brings a full re-staging during a future holiday season. Read ArtsWatch’s review and feature story about the original production.
Saturday, Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland.

• Violin deity Mark O’Connor, who’s developed an entire music ed curriculum that introduces American kids to music using our own folk traditions rather than centuries-old European pedagogy. Possibly the world’s greatest fiddler, the Seattle-born star brings the sound of his popular “Appalachia Waltz” combo to holiday music when his crack band and singer Brandy Clark perform the music from his hit 2011 album An Appalachian Christmas this week in Portland and Eugene. The Grammy-winning fiddle virtuoso (who’s also won major awards for his guitar and mandolin skill) composer (nine concertos, two symphonies, three string quartets and counting), studio musician, and educator may have worked with some of the world’s most renowned musicians, from Yo Yo Ma to Earl Scruggs to Wynton Marsalis, but he really enjoys playing with his family and friends. What better time to do that during the holidays? His O’Connor Band features his wife and fellow fiddler/ singer Peggy, champion mandolinist son Forrest, national flatpack champ guitarist Joe Smart, banjoist/bassist Geoff Saunders giving carols and other holiday standards given a warm, all American bluegrass/folk inflection.
Wednesday, McDonald Theatre, Eugene, and Friday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

Mark O’Connor Family Band performs “An Appalachian Christmas” Wednesday in Eugene and Friday in Portland. Photo: All Classical Portland

Music & Theater & More

Along with Viva’s Holiday and Portland annual Christmas Revels, which is more theatrical than musical though worth seeing on both counts, on Sunday, Eugene Concert Choir presents its fully staged musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A Dickens of a Christmas includes plenty of seasonally appropriate sounds that you nevertheless don’t hear ad nauseam in stores and commercials everywhere this time of year. ECC artistic director Diane Retallack has placed the ghost of Christmas Past’s setting in a Renaissance Feast, with appropriate madrigals and carols performed by the costumed “Lords and Ladies” of Eugene Vocal Arts in Elizabethan attire and accompanied by Byrdsong Consort. The ghost of Christmas Present inhabits Dickens’s mid-19th century Britain, with English carols and other music of the period, including Arthur Sullivan’s (of Gilbert &) Handelian Festival Te Deum, accompanied by Eugene Concert Orchestra. The ghost of Christmas Future appears in a “raucous, kitschy look at contemporary culture” with flash mob, break dancing, circusy acrobatics, an Elvis impersonator, and Churchill High School’s Concert Choir. This colorful experience is more than just a concert, featuring costumes, sets, theatrical lighting and sound, action, pageantry, choreography and of course Dickens’s immortal story of Scrooge and the rest.

Eugene Vocal Arts members don Renaissance garb at Eugene Concert Choir’s ‘A Dickens of a Christmas.’

And don’t forget about this weekend’s concluding concerts in a couple other music-meets-theater runs we’ve told you about in earlier MusicWatches:

• Portland Opera to Go’s kid-friendly, bilingual production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, at Portland’s Hampton Opera Center, 211 SE Caruthers Street, and

 The Shedd’s production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, at Eugene’s Jaqua Concert Hall, 285 E Broadway.

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Fear No Music: music of migration and more

New music ensemble demonstrates dedication to diversity and development

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Portland contemporary classical music organization Fear No Music is a civic treasure. It cultivates audiences, artists, and composers through outreach and education programs. It keeps the classical tradition alive, performing select works from the contemporary classical canon while spending most of their energy on the next generation of composers. FNM’s ongoing efforts to diversify the repertoire have done more than just make the group socially relevant in a town that doesn’t always live up to its progressive values — it’s also commissioned and performed more living and contemporary composers than probably any other classical group in Portland (except, of course, for Cascadia Composers). And, with a stable of Oregon Symphony players in their ranks and Portland’s most popular composer at the helm, FNM generally puts on one hell of concert.

FNM opened its 2018-19 season with a pair of September shows collectively titled Shared Paths: The Music of Migration. The first was something of a teaser, a solo piano recital at Steel Gallery in Northwest Portland, the second a full concert the next day at their familiar haunt, The Old Church down by Portland State University, featuring the usual FNM crew.

FearNoMusic

This season’s title, Worldwide Welcome, a quote from the oh-so-right-now Lazarus poem (“From her beacon-hand / Glows world-wide welcome”) makes it clear that FNM intends to continue developing the themes they’d already explored so thoroughly in last season’s dozen-odd Hope in the Dark concert. It shows dedication, for one thing, a hot commodity in an age of distraction and disintegration.

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MusicWatch Weekly: for the children

Music inspired by children lead this week's Oregon concert lineup

The Christmas season celebrates a child’s birth and delights kids all over the world. But there’s little comfort and joy for many children today. Even before little Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on that Turkish beach three years ago, children were bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis and so many other catastrophes. Fear No Music’s “All of the Future: In Celebration of Children” features chamber music on subjects especially significant to children, including gun violence (Larry Bell’s Newtown Variations, responding to the 2013 massacre), homophobia (Pulitzer Prize winner David Del Tredici’s Matthew Shepard), migration (Mary Kouyoumdjian’s A Boy And A Makeshift Toy, inspired by the 1990s Bosnian conflict), bullying (Barbara White’s Registering My Oppositions) and, yes, the plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean (Nadir Vassena’s child lost at sea). The young musicians of Portland’s BRAVO Youth Orchestras contribute a collective compositional response to the new ICE crackdown on immigrants.
Monday. The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave. Portland.

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus’s annual holiday concert happens this weekend.

• Like so many parents today, jazz pianist Ezra Weiss, the father of two young sons, worries about the turn the world has taken recently and what it means for his children’s future. And as one of Portland’s most esteemed jazz composers and arrangers, Weiss channeled those concerns when he created his latest and one of his most ambitious compositions. This concert, a fundraiser for the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, features the premiere and live recording of Weiss’s new jazz suite We Limit Not the Truth of God, featuring many of the city’s top players (John Nastos, John Savage, Renato Caranto, Stan Bock, Alan Jones, Carlton Jackson, Thomas Barber and more, plus the Camas High School Choir. This new creation follows a string of successes, including his score for Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s multimedia concert and recording earlier this year, From Maxville To Vanport; three original musicals for Northwest Children’s Theater; three ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award, half a dozen CDs, and a host of arrangements and compositions for various Portland jazz veterans. But fair warning: although inspired by concern for children, some of the themes in Weiss’s new composition may not be appropriate for all of them. Such is the state of our world.
Saturday. Alberta Abbey, Portland.

• The impressive Portland composer Renée Favand-See dedicated her new solo piano work Growing to her first son Owen, and suggests that its premiere performance would be a good one for adults and kids. It’s part of award winning rising star pianist Zhenni Li’s free, one-hour, no intermission recital presented by Portland Piano International, which commissioned it. Along with Growing (based on Britten’s folk song arrangement “The trees they grow so high,” which will be sung by Arwen Myers in Portland), the recital includes music by Beethoven, Bortkiewicz, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures of an Exhibition.
Friday, St. Paul’s Episcopal, 1444 Liberty Street SE, Salem, and Saturday, Portland Piano Company, 8700 NE Columbia Blvd, Portland.

Choral Concerts

• Children from ORS’s own youth choirs and student choristers from local middle and high schools join in some selections in Oregon Repertory Singers’ Glory of Christmas concert, annually one of the best bets of the holiday music season. The 20th and 21st century program includes excerpts from contemporary Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s Northern Lights and Benjamin Britten’s enchanting Ceremony of Carols, Beaverton native Morten Lauridsen’s moving O Magnum Mysterium, Portland composer Naomi LaViolette’s Angel in the Snow, contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Bogoroditse Devo and Magnificat, contemporary Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds’s Stars, Franz Biebl’s perennial Ave Maria, and more.
Friday (tickets available) & Sunday (sold out, call ahead), First United Methodist Church, 1838 SW Jefferson St, Portland.

Oregon Repertory Singers perform at Portland’s First United Methodist Church.

• Some of the same composers and even compositions appear on Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland’s CAE Yuletide: To Friends Old & New this weekend. The choir teams up with composers from our own time and place to perform new Northwest seasonal works created by members of Cascadia Composers, plus old favorites by other renowned contemporary choral composers (Gjeilo, Lauridsen, Stephen Chatman, Pärt), new works by rising young composers (Jake Runestad, Joshua Shank, Martin Åsander) and classics by Mozart, Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Tavener, Elgar, and more. Portland composer Lisa Neher’s Three Basho Haiku includes ”harvest moon,” which conjures the image of a large, orange moon rising in the autumn sky; “first winter rain,” which likens the ending of the year with the waning of life, prompting the search for the comfort of companionship and “this fragrance,” which relates the experience of a particular scent awakening emotions and memories. Bill Whitley‘s Ecclesia is a tribute to the great Portland architect Pietro Beluschi. Read ArtsWatch’s interview with CAE artistic director David De Lyser.
Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, 2408 SE 16th Ave. Portland.

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Choral Arts Ensemble at 50: intimacy and approachability

As it celebrates its 50th anniversary season, the Portland choir builds on its legacy of singing diverse repertoire and creating a comfortable, inviting experience

Interview by AARON RICHARDSON

David De Lyser is artistic director of Portland’s Choral Arts Ensemble, a chamber choir now celebrating its 50th anniversary season. This weekend, CAE teams up with Cascadia Composers in a concert that includes new seasonal works by local Northwest composers Lisa Neher and Bill Whitley, as well as holiday and seasonal favorites from years gone by, including hymns, carols and works by Ola Gjeilo, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Beaverton native Morten Lauridsen, Arvo Pärt and others.

Choral Arts Ensemble opened its 50th anniversary season in October.

Now in his seventh season directing CAE, De Lyser spoke to Portland choral singer Aaron Richardson about the choir’s origins and evolution into one of the city’s top vocal ensembles. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Origins

The Choral Arts Ensemble started in 1969 and it was started like a lot of groups, by a small group of people that just wanted the opportunity to sing together.  There were only about 16 or so at that first rehearsal, but that’s how the group started.  I came to the University of Portland in 1999 to [study for] my Masters of Music degree. [Roger Doyle, who headed the choir for 34 years] was one of my professors, and he invited me to sing with the Choral Arts Ensemble and I joined and was in the group for one year before I moved away for additional graduate studies.  I was just very impressed with how he interacted with the singers and nurtured them, and how much they all seemed to enjoy singing with each other.  He was always full of life at every rehearsal and had a lot of energy.

Repertoire: a History of Diversity, an Emphasis on the Contemporary

What I hope is that people will come to our concerts for the diversity of repertoire and the quality with which it is performed. The hallmark of this group and its 50-year history is that diversity of repertoire, not limited by time period or style. There is so much amazing music to explore!

[Since De Lyser arrived] the group is a little more focused on contemporary choral composers. There are just a lot of young, passionate composers writing amazing music that deserves to be heard — a lot of them are looking around at the world and are writing really impactful lyrics and using texts that are relevant to what’s going on in the world. They’re looking at societal problems and issues through music and it just lends an emotional power that just words alone can’t do.

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‘The Little Prince’: flight of imagination

Artistic director Justin Ralls, who conducts this weekend’s Opera Theater Oregon’s production, sees Saint-Exupery’s story as “a metaphor for that revitalizing world of imagination and creativity”

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

This weekend at downtown Portland’s lovely Dolores Winningstad Theatre, Opera Theater Oregon premieres its new production of The Little Prince. That’s the whole run, so if you’re going you’d better get a move on. The opera—with libretto by British playwright Nicholas Wright and music by British composer Rachel Portman (best known for her award-winning film scores and the music Jim Henson’s The Storyteller series)—is sung in English and based on the popular novel by French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

This is the second season with OTO for artistic co-directors Justin Ralls and Nicholas Meyer, the composer-singer team who brought us Ralls’s Two Yosemites for their inaugural season with the independent opera company last year. Joining them in this year’s production are some of the area’s finest singers. Superstar mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn plays The Fox (a raisonneur sort of character who gets most of the best lines); composer, Resonance Ensemble bass-baritone, and ArtsWatch contributor Damien Geter sings The King (and one of the baobab trees). In the starring roles, we’ve got baritone and Aquilon Music Festival founder and festival coordinator Anton Belov as The Pilot, and tiny soprano Catherine Olson as the titular prince. It’s worth going to just for the vocal cast.

Belov and Olson in OTO’s ‘The Little Prince.’ Photo: Theodore Sweeney

Portman’s score is, well, Portmany—melodic, bright and a little moody, heavily indebted to normal classical music—and I look forward to hearing how Ralls handles another composer’s music, having only heard him conduct his own. He is a fine composer in his own right, student of UO-based composer Robert Kyr and one of many younger voices who are finally beginning to bloom (Nokuthula Ngwenyama and Andy Akiho also come to mind). OTO will premiere his new opera, Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest, next season.

Ralls is also a passionate advocate for creativity as a form of resistance, as evidenced in his brilliant and prescient 2015 essay “The Power of Creation in an Age of Destruction,” an impassioned and well-reasoned manifesto that you should take a moment to read—after you’ve finished the following interview, that is. Ralls’s answers have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.

The Little Prince, Verdi style

In redefining the mission of Opera Theater Oregon we [artistic directors Ralls and Meyer and executive director Lisa Lipton] wanted to focus on contemporary works, work that is in English specifically to reach our audience, works from diverse composers, and works that aren’t necessarily represented.

The Little Prince was on our radar, and we all reviewed it and thought it would be a great fit for us in our second production. Two Yosemites was a big work, and pretty heavy in its content and its musical language. We wanted to not repeat that, but have something that opens it up to an even larger audience and attract people that had never been to an opera before, and younger audiences.

Catherine Olson plays the title role in Opera Theater Oregon’s ‘The Little Prince.’ Photo: Theodore Sweeney

The Little Prince was ideal for us because of the accessibility of the music and the variety of roles. There’s ten-plus characters, but those characters don’t sing an entire opera—they have cameo appearances. So we’re able to feature a lot of different singers with a very practical economy of means. We’ve been talking about it as “The Little Prince, Verdi style.”

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Oregon Symphony: “More intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly”

Orchestra's fall concerts feature music by Leonard Bernstein, Tchaikovsky, and Drake

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

It was October 27, and the Oregon Symphony Orchestra was about to play music by Leonard Bernstein, Andrew Norman, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It had been an especially violent week in this violent country. Over the preceding week, pipe bombs had been sent to several prominent political figures. A few days earlier, it was the Jeffersontown grocery store murders. And, the day of the concert, the massacre in Pittsburgh.

Even the normally unflappable OSO President Scott Showalter was visibly shaken. He quoted the above portion of Bernstein’s remarks at a concert following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. There are many Bernstein compositions that might have been more literally appropriate than Three Dances from On the Town, but all the composer’s more serious music requires choirs. Carlos Kalmar and the band got into it anyways, muted trumpets and trombones swinging and strutting, the winds bluesy and somber, Kalmar hopping on one foot for a big brassy New York breakdown, arms a-waving for quick meter changes, shoulders grooving hard.

Jeffrey Kahane takes his bows with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra

Turns out, these dances were just the right balm. And more appropriate than it may have seemed: the movie is about soldiers on leave during World War II, a trio of singing and dancing sailors who, for all we know, have just engaged in combat (or are about to). Nothing wrong with having a little fun as a form of grief and stress relief.

Enjoy the Concept

Andrew Norman’s new composition, Split, went the other way: the ersatz piano concerto, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for pianist Jeffrey Kahane—who performed with the OSO that night—is a sonic reflection of the mental fracturing we all suffer daily in our existence as harried screen addicts. Kalmar, in introducing the piece, described it as being about “all the many things that bombard our brain; Norman is fascinated with the bombardment and what technology does to us.” The music, Kalmar explained, was meant to imitate the feel of constantly switching channels and scrolling through media feeds, “and then you actually sit and enjoy something for five minutes.”

“I hope you enjoy the concept,” Kalmar concluded.

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