Portland’s choral scene is so abundant it has its own calendar. With such an bounty of choirs, it’s no surprise that they represent many different ways of singing together. Two concerts in October—Choral Arts Ensemble’s season opener on October 13 at Rose City Park United Methodist Church, Cappella Romana’s Heaven and Earth on October 14 at St. Stephen Catholic Church—showcased two quite distinct approaches to creating choral music.
For CAE, it was their varied assortment of choral works, chosen collaboratively from their vast repertoire as a celebration of the ensemble’s long history of singing together; most of the selections, from Bach and Brahms to Ēriks Ešenvalds and Randall Thompson, were comfortably familiar, in a Western classical sort of way.
For Cappella Romana, on the other hand, the collaborative element was a matter of composers and singers working together within a unique and unified spiritual musical tradition—Orthodox Christianity and Byzantine Chant, traditions which are neither overly familiar (at least to Westerners) nor especially comfortable. Both approaches are valid, of course, but more importantly both demonstrate a crucial sense of unity-in-diversity, spiritual-musical solidarity, e pluribus unum, many voices coming together as one voice, seeking spiritual solace and satisfaction.
Choral Arts Ensemble: Fifty Years of Singing Together
In the opening performance of the the first concert of their fiftieth season, I was immediately struck by Choral Arts Ensemble’s brilliant tuning of even the simplest chords. This would emerge as their forte, a vertical sense of intonation, melodies and chords integrated in a way totally distinct from, say, Franco-Flemish Renaissance polyphony. It’s easy to hear a connection between the group’s democratic vibe and their approach to style, tuning, repertoire, and tradition. It probably wouldn’t be going too far to call it a distinctly Protestant attitude.
That big, resonant, vertical sound carried all through the concert, from the opening work—Schubert’s Gloria, its reverberant opening cadences turning on finely-tuned leading-tones—down through the full sound of English composer Colin Mawby’s 1995 Ave Verum. On Joshua Shank’s 2007 Sleeping out Full Moon, on a text by poet and WWI veteran Rupert Brooke, colorful Whitacrey harmony illuminated the lines “to all glory, to all gladness, to the infinite height.”
The chords got all melty and romantic on Josef Rheinberger’s 1855 Abendlied (Evening Song), and although their handful of Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzer (Love Song Waltzes) were perhaps not as lucid in this full choir setting as the quartet version we heard from The Ensemble a few seasons back, they were instead all lush and brimming with sehnsucht. In Ēriks Ešenvalds’s Only in Sleep, on a text by the Pulitzer-winning American poet Sara Teasdale, choir and soloists sang major thirds to make your eyes water. Offsetting Ešenvalds and Teasdale’s melancholy, the choir brought out a bright, poppy, Swingle Singers sound for Jake Runestad’s jolly John Muir song, Come to the Woods.
In the folksong Shenandoah—not the famous Robert Shaw arrangement but the popular, more recent setting by James Erb—the choir moved with beautiful grace through deceptively simple chords. In Michael McGlynn’s folksong setting Dúlamán—one of the concert’s highlights—solo bass Michael Rexroat belted lines about “Gaelic seaweed” over the tenor-and-bass ensemble’s rollicking refrains, strident harmonies and groovy meter-shifts bringing to mind Bobby McFerrin’s Circlesongs, Steve Reich’s Tehillim, Bjork’s Medulla.
Over the course of the evening, several singers came down stage to talk about their choir, adding to that familiar, churchy vibe. Soprano Jenny Stadler told the story of how Randall Thompson’s 1936 oratorio Peaceable Kingdom came to be in their repertoire, as part of De Lyser’s 2012 audition concert. After the passing of Dr. Roger O. Doyle—CAE’s director of more than thirty years—”David showed up with really bad jokes, way too much repertoire for one concert, and Peaceable Kingdom,” Stadler said. “We got to sing a message to each other that we needed at that time.” Thompson’s choruses—inspired by a Quaker painting and setting texts from the book of Isaiah—had a Handelesque but distinctly modern sound, ringing out the hopeful, joyful lines, “ye shall have a song, and gladness of heart.”
As the singers rearranged themselves into two groups for the J.S. Bach motet Komm, Jesu, Komm, alto Cecilia Seiter took the microphone to describe the “tightrope-walking act” of singing complex music for double choir—two full complements of standard SATB (sopranos, altos, tenors, bananas), both groups singing chorale counterpoint in the usual Bach style. “It’s twice as many choirs as we’re usually in,” Seiter said with a laugh, noting how she’d progressed from “total panic” in an earlier performance to this night’s “mild alarm.”
Tenor Michael Hyatt-Evenson introduced the penultimate number, James Mulholland’s setting of the famous Robert Burns poem A Red, Red Rose. Hyatt-Evenson called it “the single most performed piece in our history. Whenever Roger needed three minutes, he slotted this one in. He loved it, we love it.”
A few alumni singers joined in for the last song, a jumping, rhythmically contrapuntal 1996 arrangement of The Battle of Jericho by composer and African-American spiritual enthusiast Moses Hogan, who worked with CAE late in his life.
The diversity and sentimentality of the concert’s musical selections (all of which hailed, however, from within the mainstream Western choral tradition) was no accident but part of how the concert program was designed. After the Bach motet, as the choir undoubled, Artistic Director David De Lyser explained that the group’s singers had selected the program’s musical material themselves.
Cappella Romana: A Song of Creation
Where Choral Arts Ensemble’s sound and approach were broad and largely hymn-like, joyful and vigorous in an easy, placid, Protestant sort of way, Cappella Romana’s performance the following afternoon was an electrifying, bristlingly intense superabundance of laser-beam monody and weird, florid counterpoint in the Eastern Orthodox style. As with the group’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers in September, their October 14 Heaven and Earth concert at St. Stephen Catholic Church in Northeast Portland combined modern compositions with traditional liturgical chant.
Here, the modern music was a vivid variety of sacred choral music by contemporary composers Matthew Arndt, John Michael Boyer, Alexander Khalil, Kurt Sander, Richard Toensing, and Tikey Zes. The first half featured individual works by each composer except Khalil; the second, the world premiere of their collaborative composition Heaven and Earth: A Song of Creation, in which each composer set a portion of Psalm 103 in a new translation by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash.
The concert was dedicated to Lash, who died in 2016, and to Toensing, who completed his portion of the music shortly before passing away in 2014. The six composers, according to the program, “found common musical language in their experience as practicing liturgical musicians in the Orthodox Church.”
Let’s pause right there: these are all Orthodox Christian composers who work as church musicians, meaning these guys have the same basic professional profile as Johann Sebastian Bach—and there are a half dozen of them, all working together.
It shows. The basic musical idea is monody: melody against a drone. Technically, this sort of music is cousin to the more radio-friendly Gregorian style of chant, but to this audient’s ear it’s a lot closer to the similar melody-and-drone traditions of Indian classical music, particularly dhrupad. But from a cultural perspective, the music is much more familiar to contemporary Western listeners, sharing as it does so many common spiritual and melodic roots with the plainchant and chorale traditions which run all through the Western canon and especially in the Lutheran chorale tradition that culminated in Bach and resulted, ultimately, in Wagner.
Another unifying factor: language. Most of the texts, and the entirety of Psalm 103, were sung in English, with all the words printed in the program (the Greek texts too). The six composers — all living in the U.S. — naturally know their way around the language. Their settings were mostly syllabic and stepwise (meaning mostly one word per note, no big leaps or other fancy stuff), an approach which almost always works best for English text and merged marvelously with the clear, expressive chant style. This has been a feature of English-language choral writing since at least the Renaissance, but I’d never before heard it applied to complex monody of quite this variety. And I must be a vernacularist: the intelligibility of music and text deeply intensified their spiritual impact.
After intermission, Boyer—not just a composer but also a singer in the group and its newly anointed Associate Music Director—led the singers in his own music, Heaven and Earth’s opening “Glory to you, O God.” Little chromatic slides, minor to major thirds, slippery scales skipping over the ever-present drone, a complex monody beyond primitive modernist notions of mere consonance and dissonance—then all of a sudden a majorish section might arrive and the music would get all Celtic for a moment.
Boyer’s composition on the first half—Doxastikon on the First of September, from the Office of Supplication for the Environment—was similar, using a slew of minor and augmented seconds, swooping and florid vocal lines, all nevertheless texturally and textually clear. Later on, near the end of Heaven and Earth, Boyer contributed a chromatic chant that may as well have been a Schoenbergian tone row, on more “Glory” and the ancient formula, “to the ages of ages.”
I was immediately taken with Boyer’s compositional voice (his physical voice, too). And it’s always extra fun to discover a whole crew of composers all at once. Les Six. The Second Viennese School. The Original Minimalists. But like those schools—and happily for listeners who appreciate variety—this group isn’t interested in imposing its orthodoxy, only sharing it through music. The composers on Cappella Romana’s program may have shared their liturgical background—and a love for drones and clear, expressive melodies—but there the similarities ended.
In the first half’s O Joyful Light, we heard the distinctive harmonies of Zes’s setting of the Greek hymn Phos Hilarion, with some particularly beautiful sonorities on the lines “Son of God, Giver of Life.” His “The deep, like a cloak” from Heaven and Earth evoked the text’s oceanic profundities with close harmonies and double choir effects far stranger than CAE’s with Bach, building to a gigantic, glorious, “Glory to you, O God” ending.
By contrast, in the ringing and somber hallelujahs of Sander’s Blessed is the Man, we heard a more contemporary pandiatonicism, melded into an idiosyncratic idiom still very much rooted in chant. Sander applied the same Holstish approach to his Psalm 103 text, “He made the moon to mark the seasons.”
In Khalil’s contribution to Heaven and Earth, “He waters the mountains,” the sopranos and altos carried the drone while tenors and basses spooled out a complicated melody, sounding a lot like the North Indian raga Multani. High sopranos shot a beam of light across the high ceiling, radiating through rainbow-streaked cloudy chords.
Arndt’s The Jesus Prayer, closing the first half, came at me out of nowhere, right out of the gate crying a big Ligeti-esque wall-of-sound chord on “Lord!” and proceeding directly to fluctuating chromatic micropolyphony, occasionally resolving to lightly seasoned fifths before shifting back into 2001 overdrive, the text looping obsessively, cycling through iterations of “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” texture constantly changing, from vibrating clusters and close dissonant harmonies down to superquiet unisons. If I’d heard this in Seattle the previous night, I would have driven down here today just to hear this one piece again. Later, Arndt’s setting of his section of Heaven and Earth, “There is the sea, great and wide,” used similarly dense harmonies to evoke “creeping things without number, living creatures small and great.”
In Toensing’s Rejoice, Virgin Theotokos, we got a good taste of his style: sturdy stepwise syllabic English, plain and intense chords, rich and clear and bright. His contributions to Heaven and Earth were both wonderful. “May the Glory of the Lord endure to the ages” was a study in tight, pretty harmonies, shiny chords expanding outward to an expansive “Bless the Lord, my soul!” Later, closing the concert, his delicious “Alleluia,” gooey descending lines occasionally interrupted by trumpet peals of divine thunder, all winding down to a final, exhilarating stillness.
Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com