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 was a 1994 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.

The sections of the choir are evenly matched, but the tenor section is to die for. Solos by several tenors showcased fine voices. Altos are mellifluous and clear; basses provide good low end without being huffy.

Five worthy CAE sopranos demonstrated a variety of timbre and vocal quality in solo performance passages. Their distinctive voices illustrated the challenge of nurturing a coalescent section sound. One approach is to “youthenize” the collective tone toward a boy-choir approach. Other approaches might include vowel unification or attention to vibrato. The soprano section seems to be in search of its sound ideal.

David de Lyser leads Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland.

The English folksong “Wassail” arranged by 20th century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is another old choral friend and welcomed the audience back to the second half of the concert.

Throughout the concert, choir members stepped to the microphone between pieces to share recollections of their tenure in the choir or their personal connection with the upcoming pieces. This is a balancing act – adding minutes and breaking the momentum of the concert proper versus the sometimes amusing or sentimental recollections of a half century of musical camaraderie.

Deserving of separate mention were two pieces by members of Cascadia Composers, which this year partnered in CAE’s commitment to showcasing contemporary works. Portland composer Lisa Neher (b. 1985) submitted Three Bashu Haiku, glimpses of seasonal change, an interesting and challenging set worthy of many more performances.

The other Cascadia entry consisted of three short pieces comprising Ecclesia by William Whitley, also a native Northwesterner. “Ecclesia” means “church,” but here Whitley sets not the spirit of church but the bones and tissue, i.e., the stones, of a particular church building, designed by venerated longtime architect Pietro Belluschi, which inspired both the composition and its commission. The third movement was my favorite, “Lapides Vivi” (“Living stones”), in which the composer matches the text onomatopoetically with solid chords and pedal points, while the bass section lays the foundation with their low notes throughout.

Following such an anchored piece with Voices of the Earth by American-Canadian composer Stephen Chatman was too much of same. The piece could have prospered from a greater variety of articulation and span of dynamic range. The final Britten of the evening, one of his most compelling early pieces, Hymn to the Virgin, suffered intonation problems, particularly in the solo quartet placed at the rear of the sanctuary.

The Edward Elgar (the same of “Enigma Variations”) choral song, The Snow, reanimated the choral society image of Great Britain in 1894 and felt akin to sitting next to Queen Victoria. Elgar wrote many such songs, several using verses by his wife Anne Elgar, an accomplished poet. It is a treacly artifact – truly difficult to insert into a program as it does promote a distinctive stall in momentum, but historically worthy of a proper hearing. Though rousing it is not, it was well sung by the SSAA women and especially well accompanied by the two violins and piano. (I would have enjoyed hearing those two fine string players in more than one piece).

Arvo Pärt’s Bogoróditse Djévo was surprisingly invigorating. The famed contemporary Estonian composer didn’t compose a kneel-down, passive, meandering “Hail Mary.” This is a 40-yard go for the downs, full-sprint tribute. It was followed by another tribute to Mary, Mother of God, Here I Stand, by British composer John Tavener (1944-2013). It is one brief glimpse of his all night vigil Veil of the Temple (2003). While antipodal in tempo and density, this duo was molded together by the mutual spirit of the composers, both late converts to Russian Orthodoxy and each piece venerated a symbol of that sect of Christianity. It was a brilliant pairing – like two crepes, one savory, one sweet.

Dr. De Lyser is a no-nonsense conductor; clear, concise, and easy to follow, with fine attention to phrasing. The choir responds very well to his sensitive gesture. He seems open to changing formations to suit sonic ideals. Even in a reverberating acoustic such as this, St. Philip Neri in southeast Portland (also designed by Belluschi), an arched formation could allow the singers to hear each other, create an internal acoustic, from which the sound would float.

Another asset of CAE is accompanist Jennifer Creek Hughes. She was flawless, and received a well deserved ovation when De Lyser gracefully acknowledged her.

An anniversary is a commemoration of a point in time and the happenings along a journey into the now. From renowned tenor Farrold Stevens to my dear friend and colleague Roger Doyle (who conducted his final CAE concert in 2010) and since 2012, Dr. David De Lyser. CAE has had a wonderful journey thus far.

Two more concerts are coming up in 2019: CAE Pops! Music from the Movies II at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall on February 23-24, and the 50th Anniversary Finale May 10-11 at Imago Dei in SE Portland.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer.

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