Choral climaxes

In Mulieribus, Resonance Ensemble and PSU Chamber Choir embark on wide-ranging musical explorations

Anna Song led In Mulieribus's singers up the aisle to open the ensemble's May 5 concert.

Anna Song led In Mulieribus’s singers up the aisle to open the ensemble’s May 5 concert.

by Bruce Browne

 “The Spectacular Now” is the provocative title of an upcoming movie. It can also apply to the “now” of the time we are sitting in a concert hall. Last Sunday, it did exactly that for this listener.
I had no misgivings about the experience of hearing In Mulieribus on Sunday, May 5; I know many of the singers to be absolutely first rate, and this ensemble has sung together for a while. But I wondered: would it be too much of a good thing – for example, monochromatic, ancient music?
I was soon relieved of any concerns: the music, although drawn from a relatively narrow period of music, displayed a variety of differences in texture, style, color, and rhythmic activity.
The space, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, is ideal for this type of small group singing. The only deterrent there is the pew I was sitting in: hard as a rock, and unyielding. Not so the singers. They made stimulating use of the space, singing first from the rear, then moving in front, and often changing formations and numbers of singers. And, unlike my pew, they were plastic and malleable.
This was really a “concerted” concert. Early music specialists Phil and Gayle Neuman, founders of the Oregon Renaissance Band and Ensemble De Organographia provided not only an added bonus, but also an intimate and continual part of the whole gesture, both supporting the singers, and often, leading the way with the period instruments of the time: vielle, recorder, citole, vihuela a mano, and others.
The concert showcased some prominent features of medieval music: multi-lingual motets, verse form pieces such as the verelai; and several examples of florid organum, the musical form comprising a chant melody with at least one added voice to enhance the harmony, where we felt a part of an authentic recreation.
Repertoire ranged from unison-dominated pieces to more advanced motets of Dufay and Binchois, and several quasi-secular pieces, notably by the acknowledged master of his time, Walther von der Vogelweide. (Say that five times quickly!)
The soloists were superb: Sue Hale, Shaelyn Schneider, Catherine van der Salm, and Jo Routh gave stellar accounts. Routh was especially effective, wedding her voluptuous tone and tasty phrasing to von der Vogelweide’s “Palestinalied.” Other highlights included the pieces drawn from the famous “Red Book of Montserrat” (c. 1399) sung by male and female pilgrims on their journeys to the monastery atop high mountain near Barcelona, which even today is the site of great choral singing, housing the well known Escolania choir.
Informative and enlightening program notes and text translations provided clear historical references and a nice roadmap to what for many listeners remains uncharted territory, being eight centuries or so removed. A scholarly perspective and vision help bring to life a program like this. Well done, Ms. Song and singers!

Musical Chameleons: Resonance Ensemble

So just who do they think they are? Opera chorus? Chamber choir? Traveling area recital? All of the above, judging from appearances Friday night at Lewis and Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel.
In a May 10 concert that was entertaining in the extreme, Resonance Ensemble showed themselves to be chameleons of music. I felt a little like the man who said he went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out. I went to an extravaganza of opera and oratorio, and, well, a choral concert broke out! We heard Verdi opera, cantata-cum-skit, and opera/oratorio excerpts from Leo Delibes’ opera “Lakme,” a quartet from Mozart’s “Requiem,” and then choral music: Carl Orff’s old faithful “Carmina Burana,” and others.
Some true choral gems shone in the process: a rendition of Bach’s “Come, Sweet Death,” “deconstructed” with aleatoric meanderings from chord to chord, resulting in an impeccably tuned soundscape with shimmering overtones. The choir took advantage of the space in the venue by finding the audiences’ sweet spot, nearly encircling us, to maximum effect. FitzGibbon’s way with this score worked perfectly.

Another jewel was the final piece, “Agnus Dei” by Samuel Barber.  While this arrangement by the composer of his justly famous “Adagio for Strings” is daunting for any choir to animate, much less a smaller group, the singers and director met all the challenges of this demanding score.
Soloists shone throughout: in the scene from Verdi’s opera “Macbeth,” Maria Karlin, Kevin Walsh, Daniel Burnett and Catherine van der Salm were especially effective. The quartet  of van der Salm, Cecily Keister, Justin Meyer and Walsh was in fine fettle in the “Recordare” section of Mozart’s “Requiem.” Karlin and Natalie Gunn oozed silver-toned legato phrasing in the famous “Lakme” duet. Jon Stuber offered strong support from the piano.
The disappointment was a skimpy audience. This is not the first time I’ve experienced a concert at this venue where the audience comprised less than half a houseful. There seems to be a glass wall between the Palatine Hill and the rest of Portland. Word is that the repeat concert at the Alberta Rose Theater was better acknowledged.
The sections of the choir were disparate in their impact on the concert. The sopranos, a gang of four gifted soloists, shone individually in the opera and oratorio excerpts, and as an ensemble within the choir. The basses were as smooth and supple a group as I’ve heard in some time. Some wrong notes and inconclusive entrances within the tenor section marred a couple of the pieces. Counting the singers, we might imagine that one more tenor and one more alto might have enhanced the overall balance for the better.
Franz Liszt was a sine qua non of Romantic music, both in period and style. His transcription of another romantic, Richard Wagner, was animated beautifully by pianist Susan DeWitt Smith, who teased the legato string melodies into the foreground as her superb technique mastered the simulated orchestral underpinning in this difficult transcription.
As for the projected concept of the program itself, the “Big Oh” offered some O’s and a couple of “oh-ohs.” The opening madrigal of Monteverdi, “Yes, I would like to die,” with its several double entendres, is a flagrant motif for the “big O,” and made a brilliant start. The idea that achieving physical and spiritual nirvana are interchangeable was difficult to maintain, though. ‘O’ contraire; for this listener it didn’t always work.
At times it was a bridge too far to connect to an “O.” For example, poor Anton Bruckner, an ascetic, devout Catholic, and frankly ugly man by all appearances, may never have experienced this in his life – poor guy. And getting past the personality, his motet “Christus Factus Est,” beautifully sung in the vertical dimension, was curiously devoid of rubato, the expressive technique of varying the score’s indicated tempo, which is one of the most “romantic“ characteristics one could hope for and is what helps gives shape to this motet.
And how do we connect a 12th-century priest, Perotin and his Oh-rganum to the prevailing concept? Even more so, in the realization, the men seemed insecure at times, and the piece did not quite work at the chosen tempo.
Those are small carps. The concert was a success; audience members seemed to gasp happily as they grasped the pieces and their inner meanings, intended or not.  FitzGibbon’s comments added value to the combined musical resources.
The Resonance season of 2013-14 looks enticing, as does that of In Mulieribus. I love the idea, advertised in the Resonance Program, of several local choirs collaborating to celebrate the 100th birthday of one of our truly great choral composers: Benjamin Britten. For more, see the appropriate websites.
Portland State's Chamber Choir will be singing in sunny Italy.

Portland State’s Chamber Choir will be singing in sunny Italy.

Vocal Voyage: Portland State University Chamber Choir

If you missed the choir’s May 17 Portland performance, you can always catch them at the International Choral Competition in Seghizzi, Italy, this summer. Might be worth the trip!
The program for the PSU choir‘s tour is varied and sumptuous, a tasty feast for the ears, conforming to the categories stipulated by the festival, including folksong arrangements 19th century polyphony, polyphonic compositions written between 1900 – 2013, spirituals and gospel music, and choral arrangements of popular and jazz music. It will include some of the masterworks: “Pater Noster” of Verdi; Psalm 100 of Mendelssohn; a piece from the “All-Night Vigil” of Rachmaninoff, and a new work written for the Chamber Choir by the Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds. I predict this choir will come home with several medals!

Veteran choral conductor Bruce Browne has directed the Portland State University choral programs, Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties and other choirs over a distinguished 40-year career.

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