Oregon Cultural Trust

Coming home to old friends: Choral masterworks on the horizon

Bach and MacMillan in Portland; Brahms in Bend; Vivaldi and Mozart in Eugene; Schubert in Salem.

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Happy spring, Oregon choral music lovers. Choral masterworks – classics, treasures, crowning achievements old and new – are being presented by some of Oregon’s master choruses around the state. For Vivaldi, Mozart or Schubert, head toward Salem and Eugene. Or set your GPS for a very special Brahms in Bend. In Portland a Bach cantata and a favorite soul-shivering high C might draw you in, but there is also a stunning contemporary cantata by James MacMillan perfectly timed for Easter. Your community choirs have such gifts in store for you.

Works of the master

We’ll begin this tour of masterworks in Portland with an ensemble that specializes in the works of a master, J. S. Bach. Of course, it’s the Bach Cantata Choir, under the direction of Ralph Nelson. So why open this Palm Sunday concert with an a cappella choral work not by Bach? Because the glorious “Miserere” by Georgio Allegri is the perfect amuse bouche to enliven your palette for the pleasures to come. The famous soprano role–including the high C–will be sung by Catherine van der Salm, but a well-balanced and tuned full quartet (filled out by alto Sheryl Wood, countertenor Tim Galloway, and bass John Vergin) is essential to the beauty of that heavenly leap. Amuse yourself with this performance.

And of course, there’s a Bach cantata – BWV 182 “Himmelskönig sei willkommen” (King of Heaven, welcome) composed for Palm Sunday in 1714. A delicate opening sonata treads with stately elegance into a choral fugue, a homophonic statement and a masterfully tight second fugue–perhaps a 29-nine-year-old Bach showing off in his new Weimar post. After a brief basso recitative statement comes three arias, the instrumental accompaniment of each thinning until the third aria is tenor and continuo alone, sung in this concert by Scot Crandall. Other soloists are alto Laura Beckel Thoreson and bass Jacob Herbert.

Another miniature gem is next on the program: Antonio Lotti’s “Crucifixus” in 8 parts, from his Credo in F; only four minutes long, but every moment a painting of the seasonal text. The final baroque piece, George Frideric Handel’s Chandos Anthem #9 “Oh Praise the Lord with one Consent” (Psalm 135), begins with an instrumental intro followed by the choir jumping right in with a familiar chorale melody, brilliantly woven into a full choral movement. Soloists in this performance are van der Salm, Galloway, Crandall andHerbert.

For more information, read the full program and program notes here. 

As usual, the Bach Cantata Choir concert, April 10 at 2 pm, Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, is free (donations greatly appreciated). But you must register online in advance here. The website also states a live stream will be available.

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A capital performance

Festival Chorale Oregon has been waiting two years to bring the Schubert Mass in Eb Major, D950, to Salem and the Willamette Valley. Artistic Director Solveig Holmquist described herself as heartbroken in 2020 when the singing came to a screeching halt. But she and the choir are back in great form and ready to bring Schubert’s sixth and final Mass to the stage with 80 singers, soloists and full orchestra.  

Schubert died in 1828 at the age of 31, leaving many works in his “to be finished” folder. Had his life been longer he may have had one of the greatest catalogs of works bridging the Classical to the Romantic period. The Mass in Eb Major hints at this bridge, challenging Classical dictates and offering harmonic nods to the Romantic.

Schubert chose to break some conventions in this work. Even when conforming to expectations–like setting a “cum sancto spiritu” as a fugue–Schubert wrote one of the longest, most involved pleas to the Holy Spirit written in his day. Don’t look for flutes in the orchestra, and there’s no organ; but you’ll hear a soloistic timpani role in the “et resurrexit.”

And then there’s the text. Schubert decided to leave out a little bit of the Mass text which, as you can imagine, caused more than a little bit of extra-musical disharmony. Schubert would not have to deal with much of that, however; he did not live to hear his work premiered.

Now if you are looking forward to hearing lovely arias by this master of art song, you’ll have to google some before the concert to whet your, uh, ear. But what you will hear is some engaging solo “ensemble” work embedded in the choral movements. Amber Traver, Hannah Penn and Nicolai Strommer (soprano, contralto and bass/baritone) make up three fifths of the solo SATB corp – wait, that math seems fuzzy. That’s because there’s another marvelous norm breaker in this work: two tenor soloists. Tenors Bryan Gonzalez and Les Green will join soprano Traver in the marvelous “Et Incarnatus est.” Listen to that movement here.

Your opportunity to hear this Schubert choral masterwork is on Sunday, April 10 at 4 pm at the majestic Elsinore Theatre in Salem. Here’s how to get your tickets

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Meaty miniature masterworks 

Eugene Concert Choir and Eugene Vocal Arts are cueing up Classical and going for Baroque. What’s that look like? Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Solemn Vespers, K339 and Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria in D Major, RV 589.   

The pairing of these two masterworks is a masterstroke. “They are meaty miniatures,” remarked Artistic Director Diane Retallack, “both so full of excitement, so dynamic. And the choral role in the Vespers is continuous.” She’s referring to the solos and solo quartet moments being primarily embedded in the six movements. And both works, she added, “are familiar and welcoming. Like coming home to old friends.”

The Eugene Concert Choir Orchestra, part of the ECC organization, joins the choirs for this performance. Sure, it’s been a tough year but the choirs have maintained contact with “our entire choir family,” Retallack said; “all can participate at their own level of comfort” through continued zoomed rehearsals. She anticipates around 35 singers for this performance. Well done Eugene singers.

The one-movement Gloria is a masterclass in continuity. It’s most often identified as a Christmas piece, but a closer look at the texts reminds us that it can work for all seasons. Sopranos Emilie Faiella, Abigail Krawson and alto Erika Rauer will sing the glorious solo movements. 

The Mozart moment that might draw you to the concert is Retallack’s own favorite: the “Laudate Dominum.” Soprano Emilie Faiella will perform the solo, which expands to SATB choir before taking on the text of Gloria and being rejoined by the soprano for the final Amen. Listen here to soprano Barbara Hendrick performing the “Laudate Dominum.” Also soloing in the Mozart are tenor Alex Trull and bass Doremus Scudder.

ECC is successfully carrying out its planned ramp-up to full strength in time to conclude their 2021-22 season with a full choral/orchestral performance of Brahms German Requiem in Eugene on Sun., May 8, 2:30 pm. And then it’s off to Carnegie Hall with new Brahms buddies from Bend. More on that below.

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Retallack has also programmed what she calls a “teaser” for next year, one movement of “Dixit Dominus” by a neglected composer with links to Mozart and Haydn, Marianna von Martines (1744-1812). 

The Eugene Concert Choir concert is at the Soreng Theater at The Hult, April 10, 2:30 pm. For more information on the program and to purchase tickets, go to Eugene Concert Choir.

MacMillan’s modern masterwork

Portland choral singer Mary Lane Stevens is a great fan of the Seven Last Words from the Cross by James MacMillan. “I can’t remember exactly when,” she recalls about her first hearing of the piece, “but it was one of those moments, perhaps on All Classical, where you want to pull the car to the side of the road.” So naturally, Stevens–who sang with Portland Symphonic Choir for 40 years–is very excited about the Cantores in Ecclasia concert coming up on April 13. Blake Applegate, Artistic Director, is excited and honored to be conducting the first performance of the MacMillan in our region and to be welcoming the renowned conductor David Hill to lead this performance.

Cantores is doubly honored to be performing the American premiere of MacMillan’s 2017 work One Equal Music, commissioned by long-time friend of Cantores, historian John Morrill. In this work, commissioned in memory of Morrill’s late wife, MacMillan suggests that poet John Donne’s mysteries of heaven remain unresolved. MacMillan, a devout Catholic, chooses not to resolve earthly or spiritual anguish but to illuminate. This is also true in the Seven Last Words from the Cross.

Stevens identifies herself as a non-believer who could understand the message because of MacMillan’s setting. She described a feeling of existing within the source of the words rather than listening to them. “The intensity, the harmonies; I remember saying ‘Oh, my God’.” Indeed, even MacMillan’s silences – especially his silences – are intense. 

The work is for double choir and strings; the words in the seven movements are taken from Jesus’ final utterances and other liturgical texts. Word painting is unambiguous, that technique and the use of high strings depicting Christ harkening to the Passion works of Bach. And it is a wonderful challenge for all performers – the kind of challenge that demands full focus and devotion to craft.

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Applegate is excited and humbled to be preparing the forces for David Hill. “I’m obviously not as intimate with the work; but I believe I understand it much better than I did before,” he remarked recently; “and the choir will be ready.” Portland audiences know that Applegate and Cantores are up to the challenge. Hill has conducted performances of the MacMillan Eastertime cantata numerous times, as in the New York City 2016 premiere when the work was paired with works of Sir John Taverner–another devout Christian, whose music reassures. A harmonious duo that? Wonderfully not. MacMillan’s music, his passion, stimulates – provokes – searching for your own truth.

Composer James MacMillan. Photo by Hans Van Der Woerd.
Composer James MacMillan. Photo by Hans Van Der Woerd.

Portland music scholar and author and Cantores singer Kerry McCarthy has written wonderful program notes for this concert. Enjoy reading them here and let them entice you to participate in this very special performance by a choir to whom Portland is devoted.

James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross will be performed on April 13, 7:30 pm, at St. Philip Neri church, Portland. Tickets can be purchased here.

Brahms in Bend

Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), is a healing balm. From the opening two tones you are assured that life, even in the midst of death, will resolve into comfort: “Blessed are they who carry grief – they shall be comforted.” Christian Clark and the Central Oregon Mastersingers bring this work to their community, with a few special helping hands.

The work is outrageously fun to sing in the original 200 voice, 100 piece orchestra version of 1868. And most of us have heard it that way–although we may have heard the reduced forces arrangement by Joachim Linklemann. There’s even a chamber version for 8 strings and chamber choir. A recording by Yale Schola Cantorum, conducted by David Hill – yes, the very same – can be heard here.

Fine covers, those. But Brahms had his own redux in mind. Jettison the orchestra, bring in two pianists: one piano, four hands. Brahms, who had already completed several piano sonatas, wrote this piano version in 1868-71 with the chorus remaining as originally written. The solo roles also remain as originally completed in 1868. Soprano Jocelyn Claire Thomas and baritone Zachary Lenox will soar over the piano score. And, value added, a chorus of 45 singers like COMS is the perfect size to balance with the piano.

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So this isn’t a compromise, and certainly not a convenient toss off. When the famed Cleveland Orchestra Chorus returned to the stage in October of 2021, they performed the Requiem with four hands on two pianos. This piano version is legit.

Now, where do you find two pianists who can sit hip-by-hip without bumping elbows and tangling fingers? Clark didn’t have to go far: Bend area pianists Diane Thielen and Suzanne Gainey were delighted to take it on. And, said Gainey in recent communication, “Diane and I have been rehearsing together twice a week for about a month to be sure we are having fun together [as we] bring this major masterwork to life.”

These two artists have had to “relearn” certain things that have become instinctive. Imagine pedaling while someone else plays the phrase. “Both of our hands [are] in one clef only vs. the typical two clefs – which can cause the brain to take pause” admitted Gainey. Well, yeah! And the bench sharing? “Fine, as we, luckily, are friends.”  

There will be a certain intimacy in this performance. So make it an intimate night with your friends and witness this rarely performed version of the Brahms Requiem. The concerts are at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon, Bend, April 10, 4 pm and April 11, 7 pm. The concerts are free but tickets should be reserved on-line in advance due to limited space. Donations are gratefully accepted.  

Addendum: If the singers themselves are still in need of a full-orchestra Brahms fix, they are going to get it. They will be buddying up with the Eugene Concert Choir in a Carnegie Hall experience on June 20. Learn more about that NYC music tour here.

Behold

Oh, before you go, let’s shine a spotlight on George Fox University choirs, orchestra and vocal students performing selections from Handel’s Messiah at Bauman Auditorium on the GF campus, April 14, 7:30 pm. Tickets here or at the door.

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The enjoyment, the fun, is in the opportunity to hear this great music. The satisfaction the choirs get in singing these great works is compounded by them offering them – gifting them – to you. 

Behold, the riches of Oregon’s choral scene are yours. Enjoy the music.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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