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Heart and mouth and deed and life: Choral partnerships in Portland Metro West

Oregon Chorale and PCC Rock Creek Choir combine jazz and Baroque; Bach Cantata Choir sings a history lesson.

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Mass in Blue

It is a wonder that Will Todd’s Mass in Blue hasn’t been performed in our region until now. The work has had hundreds of performances since its 2003 premiere in Cambridge, UK. British-born Todd often sits at the piano in performances of this work, and was on hand for a Lincoln Center performance in April, 2019–possibly one of the last US performances of the piece until now. Have you ever heard of the Mass in Blue?

Oregon Chorale Artistic Director Jason Sabino and PCC Rock Creek Choir conductor Sam Barbara are counting on you saying “no” because then the June 4 and 5 Northwest premiere of the piece will be your introduction to this very special work. It’s scored for chorus, jazz combo or a larger jazz ensemble and soprano soloist. 

Oregon Chorale director Jason Sabino. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Oregon Chorale director Jason Sabino. Photo by Daryl Browne.

WE INTERRUPT THIS CHORAL PREVIEW FOR A SPECIAL MESSAGE. The program about to be previewed here will be profiled in an All Classical Portland’s Thursday @ 3 performance, May 19; join Host Christa Wessel at KQAC 89.9. We now return you to your regular choral preview.

The Mass in Blue is a major work. Sabino meaningfully hefted the book (yes, the choral score is a book) just before warming up the Chorale in a recent rehearsal. Then they eased into the “Sanctus,” because it lays so easily on the voice. Listen to it here

But that “Sanctus” is only a warmup for you, too. This gently swaying triple-time “Holy” section of the Mass – close to the center of the 30 minute work – is just an oasis flanked by much more energetic sections with complex rhythms; a choral sound that switches from big band to classical in a heartbeat; and vocal and instrumental solo riffing that emerges rather than bursts. “It’s a real mix of styles, not welded to any one jazz approach,” said jazz combo bassist Kevin Deitz. “Sometimes blues, but sometimes chord sequences from jazz standards.” Sometimes, he said, his part only indicates chord changes to play over, signaling the “go ahead” for improvisation. 

And if there’s anyone who can step into that vocal jazz improv style it’s Portland soprano Maddy Ross. “She’s incredible,” said Sabino. Barber agrees; he knew the soprano had special talent when she was in his Cleveland High School choir years ago. Ross is equally comfortable in classical and jazz – sometimes she’s the Queen of the Night, sometimes she’s scatting on stage with Deke Sharon. Besides solo performances, Ross is a co-founder of Portland-based Renegade Opera (read Max Tapogna’s ArtsWatch profile here). Go hear her sing.

Portland soprano Maddy Ross, co-founder of Renegade Opera. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Portland soprano Maddy Ross, co-founder of Renegade Opera. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Will Todd is a bonafide jazz performer and composer. He’s also got some accessible non-jazz choral works out there, but this work is considered a modern masterpiece. “You sometimes play pieces like this,” remarked Deitz, “and there isn’t a cohesion. But this piece is well thought through. Idiomatically correct. It’s the real deal.” Joining him in the jazz combo, who will perform one piece on their own, are two other highly respected Portland artists: drummer Jason Palmer and pianist Randy Porter.

But the Mass is only one half of the offerings on this ambitious concert; the first half leans toward the Baroque. Why “leans”? Because there’s this great little piece of music that straddles Brazilian jazz samba and Baroque and, well, how great a fit is that? Baroque Samba by Darmon Meader, unfolds from an easy listening fugue to – bam! Great fun! 

Bobby McFerrin’s 23rd Psalm performed by the Chorale provides a chanting respite before PCC Rock Creek takes the stage with the tight harmonies of Greg Jasperse’s Oh How Beautiful This Finely Woven Earth. This PCC choir, students and Dr. Barbara, are in the process of rebuilding their choral program. Two years ago, Barbara’s third year at Rock Creek, there were close to 100 in the choir. The newly reformed auditioned group now approaches thirty voices. They sing well; they are a choral community once again. 

After a recent rehearsal, several students spoke of why the choral program is important to them. Elizabeth Lovell wants to be a middle school music teacher. “Sure, that’s part of it,” she responded when asked if this was part of her course requirements. But she spoke about the wonderful large choral works they had been working on prior to shut-down. She and Milos Dugas, also a music major, drive from NE Portland to the Rock Creek campus on the Portland/Hillsboro border to sing in this choir. Tenor Markus Cadiz is a chef. “Singing in the choir allows me to destress,” he said.

PCC Rock Creek tenor Markus Cadiz (also a chef). Photo by Daryl Browne.
PCC Rock Creek tenor Markus Cadiz (also a chef). Photo by Daryl Browne.

All three agreed that while on-line singing occupied the time and fulfilled a need during the shutdown, there is nothing to substitute for sitting among others, feeling the vibration of voices blending, of chords lining up in tight harmony. The choir is looking forward to the Mass in Blue; the opportunity to partner with the Oregon Chorale in this kind of choral event is a real boost. 

“And this is important to say,” interjected Dugas as the conversation was drawing to a close. “We need to get people back in the choirs. It’s important!”

PCC Rock Creek singer Milos Dugas. Photo by Daryl Browne.
PCC Rock Creek singer Milos Dugas. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Rock Creek’s contribution to the Baroque segment of the program is a Pachelbel motet; Oregon Chorale sings Bach; both choirs, Schütz. Maddy Ross’s first appearance on the concert is as the fierce warrior Judith in an aria from Vivaldi’s only surviving oratorio, Juditha Triumphans: “Armatae face et anguibus” (Armed with your torches and your serpents). It’s a doozy, and also a real highlight for the skills of Lee Allen Nolan, PCC Rock Creek accompanist, who will perform on portative organ for the baroque works.

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Liturgical mass…jazz performance. Let’s see. One can be an experience designed to penetrate the soul; the other can be an experience designed to penetrate the soul. Hmm. Think about it. Better yet, come hear the concert.

PCC Rock Creek choral director Sam Barbara. Photo by Daryl Browne.
PCC Rock Creek choral director Sam Barbara. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Experience this choral event on Sat., June 4, 7 pm in Hillsboro’s Trinity Lutheran Church and Sun., June 5, 3 pm at The Madeleine Parish and School, Portland. Tickets here. OC requests that audience members be masked. 

“Dona Nobis Pacem”

Ralph Nelson and the Bach Cantata Choir are going to give us two cantatas and perhaps the most beautiful “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Grant Us Peace) in the choral literature. Their concerts are almost always all Baroque–hence the name–but this spring the offering is all Bach. Sebastian Bach.

That’s what J.S. was called. He had talent, recognized and nurtured early in his musical family and when his folks died his older brother Christoph took the 9-year old Sebastian and his brother Jakob to live with him. Christoph was a respected organist and a fine teacher. Sebastian was able to go to an excellent grammar school and at 15 he earned free food, lodging and musical nurturing at a monastery. He studied hard, had considerable talent and he sought opportunities. And he was a bit of a renegade. Strange improvisations at the organ, irreverent ornamentation, irreverent behavior. Young, talented, impetuous.

Why the history lesson? Because when you go to a Bach Cantata Choir concert you hear the story of the real Bach. Nelson always provides background about where Sebastian lived when he composed something, his family life and the pieces themselves. In this concert, he will no doubt explain why the beloved “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” (not the original name) chorale tune from BWV 147, was added to a piece he’d written years before but wasn’t allowed to do in Leipzig because of some church calendar thingie. Nelson will explain it to you. And then you’ll get to hear the music.

Bach Cantata Choir director Ralph Nelson. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Bach Cantata Choir director Ralph Nelson. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Cantatas BWV 147 and BWV 172 both call for SATB choir and the matching soloists. There is a lot of solo work in these two pieces–collectively much more solo time than choral time. But the choral parts are formidable, like the opening fugue of BWV 147 “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (Heart and mouth and deed and life). This first movement is structurally fascinating, with moments that harken to those inventive renegade years. 

Tenor Les Green performs the scene-setting opening recitative followed by a trio – alto Hannah Penn, Ann Van Bever on oboe d’amore, and Dale Tolliver’s cello -where the text suggests doubt. They receive a mighty admonition from bass Jacob Herbert and then follows another trio (soprano Marguerite McLean, with Tolliver again and violinist Holly Stern). Now for the first time (yeah, Bach does it twice) you will hear the famous hymn melody aloft in the beautiful Baroque concerto form. Try to imagine the simple tune (originally composed by Johann Schop) set just as a hymn – 4 bar phrase, pause, 4 bar phrase, etc. Now give thanks for the Bach setting, heard here.

Tenor aria, alto recitative, bass aria and the chorale reappears to close the cantata. Whew. Thirty minutes, 10 movements, music to last for ages. What a marvel is a Bach cantata!

Bach enjoyed his cantata “Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten!” BWV 172 (Resound, you songs; ring out, you strings)–he wrote it in 1714 and repurposed it several times after he settled in Leipzig. It has a fairly full Baroque orchestra, including three trumpets setting the festive tone and a timpani for majestic verisimilitude. There are six movements, and the opening as expected is an SATB choir concerto movement but with the music actually given to three “choirs”: the trumpets, the strings, and singers with bassoon. Festive might be too weak a word for this movement.

The bass “voice of Christ” then delivers the only recitative in the work, “Whoever loves me keep my work,” setting the Gospel on firm ground with a very low ending tone and flows immediately in the “Heiligste Dreieinigkeit” (Holiest Trinity)–the three trumpets representing the title. 

Another tenor aria, in triple meter with the strings seeming to ascend toward heaven, is followed by a very interesting duet between soprano and alto. Because of its text, it could be easily used in a marriage or other amorous setting. The “soul” (soprano) and the “spirit” (alto) profess their spiritual intimacy with the oboe d’amore, an instrument of love, writhing in ornamentation beneath. 

The work concludes with a chorale, in standard form; you might turn to your neighbor and whisper “I know that.” And you might well–but director Nelson will let you know for sure. And he’ll let you know that the closing choral movement is a repeat of the first movement. 

The Mass in B minor’s “Dona Nobis Pacem” ends the concert. After the ascent of those first four tones of the precious prayer – “Grant Us Peace” – it actually makes things right for a few minutes. 

When you come to a Bach Cantata Choir concert you learn about Bach, his life, his acquaintances and his music. You hear talented Northwest musicians and a very dedicated group of singers who will keep going till they run out of cantatas. Well, then we’ll just have to do them again. Right?

BCC performs on Sun., May 22, 2 pm at Rose City Presbyterian Church, Portland. This concert is free but you must preregister here for your tickets.  Proof of vaccination and masking are required.

Connections

Portland Community College has three music programs rebuilding right now. As mentioned, at Rock Creek Campus Dr. Sam Barbara reports that there are numerous ensemble possibilities in addition to voice, theory and music technologies. Dr. Alissa Deeter, Portland Symphonic Choir co-leader, teaches voice classes for PCC’s Continuing Education program at the Cascade Campus. And John Mery and Julianne Johnson at Sylvania are excited about their fall offerings, Soul and Gospel choir (Johnson) and STEM Guitar Build and Theory

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

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