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Heralding the promise of the future: A choral Christmas season

“Messiahs,” holiday traditions, Bach, Dickens, and more, performed by Oregon’s finest choral ensembles.

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Winter Pools, watercolor (7.5 x 18.5) by Enterprise, OR artist Joan Gilbert.
Winter Pools, watercolor (7.5 x 18.5) by Enterprise, OR artist Joan Gilbert.

For many of you, attending the traditional Christmas concert with your traditional favorite choir is a highlight of the season. You cherish the pieces that ignite memories of holidays past preserved in performance by musicians of the present. And you witness the new choral sounds that herald the promise of the future. 

Our singing communities are bringing all of that your way in the next two weeks. In Portland alone you could go for ‘baroque’: bolt at the applause of one concert and just make it to the downbeat of the next. Just a look at the PDX choral calendar! You’ll not be wanting for choral music this season, that’s for sure. 

Will you stand for it?

“Messiah …. and more” proclaims one choral flier. “Selections from the Messiah and other favorites” is another. Can you break that special choral code? Of course, you can. These are invitations to you and yours to stand and lift your voice. And to that the choral world says why the “Hallelujah Chorus” not!

Have you ever wondered what IT IS about this 4-minute chorus within a 3 hour piece? Is it that it only has twenty-five distinct words, most repeated? Is it the key signature of D major, designated in a 1784 thesis by CFD Schubart to be the key of triumph and heavenly rejoicing? Is it the aspirated “H” of Hallelujah that seems to expel all of the stress of the season? Or is it the fact that you can sit in the audience – okay, stand in the audience (read theories why here) – and sing every dang fugue entrance you want and nobody cares? It’s that last one, isn’t it? Well here’s where you can do just that.

Vancouver Master Chorale presents Christmas Joy, selections from Handel’s Messiah and original pieces by Rutter and Gjeilo and favorite carols, on Sat., Dec. 10, 7 pm and Sun., Dec. 11, 3 pm at First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver. Tickets here.

Central Oregon Mastersingers and Orchestra’s Messiah and more is at the Bend Tower Theater on Sat., Dec. 10 at 7 pm and two shows Sun., Dec. 11, 2 pm and 7 pm. Get tickets here.

Traditions

Traditional holiday choral concerts without the great HC from M are to be found throughout Oregon. Many choirs have a long-standing holiday format that has become your family tradition – as comforting as gramma’s gravy.

Such is true with the Victorian sounds–and dress–of Festival Chorale Oregon, who present Sing We Now of Christmas on Sun., Dec. 18, 2:30 at Loucks Auditorium, Salem. Tickets here.

Festival Chorale Oregon.
Festival Chorale Oregon.

Oregon Symphony Orchestra’s Gospel Christmas, always a huge holiday draw, returns for its 23rd season, Sat., Dec.10 at 7:30 and Sun., Dec. 11 at 4 pm, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Get your tickets here.

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus brings us the spirit of Christmas once again. Light the Way Home is presented at the Fri., Dec. 9, 8 pm; Sat., Dec. 10, 8 pm and Sun, Dec. 11 at 3 pm at the Newmark, Portland. NOTE: Masks strongly encouraged. Tickets here

Willamette Master Chorus hits the holiday trail once again. Their collaborations with the Trail Band are always a Salem favorite. The WMC Youth Honor Choir also sings. Sat., Dec. 17 at 3 pm and Sun., Dec. 18 at 3 pm, Hudson Hall, Willamette University, Tickets here.

Seeking holiday music around Ashland? Look up the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers and you’ll find And the Stars Looked Down, Sat., Dec. 17, 7:30 pm and Sun., Dec. 18 at 3 pm, Music Recital Hall at Southern Oregon University. There will be a video recording available for one month after the concert. Tickets.

Sponsor
Chamber Music Northwest First Baptist Church Portland Oregon

You will also note on the PDX choral calendar that several youth choir concerts are offered in these next two weeks: Pacific Youth Choir, Portland Symphonic Girl Choir, and Oregon Repertory Singers Youth Choir, who are appearing with ORS in their concerts. And a supersized hug to all of schools and universities and places of worship decorating the season with song.

In these wonderful offerings may you find what you choral spirit desires. Or you are free to proclaim “keep Christmas in your own way and let me keep it in mine.”

What the Dickens

One choir is doubling up on Christmas tradition. Chorale Arts Ensemble is taking one of the great Christmas stories of all time, Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, to the choral stage with a new composition by Benedict Sheehan, in collaboration with Skylark Vocal Ensemble. And CAE has entrusted the narration to the remarkable talents and voice of Portland’s own Susannah Mars.

Susannah Mars in rehearsal with Choral Arts Ensemble. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Susannah Mars in rehearsal with Choral Arts Ensemble. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Mars will no doubt bring nuance to the meekness of poor abused Bob Cratchit, break our hearts with the plaintive yet trusting words of Tiny Tim and make us cower at the otherworldly intoning of three ghosts. In rehearsal this week the choir heard for the first time how Mars would manipulate her rich mezzo voice to honor all roles. Stunning.

You might be scanning your cerebral choral catalog right now because you know you’ve heard Sheehan’s name, or music, before. Ah, there you have it, Cappella Romana. Sheehan was in Portland one year ago to conduct CR in what has been called a landmark work, his English-language Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. The Liturgy has also been recorded by CR. Revisit the OAW preview of that concert here

Indeed, Sheehan is a longtime church musician and currently Director of Music at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and Monastery. In a recent email to ArtsWatch about his compositions he stated his belief that “the simple act of a roomful of people intensely focusing on having a unified and transcendent experience of time is a sacred phenomenon…whether that work is religious or not.”

This is Sheehan’s second project in collaboration with Skylark Vocal Ensemble. After the Grammy-nominated success of their first project, “Once Upon a Time,” Skylark Director Matthew Guard proposed this Dickens project, featuring more of Sheehan’s original music. Guard also adapted the text for the narration. The text is abridged, admits Sheehan, but retains the spirit and splendor of the original.

In constructing this a cappella work Sheehan, working with Guard, chose 10 familiar carols that could serve as leitmotif in the music beneath the narration. Then his original music and those carols, or carol motifs, are carefully woven to complement the story arc. How very Bach-like, yes? Several CAE singers will shine in solo passages. Listen to one sample here.

Music has long been central to our enjoyment of A Christmas Carol. This novella, called “a new gospel” in its own Victorian times, has had 57 film versions, beginning with 1901 in the silent era, and in several of those offerings the music has been stellar. See CONNECTIONS below. On stage, Christopher Nightingale’s music score for A Christmas Carol made Broadway history in 2020 as the first non-musical – as in Cats, Hamilton or Sweeney Todd – score to win a Tony for Best Original Score. Now, Sheehan’s work has embraced perhaps a new genre of scoring for choral music, the “story score.” The work is newly published by Oxford University Press and might be on its way to becoming a future choral Christmas tradition.

When asked what his own immediate family – his wife and seven daughters, ages five to fifteen – thought of the work, Sheehan replied “several of them listen to the work on repeat all through the Christmas season.” They sit as a family and listen to it at the start of Advent and when they decorate the tree. “And,” said Sheehan, “after the presents are opened and the parties are over, we listen again to bask in the glow of the holiday.” Oh, how lovingly Cratchit that is! 

Come bask with Choral Arts Ensemble as they present the Northwest premiere of A Christmas Carol, Sat., Dec. 10, 7:30 pm and Sun., Dec. 11, 3 pm at St. Philip Neri Church, Portland. Tickets here.

Choral Arts Ensemble in rehearsal. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Choral Arts Ensemble in rehearsal. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Handel and Bach meet in Portland

And now for the unabridged baroque choral/orchestra big gulps you have been craving for a couple of years. No “selections from” in these performances, both of which include the instrumental organization of which Portland is so very proud, Portland Baroque Orchestra, and two of Portland finest choral entities. And they aren’t on the same weekend! Hooray! 

On Dec. 10, 11, and 12 Portland Baroque Orchestra, who just made their choice of new artistic director (read about that here), presents George Frideric Handel’s Messiah in its entirety on each of the dates, conducted by Gabriel Crouch, with choral guest collaborators of 16 years Cappella Romana. 

And Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Choirs once again partner with PBO to present Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, in two segments – the first on Dec. 16 and the second on Dec. 17. 

Having the two great works so close together, in timing and location, is sort of heartwarming. In spite of being born only forty days apart in the same year, 1685, and living in German towns only 80 miles from each until late teens, Bach and Handel would never know each other personally. Their professional and personal lives would differ significantly, but the works of the two shaped the era of Baroque music. It is our performances today that unite them.

Both works are massive and are often “sectioned off.” Some folks may not realize they’ve never heard the whole of either. Messiah is an oratorio in three sections: Christmas, Crucifixion and Resurrection. It is at the close of part two that the choir sings “Hallelujah” (we praise God). The Christmas Oratorio is actually six cantatas for six significant Christmas days beginning with the birth day of Jesus and concluding with Epiphany.

When Handel moved to England in 1712, after working in Hamburg and Italy, he ignited Italian opera in London and kept writing and producing that genre for 40ish years. He never married. Bach landed his church music position in Leipzig in 1723 and scored…and scored and scored…completing one cantata for each Sunday and Feast Day in his first year. Bach was married and raising a family. Bach’s full Christmas Oratorio was first performed in 1734 in Leipzig; the Messiah’s premiere was in Dublin in 1742.

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of attending or listening to these two great works within days of one another is to appreciate how each man approached the drama, their point of view. A 2009 Smithsonian Magazine article quotes conductor Harry Bicket as saying “Even when the subject of his work is religious, Handel is writing about the human response to the divine.” Marvelous article, read it here.

In Messiah Handel moves away from his opera habits of giving the best vocal stuff to the soloists. Instead it is the choral presence that provides the greatest impact. It’s why choirs love to sing it! Some of the choral movements take considerable skill and choral endurance is tested. The “Amen”, the true conclusion of the work, is one fantastic piece of music, like an intravenous slow drip of the everlasting. Listen to it here

Yale Professor and Bach scholar Markus Rathay writes that in the Christmas Oratorio Bach “created a celebration of music as a mode of human and divine encounter.” Music and Divine encounter in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is another great read in which Rathey writes about the angelic roles of the choir. The many chorales in the work (14!) would have been appreciated, and even sung, by the congregants in the two Leipzig churches in which the work was premiered. Those choral melodies would be reintroduced in snippets, woven into the fabric of fugues or expanded choral/orchestral exchanges, as in this example from Part 1. Listen for this if you take in the whole drama.

So many reasons to take in these two great works. These are bound to be marvelous artistic experiences; such a gift to the community. Bach, Handel, PBO, Cappella Romana, Trinity Cathedral Choirs – what was that Benedict Sheehan quote from earlier “a unified and transcendent experience of time is a sacred phenomenon”. 

Portland Baroque Orchestra’s Messiah is Fri., Dec 9, 7:30; Sat., Dec 10, 7:30; and Sun., Dec. 11 at 3 pm. SUNDAY HAS JUST BEEN REPORTED SOLD OUT. First Baptist Church. Tickets here.

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Christmas Oratorio is Fri., Dec. 16 at 7 pm and Sat., Dec. 17 at 7 pm at Trinity Cathedral. Tickets here. Reception for concert-goers to follow both performances.

My soul doth magnify

If you are desirous of an extra dose of Bach, the Bach Cantata Choir offers J. S.’s first major liturgical work in Latin, the Magnificat in D major (BWV 243). Here is the 37-year-old devout Lutheran Bach newly appointed to St. Thomaskirche, setting to music the text of Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Praise by the Virgin Mary. How glad we should be that this marvel has survived “generation to generation.” Other pieces demonstrating baroque musical lineage are included on this program.

Bach Cantata Choir’s Baroque Holiday Concert is Friday, Dec. 16, 7:30 pm. Masks are required. Tickets here.

There are two more concerts in Portland just before Christmas, one of them a perfect lunchtime moment of Christmas solitude with Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. It’s Christmas at the Old Church featuring the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Choirs with harpist Kate Petak, conducted by Trinity’s new Canon for Cathedral Music Katherine Webb (Burk). It is a free, midweek, midday moment to pause. Wed., Dec. 21, 12 noon. The Old Church Concert Hall.

But where, you are wondering, is In Mulieribus? Of course, they are right here, making the Tuesday and Wednesday before Christmas your concert destination. As always, they bring a mix of contemporary and ancient, well known and more obscure. The women sing of the rose, a metaphor for purity and for Mary and Jesus. You are invited to find within their music the unexpected and miraculous signs of what is to come – beauty, light, hope and warmth – in spite of what seems to be in the darkness of winter. The “ancient” takes us back to music of 12th through 15th century France and England. Director Anna Song arranged Howell’s precious A Spotless Rose for SSAA and you will hear contemporary composers including Rutter, LeFanu, and Portlander John Vergin’s There Is No Rose. A program of such virtue to round off the season of singing. 

In Mulieribus performs Tues., Dec. 20, 7 pm at St. Mary’s Cathedral Portland and Wed. Dec. 21, 7 pm at St. Philip Neri Church. Tickets here.

Connections

Visual arts

Enterprise, OR artist and graphic designer Joan Gilbert, whose work sets the winter scene for this preview, has gifted the world with 55 ways to take in the unspoiled wilderness of Wallowa Lake. This fall the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture exhibited her three-year artistic journey, 55×55. That title was her goal– celebrated in her blog post of August 29 which proclaims “It’s official, I am 55 years old and I have 55 pieces of art done.” Visit her on-line to hear more about this journey. And visit the Josephy Center and the whole Wallowa County arts scene in person.

Live Streaming Choral Coincidence

For those of you unable to physically attend holiday performances, harken. The stellar choral ensemble, Yale Schola Cantorum, is live streaming their Dec. 10 Christmas Oratorio performance conducted by a familiar face to Portland audiences, David Hill. Drat, it’s only four cantatas but hooray, it is free. But please get the word out to those for whom an at-home performance like this might be very special. Dec. 10, 4:30 pm Pacific Time. Live stream here

For the love of film scores – “A Christmas Carol”

If you are fond of the very first American full-length film version of A Christmas Carol – the one with Reginald Owens and the Lockhart family in 1938 – you might recall how the greatly the exquisite music of Franz Waxman added to the work. If you love that great score – golly, I sure do – listen to a compilation recording of it here.

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

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