MusicWatch Weekly: holiday highlights

Reliably refreshing midwinter concerts dispel Oregon's midwinter gloom

The winter holiday: a time for rest, reflection, restoration, reconnection. But they too often mean stress: travel, house guests, obligatory cards and gifts. Sometimes by early January, I feel like I need a vacation from my supposed vacation.

Which is why it’s so reassuring to know that at the start of each winter, Portlanders can count on a few choral and vocal performances that are reliably high quality, musically and emotionally engaging — but not merely ritually repetitive renditions of overfamiliar holiday fare. Several that we told you about in earlier MusicWatches have already brightened this dark December as surely as the glowing lights on neighborhood homes. Two more I always look forward happen this weekend.

In Mulieribus performs in Vancouver and Portland. Photo: David Lloyd Imageworks.

Portland’s all star female vocal ensemble In Mulieribus draws the music for their annual Christmas concert from across a millennium, from chants by the great medieval abbess/composer/healer/icon Hildegard of Bingen to, this time, a brand new piece commissioned from one of Portland’s own classical music legends: composer/singer/instrumentalist John Vergin. A highlight of the divine group’s Green Groweth the Holly concert of Christmas songs and carols: 20th century English composer Benjamin Britten’s evergreen Ceremony of Carols, which will still be enchanting listeners a millennium from now.
Friday, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Portland, and Saturday, Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater, Vancouver WA.

Cappella Romana probably didn’t expect this year’s Christmas program to be part of a current news story. One source of world tension is Russia’s ongoing attempt to reclaim its dominance over Ukraine, including annexing Crimea and fomenting a separatist movement. The latest development in Ukrainian self-determination: forming its own Orthodox church separate from the dominant Russian Orthodox religion. And as it happens, this year’s Christmas concert by the outstanding vocal ensemble focuses on Ukraine’s long tradition of distinctive folk and Orthodox sacred music, with help from  a pair of experts in each sphere to lead and join its performances. Like the American “song catchers” who traversed Appalachia in search of traditional tunes passed down only through oral tradition, Ukrainian folk singer Nadia Tarnawsky has spent the past year collecting and studying folk songs and folklore in Ukraine, including traditional carols, which she’ll share. And Ukrainian-American guest conductor and former UC-Berkeley music prof Marika Kuzma is an expert scholar on Ukrainian and other Slavic choral music and has recorded one of the pieces she’ll lead here: a brief but radiant a cappella choral Christmas concerto by Ukrainian composer Dmitry Bortniansky, a contemporary of Beethoven who was one of Eastern Europe’s great choir directors and composers in his time and whose music Kuzma is helping to revive.
Saturday. St. Mary’s Cathedral, Portland.

You’ve read about Portland Revels’s annual Christmas Revels show elsewhere on ArtsWatch, because it’s primarily a theatrical event. But this year’s Scottish-themed show, which continues Thursday through Saturday at Portland’s Newmark Theatre, of course features an abundance of music, provided this year by piper and singer Elias Alexander, piper/fiddler Kevin Carr, cellist Owen Hofmann-Smith, and harpist Chase Garber, plus Portland Brass, Robert Lockwood and the Portland Revels Adult and Children’s Choruses.

Bach Cantata Choir’s holiday concert features frabjous and familiar baroque Christmas classics by J.S. Bach, Michael Praetorius, and Heinrich Schutz.
Friday, Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, Portland.

Christmas Revels continue through Saturday at Portland’s Newmark Theatre.

Of course, Oregon teems with innumerable other holiday musical events, many of them neighborhood oriented. Feel free to list your favorites in the comments section below. And we at ArtsWatch wish you all a safe, restorative — and low-stress — holiday.

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