Safe Distance Sounds 3: Oregon voices

Recent recordings by Cappella Romana, the Broken Consort, Portland State University Chamber Choir and The Industry showcase Oregon choral and vocal music

Of all the music we’re missing in these days of suspended live performances, perhaps the most missed — and most lethal — is choral music. One of the first major outbreaks of Covid 19, after all, derived from a Northwest choir rehearsal, and every choral performance involves slinging a lot of breath and its hangers-on droplets around a stage.

And yet, choral music is to many of us the most life-giving music. Not just because it directly involves the breath — the same breath the virus threatens — but also because it combines musical and verbal communication. Even when we don’t even understand the language being sung, many of us crave the sound of the live human voice, especially when many of us are denied it during the lockdown when, sadly, we’re denied it. And it may be some time before we can hear it again live. Although, lots of folks are trying new things.

So, to continue our series of reviews of recent recordings of Oregon music (earlier installments covered jazz/improvised and chamber music), here are some choral, vocal and opera recordings that might help assuage the loss of live performances. For more Oregon voices on record, check ArtsWatch’s recent archives for Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch reviews of recent albums by Oregon Repertory Singers and In Mulieribus.

Isle of Majesty

The Broken Consort

Our recent story Open Wide described how Portland composer/performer Emily Lau insists on high artistic standards and a communal creative process in her Big Mouth Society. Both qualities enrich Lau’s 2019 album with her chamber music ensemble, The Broken Consort. The seven musicians, who live in far flung cities across North America, lived and rehearsed together while creating it, and that cohesion, as well as their estimable chops, elevates Lau’s impressive original compositions performed by voices, marimba, oboes, viola, recorders, cello, piano and other percussion.

Lau (who also sings on the Cappella Romana CDs below) is part of a significant cohort of contemporary American musicians who are drawing on pre-Classical era aesthetics, and fans of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music will find plenty to enjoy. So will admirers of traditional Chinese music and poetry, and the words of Emily Dickinson, which Lau also sets to bewitching music, including the closing anthemic “I shall keep singing.” For all its historical influences, though, Lau’s sound world is decidedly 21st century oriented, and unapologetically embraces beauty as well as originality.

Lou Harrisons Young Caesar

Los Angeles Master Chorale, LA Philharmonic New Music Ensemble, The Industry

In Lou Harrison’s long, productive, and magnificent musical journey, no project drew so much effort — or frustration — than his opera Young Caesar. A proud lifelong gay rights advocate, the Portland-born composer desperately wanted to contribute an opera on gay themes to the canon. He created the initial version as a puppet opera in the early 1970s, using the instruments and musical styles of Asia and the Middle East and the West (including his homemade American gamelan instrumentarium) to re-tell the true story of on-the-rise Roman general Julius Caesar’s fateful affair with a young prince of Bithynia (now part of Turkey). Its original 1971 Pasadena production, featuring a quintet of musicians, singers and narrator, handmade puppets and backdrops painted by Harrison himself, drew praise for its homespun musical and visual charm and Harrison’s enchanting compositions, but criticism for its undramatic story and overextended libretto and narration.

 Harrison kept laboring on it for the rest of his life, even rescoring it and adding conventional operatic arias in hopes of a full staging, but the project never quite fulfilled his hopes, either in a Portland staged reading by the Gay Men’s Chorus in the 1980s, a planned but ultimately scuttled Lincoln Center production, or an intermittently engaging posthumous 2007 production by San Francisco’s Opera Parallele, all of which suffered by using conventional Western instruments and tunings. (You can read the twisty story of its troubled history in this excerpt from Bill Alves’s and my 2017 biography of Harrison.)

In 2017, during Harrison’s centenary, the visionary Los Angeles opera company The Industry mounted yet another version at Disney Hall: a hybrid of Harrison’s original score for his American gamelan and Asian instruments, and a baker’s dozen of Western instruments that trimmed enough of the bloated libretto to produce an acclaimed, beautifully-staged 90 minute production. Shorn of big thickets of its labored libretto and clunky storytelling, and powerfully performed by the superb Los Angeles Master Chorale and the LA Philharmonic New Music Group, it nevertheless failed to fully tune into Harrison’s musical intentions. 

As with composers like J.S. Bach, musical tuning was a major aspect of Harrison’s latter-day aesthetic, and whenever possible, he wrote music for the purer, natural tunings called “just intonation” instead of the clangorous, compromised equal temperament that’s dominated Western music since the early 20th century. While it sounds technical, tuning makes a real difference: when a piece is played in a different tuning than originally intended, you’re literally hearing different sounds. “You haven’t really heard a composer’s music,” Harrison said, “unless you hear it in the tuning he intended.” He was speaking especially of Baroque composers, to whom tuning often mattered more than instrumentation, but the same goes with his own music. Unfortunately, the Industry’s recording and performance freely mixed some of the just-tuned original instruments with modern ones, vitiating much of the original version’s charm and originality, while grafting bits of it onto the later version.

Still, with stellar soloists and acting fully up to exalted Industry standards, this new recording, released in time for Pride Month, otherwise makes an appealing case for Harrison’s glorious music. I still prefer the intimate charm of Harrison’s original musical — as distinct from dramatic — vision (which you can actually hear, sort of, in this 1974 amateur recording), even though it lacks the gorgeous later-added arias and the rest. But it’s a treasure to at last have so much of this incomparable American composer’s intended magnum opus at last available on our speakers, and so splendidly performed, even if the ideal Young Caesar still awaits its definitive incarnation.

AU and the Camas High School Choir – Live at Yale Union

Pop artists from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones to Ray Davies to David Byrne and many others have used choirs to bring a bigger sound or at least a new perspective on their hits. But for his seventh album under the moniker of AU, Portland songwriter Luke Wyland did something different: he made the choral sound an integral part of the creative process from the outset. In 2016, Wyland began a yearlong collaboration with the 155 singers of the Camas High School Choir and their enterprising director, Ethan Chessin (a trombonist late of March Fourth) to produce an entirely new body of music, which they performed and recorded live that year at Portland’s Yale Union and Time Based Art Festival. 

The combo is enhanced by an all-star lineup of instrumentalists well known in Portland jazz and pop circles, including Blue Cranes saxophonists Reed Wallsmith and Joe Cunningham, bassist/guitarist Andrew Jones (Julia Holter, Te Crenshaw), Lan drummer Dana Valatka, and, most prominently, the gripping singer (recently decamped to New York) Holland Andrews (Like A Villain). 

Wyland’s expansive music is well suited to the added vocal forces. The bigger palette seems to have inspired him, for the result is clearly much more than just adding bigger harmony vocals, with the chorus fully integrated as a unique and distinctive instrument, as on the opening chant-like “Siren,” with its percussive vocal sounds, and “Source”’s swirling choral textures. The big sax sound blends nicely with massed male voices and gamelan like percussion on “Ox Eyed Sky.” Nor has Wyland eased his inventiveness, as in the found sounds of students talking morphing gradually into words and music of “Epithet.” And even on the anthemic “All My Friends,” the choral wall of sound never sounds overinflated. As much as I’ve enjoyed AU in its small ensemble incarnation over the years, this recording sounds like how his music — or at least this batch of it — was always meant to be. 

This recording is part of a most welcome trend to transcend the false barriers separating pop, classical and other genres that were always dictated more by commercial rather than artistic considerations. Wyland joins the parade of both pop-oriented (Byrne, Merril Garbus, Bryce Dessner, Rufus Wainwright) and classically trained (Nico Muhly, Sarah Kirkland Snider) musicians who want to use the widest range of musical forms available to express their visions, regardless of restrictive genre categories.

Venice in the East, Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia: Medieval Byzantine Chant

Cappella Romana

“The music on this recording witnesses to interactions between Greeks and Latins within the shared cultural space of Venetian rule,” according to artistic director and scholar Alexander Lingas’s characteristically thorough liner notes for Cappella Romana’s 2019 Venice in the East. “Crete, acquired by Venice in 1204, was for over 400 years the Serene Republic’s most important and prosperous Greek colony. The island developed a flourishing Greco-Italian Renaissance culture that it came to share with Cyprus, control of which passed in 1489… to the Venetian Republic. Meanwhile, Venice herself came to host a prominent Greek minority,” composed of immigrants from those colonial islands.

Like most music, the album’s luminous liturgical sounds emerge from cultural hybridization, in this case between European Roman Catholic and Mediterranean Byzantine Greek Orthodox cultures. Rediscovered by Lingas and sung here in period Greek, it was written by now-obscure 15th– and 16th-century composers like Hieronymos Tragodistēs, Plousiadenós, Ioannis Laskaris and others for church services and other religious occasions, and sets prayers, hymns, and stories about Jesus’s life and death.

As ever with Cappella Romana, Oregon’s most internationally renowned choral ensemble, the recording (made at Portland’s St. Stephen Catholic Church) is clear yet resonant, the performances immaculate and stirring for any listener regardless of faith tradition or lack thereof. Although the music lacks the polyphonic complexity of other European music of the time, it does contain occasional harmony (unlike the group’s chant CDs), and benefits from the singing’s sheer, almost symphonic power, skill and commitment. Read Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch review of the first half of the ensemble’s 2018 Portland concert, which included some of this music, for more.

Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia: Medieval Byzantine Chant

It’d be a shame if the admittedly fascinating story of how Cappella’s latest album, which is topping the classical music charts this summer, was made overshadowed the music it contains. The short version: Cappella Romana worked with Stanford University (where it was recorded) acoustic scientists to recreate the way sacred music actually sounded when it was sung in Orthodox religions services in Constantinople (now Istanbul’s) famous Hagia Sophia cathedral centuries ago. We’ll tell you more about that another time, but what you want to know is: should I listen to the CD, which the group touts as “the first vocal album in the world to be recorded entirely in live virtual acoustics”? 

And the answer is: yes! Especially if you enjoy Byzantine chant presented in as sympathetic a setting as imaginable. If you didn’t know about the whole “auralization” thing, or care about historically authentic performance practice, you’d still likely be moved by the vastness conjured by the choir’s acoustically enhanced reverberant drone voices, especially their legendary basses. 

Where music is heard affects how we hear it, as David Byrne and many others have noted. The music of composers who wrote for specific environments can lose essential qualities when wrenched out of those contexts, as anyone who’s heard some of Bach’s smaller-scale pieces in vast 19th or 20th century concert halls can attest. The music on this recording was written to take advantage of — and not be blurred by — the colossal space’s up-to-12-second echo delay. The effect is to surround listeners in a sonic shimmer that, like the light streaming in from Hagia Sophia’s windows, must have evoked a sense of genuine spiritual transcendence in believers of the time. I can attest that, even on my desktop speakers (and, crucially, subwoofer), it works its magic on at least one 21st century secular humanist.

Although I’ve only streamed the recording so far, I expect real fans will want the physical deluxe package, containing a surround-sound Blu-Ray disk, documentary about the making of the album, and handsome extensive 40 page booklet that delves into both the history and the recording tech. With Hagia Sophia converted to a mosque half a millennium ago, then a museum in the 20th century, and now about to become a mosque again, it’s likely this recording will be the closest we’ll ever be able to come to imagining what it was like to hear this music as it was originally intended and experienced. 

The Doors of Heaven, Translations

Portland State Chamber Choir, Ethan Sperry, Conductor

One of Oregon’s most acclaimed vocal music institutions isn’t a professional music ensemble. The Portland State Chamber Choir has achieved national and even international accolades, first under the direction of Bruce Browne and, for the past decade, Ethan Sperry. Along with scoring awards in the major international collegiate choral competitions, the choir has made some splendid recordings that have garnered worldwide airplay and even reached the classical music charts, thanks to its last two recordings featuring the music of Eriks Ešenvalds. 

The 43-year-old Latvian has become one of the most performed choral composers in the world, with eight CDs already devoted exclusively to his music. He follows in the lush, leisurely style popularized by Oregon’s Morten Lauridsen and California’s Eric Whitacre, but as Sperry’s extensive, eloquent liner notes contend, “Ešenvalds is equally comfortable writing in an angular, aggressive style that channels more stringent tonalities of the previous century. What makes Ešenvalds’ music so compelling is that he uses these two musical vocabularies side by side.” 

The prescient Sperry commissioned him to compose The Heavens’ Flock, in 2014, and made PSUCC the first American choir to record Ešenvalds’s music with its 2017 The Doors of Heaven. The choir’s enthusiasm for his music is definitely mutual, as they’ve brought him to Oregon and he’s set to music poetry by one of Oregon’s own poet laureates, Paulann Petersen. That’s a tribute to the singers’ precocious ability to deliver Ešenvalds’s often complex (sometimes eight or even 16 parts) music with such persuasive precision. 

The choir’s 2017 recording, The Doors of Heaven, showcases Esenwalds’s proclivity for enveloping relatively sweet melodies amid placid choral backgrounds, and for setting narrative tales to music.

In the shimmering 2015 composition The First Tears, based on an Inuit legend, low and high voices switch off between singing verses and providing a choral halo setting for them. Accompanied by Native American flute, jaw harps, and percussion, it builds to a percussive climax. Inspired by the aurora borealis, Rivers of Light sends a folky tune skittering over ripples of choral beauty. Hannah Consenz’s soaring soprano ignites the album’s most ambitious composition, Ešenvalds’s melancholy oratorio Passion and Resurrection, an expression of the Christian Passion myth drawn from various sources, not just the usual Gospels. If we ever have a live Oregon Bach Festival again, this contemplative modern take (which also employs vocal quartet and PSU’s string ensemble) would make an excellent addition to its stellar history of Passion performances. The placid A Drop in the Ocean ranges from soothing to wistful before echoing into the distance, setting the stage for Ešenvalds and PSU’s 2019 encore CD. 

Translations takes flight with the prayer for peace O Salutaris Hostia’s stratospheric soprano solo, sent heavenward by Kate Ledington and Maeve Stier, landing gently on the pillowy The Heavens’ Flock, which, like the next piece, the gently glowing, handbell-enhanced world premiere recording of Translation (also a Paulann Petersen setting) evanesces to an end. It’s a treat to hear Ešenvalds and the PSU singers bringing Petersen’s plangent lyrics to choirs worldwide.

My Thoughts also unfold with due deliberation — no ADD in this St. Silouans setting — but is dynamically enlivened with a swelling, precisely managed crescendo. The mysterious Vineta finally darkens the tone with occasional dissonance and bass drum thunder, but continues the plodding pace while refusing to settle into a groove, an aptly asymmetrical expression of the text by 19th century German poet Wilhelm Muller, whose words also served Schubert magnificently in his classic Winter’s Journey and The Lovely Maid of the Mill. The Legend of the Walled-In Woman goes even darker, a haunting evocation of a Latvian folk tale. In Paradisum makes an appropriately warm and soothing closer as the lyrics wish angels leading us to eternal rest. 

Given that these are after all recordings of a college choir, you might not expect professional recording standards. Wrong! The pristine recorded sound surpasses almost any choral recording I’ve heard. The intentionally resonant acoustic (Portland’s St. Stephens Catholic Church and Mt. Angel’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church respectively) both suits Ešenvalds’s voluptuous aesthetic yet somehow sacrifices no clarity. Kudos to producer Erick Lichte (a former PSU grad student and singer who now directs Vancouver’s superb Chor Leoni Men’s Choir) and engineers John Atkinson and Doug Tourtelot. 

As compellingly as Ešenvalds does lush ’n leisurely, though, I could have stood for a tad more variety on the CDs. After one too many languorous strolls through his fragrant harmonic garden, I was ready to sell my kingdom for an allegro or three, and a minor principality for a spicy dissonance. Still, a couple of alluring disks of mostly measured, expertly performed harmony singing featuring music by one of today’s finest choral composers provides a soothing though never saccharine balm in a troubled time.

Heard more Oregon music that ArtsWatch readers might want to check out? Let us all know in the comments section below, or email music@orartswatch.org.

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