Solstice Sounds: Sacred and secular winter music from Oregon

Although the winter solstice and a couple of major winter religious holidays have just passed, as the title of Portland Cello Project’s new EP suggests, every winter has an extended play in Oregon, so these seasonal CDs should still hold water, as it were, till around Independence Day. Other Oregon recordings here would make fine gifts regardless of the season.

Portland Cello Project, Winter (The Best Nine Months of the Year).

PCP’s most “classical” project yet — what with the starring role of Oregon Symphony principal cellist Nancy Ives and the band bringing the music last week to her band’s home base, Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (one of those temples of classical music that PCP had hitherto avoided in its quest to boldly go where no cellos had gone before) — the 7-song EP’s style suits its seasonal subject. If rock is the quintessential summer music, maybe it’s no coincidence that we turn to classical chestnuts like “Messiah” and “Nutcracker” around winter’s fires in order to fully express the wet season’s more complex moods. West side Oregonians will chuckle ruefully at the EP’s subtitle, but you can hear Hawaii-born-and-raised PCP founder Douglas Jenkins’s genuine if paradoxical fondness for his now-home state’s long grey season in his affectionate arrangements of music from Benjamin Britten’s classic “A Ceremony of Carols” (including “This Little Babe,” which rocker Lindsey Buckingham filched for his pre-Fleetwood Mac “I’m So Afraid”), the recent Fleet Foxes hit “White Winter Hymnal” (graced by omnipresent Portland trumpeter John Whaley), the familiar Renaissance carol “Riu Riu Chiu,” to the Chanukkah standard “Shalom Chaverim.” My only complaint: this EP isn’t extended enough. Maybe they’ll stretch out in live performances and give this wintry music the room it needs to breathe.

The Twelve Days of Electric Opera Company.

One of Portland’s leading alt classical institutions, which delighted rock and classical fans with its imaginative original arrangements of classical standards for rock band instrumentation, returns after too-long a hiatus with a new studio recording by its Electric Guitar Orchestra. Released, one day at a time with a different video each day, on YouTube and Facebook, the videos feature its signature switched-on takes on Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” ballet music and the exhilarating “Winter” concerto from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” and more, which does the music the favor of making the familiar strange and much more fun than a partridge in a pear tree. Metalheads can especially rejoice at the hilarious latest installment.

Michael Charles Smith, The Nutcracker Suite for Marimba Quartet.

First, all cellos, then mostly electric guitars, and now this! What a coincidence that the same music EOC arranged for guitars also appears in an arrangement for four marimbas and crisply played by another Oregonian, who adds J.S. Bach’s famous “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” to boot. Smith also has another new CD of marimba arrangements of the great doomed Portland composer Elliott Smith’s music.

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David Friesen,“Morning Star.”

Oregon Jazz Hall of Fame jazz bassist and composer Friesen has been presenting Christmas season concerts in Portland for four decades now, and even if you’ve had your fill of Christmas music, his deep blue new arrangements of standards like “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night,” and others, performed by an all-star band including saxophonists Rob Davis and Tim Wilcox, pianist Dan Gaynor and drummer Charlie Doggett, transcend the source material and the season.

Cappella Romana, “A Time for Life” and “Divine Liturgy.”

Robert-Kyr_A-Time-For-LifeBest known for its sublime performances (and often exhumations) of ancient sounds, especially Byzantine and Orthodox music, the Portland-based vocal ensemble releases a pair of disks by living composers that will appeal to fans of both old and new music. The more familiar name to Oregon audiences belongs to University of Oregon professor Robert Kyr, one of the Northwest’s finest and most prolific 21st century composers. Cappella commissioned and premiered his moving “environmental oratorio” “A Time for Life” in 2007, and happily will reprise it this spring, when we’ll have more to say about Kyr’s ambitious setting of texts from the Greek Orthodox Service of the Environment, the Bible, and Native American songs, chants, and prayers. Unlike the Catholic Church in Galileo’s time, or Fox “News” and other corporate-funded ideologues today, the Eastern Orthodox church doesn’t deny ecological science; Kyr has drawn some texts from the church’s environmental protection proclamations.

‘A Time for Life’ is a ‘musical play’ that traces a journey from the glory of Creation as it was given to humanity (Part I) through our destructive behavior as demonstrated by the current global environmental crisis (Part II: Forgetting),” Kyr’s notes explain. “The final phase of the journey (Part III: Remembering) moves towards a hopeful future in which humanity serves as a responsible steward of the earth and thus realigns itself with the creative forces of existence.”

The singers of Cappella Romana and players of Portland’s Third Angle New Music, both expert long-time interpreters of Kyr’s music, excel in music that sounds tailor made for Cappella’s unique strengths. Despite some over-earnest and over-solemn moments, understandable given the grave subject matter, “A Time for Life” stands as one of today’s most accomplished musical responses to humanity’s greatest 21st century crisis, especially in the third section’s spiraling passages of virtuoso vocal voluptuousness and the unforgettable final ecstatic “Beauty before me…behind me…below me…above me…around me…”

Tikey-Zes_Divine-LiturgyCappella’s other new CD brings another ambitious work by one of its favorite composers, Southern California’s Tikey Zes, whose “The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” the ensemble premiered in 1992. Sung in Greek, it presents Zes’s musical portions of the liturgical setting of the words of one of Orthodox Christianity’s most sacred figures, but, due to CD space limitations, omits some parts of the service that Zes didn’t set and would be spoken in the actual Pentecost religious ceremony. Much of it is a dialogue between a priest or deacon and the chorus, with occasional organ accompaniment, and will doubtless primarily interest listeners who share the church’s spiritual inclinations. But Zes’s original music, though sometimes based on ancient Orthodox chants, sounds  less austere than the old stuff and richer in its use of counterpoint and other, later musical techniques. Performed with real skill and commitment here by some of the Northwest’s finest singers, it sounds both ancient and modern, timeless.

“Galileo Galilei,” Portland Opera.

Portland Opera scored a coup when America’s most prominent living composer, Philip Glass, impressed with its 2011 production of his opera about the great Italian scientist and his battle with religious orthodoxy, asked the company to make the first recording. The packaging and recording are as sumptuous as PO’s striking set design, and while the music isn’t top-rank Glass—too many by-the-numbers songs do more to advance the plot than to excite the ear, and too many stretches just chug along in Glass’s familiar signature style with too little variety—it’s a worthy monument, even if it doesn’t quite ascend the heavenly heights (or plumb the Stygian depths) of the company’s previous Glass opera recording, “Orphee.”

That’s no fault of the cast composed mostly of Portland Opera’s 2011-12 resident artists, with baritone Andre Chiang and tenor Richard Troxell especially excelling in younger and older versions of the title role. One scene pushes poor Lindsay Ohse as Galileo’s plucky daughter, Maria Celeste, to the top of her range and beyond, resulting in occasional shrillness, but she and the rest of the cast and orchestra, conducted by Anne Manson, generally sound quite convincing.

As in the production itself, the music really reaches escape velocity toward the end (here, on the second of two disks), after his showdown with the Catholic Church’s perennial (and in this case potentially fatal) insistence on dogma over evidence and reason, as the story sails backward in time toward the gobsmacked young Galileo’s initial sense of astonishment at the universe’s manifold, mysterious wonders—which is what excited the composer about the man and his story in the first place.

Terra Nova Consort, Frutos del Amor, Music of Medieval and Renaissance Spain.

Frutos del amor copy copyLike Electric Opera Company, Ashland’s TNC, which provided the music at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Green Shows from 990-2007 has been missing in action for too long, and like PCP, the award-winning, internationally acclaimed early music ensemble, consciously re-establishes the vital link between so-called classical and popular music unfortunately severed over the past century or so, to the detriment of all concerned. “In these early recordings, the blurring of the line between folk and classical idioms was cutting edge,” says music director Pat O’Scannell. “I am a great believer in the gritty and raw, the music of the people if you will. I like to bring in vocal sounds and timbres that are not what the modern classical listener is accustomed to hearing.”

She also follows historical practice by encouraging the band to improvise, as the sparse notation invites and composers of the time would have expected. Fans of Portland Baroque Orchestra and other historically informed bands that emphasize music’s dance origins will also appreciate Terra Nova’s approach to rhythm. “Rather than smoothing out syncopated rhythms by slowing them and thereby lessening their intensity, I have opted to go for faster tempi on pieces that seem to lend themselves to this, and let the rhythms strongly lead,” O’Scannell says. Three band members play percussion, and most double on various period instruments and vocals. The recording also benefits from the relatively rare sound of the hurdy gurdy (a string instrument that uses a wheel to create a drone and keys to play melodic tones), wielded by one of the masters of that archaic instrument, Ethan James, who also had a foot in pop music as a producer and engineer working with groups from Sonic Youth to Black Flag and also composing new music. The band recorded this performance with him two years before his death in 2003.

The authentic, folk-fueled approach animates Terra Nova’s versions of some of the most famous music of the Middle Ages, the “Canticles of St. Mary” compiled (and probably partly composed) by Spain’s King Alfonso the Wise, which recount tales of alleged miracles perpetrated in the name of Christianity’s holy virgin. Sometimes it sounds folkish, sometimes Middle Eastern, sometimes Iberian, mostly beyond superficial categories. In this recording, Terra Nova lives up to its name, making this music sound like it must have originally: earthy, and new.

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Swarmius in Starlight

Former Portland State University prof Joseph Waters has been crafting his category-cracking music from southern California for the past few years. Unfortunately, his singular band Swarmius doesn’t make it to Oregon often enough; their recent appearance at PSU was one of my favorite shows last year. No two Swarmius numbers sound much alike, but most share a certain kaleidoscopic sensibility. Which is why I should have known better than to expect the deliciously unpredictable band’s new three-track mini album to sound anything like Waters’s recent work. Instead, the tripartite mini-suite of tone poems — “Icicles in Starlight,” which Waters calls “Buddhist impressionism”; “Snowfall in Starlight,” and “Aurora in Starlight” — luminously evokes (via vibes, harp, and soft saxophones) the shimmering images suggested by their titles and forces yet another reassessment of Waters’ impressive compositional range.

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