Ah, February. The month in which we celebrate the true meaning of love. No? Okay, how about intimate relationships? Peaceful coexistence? Still not right? Hmmm. Let’s consult the Northwest choral scene which always manages to illuminate the sentiment of the season in song. Sorry, folks. Not one concert about love to be heard this month (with the exception of the Lewis and Clark College 15th Anniversary (Anti) Valentine’s Concert on February 10). Is “Bah Humbug” trans-seasonal?
So what is the message from the choral world in this second month of the new year? Clearly, it’s partnerships. Teaming up! February brings a sonic symbiosis with several music entities forming choral concert collaborations. That’s the heart of this February.
So here’s what’s in store for you in the first few weeks of February–with even more to come.
Long distance relationships
Cappella Romana has hooked up with Gesualdo 6 this year. Okay, so the namesake composer of this Cambridge-based choral group may have run afoul in his human relationships – he killed his wife and her lover. But if we only judge Carlo Gesualdo by his music, he was an innovator in harmonic progression – some seriously wrong-note music for the Renaissance, yet refreshing. If the Gesualdo 6 slip one of that Italian composer’s works into this concert, you might find yourself looking around with a “did you hear that?” look. Yeah, you did. Here’s the G6 singing Gesualdo; you can hear why this ensemble is gaining a wonderful reputation.
Compared to Chanticleer, formed in 1978 (or King’s Singers, 1968) this is a young low-voice ensemble, formed in 2014 in Cambridge by conductor Owain Park. A Gramophone review of their Josquin Legacy album (Fitch, November, 2021) called one track “jaw-droppingly beautiful, controlled and restrained but intensely moving.” Their programming has been deemed ingenious. Attending the Northwest premiere appearance of this choral ensemble might be a real treat.
The Gesualdo 6 Sun., February 12th 7:30 performance is at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Portland (and the Mon, Feb. 13 7:30 Seattle concert at St. James Cathedral). Tickets can be purchased on the Cappella Romana website.
A legacy in Portland
Trinity Cathedral is once again hosting the St. Olaf College Choir, under the direction of their teacher and leader for 33 years, Dr. Anton Armstrong. But the person most excited about this tour concert might be Dr. Katherine Webb, the new Canon of Music at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. She is a St. Olaf grad and gives full credit to Armstrong and to her years at St. Olaf for her choral foundation. When the bus pulls up on the afternoon of February 9th and the singers encounter a person on the sidewalk outside of a big stone church waving her arms wildly, that’ll be Webb.
Webb also credits her middle and high school music programs with nurturing her passion for music. (How often we hear that, you wonderful educators out there!) She and her twin sister, Maggie, were raised in a musical family – their dad was a church musician in Topeka, Kansas. And then she was off to St. Olaf for a degree in vocal music education and organ. She taught public school music before focusing on organ as her artistic passion and furthering her studies.
What techniques did Webb learn from Armstrong, a master teacher, that she uses in the Trinity choral program today? “Choral balance,” was her quick reply, followed by “listening and being able to adjust tonal production, with good singing, to the style.” Armstrong talks, in the PBS documentary “Never Stop Singing,” about the St. Olaf/Minnesota choral legacy that began with F. Melius Christiansen. In “the years of the Christiansens” he says, “the type of choral approach was one of conformity, having a voice that had to agree with another voice.” But today’s choir approach “is one of uniformity.”
You will hear and see the uniformity – blend, diction, vowel placement, physical presence, robes – in the choir’s performance on Wed., February 8th in Eugene or Thurs., February 9th in Portland. And you’ll hear a tour program that honors the history and legacy of St. Olaf plus ancient and modern choral works that remind us why our world embraces choral music. There’s a work by Minnesotan Abbie Betinis placed right before “His Light In Us” by contemporary Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen. Listen to St. Olaf singing that piece here.
You will hear I Saw A Stranger Yestere’en by a musician who had a huge impact on music in Portland: Jacob Abshalomov, longtime conductor of the Portland Youth Philharmonic. From Schütz to McFerrin, there’s extraordinary variety and diversity on this program! Five works on the program are by St. Olaf alumni. And, yes, you can look forward to Beautiful Savior by F. Melius Christiansen, first published in 1919, to send you safely into the winter night.
The Pacific Northwest was enriched by two St. Olaf grads who nurtured the great choral music tradition at Pacific Lutheran University in Puyallup, Washington: Joseph Edwards (1925–1937) studied with F. Melius, and Maurice Skones (1964-1983) studied under Olaf, son of F. Melius. As for Armstrong, he has nurtured young singers in Oregon for years as the founding director of the Oregon Bach Festival’s Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy.
Armstrong treasures his St. Olaf alumni, writing in a recent email:
I am so proud of the many St. Olaf graduates who have chosen to pursue careers as conductors, vocal music educators and church musicians. Dr. Katherine Webb and her twin sister Dr. Margaret Burk are wonderful examples of our stellar alumni. They are carving out distinctive careers in their own right.
One of those alumni pieces on this tour program is a setting of Set Me As A Seal composed by Burk for her sister’s wedding this past summer. Sweet.
“I have a fun story about St. Olaf,” Webb interjected with an air of mystery into a recent conversation with Oregon ArtsWatch. Her first visit to Portland was on a west coast tour with the St. Olaf choir. She recalls being an eager undergrad standing in Trinity Cathedral and taking a photo of the impressive nave, perhaps a bit overwhelmed. Today she is Canon Webb and this concert happens to be just six days after the 10-year anniversary of that experience. Goosebumps.
Now, Portland choral singers, you remember tours, right? Walking into a new hall or church each day; crashing for 45 minutes on a pew between tuning the venue and snarfing down the meal provided by the hosts; savoring that one day off in a new city; the exhaustion; the friendships and the concerts. What pre-concert technique does Webb remember that boosted the singers’ energy on, say, the penultimate concert of a 13-day tour? “The devotionals, devos,” she said. “A senior would stand before the group and tell what singing in the choir means to them.” Sounds kind of like warming up the spirit as well as the voice. Yup. That’s the St. Olaf Choir.
Tickets for St. Olaf Choir’s Thurs., February 9, 7:00 Portland concert can be accessed through the Trinity Cathedral site, which links you to the St. Olaf ticket site. Tickets for their concert on Wed., February 8, 7:00 at First United Methodist Church, Eugene can be purchased here. The students complete their tour in Seattle on Fri., February 10 at 7:30 in Taper Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle. Tickets available in same link above. Special note: be aware that some tickets are being sold on-line for double or triple the rates on the St. Olaf ticket site.
Eugene welcomes the Earth Mass
When you want your choir to perform one of the great contemporary masses, the Missa Gaia by Paul Winter, you really ought to try and get Paul Winter Consort. And then perhaps get gospel singer Theresa Thomason, who has performed and recorded the Missa Gaia with Winter and the Consort. And then maybe you can get Paul Winter himself leading the consort from his soprano sax. No way, you say? Ha! Eugene Concert Choir and Artistic Director Diane Retallack have found a way to bring them all to Eugene on February 19, at the Hult Center.
Missa Gaia has been traveling the earth – no, with the earth – steadily since its premier in 1981. Eugene Concert Choir has performed the work with the Paul Winter Consort twice under the leadership of Retallack: once in the Oregon Bach Festival (1996) and once in their own season (2006). Retallack feels a real kinship with Winter, enough so to have called him in 2020, inviting him to participate in ECC’s pandemic “Holidays around the world series” which he graciously did, sharing his soprano sax track for the video.
In performance, the Missa Gaia will be a real-time partnership between the Consort, the choir conducted by Retallack, and Winter himself. Retallack says the composer/saxophonist, whom she considers a national treasure, might improvise – yeah! hope so! – so she has to be at the ready. The return of Theresa Thomason to Eugene is a pleasure for the singers; the celebrated gospel singer participated in the choir’s 2021 Holiday concert. If you’re lucky enough to have a wonderful old vinyl LP of the Paul Winter Consort, you might note the name Eugene Friesen, cellist, longtime member of the Missa Gaia “family.” He’ll be there, too.
In the late 1970s, Winter relates, he posed two questions to James Morton, Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, who asked Winter to write a contemporary Mass: “Could a Mass celebrate a vision of the entire Earth as a cathedral?” and “Could Mass music be based on themes from whales and wolves?” The resulting masterwork is an indication that Dean Morton said “yes” to both. For Paul Winter’s full account of the making of Missa Gaia and to get a taste of the musical wonder, visit his site.
On February 18th, the Eugene Concert Choir Outreach program, ECCO, led by the choir’s Music Education team, Jill Switzer and Kami Hendrix, will be bringing over 200 children from classrooms in the greater Eugene area to the stage to experience the Earth Mass for Kids. The family-friendly program will feature engaging excerpts from the main Missa Gaia program with the immediate goal of introducing the children to the work. ECCO’s long-term goal is bringing quality choral music to young people. Crafts and activities are available pre-concert in the Hult lobby.
Children and adults alike find the movement “Wolf Eyes”, with its howlelluia chorus at the end, to be a fascination. Listen to it here and see if it doesn’t pull you into the true nature of this piece.
Eugene Concert Choir and the Paul Winter Consort present Missa Gaia on Sun., February 19 at 2:30 in the Silva Concert Hall, Hult Center, Eugene. The family program is Sat., February 18, 2:30 in the same location. Tickets for both concerts are here.
Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!
It’s down to the final highlight of the gridiron season. You might think that means the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles but it also means the return of Portland’s own unique super bowl alternative. Yes! The Bach Cantata Choir “SuperBach Sunday” is back!
And what a lineup for the February 12th event. Four cantors of the famed Thomaskirche of Leipzig, The Four Johannsmen of St. Thomas. Three linemen – Johann Schein, Johann Schelle, Johann Kuhnau – and the Quarterbach himself, Johann Sebastian Bach. Director Ralph Nelson has curated a set of works by these composers, illuminating the evolution of church music in Leipzig over the almost a century and a half.
The varied concert offers a large roster of soloists–many from within the choir–during the Machet die Tore Weit (Open Wide the Gates) by Schelle. Familiar Northwest guest vocalists will solo for Kuhnau’s Ihr Himmel Jubilirt von Oben (Ye heavens, rejoice from on high) and for the Bach cantata offering of the afternoon, an early Thomaskirche work, #43, Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen (God is gone up with a Shout) the first movement of which can be heard here.
Value added are solo performances by BCC orchestra concertmaster Mary Rowell and organist John Vergin. Kuhnau wrote a series of programmatic keyboard sonatas, each depicting a biblical scene; Vergin performs Sonata #4, the story of King Hezekiah. And Rowell offers two movements of Bach’s Partita for Unaccompanied Violin in D Minor (BWV 1004)–the second of a set of six sonatas and partitas for the solo instrument, composed prior to Bach’s Leipzig appointment.
Bach was not the Thomaskirche’s first draft pick in 1723. In fact he wasn’t picked until the fifth round, after the four preceding candidates–including Telemann–bowed out. But once he got the post he remained in it until his death in 1750.
The tenure of these four featured church composers spanned 134 years. The Thomaskirche appointment continues today under the ministry of Andreas Reize (2021) whom the BCC hopes to meet in their 2024 concert tour to Leipzig.
Bach Cantata Choir’s SuperBach Sunday concert is February 12, 2:00 at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, Portland. Admission is free, no tickets required. Arrive early. Masks are required.
Choral music does make for great relationships. May you find many ways to give and receive love in February and always. “What’s Love Got To Do With it?” Imagine a world without it.
The above-mentioned Katherine Webb will perform a special benefit organ recital at Trinity on Sat., February 25, 7:00. The repertoire will focus on the music of unrepresented composers and proceeds from the freewill offering will benefit the Trinity Music Diversity Fund and the Portland Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
A Cappella Singers Advance
You may recall mention of the Varsity Vocals “International Championship for High School A Cappella” held at Sherwood High School on January 27. Three local high school a cappella choirs have advanced to the Western Semi-finals to be held in Los Angeles: West Salem High School, McKay High School and Sunset High School. Applause. Keep track of the nationwide competition results and check out the West Region Collegiate advancers here.
Share the love
In researching high school social media pages for coverage of the a cappella championships, there seems to be a disparity of space given to music and other arts and certain other school activities on some sites. Take a look at your local high schools’ sites and see how they are balancing coverage of the passions of all students. Respond appropriately. Thank you.