bach cantata choir

MusicWatch Weekly: Federale February

Indian classical, Super Bach Sunday, and a chat with Collin Hegna

Normally we like to contain all our monthly previews in one tidy column. But since February starts this weekend, we’d like to tell you all about the first stretch of Februarial concerts now–and we’ll tell you about the rest of the month next week. We’ll start with local supergroup Federale, playing with local “desert surf” act Plastic Cactus at Polaris Hall this Saturday.

This crafty, vintagey septet is among Portland’s greatest musical treasures, and last year they released one of 2019’s best albums, No Justice. We gushed thusly about it in our year end album guide:

This was one of those albums that made us stop everything and sit down to just listen–from the terrifying opening title track through the catchy-as-hell Morriconesco Maria Karlin showcase “Unchained Malady” to the apocalytpic Barryesque closer “When Snow Falls,” the latest from the local cinematic murder balladists grabbed us and wouldn’t let us go. If this year-end list were shorter and more objective, this one would still be near the top–probably in the number one slot.

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MusicWatch Weekly: This music kills fascists and opera

Folksy chamber operas, locavore choral music, doom and psych and loops, pairs of pairs of pairs

Well folks, basically everything is happening this weekend. You want modern chamber operas based on Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill? Justin Ralls and Opera Theater Oregon have got your back. You want doom metal and/or psychedelic stoner rock? Hippie Death Cult and Queen Chief will melt your mind. Or maybe live Spaghetti Western music is your cup o’ joe: check out local supergroup Federale. Electronics abound at 2019 NW Loopfest, but if you want to go the other direction, check out Portland’s newest local-composer-friendly singing group, Foris Choir. You could even pack a sandwich and a thermos of green tea and get your voice down to Bach Cantata Choir’s madrigal sing-along.

I know you’re all chomping at the bit for your next music theory lesson, but all this lovely stuff is happening tonight and this weekend–so let’s dive right into what I’m missing right now.

Opera must die

Olivia Giovetti recently made a compelling case for why opera must die, and although I agree with her conclusion I must quibble with her timeline–opera is already long dead. Moreover, while its sloppily shellacked corpse has been slowly decomposing for the last few decades, wonderful new forms of opera have been springing up everywhere. Have a listen to some of my recent favorites: Laura Kaminsky’s As One, Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, Kevin Puts’s Silent Night (could throw Du Yun’s Pulitzer-winning Angel’s Bone, but honestly I’m not crazy about that one; can’t win em all, which is sort of the point). Patient Zero in this rebirth of the opera is probably Philip Glass, whose brilliant 1979 opera Satyagraha is quite possibly his greatest work and almost surely the likeliest to live beyond him.

These modern operas all still have compelling narratives and the harmonic sensibilities to support them; beautiful, singable, memorable melodies; well-drawn characters; and a sense of the mythopoeic that connects the mundane lives of individual characters to the grand archetypes which illuminate the human psyche.

In other words, opera is alive and well. The trouble is that opera companies (as Giovetti points out) program way too much of the safe conservative stuff and way too little of the new stuff. I’m not saying stop doing Mozart and Puccini–Mozart and Puccini are awesome. But what if we just flip the ratio of new to old? Instead of a season of Vivaldi and Leoncavallo with one or two token new operas, what if it was a whole season of new stuff with a token Wagner or Rossini? Portland Opera is gradually catching up–they’ve recently performed Lang, Kaminsky, and Glass, and their upcoming season features Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers and An American Quartet of short operas by Menotti, Barber, Douglas Moore, and Lee Hoiby.

But, for now at least, nobody in town is doing as much to promote new opera as Opera Theater Oregon under the co-directorship of composer Justin Ralls and singer Nicholas Meyer. A couple summers back, it was Ralls’s lovely, mythic Two Yosemites; last year it was Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince. When I interviewed Ralls for Arts Watch last summer, he said two things that rang a big pair of Balinese gongs in my brain:

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Bach Cantata Choir: Baroque Christmas

Choir pairs choral-orchestral classics by Schutz and Bach

By BRUCE BROWNE & DARYL BROWNE

The pairing of German Baroque music pillars Heinrich Schutz and Johann Sebastian Bach is a treat any time. But at Christmas, programming the Weihnachtshistorie (Christmas Story) of Schutz with the Bach Magnificat – brilliance. The weekend before Christmas, Portland’s Bach Cantata Choir gave us both pieces: the Christmas Story, served two ways.

Bach Cantata Choir performed Christmas music by J.S. Bach and Heinrich Schutz. Photo: Ric Getter

Ralph Nelson directed these major Baroque works by the two great German geniuses, one representing the early part of that music period (1660) and one the later (1723). Despite their similarities — both use strings, winds, continuo, choir and vocal soloists; both are bookended by chorales (in their current forms) — it’s the differences between the two that make the program pairing so enticing.

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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.

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MusicWatch Weekly: choral confluence

Chanticleer, Cappella Romana and St. Olaf Choir headline the week in Oregon music

Vibrant voices lead this week’s Oregon music calendar, beginning with one of America’s oldest and most revered choral ensembles, St. Olaf Choir’s performance Thursday at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Friday at Eugene’s First United Methodist Church and Saturday afternoon at North Medford High School.

Anton Armstrong leads St. Olaf Choir’s 2018 tour. Photo: Flight Creative Media.

Led for 28 years by Anton Armstrong, familiar to Oregon audiences through his long tenure leading youth choirs at the Oregon Bach Festival, this year’s group sports several members from Oregon and is performing music by Portland born, Salem-based composer/educator (and St. Olaf alum) Stanford Scriven, as well as a J.S. Bach arrangement by Seattle’s John Muelheisen and Sure On This Shining Night by Beaverton native Morten Lauridsen. The program contains mostly compositions by 20th and 21st century  composers including Eric Whitacre, Robert Scholz, Rosephanye Powell, Undine Smith Moore, Moses Hogan, Jean Berger, Carolyn Jennings, Ralph Manuel, David Conte, choir founder F. Melius Christiansen, plus the  Sanctus from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass and a selection from Ariel Ramirez’s Misa Criola.

Choral glory continues with Chanticleer’s performances Friday at Kaul Auditorium, Reed College, and Saturday at the University of Oregon’s Beall Hall as part of the San Francisco ensemble’s 40th anniversary tour. This year’s program, “Heart of a Soldier,” includes songs from across the ages on the sadly perennial subject of human conflict and its consequences by Renaissance European composers William Byrd, Thomas Tomkins, Clement Janequin, and Guillaume Dufay through some of the finest contemporary American composers including Jennifer Higdon and Mason Bates.

Friends of Chamber Music often brings Chanticleer to Portland.

Another superb vocal ensemble, Portland’s world-renowned Cappella Romana, brings over the great French conductor Marcel Peres (who helped rescue early music from dry, scholarly performances) to lead one of the great Renaissance masterpieces, Guillaume de Machaut’s Mass of Notre Dame Saturday at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and Sunday at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church.

Pérès’s Ensemble Organum’s 1996 recording of the masterpiece by the the greatest composer/poet of the 14th century used Corsican singers versed in traditional embellishments that might resemble medieval vocal practices. Their intentionally earthier vocal textures and Peres’s emphasis on lower voices produced as much controversy as early music ever experiences — decried by devotees of later choral music’s restrained, pristine Anglican choirboy sound (which most previous recordings adopted), praised by those (like me) who cherished its folkier, emotionally expressive power. His approach should make an excellent match for Cappella’s singers (particularly its magnificent basses), themselves experienced in medieval Mediterranean vocal traditions.

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Bach Cantata Choir: sweet rejoicing

Portland chorus channels joy in singing  into artistic growth

by BRUCE BROWNE

Portland’s Bach Cantata Choir has grown in artistic excellence in the past several years. The sonic values are fresh and vibrant. This choir has a wide age range, fine choral singers all. Many have labored in the choral trenches for several decades and are joined by a healthy number of those beginning their choral careers. So how do they maintain a composite and youngish sound? Good coaching, perhaps something more ephemeral.

Friday night’s concert offered more evidence of BCC’s growth and clues to its success. Under the leadership of founder Ralph Nelson, the singers and orchestra were fervent and compelling in the main work of the evening, the first three cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio presented at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church to an overflow crowd.

Bach Cantata Choir sang music from their namesake’s ‘Christmas Cantata’ and more.

Leading the way, but not as imposing as Bach, were two shorter works: Dieterich Buxtehude’s (1637-1707) “In Dulci Jublilo” (With sweet rejoicing), and “In Nativitatem Domini Canticum” (Song of the Lord’s Birth) by French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). Both were conducted by the choir’s assistant conductor, Emma Mildred Riggle.

Within BCC choral ranks, Mr. Nelson finds soloists who can fill the bill of quality performance. Charpentier’s quite charming In Nativitatem, one of his Latin motets for sacred services exhibiting both French and Italian baroque styles, was convincingly enhanced by four soloists: soprano Josephine Petersen, alto Megan Mattoon, tenor David Foley and bass John Vergin all showed off fine musicianship and vocal training.

Ms. Riggle masterfully enlivened this motet with well chosen tempi and strong leadership. This was a delicate, lyrical counterpoint to the other works on the program. Riggle is on a positive arc as conductor and leader, displaying clarity and authority, demonstrated particularly in the Charpentier.

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MusicWatch Weekly: pianos aplenty

There’s also organ music, choral music, string ensembles and a couple orchestras’ worth of fine young classical players and more on Oregon stages this week

Portland’s most welcome frequent contemporary classical guests, DUO Stephanie & Saar, return for a pair of entirely different shows, bringing plenty of piano-playing colleagues with them; Portland Piano International’s latest Rising Star flashes across the keyboard; and two of jazz’s most forward looking pianists, Jason Moran and Ethan Iverson, bring their trios to town, the former celebrating still another great pianist/composer, Thelonious Monk.

Stephanie & Saar perform twice in Portland.

DUO Stephanie and Saar
The renowned New York based piano duo visit Portland, Stephanie Ho’s hometown, frequently. This time, they perform J.S. Bach’s final work, the massive keyboard monument to counterpoint, The Art of Fugue, which they recently recorded. The next night, they join some of Portland’s finest pianists (from Third Angle, FearNoMusic, and local universities) to reprise some of the “greatest hits” from the three annual installments of their Makrokosmos concerts, including music by the greatest living American composers (Steve Reich, George Crumb, John Adams) and more.
Wednesday, Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Lewis & Clark College, and Thursday, Portland Piano Company, 8700 NE Columbia Blvd. Portland.

Allison Au Quartet
One of Canada’s most acclaimed jazz stars, saxophonist/composer Allison Au’s melodic original jazz just garnered the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy award for best jazz album for her second release, Forest Grove. Unfortunately, they’re not actually playing it in Forest Grove, but you can hear them in Portland and Eugene.
Wednesday, Jo Bar and Rotisserie, Portland and Thursday, Jazz Station, Eugene.

Jerry Douglas Band 
Even if you’ve never heard of Jerry Douglas, you’ve almost certainly heard his dobro, a guitar augmented by a metal plate and amplifying cone that makes a distinctive twangy sound. A Nashville studio regular who’s played on over 1500 recordings, he’s transcended the  boundaries between bluegrass, country, rock, jazz, pop – even contemporary classical. Along the way, Douglas has garnered dozens of awards, including a baker’s dozen Grammies and a Musician of the Year award from the Country Music Association; added zing to albums by Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris, Paul Simon, Earl Scruggs, Bill Frisell, Phish, and dozens of other stars; played in bands with Ricky Skaggs and in Alison Krauss’s Union Station. He’s an American music legend and always worth catching with his own band.
Thursday, Alberta Rose Theatre, Portland.

Makrokosmos Project
With duo pianists Stephanie & Saar in town to play Bach (see above) and no doubt visit family, why not celebrate the third anniversary of its valuable Makrokosmos project (which ArtsWatch has covered extensively — type the word into the search field above) by reprising some of the three epic extravaganzas’ greatest hits by some of America’s greatest 20th century composers: Steve Reichʼs Six Pianos, John Adamsʼs Hallelujah Junction, George Crumbʼs Makrokosmos I and II and more, including works by Oregonians like Alexander Schwarzkopfʼs Recycled Wheels. Performers in this free concert include Susan Smith, Deborah Cleaver, Julia Lee, Monica Ohuchi, Jeff Payne, Schwarzkopf and DUO Stephanie & Saar.
Thursday, Portland Piano Company, 8700 NE Columbia Blvd, Portland.

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