catherine van der salm

Willamette Master Chorus review: Triple treat

Helmuth Rilling leads singers and orchestra in richly rewarding performances of J.S. Bach cantatas

by BRUCE BROWNE

When we encounter Helmuth Rilling, we can always count on learning in triplicate: theology, pedagogy and, of course, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Last Saturday night, at Hudson Hall on the campus of Willamette University, the internationally famous conductor and pedagogue brought us three distinct gifts — and a bonus present.

Helmuth Rilling and the Willamette Master Chorus. Photo: Sue Hale.

Helmuth Rilling and the Willamette Master Chorus. Photo: Sue Hale.

Well known for four decades in Oregon as the founder/music director of the Oregon Bach Festival, Maestro Rilling retired from OBF in 2013, but continues to guest conduct internationally, and most recently in the U.S. where he started on the east coast, touched down in Minneapolis to lead a Brahms Requiem, and finally here in Salem, to grace us again with Bach. Since he will not be conducting at the Bach Festival this summer, for the first time since he founded it in 1970, this was the only opportunity to hear Rilling work his magic in Oregon this year.

There is a special aura that surrounds an event like this: a buzz through the audience at intermission; an ebullience of spirit before and after the concert. It was an event that brought together choral cognoscenti from Salem, Eugene, from Portland, high school, college and community choral directors and performers, all converging in Salem to appreciate a uniquely Oregon transplant, Helmuth Rilling. Both concerts (Saturday and Sunday) were sold out. We were richly rewarded.

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The Ensemble review: Wall of Sound

Performance of Bach's b minor Mass offers ample virtuosity, insufficient vocal variety

by BRUCE BROWNE

Johann Sebastian Bach needs no introduction, but in any performance, his music needs to be carefully reawakened by means of a variety of articulation, dynamic contrasts and deliberate text inflection. More of these elements were needed at The Ensemble of Oregon performance of Bach’s b Minor Mass at First Presbyterian Church last Sunday. Nevertheless, the concert had many tasty moments.

Conductor Patrick McDonough had in place all the necessary elements for a first rate concert: a stellar cast of singers, a first-rate band of instrumentalists and his own considerable talents. The ten voice choir (out of which came the soloists), plus 19 instrumentalists comprised the total of the performance forces.

The choir, however, was often unable to create more than a formidable wall of sound, unrelentingly forte (loud), and with an absence of variety in articulations. Legato singing is a valuable commodity, but legato unrelieved by elements of martellato, staccato, even marcato, is like driving straight through Kansas. You get from point A to point B, but it’s not the most interesting trip.

Patrick McDonough led The Ensemble and orchestra in JS Bach's Mass in b minor at Portland's First Presbyterian Church.

Patrick McDonough led The Ensemble and orchestra in JS Bach’s Mass in b minor at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church.

Throughout the performance of some 130 minutes, it was not clear what factor disallowed differentiation of vocal lines: the hall itself (an unreverberant space engineered for the speaking, not the singing voice); the small choral forces pitted against the modern winds feeling the need to just sing out; lack of rehearsal time required to fine tune and add nuance. There was an attempt to alter texture through use of “one on a part” voicing in select movements. Perhaps this could have been tried in the strings.

Some choruses, such as the double choir “Sanctus,” were just the right weight and perfect tempo. In comparison, during the following “Hosanna,” the 8th notes of the orchestra tended to obliterate the 16ths of the choir. Generally, the most pleasurable choral moments were heard when only the continuo or a smaller instrumental component were accompanying. One problem with balance in Bach is that oftentimes the instruments are playing colla voce— that is, the very same part as the voices. And modern instruments will always win that contest.

Delightful, however, were the arias and duets which ranged from seemingly effortless to virtuosic. And the instrumentalists in those pieces were spectacular in their own solo passages. Sponsored at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church through the church’s Celebration Works Concert Series, the forces had enough room to be positioned strategically – as with the trumpets and timpani placement toward the back — and the resulting sound produced a satisfying orchestral balance.

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In Mulieribus review: Hours well spent

Portland vocal ensemble's happy marriage of Renaissance music and visual art

By BRUCE BROWNE

“The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.” — W. H. Auden

Those audience members who came to Mt. Angel Abbey for In Mulieribus’s concert last Friday, March 4, who are primarily concert-goers probably anticipated that the musical experience would be enhanced by the visual art projected behind the singers. Those attending primarily to take in the visual art might have thought that the music would “accompany” the Mt. Angel Abbey book of hours collection (horae), through projected videography. For me, however, the manner of presentation allowed the arts to meld into one unifying and moving experience.

In Mulieribus used video projections of illuminated manuscripts in Horae.

In Mulieribus used video projections of illuminated manuscripts in Horae.

In “Horae: A Musical Book of Hours,” programmed brilliantly by IM artistic director Dr. Anna Song, the eight women, in solos, quartets and full ensemble, sang the audience through the eight sanctifying “hours” of Catholic spiritual practice. These women have as many formations as the Dallas Cowboys, and make use of each different lineup with satisfying results.

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Musica Maestrale review: Brilliance amid the darkness

Portland early music ensemble rekindles the late music of French Baroque composer Francois Couperin

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

In some quarters of our fair state, the name “coup”erin might be thought to evoke a new Peugeot convertible, or perhaps slang for a pigeon’s prison. Doubtless, the name is not on the top of the list at KGON, or even 89.9. We just don’t know much about Francois Couperin, a composer who, as a member of a prominent musical family, was a dominant figure in French music for the latter part of the 17th century. and into the 18th. But last Friday evening at Portland’s First Christian Church, ah…we were enveloped in the aura of Couperin’s brilliance.

Presented by Musica Maestrale, directed by Hideki Yamaya, and featuring two wonderful Portland sopranos, with the expert accompaniment of the theorbo and viola da gamba, this was a brilliant exposition of the later music of a great French Baroque composer.

Musica Maestrale played Couperin in Portland.

Musica Maestrale played Couperin in Portland.

They were a matched set, these two women. Sounding like womb-mates, the twinned voices of Catherine van der Salm and Arwen Myers were cloned air streams — soaring above the small but appreciative audience in the sanctuary.

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“Dido & Aeneas” review: Sweet musical treat

The Ensemble gives a rich, tasty performance of Henry Purcell's operatic masterpiece

by BRUCE BROWNE

Damn chocolates! We might have had another decade or two of Henry Purcell, had he not indulged in recently unloaded chocolates from a ship’s hold, in 1695. Note that there are other theories about the great English Baroque composer’s demise, and this hypothesis may be full of nougat, but it makes a good story.

One of Great Britain’s grand masters of composition, Purcell was revered by Benjamin Britten, who arranged several of Purcell’s works and, most famously, wove one of Purcell’s incidental themes into his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Purcell’s themes (most notably “Dido’s Lament”) appear in film scores, most recently croaked by Timothy Spall in the recent film Mr. Turner.

The Ensemble performed Dido & Aeneas in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Corbett Niedfeldt.

The Ensemble performed Dido & Aeneas in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Corbett Niedfeldt.

At any rate, he did perish in his mid-thirties and bequeathed to us a luxurious mosaic of music: odes, primarily to St. Cecilia, anthems, catches/rounds (many quite obscenely composed for his Men’s Club in London), semi-operas and the lone opera, Dido in Aeneas, the first great English opera, which we heard performed by The Ensemble of Oregon on Sunday afternoon, January 24, at First Christian Church in Portland. (The Portland vocal ensemble, composed of singers from some of the city’s top choirs, also performed it in Eugene the previous night.) Sometimes called the “first English opera” (energetically debated now in favor of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and a few others), Dido is a wealth of Purcellian invention, a true child of its time.

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