portland choral music

In Mulieribus review: musical time travel

Portland vocal ensemble's Christmas concert brings ancient music to life

by BRUCE BROWNE

In medieval Europe, “Mulier taceat in ecclesia” (women must be quiet in church) was the order of the day, until for at least two more centuries. That didn’t stop the women of In Mulieribus, the Portland women’s group of seven voices directed by Anna Song, on Wednesday evening at the St. James Proto-Cathedral in Vancouver WA. Virtually none of the music they performed would have been sung by women when it was written. So the singers deserve extra credit for modeling the treble voices we would have heard 600 years ago, arrived at essentially by non-vibrato singing and very careful blending. Except for the inclusion of female voices, what we heard from In Mulieribus is about as close to going back in time as we can get. The concert is repeated in Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral on Friday, December 22.

These women showed how much musical mastery those early audiences were missing. At its core, a truly memorable concert is composed of two things: curation (choosing the right pieces) and animation — bringing them to life, preserving their sonic essence in the chosen concert space. In Mulieribus accomplished both. Each piece was a gleaming gem in its own way and taken together created a palpable arch form. Waves of overtones were generated in St. James. And these occur only when a choir is singing perfectly in a perfectly tuned, perfectly blended manner.

In Mulieribus performed Wednesday in Vancouver and sings the same program Friday in Portland. Photo: David Lloyd Imageworks.

The repertoire was adroitly grouped in two ways: by subject – Angels and Prophecies, Magi, Shepherds, The Birth; and by region — notably England, France and Italy, all of which shared, during this time, a Roman Catholic visage of time and place. Each disparate regional style was presented cunningly by Ms. Song and the women, who constantly avoid the quotidian with grace and forethought. The highly decorative “Gloria,” from the Tournai Mass of 14th century France, was crystalline in its clarity and balance. Thought to have been concocted by several different composers, the Tournai is considered one of the earliest Missa tota, the complete mass presenting all five parts of the Ordinary – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. (Guillaume Machaut’s Messe de Notra Dame, the first known complete setting by a single composer, will be performed in Seattle and Portland February 2-3 by Cappella Romana).

The two Italian pieces, Magi videntes Stellam (The Magi seeing the stars) by Agostino Agazzari (1578-1640) and Omens de Saba venient (All they coming from Saba) by Giovanni Asola (1532-1609) were ravishing. The latter, referring to the Ethiopian city of Saba, was especially poignant in its energetic celebration of the “bringing of the gifts” and showing praise. Perhaps the most advanced in its harmonies and fullness of texture, it approached the high Renaissance styles of the contemporaries Palestrina and Victoria.

Choosing concert repertoire can be very tricky, especially in this day of accessibility to such a wide variety of literature. No, wait. Shouldn’t that make it easier? Certainly it is easier to access, to retrieve the pieces. The British Museum can, one might imagine, dispatch a digital manuscript across the pond in a matter of minutes. It is the culling of works, picking those which are true to the period (some primary source) and right for the group, and possess historical integrity. That is the hallmark of Anna Song’s programming.

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Bach Cantata Choir & Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Variety’s virtues

Two very different vocal concerts demonstrate, for better and worse, the value of musical diversity

by BRUCE BROWNE

The chronological span of composers William Billings to J.S. Bach to Claudio Monteverdi and Heinrich Schutz isn’t vast, about 200 years from Monteverdi’s birth in Italy to Billings’ death in New England, but the difference in stylin’, you betcha. This musical diversity should have been the delight of last week’s concert featuring five different composers,  presented by the Bach Cantata Choir under the direction of Ralph Nelson and assistant director Emma Mildred Riggle. For the most part, it was.

“Universal Praise” by William Billings offered a robust opening at Portland’s Rose City Presbyterian church. A first generation citizen of the U.S. and considered America’s “first composer,” Billings (1746-1800) left quite a legacy of hymns, fuguing tunes (not fugal – two different animals), and other secular and sacred pieces laden with his peculiar harmonies and foot stomping rhythms. And, oh, straight-backed, early colonial American text: “Praise Him propagation, Praise Him vegetation, And let your voice proclaim your choice and Testify.” Billings got those colonial Americans a hootin’ and a hollerin’.

Bach Cantata Choir sang music by an impressive variety of composers at their winter concert.

Next up, the precious “O Nata Lux (“O light born of light…”)” failed to shine.  The title represents the glowing, white-hot transfiguration of Jesus in the Catholic faith of its composer, English Renaissance genius Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) survived as a Catholic for 70 years within the turmoil of the religious seesawing in England because his musical talent was transcendent. The piece deserves this consideration.

Since these early scores lack bar lines, or any other expressive markings, sung phrases must be based on word accent and a balance of anacrusic (“upbeatness” and thesis (“downbeatness”). Without those ideas injected into the music-making, phrases become limp and lack direction. This can, and did, lead to lethargy, and some intonation problems.

In the final cadence on the word “corporis” (body), there is a famous harmonic crunch, as the tenor sings an F natural, while the soprano descends to an F# (making for a very dissonant combination), followed by the tenor moving down to an Eb, which makes still another shocking dissonance against a D natural in the bass. Choir and conductor glossed over this passage as if it were a musical commonplace rather than a Tallis signature moment.

There was a nice uplift following the Tallis, as Ms. Riggle returned to conduct the “Hodie Christus natus est” of German baroque composer Heinrich Schutz. Buoyed by four fine soloists and a dance-like repetition of ‘Alleluia’, the “Hodie” zipped along, very well sung by the choir. Sopranos Catherine Bridge and Dorothea Lail, alto Kristie Gladhill, tenors Brian Haskins and David Foley and bass Benjamin Espana were well suited in their roles of one of Schutz’ hallmark techniques, favoriti (his word), meaning the soloists ( favorites) vis-a-vis the choir.

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In Mulieribus review: A decade of delicious dissonance

Vocal ensemble’s laudable tenth anniversary concert provides holiday spirit, over the top

by BRUCE BROWNE

There are many fine mixed choirs in the Northwest, but far fewer adult treble choirs and men’s choirs. In the category of exclusively non-mixed choirs, two in the Portland area stand out: the male group Male Ensemble Northwest, and the other, heard in their recent holiday concert, In Mulieribus.

This group of seven singers (director Anna Song, Kari Ferguson, Susan Hale, Arwen Myers, Jo Routh, Catherine van der Salm, and Ann Wetherell) is celebrating their tenth year. After beginning in modest circumstances, they have achieved an illustrious reputation during this last decade.

They’ve staked out their niche and stuck to it: singing early music (from c. 1150), seldom venturing past the 1800s, although more recently singing more modern works, including commissions. Many of the singers have been together for the duration. Co-founder Anna Song took complete charge when Tuesday Rupp moved to New York City; she’s returning for In Mulieribus’ tenth anniversary concert in May.

Last week’s concert exemplified their mission: the program offered choral music spanning some 650 years, some originally for boys, but all, of course, for trebles. And the task is not so easy.

In Mulieribus celebrated its tenth anniversary.

First, assemble all the right voices, attached to excellent ears, willing to compromise their solo voice for the good of the whole – check!

Next, research and choose just the proper literature, solos for some singers, catering to the impeccable musicianship, with thematic interest  — check!

Then, get the perfect venue: St. Mary’s or St. Elizabeth’s in Portland; St. James in Vancouver – check!

But here’s the real challenge. Monochromatic choral sound is, to a degree, inescapable for any non-mixed group. The literature we heard last night, at least in the first half, was all polished marble — beautiful, luminous, but monolithic, and much the same. Eight posts of gleaming marble in shades of white are a lot to take in. Nonetheless, Dr. Song managed even that challenge as well as anyone could.

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Treasures from the Desert, part 2: Singing Shakespeare

Ideas for Portland from Santa Fe's renowned summer choral festival

by BRUCE BROWNE

“The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds…Let no such man be trusted.”

While the works of Thomas Morley and Robert Johnson are the only surviving settings from Shakespeare’s time, the playwright’s words have been set and sung throughout the ages since. Shakespeare was indeed “[held] in perfection but a little moment” for the Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s August 4 performance of “Sounds and Sweet Airs,” commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. It was outstanding.

Guest director Richard Sparks and 16 members of the Desert Chorale brought to bear their mutual authority, bringing out the subtle and elegant settings of some of the finest chorale settings of Shakespeare’s text. Outstanding among the selections were the Songs of Ariel by the Swiss composer Frank Martin and Three Shakespeare Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams (coincidentally, the same 20th century composers paired in Portland’s Oregon Repertory Singers’ concert this past spring).

Richard Sparks led the Desert Chorale in choral settings of Shakespeare's words. Photo: Chelsea Call.

Richard Sparks led the Desert Chorale in choral settings of Shakespeare’s words. Photo: Chelsea Call.

The Vaughan Williams was the best I’ve ever heard, live or otherwise. One of the gifts of the 20th century English composer’s a cappella choral music is its accessibility to singers and audience. Vaughan Williams’s technique balances a rich and varied harmonic [palette] with an intuitive sense of what is organic and grateful for the human voice and ear,” writes San Francisco Conservatory of Music professor and scholar David Conte of these pieces.

Richard Sparks reminded me that their creation was almost “not to be.” In 1951, Vaughn Williams was asked, along with other elite composers of his time, to compose a test piece for the British Federation of Music Festivals choral competition. Choirs would be rated on their rendering of the new compositions. Vaughan Williams was disinclined to compose for this pedagogical purpose and replied no further about it. There arrived, however, at the home of Armstrong Gibbs, competition director, a bound package with these Shakespeare settings and a note.

“Dear Armstrong. Here are three Shakespeare settings. Do what you like with them… Yours ever R.V.W.”

The Martin cycle of 1950 is considered among the best works the choral world has to offer, the sine qua non of Shakespeare settings in a choral cycle. Each movement is drawn from The Tempest, with its vibrant characters such as Caliban and Ariel, and here, Martin seized many opportunities for colorful musical representations. The choir held in check their shared vocal puissance, rather hinting at it so as to capitalize on other facets: variety of articulation, dynamic shadings and the biggest challenge of the cycle, persnickety vertical tuning. (This essential idea refers to each singer’s tuning his or her part to the ones above and below them, en passant.)

The fourth movement, “We are three men of Sin,” is one of the most striking. It demands a fine alto soloist, and there she was: Mitzi Westra, alto out of Indianapolis, possessor of an orotund vocal sound, was just the right choice for this signal solo. Just as handsome here were the rich supporting sounds of the tenors and basses.

Other movements, such as “Where the Bee sucks” and “Before you can say come and go,” are saturated with both verbal and matching musical onomatopoeia. In the former, the singers all use “mmm” on fast passages to become temporary “bees.” The latter has Shakespeare’s text zipping through our ears in a flash — and it’s over in a moment of fleeting joy.

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Oregon Repertory Singers review: Double treat

Double choirs excel in performances of a pair of very different Masses by Frank Martin and Ralph Vaughan Williams

By BRUCE BROWNE

Although they were contemporaries, British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and Swiss composer Frank Martin make strange musical bedfellows. But for one very enjoyable afternoon at Portland’s First Methodist Church last weekend, they made comfortable companions indeed, thanks to the mediation of Oregon Repertory Singers and their music director Ethan Sperry.

These two 20th century composers were similar in several ways. Both lived long lives, both were influenced by French music, both were sons of clergymen.  But their music differed considerably.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music is the epitome of British nationalism. He was influenced by Tudor style, such as the basis for his much loved Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis, and by British/Irish folk songs. His compositional style remained as British as clotted cream to his end.

By contrast, Martin was born in Switzerland but spent a good deal of his time in the Netherlands; for a while he embraced Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone compositional style until settling into an eclectic compositional voice.

For a piece that lay unknown in a desk drawer for some decades, Martin’s Mass is loaded with what were for their time, new, creative ideas. It’s like a compendium of nascent and varied musical motifs: from the neo-Medieval Kyrie to the pentatonic scales of the “Et Resurrect,” and the quasi-pointillistic opening of the “Gloria.”

One of the most expressive, coloristic choral pieces of the 20th century, Martin’s Mass for double choir is also one of the more exposed! Its transparent textures make it easy to hear every part, and every mistake. ORS did it proud, displaying a warm sonority through all of the movements, and a rhythmic and expressive dialogue between the two choirs that was tactile. The Mass is a kaleidoscope of varied hues, rhythms and tempi, made even more delicious by the interplay of the two choirs: a tone bath of the first order.

Oregon Repertory Singers performed at Portland's First United Methodist Church.

Oregon Repertory Singers performed at Portland’s First United Methodist Church.

Choir and conductor really “got” the wide dynamic spectrum available – and needed – for both pieces, and available to a choir of these dimensions (90 voices).  A ground floor pianissimo rose to a full-throated fortissimo.

One of the most difficult tasks for amateur singers is to maintain a continuous legato line, but it was no challenge for this choir. Ultra-responsive to Sperry’s cues, they met most of the demands of this daunting score.

Just a few minor cavils: there was a little accident in the Martin, where one choir was inconclusive in its entrance, and mild panic set in; but it was very soon resolved. And very occasionally, attacks were blunted by an amorphous, timid fuzziness – but only seldom.  

Composed, like Martin’s Mass, in the early 1920s, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in g minor harks back to the composer’s long hegemony over British music of the mid-20th century. Influenced greatly by Debussy and Ravel, with whom he studied, the composer luxuriantly flourishes his unique, modal style throughout the Mass.

In ORS’s performance, varied mixed solo quartets in most movements ranged from very good to excellent, but occasionally dropped slightly in pitch. Wisely, Sperry paused after each of the movements, to reposition the varied groups of soloists differently for each successive movement. This was doubly wise, as the audience could applaud each separate group and the choir could retune as necessary.

These two Masses have never appeared together on the concert stage in Portland. Looking ahead, I hope there is more of this type of programming. It offers us a little less of the flavor-of-the-year works that are already so much in the public ear, and so much wider a palette of sound and structure.

The Oregon Repertory Singers, now having been in Dr. Sperry’s capable hands for five years, has cultivated an appealing warmth of tone color. They seem to be evolving year by year, a good sign and something every artistic group, in infancy or adulthood, must do to survive.

Thanks, ORS, for your moments of ear candy, and genuine emotive singing. Not so many choirs can forge two such disparate pieces into a palatable concert whole. Under Ethan Sperry, they’re being asked to sing more and more challenging works: what’s next?

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led Portland Symphonic Choir and Portland State University choral programs for many years.

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Oregon Chorale review: Counting the stars

Washington County choir and other choral concerts make for a bountiful musical weekend

by BRUCE BROWNE

“This was hard,” one of the choristers told me after the Oregon Chorale‘s March 12 concert. Finding the balance between pushing the envelope and overextending the choir is one of the conductor’s first jobs, and it will be the task of whomever is chosen to lead the choir next year.

Jason Sabino led Oregon Chorale. Photo: Don White.

Jason Sabino led Oregon Chorale. Photo: Don White.

Formed in 1985, the Oregon Chorale (nee “Washington County Chorale”) is now in search mode, with three candidates vying to replace founder Bernie Kuehn, who stepped down at the end of last year. Robert Hawthorne, Tigard High School choral director, conducted in December; Scott Tuomi, music professor at Pacific University, will round out the field in June. This search committee will have a challenge on their hands, as all three candidates vying, are… quite viable.

This concert featured a constellation of “stars,” the only ones visible on a rugged, rainy evening in this part of the Pacific northwest. The program “Songs from Nature: Music of the Americas” was designed to help us celebrate spring.

First, a strong shout out to accompanist Linda Smith. She is not just good, she’s a virtuoso. A good accompanist is an imperative and even more so in this concert in which a good portion of the repertoire demanded her skills.

Pianist Linda Smith. Photo: Don White.

Pianist Linda Smith. Photo: Don White.

Naturally, another “star” was the choir itself. Made up of community members from Hillsboro and other satellite boroughs, this is an amateur choir, but never amateur – ish.

Third among the glitterati in this firmament was conducting candidate Jason Sabino, whose grace and command on the podium were firmly in place all night. Though just completing his degree in choral conducting from Portland State University, he projects an energy and Je ne sais quoi well beyond his years. He confessed “this is the first time I’ve ever conducted an orchestra” in concert, referring to John Corigliano’s Fern Hill, which demands equipoise and firm grasp over its 17 minutes running time.

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National Choral Conference: College choir champions convene

PSU event brings some of the nation's finest collegiate choruses to perform in Portland for the first time.

by ETHAN SPERRY

Some of the nation’s finest college choirs perform in Portland’s largest choral event ever. On November 12-14, over 500 college choral singers and 300 college choir conductors will descend on the city for the 10th anniversary conference of the National Collegiate Choral Organization (NCCO). The conference includes six performances — all open to the public — as well as master classes, interest sessions, and panel discussions that are open to anyone who chooses to register for the entire conference.

Grete-Pedersen. Photo: Ole Kaland.

Grete Pedersen. Photo: Ole Kaland.

More 100 college choirs applied by blind tape audition to perform at this conference. The 10 best groups that were accepted will perform thematic programs 25 minutes in length for normal choirs and 50 minutes for headline choirs. Concertgoers should expect to hear the best of the best from around our country. Most of the choirs will be conducted by their own directors, but some will be conducted by our two headline guest conductors: Simon Carrington, founding member of the King’s Singers and Professor Emeritus from Yale University, and Grete Pedersen, founding conductor of the Norwegian Soloists Choir and world-renowned scholar on the music of Franz Joseph Haydn.

Here’s a walkthrough of the concerts and summary of other events for any Portlanders interested in crashing some or all of our conference.

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