ralph nelson

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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Bach Cantata Choir review: Team effort

Portland chorus and orchestra score points in super Sunday Baroque concert

by BRUCE BROWNE

Portland’s Bach Cantata Choir kicked off another calendar year with “SuperBach” Sunday, only slightly pre-empting the more popular pigskin event. The packed audience was still treated to four “quarters” of enlivenment  —  excellent choral music with the support of a first rate orchestra.

Four faces, four composers. Not equal in reputation, but equal partners in celebrating the pre- Fat Tuesday joy of the season last Sunday at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church. Herren Schutz and Bach are to Baroque choral music what Porche and Benz are to German autos. The other two, Zelenka (Czech) and Marcello (Italian), enjoy less heralded reputations in our time. For that reason among others, I liked this program. Conductor Ralph Nelson brings a good balance to his offerings: the known and the lesser-known.

Bach Cantata Choir.

Bach Cantata Choir.

The program began brilliantly, with oboist Paul Pitkin playing Marcello’s Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra in C minor. Mr. Pitkin’s phrasings and tone were subtle and supple; he evenly caressed the entire register of the instrument, exhibiting a stillness of body and spirit above virtuosic fingerings. Exquisite. The oboe and orchestra, especially the continuo, were perfectly matched, sensitively directed by Mr. Nelson and the tempo was a forward-moving delight. (If you decide to YouTube this piece, you will notice the more often performed d minor concerto. Same piece, different key.)

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