trinity cathedral choir

Bach for Christmas: Jubilant

In the audience for Portland Baroque Orchestra and Trinity Cathedral Choir's Christmas Oratorio: For a music lover, it's pure pleasure

Story and photographs by Friderike Heuer

There are limits, but also advantages, to being a moderately educated music lover – like yours truly – rather than a professionally trained music critic. Good music critics bring an ear, lots of analytic skill, attention to detail, a huge memory bank and the ability to make connections to the table. Their verdicts help listeners to decide what music to listen to and what to be alert to; their feedback also helps orchestras, choirs, soloists to improve performance.

The richness of their experience is undeniable. But their experience is also focused and informed in ways that make their experience distinct from that of the average concert-goer. When professional critics attend concerts,  they need to get all of the performance details right, and their task to assess the performance induces a cognitive load which can be at odds with emotional immersion. They sit at the outside looking (or listening, as the case may be) in while the rest of us have the chance to experience a whole that is comprised not just of the performance but many other interacting factors.

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MusicWatch Weekly: American holidays

Along with abundant traditional European Christmas music, Oregon concerts offer American angles on holiday music, music mixed with theater, film, dance, and more

Millions of Americans celebrate Christmas, but let’s face it, the Yuletide is hardly an American original. Sometimes it seems that about all we’ve contributed to a story that began in the Middle East and was St. Nicked by Europeans, is our characteristic commercialization of what was once a spiritual occasion.

Actually, Americans have over the years made the mid-winter holiday — like so many other cultural artifacts that originated elsewhere — our own through music, and you can hear some of it on Oregon stages this week.

• Based on the memoir by iconic Portland stripper / author Viva Las Vegas, Viva’s Holiday scored a surprisingly young and diverse audience in its 2015 and 2016 performances. Set in her family’s Minnesota home during a Christmas visit, Portland composer Christopher Corbell’s intimate, one-act Christmas opera recounts Viva’s declaration of independence from family expectations, socially approved careers, and occasionally clothing — a perfect Portland-style twist on standard holiday themes. Already revived once, Corbell’s lyrical music, which embraces both classical traditions and his own singer-songwriter background, has now received a splendid recording by a twelve-piece orchestra and four opera singers conducted by former Opera Theater Oregon artistic director Erica Melton. This Cult of Orpheus concert (i.e. unstaged) performance includes all the music, minus costumes, sets and stage action, plus a set by Portland’s early French sex music trio Bergerette (which has a close connection to Viva), plus a chance to buy the newly released CD. Let’s hope Santa brings a full re-staging during a future holiday season. Read ArtsWatch’s review and feature story about the original production.
Saturday, Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland.

• Violin deity Mark O’Connor, who’s developed an entire music ed curriculum that introduces American kids to music using our own folk traditions rather than centuries-old European pedagogy. Possibly the world’s greatest fiddler, the Seattle-born star brings the sound of his popular “Appalachia Waltz” combo to holiday music when his crack band and singer Brandy Clark perform the music from his hit 2011 album An Appalachian Christmas this week in Portland and Eugene. The Grammy-winning fiddle virtuoso (who’s also won major awards for his guitar and mandolin skill) composer (nine concertos, two symphonies, three string quartets and counting), studio musician, and educator may have worked with some of the world’s most renowned musicians, from Yo Yo Ma to Earl Scruggs to Wynton Marsalis, but he really enjoys playing with his family and friends. What better time to do that during the holidays? His O’Connor Band features his wife and fellow fiddler/ singer Peggy, champion mandolinist son Forrest, national flatpack champ guitarist Joe Smart, banjoist/bassist Geoff Saunders giving carols and other holiday standards given a warm, all American bluegrass/folk inflection.
Wednesday, McDonald Theatre, Eugene, and Friday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

Mark O’Connor Family Band performs “An Appalachian Christmas” Wednesday in Eugene and Friday in Portland. Photo: All Classical Portland

Music & Theater & More

Along with Viva’s Holiday and Portland annual Christmas Revels, which is more theatrical than musical though worth seeing on both counts, on Sunday, Eugene Concert Choir presents its fully staged musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A Dickens of a Christmas includes plenty of seasonally appropriate sounds that you nevertheless don’t hear ad nauseam in stores and commercials everywhere this time of year. ECC artistic director Diane Retallack has placed the ghost of Christmas Past’s setting in a Renaissance Feast, with appropriate madrigals and carols performed by the costumed “Lords and Ladies” of Eugene Vocal Arts in Elizabethan attire and accompanied by Byrdsong Consort. The ghost of Christmas Present inhabits Dickens’s mid-19th century Britain, with English carols and other music of the period, including Arthur Sullivan’s (of Gilbert &) Handelian Festival Te Deum, accompanied by Eugene Concert Orchestra. The ghost of Christmas Future appears in a “raucous, kitschy look at contemporary culture” with flash mob, break dancing, circusy acrobatics, an Elvis impersonator, and Churchill High School’s Concert Choir. This colorful experience is more than just a concert, featuring costumes, sets, theatrical lighting and sound, action, pageantry, choreography and of course Dickens’s immortal story of Scrooge and the rest.

Eugene Vocal Arts members don Renaissance garb at Eugene Concert Choir’s ‘A Dickens of a Christmas.’

And don’t forget about this weekend’s concluding concerts in a couple other music-meets-theater runs we’ve told you about in earlier MusicWatches:

• Portland Opera to Go’s kid-friendly, bilingual production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, at Portland’s Hampton Opera Center, 211 SE Caruthers Street, and

 The Shedd’s production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, at Eugene’s Jaqua Concert Hall, 285 E Broadway.

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Portland Baroque Orchestra & Trinity Cathedral Choir review: wise compromises

Performance of J.S. Bach’s immortal Mass in b minor deftly balanced historical authenticity with practical necessity

By BRUCE BROWNE

There are a few works of art whose merit is not debatable. J.S. Bach’s b minor Mass is one of these.

Yet this masterpiece is rarely performed as its composer probably intended. Various factors — choice of venue, availability of historically accurate performers and instruments, etc. — often require today’s performers to make compromises between original intention and modern practicality. Armed with best practices, conscientious performers pursue historically informed performance, not re-enactments. We then must concede the possibility of resolving difficulties of balance, nuance and tempi.

Under the lucid leadership of distinguished British conductor David Hill last weekend, the combined forces of the Trinity Cathedral Choir, the Portland Baroque Orchestra and five excellent soloists made the right choices. (See my interview with Mr. Hill below.) The value of this performance in the Trinity Music series – to singers, audience, the preservation of the choral arts and to the glory of God through music – was manifold.

Trinity Cathedral Choir and Portland Baroque Orchestra performed J.S. Bach’s ‘Mass in b Minor.’ Photo: Howard Luce.

The arias and duets were something special. Mr. Hill had at his disposal a stellar counter tenor, Daniel Moody; stentorian baritone Jesse Blumberg; the jewel-voiced local soprano Arwen Myers; German-born tenor Nils Neubert; and versatile soprano Estelí Gomez. Each of these singers carries a lengthy resumé of wide-ranging credentials, nationally and internationally.

In the aria “Quoniuam tu solus sanctus” (For you alone are holy), Mr. Blumberg was fulsome in tone, his voice cutting through the cathedral with well honed vowels. His principal Quoniam partner, horn player Andrew Clark, was quite simply the best I’ve heard in this piece, playing his part flawlessly, and without score.

Countertenor Moody possesses a refulgent tone, and was irresistible in his aria “Qui Sedes ad dexteram Patris” (You who sit at the right hand of the Father). This is a major talent; I was grateful that a real countertenor (as opposed to female alto) was Hill’s choice. More about that in a bit.

Ms. Myers sang with a sterling silver patina throughout, especially effective in the duets “Christe eleison” (Christ have mercy), with Ms. Gomez, and later “Domine Deus” (Lord God, King of Heaven) with Mr. Neubert. The latter pair were well matched, along with flutist Janet See, in phrasing and articulation. Mr. Neubert was also effective in the penultimate aria, “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord). In the “Laudamus te” (We praise you) Ms. Gomez confronted the challenges of matching the sparkling crisp 32nd-note duplets and runs in the violin, played expertly by Carla Moore.

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