Weekend MusicWatch: Cellos, guitars, choirs and more

Portland Cello Project plays Portland's Aladdin Theater this weekend/Photo: Tarina Westlund

’Tis the season and all, and in a period that emphasizes traditional sounds, I’m impressed to see some Oregon classical music institutions figuring out creative ways to celebrate the season without succumbing to same old sameitis.

Last Saturday’s concert by the confusingly named Cantico: Portland Chamber Singers, for example, managed to balance the need for familiar tunes with some unusual yet still appropriate repertoire, and a fresh approach refreshingly bereft of sentimentality.

The singers kept things lively by presenting two dozen songs  in many different configurations: duos, trios, quartets, a solo alternated with the full choir selections. This necessitated a lot of stage changes, with the attendant microphone set ups and take downs, but they’d obviously rehearsed that aspect of the show so thoroughly that all proceeded smoothly.

The instrumentation provided further variety, including some low key guitar picking and singing (Sky Pixton Engstrom, Courtney Atack, David Orme) on a lovely vocal duet of happily un-treacly “Away in a Manger.” Other numbers featured flute (the excellent Kathleen Parker), harp (Catherine Stone), piano (Karen Porter, Heidi Bruno, Toni Glausi), oboe (Diana White) and organ. Pop arrangements of Christmas music by John Gorka and the Beach Boys (which included the donning of scarves, hats and goggles) lent variety and familiarity to works by contemporary and 20th century composers John Rutter, Stephen Paulus, David Willcocks, and more, plus classical composers like Tomas Luis de Victoria, Max Reger, Adolph Adam and others. Other songs, like “Silent Night,” used updated or even reharmonized arrangements. A couple of numbers fell flat or tasted a bit gooey, but overall, thanks to several strong soloists and other voices, crisp transitions and performances, and astute programming, Cantico’s Christmas concert was as enjoyable and musically engaging as any holiday themed concert I’ve attended in Portland.

A couple of other Portland performers ignored the holiday theme. Cellist Adam Hurst, familiar to many Portlanders for his solo performances in public places like the airport and farmers markets, released a new career spanning CD collection with a concert that also looked forward by surrounding him with an ensemble of piano, percussion (dumbek), and accordion that beautifully complemented his lush, haunting original compositions, including at least one upbeat number that’s not yet recorded. A pair of tangos conjured a midcentury European cafe vibe. I enjoy Hurst’s solo shows, but I hope he continues with this new ensemble setting.

Hurst has been around for awhile, but George Colligan is a newcomer, having joined the PSU faculty after a career of 20-plus albums as a leader. Judging by his compelling performance in his debut Portland concert, presented by PDX Jazz at the Mission Theater Tuesday, Colligan promises to fit in nicely in a growing Portland jazz scene.

For one thing, he plays several instruments (piano, drums, trumpet, melodica this night, and he’s played organ with the evening’s guest star, guitar star Dan Balmer), he has a wife (Karen Politzer) who’s also an accomplished pianist and, judging by the evidence of her guest appearances here, fully capable of holding the stage  in her own showcase, and he’s found a simpatico working trio with  bassist Eric Gruber and drummer Todd Strait, who sounded pretty tight even though this was their first gig together. It helped having the always fluent Balmer aboard for most of the show.

The band played compositions by Colligan and his PSU predecessor (and before that, legendary Blue Note pianist and composer) Andrew Hill, plus a couple covers, including a funky version of John Lennon’s “Come Together.”

PDX Jazz added a nice touch by arranging for ubiquitous Portland pianist Andrew Oliver to conduct a little Q&A to introduce Colligan to town. His stories of learning to play jazz as much from playing hotel gigs as from his study at Baltimore’s famous Peabody Conservatory, his childhood exploration of different instruments, and the influences on his music, gave listeners a way into his sound world.

There’s more enticing improvisation on deck this Sunday. Northeast Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre brings the all-female sax quartet the Tiptons to town, with our own saxy ladies, the Quadraphonnes, opening. Both groups stray profitably beyond straightahead jazz — Quadraphonnes have been known to play Philip Glass — especially, in the Tiptons’ case, into musical cultures outside the American and Western European traditions. And erstwhile Oregonian turned Brooklynite Nate Wooley, recently praised for his trumpet derring do in the august New York Times, hooks up with local avant jazzers at Southeast Portland’s Bamboo Grove.

If Bruce Browne’s review of Oregon Repertory Singers’ holiday concert piqued your interest, you can hear them Friday through Sunday at Northwest Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Dr. Browne himself will be conducting Portland’s Choral Arts Ensemble Saturday and Sunday at downtown Portland’s First Unitarian Church, in a concert featuring music by Portland-born Morten Lauridsen and other acclaimed contemporary choral composers including John Rutter and Javier Busto, and a commendably startling variety of other contemporary sounds along with some traditional seasonal songs. Both concerts are highly recommended, as is Portland Baroque Orchestra’s annual performance of Handel’s Messiah, with the superb singers of Cappella Romana and a strong team of guest soloists at downtown Portland’s First Baptist Church. At WordPress time, the Saturday and Sunday concerts had sold out, with a few remaining for Friday night and for Monday afternoon’s one-hour kid-friendly matinee.

And speaking of kiddos, the Portland Symphonic Girlchoir sings holiday songs, Broadway tunes, and music from various world traditions Saturday afternoon at Portland’s Zion Lutheran Church, while the Oregon Symphony’s annual kids holiday concert happens at downtown Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Sunday afternoon; the band backs up the Canadian Tenors Friday night.

On Portland’s nationally noted indie classical front, the Portland Cello Project stages its annual holiday concert Friday and Saturday night at Southeast Portland’s Aladdin Theater. Traditionally one of the warmest and most fun musical events of the season — for rock and pop fans as well as classical aficionados — it’s different every time because founder Douglas Jenkins (whom I profile in this month’s Oregon Quarterly magazine) writes a whole new set of arrangements for each show, and different Portland indie rock guests show up every time. This year’s crop includes two members of one of Oregon’s finest bands, Blind Pilot, ubiquitous drummer Rachel Blumberg, violinist Emily Wells, and many more. The program includes music by J.S. Bach, early 20th century French composer Lili Boulanger, and rapper L’il Wayne, and the ambience includes egregious holiday sweaters: the ugliest  wins a prize and its wearer a gift bag, and wearers of those adjudged especially hideous get front row seats.

In a benefit for a local nonprofit music education organization, Portland’s Electric Opera Company enlists 20 plugged-in guitarists, keyboardists, and a dazzling drummer to wail away on holiday music, including a fair dose of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet score, on Saturday afternoon at Northeast Portland’s Mississippi Studios. And if you venture to the fringes of Portland’s metro area, you can hear the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s holiday brass concert in that city, and Oregon Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra playing Bach, Bizet, Haydn and more in Lake Oswego.

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