Weekend MusicWatch: Looking forward, looking back

A projection screen showed Michael Kleinschmidt playing the organ when he wasn't talking to the audience.

The dark, stentorian voices boomed from the back of the sanctuary of Northwest Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral as the men of Portland’s Cappella Romana streamed up the aisle and toward the altar at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral for one of its season-ending concert last weekend. Although the group specializes in music of the long-expired Byzantine empire, and was celebrating its 20th anniversary, it didn’t wallow in its past, nor that of its music. In fact, what made this concert particularly memorable was the fact that it looked forward, not just back, by featuring music by contemporary as well as ancient composers. Cappella asked composers it’s worked with over the years to write new settings of 8th century poetic texts by St. John of Damascus.

The first, by Richard Toensing, proved one of the most potent of the evening, using unusual (to ears accustomed to standard classical music) intervals and modes to create a recognizably modern work out of mostly ancient materials. It was the first but not the last to spotlight the radiant voice of soprano Catherine van der Salm, who, like many of Cappella’s singers, is frequently heard with the city’s other top ensembles. Southern California composer Tikey Zes, one of the 20th century Greek composers whose music Cappella has been recording, contributed a gorgeous setting that was unfortunately one of the shortest of the evening. Portland composer/performer John Vergin’s somewhat diffuse piece showcased Cappella’s incomparable bass singers, while British composer Ivan Moody’s setting revealed a real mastery of the Byzantine textures combined with modern melodies and harmonies, building to a powerful grand finale.

Eugene-based composer Robert Kyr’s closing work demonstrated a strong familiarity with Cappella’s style and singers, not surprising since he’s worked closely with the group as composer in residence and now board president. The most modern sounding and complex of all the new works, it alternately spotlighted the male and female singers with rich harmonies.

Since the group also sang medieval chants, the concert ran a little long, but easy to understand why given that it was 20th anniversary and covered both ancient and modern territory. It confirmed Cappella Romana as not only one of the Northwest’s finest classical ensembles, but an important source of dynamic new music as well.


Conductor Alexander Lingas, composer Robert Kyr and Cappella Romana bask in the applause.

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral music director (canon) Michael Kleinschmidt’s solo concert the next day in Portland’s First Presbyterian Church’s Celebration Works series also focused on religious music — an overview of some of J. S. Bach’s  finest organ works. Because the organist himself was hidden in the loft, a projector displayed his live image on a screen. Seeing a superb organist like Kleinschmidt play Bach live always  amazes me, because you can see each hand operating independently along with both feet playing bass lines, multiple voices going all at once… One piece boasted a wild feet-only solo that in another context would surely have drawn “woo HOO!’s” and uplifted cigarette lighters.

For someone like me who has always avoided organ music, the concert was a revelation.  A friend had long urged me to give organ music another chance — ‘it’s the original synthesizer!’ he says — and I’ve always fancied the penetrating sound of the little portative organ (the B3 of its time) that Bach, Handel and other Baroque composers used when large pipe organs weren’t available, as in non church performances. But big church organs always felt too, well, churchy.

Kleinschmidt’s brisk tempos, crisp playing and the relatively small space made Bach’s counterpoint clear and kept the music lively and dramatic — without the mushy, romanticized, or oppressively churchy feel that afflicts some Bach playing, especially in larger venues. But that didn’t mean that he diminished Bach’s expansive vision. As in the case of the Prelude and Fugue in e minor, BWV 548 (nicknamed “The Wedgie”; Bach sometimes had a contentious relationship with his musicians. Oh wait, I misread that nickname), it can summon whole worlds.

Kleinschmidt astutely chose his program of partitas, toccatas, preludes, fugues, hymn tunes, and fantasies for maximum variety, offering a much richer palette than available in a standard solo piano or guitar recital. In the partita Oh God, Oh Merciful God, a series of variations showed off different intimate instrumental textures — flute, oboe, trumpet, even (to modern ears) saxophone and synthesizer.

Between pieces, Kleinschmidt supplied brief, lucid explanations of how the organ works — for examples, which keyboard controls which set of pipes. When we saw keys depressed even though he wasn’t playing them, Kleinschmidt explained, “it’s not the Holy Spirit” but rather a coupling mechanism that allows the organist to double the sound power.

That’s what happened in the rousing finale, the magnificent Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540, in which Bach assembles a spectacular sonic structure and then caps it off with the musical equivalent of a fireworks-lit dedication ceremony. Rather than the solemnity associated with so much organ music, in Kleinschmidt’s hands it felt like a celebration of pure joy. And even though, thanks to many years covering the Oregon Bach Festival, Portland Baroque Orchestra, and various early music performances around the country and in Europe, I’ve heard more performances of Bach’s music than anyone else’s, I think this one really displayed his essence most clearly.

Keyboards and screens were also in the spotlight at the Portland Piano Club’s noon recital of French music last Saturday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. The young performers (most apparently in their 20s) projected a refreshing sense of discovery that more than compensated for their inexperience. Lizzie Flick and Mary Sutton contributed transparent performances of a couple of entries from the most beautiful keyboard music ever composed, Claude Debussy’s magical Preludes. Nicholas Fontana played Rvel’s Noble and Sentimental Waltzes with an appropriate touch of wildness. Kiril Chang-Gilhooly’s watery selection from Debussy’s Images combined urgency and delicacy, like flowing water itself. Becca Schultz’s wistful menuet from Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin followed the strongest performance of the day, Lisa Marsh’s performance of two wind-themed DEbussy preludes, and preceded Stephanie Cooke and Grace Shimer’s delightfully playful duet as they shared a bench in Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands.

The free, hour-long concert also included four brief original videos in which some of the performers chatted about their experience learning and performing the music, which drew the audience closer to both the music and the players. It’s a treat to see this new organization in town, and to see them updating the piano recital formula in such an audience friendly way.

Another newcomer attempts to change the formula this weekend when Portland Baroque Orchestra violinist Adam LaMotte introduces his new project, The Orchestra, at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall Friday night. In an attempt to make classical performance more audience friendly, his crew of top Portland musicians will play movements and excerpts from works by Arvo Part, Shostakovich, Brahms and other composers. Ultimately, LaMotte promises multimedia and other sweeteners, so you’ll just have to show up to see what surprises he has in store.

A more conventional orchestra, the Vancouver Symphony, includes multimedia elements — a projected 3D interstellar voyage in its performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets this weekend at Vancouver’s appropriately named Skyview Hall. The excellent program also includes one of the great 20th century concertos, Ravel’s jazz-inflected 1931 Piano Concerto in G.

Also on Saturday and Sunday, Portland’s Multnomah Arts Center stages a workshop production of Handel’s first great opera, Agrippina, featuring members of the Portland Baroque Orchestra and other early music specialists.

No special effects were needed when the Oregon Symphony closed its classical season with a nod toward the new, John Adams’s jazzy 2009 symphony in all but name, City Noir. Featuring sultry sax solos, cinematic string textures, some beautifully creamy trombone and trumpet, and punchy percussion, it sometimes bustled like crosstown LA traffic, sometimes evoked film noir soundtracks (especially Jerry Goldsmith’s great Chinatown score), and in general captured the city’s seedy/glitzy atmosphere as Adams intended. Music director Carlos Kalmar, as focused as I’ve ever seen him, smartly led the orchestra through tricky tempo and meter changes, at least as astutely as Gustavo Dudamel did when I saw him conduct a Los Angeles Philharmonic performance a couple years ago at the acoustically superior Disney Hall. It’s a fun piece,  and paired well with the other biggie on the program, but also lacked the darkness of its source material — like Hollywood itself, Adams gives us a portrayal of the city rather than its reality.

Just as City Noir provided a lively season ending showpiece for the brass and percussion players, Dvorak’s Nocturne (like the opening work, Adams’s arrangement of Liszt’s The Black Gondola) showed off the superb combination of delicacy and firmness that has lately elevated the playing of the OSO’s string players — and provided the calm before the storm of the season’s closer, Igor Stravinsky’s music-changing masterpiece, The Rite of Spring.

Still probably the most powerful orchestral music ever written, the searing 1913 ballet received an appropriately ferocious performance rare for an often tightly controlled orchestra (augmented by extra players including two of Eugene’s finest, clarinetist Mike Anderson and flutist Molly Barth) that’s attained level of excellence that allows it to traverse the Rite’s constantly shifting meters and accents and unusual textures — yet still sound bold and aggressive in a way that suits the subject (a human sacrifice). It was one of this terrific orchestra’s most gripping performances, and stirring sendoff into summer.

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