ArtsWatch guest review: Bruce Browne on Portland holiday choral concerts

Portland choirs try different approaches to the traditional Christmas concert

Ethan Sperry conducted Oregon Repertory Singers in December concerts.

Ethan Sperry conducted Oregon Repertory Singers in December concerts.

by Bruce Browne

“Chacun a son gout!” (Loosely: “To each their own.”)  That may be the best thing to say about all tastes in music. Especially at Christmas.  From “Rudolf” and  “I saw mommy kissing Santa,” to Handel and Bach, there’s a wide range out there. We still cling to our childhood memories at any age, and most of us go to Christmas concerts to stimulate those sentiments, unencumbered by cultural duty.

Nevertheless, Portland’s major choral directors avoided Rudolph, Frosty and other anthropomorphic seasonal beings this holiday season. Following Emerson’s dictum, “Break the monotony; do something strange and extravagant,” they turned instead towards multi-cultural music, and traditional and not so traditional classics. New and local composers (Bonnie Miksch, Vijay Singh, Erick Lichte) were drawn on as well. All the choirs aimed at diverse targets in the process. In Mulieribus was the quixotic finding the exotic: a 12th C. Czech codex. Bach Cantata Choir, in an opposite gesture, sighted in on a bigger target, some 2/3 of Bach’s output for the Advent and Christmas seasons  (excluding his cantatas).

But what’s the overarching goal of any of these composite musical offerings? The best programs are a graceful matching of choral artistry with the soul of the music. The goal is to offer the audience the composer’s best intentions. When we attend a concert, do we not wish most to let the composer’s tone bath wash over us, without worry about any misconceived or under-rehearsed artistry?

What’s clear is that each choir profits (rises or falls) by first, finding its choral niche, then identifying the exact music that fits that niche, and the choir’s special talents. Finally, that music must somehow establish a connection with the audience by crafting an arch of contrasts and fidelity to the composers’ ideas.

Oregon Repertory Singers

What grabs audience interest, alongside artistic precision, is diversity: not only of repertoire, but also of style and tone. In its December 9, 14, and 16 “Glory of Christmas” concerts, Oregon Repertory Singers did this particularly well in three medieval pieces by bringing another type of musical gesture to the fore. “Gaudete“ and “There is no rose” were especially effective here. Other choirs achieved the same result through the use of music of different cultures and religions.

The Oregon Repertory Singers (and Portland Symphonic Choir) programs might be described as populist, in a good way. While eschewing bombast or bullhorn, ORS music director Ethan Sperry brought together a homogenous mix of pieces, many small bon-bons of Seasonal sweetness. Foremost among the smaller pieces were Ariel Ramirez’s “Los Pastores,” a blend of mariachi and percussion-enhanced singing, and ebullient program opener, “Nowell,” arranged by Sperry himself. The really moving pieces were the ORS’s capture of Sandstrom’s ingenious “er is ein Ros entsprungen,” (led by Associate Conductor Erick Lichte) with a blanket of lush harmonies supporting the original chorale melody of “Low how a Rose.” In that same groove was Morten Lauridsen’s “Contre qui Rose,” using the poetry of Rilke, which the choir sang with great care and nuance.

At the December 9 ORS show, at least one young audience member was entranced by the Oregon Episcopal School choir, conducted by Jeri Haskins.

At the December 9 ORS show, at least one young audience member was entranced by the Oregon Episcopal School choir, conducted by Jeri Haskins.

The Cleveland High School Choir, under the direction of Diana Rowey, was equal to the task of  singing with a semi-professional choir. (Oregon Episcopal School choir and Vivo Choir performed at the other two ORS concerts.)

Portland Symphonic Choir

The Portland Symphonic Choir began this season’s choral concerts. This time under the direction of Kathryn Lehmann, the choir made thoughtful, creative use of space, processing to Gustav Holst’s “Christmas Day,” and later, in the second half of the program, pitting the women against the men grouped around the large space of St. Mary’s Cathedral, singing the rousing “Mojuba” arranged by Brian Tate, evocative of Nigerian rhythms and folk tunes. These are no mean accomplishments with more than 100 people trying to move and sing at the same time.

The most artistic and telling moments occurred in Charles Villiers Stanford’s “Magnificat,” featuring a crystalline, floating solo by soprano Nan Haemer, and the rendition of Daniel Pinkham’s “Christmas Cantata,” for brass, organ, and, in the final movement, vocal octet). Both were nicely balanced, well tuned, and expressive, if a bit slower than usual, in the first and third movements of the Pinkham. (A more lively acoustic combined with a large number of singers must, as a trade-off, accommodate slower tempi).

“Mi y’maliel” was an arrangement typical of Bob Chilcott’s excellent talents. Harmonic shifts and imaginative voicings lent electrical impulses to the delivery. Less interesting was the first of the two pieces for Hanukkah, contemporary composer Joshua Jacobson’s “Aleih Neiri.” When the material is already so lugubrious and uninspired, it becomes difficult for any choir to rise above the natural deficits of the composition.

Two pieces from the first half of the program offered perhaps the most stark contrast of the afternoon: “O Nata Lux” of Morten Lauridsen, and “Ai nama mamina,” by Latvian composer Andrejs Jansons. The latter piece was all energy and drive, using typical folk rhythms and a kind of rhythmic ostinato. The more introspective Lauridsen work was beautifully in tune and blended, but lacked forward direction and sensitive word accent.

The entire affair was punctuated by narration from an articulate and erudite speaker, Rev. John Salmon (retired). Even though this writer is one who feels as did Robert Shaw, who never spoke during a concert and said, “let the music speak for itself,” this verbal glue helped give forward thrust and dramatic verisimilitude to the whole event.

The concert ended with Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus from “Messiah,” sung by the PSC, and the guest choir from Lakeridge High School, conducted by William Campbell, with literally everyone in the house a very willing participant: brass, organ and audience.

Bach Cantata Choir

Ralph Nelson’s intrepid Bach Cantata Choir presented the longest program of the season, at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church. J.S. Bach’s “Magnificat” was sung clearly and supported well by the chamber orchestra. Soloists were in fine voice, especially Byron Wright, tenor, Jacob Herbert, bass, and Vakare Petroluinaite, soprano.

The second half of the program was also all about Bach: selections from his “Christmas Oratorio” with orchestral accompaniment, and a fine contribution from John Vergin on positiv organ, in particular on the recitatives. Although the cello held back the recitatives at times, Wright was again very effective as the “narrator” of the Christmas events. This was a long program, and the choir appeared to tire towards the end, but held their own with German enunciation and clear melismas.

With a Bach orchestra for such works as the “B Minor Mass” and “Christmas Oratorio,“ D trumpets are used for the celebratory sections. Here, you either have excellent players, or you have a disaster. The players this night were first rate, in particular Jerry Webster on first trumpet.  In several of the chorales, the audience was invited to sing along, and most did, to good spiritual effect.

Choral Arts Ensemble

The Choral Arts Ensemble’s program was thoughtfully selected – interesting and contrasting. Two standouts were composer Ola Gielo’s new wine in older bottles: “The Holly and the Ivy” and later “The First Noel,” compelling in their rich harmonies and imaginative settings. The second half of the program was the most memorable: Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” for harp and choir, and “Four Motets for the Christmas Season,” by the great French composer Francis Poulenc. “Ceremony of Carols,” originally set for boychoir, was a fine effort for CAE. Soloists were very good, and the choir and harp made a lovely combination supporting Britten’s old english texts. The Poulenc motets are huge mountains to climb. The choir succeeded nicely in the first and last motet, but was unsteady in the middle two. Poulenc’s harmonies are never easy.

The bookends for the concerts at Portland’s First Unitarian Church were English carols from two different generations:  William Mathias’ “Sir Christemas” opened, and Vaughan Williams’ “Wassail Song” closed the event. Daringly, the choir sang the first piece in a circle around the room, and did so with great finesse. Jennifer Creek Hughes offered an excellent organ accompaniment.

The remainder of the first half was occupied by Tomas Luis de Victoria, the 16th century Spanish composer, much in the mold of Palestrina. The Victoria motet “O Magnum Mysterium,” and the parody Mass (using the same material and title of the eponymous motet) following, were by definition very much alike. The programming of an entire Renaissance mass lent a sameness of color and polyphonic repetition to a large part of this program. Perhaps a more vibrant acoustical venue would have allowed phrases to bloom and soar more voluminously.

the ensemble

The Ensemble closed Portland’s holiday choral concert season.

The Ensemble

When nine voices sing repertoire composed with two or three times that many vocalists in mind, some compromises must be made. The Ensemble is the newest, and the smallest group in the beehive of choral activity in Portland. For their December 29 concert, the final choral offering of the season, the conductor, Patrick McDonough, compiled a diverse and enticing program, most of it well suited to the ensemble.

A double choir motet by Benjamin Britten, a very early motet, began the concert, followed by two motets of Stephen Paulus and Kenneth Leighton, respectively. McDonough chose his soloists very well, as revealed with the lyric and silky voice of Catherine van der Salm in the solo of the Leighton.  The Ensemble’s version of the Britten was differently realized than most, the reverberant acoustics of Portland’s Grace Memorial Episcopal Church amplifying the second choir as if in loud affirmation of the statements from the first choir. Throughout the performance, the church’s vibrant acoustics made a fine sonic impression for the most part.

“Three Carol-Anthems” by Herbert Howells were the second grouping, featuring the gorgeous motet “A Spotless Rose,” with a creamy, velvet baritone solo by Erik Hundtoft.

Most interesting for this listener were the two motets completing the first half of the concert: Niels La Cour’s ”Hodie Christus Natus Est,” with heavy borrowing from the original chant, and the “O Magnum mysterium” of Frank La Rocca, a real treat, flattered by the choir’s careful singing of the lengthy opening notes, and expressive, well-tuned harmonies throughout.

This is a choir that ought to be heard often. As they move forward, they will learn to listen more carefully for balance between the women, whose natural voice types are lyric and light, and the men, whose voices are more naturally dramatic. In some places, that meant that the men overshadowed the women. The Poulenc motets, which closed the program, are daunting for any choir. When singers have to sing two to a part, there are inherent blend and balance problems. Add to that the challenges of intonation with which Poulenc ensnares the singers, and we have a set of difficult challenges.

A new offering for Christmastide was the three carols by Abbie Betinis, the grand niece of Alfred Burt. In the 1940s and ’50s, Alfred and Bates Burt composed a new carol for each Christmas, and would send them to their friends and family as Christmas cards. This tradition has now been extended by Betinis, using a new tonal language and reawakening a particularly lovely tradition.

Perhaps the very best thing about all the concerts taken together, were threefold: Excellent preparation on the part of each of the choirs; good deal of inventive programming; and, full houses for the performances I attended. This is a good omen for the years to come!

Editor’s Note: Recently returned to Portland, renowned choral musician Bruce Browne conducted the Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties, and directed the Portland State University choral programs for many years. In March 2012, he received the Lifetime Award for Leadership and Service from the American Choral Directors Association.



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