Bach Cantata Choir & Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Variety’s virtues

Two very different vocal concerts demonstrate, for better and worse, the value of musical diversity


The chronological span of composers William Billings to J.S. Bach to Claudio Monteverdi and Heinrich Schutz isn’t vast, about 200 years from Monteverdi’s birth in Italy to Billings’ death in New England, but the difference in stylin’, you betcha. This musical diversity should have been the delight of last week’s concert featuring five different composers,  presented by the Bach Cantata Choir under the direction of Ralph Nelson and assistant director Emma Mildred Riggle. For the most part, it was.

“Universal Praise” by William Billings offered a robust opening at Portland’s Rose City Presbyterian church. A first generation citizen of the U.S. and considered America’s “first composer,” Billings (1746-1800) left quite a legacy of hymns, fuguing tunes (not fugal – two different animals), and other secular and sacred pieces laden with his peculiar harmonies and foot stomping rhythms. And, oh, straight-backed, early colonial American text: “Praise Him propagation, Praise Him vegetation, And let your voice proclaim your choice and Testify.” Billings got those colonial Americans a hootin’ and a hollerin’.

Bach Cantata Choir sang music by an impressive variety of composers at their winter concert.

Next up, the precious “O Nata Lux (“O light born of light…”)” failed to shine.  The title represents the glowing, white-hot transfiguration of Jesus in the Catholic faith of its composer, English Renaissance genius Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) survived as a Catholic for 70 years within the turmoil of the religious seesawing in England because his musical talent was transcendent. The piece deserves this consideration.

Since these early scores lack bar lines, or any other expressive markings, sung phrases must be based on word accent and a balance of anacrusic (“upbeatness” and thesis (“downbeatness”). Without those ideas injected into the music-making, phrases become limp and lack direction. This can, and did, lead to lethargy, and some intonation problems.

In the final cadence on the word “corporis” (body), there is a famous harmonic crunch, as the tenor sings an F natural, while the soprano descends to an F# (making for a very dissonant combination), followed by the tenor moving down to an Eb, which makes still another shocking dissonance against a D natural in the bass. Choir and conductor glossed over this passage as if it were a musical commonplace rather than a Tallis signature moment.

There was a nice uplift following the Tallis, as Ms. Riggle returned to conduct the “Hodie Christus natus est” of German baroque composer Heinrich Schutz. Buoyed by four fine soloists and a dance-like repetition of ‘Alleluia’, the “Hodie” zipped along, very well sung by the choir. Sopranos Catherine Bridge and Dorothea Lail, alto Kristie Gladhill, tenors Brian Haskins and David Foley and bass Benjamin Espana were well suited in their roles of one of Schutz’ hallmark techniques, favoriti (his word), meaning the soloists ( favorites) vis-a-vis the choir.

Claudio Monteverdi’s “Magnificat á 6,” excerpted from the Renaissance choral icon Vespers of 1610 followed the Schutz. The juxtaposition of Schutz and Monteverdi was no accident. These early Baroque composers knew each other well. Schutz made two laborious treks from Dresden – no transalpine highway or ski resort respites for him – to Venice, first to work with Giovanni Gabrieli and the second to study with Monteverdi, learning to appreciate the Renaissance–to-Baroque transitional style of the master.

The “Magnificat” is chock full of the stylistic devices that forged Monteverdi’s early 17th century musical revolution and helped to instigate the Baroque period. After an insecure opening three- note motive, we heard blossoming duets in thirds, canti firmi underlying lively melodies, jagged dotted rhythms, and the sparkling echo duet with sopranos Nan Haemer and Amy Waters. David Foley and Martin Tobias sang beautifully in style in their duet “Ex exsultavit” (My spirit hath rejoiced). The dancing solos of the solo quartet “Sicut Locutus Est” (As He Promised) were spot on.

One of the most poignant moments of the afternoon was the aforementioned solo performance of tenor Martin Tobias. Dr. Tobias has been performing on the Portland musical scene for four decades and, judged by this concert, he is a testament to the longevity of the well cared for voice. He sang with purity, precision and passion. Mr. Nelson honors him and other mature singers by letting their voices be heard.

The closing work, J.S. Bach’s  Cantata 47, Wer sich erselbst erhoet, der soll erniedriget warden (For whosoever exalts himself shall be abased) begins with a full-blown fugue. Despite his instrumental successes, old J.S. is pretty true to his texts; as the choir sings “erhoet” (exalts), the lines ascend, and then descend right away to complement the opposite idea, “erniedriget” (abased).

We know that Bach was a devout Christian, but I was shocked by the hyperbolic and condemnatory texts of Johann Friedrich Hilbig, particularly in the bass recitative: “Der Mensch ist Kot, Stank, Asch und Erde” [Man is dung, stench, ash and earth). You wanna leave a concert hall feeling disgraced and low down? A good dose of Cantata 47 will do it. But the beautiful singing by Jacob Herbert cushioned the fall.

The choir’s spirited delivery was clean and clear in both choral movements. And soprano Vakare Petroliunaite provided the highlight of the concert afternoon in her aria “Wer ein wahrer Christ will heissen” (Whoever wants to be called a true Christian).

Violinist Mary Rowell performed beautifully coupling with Ms. Petroliunaite, in a format which brings to mind the violin/soprano duet of Bach’s great B minor Mass. Likewise, oboist Paul Pitkin, bassoonist Dagny Regan, and continuo organist John Vergin aided and abetted in the outrageously good bass aria sung by Mr. Herbert at the close of the Bach.

As per Mr. Nelson’s usual design, the audience was invited to sing the final chorale with the choir (in English), which we did reasonably well before leaving Super Bach dish of humility pie for Super Bowl 53.

Director Nelson is to be commended for elevating the solo contingent throughout this concert; for his variety of programming; and for rounding up an excellent band of orchestral players. The Bach Cantata choir is gearing up for a European tour in 2018 and will be giving us some glimpses of their tour program from now until then.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

It was a nice visit with other old friends last week at Portland’s Aladdin Theatre. Actually, a few of them were with the group when I first heard them many years ago in Portland. Two of them joined Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1969 and 1976, respectively and they performed the Head High straight leg kick as well as the remaining seven younger members.

I looked forward to the concert for two reasons. I wanted to see how the famed South African vocal group had evolved over the handful of decades, and to find counterweight to the highly intense concert of the previous night, (Rautavaara’s Vigilia). I got my contrast all right. Fulfillment of reason number two: check – and then some. But this show could have used a dose of the musical variety that enlivened the cantata choir’s concert.

Hailing from the Durban, South Africa area, the group was founded in the early 1960s. They’re justifiably famous worldwide because of numerous tours and CDs, with a great kickstart from their work in 1987 with songwriter/artist Paul Simon.

An hour before the concert, fans had gathered inside and out of the Aladdin Theatre, many wearing “Ladysmith Black Mambazo” shirts. It was a packed house. When well-known pieces began, each was greeted with appreciative responses from the crowd; after certain vocal riffs, spontaneous shouts and screams were abundant.

How I wish some of this unbridled enthusiasm would carry over to our classical choral concerts. Wouldn’t it be great fun if, after a Bach Cantata or Brahms motet, people shouted, threw things in the air, and otherwise demonstrated? We’re far too prim in our stiff-collared reactions in the Church and Concert Hall.

What pleases is the ethnic spin that’s always there. The men sing just as they speak: understated at times, but in tune, and highly rhythmically. All of the arrangements and compositions share a lilting, listenable quality. The vocal techniques include a visceral, earthy delivery, with voices dropping off at the ends of phrases, and just the right amount of extra-musical effects (flutter-tongue, whistles, yelling) to avoid becoming clichéd. The call and response format used in most of Ladysmith’s pieces reminds us of the authentic “Africa” in the African American choral spiritual.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed in Eugene and Portland.

But what does become clichéd is the sameness of the individual arrangements: they seem to have become repetitive and cloned. Too, it appears that the group has been influenced to concentrate their energies on “production values” of dancing and facial expression (to the point of mugging), which had not been the case some years back.

Ladysmith of decades ago and on the Grammy winning recordings offered a much more sophisticated and yet dulcet performance: closer harmonies, higher concentration of offsetting rhythms and, most noticeably, arrangements that were more varied and differentiated from one another — frankly, more interesting.

Not to say that I wouldn’t hear them again; I’d just prefer to hear them in maybe their non-touring state, where they care perhaps less about putting on an act and, well, just singing.

Portland choir director Bruce Browne directed Portland Symphonic Choir and choral music programs at Portland State University for many years and was founder and director of Choral Cross-Ties, a professional choral group in Portland.

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