Holiday concerts: Tasty musical buffets

Mark Williams leads Cambridge, England’s Choir of Jesus College in Portland December 14.

Along with the usual parade of Messiahs and Nutcrackers, ’tis the season of carols, codices and cantatas all tied up in a bow. The Portland region’s extraordinary choral music scene really cranks up during the holidays, so we asked the region’s most experienced observer and frequent participant, acclaimed choral conductor Bruce Browne, for a handy guide to the various approaches on display at area concert halls and churches. That’s followed by a listing of some but by no means all of the many, many holiday classical music concerts in the area this month.

by Bruce Browne

If you should run into a choral director friend sometime next July, you may notice a furrowed brow on their visage. There’s a good chance that it’s due to planning the year, and especially the choral concert for this coming Season.

Consider the choral director in mid-summer. She’s looking at the Christmas program, trying to put together 60-odd minutes of music while creating cohesion, interest and a frisson of stimulus in this mixture.

So how to come up with a large number of pieces that offer cohesion and perhaps even a compelling archform in the program? This is typically the choral director’s singular dilemma: wrestling with the potpourri which must become like a paella, a one dish meal, each bite highlighting a new spice or flavor.

A perennial challenge facing the choral director is a name for that Christmas/Holiday program. Some directors will develop a creative third rail, moving away from the traditional echoes of the Season. At times, though, the third rail can become a rut; the same concept over and over. Having taken the steps to invent a creative title, our anonymous planner’s next assignment is a careful succession of keys, tempi, and mood (three consecutive pieces cast in a minor and a slow tempo lend a lugubrious cast to that segment, no matter how well performed).

Imaginative programming and the use of a unifying concept are hallmarks of great choral concerts. They must be! Already hampered by the shortish length of many Christmas carols and motets, the choral director has a daunting task in front of her: creating a jigsaw upwards of 10-12 different pieces. Let’s see how our directors have met the challenges of these programs.

Last weekend’s Portland Symphonic Choir concert signaled the opening of the holiday choral season by taking the more secular route, choosing “Winter Song,” an umbrella title for many different reflections of the season. The choir’s Associate Conductor, Kathryn Lehman, conducted a varied selection of carols from the well-known to the more esoteric. The linguistic and style pendulums shifted from Latvian Carols and newer arrangements, including two pieces for Hannukah, to earlier compositions from the 20th century such as Daniel Pinkham’s “Christmas Cantata” and a “Magnificat” for organ and soprano soloist, by the British composer Charles Villiers Stanford. Lakeridge High School appeared as a guest choir as well.

In Mulieribus performs December 21.

Choral Arts Ensemble too, opts for a title reflecting a mélange of seasonal works: “Ceremony of Carols.” The unifying element here is Benjamin Britten’s work of the same title, written in 1942. Originally for three part boy choir (the CAE performance may well be for SATB, which Britten arranged later.) In this collection of medieval carols using early English, the harp accompaniment provides a special color throughout. This seasonal favorite is complemented by motets bridging five centuries, from Victoria to Poulenc. (Be sure to catch the ebullient “Hodie Christus Natus Est” in this cycle!)

In Mulieribus offers a wide palette, while still centering around one idea: the codex of treasures found in the Codex Speciálník, Medieval and Renaissance pieces for 2, 3, and 4 voices. I.M. will feature all 8 of the women’s voices (including conductor and Artistic Director, Anna Song) in a variety of combinations, breathing life into these lovely centuries-old conductus pieces, full of interweaving melodies and clear, beautiful harmonies.

Oregon Repertory Singerscenter their program upon a secular theme, but one that takes on seasonal significance too: The Rose, used for centuries as a metaphor for the birth of Christ. (Perhaps a triple entendre, given the city’s association with that flower). The centerpiece is “Chansons de la Rose”, a wonderful setting of five poems by Rainer Maria Rilke composed by Portland’s own Morten Lauridsen. Following on this same theme are four other “Rose” songs: by Erick Lichte and Jan Sandstrom, and the ubiquitous early composer, “Anon.”, arranged by the conductor. As programmatic counterpoint to the former, music director Ethan Sperry has chosen the Palestrina motet “Hodie Christus Natus Est” and a motet for male choir, the non-pareil “Ave Maria” of Franz Biebl. High school guest choirs include Oregon Episcopal School, and Cleveland High School as well as ORS’ own Youth Choirs.

Oregon Repertory Singers perform next weekend.

The Bach Cantata Choir, led by Ralph Nelson, takes the alternate road to Holiday programming, preforming J. S. Bach’s “Magnificat,” and highlights from the “Christmas Oratorio” by the same composer. No struggle to find a unifying element here; it’s Bach oratorio! With the Cantata Orchestra playing, one can anticipate the crackling rhythms and sparkling counterpoint innate in Bach, yet the serenity of elastic and sinuous movements such as “Suscepit Israel” sung by the women. With soloists Vakare Petroiunaite, Nan Haemer, Irene Weldon, Byron Wright and Jacob Herbert, Nelson has a fine array of soloists to fill the demands of both Oratorios.

Because of the wealth of carols and motets for this season, the greater percentage of choirs elect to do the “Bites and Pieces” concert program. Well planned and executed, this can be like a buffet, to which we want to return year after year.

A nationally renowned choral director, Bruce Browne led the Portland State University choral program, Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties and other choirs for many years. He recently moved back to Oregon.

 Portland-area Holiday Concerts

“Gospel Christmas,” Oregon Symphony and Northwest Community Gospel Choir, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, Dec. 7-9: Charles Floyd conducts the fourteenth annual gospel holiday celebration.

“Ave Maria,” Cantores in Ecclesia, Dec. 9, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, 1112 SE 41st Ave,: One of the state’s finest choirs performs music from six centuries in honor of the virgin Mary, including Josquin Desprez’s “Benedicta es, caelorum regina,” Charles Villiers Stanford’s “Magnificat” for double chorus, and “Salve Regina” by contemporary English composer Gabriel Jackson.

Blake Applegate leads Cantores in Ecclesia

“Glory of Christmas,” Oregon Repertory Singers, Dec. 9, 14, and 16, First United Methodist Church, 1838 SW Jefferson: The excellent, recently expanded choir sings Portland-born composer Morten Lauridsen’s Chansons des Roses (written for his native city), other rose-oriented songs, carols in vocal jazz style, music from Africa, and a Noel arranged by ORS accompanist Naomi LaViolette.

“Journey Into Light,” Choir of Jesus College Cambridge, Dec. 14, St Mary’s Cathedral, 1716 Northwest Davis: Mark Williams, who’s performed and conducted at Portland’s annual summer William Byrd Festival for the past dozen years, brings his own group of 14 boy choristers and 26 male and female undergraduate choral scholars to sing seasonal music from the Renaissance to the present.

“The Most Wonderful Season,” Portland Gay Men’s Chorus, Dec. 14-16, Newmark Theater, 1111 Broadway: The 130 voice choir sings music from its recent holiday CD and more.

“Messiah,” Portland Baroque Orchestra / Cappella Romana, Dec. 14-17, First Baptist Church, 909 SW 11th: The one true Messiah among several features some of Oregon’s finest historically informed musicians performing Handel’s glorious music in the style and on the instruments the composer intended.

“Ceremony of Carols,” Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland, Dec. 15-16, First Unitarian Church, 1011 SW 12th Ave.: New music director David De Lyser leads the venerable choir in Benjamin Britten’s great 20th century work for harp and chorus and other wonderful seasonal music by Francis Poulenc, Tomas Luis de Victoria, carols and more.

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus performs December 14-16

“Fiesta Navidad,” Nati Cano and Los Camperos, Saturday, Dec. 15, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway: The 50th anniversary tour of the renowned mariachi band features dancers, elaborate production, and Mexican and American holiday songs.

“Messiah,” Oregon Chorale / Portland Chamber Orchestra, Dec. 19, 21, 23, Saint Henry Catholic Church, Gresham; Saint Matthew Catholic Church, Hillsboro; Agnes Flanagan Chapel at Lewis & Clark College: The inventive small orchestra and Hillsboro-based choir reprise their annual classic.

“In Natali domini: Christmas in Bohemia,” In Mulieribus. Dec. 21, St Philip Neri Church, 2408 SE 16th Ave.: in an especially fascinating seasonal concert, the superb women’s choir sings rarely heard music from 15th century Prague, along with songs by the great Renaissance composers Perotin, Dufay, and more.

“Magnificat and Christmas Oratorio highlights,” Bach Cantata Choir, Friday, Dec. 21, Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, 1907 NE 45th Ave.: Along with Giovanni Gabrieli’s “O Magnum Mysterium” the veteran choir performs music from the first six cantatas of J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and his great “Magnificat in D Major.”

Bach Cantata Choir performs December 21.

“Comfort and Joy,” Oregon Symphony / Pacific Youth Choir, Dec. 23, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall,1037 SW Broadway: Two Portland classical music institutions team up for the annual concert of holiday favorites.

“Concert at Christmas,” Portland Youth Philharmonic, Dec. 26, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway: The nation’s oldest (and one of its best) youth orchestra and some alumni perform music music for the theater stage by Gliere, Puccini and Saint-Saens.

“A Spotless Rose,” The Ensemble, Dec. 29, Grace Memorial Episcopal Church, 1535 N.E. 17th & Weidler Ave.: The all-star mid-sized chorus offers maybe the most interesting concert of the season, featuring a cappella 20th century Christmas music by Benjamin Britten, Francis Poulenc, American composer Stephen Paulus and others.

Pink Martini with the Portland Youth Philharmonic, Dec. 31, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway: The annual New Year’s Eve concert features two beloved Portland institutions: Thomas Lauderdale’s Latin-pop band and America’s oldest youth orchestra.

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