Oregon classical music releases: Five 2014 favorites

Oregon composers and performers shine in new and old music.

It’s an arts journalism tradition to fill the year-end concert void with “best of the year” lists. I can’t pretend to have heard more than a fraction of Oregon music CDs released this year, so this roundup just represents a few favorites I expect many classical music-oriented ArtsWatch readers will relish.

Portland Baroque Orchestra, J.S. Bach: Concertos for Oboe and Oboe d’amore (Avie).

“Bach used the oboe as no other composer had before,” 20-year-veteran PBO oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz writes in the liner notes to PBO’s new CD, “treating it as an equal partner to the voice, and showering it with lyrically and technically demanding roles… the oboe must have been one of Bach’s favorite instruments,” receiving thrice as many solos as the violin in his cantatas.

PBOWhich makes the absence of any surviving manuscripts for oboe showcases in Bach’s most alluring music — the concertos he wrote in Cothen before moving to Leipzig to write primarily sacred music with voices — especially disappointing. However, some years ago, scholars realized that some of Bach’s lost oboe (and other) concertos were hiding in plain sight: in the guise of harpsichord concertos they deduced the busy Bach (obliged to deliver a huge quantity of music on deadline) had arranged from earlier concertos featuring other solo instruments — including the oboe and its older cousin, the larger and mellower oboe d’amore.

One of those scholars is Ruiz himself, who’s performed with most of the leading historically informed ensembles, teaches at New York’s Juilliard School and has mentored many of America’s leading Baroque oboists. His reconstruction of some of Bach’s Orchestral Suites with Monica Huggett’s Ensemble Sonnerie (recorded on a chart-topping, Grammy-nominated CD) proved far more persuasive than the previous editions that commonly — and mistakenly — replaced the composer’s intended oboe with flute.

“In Bach’s time, the oboe was considered to be the electric guitar of the 18th century, truly a virtuosic vehicle in the right hands,“ Ruiz told me, ”and there were plenty of right hands around. I hope this [reconstruction] stretches expectations of the Baroque oboe.”

Now, again teaming with Huggett, Ruiz continues his revelation — or more accurately restoration — of the oboe’s signficance to Bach’s music. This CD of concertos reverse-engineered by Ruiz and others from Bach’s own arrangements for harpsichord (with one exception compiled from a cantata movement and a concerto fragment) into showcases for oboe, oboe d’amore, and violin and oboe should re-establish the primacy of Ruiz’s instrument in Bach’s music. (In one case, it reclaims the spotlight from an earlier reconstruction from harpsichord to violin that, Ruiz contends, doesn’t fit that instrument nearly as well.) And, following its acclaimed 2012 St. John Passion recording, the disk could also place Oregon’s own historically informed period instrument band in the international spotlight for authentic Baroque recordings.

We’ll leave it to the musicologists to judge Ruiz’s scholarly case, but these performances sound at least as convincing as (and usually more than) the many other arrangements I’ve heard — including the harpsichord originals (which of course are themselves arrangements, by Bach, of earlier versions). And, inasmuch as they’re some of the greatest music written by history’s greatest composer, and played by musicians who understand his style as well as any in America, it almost goes without saying that this is a disk of surpassing beauty and power. If you’re a true Bach fanatic, or even a casual Bach/Baroque/classical fan who doesn’t have recordings of this music on CD, or only performances on modern instruments (which lack the nuance, texture and above all the tunings of authentic instruments), then it’s a must have. Even if you already have historically informed recordings, this one, performed in Huggett’s characteristically lithe, rhythmically charged style, offers a view of Bach’s music that’s fleeter, crisper, and fresher sounding than any I’ve heard, avoiding the romanticized heaviness that weighs down too many Bach performances, without being in any way lightweight. This refreshingly un-solemn CD not only recaptures Bach’s favorite instrument; it also restores some of his finest music to its truest glory.

Conspirare, Robert Kyr: The Cloud of Unknowing; Songs of the Soul (Harmonia Mundi).

Bach’s spirit suffuses a new disk of music written a quarter millennium after his death by an Oregon composer. It’s rare to see that kind of visceral response to contemporary music I witnessed at the premiere of Kyr’s Songs of the Soul in Conspirare choir’s hometown of Austin, Texas in 2011. It’s one of two major vocal works on Conspirare’s new CD of the University of Oregon prof’s music, both of which radiate a lush beauty and sincere spirituality that underlie the audience appeal I experienced in Austin. For the first piece, The Cloud of Unknowing, Kyr adapted the texts (and adopted the title) from a Middle English spiritual guide to contemplative prayer written in the 14th century, along with the poetry of the 16th century Spanish mystic St. Theresa of Avila and Latin psalms. The title phrase refers to “a hindrance to experiencing divine love,” which suggests that ignorance may not be bliss after all. Kyr’s liner notes call the music “my deepest personal response to the horrific violence of our age, which has only continued to intensify with the massacre of innocents (and innocence) in Newtown, Connecticut, followed by the incomprehensible horror in Boston.” As I wrote then, it “vividly traces a journey from despair to transcendence.”

At brief moments during the first movement and a couple of others, Kyr’s cantata conjures an early Renaissance atmosphere, with almost chant-like choral reminiscent of some of Cappella Romana’s work. Singers Gomez and David Farwig alternate between English and Castilian Spanish. Conspirare’s exquisite performance, featuring moments of extremely soft dynamics (as in the beginning of the section “Songs of Dawn”), undergirds a memorably melodic duet between Gomez and Farwig, especially the heart-rending “Beseeching.” The tone turns harsher in “piercing,” (the section most obviously colored by Kyr’s early music influences) in which the “sharp arrow” of love strikes the cloud and pierces the darkness. The final section, “enduring,” rushes to a soaring climax.

kyrAfter that soaring ending, the complementary, seven-part Songs of the Soul gets off to a measured start with the dark “Descending: From the Abyss,” a plea for salvation from abyssal “deep waters” whose Renaissance sound reflects Kyr’s work with Cappella Romana and other early music vocal ensembles. Finally, in “Hoping: Toward Dawn” it erupts into lush ecstasy. “Transforming: Beloved into Lover,” based on texts from St. John of the Cross, gives Farwig and the ravishingly clear-voiced Gomez (whose award-winning early music experience shows here in her pure, vibrato-less approach that reigned before the age of opera divas) another beguiling duet. She and the chorus embark on a rapturous ride in “Arising: A Time,” from the Song of Songs. They return to basking in beauty in the sensuous “Uniting: Leaving My Cares” before climbing that mountain one last time in the climactic “Transcending: And Love Remains.”

Gomez (who performs in Eugene and Portland in January) is sensational throughout, and Kyr’s sensitive interweaving of spare string lines (courtesy of the Victoria Bach Festival Orchestra, directed by Conspirare leader Craig Hella Johnson) gives her ample opportunity to showcase her unreservedly expressive style. Without being self consciously retro, Kyr’s lush tonal harmonies and skillful counterpoint (firmly in Bach’s lineage) demonstrate how contemporary composers can draw on classical music’s great legacy to make modern sounds that thrill 21st century listeners.

Portland State Chamber Choir, Into Unknown Worlds (CDbaby)

Under the leadership of Prof. Ethan Sperry (who also directs the Oregon Repertory Singers), PSU’s award winning top choir has returned to the heights it occupied under retired choral director Bruce Browne, winning major international competitions and drawing diverse young audiences by refreshing the very idea of a choral concert by busting stiff, archaic performance conventions, singing lots of contemporary music (some originally written for non-choral and even non-Western performers and arranged by Sperry for chorus) and (thanks to Sperry’s forward looking connection to emerging composers) becoming a trend leader in contemporary choral music. Its shows are among the most exciting and fun choral concerts I’ve ever seen in Oregon.

CD Booklet Cover and Back - Semifinal - 8-13The group’s previous recording (a finalist for the 2012 American Prize in Choral Music) was the first American CD to feature the rising Latvian composer who’s become one of choral music’s hottest young stars, Eriks Esenvalds. The new one offers several more of his works (including a lovely arrangement of “Amazing Grace” featuring a gorgeous solo by Genna McAllister, the eventful Northern Lights, and a setting of text by Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Peterson, written especially for PSUCC, called “Heaven’s Flock”), plus one by still another Latvian, Peteris Butans (the melancholy “In the Beginning”). Another American premiere, Indonesian composer/conductor Budi Susanto Yohanes’s exhilarating “Gloria Patri,” is the most exciting number on the CD, which also contains the obligatory piece by the It boy of contemporary American choral music, California composer Eric Whitacre (his lugubrious setting of Octavio Paz’s poem “A Boy and a Girl,” which I would have gladly traded for one of the choir’s more rhythmically urgent recent pieces, like “Aho”), and the classic Reincarnations by the great 20th century American composer Samuel Barber.

Reversing the usual classical music tokenism (in which 90 percent or more of the repertoire is written by long dead people except for a single, usually short, contemporary piece grudgingly appended as a fig leaf that allows grant writers and flacks to crow about how hip the company is), only one work (besides “Amazing Grace”) predates the 20th century: the nonpareil English Baroque composer Henry Purcell’s groundbreaking four-century old “Hear My Prayer,” which, Sperry explains, prefigured much later musical developments and sounds a lot more modern than some of the blander choral music being written today.

Along with a fascinating program, Into Unknown Worlds displays the choir’s radiant, tightly rehearsed singing that anyone lucky enough to attend their recent performances has enjoyed, as well as one of the most sublime choral recordings (made at Portland’s St. Stephens Episcopal Church, one of the state’s finest choral venues) I’ve heard in years. In fact, the record has just been named a 2014 Recording to Die For in Stereophile magazine, one of list’s few classical recordings and its only student listing. I don’t know that I’d die for any disk or download, but hearing this one a few dozen times would sure make life a little more beautiful.

In Mulieribus: LIVE II

The last concert I attended in 2014 was also one of the best. At southeast Portland’s St. Philip Neri Catholic Church last weekend, the all-star Portland female vocal ensemble (the name, one of the many insider classical music monikers that seems designed to keep away any audience beyond the cognoscenti, means “Among Women”) sang obscure antiphons (settings of Christian religious texts) from across the centuries — and were greeted like rock stars … when they came back from intermission! What can account for such a rapturous response (and not the first time I’ve experienced it with these musicians) for sounds so old and, well, churchy? Sure, they sing immortal music, but I’ve heard other performances of similar fare that doesn’t evoke such ecstasy, even by singers of comparable quality. I wonder if it has something to do with the intimacy of a small ensemble vs. a larger choir, which makes it easier to perceive the singers as individuals (especially because their astutely matched voices are quite different, ranging from ethereal to operatic) rather than faceless. Or it could be that they just sing so beautifully, and blend so well, that fans can’t resist.

inmulieribus4A clue lies in the new live CD released at that concert, which showcases IM’s alluring voices in a range of repertoire that sticks pretty close to similar, measured tempos and even dynamics (which ancient scores seldom if ever notate, leaving the choice of how loud and how fast to sing to the music director, Anna Song). That lends a serene sameness that makes the disk a soothing nighttime (or I guess morning, for that matter) sonic tapestry, even though the repertoire spans a millennium, from a brief opening chant found in a medieval codex to music by contemporary composers Ivan Moody (the British composer well known to Portland audiences who’ve heard Cappella Romana sing his music) and Portland’s own Craig Kingsbury, who contribute recognizably modern Christmas settings, written especially for In Mulieribus, that are among the album’s highlights.

Recorded in three different churches (Portland’s St. Philip Neri and St. Stephens, Vancouver’s Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater) with quite different acoustics, the tracks feature slightly different lineups. Along with the long-standing core lineup, much-missed founding member Tuesday Rupp (who departed for graduate school at Yale some years back) and two other top Portland singers, Kristen Buhler and Kerry McCarthy, blend well in guest appearances. In the great English Renaissance composer William Byrd’s exultant Christmas carol “From Virgin’s Womb,” relatively new member Hannah Penn (a former Portland Opera resident artist) gets a solo spotlight that contrasts her rounded operatic singing with the other singers’ more ethereal early music style in the choruses. That track — the album’s pinnacle — also features organist Hannah Brewer; blend well in their guest appearances elsewhere. The longest cut, an anonymous 16th century work found in the British Library, is a snoozer (although since it involves a lullabye, maybe that’s intentional), but the Renaissance pieces (including works by masters Josquin and Brumel) all shine, Byrd the brightest.

It’s a lovely album that any fan of early music will enjoy — but I’m not convinced that any recording can really capture the often transcendent experience of hearing In Mulieribus live, in a churchy acoustic appropriate to the music. There’s something about seeing these sublime musicians in person that accounts for the rock-star appeal. Whatever magical musical charisma they possess works best in the flesh and in the moment.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Lou Harrison: La Koro Sutro (BMOP/sound).

The greatest Oregon composer was also (with able assistance from his life partner and fellow Oregon native Bill Colvig) one of America’s great instrument builders. In the early 1970s, they built a percussion instrumentarium (contrived from metal tubes, resonators made from steel cans used in food storage, suspended steel gas cannisters struck with baseball bats or other large mallets, aluminum slabs, ranch triangles, Chinese gongs) that they called the first American gamelan, tuned to the beautiful just intonation that’s so much more lovelier than the compromised equal temperament that’s ruled Western music for the past century or so. Later nicknamed Old Granddad, it provided the sound for some Harrison’s greatest music, including his puppet opera Young Caesar and the two 1970s masterpieces included on this new recording by Gil Rose’s much-lauded new music chamber orchestra.

bmopAs I discovered when attending a performance in Berkeley a couple years back, Harrison’s glorious The Heart Sutra has lost none of its majesty in the four decades since Harrison was inspired to write it by an international conference of Esperanto speakers held in Portland. Accompanied by harp and reed organ, it remains one of the greatest American choral works. A setting of Harrison’s favorite sutra (here set in Esperanto, the would-be universal language), a 14 verse distillation of Buddhist wisdom, it’s one of Harrison’s best-loved compositions, embracing some of his most characteristic passions: peace, universality, homemade instruments, just intonation, bell sounds, Asian (and especially Indian music) influences, early Western music (especially the medieval composer Perotin).

Despite the fact that it can’t be performed on anything but Harrison’s American gamelan, so many of those who heard La Koro Sutro recognized it as one of the great sacred works of the 20th century that by the time Harrison died in 2003, copies of the American Gamelan would be constructed so that it could be shipped to all the choirs wanting to perform it. BMOP commissioned a new replica set especially for this recording. (With the project now complete, that set, the fourth, is now for sale, by the way — let BMOP know if you’d like to bring it to Oregon.)

The suite, co-written with Harrison’s friend and violinist Richard Dee, dances exuberantly through Indian musical forms and ends with a moving Baroque-style chaconne. And both works teem with Harrison’s typically beguiling, unforgettable melodies. With help from violinist Gabriela Diaz and the Providence Singers, BMOP demonstrates that Harrison’s music transcends its West Coast/Buddhist/Esperanto/20th century origins — it’s a universal masterwork with a universal message.

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