arwen myers

Portland Symphonic Choir review: magnificent melange

Triumphant Oregon premiere of composer John Muehleisen's massive 'Pieta' combines varied musical styles and poetry to respond to social ills

By BRUCE BROWNE

John Muehleisen 90-minute Pieta is a mélange – in a good way – of all sorts of musical gestures: Byzantine chant; Catholic and Eastern Orthodox hymnody; Bulgarian hymns; and familiar chorale tunes, many based on tunes melodies from J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion. Too, there is plentiful use of borrowed music, from a Civil War song by George F. Root to quotations from Bach, and a short motif from early baroque composer Antonio Caldara’s Stabat Mater. Muehleisen is certainly an equal opportunity borrower.

Since its Seattle premiere in 2012, Pieta has received several significant performances and, is receiving nationwide recognition. The composer was on hand to participate in and to witness Portland Symphonic Choir‘s rousing performance of its Oregon premiere in First United Methodist Church, on the last Saturday and Sunday afternoons in October.

Arwen Myers and Brendan Tuohy sang with Portland Symphonic Choir. Photo: Toni Wise.

An opportunity was missed, since Mr. Muehleisen was in residence with the choir most of the preceding week. Why not offer a pre-concert encounter sometime earlier in the evening/day? I loved what the composer had to say about his work; it was enlightening, and important. But this forced a 4:20 PM downbeat for the concert. Still, what followed was well worth it— for Muehleisen, for the guest conductor Erick Lichte, for the Portland Symphonic Choir and soloists Arwen Myers and Brendan Tuohy.

Soprano soloist Myers was radiant in the role of the Mother of Jesus, and probably, a universal mother to all. Her part demands a sprawling range, and an armor-piercing tone at times, all beautifully executed. In character throughout, Myers came through it all with a perfect aplomb, and pitch perfect musicianship.

Tenor soloist Tuohy has a silvery toned delivery. He too met most of the challenges of the score, but occasionally fought with the pitch center. After he returned to the stage following a dramatic exit in the first half of the show, the voice was perfectly in command.

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Fear No Music & Third Angle reviews: discoveries

Portland new music ensembles open Oregon ears to music from beyond the usual sources

I love going to a concert with exactly zero familiar composers. In Oregon classical music programs, the standard is still usually one new composer per concert, sandwiched between the dead white guys. Even in Portland, it’s relatively rare to hear a concert with music by composers who are all new to me. In the last few weeks, veteran Portland new music ensembles Fear No Music and Third Angle delivered two such concerts that led me to new discoveries.

Fear No Music played recent music by Middle Eastern and emigrant-diaspora composers at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: John Rudoff.

FNM’s October 9 concert at Portland’s Old Church, The Fertile Crescent, featured music by six composers rooted in the Middle East. Although they were new to me, they are all accomplished international composers. Gity Razaz studied at Juilliard with Corigliano, Beaser, and Adler; Kinan Azmeh is a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble; Reza Vali, Kareem Roustom, and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh have all composed for Kronos Quartet (I’m sure they’ll get around to Bahaa El-Ansary eventually). Although the music performed at the concert didn’t always satisfy me, I liked most of it, and the pieces that left me cold still led me to discover other enjoyable music by the same composers.

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Northwest Art Song, Susan Graham reviews: women in and out of love

The Ensemble and Friends of Chamber Music present two vocal concerts featuring old and new songs about the female experience of love

by JEFF WINSLOW

Of all the ways composers scoop up gulps of whatever universal river of music flows through the human soul and shape them into works, my favorite is probably the art song. At its best, an art song is a miraculous thing, a happy ménage à trois of compelling soundscape, absorbing lyrics – and not least, beautiful singing, something that depends on the composer and all the other musicians in on the game as well as the singer. (This does not in any way exclude the work of people who prefer to think of themselves as songwriters. A hit doesn’t need much art, and art doesn’t need to be a hit, but at wonderful times they do indeed come in the same package.)

In recent years, Portland has attracted a welcome stream of excellent singers, who fill the ranks of, and even direct, organizations devoted to art song as well as choral music. Two singers who recently commanded my delighted attention, soprano Arwen Myers and mezzo Laura Beckel Thoreson, happen to be the artistic directors of Northwest Art Song. They also perform regularly with top local vocal groups such as The Ensemble of Oregon. For the opening concert of The Ensemble’s season, “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” which I caught two weeks ago last Sunday afternoon at downtown Portland’s First Christian Church (repeated from the previous evening in Eugene), they put together an absorbing show exploring many kinds of love, exclusively from a woman’s point of view: all music and lyrics were written and performed entirely by women. Not only that, the music was utterly of our time, mostly written in the last two years, the oldest written at the cusp of the millennium.

Northwest Art Song performed women’s music in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Cory Niedfeldt.

Naturally with any collection of new work, there were misses as well as hits, but they opened with a stunner, Hyacinth Curl by Kati Agócs, who visited Portland last summer when her piano trio Queen of Hearts was performed at Chamber Music Northwest. Agócs put the lyrics together from Sufi devotional poetry (possibly written around 1830) by early 19th century Iranian noblewoman and mystic Bibi Hayati. As with claims that the Song of Solomon expresses religious devotion, you could have fooled me. Myers’s and Thoreson’s sinuous lines wrapped around each other, aptly expressing the lyrics’ barely concealed eroticism, with only an occasional handbell for punctuation. At the most charged moments, the women’s duet trailed off into silence, and after almost unbearable anticipation, the next stroke of the handbell was perfectly placed (that is, pitched) for maximum (aural) pleasure.

There was probably no way Abbie Betinis’s The Clan of the Lichens, on the equally mystical but almost asexual nature-loving texts of Opal Whiteley, could keep up this kind of interest, but the five-song set showed off Myers’s abilities to great advantage, and at their best were engaging and effective. “All Things Live” was one standout, with Myers ripping out fast, digitally precise scales and other vocal fireworks, popping off a couple of high D’s as if they were the easiest thing in the world. Even more attractive was the off-kilter, halting waltz “A Tale for Children and Taller Ones,” which dusted the cleverest lyrics and most colorful piano writing of the set with another dash of delicious musical acrobatics from Myers.

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Trinity Cathedral Choirs and Portland Baroque Orchestra: Christmas feast

German baroque cantatas highlight Trinity's annual Christmas concert and wassail party

By BRUCE BROWNE

Weihnachtskonzert (Christmas Concert) at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Church this past Saturday presented a Christmas feast, delicately layered with the texts, sounds and spirit of the season. The perfectly palindromic programming (A/B/b/B/A) made a kind of German Baroque sandwich, with cantatas of savory Bach bread on the outside, and lusty Buxtehude meat inside, with a sweet/tangy relish of a shorter Buxtehude organ piece slathered into the middle.

Dana Marsh conducted Portland Baroque Orchestra and Trinity Cathedral Choir. Photo: Wade Swearingen.

The menu’s main ingredient was the 4th century Ambrosian chant melody “Veni Redemptor Gentium” (Come Holy Ghost), a melody used by composers from the 17th century (Praetorius and Schutz) to the 20th (Hindemith and Penderecki). Bach’s settings of this melody appeared in the first Advent cantata of the evening, as Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” (Now come, Saviour of the heathens, BWV 61) and later in the last, Schwingt freudig euch empor” (Soar joyfully upwards to the stars, BWV 36). This dominant musical theme, “the coming of the spirit” was surely part of Trinity guest director Dana Marsh’s architectural vision for the evening.

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The Ensemble review: Wall of Sound

Performance of Bach's b minor Mass offers ample virtuosity, insufficient vocal variety

by BRUCE BROWNE

Johann Sebastian Bach needs no introduction, but in any performance, his music needs to be carefully reawakened by means of a variety of articulation, dynamic contrasts and deliberate text inflection. More of these elements were needed at The Ensemble of Oregon performance of Bach’s b Minor Mass at First Presbyterian Church last Sunday. Nevertheless, the concert had many tasty moments.

Conductor Patrick McDonough had in place all the necessary elements for a first rate concert: a stellar cast of singers, a first-rate band of instrumentalists and his own considerable talents. The ten voice choir (out of which came the soloists), plus 19 instrumentalists comprised the total of the performance forces.

The choir, however, was often unable to create more than a formidable wall of sound, unrelentingly forte (loud), and with an absence of variety in articulations. Legato singing is a valuable commodity, but legato unrelieved by elements of martellato, staccato, even marcato, is like driving straight through Kansas. You get from point A to point B, but it’s not the most interesting trip.

Patrick McDonough led The Ensemble and orchestra in JS Bach's Mass in b minor at Portland's First Presbyterian Church.

Patrick McDonough led The Ensemble and orchestra in JS Bach’s Mass in b minor at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church.

Throughout the performance of some 130 minutes, it was not clear what factor disallowed differentiation of vocal lines: the hall itself (an unreverberant space engineered for the speaking, not the singing voice); the small choral forces pitted against the modern winds feeling the need to just sing out; lack of rehearsal time required to fine tune and add nuance. There was an attempt to alter texture through use of “one on a part” voicing in select movements. Perhaps this could have been tried in the strings.

Some choruses, such as the double choir “Sanctus,” were just the right weight and perfect tempo. In comparison, during the following “Hosanna,” the 8th notes of the orchestra tended to obliterate the 16ths of the choir. Generally, the most pleasurable choral moments were heard when only the continuo or a smaller instrumental component were accompanying. One problem with balance in Bach is that oftentimes the instruments are playing colla voce— that is, the very same part as the voices. And modern instruments will always win that contest.

Delightful, however, were the arias and duets which ranged from seemingly effortless to virtuosic. And the instrumentalists in those pieces were spectacular in their own solo passages. Sponsored at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church through the church’s Celebration Works Concert Series, the forces had enough room to be positioned strategically – as with the trumpets and timpani placement toward the back — and the resulting sound produced a satisfying orchestral balance.

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In Mulieribus review: Hours well spent

Portland vocal ensemble's happy marriage of Renaissance music and visual art

By BRUCE BROWNE

“The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.” — W. H. Auden

Those audience members who came to Mt. Angel Abbey for In Mulieribus’s concert last Friday, March 4, who are primarily concert-goers probably anticipated that the musical experience would be enhanced by the visual art projected behind the singers. Those attending primarily to take in the visual art might have thought that the music would “accompany” the Mt. Angel Abbey book of hours collection (horae), through projected videography. For me, however, the manner of presentation allowed the arts to meld into one unifying and moving experience.

In Mulieribus used video projections of illuminated manuscripts in Horae.

In Mulieribus used video projections of illuminated manuscripts in Horae.

In “Horae: A Musical Book of Hours,” programmed brilliantly by IM artistic director Dr. Anna Song, the eight women, in solos, quartets and full ensemble, sang the audience through the eight sanctifying “hours” of Catholic spiritual practice. These women have as many formations as the Dallas Cowboys, and make use of each different lineup with satisfying results.

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Musica Maestrale review: Brilliance amid the darkness

Portland early music ensemble rekindles the late music of French Baroque composer Francois Couperin

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

In some quarters of our fair state, the name “coup”erin might be thought to evoke a new Peugeot convertible, or perhaps slang for a pigeon’s prison. Doubtless, the name is not on the top of the list at KGON, or even 89.9. We just don’t know much about Francois Couperin, a composer who, as a member of a prominent musical family, was a dominant figure in French music for the latter part of the 17th century. and into the 18th. But last Friday evening at Portland’s First Christian Church, ah…we were enveloped in the aura of Couperin’s brilliance.

Presented by Musica Maestrale, directed by Hideki Yamaya, and featuring two wonderful Portland sopranos, with the expert accompaniment of the theorbo and viola da gamba, this was a brilliant exposition of the later music of a great French Baroque composer.

Musica Maestrale played Couperin in Portland.

Musica Maestrale played Couperin in Portland.

They were a matched set, these two women. Sounding like womb-mates, the twinned voices of Catherine van der Salm and Arwen Myers were cloned air streams — soaring above the small but appreciative audience in the sanctuary.

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