Portland Cello Project plays Portland's Aladdin Theater this weekend/Photo: Tarina Westlund

’Tis the season and all, and in a period that emphasizes traditional sounds, I’m impressed to see some Oregon classical music institutions figuring out creative ways to celebrate the season without succumbing to same old sameitis.

Last Saturday’s concert by the confusingly named Cantico: Portland Chamber Singers, for example, managed to balance the need for familiar tunes with some unusual yet still appropriate repertoire, and a fresh approach refreshingly bereft of sentimentality.

The singers kept things lively by presenting two dozen songs  in many different configurations: duos, trios, quartets, a solo alternated with the full choir selections. This necessitated a lot of stage changes, with the attendant microphone set ups and take downs, but they’d obviously rehearsed that aspect of the show so thoroughly that all proceeded smoothly.

The instrumentation provided further variety, including some low key guitar picking and singing (Sky Pixton Engstrom, Courtney Atack, David Orme) on a lovely vocal duet of happily un-treacly “Away in a Manger.” Other numbers featured flute (the excellent Kathleen Parker), harp (Catherine Stone), piano (Karen Porter, Heidi Bruno, Toni Glausi), oboe (Diana White) and organ. Pop arrangements of Christmas music by John Gorka and the Beach Boys (which included the donning of scarves, hats and goggles) lent variety and familiarity to works by contemporary and 20th century composers John Rutter, Stephen Paulus, David Willcocks, and more, plus classical composers like Tomas Luis de Victoria, Max Reger, Adolph Adam and others. Other songs, like “Silent Night,” used updated or even reharmonized arrangements. A couple of numbers fell flat or tasted a bit gooey, but overall, thanks to several strong soloists and other voices, crisp transitions and performances, and astute programming, Cantico’s Christmas concert was as enjoyable and musically engaging as any holiday themed concert I’ve attended in Portland.


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