Vocal Arts Series: Bringing great classical singing to Portland

This year's edition of Friends of Chamber Music's annual concert series opens with a farewell performance by Anonymous 4


Friends of Chamber Music has long lived up to the amiability in its name, not only by enticing top classical chamber groups of the usual sort from all over the world to visit Portland, but also by generously defining a “chamber music” that happily crosses over into the vernacular and even occasionally into territory traditionally held by other local presenters such as Portland Piano International. FOCM’s Vocal Arts Series last season was full of satisfying excursions, every one a winner.

This season’s vocal series looks equally promising. In its auspicious beginning is an ending many will regret: The (mostly) early music group Anonymous 4 is making its farewell tour after nearly 30 years of superlative performances and prize-winning recordings, and this Saturday’s performance, 7:30 pm at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, will be their last visit to Portland. Fans of their pure, beautifully blended sound and the musical glories of the Renaissance and earlier (as well as contemporary music written to resemble it) have already made quite a run on the box office, but I understand there will likely be tickets available at the door.

Anonymous 4 performs Saturday at Kaul Auditorium.

Anonymous 4 performs Saturday at Kaul Auditorium.

Last season’s series started off, dare I say, on a high note also. Tenor Matthew Polenzani sang to a nearly full house at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall at the end of January, in musical partnership with pianist and accompanist Julius Drake. The human vocal instrument is as variable as personalities, and tenors may be the most variable of all. Operatic powerhouses like Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti were tenors, but so are dulcet songsters like Ian Bostridge, who Portland audiences may remember from a few years ago. Polenzani showed off his versatility with a program that included both near-murmurs and rafter-shaking power.


Chanticleer and VIR reviews: Testostertones

Venerable San Francisco choir and new Portland vocal ensemble showcase the beauty of men's voices.


We in Portland are blessed to be so close to San Francisco, the home of world class male choir Chanticleer, and doubly blessed that our Friends of Chamber Music embraces the group in their mission. They are turning Chanticleer’s short jaunt north into a yearly event, and it’s always eagerly anticipated, as packed houses have shown. This year’s visit, the last Friday in March at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, fully lived up to expectations, as the choir applied their trademark precision and clarity to selections ranging across the last 500 years of classical music, a nod to the Middle Ages, and as usual, several lively arrangements of spirituals, folk and pop tunes. They seemed to take fewer risks than on last year’s program, or maybe they were just running a tighter ship this year. There was certainly no dearth of challenging works beautifully presented.



The opening early music set featured the Spanish Renaissance masters Tomás Luis de Victoria and Francisco Guerrero, that darling of the Counter-Reformation Palestrina, and a respectful yet intriguing adaptation of medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen’s “O frondens virga.” (The adapter, who split the ravishing ending into many more parts than Hildegard would have likely contemplated, wasn’t credited.)

I generally prefer Victoria over Palestrina, the intense Spaniard over the reserved and lofty Italian, but Chanticleer’s selections turned the tables on me. Palestrina’s Marian motet “Gaude Gloriosa à 5” immediately and joyously took flight, its counterpoint almost bubbling like meadowlarks. The Spaniards seemed restrained by comparison, although Guerrero’s “Ave Virgo sanctissima” featured repeated high, sighing entries in the top voices, and the group’s (male) sopranos shone expressively every time.

Secular works of the time included Andrea Gabrieli’s “Thyrsis desired death…” and Claudio Monteverdi’s “Ah me, if you’re so fond…,” both on a universal guy theme: what gals won’t do and what to say to change that. Even Chanticleer’s expert performance failed to breathe much life into Gabrieli’s labored double entendres – my mind kept wandering to Monty Python’s “Nudge nudge, wink wink” sketch. Monteverdi had a happier way with the subject. By focusing on repeated sighs (“oimé”), setting them off clearly against doleful minor-key contrapuntal and harmonic surroundings, he made the point with much less fuss. Not that it’s easy to sing, though the group made it sound that way. The final line, “thousands and thousands of sweet ‘oimés,'” descended through pungent dissonances to a surprise ending in the major key. Maybe she just smiled and promised to “be back in a moment.”


Sing Awakening: New directions in vocal music

Today's choral composers explore new sounds

Ryan Heller conducted Portland Vocal Consort's 2013 Best of the Northwest concert.

Ryan Heller conducted Portland Vocal Consort’s 2013 Best of the Northwest concert.

Editor’s note: This is the first in ArtsWatch’s two-part look at contemporary choral music. See Bruce Browne’s appraisal of Portland’s choral scene here.


New choral music is hot, no doubt about it. And in Portland, new choral ensembles are hot too. Recent years have seen the inauguration of several top-flight groups such as the Resonance Ensemble, Portland Vocal Consort, The Ensemble, and In Mulieribus. Established groups such as Choral Arts Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers have passed the baton to ambitious new directors, and the incomparable Cappella Romana has expanded forces and repertory. While none of these groups devotes itself exclusively to new compositions, they tackle them regularly and show no signs of losing interest. Portland Vocal Consort even has an annual “Best of the Northwest” show, with music written entirely by living Northwest composers. (Full disclosure: PVC included my “The Sun Never Says” in its 2011 “Best of the Northwest” program.)

On the national scene, publicity genius Eric Whitacre continues to woo and wow the choral singing multitudes, and for only the second time in its 60-year history (the first was only five years ago), the Pulitzer Prize in music was just awarded for an a cappella (unaccompanied) choral composition. Any local composer like me, who has written a few choral works and who wants to write more, or any fan of contemporary classical music, should be excited about the future, right?


FearNoMusic led Portland musicians in Terry Riley's In C

Although March was Portland’s officially dedicated month of new music, contemporary sounds have continued to resound unabated on stages around town. Last week, the country’s most celebrated vocal ensemble, Chanticleer packed Northwest Portland’s capacious St. Mary’s Cathedral with a program of music by non-decomposing composers — half of them still alive, a fact that would merit mention only in a classical music review. (Check the season announcements of most of Oregon’s theater and dance companies, where the expired creator is the exception.) The dozen-member “orchestra of voices” proved just as persuasive in appealing music by contemporary composers such as Eric Whitacre, Arvo Part and Jan Gilbert as in the magnificent polyphonic Spanish Renaissance works by the great Spanish composer Tomas Luis de Victoria and his much lesser known countryman and contemporary, Sebastian de Vivanco.

The audience seemed to especially like Lebanese American San Francisco-based composer Ilyas Iliya’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which used simple means (a baritone solo over long-held, suspended chords and unusual harmonies) to create a spellbinding aura of sound. For the program closer, Jan Gilbert’s “Grace to You,” most of the group arrayed themselves along the side aisles, leaving three soloists at the front, embracing the audience in their vibrant vocals. A pair of gospel oriented encores (arranged by the group’s retired music director, Joe Jennings, who pushed the group into earthier territory) ended a show that drew rock-star level cheers, whoops and shouts from the capacity audience. Anyone who imagines Portlanders won’t respond to contemporary music should have heard that audience response.


Chanticleer performs at Portland's St. Mary's Cathedral

On Friday, Friends of Chamber Music brings  the sublime singers of San Francisco’s Chanticleer to Northwest Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral to sing music from the 20th and 21st centuries, including works by one of the greatest living composers, Arvo Part, and the great English choral composer John Tavener. Like their Bay Area colleagues in the Kronos Quartet, the nonpareil men’s chorus also embraces today’s sounds, including in this program music by SF-based composer Mason Bates a/k/a DJ Masonic (who’s become the darling of orchestras pursuing that ever-elusive younger audience), Patricia Van Ness, Sara Hopkins, and Jan Sandstrom, who share the unusual distinction (for a classical music concert) of actually being alive. As FOCM has proved recently with other powerful voices, such as Thomas Hampson and Dawn Upshaw, even classical music audiences are happy to hear all-20th– and 21st-century programs, if the performers are committed and persuasive advocates. They’ll also sing a token Renaissance work or two.

Portland singer Brian Tierney

There’ll be plenty of other great singers onstage Sunday at All Saints Catholic Church to support the family and help defray the medical expenses of Portland singer and choir director Brian Tierney, grievously wounded and now recovering in hospital from a still-mysterious shooting last month. (You can hear examples of his artistry here.) Many of the city’s finest singers, from groups including Cappella Romana, Cantores in Ecclesia, Resonance Ensemble, Portland Opera, plus other first-rate musicians from 45th Parallel and others, will be there to support the excellent tenor, who’s part of the choral Wrecking Crew of all star singers who seem to appear with most the top choirs in town whenever real virtuosity is needed. It’s reassuring to see the music community coming together to take care of one of its own.

Unfortunately, Portland’s most prominent choir, Oregon Repertory Singers, won’t be participating, because they’ll be singing the saucy, ever popular Carmina Burana in a long-scheduled concert at First Methodist Church. There’s a matinee show, so choral fans could actually make it to both events.

And speaking of music and community, Portland drummer, sound artist, writer and thinker-about-town Tim DuRoche is leading one of Oregon Humanities’ valuable Conversation Projects on Sunday at downtown Portland’s Multnomah County Central Library. It’s called The Art of the Possible: Jazz and Community-Building, and like everything the multifaceted musician does, it’s sure to be intriguing and constructive.

At the Eugene Concert Choir’s April 21 show at the Hult Center, hometown singer Jessie Marquez (who specializes in the midcentury pop music of her father’s native Cuba), plus national dance champions will join the chorus in a concert of Latin American dance music, including rumbas, sambas, tangos and more. Dance rhythms will also propel the Mousai Ensemble’s Sunday performance at First Presbyterian Church’s admirable Celebration Works series in downtown Portland. Some of the city’s top independent classical players (flutist Janet Bebb, oboist Ann van Bever, and pianist Maria Choban) have enslisted clarinetist Chris Cox, bassoonist Ann Crandall and hornist Leander Star to help them play a splendid set of dance-driven music by Ravel, Piazzolla, and contemporary composers Paquito d’Rivera (familiar to jazz fans as a fine clarinetist and composer), Paul Harris (whose music Choban played most persuasively at her solo showcase last month), Miguel del Aguila and more.

Eleanor Stallcop-Horrox (as Camille), Douglas Webster(as Rodin) star in Promise. Photo credit: Mike O'Brien Photography


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