laura beckel thoreson

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


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.


The Ensemble review: A star is born

Laura Beckel Thoreson is astounding in an 18th-century opera


From the 17th to the 20th century, composers of no small reputation have felt compelled to tell the story of the ur-musician Orpheus, who took his lyre down to Hades to rescue his beloved Eurydice from her premature death. Such illustrious composers as Claudio Monteverdi, Heinrich Schütz, Matthew Locke, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Georg Philipp Telemann, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Josef Haydn, Jacques Offenbach, Claude Debussy, and Darius Milhaud, as well as scores of others, have all had a crack at the timeless story.

The Ensemble performed a concert version of Gluck’s operatic retelling of the Orpheus myth.

In his impressive 1762 azione teatrale called Orfeo ed Euridice, Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) like others before and after him, chose to give the tale a happy ending: despite his disobedience Orfeo is rewarded by Amore (one of the three characters in this drama), with the resuscitation of Eurydice, and they all live (presumably) happily ever after.

But it’s all in how you get there. At The Ensemble’s March 19 concert at the Old Church, getting there was a continuous pleasure — and a revelation. This was mostly thanks to the talents of Laura Beckel Thoreson, the Vancouver WA mezzo-soprano who sang the central role of Orfeo.

Emotional Drama

Gluck composed no fewer than 49 operas, a dozen or so of which survive as fragments and three dozen as full scores. Despite this copious output, not many are performed today — an occasional Iphigénia en Aulide (1774) or Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) from time to time, but that’s it. Which is why Patrick McDonough is to be congratulated for his revival, in concert form, of Gluck’s Orfeo. Heavy on recitative and relatively low on memorable arias, it possesses nevertheless a “can’t lose” story.

Here, Gluck offered one of his first examples of the sort of reforms he thought opera should make: away from the excessive theatrics of the castrati who dominated the stage in Italy, Germany, and England, and toward a more attentive focus on the emotional drama, rather than the performers’ excesses. In Gluck’s original Vienna production, the part of Orfeo was taken by a celebrated alto castrato, a male who had been surgically altered to preserve his “female” voice. Later, in France, Gluck rearranged his opera to feature a female mezzo-soprano, and the role has subsequently been sung by tenors, countertenors, and even baritones, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau an illustrious example.

Aside from Orfeo’s singing, and that of his co-stars Euridice (here portrayed by soprano Jessica Beebe, from Philadelphia) and Amore (local soprano Arwen Myers), Gluck’s opera originally included a great deal of baroque dance, omitted in this concert version. Ms. Thoreson was therefore at center stage literally throughout the performance. And she seized the opportunity.

Laura Beckel Thoreson.

To hear Ms. Thoreson, all other versions fall aside. Her rich voice, which seems to have no breaks in it anywhere from her soprano tones at the top to her low tenor notes at the bottom, seems expressly suited to the part of the love-lorn Orfeo. Whether in aria’s solo flights or in recitative’s declamations, she shows a voice to die for.

Even in this unstaged version, she “acted” her part very convincingly, from Orfeo’s misery at losing Euridice, to his joy at getting her back, to his suicidal anguish when she dies again, and finally to his unalloyed joy when Amore returns her once more. It’s not just the size of her voice that impresses, it’s the combination of a large, wonderful instrument with excellent taste that sets her apart. I don’t think there has been as outstanding a local mezzo since the heady days of Christine Meadows, who did a turn with Beverly Sills at the New York City Opera more than twenty years ago.

A chorus of commentators added depth and color to the proceedings. These admirable singers, one-on-a-part, were soprano Catherine van der Salm, alto Sue Hale, tenor Nicholas Ertsgaard, and bass David Stutz. A small instrumental ensemble accompanied throughout: two violins, viola, cello, harpsichord, oboe, bassoon, and harp. The Ensemble’s founder, McDonough, conducted with aplomb.

But the night belonged to Laura Beckel Thoreson. She spends a fair amount of time, when she’s not dashing off to Eugene or Indianapolis or Georgia or Utah to perform in operas, singing in ensembles in Portland, usually one-on-a-part affairs, as was the case in The Ensemble’s previous concert. That she indulges in this sort of choral singing is a blessing for local groups but a glaring misuse of her abilities. As she showed at the Old Church, Laura Beckel Thoreson is a headliner, a star.

Recommended recordings

• Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano, Freiberger Barockorchester, Rias Kammerchor, René Jacobs conducting (Harmonia Mundi HMY2921742/43), 2014.

• Derek Lee Ragin, countertenor, English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner conducting (Decca 4783425), 1991.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at

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Portland Opera and The Ensemble reviews: Sacred and secular Venice

Two programs show very different sides of 17th century Italian music


Patrick McDonough’s vocal group The Ensemble has proven, in more than a dozen concerts over the past several years, that it is an invaluable part of musical life in the Northwest. By itself and in collaboration with other groups vocal and instrumental, it invariably presents concerts that not only offer familiar music of the 18th and earlier centuries but also bring the names of unjustly forgotten composers to our attention. Its latest series of concerts, on January 20-22 in Tacoma, Eugene, and Portland, illustrate this mission brilliantly.

In a program called Venetian Vespers: Vespers for Saint Agnes — Virgin & Martyr, The Ensemble teamed up with singers from Anne Lyman’s Tacoma group Canonici and Hideki Yamaya’s Portland instrumental ensemble Musica Maestrale to present an elaborate Vespers service in concert without intermission, consisting of Gregorian chant, expertly sung by alto Kerry McCarthy, and large and small motets for from one to ten singers.

The Ensemble and friends performed the Venetian Vespers program in Eugene, Portland, and Vancouver.

The composers represented ranged from the famous (Claudio Monteverdi, 1567-1643) and less famous (Alessandro Grandi, 1586-1630) to the relatively obscure (Dario Castello, c.1590-c.1658) to the virtually unknown (Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, 1602-1678), with special emphasis given to Cozzolani. She had four substantial pieces on the program, all of them featuring homophony (all voices singing together) and antiphony (voices separated into two choirs doing call and response), and her music was the surprise of the evening because it was so accomplished and unknown.

Turns out she was one of the nuns, in fact the abbess, of a convent that was famous for its musicians in the middle of the 17th century. A contemporary writer found that “the nuns of Santa Radegonda of Milan are gifted with such rare and exquisite talents in music that they are acknowledged to be the best singers of Italy. They wear the Cassinese habits of St. Benedict, but they seem to any listener to be white and melodious swans, who fill hearts with wonder, and spirit away tongues in their praise. Among these sisters, Donna Chiara Margarita Cozzolani merits the highest praise, Chiara in name but even more so in merit, and Margarita for her unusual and excellent nobility of invention.”

Although I had never heard or heard of Cozzolani before this concert, I couldn’t agree more. Her music deserves to be performed as frequently as that of other 17th-century masters.


Trinity Cathedral Choirs and Portland Baroque Orchestra: Christmas feast

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


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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