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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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Siren songs: Divas descend on Oregon

Classical vocal recitals pair singers and pianists on Oregon stages

by JEFF WINSLOW

Friends of Chamber Music is about to present the annual solo gig in its admirable Vocal Arts Series this Sunday afternoon at 3:00 PM in Lincoln Performance Hall at Portland State University, and as always, has lined up a world-class soloist. Mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung has performed in dozens of the world’s finest opera houses and symphony halls, and with dozens of the world’s top directors and conductors. Her recordings have garnered three Grammy awards. Although most of her recording and performance activity has been with orchestra, she is no stranger to the recital stage, and FOCM has a knack for finding operatic singers who are versatile enough to make intimate partnerships with piano only, so operaphobes likely have little to fear.

Michelle DeYoung performs Sunday at Portland State University.

Michelle DeYoung performs Sunday afternoon at Portland State University.

Granted, the program of music by Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Joseph Marx has lots of dramatic numbers – and, lots of hard work for pianist Kevin Murphy! But it also includes Manuel de Falla’s subtle, incomparable masterpiece of arrangement, “Seven Spanish Folk Songs.” Few songs in all the literature speak to the heart so simply and directly (and, you may find as I do, with almost unbearable sadness), as “Asturiana.” Don’t worry, the other songs in the set run the emotional gamut, and you’ll no doubt feel like laughing at times too. (ArtsWatch readers use coupon code “Brahms” to save $10 per ticket.)

If this doesn’t satisfy your lust for pairing opera singers with pianists, check out the upcoming Portland Opera Resident Artist show, on Tuesday, March 15, 7:00 PM at Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium. Soprano Katrina Galka and mezzo soprano Abigail Dock will perform songs by Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert, Francis Poulenc, and the complete “Summer Nights” by Hector Berlioz, as well as a tribute to Judy Garland featuring American standards by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers.

Estelí Gomez performed in Portland and Eugene. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Estelí Gomez performed in Portland and Eugene. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Oregon doesn’t seem to attract many touring classical solo singers outside of opera. If not for FOCM’s vocal series and the occasional Oregon Symphony program (OSO is starting off its 2016-2017 season with a bang by hosting Renée Fleming in a return visit), they might be a real rarity. Fortunately for lovers of what is sometimes called “art song,” a number of homegrown events go on, sometimes just under the radar. Over the past several months, I’ve been able to attend three that included songs I love as well as songs rarely heard. A fourth featured Esteli Gomez, who has her own Grammy as part of the ultra-contemporary a cappella group Roomful of Teeth, singing freshly written songs by University of Oregon students accompanied by UO student musicians.

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“Dido & Aeneas” review: Sweet musical treat

The Ensemble gives a rich, tasty performance of Henry Purcell's operatic masterpiece

by BRUCE BROWNE

Damn chocolates! We might have had another decade or two of Henry Purcell, had he not indulged in recently unloaded chocolates from a ship’s hold, in 1695. Note that there are other theories about the great English Baroque composer’s demise, and this hypothesis may be full of nougat, but it makes a good story.

One of Great Britain’s grand masters of composition, Purcell was revered by Benjamin Britten, who arranged several of Purcell’s works and, most famously, wove one of Purcell’s incidental themes into his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Purcell’s themes (most notably “Dido’s Lament”) appear in film scores, most recently croaked by Timothy Spall in the recent film Mr. Turner.

The Ensemble performed Dido & Aeneas in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Corbett Niedfeldt.

The Ensemble performed Dido & Aeneas in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Corbett Niedfeldt.

At any rate, he did perish in his mid-thirties and bequeathed to us a luxurious mosaic of music: odes, primarily to St. Cecilia, anthems, catches/rounds (many quite obscenely composed for his Men’s Club in London), semi-operas and the lone opera, Dido in Aeneas, the first great English opera, which we heard performed by The Ensemble of Oregon on Sunday afternoon, January 24, at First Christian Church in Portland. (The Portland vocal ensemble, composed of singers from some of the city’s top choirs, also performed it in Eugene the previous night.) Sometimes called the “first English opera” (energetically debated now in favor of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and a few others), Dido is a wealth of Purcellian invention, a true child of its time.

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