patrick mcdonough

The Ensemble review: Children of their time

Portland vocal ensemble performs a pair of Passion settings composed half a millennium apart 

by BRUCE BROWNE AND DARYL BROWNE

A Palm Sunday program offered by the Ensemble of Oregon brought two disparate renderings of a Passion, one about Jesus, the other not –  to Portland’s Old Church. Apart from their shared theme of redemptive suffering, the only similarities between these choral works, composed almost 500 years apart, were the four sonorous voices of Catherine van der Salm, Laura Beckel Thoreson, Nicholas Ertsgaard and director Patrick McDonough. Both pieces were unmistakably children of their respective eras.

The Ensemble performed passion settings by Lang and Lechner in Eugene, Portland, and Vancouver WA.

The first was the 16th century a cappella Story of the Passion and Suffering of our One Redeemer and Savior Jesus Christ” (“Historia der Passion und Leidens unsers einigen Erlosers und Seligmachers Jesu Christi), set in precise sequence by Austrian composer Leonhard Lechner, with a modicum of cuts to the text from the Gospel of St. John.

Lechner was a disciple of the justly more famous Orlando di Lasso, but judging from this Passion, quite a bit less adventuresome. Di Lasso, who had the freedom and interest in writing secular pieces, was able to introduce more innovation of harmony and style. Perhaps Lechner, whom we have to thank for cataloging di Lasso’s works, did not feel such freedom from within the liturgical setting. To today’s ears, the repeated cadential formulae and predictable harmonic movement, make for a stasis bordering on the quotidian. Looking back through the lens of Bach’s Passions (St. John and St. Matthew, the two fully extant ones), we are struck by any lack of word painting, much less the harmonic development that had appeared by the time of the high Baroque, some 125 years later, as in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

McDonough inserted chorales from that masterpiece, linking this early polyphonic work to a musical “grandson,” J.S. Bach. It was a good move, breaking up the Lechner. The chorales were transposed from the original so as to move harmonically smoothly within the Lechner key signatures; this placed voices quite high in the vocal range. But all the singers made easy work of that. Ms. Van der Salm was especially adroit in the higher soprano range.

The Passion was sung from the back of the sanctuary of the Old Church which turned out to be a nice acoustic. Two drawbacks, however. First, lack of optics, no visual stimulus. Second, McDonough acting as singer (bass) and conductor was facing his three colleagues, which created occasional balance problems.

On the other hand, it was well performed by our four vocal artists, the tuning and phrasing always in sync. The quartet then carried this elegance into their portrayal of The Little Match Girl Passion.

A Passion for Our Time

David Lang’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, the main draw of the program, is set in the dead of winter. In some ways an opera (and soon to be performed in that guise by Portland Opera in a full production with sets, costumes, lighting and original orchestration), it tells the Hans Christian Anderson story of the bereft little girl who leaves her home to sell matches, and ultimately freezes to death on New Year’s Eve, after experiencing visions (hallucinations?) of her long-dead mother, a holiday goose walking towards her, and a flaringly lit Christmas tree.

If the Danish tale of H. C. Anderson seems an unlikely fit for Passion week, consider David Lang’s decision to invoke the spirit of the choruses of the St. Matthew Passion in his composition. “What would it be like to tell the passion story, but take Jesus’ suffering out and put some other person’s suffering in?” Lang has said.  “Would that make the story universal?”

One particular musical reference is the serene benediction of “rest soft” in the final movement “We sit and cry” which evokes the “Ruht Wohl” lullaby chorus conclusion to the Bach St. Matthew.

Composer David Lang.

Fragmented in its handling of text and music, and minimalistic in many movements, it comes across something like an e.e. cummings poem. The music is brittle, ice cold, stark, passionately and painfully exquisite.  Its jagged, pointillistic deliveries were perfectly rendered by all of the singers. Dissonances cut like knives through the thin harmonic textures, the clangy minor and major seconds and sevenths evoking the spikiness of the winter, and heightening the emotion of the suffering here.

There were no drawbacks, nothing missing, in the performance of Lang’s Little Match Girl.  Each singer played at least one percussion instrument, so there were two layers of musical multi-tasking going on all the time. The singing and the playing were terrific. This is a piece for its time, and not just because of it being Passion Week. It speaks to homelessness, poverty, and yet somehow, hope and dignity.

Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer. Bruce Browne is a conductor and educator. He is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties.

Read Brett Campbell’s 2011 profile of David Lang. Read his and Jeff Winslow‘s ArtsWatch reviews of Portland State Chamber Choir’s performance of the choral version of Lang’s Passion.

Want to read more about Oregon choral music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

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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“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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The Ensemble review: Cooking up a French feast for the ears

Vocal group serves up tasty courses of French music from the Renaissance and 20th century.

by JEFF WINSLOW 

Once at the Paris Conservatoire when a professor was late, a young Claude Debussy filled the time by sitting down at the piano in front of class and improvising all manner of colorful music including a generous helping of “forbidden” sounds. His fellow students were afraid of what would happen when the professor walked in, but Debussy was unperturbed. With the proverbial French appreciation for pleasures both culinary and musical, he called it “a feast for the ear.”

French composers have put pleasure and clarity first from the earliest times, which explains why no one busted a gut at The Ensemble’s Columbus Day concert at Portland’s Reed College Chapel, even though it ran nearly 90 minutes with no breaks. If the music had been all German or Italian, we’d have never made it! But it was a multi-course all-French feast, faithfully served by five solo singers and a pianist, alternating the two eras when French music was most distinctive and influential: the late Middle Ages / early Renaissance and the late 19th / early 20th century.

Mel Downie Robinson and Catherine van der Salm sang French music with The Ensemble.

Mel Downie Robinson and Catherine van der Salm sang French music with The Ensemble.

The first course exemplified the thoughtful programming we are coming to expect from founding artistic director Patrick McDonough. First, soprano Catherine van der Salm from the back of the hall, then fellow soprano Mel Downie Robinson from the stage, beautifully sang two solo love songs from the 14th century by early master Guillaume de Machaut. There was no sense of competition or comparison, though the reverberation was different and voices are as different as personalities. Instead, each was delicious in its own way, complemented by the subtle contrast. Finally, the remaining three soloists, mezzo / alto Laura Thoreson, tenor Cahen Taylor, and McDonough himself as baritone, presented a wooing song by Josquin des Prez with equal panache. (Josquin, the most famous composer of the early Renaissance, was closely associated with the French even though he was technically Flemish.) The wooed shepherdess finally replied, “How do you mean that?” which left a tantalizing aftertaste.

Then we sampled the great flowering of French art song in the late 19th century, as all but McDonough divvied up the honors among Gabriel Fauré’s “After a Dream” and “Tears of Gold,” Henri Duparc’s “Sad Song” (Chanson Triste), and master chef Debussy’s early “Mandoline.” The piano in this era became an essential and evocative element, and pianist Chris Engbretson, a tenor himself, partnered sensitively with the vocalists here and throughout the concert. Coming after the relatively austere language from centuries earlier, the lush, yet still clear, Romantic sounds provided exquisite pleasures. The high point of the set was the ravishing duet “Tears of Gold,” featuring Thoreson and Taylor, who blended perfectly and with great warmth. The mercurial harmonic shifts of Fauré’s mature style, as piquant as they were, only hinted at the supercharged imagery of Albert Samain’s Symbolist poem, but it was enough – after all, there were seven more courses to go!

And so the feast went, alternating early sets with late, solo songs with those for all five voices, sad with humorous, frothy with bittersweet – too many to list in detail. The only items that fell flat were two solo piano works offered by Engbretson, Debussy’s first Arabesque and Maurice Ravel’s Jeux d’Eau (Water Games). He seemed to have the chops for them, but whether through nervousness or insufficient rehearsal, there were frequent missteps and the overall effect was somewhat awkward.

Not that the voices were always perfect. McDonough warned us that Francis Poulenc’s set of five a cappella songs, Small Voices, nominally for children’s choir, was much more difficult than that would suggest. But the crazy centerpiece, “Coming Home from School,” which seems to require three clones of the same coloratura voice, taxed even the experienced trio of van der Salm, Robinson and Thoreson to their utmost. Elsewhere, they seemed to be able to relax and enjoy difficulties such as kittenish leaps and word-painting with slippery harmonies. The last number, “The Hedgehog,” about dad bringing one home for a pet, was a complete hoot.

Humorous word-painting at high velocity was a stock-in-trade of Renaissance composer Clement Janequin, and we heard two examples, the second for the full quintet: “Au joli jeu…” (It’s lovely to play…), in the same vein as “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” and “The Song of the Birds,” so-called, though it’s really only about the cuckoo and the amorous transaction it symbolizes. Both call for the voices to act more like string players bouncing their bows through fast passages. The group reveled in the hyperactive machinery and the audience laughed at the punch lines. McDonough often directed and sang at the same time, and there were one or two hints just how challenging that is at this speed, but he can rightly pride himself on his simul-performing ability.

The three women finished off this course with a tight performance of “Sur le joli jonc” (In the lovely hay), which evokes a roll in the hay with seemingly endless rising scales – a light and surprisingly lewd setting from Adrian Willaert, who, after being schooled in the style of Josquin, eventually held the post of choir master at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice for 35 years.

The most scrumptious course was possibly Poulenc’s set of four songs on poems by Guillaume Apollinaire: airy tasters of remembered love, snarky cultural observations, and surrealistic pictures of seedy and elegant hotels. Thoreson’s rich mezzo slid easily into each mood and we happily followed, again with the invaluable partnership of Engbretson’s piano. The one completely serious moment was washed down with “In Front of the Cinema,” a rumination on art and actors that digresses into the terms different classes of people have for movie theaters. Thoreson’s delivery of the final line – “Dear me, we must have good taste”– got a good laugh.

One can’t have an all-French choral concert without including at least something from Debussy’s and Ravel’s well-known sets of three choral songs (Debussy’s on poems by early Renaissance poet Charles d’Orleans, and Ravel’s on his own texts). We got generous helpings, with Engbretson joining the rest of the group to give a fuller complement of six voices. Even though it was the last course, you couldn’t call it dessert; it was too substantial. Not that there was anything heavy about it: Ravel’s “Nicolette” and Debussy’s “When I hear the tambourine…” are witty musings which the group put across nimbly. And while “God! What a vision she is…” and Ravel’s “Three beautiful birds from Paradise” go straight to the core of love and bereavement respectively, they do so with simple eloquence. Not that they are simple to sing – Debussy in particular lavished harmonies on his love song that would later be admired and picked up by many a jazzer. But the group tuned it up beautifully and ended up strong, with little evidence of how hard they’d been working for so long to create nothing less than a feast for the ear.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer who has been strongly influenced by both French and German music.  He wishes his influences got along as well as present-day Europe does.

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Sing Awakening: Portland’s flowering choral landscape

The City of Roses is also a city of choruses.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble at Portland's YU Contemporary in March.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble at Portland’s YU Contemporary in March.

Editor’s note: this is the second in ArtsWatch’s spring look at contemporary choral music. See Jeff Winslow’s analysis of today’s choral compositions here.

by BRUCE BROWNE

“There is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and make new ones like them.” – Marcus Aureluis ‘Meditations’

A happy insight came to me indirectly last spring, from an event where hundreds of choral musicians appeared together, representing eight choirs. All Saints Catholic Church was the venue for an outpouring of spiritual and financial support for one of our own, Brian Tierney. Reflecting afterward on the variety of sounds that we had heard, I became aware of the several changes that had come about in six years my family had been gone from Portland. And in that time, Portland had cultivated a new choral landscape. Significant. Dramatic.

There are new faces in front of two of Portland’s heirloom choirs. Oregon Repertory Singers and Choral Arts Ensemble have new directors, Ethan Sperry and David DeLeyser. And these two join a cadre of new, smaller choirs conducted by energetic new talents who have blossomed on the scene: Katherine Fitzgibbon, Resonance Ensemble; Anna Song, In Mulieribus; Patrick McDonough, The Ensemble; and Ryan Heller, Portland Vocal Consort.

These new, downsized groups are what I would call “boutique choirs,” not at all a pejorative insinuation. I think it’s a good word that meshes with Portland’s boutique-y wine, beer and visual arts scene and general quirkiness, as seen on say, “Portlandia.” With these newbies comes the infusion of new ideas and styles. And they share similarities.

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