portland cello project

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Oregon music to be grateful for during Thanksgiving week

Even on this traditionally home-focused Thanksgiving week, several attractive concerts, like Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends, and Friday’s Portland Cellohead Project show have already sold out, but if you’re craving a euphonic dessert after Thursday’s feasting (assuming you’re one of the lucky ones who are able to feast at this time of surging Oregon homelessness), here’s some recommendations from Oregon’s musical menus. If you have other recommendations, please list in the comments section below. And enjoy this holiday devoted to gratitude. We ArtsWatchers are certainly grateful to our readers and supporters for helping us bring Oregon arts to you all year. If you’d like to express your gratitude in a tangible way that will help us do that, here’s how.

Christopher Corbell’s music is showcased at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall Tuesday. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

Mannheim Steamroller
Oregon Symphony members join the long-running synth-stoked holiday music show (actually born not in Germany but in Omaha) that’s so popular it’s performing in two cities hundreds of miles apart on the same night during this tour.
Friday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, and Sunday, Hult Center, Eugene.

Portland Cello Project
Friday’s show is sold out, but you can catch the celloriffic ensemble’s tribute to OK Computer — still my fave Radiohead album — that requires a full band, winds and brass to even attempt to capture its dark richness.
Saturday, Revolution Hall, Portland.

Classical composers including Brahms, the French composers known as Les Six, and others have occasionally teamed up to write a collaborative composition, and that’s what Portland’s fearless new music ensemble asked four of Portland’s best (and very different) composers to do for them. Renee Favand-See, Texu Kim, Mike Hsu, and Jay Derderian have each written a movement for flute, viola and piano based on material from a famous Franz Liszt bagatelle. The show also includes separate music by another Portlander, Ryan Francis, and two acclaimed non Oregonians, Armenian-American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian and Israeli-American composer Shulamit Ran.
Monday, The Old Church, Portland.

Paquito d’Rivera performs at Portland State Monday.

Paquito D’Rivera
The jazz show — make that shows — of the week features a fourteen-time Grammy-winner who also boasts an NEA Jazz Masters Award, National Medal of the Arts and more. The Havana-born composer, saxophonist and clarinet virtuoso plays his music and arrangements in three different settings: with the PSU Jazz Ensemble; with a chamber ensemble featuring PSU faculty artists Hamilton Cheifetz, Julia Lee and Darrell Grant; and with a quintet led by one of Oregon’s own finest jazz artists, keyboard master/composer/PSU prof George Colligan.
Monday, Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

Cult of Orpheus
Ace Portland composer Christopher Corbell follows his 2015 hit local opera Viva’s Holiday, with Daphne, a mythological opera miniature; The Emerald Tablet, a new work for vocal quartet and string quartet inspired by an influential alchemic text and informed by baroque and earlier influences; his new string quartet Give them space, commissioned for Keller Auditorium’s centennial; and music from his forthcoming two-act opera, Antigone and Haimon, for chorus, winds, and percussion, all performed by top Portland musicians. Corbell’s imaginative evolutions out of classic forms like opera and art song, enriched by his earlier singer-songwriter expertise, into a cohesive, compelling 21st century art music (or as he puts it, “poetic utterance and organic melody-based composition”) constitute one of Oregon music’s most fascinating ongoing developments. The former Classical Revolution PDX leader’s determination to glean the best from ancient forms born in aristocratic or otherwise anti-democratic contexts and infuse them with his original, contemporary artistic sensibility and progressive ideals is especially welcome in this (temporary, we hope) reactionary moment.
Tuesday, The Old Church Concert Hall, Portland.

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News & Notes: Oregon classical music

Recent news in Oregon classical music

As the music season gets underway, here’s a recap of some of the news that transpired in Oregon classical music over the past few months.

New Music

• Portland composer Kenji Bunch continues to fulfill the promise we detected when he returned to his hometown after building a solid career in New York for the previous two decades. His music has been all over Oregon stages since then, he’s working with the Oregon Symphony, FearNoMusic and Portland Youth Philharmonic, and now, he’s written a new piece for a new piano competition sponsored by that most forward looking of Northwest orchestras, the Seattle Symphony. All nine contestants will play the piece in next week’s contest, with the winner scoring not just a $10K prize but also other prizes, including the chance to perform at the SSO’s opening night concert September 19 and with the orchestra next year.

Kenji Bunch

Kenji Bunch

• Bunch also composed a new symphony, Dream Songs, his third, for the Grant Park Music Festival. None other than Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar conducted the world premiere in June. Let’s hope the OSO, which has devoted only a shamefully tiny fraction of its total playing time to Oregon music during his tenure, will treat Oregonians to it soon.

• The OSO did release a new CD of music by long dead American composers, none of them Oregonians, in January. We’ll have a review later. But the orchestra squandered another in a long line of opportunities to put new Oregon music in front of a vast, diverse Oregon audience when it again turned its back on its own homeland and played almost entirely music by long- dead Europeans at its annual Waterfront Concert this month; despite accepting tens of thousands of dollars in subsidies for the concert from Oregon taxpayers, it played not one note by an Oregon composer. An orchestra that actually cared about its community’s creativity might use some of that taxpayer-provided largesse to commission a new work from an Oregon composer for each of these Oregon-financed concerts. After 10 years, it could fill a CD with new Oregon music from the Waterfront. And the world would have a whole bunch of new orchestral music by Oregon composers.

• Jacksonville’s Britt Festival has commissioned New York City’s Michael Gordon, the quintessential urban composer, to write a piece about Oregon’s pastoral treasure Crater Lake, a place he’d never been. Very cool to see visionary Britt artistic director Teddy Abrams making such a commitment to new music. He’s definitely doing a lot to connect orchestras to contemporary culture. And judging by the conversation below, Gordon seems to be approaching his task conscientiously. But why not choose a composer who had actually visited the place and written music about the state — like one from, oh, I don’t know, maybe Oregon?

New Blood

• Portland Baroque Orchestra appointed Marcia Kaufmann this month as its executive director and PBO veteran Andrea Hess as director of operations. Kaufmann comes to PBO from Colorado’s Breckenridge Music Festival, where she served as executive director.


Preview: Maya Beiser: Uncovering Art Rock

The queen of new cello music reimagines rock classics.

“Rock music,” declared Isaac Stern, “is not music.” His protege, the teenaged Israeli cellist Maya Beiser, blanched. During one of their infrequent lessons back in the 1970s, she had innocently and excitedly asked the legendary violinist, who frequently visited Israel to support various educational projects, what he thought about Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel’s band Genesis, Jimi Hendrix and other rock musicians she was beginning to discover outside her classical music lessons.

Stern’s curt dismissal “was the prevailing notion in classical music” at the time, Beiser recalls. “I decided I was going to keep listening because this is what I love — but not talk about it” among her teachers and classical types. “It took me awhile to close that circle.”

Maya Beiser performs at Portland's TBA Festival Monday.

Maya Beiser performs at Portland’s TBA Festival Monday.

With this month’s release of her new album Uncovered, the 49-year-old “cello goddess” finally closes that circle, performing music by classic rock and blues stars like Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, King Crimson, AC/DC … and, yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis and Hendrix. On Monday at the Time-Based Arts Festival, with help from Bay Area guitarist/composer Gyan Riley and drummer Matt Kilmer, she’ll play some of those songs, along with the Oregon premieres of Wilco drummer and composer Glenn Kotche’s “Three Parts Wisdom” and David T. Little’s “Hellhound,” plus a new take on art/punk progenitor Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground classic, “Heroin” by her fellow Bang on a Can All Stars co-founder, Pulitzer Prize winning composer David Lang, and erstwhile Oregonian Michael Harrison’s Just Ancient Loops, performed with a film by Bill Morrison. The Portland Cello Project will also join her on some pieces.


Although the winter solstice and a couple of major winter religious holidays have just passed, as the title of Portland Cello Project’s new EP suggests, every winter has an extended play in Oregon, so these seasonal CDs should still hold water, as it were, till around Independence Day. Other Oregon recordings here would make fine gifts regardless of the season.

Portland Cello Project, Winter (The Best Nine Months of the Year).

PCP’s most “classical” project yet — what with the starring role of Oregon Symphony principal cellist Nancy Ives and the band bringing the music last week to her band’s home base, Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (one of those temples of classical music that PCP had hitherto avoided in its quest to boldly go where no cellos had gone before) — the 7-song EP’s style suits its seasonal subject. If rock is the quintessential summer music, maybe it’s no coincidence that we turn to classical chestnuts like “Messiah” and “Nutcracker” around winter’s fires in order to fully express the wet season’s more complex moods. West side Oregonians will chuckle ruefully at the EP’s subtitle, but you can hear Hawaii-born-and-raised PCP founder Douglas Jenkins’s genuine if paradoxical fondness for his now-home state’s long grey season in his affectionate arrangements of music from Benjamin Britten’s classic “A Ceremony of Carols” (including “This Little Babe,” which rocker Lindsey Buckingham filched for his pre-Fleetwood Mac “I’m So Afraid”), the recent Fleet Foxes hit “White Winter Hymnal” (graced by omnipresent Portland trumpeter John Whaley), the familiar Renaissance carol “Riu Riu Chiu,” to the Chanukkah standard “Shalom Chaverim.” My only complaint: this EP isn’t extended enough. Maybe they’ll stretch out in live performances and give this wintry music the room it needs to breathe.

The Twelve Days of Electric Opera Company.

One of Portland’s leading alt classical institutions, which delighted rock and classical fans with its imaginative original arrangements of classical standards for rock band instrumentation, returns after too-long a hiatus with a new studio recording by its Electric Guitar Orchestra. Released, one day at a time with a different video each day, on YouTube and Facebook, the videos feature its signature switched-on takes on Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” ballet music and the exhilarating “Winter” concerto from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” and more, which does the music the favor of making the familiar strange and much more fun than a partridge in a pear tree. Metalheads can especially rejoice at the hilarious latest installment.

Michael Charles Smith, The Nutcracker Suite for Marimba Quartet.

First, all cellos, then mostly electric guitars, and now this! What a coincidence that the same music EOC arranged for guitars also appears in an arrangement for four marimbas and crisply played by another Oregonian, who adds J.S. Bach’s famous “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” to boot. Smith also has another new CD of marimba arrangements of the great doomed Portland composer Elliott Smith’s music.


David Friesen,“Morning Star.”

Oregon Jazz Hall of Fame jazz bassist and composer Friesen has been presenting Christmas season concerts in Portland for four decades now, and even if you’ve had your fill of Christmas music, his deep blue new arrangements of standards like “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night,” and others, performed by an all-star band including saxophonists Rob Davis and Tim Wilcox, pianist Dan Gaynor and drummer Charlie Doggett, transcend the source material and the season.

Cappella Romana, “A Time for Life” and “Divine Liturgy.”

Robert-Kyr_A-Time-For-LifeBest known for its sublime performances (and often exhumations) of ancient sounds, especially Byzantine and Orthodox music, the Portland-based vocal ensemble releases a pair of disks by living composers that will appeal to fans of both old and new music. The more familiar name to Oregon audiences belongs to University of Oregon professor Robert Kyr, one of the Northwest’s finest and most prolific 21st century composers. Cappella commissioned and premiered his moving “environmental oratorio” “A Time for Life” in 2007, and happily will reprise it this spring, when we’ll have more to say about Kyr’s ambitious setting of texts from the Greek Orthodox Service of the Environment, the Bible, and Native American songs, chants, and prayers. Unlike the Catholic Church in Galileo’s time, or Fox “News” and other corporate-funded ideologues today, the Eastern Orthodox church doesn’t deny ecological science; Kyr has drawn some texts from the church’s environmental protection proclamations.

‘A Time for Life’ is a ‘musical play’ that traces a journey from the glory of Creation as it was given to humanity (Part I) through our destructive behavior as demonstrated by the current global environmental crisis (Part II: Forgetting),” Kyr’s notes explain. “The final phase of the journey (Part III: Remembering) moves towards a hopeful future in which humanity serves as a responsible steward of the earth and thus realigns itself with the creative forces of existence.”

The singers of Cappella Romana and players of Portland’s Third Angle New Music, both expert long-time interpreters of Kyr’s music, excel in music that sounds tailor made for Cappella’s unique strengths. Despite some over-earnest and over-solemn moments, understandable given the grave subject matter, “A Time for Life” stands as one of today’s most accomplished musical responses to humanity’s greatest 21st century crisis, especially in the third section’s spiraling passages of virtuoso vocal voluptuousness and the unforgettable final ecstatic “Beauty before me…behind me…below me…above me…around me…”

Tikey-Zes_Divine-LiturgyCappella’s other new CD brings another ambitious work by one of its favorite composers, Southern California’s Tikey Zes, whose “The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” the ensemble premiered in 1992. Sung in Greek, it presents Zes’s musical portions of the liturgical setting of the words of one of Orthodox Christianity’s most sacred figures, but, due to CD space limitations, omits some parts of the service that Zes didn’t set and would be spoken in the actual Pentecost religious ceremony. Much of it is a dialogue between a priest or deacon and the chorus, with occasional organ accompaniment, and will doubtless primarily interest listeners who share the church’s spiritual inclinations. But Zes’s original music, though sometimes based on ancient Orthodox chants, sounds  less austere than the old stuff and richer in its use of counterpoint and other, later musical techniques. Performed with real skill and commitment here by some of the Northwest’s finest singers, it sounds both ancient and modern, timeless.

“Galileo Galilei,” Portland Opera.

Portland Opera scored a coup when America’s most prominent living composer, Philip Glass, impressed with its 2011 production of his opera about the great Italian scientist and his battle with religious orthodoxy, asked the company to make the first recording. The packaging and recording are as sumptuous as PO’s striking set design, and while the music isn’t top-rank Glass—too many by-the-numbers songs do more to advance the plot than to excite the ear, and too many stretches just chug along in Glass’s familiar signature style with too little variety—it’s a worthy monument, even if it doesn’t quite ascend the heavenly heights (or plumb the Stygian depths) of the company’s previous Glass opera recording, “Orphee.”

That’s no fault of the cast composed mostly of Portland Opera’s 2011-12 resident artists, with baritone Andre Chiang and tenor Richard Troxell especially excelling in younger and older versions of the title role. One scene pushes poor Lindsay Ohse as Galileo’s plucky daughter, Maria Celeste, to the top of her range and beyond, resulting in occasional shrillness, but she and the rest of the cast and orchestra, conducted by Anne Manson, generally sound quite convincing.

As in the production itself, the music really reaches escape velocity toward the end (here, on the second of two disks), after his showdown with the Catholic Church’s perennial (and in this case potentially fatal) insistence on dogma over evidence and reason, as the story sails backward in time toward the gobsmacked young Galileo’s initial sense of astonishment at the universe’s manifold, mysterious wonders—which is what excited the composer about the man and his story in the first place.

Terra Nova Consort, Frutos del Amor, Music of Medieval and Renaissance Spain.

Frutos del amor copy copyLike Electric Opera Company, Ashland’s TNC, which provided the music at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Green Shows from 990-2007 has been missing in action for too long, and like PCP, the award-winning, internationally acclaimed early music ensemble, consciously re-establishes the vital link between so-called classical and popular music unfortunately severed over the past century or so, to the detriment of all concerned. “In these early recordings, the blurring of the line between folk and classical idioms was cutting edge,” says music director Pat O’Scannell. “I am a great believer in the gritty and raw, the music of the people if you will. I like to bring in vocal sounds and timbres that are not what the modern classical listener is accustomed to hearing.”

She also follows historical practice by encouraging the band to improvise, as the sparse notation invites and composers of the time would have expected. Fans of Portland Baroque Orchestra and other historically informed bands that emphasize music’s dance origins will also appreciate Terra Nova’s approach to rhythm. “Rather than smoothing out syncopated rhythms by slowing them and thereby lessening their intensity, I have opted to go for faster tempi on pieces that seem to lend themselves to this, and let the rhythms strongly lead,” O’Scannell says. Three band members play percussion, and most double on various period instruments and vocals. The recording also benefits from the relatively rare sound of the hurdy gurdy (a string instrument that uses a wheel to create a drone and keys to play melodic tones), wielded by one of the masters of that archaic instrument, Ethan James, who also had a foot in pop music as a producer and engineer working with groups from Sonic Youth to Black Flag and also composing new music. The band recorded this performance with him two years before his death in 2003.

The authentic, folk-fueled approach animates Terra Nova’s versions of some of the most famous music of the Middle Ages, the “Canticles of St. Mary” compiled (and probably partly composed) by Spain’s King Alfonso the Wise, which recount tales of alleged miracles perpetrated in the name of Christianity’s holy virgin. Sometimes it sounds folkish, sometimes Middle Eastern, sometimes Iberian, mostly beyond superficial categories. In this recording, Terra Nova lives up to its name, making this music sound like it must have originally: earthy, and new.


Swarmius in Starlight

Former Portland State University prof Joseph Waters has been crafting his category-cracking music from southern California for the past few years. Unfortunately, his singular band Swarmius doesn’t make it to Oregon often enough; their recent appearance at PSU was one of my favorite shows last year. No two Swarmius numbers sound much alike, but most share a certain kaleidoscopic sensibility. Which is why I should have known better than to expect the deliciously unpredictable band’s new three-track mini album to sound anything like Waters’s recent work. Instead, the tripartite mini-suite of tone poems — “Icicles in Starlight,” which Waters calls “Buddhist impressionism”; “Snowfall in Starlight,” and “Aurora in Starlight” — luminously evokes (via vibes, harp, and soft saxophones) the shimmering images suggested by their titles and forces yet another reassessment of Waters’ impressive compositional range.


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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


Eugene Ballet performs The Rite of Spring and other Stravinsky works this weekend

The past few weeks’ profusion of new music has led us to slight coverage of some magnificent old sounds. The Stuttgart Chamber Choir lived up to Mark Powell’s OAW preview with immaculate performances of music by J.S. Bach, Gyorgy Ligeti (the radiant Atmospheres that shivered through Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Brahms and  and more at First Congregational Church last month. It was a treat to see long time Oregon Bach Festival organist Boris Kleiner at the portative organ. Although OBF music director Helmuth Rilling is also from Stuttgart, the Kammerchor’s transparent, lithe sound is a world away. It seemed that every note was clear, and perfectly judged and sung — one of the finest Portland concerts of the year.

More beautiful Baroque sounds echoed through First Baptist Church in Portland Baroque Orchestra’s March concert, which featured clarinetist Eric Hoeprich and oboist Gonzalo Ruiz. The sparkling music, by Albinoni, Telemann, Fasch and more, didn’t aspire to Bach’s profundity, but it was elegantly played, with PBO’s usual sense of fun, good cheer and enthusiasm, to which the audience responded in kind.

Frieder Bernius led the Stuttgart Chamber Choir

Sounds from more recent eras electrified Portland stages last week. Friends of Chamber Music’s Pacifica Quartet concert again showed that the future of the form is in good shape. The young foursome’s expressive, nuanced performances of music of Myaskovsky, Dvorak and Beethoven bristled with energy yet never sacrificed precision. FOCM is really on a roll this year, hosting a number of young ensembles who bring a refreshing verve and immense skill to their interpretations.


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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