the ensemble

MusicWatch Weekly: no leftovers

This week's Oregon concerts, with trimmings

MusicWatch has a confession to make: it seriously overindulged at last week’s holiday table. In truth, MusicWatch has been putting on the preview poundage (the freshman 1500?) quite a bit since leaving parental supervision for its own place, so ArtsWatch paterfamilias Barry Johnson staged a needed intervention, placing MusicWatch on a strict 800-word limit (and eventually 500, but we can’t go, uh, cold turkey right off the bat) until it slims down to the concision of  A.L Adams’s svelte DramaWatch or achieves the noble balanced proportions Jamuna Chiarini’s ample DanceWatch. If you want to add your own garnishes, please do so in the comments section, where they won’t count against the word limit or MusicWatch’s waistline.

Legends of the Celtic Harp
Patrick Ball, Lisa Lynne and Aryeh Frankfurter combine Celtic and English seasonal music (using three Celtic Harps, Swedish nyckelharpa, fiddle, bandura, bouzouki) and stories including A Child’s Christmas in Wales, a chapter from The Wind in the Willows, and passages from Shakespeare, Yeats, and Thomas Hardy.
Friday, Cerimon House, Portland.

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus performs its holiday show this weekend.

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus
Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice and other seasonal songs.
Friday-Sunday, Newmark Theater, Portland.

Cinderella
Portland State’s acclaimed opera program presents a piano quartet operetta of the classic fairy tale concocted from vintage German and French songs. Stay turned for Angela Allen’s ArtsWatch review.
Friday-Dec. 17, PSU Studio Theater, Lincoln Hall, Portland State University.

Oregon Symphony and Andre Watts
Scandinavian sounds by Grieg, Nielsen, Sibelius, and fellow Finn Joonas Kokkonen.
Friday, Smith Auditorium, Willamette University, Salem, and Saturday-Monday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

Andre Watts performs with the Oregon Symphony.

Soror Mystica
ParaTheatrical ReSearch PDX’s latest ritual music/ theater/ dance/film/performance art creation (See Mitch Ritter’s ArtsWatch review of the company’s earlier Bardoville.) Friday-Sunday, Performance Works NW, Portland.

ISing
The annual free concert (with donations benefiting a good cause) features familiar carols with 80 voice choir, a brass octet, taiko drums, kotos and massive organ.
Friday and Sunday, Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ 5150 SW Watson, Beaverton, and Saturday,
St. Peter Catholic Church, 8623 SE Woodstock Blvd, Portland.

Beaverton’s iSing chorus used video in its winter 2013 concert.

“Singin’ in the Rain”
Peg Major directs, Robert Ashens conducts and Caitlin Christopher choreographed The Shedd’s original production of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s 1985 stage adaptation of their classic film comedy about 1920s silent film stars making the turbulent transition to talkies.
Friday-Dec. 17, The Shedd, Eugene.

“Amahl and the Night Visitors”
For decades beginning in 1951, American composer Gian Carlo Menotti’s beloved one-act opera was a perennial holiday treat on NBC television. Thanks to Menotti’s appealing score and story about three kings, a family, and a series of miracles, Amahl is still the most frequently produced opera in the world — a family friendly holiday performance presented by one of Oregon’s finest chamber vocal groups, The Ensemble of Oregon, composed of top singers from the city’s big choirs.
Saturday-Sunday, First Christian Church, 1314 SW Park Avenue, Portland.

Christina & Michelle Naughton
Along with European classics by Debussy and Ravel (his enchanting child-inspired Mother Goose music), Mozart, Chopin, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky, the award-winning sibling duo pianists play 20th century American music, including delights by wild card Conlon Nancarrow, John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction, and Paul Schoenfield’s Five Days from the Life of a Manic Depressive.
Saturday & Sunday, Portland State University, Lincoln Hall.

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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

by JEFF WINSLOW

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.

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MusicWatch Weekly: local, vocal and more

A selection of this week's Oregon music highlights

Fans of choral and vocal music have some solid choices this week in Oregon music, and so do locavore consumers of homegrown music, jazz aficionados and more. Please add your own suggestions in the comments section below.

Choro in Schola
Portland State prof Ethan Sperry and his distinguished predecessor, OAW contributor Bruce Browne, conduct 75 of the best student singers selected from 14 high schools in Vancouver, Portland, Tigard, Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Gresham. Under the tutelage of some of the state’s finest professional singers, they’ll sing music by William Byrd, Peter Warlock, and other composers. A new feature this year: seven interns from the high schools who’ve been working with the pro singers will join their teachers on several works. Read my ArtsWatch story about last year’s CIS performance and Jana Hanchett’s ArtsWatch story about this important Oregon arts education organization.
Wednesday, Lincoln Hall, Portland State University.

Bruce Browne with Choro in Schola singers.

Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet
Best known outside the jazz world for his work with Donny McCaslin’s band on David Bowie’s valedictory Blackstar album, the drummer/composer has also worked with some of jazz’s most forward looking stars, and is known for incorporating electronic elements into his work. Two shows.
Wednesday, Fremont Theater, Portland.

“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”
Read my ArtsWatch review of this production’s Portland stop earlier this year.
Wednesday-Sunday, Hult Center, Eugene.

Northwest Art Song and The Ensemble 
Superb soprano Arwen Myers and mezzo Laura Beckel Thoreson, accompanied by pianist Susan McDaniel, sing settings of poetry written by women composed by some of today’s finest female composers: Libby Larsen, Stacy Garrop, Juliana Hall, and Abbie Betinis.
Saturday, Beall Hall, University of Oregon, and Sunday, First Christian Church, 1314 SW Park Ave. Portland.

Arwen Myers and Laura Beckel Thoreson perform in Eugene and Portland.

Delgani String Quartet, Cascadia Composers
Two of Oregon’s most valuable exponents of new, homegrown music join forces in a program of contemporary sounds by Eugene’s Paul Safar, LA-based Latin Grammy winner Yalil Guerra, Willamette University alum Andrew Robinson, and Joshua Hey. The grand finale: the Sixth Quartet by internationally renowned Portland eminence grise  Tomas Svoboda, inspired by Shostakovich.
Saturday, Community Music Center, 3350 SE Francis St. Portland and Sunday, First Christian Church, 1166 Oak, Eugene.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: full-tilt boogie

Imago tilts the action in a topsy-turvy Greek classic, Brett Campbell's best music bets, "Jersey Boys" croons into town, new theater & dance

The question echoes down the centuries from the Greek myths and Euripides’ play, which was first set on stage in 431 B.C. and just keeps coming back: was Medea balancing the scales of justice when she murdered her husband’s new wife and her own children, or was she falling off her rocker? People have been arguing the point ever since (Medea shocked its original audience, coming in dead last in that year’s City of Dionysia festival), and the question of teetering out of control remains foremost, right down to Ben Powers’ recent adaptation of Medea for the National Theatre in London.

The ups and downs of rehearsal: Imago’s tilting stage for “Medea.” Imago Theatre photo.

Enter Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theatre, whose own theories of balance reach back to his mentor Jacques Lecoq, the French mime and movement master who advocated a “balance of the stage.” In 1998 Mouawad and Imago took the advice literally, creating a large movable stage, suspended three feet above the floor, that tips and leans as the actors shift position on it. They used it for an acclaimed production of Sartre’s No Exit, in which the constantly shifting balances became a metaphor for the play itself. The show was revived several times and traveled to theaters across the country.

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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: A star is born

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

by TERRY ROSS

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 classicalclub@comcast.net.

Want to read more about Oregon opera and vocal music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Portland Opera and The Ensemble reviews: Sacred and secular Venice

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

by TERRY ROSS

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.

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