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.

Cantata 61 is a wellspring of brilliance from the young Bach. The recitative, “Siehe, ich stehe vor der Tur,” (See, I stand at the door [and knock)] is a superb example of Bach’s word-painting. The instruments play nothing but short staccato chords throughout, clearly denoting the “knocking” of Christ to the congregant. The final chorale, not typical of the composer’s usual homophonic textures in that form, begins polyphonically in the lower voices as the singers proclaim “Amen” amid the sopranos singing the cantus firmus, “Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern,” an even earlier work of the composer. Brief, but brilliant.

The earlier cantatas of the Dutch-German Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) were replete with earlier baroque techniques, including the separation of movements by ritornelli (a repeated instrumental interlude), and bouquets of cadential hemiolas (where a pattern of two beats per measure changes to three beats at the end of the phrase), both clear signs of some of the differences (in the 50 year gap) between the two composers. The first Buxtehude cantata, Das neugeborne Kindelein (The newborn Child) is well known, due to its accessibility for church and school choirs. Short-breathed, but quite pretty.

While the meal was tasty, the “restaurant” was the only real shortcoming of the whole affair. Trinity Cathedral does not always allow a fair hearing of polyphony, nor of balance between all vocal parts. That’s hardly the singers’ fault, or the conductor’s. Coulda, shoulda: the Trinity Cathedral Choir of Girls, Boys, and Adults were placed in an ordinary three rows, straight across – singing straight out at the audience rather than in an arc, which can help meld the sound, with the basses and altos towards the rear. An orchestra would never be staged this way. In some venues, choirs should not.

This venue favors the trebles and, given Bach’s alto writing for young males instead of women, it might have been an idea to seat the basses and altos in front. We know that the alto part is twice cursed – in Bach and all early choral music – as his alti were boys, who could project quite a bit better than many of our women of today, in this low register. Moreover, when we perform Bach at Baroque pitch (about a half step lower than the modern A=440) it challenges the altos to sing even louder and lower. The outcome of all this was especially noticeable in the polyphonic movements where the alto part was almost MIA.

I wonder if the very capable Dr. Marsh had an opportunity to measure this hall, or to have a “spy” out in the hall during a rehearsal. This would have been particularly helpful in the opening chorus of Cantata BWV 61, where the balance of choir and orchestra was uneven in places, and in a couple of the solo movements, where a good ear in the hall might have suggested cutting the violins to three instead of six.

Soprano Arwen Myers and violinist Rob Diggins starred in Trinity Episcopal Cathedral’s annual Christmas concert. Photo: Wade Swearingen.

Three soloists were standouts. Arwen Myers, soprano, Laura Beckel Thoreson, alto, and baritone Brian Ming Chu. (Myers and Thoreson are local; Chu is from Pennsylvania). Myers’ silky smooth delivery highlighted all of her solo work. Ms. Thoreson’s voice is chocolate cream on the éclair of every melody she sings.

Although he was indistinct in the opening notes of his first recitative, Mr. Chu redeemed himself perfectly the rest of the evening. His crisp delivery, and high end emotional portrayals perfectly flattered the rich baritone voice.

While Seattle tenor David Hendrix possesses an even, textured delivery, he seemed unable to relate to the audience, often hiding behind his score. When he can surmount this deficit, we will look forward to hearing him another time, as it is a young and beautiful voice. (Note to all oratorio singers: it’s just as important, maybe even more so, to “act” your part in this medium as it is in opera; be a poet, and an actor!)

The Portland Baroque Orchestra was spectacular, especially the oboe d’amore artists, Stephen Bard, and Luke Conklin, and the first and second violinists, Rob Diggins (concertmaster) and Jolianne von Einem. The violin duet from Cantata 36 was effortless, virtuosic. Equally expressive was the oboe d’amore duet earlier in that same cantata: dancing triplets with effervescent articulation.

Conductor Dana Marsh, who directs the prestigious Historical Performance Institute at the Indiana Unversity Jacobs School of Music, brings a wealth of experience and training to the podium, a long musical rap sheet, as it were. Many aspects of the program were thoughtful and amply prepared under his hand. His conducting is clear and energetic. In some of the soli movements, he let loose the reins entirely, and sat himself down whilst the singer(s) and instruments proceeded. He wisely chose to perform the final Buxtehude work, In dulci Jubilo (In sweet rejoicing), as a “solo cantata,” using single voices to balance beautifully with one another and a spare accompaniment. Its interspersing of Latin with German texts harked back even to Renaissance times, where this macaronic technique was often used.

Sweet rejoicing made a tasty dessert for a nutritious concert that lasted just under 90 minutes. There was nothing more wanting on this plate. There was, however, warm wassail for all afterwards to wash it all down.

Portland choir director Bruce Browne directed Portland Symphonic Choir and choral music programs at Portland State University for many years and was founder and director of Choral Cross-Ties, a professional choral group in Portland.

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