Saturday Night, February 28th, marked the Portland debut of the renowned Concord Ensemble, a vocal group loosely based out of Los Angeles. Concord baritone Aaron Cain, a recent transplant to Portland, would be to familiar to local early music and choral concertgoers, as he has been performing with Cappella Romana (the sponsor of this concert) since coming to Portland.
The sanctuary at St. Philip Neri Church in SE Portland was the backdrop for a concert entitled "The Palm Tree, the Crossbar: Music for Holy Week from the New World." The concert had originally been subtitled "The Passion According to St. Mark." This must have been changed since the complete passion presented was actually after St. Matthew. In both the program and a flier there was reference made to New World music of Indian (Native American) and African origin, so it was a bit confusing that there was no music bearing discernible earmarks of either culture to be found anywhere in the performance. That said, the music presented was spectacular.
From the opening, the Concord Ensemble displayed a blend that bordered on the miraculous. One of the pieces presented was a Lamentatio Hieremiae Prophetae by Mexican-born composer Francisco Lopez y Capillas (1605-1674). The ensemble's ability to switch back and forth from the perfect unison intonation in Gregorian style to the lush Renaissance polyphony without skipping a beat was a pleasure to hear. The lag time between European and New World compositional style was often a couple of decades, as the program noted, so the style was not of the middle Baroque as one might expect to hear from a European composer working in this time period. The anachronistic style of the American composers was one of the hallmarks of the concert.
The Concord Ensemble did not provide any fanciness or frills; there was no undue showing off of individual vocal talents. The ability of this group to get out of the way of the music and allow it to speak for itself even while performing is a difficult skill to master, and CE was flawless in that respect: the works were thereby presented as a radiant whole whose meaning was clear. They sang these motets and other works of dizzying complexity with a degree of polish so as to make it sound effortless.
A number of motets and hymns were presented in the first half, but the heart of the program, the Pasion segun San Mateo by an anonymous Mexican composer, was the central feature of the second half.
The structure was as follows: a narrator (tenor Pablo Cora) sung in plainchant all the narrative from the Passion reading. The rest of the group (except for Cain) formed the Synagoga who sang all words except those of Jesus. The baritone role of Jesus was sung by Cain.
Cain's delivery was straightforward and arresting. Richly resonant without being overdone, he provided the perfect voice for this role. While some of the music behind Jesus' words was somewhat static, Cain used every opportunity available to bring out key phrases. The powerful Paters in which Jesus addresses his father were particularly memorable.
In addition to singing the words of Caiaphas, Peter, the scribes and Pharisees, Pontius Pilate and the various other actors in the Passion, the Synagoga provided the aural halo for the words of Jesus, an intriguing and awe-inspiring effect. In some ways this group had the most interesting singing musically, and they gave an animated performance that broke up the sometimes monotonous Narrator-Jesus repartee.
Cora as the narrator was presented with perhaps the most difficult task: the plainchant form taken by the narration made the driest baroque recitativo secco seem infinitely variable by comparison. He sang very ably, using subtle shifts in timbre and dramatic pauses, and highlighting the little pitch variation there was to inject what color and shading he could. After the Passion ended, Cora quipped that he was "excited that I get to sing another note now." They closed with another Vexilla Regis, this one by Spanish master Tomas Luis de Victoria.
It was indeed a pleasure to hear such an accomplished group singing music that must surely be unfamiliar to many concertgoers. One hopes, since one of their members now sings with Cappella Romana, that this first Portland concert by the Concord Ensemble will not be the last.