Rich tones, elegant phrasings, heightened dynamics… you name it, The Ensemble, delivered it outstandingly in a concert of sophisticated 20th and 21st Century Christmas music on Sunday afternoon (December 29) at St. Stephen Catholic Church. You might have thought that some of the pieces would be austere, distant, and very dry, but it was nothing of the sort with many of the works inspired by texts and the music of the Renaissance. The program, assembled by The Ensemble’s artistic director Patrick McDonough, drew from a mixture of well-known and obscure composers, including Benjamin Britten, Stephen Paulus, Jake Runestad, Kenneth Leighton, Hugo Distler, Niels La Cour, John Tavener, Craig Carnahan, Herbert Howells, Peter Warlock, and Abbie Betinis. All of the pieces were sung expertly and a cappella by nine singers – three men and six women. With most ensembles this would’ve caused balance issues, but two key factors kept the balance exceptional were McDonough’s leadership and the singers’ keen ability to listen to each other. They also exploited the lively acoustic of St. Stephen to tremendous advantage so that some phrases were louder than others and the soloists, almost always, could easily be heard.
Exquisite phrasing was evident right away with the lightened touch at the end of the Alleluyas in Britten’s “A Boy Was Born,” and with the climatic buildup at the very center of that piece with the words “He let himself, a servant be, that all mankind He might set free.” Britten’s “Chorale after an Old French Carol” also received impeccable treatment, complete with resplendently odd dissonant tones, so that the piece had a direction and an arc that was easy to understand and experience.
“Splendid Jewel” by Stephen Paulus boasted a lively vocal fanfare-like refrain that contrasted well with the straighter sounds in the verses. “Sleep, Little Baby, Sleep,” by Jake Runestad featured beautifully shaped and soothing lines that made this lullaby a gem. In Kenneth Leighton’s “Of a rose is all my song” the choir held down an anchor of sound while soloist Catherine van der Salm let her soprano voice soar into the vaulted ceiling of the church.
Hugo Distler’s “Choral Variantions on “Es ist ein’ ros’ entsprungen” was engagingly sung by the choir, but the real highlight was Laura Thoreson’s radiant solo (as the voice of Mary in Variation Three). It was strong, colorful, expressive, and absolutely golden – one of the very best mezzo voices that I’ve ever heard in Portland.
John Tavener’s “The Lamb” used unison and harmonic wanderings to effectively underscore the famous text by William Blake. This was followed by the second-ever performance of Craig Carnahan’s “And the Angels Sang.” The first performance took place two weeks earlier by the Tampa Bay Master Chorale, a huge choir. It turns out that McDonough is a friend of Carnahan and secured the right to present it in the stripped down version that The Ensemble did – with a few adjustments after the premiere in Los Angeles. So the newly adjust version was a premiere of sorts. It was engagingly harmonic but it had a bit of dissonance when the words “That all my praise and glorify” were sung, and it ended with glorious high notes for the sopranos: “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”
The Ensemble also sang “Here is the Little Door” and “A Spotless Rose” by Herbert Howells. Baritone Erik Hundtoft sang the lilting solo in the latter. This was followed by Peter Warlock’s haunting “Bethlehem Down.”
The concert ended with three pieces by Abbie Betinis: “In This Tyme of Chrystmas,” “Dormi, Jesu,” and “The Babe of Bethlehem.” Diction may have suffered a bit at the end of the first piece, but he harmonics were complex and lovely. The polyphonic “Dormi Jesu” had a slow and warm effect and juxtaposed well with “The Babe of Bethlehem,” which had a much faster tempo and strong melodic lines. Some of the solos by soprano Mel Downie Robinson, alto Kristen Buhler, and tenor Cahen Taylor got a little lost in the wash of sound, but the joyful nature of the piece turned the atmosphere from one of contemplation to praise and the audience responded with long, heartfelt applause.