Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Reviews of Monteverdi "Vespers" and "His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts" - Oregon Bach Festival performances in Portland

Guest reviews by Phillip Ayers

If ever there were an embarrassment of riches in the local musical world, it took place at Trinity Cathedral this past weekend as the Oregon Bach Festival opened its 2014 Portland performances at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. On Friday evening (June 27th) a packed church heard - and saw - what a person near to me commented later was "over-the-top" liturgical music in a performance of Claudio Monteverdi's "Vespers," which featured soloists, choir, and a Baroque orchestra under the direction of OBF artistic director Matthew Halls. It's hard to imagine being in a church in the early 17th century experiencing a liturgy accompanied by this stunning music.

With $5 one could purchase the complete program of all the OBF concerts, and the notes by James McQuillen for the Monteverdi were especially helpful. Translations from the Latin texts were flashed onto a screen to the left of the performers, but this reviewer yearned for the Latin original, which surely would not have been much of a burden to provide in parallel columns, either on screen or off. Even so, the music wrapped around the hearer, although not performed "in the round," enhancing the texts from such sources as the sensuous "Song of Songs," the "Psalter," and Biblical canticles, the "Magnificat" ("Song of Mary"), to be exact.

Some balance problems in the tenor section at the outset were quickly righted, and the rest of the choral sound was skillfully wrought. Arrangement of solo singers was varied throughout the concert, no doubt to provide maximum contrast and a kind of "layered" effect. For example, in Psalm 121 (in the Vulgate, 122 in the "modern" version), there were two sets of soloists (two tenors in front and two sopranos and bass behind them), and the Berwick Chorus of the OBF massed behind. The choral singers were not only well-trained and professional but obviously enjoying this music, judging by their facial expressions and body movement.

In many regards, the "best was saved for last," with the "Magnificat" performed toward the end of the program (or "show" as some of the staff called it). For many listeners, myself included, the tender song of a young maid who has found out that she is pregnant with a very special child is given exquisite treatment. Tenor Nicholas Phan, in so many ways the "star of the show," brought control, contrast, drama, and best of all, an excellent voice to all his solos, including parts of "Magnificat." From declaiming the ancient plainchant to the accompaniment of cornetts and recorders, to more dramatic, emotional passages, Phan shone, to make this "Magnificat" magnificent. In "et misericordia" there was excellent dynamic contrast; Monteverdi stuck to the text, painting it with gorgeous harmonies, contrapuntal passages, and contrasts of many kinds. The soprano in "Suscepit Israel" was very good, giving poignancy and depth to these words. It was difficult to match soloist to solo, even with soloists' pictures in the program; the soloists were listed with other performers and not by their solos. To close "Magnificat," an interesting technique was employed by the composer in setting it to music in dialogue. As the tenor sang with the ensemble in front, another tenor echoed in the rear of the church, accompanied by the theorbo, a long-necked plucked instrument, producing a subtle sound. I must admit I was among those who turned my head to check on what was going on. It was executed so finely and quietly that it could well have escaped the listener.

The program notes provided information about Monteverdi's work: no record exists of a performance of his "Vespers" in his lifetime. Although known for operas (such as "Orfeo"), Monteverdi's first work was a set of three-voice sacred songs, and he may well have written the "Vespers" to help "pave the way for a church job." Indeed the tension between composer and employer posed many problems (e.g., J. S. Bach later on), and Monteverdi was not spared that tension. In the early 17th century, the time of the composition of "Vespers," the composer was under attack "for his unconventional use of dissonance and modality." This was a spectacular and ambitious large-scale work and would hold sway until Bach's "St. John Passion" was composed.

Monteverdi was something of a "bridge" between Renaissance and Baroque periods, and one can discern the use of an old technique of utilizing plainchant associated with the text as a "cantus firmus" many times throughout. There was a much contrast between instruments and voices - and here the Berwick Bach Festival Choir was at its best - providing not only interest but aiding in the musical painting of the texts. The music used polyphony and homophonic styles, including "falsobordone," or harmonized chant in block chords. Lucky Pope Paul V: Monteverdi dedicated this work to him, paving the way toward a position at St. Mark's in Venice where he spent the rest of his career.

Matthew Halls, the new artistic director of the OBF following in the footsteps of Helmut Rilling, will no doubt open up new vistas in the festival's offerings. He proved himself competent and engaging as a conductor on Friday, rallying all the forces of instruments, choir, and soloists in a seemingly effortless, seamless way. The hour and a half flew by without an intermission and I felt as blessed as a congregant at St. Mark's, Venice in the 17th century (yet no battery-powered lights were clipped onto the singers' scores back then)

His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts
The next evening (Saturday, June 28th) at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral was given over to a concert by His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts, an ancient music ensemble from England. Jeremy West, one of the cornett players, served as a master of ceremonies, offering pithy and witty comments on this delightful, and often subtle and nuanced music. One had to deduce that it was indeed Mr. West speaking, because his name was listed as a player but not as commentator. After a set of English pieces, by Locke, Byrd, Philips, and Wilbye, West regaled the concertgoers with a brief education on the ensemble's fascinating instruments. The cornett is not at all like a modern brass cornet, yet it sounds like a lighter version of one. t is rather a "hybrid" between a wind and a brass instrument. It has a mouthpiece similar to a modern brass instrument but features finger-holes in the shaft. They are constructed of two halves of wood, covered in leather, available in various sizes, including a curved one that was played for some pieces. The resulting sound can be compared to the human voice, or a light trumpet, or as West put it, "Simply like a cornett!" The sagbutt (or sackbutt) comes in various sizes, looking much like a trombone, but smaller and more delicate. The bell on a sagbutt is smaller and not as flared as in a modern instrument.

Several pieces were of the English, German, Spanish and Italian schools of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Familiar composers such as Palestrina, Gabrieli, Scheidt, along with the aforementioned English ones, were well represented. Often these pieces were originally written for the voice (as in a madrigal) or for other instruments and transposed. Another technique, called "divisions," was demonstrated in selections by Sandrin, Palestrina and de Rore. A next-generation arranger would take a few voices from a composition and improvise in the style of the original. Various configurations of instruments were featured in the program: at times only the sagbutts, at others only cornetts, sometimes solos. The organ was well played by Alice Baldwin, while standing at a "Positiv" organ, a small instrument capable of providing accompaniment as well as solo work.

West pointed out "battle music" that was represented by Samuel Scheidt's "Galliard Battaglia," José Ximénez's "Batalla à 6," and Gioseffo "Guami's Battaglia à 6." One could easily visualize this music accompanying an actual battle, spurring on the troops.

Closing the program was "Canzon seconda à 6," with all of the instrumental forces together, joining in glorious and grand style. While not as blaring and brash as a brass ensemble with mighty organ would be, this rather subtle music sent us all on our way, utterly charmed and delighted.

Phillip Ayers sings with the Portland Bach Cantata Choir and for ten years sang with the Portland Symphonic Choir. From 2001-2007 he produced and hosted "Choral Classics" on All Classical radio. A retired Episcopal priest, he and his spouse are former church organists and choir directors and now enjoy "sitting in the pew" at church and concerts.

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