Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Ensemble brings Christmas a little closer with "Ceremony of Carols" and other gems

Amidst the subsiding hubbub of Christmas, it was a real pleasure to hear The Ensemble perform a concert of new pieces mixed with others that were more familiar to the ear, but perhaps in a different way. The concert took place on Sunday afternoon, December 27th at the First Christian Church in downtown Portland. The church’s main sanctuary, with its clear and slightly warm acoustic, created an excellent space for The Ensemble, which consisted of sopranos Catherine van der Salm and Mel Downie Robinson, alto Kerry McCarthy, tenor Nicholas Ertsgaard, and bass Patrick McDonough, who is also the founding artistic director of the group.

The tour de force piece on the program was Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols,” an eleven movement piece that drew text from “The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems.” Accompanied deftly by harpist Kate Petak, the women of The Ensemble (van der Salm, Downie Robinson, and McCarthy) sang this piece superbly with excellent blend, pure tone, very little vibrato, and terrific diction that made the Middle English wonderfully alive. The “Procession” had a solemn, stately feel. “Wolcum Yole!” was light and exciting, and van der Salm gracefully touched the highest note at the end. “There is no Rose” sounded positively ethereal, and Downie Robinson delivered a genuinely plaintive “That younge child.” “Balulalow” lulled everyone sweetly, and “This little Babe” radiated with dramatic thrust – as did “Deo gracias!” a little later. “In Freezing Winter Night” and “Spring Carol” were also sung with intensity and the women gracefully exited the sanctuary with the lovely “Recession.”

The concert began with “The Shepherd and the King” by Brian Holmes (composed in 2000), a sprightly and joyous carol for voices and harp that tells of Mary’s song after the birth of Jesus. The text by Eleanor Farjeon is loaded with evocative lines like this one: “The Stars that are so old, The Grass that is so young, They listen in the cold to hear Sweet Mary’s tongue.”

It was followed by the hauntingly a cappella lines of “Northern Lights,” which was written by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo in 2008. The austere atmosphere of the music with notes that slowly shift at times and the anonymous Latin text wonderfully reflected the awesome beauty of the natural phenomenon

British composer Tarik O’Regan’s “Bring Rest, Sweet Dreaming Child” (2004) for chorus and harp offered a lot of tough dissonant structures for The Ensemble to climb, but the group handled the craggiest corners with aplomb, starting with the soaring and lovely voice of soprano Catherine van der Salm. The “Tmusic sets a poem by Mark Pryce, which speaks of the promise of Jesus’s birth.

The delicate sound of the harp played more of a major role in Steve Heitzig’s sensitive setting of the e. e. cummings poem “little tree.” The piece (composed in 1990) offered swathes of charm and innocence as if the notes and words were falling about like snowflakes, culminating in a soothing “Noel Noel.”

As an interlude before the final set of songs, Petak played Britten’s “Suite for Harp.” The bold opening statement of the “Overture” and oddly dreamy “Nocturne” impressed me the most, but the other three movements seemed somewhat disconnected.

The performance ended with the “Seven Joys of Christmas,” a lively re-arrangement of familiar Christmas carols for voices and harp that Kirke Mechem wrote in 1965. “This is the truth,” “Joseph dearest, Joseph mine,” and “New Year Song” were imbued with lovely sincerity and contrasted well with the bouncy and cute renditions of “Din don! merrily on high,” “Patapan,” and “Fum, fum, fum!” For reasons unexplained, the group chose to leave out the last number “God bless the master of this house.”

An unusual low-pitched noise – somewhat akin to a snore – came from one of the audience members, who seemed to become agitated by the some of the music. At one point, her minders took care to get her to the hallway (she was in a wheelchair), but then they wheeled her back in and she did it again. The performers must be commended for their professionalism despite the sonic interference, but I felt sorry for audience members who didn’t pay to hear that disturbance. There might have been a better way to position the audience member from another part of the sanctuary to mitigate the noise.

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