Tuesday, January 27, 2009

FourScore Challenges the Audience in 'Shut up and Sing!'

FourScore, one of Portland's newest classically influenced music ensembles, gave their inaugural performances on Sunday, January 25th. At 3 pm they gave a concert as part of the Celebration Works: Music and Art at First Presbyterian series in downtown Portland. Later that night, they performed with other ensembles at the Doug Fir as part of a mashup concert featuring groups with very different stylistic leanings. (James Bash interviewed FourScore member Stephen Marc Beaudoin before the concerts last week.)

The crowd was standing room only in the too-small Chapel Hall at First Pres. when FourScore took the stage for their concert entitled Shut up and Sing! Songs of Protest, Pain and Rage. The group, consisting of Brian Francis, tenor (alto), Ben Landsverk, tenor (soprano), Stephen Marc Beaudoin, tenor and Ben Kinkley, baritone, are all accomplished vocalists as well as being instrumentalists; they met when they began performing together as part of Portland's prestigious Trinity Consort Early Music Ensemble, and their high level of musicianship was obvious from the first.

They performed 25 songs ranging from barbershop to Palestrina's motet Super Flumina Babylonis to Cat Stevens' Peace Train and selections from Kurt Weill's Berliner Requiem to mention a few. Some offerings were more successful than others, but what is undeniable is the true boldness and diversity in the programming.

Some numbers that I found particularly outstanding were:

Palestrina's Super Flumina--FourScore put their familiarity with early music on shining display in this difficult contrapuntal work. With dexterity of phrasing and subtle shading they wended their way through the filigreed texture. Landsverk displayed the vast range of the male voice with his amazingly high soprano, which was delicate or powerful as the situation called for.

Walter Robinson's Harriet Tubman-- It can be a difficult sell for four white guys to sing an a cappella work that deals with deeply spiritual themes of despair and redemption stemming from the slave trade in America, but FourScore was never less than absolutely convincing. Stylistically speaking this was one of the strongest works: Beaudoin's soulful narrative was as sincere as could be asked for, and the accompanying singers delivered a perfect framework that allowed the true feeling behind this work to come out. It served as a powerful reminder of how songs of such strength and power in the face of tragedy are a part of all our shared heritage.

Soulsters Gnarls Barkley's Crazy and Henry Purcell's Dido's Lament-- Beaudoin gave a short, fresh version of the recent pop hit as a recitative before an aria from an ancient opera, but that was part of the clever vision of this show, and the segue between the two works seemed as natural and fitting as if it had been composed that way.

Some other highlights were the clever instrumentation on the fughetta of William Byrd's Delight is Dead, with Kinkley performing the bass voice on a trombone. The structure of the counterpoint seemed at times like a rickety treehouse frame bound securely with rope at the interstices; you weren't quite sure it would hold, but somehow it did, and it was great fun. They sang Civil War era soldier tunes and managed to sound like a bunch of rowdy soldiers with really good voices, and the three selections from Weill's Berliner Requiem, which could lean toward the cerebral here and there, usually had just the right touch of Weimar era cabaret to keep it engaging. They weren't afraid to use the empty spaces in between notes wisely.

Not everything worked quite as intended. Henry Purcell's 'Tis Women Makes us Love plodded along, and towards the end the intonation seemed to be in such question that it was a relief when it segued into another tune. Songstress Linda Perry's Letter to God left one wanting a bit more polish. It's hard to say it was out of place on a program like this that drew from so many places and times, but it was less than satisfying.

They collaborated with a number of other musicians, such as The Ahs, whose original tune Rhododendron with its cello, banjo, wonderfully folkish soprano and singers placed throughout the room was a nice touch. A group of talented young male singers from various Portland highschools, Cloud 9 gave an inspired a cappella rendition of Sri Lankan hip hop phenom M.I.A.'s Paper Airplanes, a somehow both lighthearted and serious look at immigrant stereotypes. It seemed as though this song was new to most of the audience, and judging by the amount of head-bobbing and toe-tapping going on, it was a crowd pleaser.

All in all FourScore delivered an ambitious concert, by and large with true insight and panache. With a concert title that begins with Shut up and Sing! (and each half subsequently subtitled Part 1-War, Death, Women, Wine and Part 2--Civil Rights, Suicide, Peace, Home,) it was obvious that the challenge was as much to the audience to find in themselves the ability to draw meaning from the diverse palate presented them as it was about FourScore's seeming admonition to themselves to, in fact, shut up and sing. The concert lived up to its name, and the audience joined in several times throughout the afternoon. This kind of daring and imagination in programming is reflective of a growing wave that, in many diverse ways, seeks to knock down musical barriers and allow all of us to find joy in the indescribably huge world of Music. Groups like FourScore and their compatriots with whom they performed at the Doug Fir later Sunday evening are helping Portland ride the crest.

Addendum: Sunday night at the Doug Fir

I did pop into the Doug Fir for an hour or so to hear that show that Willamette Week, the Mercury and The Oregonian had been givving so much press to last week, but being sick I didn't stay long. There was a very large, diverse and curious crowd present. There was a string trio with a wailing, mysterious clarinet playing occasionally klezmeresque rhythms when I walked through the door. People sat silent on the floor, and heads all over the venue cocked in quiet curiosity when FourScore reprised the Palestrina from the afternoon show. Members of the Portland Cello Project teamed up with the Ahs and members of a number of Portland's very finest choirs in a performance that was slow and a bit puzzling to me considering how much great talent was there on the stage being under-utilized. A Celtic folk/pop group called Circled by Hounds skillfully played a few frenetic numbers that left me resisting a powerful urge to do my own poor rendition of Irish stepdancing. I left at the intermission to go home and go to bed, unfortunately missing the brand new Roxy Consort and a scaled-down rendition of Orff's Carmina Burana.


Tuesday said...

Ooh, sorry you missed the Roxy debut! We like our Eliot Smith-Rachmaninoff-Radiohead set. See you next time?

Lorin Wilkerson said...

If I'm able to make it I will definitely be there. I was sorry to miss the Roxy debut; I was really looking forward to it.

SMB said...

a thoughtful consideration of what we're up to, lorin - big thanks.