Thursday, December 31, 2015

Portland Baroque Orchestra turns out stellar recording of Bach violin concertos

Even though it is the last day of the year, it’s not too late to take a look at the Portland Baroque Orchestra’s most recent recording, which is simply entitled “J. S. Bach Concertos for One, Two and Three Violins.” In this album, PBO artistic director Monica Huggett leads the period orchestra ensemble in sparkling interpretations of five concertos that Bach wrote during the time that he led the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. You might be tempted to think that Huggett is the featured artist in the Concerto for Violin in A minor (BWV 1041) and the Concerto for Violin in E Major (BWV 1042), but she yields the spotlight to Carla Moore in the first and to Rob Diggins in the latter. For the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor (BWV 1043), the soloists are Jolianne Einem and Adam LaMotte. For the Concerto in D minor (BWV 1063), Huggett joins Moore and Einem in the merry making, and finally in the Concerto for Three Violins in D major (BWV 1064R), Huggett marvelously collaborates with Moore and Diggins. So the full set of five concertos provides 75 minutes of music, an excellent value for anyone weighing cost against the amount of time of actual sound.

The CD kicks off with the Concerto in D minor (BWV 1063) in an arrangement for three violins by Huw Daniel. Right off the top you’ve got Hugget, Moore, and Einem creating a fast spinning thread of interwoven sound that will make you want to get out of our armchair and dance. It’s an excellent opener that is followed by the Concerto for Violin in A minor (BWV 1041), played outstandingly by Moore. Next comes one of the most famous of Bach’s creations, the Concerto for Violin in E major (BWV 1042) with lovely solos by Diggins. In the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor (BWV (1043), another of Bach’s stellar pieces, Einem and LaMotte perform their solos with seamless perfection. The Concerto for Three Violins in D major (BWV 1064R) is a reconstruction of BWV 1064, which was scored for three harpsichords in C major. The intertwined sound of Huggett, Moore, and Diggens performing is pure joy to the ears.

Throughout all five concertos the PBO ensemble supports the soloists superbly with inspired dynamics, including crisp articulation in the faster movements and a delightfully languid sound in the slower ones. Overall, “J. S. Bach Concertos for One, Two and Three Violins” is a terrific introduction for anyone who is interested in Bach’s instrumental music as well as a stellar addition for those with a Bach library.

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.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Cappella Romana's "Passion Week" a feast for the ears

Several months ago Cappella Romana released the world premiere recording of a composer whose sacred work, entitled “Passion Week,” was banned during Stalin’s reign and received only a few partial performances. The composer, Maximilian Steinberg, is known today primarily as the prized pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and rival of Igor Stravinsky. Steinberg was born in Lithuania to a Jewish family but, after studying music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and married Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter just before Rimsky-Korsakov died in 1908. Steinberg taught music at the St. Petersburg (later Leningrad) Conservatory from that point onward (Shostakovich was his most famous student), eventually taking over Rimsky-Korsakov’s chair, and wrote a variety of compositions, including five symphonies, ballets, vocal pieces, and chamber music.

Steinberg completed “Passion Week” in 1923, which was the same year that Stalin declared performances of Orthodox sacred music verboten. Consequently, the score had fallen into the dustbin of history until just a couple of years ago when a copy was given to Alexander Lingas, an international expert on Orthodox music. Lingas is also the founder and artistic director of Cappella Romana, the Portland-based vocal ensemble dedicated to Orthodox music from the earliest Byzantine Chant to new works by contemporary composers. Under his direction, Cappella Romana recorded Steinberg’s “Passion Week” and added Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Chant Arrangements for Holy Week.” The CD has been cited as one of the best recordings of the year by “Gramophone” magazine.

Steinberg’s “Passion Week,” commemorates the betrayal and Passion of Jesus, basing ten of the eleven movements on Russian Orthodox chants for Holy Week. In the recording, the 26 voices of Cappella Romana make the opening “Alleluia” blossom with the basses on a D two octaves below middle C, the sopranos ascending to a high G, and the baritones, tenors, and altos filling out a massive chord between those two poles. The purity of tone, intriguingly thick harmonic textures, soaring tonal contrasts, and incisive dynamics are hallmarks of this performance. The third movement, “Your bridal chamber,” (in which Christ is likened to the bridegroom in the parable from Matthew) creates an ethereal atmosphere that glistens. In some of the movements, the singers are divided into 12 parts, and often they are graced by evocative solos.

Although Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Chant Arrangements for Holy Week” features less the deep bass sound that many listeners associate with Russian music, it delivers a satisfying sense of the eternal in the space of five movements.

Kudos to Cappella Romana, mastering producer Steve Barnet and mastering engineer Preston Smith for making “Passion Week” (the ensemble’s 22nd recording) one of its finest.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

PSU Opera serves up delicious "Doctor Miracle" and "Bon Appétit"

Portland State Opera inaugurated its new fall term production with delightful performances of Georges Bizet’s “Doctor Miracle” and Lee Hoiby’s “Bon Appétit.” Presented before a packed house at the Studio Theater in Lincoln Hall on December 12th, both one-act productions admirably showed off the artistic and comic talents of the performers. “Doctor Miracle” was performed by a superb student cast, and “Bon Appétit” featured PSU Opera director Christine Meadows as Julia Child.

Back in 1856, composer Jacques Offenbach offered a competition to composers whose works had not been performed at the Paris Opera or Opera-Comique. They had to set a libretto based on a stereotypical comedy, and Bizet (at age 18) along with Charles Lecocq both won. Each had their respective works played eleven times at Offenbach’s theater in 1857.

The story concerns the town Mayor who doesn’t want his daughter, Laurette, to run off with a soldier, Captain Silvio. To that end, the Mayor hires a servant, Pasquin, who claims to hate soldiers, to fend off anyone remotely resembling Laurette’s suitor. Pasquin prepares an omelet that is so horrible that only the Mayor can force himself to eat it. While the Mayor and his wife, Veronique, go out for a walk, Pasquin reveals to Laurette that he is actually Captain Silvio in disguise. Before they can make their getaway to elope, the Mayor returns and banishes Silvio from the house. Suddenly, the Mayor’s wife is handed a telegram that the omelet was poisoned. Fortunately, Dr. Miracle is nearby and the family asks for him. He claims to have the cure but demands Laurette’s hand as payment. The Mayor and Laurette agree, and Silvio again reveals his identity. Veronique persuades her husband to accept the situation because he cannot prevent the inevitable. Everyone praises Dr. Miracle and true love.

Comely Madison Howard’s vocal prowess wonderfully complimented her formidable acting talent and fit the character of Laurette to a T. Darian Hutchinson impressively combined moral indignation with a flustery/buster demeanor as The Mayor. Emily Skeen’s Veronique acknowledged her husband’s fiery temperament as well as her step-daughter’s spirit. Alexander Trull’s exuberant Silvio had energy to spare but need a tad more vocal presence. Pianist Colin Shepard expertly accompanied the singers, and the cast was crisply directed by Nuckton.

The opera was sung in English and no supertitles were required because of the friendly confines of the studio space and the terrific diction of the singers. The libretto (translated by James Hampton with additional dialogue by Brenda Nuckton) offered some choice lines, such as when Mayor, who has be verbally pilloried by his wife and daughter, sings “Boy, I hate this song.” Later we find out that after the Mayor’s first wife died, he came into a ton of money; so he made sure that his second wife was much younger. Fostering the same scenario, the parents want their daughter to marry the elderly Mr. Bitcoin, because he would certainly die first and make Laurette a wealthy widow who can then do whatever she wants. In a wonderful bit of bombast, the telegram announcing that the Mayor had been poisoned proclaimed “Medical science can’t help you now!”

After intermission, the audience was treated to a second course, Hoiby’s “Bon Appétit,” which was adapted by Mark Shulgasser from transcripts of two episodes of Julia Child’s “The French Chef,” a popular TV show that ran from 1963 to 1973. In teaching the audience how to make a Le Gâteau au Chocolat L’Éminence Brune, a classic French chocolate cake, Meadows nailed the persona and gestures of Child so well that it was outrageously funny and sort of flabbergasting at one gulp. The way she would blithely toss a pan or another cooking implement to the side or fling flour all over the place caused buckets of laughter to erupt from the audience. At one point, after downing a glass of wine during a pause in the process, she would warn us that “You don’t want to go out and play croquet.” At another point, she can’t resist putting a chocolate-laden spatula into her mouth and giving us a tantalizing um!

Vocally, Meadows’s voice is still delicious to the ears, and she was supported with playful sensitivity by pianist Janet Coleman. Stage directions by Kristine McIntyre dished up platefuls of humor. It was a performance that Meadows should repeat at one of the hoity-toity restaurants in the Pearl. Seconds anyone?!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Scintillating orchestra delivers the goods in “Messiah” concert

Guest review by Nan Knight Haemer

When I attended the Oregon Symphony’s “Messiah” on Saturday evening (December 5), I expected the usual holiday highlights: Messiah Light. But lo, they tackled the entire work, no mean feat of endurance: three hours of concentration and beautiful playing. That meant an elegant, nimble and trimmer orchestra and one intermission. The only cuts were two of the da capo arias that left off the repeats.

Handel’s “Messiah” is essentially a vocal work that showcases the chorus and the soloists. Their task is to declaim beautifully and/or passionately the Biblical texts. But I was wowed primarily by the beauty of the orchestra’s sound. I was swept away by their elegant, graceful, tight and expressive playing.

The Oregon Symphony simply outshone the chorus and the soloists. In the best of all possible worlds, you get an equal partnership. If the strings hadn’t been so amazing, the orchestral ensemble so lithe and responsive, the choices of articulation at times so unexpected as to make me look up, I would be speaking more of the vocals. They were not on the same level as the orchestra, however

The PSU Chamber Choir showed itself best on the a cappella section “Since By Man Came Death”. They had their best blend and balance in this bare section and also in the lesser performed choruses, such as “Great Was The Company” and “But Thanks” where their voices were the most unified and beautiful. The chorus warmed to their performance as it progressed, and I thought they sounded their best in general in Part 3. But their opening chorus felt like they were not quite ready.

The soprano section was lovely and shimmering throughout, though 1 or 2 more sopranos would have helped balance, especially in Part 1. The alto section was amazing: consistent, lovely tone quality and elegant execution throughout. Those qualities were missing in the tenor section. The fast passages of a zillion notes (melismatic singing for us geeks) were just not accurate or beautiful: when they didn’t sing very high, they sounded warm and unified, but above F-4 (F above middle C), it fell apart into individual voices, a spread, inelegant sound and quite pitchy. An addition of a professional or two in the tenor section could have helped even that out. The bass section was at times lovely, at times woofy and swallowed, but more solid than the tenors. The basses sounded great on the blistering “Let Us Break Their Bonds.”

The soloists likewise were uneven. Soprano Shannon Mercer was the most consistent sounding and wow, her fast runs in “Rejoice Greatly” were super. Mercer has a large voice, but she can move it. Her trills were excellent. Her decrescendo into the end of “sleep” on “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” was excellent.

The countertenor, Michael Maniaci has a lovely, light and high instrument. The Schnitzer seemed too large a hall for his voice. Because Handel’s alto solos in the “Messiah” are written lower and not for a high countertenor, they did not favor the sparkle and sweetness of his voice in a hall so large. He sounded his best, lovely and poignant on “He Was Despised”.

Tenor Thomas Cooley had amazing moments of sweetness, a heady light sound that he could crescendo and decrescendo with ease. He took some risks as you’d expect in a Baroque work with ornaments, especially in “Every Valley”. His messa di voce ending “All They That See Him” was just awesome. At times Cooley pumped up the volume for dramatic effect, as on his recitative “He That Dwelleth in Heaven,” but sometimes he went a little too far, losing the previous effortless accuracy.

David John Pike has a lovely baritone voice, which showed best in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” with outstanding trills and ornaments and a good ring in his voice in the first half but choppier in the da capo section. At the ends of his solos, he looked out at the audience, and I just wish he’d done that as he sang. He got buried a little bit on lower parts due to that.

The continuo ensemble as a whole played very sensitively, adjusting well for each soloist. The harpsichordist/organist, Douglas Schneider, had fun with some answering flourishes of his own to the soloists in various airs and recitatives. Principal bassoonist Carin Miller Packwood especially rocked on “His Yoke Is Easy”. Jeffrey Work, Principal Trumpet, and the orchestra sparkled in “The Trumpet Shall Sound”. The trills and turns of the strings accompanying the soprano solo on “If God Be For Us” were amazingly tight and facile, contrasting beautifully with the very tender continuo section.

Leading all of these musicians was Music Director Carlos Kalmar. He clearly shaped the phrasing successfully with the orchestra to shining clarity for three hours. There are a lot of transitions in 53 movements, requiring a clear design and plan for each by the conductor. You could tell that Kalmar’s orchestra had that clarity, even if you didn’t necessarily agree with his choice. I bought most of the choices. Interesting tempi variations or articulations of phrases in the orchestra were well thought out.

There were some real surprises. Most worked, like having “And He Shall Purify” and “His Yoke” moderately paced enough for the choir to make it sound easy. Most of the “fast” choral movements in Part 1 were more moderate, which helped the choir. There was a surprising slowing at the end of “Glory To God”. I’ve heard it with a decrescendo, but never a ritard as well! “Behold The Lamb” was not intense enough, perhaps due to the extreme choppy articulation that was required. The end of “Why Do The Nations” bass solo got softer and softer, I assume per Carlos’ choice? I missed more dramatic moments: “Surely” was a bit lacking in energy also.

I have to say the performance offered the weirdest and most peculiar “Hallelujah” chorus ever. Ever! It started so slow and soft, and it just played awkwardly. It seemed like Kalmar was trying to sneak them all in, hoping that the audience wouldn’t stand up. It didn’t work. The double dotting of “Worthy Is The Lamb” woke me up and the ending wind up was exciting. And having the soloists join the very end in the sprightly paced “Amen” was lovely. The tenor soloist started like he almost couldn’t help it and that was nice to see.
Nan Knight Haemer is a professional singer and voice teacher who has sung with numerous Portland organizations, including the Portland Baroque Orchestra, Trinity Consort, Pocket Opera, Portland Symphonic Choir, and the Bach Cantata Choir.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

PSU Opera presents two one-act production for foodies

From PSU publicity:
Gourmet Menu: The PSU Opera program presents two one-act operas this month. George Bizet’s “Doctor Miracle,” written when he was 18, is a hilarious one-act operetta featuring the “Omelet Quartet.” The food theme continues with “Bon Appétit,” a short opera in which Julia Child (played by Christine Meadows, director of opera) teaches the recipe for a classic French chocolate cake – Le Gâteau au Chocolat L’Éminence Brune. Bonus: after the show, audience members get to eat the cake!

Performances December 9-12 at 7:30pm and December 13 at 2pm

Lincoln Hall Studio Theater

General Admission: $24
Students: $17
PSU faculty + staff: $17

Monday, December 7, 2015

Latest Oregon Symphony and Seattle Symphony CDs receive Grammy nomination

Both the Oregon Symphony and Seattle Symphony received Grammy nominations in the Best Orchestral Performance category. That means that the Pacific Northwest has a pretty good shot at winning. Here's the list of nominees from the Grammy web site:

74. Best Orchestral Performance

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4
Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
Label: Reference Recordings

Dutilleux: Métaboles; L'Arbre Des Songes; Symphony No. 2, 'Le Double'
Ludovic Morlot, conductor (Seattle Symphony)
Label: Seattle Symphony Media

Shostakovich: Under Stalin's Shadow - Symphony No. 10
Andris Nelsons, conductor (Boston Symphony Orchestra)
Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Spirit Of The American Range Carlos Kalmar, conductor (The Oregon Symphony)
Label: Pentatone

Zhou Long & Chen Yi: Symphony 'Humen 1839'
Darrell Ang, conductor (New Zealand Symphony Orchestra)
Label: Naxos

BTW: My review of The Spirit of the American Range is posted here.