Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Guest review by Phillip Ayers
One of my voice instructors in college said, in a course on voice pedagogy, that the first task a singer has is to "establish the instrument." As I recall, he meant that one possesses the vocal instrument, but needs to "establish" it: be there with it, utilizing all the skill, technique and communication one has learned, and not to rely on gimmickry or over-dramatization.
The ten members of The Tudor Choir did just that last Saturday (July 26th) at St. Mary's Cathedral. They were sponsored by Cappella Romana in a program combining their two evenings at the recent Abbey Bach Festival at Mount Angel Abbey. These youthful singers "established" themselves extremely well, under the expert direction of Doug Fullington who has led this group since 1993. Throughout the evening the audience was treated to a cappella singing at its best, with pieces ranging from Palestrina and Victoria through Buxtehude to J. S. Bach.
Singing this material with so few singers, probably in keeping with the original performances, is no mean feat. Singers are exposed and cannot rely on their nearest neighbor in their section to see them through a glitch or two. Nor can a singer be a soloist in such an ensemble. He or she must be attentive at all times to the choir and its conductor, creating a unified sound. And that sound fit perfectly into the acoustic of the Cathedral.
Many of the works were for double choir and the singers were arranged in various orders to accommodate that. Three settings of the Canticle of Mary, the Magnificat, by Marenzio, Palestrina and Hieronymus Praetorius, were sung: the first two for double choir and the last for a larger group (as far as I could determine, four sopranos, alto, tenor and bass as one group, and an alto, tenor and bass in the other). Marenzio's and Palestrina's settings were not at all imitative of each other. Palestrina used a kind of "call/response" with various phrases of the text; for example, fecit potentiam in brachio suo… ("he has shown strength with his arm") was answered by the other choir with …dispersit superbos mente cordis sui ("he has scattered the proud"). In the Praetorius setting, two sopranos intoned each verse, with a lively and syncopated Gloria Patri at its end. The intonations sounded superb in that space and provided an excellent contrast to the full choir.
Seasoned listeners to this kind of choral music were no doubt thrilled by an excellent performance of Palestrina's Sicut cervus ("as the deer longs"), a piece that can be humdrum and hackneyed but not with The Tudor Choir!
More contrast with pieces utilizing the same text, settings of Alma redemptoris mater ("Loving Mother of the Redeemer," a Marian antiphon), by Palestrina and Victoria, were interesting from the standpoint of contrast, Victoria's being more flowing.
A Missa Brevis (i.e., containing only the Kyrie and Gloria in excelsis of the full Mass) by Buxtehude was performed after the intermission. This, to me, was the most interesting piece on the program. If the composer's name would not have appeared on a program, I would have thought that it was from an earlier era, say the late 16th century, rather than from Buxtehude's 17th. The "mood changes," as at Qui tollis peccata mundi ("You take away the sins of the world"), were lyrical. At miserere nobis ("have mercy on us"), chromatic writing takes over, preparing the listener for a stunning Cum Sancto Spiritu ("With the Holy Spirit") and a very chromatic "Amen."
Selig sind die Toten ("Blessed are the dead") by Heinrich Schütz followed, and I wondered if Johannes Brahms knew this work and was inspired to write his setting of this text in his Requiem almost 200 years later?
The program concluded with J.S. Bach's noble motet, Komm, Jesu, komm ("Come, Jesus, come). Having sung this work myself a few times in much larger choirs, it was refreshing to hear it done by these ten singers who were arranged in two-choir formation: two sopranos, alto, tenor, bass; then bass, tenor, alto and two sopranos. This provided a "wall of sound" that would not have been possible with another arrangement. The concluding Chorale, Drum schliess ich mich in deine Hände ("So I give myself into Your hands"), was stunningly beautiful, with an execution of Bach's ornamentation very much evident and articulated well.
An added treat was a brief encore, a setting of the Jubilate by Mozart.
The performance was practically flawless and thoroughly enjoyable. However, one soprano, with an excellent instrument by the way, could have been somewhat more restrained. This ensemble is as much fun to watch as to hear. They are so obviously into this music and enjoy singing it to the full.
Fullington is something of a Renaissance man. According to the program notes, he is a singer, (counter-tenor, a rare breed), and a dance historian, specializing in reading a certain kind of classical ballet notation system. He is the founder of the Tudor Choir, which has performed jointly with the Tallis Scholars; they are currently a resident ensemble at Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle's University District.
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.
Friday, July 25, 2014
|Photo credit: Tom Emerson|
“Bullycide” was commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest in a consortium that included the La Jolla Music Society and Peak Performances at Montclair State University. The piece honors five gay men who were victims of bullying. After reading newspaper accounts of the bullying, Del Tredici felt moved, in part by reflections on his own experience, to write “Bullycide.” It is a piano sextet that is split into two parts with four movements for each part. The movements flow into one another without pause, and the music follows a trajectory that runs from a spirited beginning to a tragic ending.
For the past 25 years, Del Tredici (age 77) has been the Distinguished Professor of Music at The City College of New York. In the 1970s, he pioneered neo-Romanticism as a direct counterweight to the prevailing atonal style and never looked back. Completed in 2013, “Bullycide” is a continuation of Del Tredici’s journey into the landscape of complex harmonies.
The performance that I heard featured pianist Orion Weiss, violinists Ani Kavafian and Bella Hristova, violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama, cellist Sophie Shao, and bass violinist Samuel Suggs. Weiss was the only member of the ensemble who had performed the piece before (at the premieres at La Jolla and Montclair), and his playing seemed to be the glue that made this piece very engaging. Often the Weiss created a sonic presence that cascaded over and around the strings. Lots of sweeping arpeggios and scintillating ornamentation gave the piece a lush sonority that reminded me of Tchaikovsky at times. The strings played with conviction, sometimes in conversation with each other and at other times in distinctly different corners. A muted and aggressive pizzicato section effectively suggested the violence against the five men and after two brief pauses the musicians used loud stage whispers to recite (I think) the names of each man. One of the highlights of the piece was a lovely solo violin part that Kavafian played while the other strings created a soft, undulating background. Towards the end, the music picked up tempo and later relaxed into a simple tune that was childlike and hopeful. Del Tredici was in the audience and came up on stage to join the performers in accepting the heartfelt and sustained applause.
|Photo credit: Tom Emerson|
|Photo credit: Tom Emerson|
|Bella Hristova, Ani Kavafian, and Nokuthula Ngwenyama - photo credit: Tom Emerson|
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Norman Leyden, Laureate Associate Conductor of the Oregon Symphony, died today at the age of 96.
Oregon Symphony President and CEO Scott Showalter said, “Norman was one of the closest members of the Oregon Symphony family. While we mourn his loss, we also celebrate his life and incredible contribution to the arts.”
Mr. Leyden initiated the Oregon Symphony’s Pops concert series, one of the most successful in the nation, in 1970. “For 34 seasons as the Pops Musical Director, Norman charmed standing-room-only audiences with his warmth and musicality,” Showalter said. “His talents were revered far beyond our stage. He, his clarinet and his fine musical arrangements will be remembered by many for a long, long while.”
The musicians, board, and staff of the Oregon Symphony send their heartfelt condolences to his family and legion of fans throughout Portland and the U.S. The Symphony plans to honor his memory at its Waterfront Concert on August 28.
David Stabler has written a fine obituary in the Oregonian here, and Charles Noble offers his recollections about Leyden on Noble Viola here.
I have an hour-long tape of an interview that I did with Leyden in September of 2004. I'll have to write it up one of these days. It was part of several interviews that I did with older members of the Oregon Symphony, including Glen Reeves, John Richards, Cheri Ann Egbers Richards, Eugene Kaza, Reinhold Pauly, and Huw Ewart.
Friday, July 18, 2014
|Photo credit: Tom Emerson|
Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” was written as a birthday present to his second wife, Cosima, after the birth of their son Siegfried in 1869. According to program notes, the piece “was designed to be played only by the number of musicians who would fit on the stairs of their home near Lake Lucerne, Switzerland.” That number totaled thirteen for the chamber version performed at Kaul. The brass and woodwinds did an excellent job of not overpowering the strings – in particular, first violinist Steven Copes. The playing was rhapsodic and beguiling, but still needed a little more shaping in terms of dynamics and tempo. The problem for most listeners is that we have heard the piece so often in the big orchestral version, which has a lot more strings. Still, the chamber performance was satisfying, and it was terrific to hear Wagner’s symphonic birthday greeting in its purest form.
Hindemith was only 26 years old when he wrote his “Kammermusik” (“Chamber Music”) No. 1 in 1922. A performance of the piece in Munich in 1923 apparently caused an uproar, because after the music ended “Whistles blew, boos resounded, chairs flew through the air — a hellish noise filled the large room.” That reaction certainly helped to mark Hindemith as one of the bad boys of the music scene.
Of course, lots of unusual and challenging music has been composed since the early Twentieth Century. So this Hindemith piece is not as striking as it was back then, but it still had its moments. The first movement, in particular, sounded like a kooky cabaret number that went unhinged. The second continued in a loud and spunky fashion. The musical thread was spiked now and by blips and beeps. The third was completely different. It featured a beautiful, tranquil clarinet solo (Ashley William Smith) that was joined later by the flute (Tara Helen O’Connor), and lovely combinations with clarinet (Smith), bassoon (Julie Feves), flue (O’Connor), and chime (Luanne Warner Katz). The entire ensemble generated a spirited fourth movement that had an array of unusual sounds coming from all corners, such as the murky low chords from the piano (Daniel Schlosberg), and a later a wild combo for piano and flute. Sporadic blasts from the trumpet (Jean Laurenz), wistful lines from the accordion (Samuel Suggs), and glissandos from the strings were halted by a dramatic pause and then followed by a crazy, agitated ride to the finish line with the xylophone (Katz) going helter skelter. That was a breath-taking performance.
|Bella Hristova and Stephen Copes - Photo credit: Tom Emerson|
The final work on the program, Schoenberg’s “Kammersymphonie” (Chamber Symphony”) No. 1 caused a riot when it was first performed in Vienna in 1907, because of its unconventional tonalities. Even later performances caused critics to complain. Nicolas Slonimsky in his “Lexicon of Musical Invective” quoted a critic from Berlin, who, in 1914, stated “Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony – self-torture of a flagellant who whips himself with a cat-o’-nine-tails, while curing himself!”
The performance at Kaul by fifteen musicians didn’t cause a commotion, but the piece needed a lot more definition to make it enjoyable. It had plenty of volume, sweeping big, Wagnerian themes and counter-themes. But the music didn’t go anywhere. The brass and woodwinds overpowered everyone else. Conductor David Fulmer kept everyone together, but that seemed to be it. With more shape, the piece might have done something, but, at least, in this performance, the journey was not satisfying.
Thursday, July 17, 2014
Emerson String Quartet with cellist Paul Watkins as brilliant as ever in Chamber Music Northwest concert
|Emerson String Quartet playing Shostakovich|
Shostakovich wrote his Quartet No. 15 just a year before he died in August of 1975, and its primarily slow and solemn qualities (six Adagios) can be, well, deadening if played without intensity. The Emersons not only played with conviction and technical accuracy, but they also carried the dead-weight of the music’s emotion without sinking. Right off the top, the quartet created a colorless and tired sound that evoked sorrow and lamentation. It was as if Shostakovich were telling us that he was worn out. Faint strains of Russian hymns drifted about. Extended sections that featured only two players at a time sounded intriguingly austere and warm at the same time. The violent zings of the second movement seemed to puncture the atmosphere. The brief and wild excursions by violinist Philip Setzer in the third erupted out of nowhere. Later came a lovely cantabile segment that was led by violist Lawrence Dutton while violinist Eugene Drucker and cellist Watkins supported him with gracious, complimentary lines. As the piece progressed, the ends and beginnings of phrases and pauses took on more and more significance. Semi-tonal trills erupted now and then as if the soul was trying to escape. The last few measures diminuendoed into prayerful silence, bringing to a close a wandering, meditative journey that seemed unresolved with more questions than answers.
Schubert’s Quartet No. 14, one of the most beloved in the repertoire, was composed in 1824, just four years before he died at the age of 31. The piece acquired the nickname “Death and the Maiden” because part of the theme in the second movement (“Andante con moto”) was taken from a song of the same name that Schubert had written several years earlier. The serious nature of the music reflects the depression and health issues that he began to experience after having been diagnosed with syphilis a couple years earlier.
The Emerson String Quartet boldly launched into the Schuert, playing the opening salvos with precision and panache. The music was heightened with terrific dynamics that included sweeping fortes, hushed pianissimos, and organic tempo changes. Phrases were seamlessly traded from one musician to the next and the balance was outstanding. First violinist Setzer created a singing, sweet tone during the second movement and the many pizzicato notes seemed to bubble up effortlessly from Watkins’ cello. The uptempo and crescendo into the finale of the swirling tarantella-like last movement gave the piece a riveting conclusion. The audience responded with a loud standing ovation that should have gone on longer than it did.
Watkins played every bit as well as the man he replaced, David Finckel, who retired from the ensemble last year. Eye contact, listening, and virtuosic playing - you name it -Watkins seemed to fit into the group as if he had been playing with them for the last twenty years. If you would like to read an excellent interview with Watkins, I recommend this article in Oregon Arts Watch. I also suggest that you catch the Emerson String Quartet the next time they return to Portland. It’s an amazing ensemble.
|Emerson String Quartet playing Schubert|
Sunday, July 13, 2014
The opening work, J.S. Bach's Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust from Cantata No. 170, saw Fischer joined by Allan Vogel (oboe d'amore), Steven Copes and Bella Hristova (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola), Peter Wiley (cello), Samuel Suggs (double bass) and Daniel Schlosberg (harpsichord). The logistics presented problems from the first. Fischer was standing at the back of a 7-piece orchestra playing modern instruments, and so her voice often had trouble cutting through the texture of the chamber players. Perhaps this arrangement would've worked with a gut-strung HIP orchestra, but it was unsatisfactory as presented: too often her sound was swallowed. 18th-century composer and lexicographer Johann Mattheson nailed it when he is reputed to have said: "The singers must stand alltime in front."
Mozart's Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio, an aria extracted from Clemenza di Tito for mezzo, clarinet obbligato and piano quartet followed, and the same logistical arrangement was used. Schlosberg switched to piano, and Hristova was the only violinist. David Shifrin was a delight; if there's anything finer than Mozart played on the clarinet by someone who really knows his instrument--well that would be something indeed to hear. He was in not so much of a dialogue with Fischer as a role of running commentary. Fischer, possessed of an undoubtedly fine instrument, came across at times as disinterested, and so was I for parts of this piece. One must I suppose give the benefit of the doubt; standing in on such difficult music with who-knows-how much notice can't be easy even for a top-notch performer. Towards the end she seemed to come more alive; her flourishes and cadenzas were actually quite spectacular and she had bedazzled the audience by the end of the Mozart.
The newly commissioned piece Crossroads (commissioned by CMNW and a multitude of other entities) by American composer John Harbison (b 1938) was like an entirely new world. The poetry of Louise Glück was featured, and set to the music of five strings (Hristova, Copes, Neubauer, Wiley and Suggs) and oboe (Vogel). The absence of a keyboard instrument was somehow bracing, and it began with a simple yet intriguing and profound opening statement from the strings, like a harbinger. The first movement, Twilight was a still-life, and there was much humor to be found in the text. Telling the story of a millworker dreaming at an evening table at dusk, Fischer's intensity and complete engagement with the text was spellbinding; each nuance and subtle turn of phrase was impeccably executed; Fischer seemed to inhabit the constantly changing emotional spaces. There was no straining to become involved with and completely subsumed by the story at hand. Harbison's textual underlay was fascinating; set off just enough from the accompaniment at times, it was constantly fresh, and both propelled the story and created space for the diction. A dissonant final soliloquy for the oboe seemed odd and disjointed, but in the context of the second movement, Primavera, it suddenly made perfect sense.
Primavera was like a misnomer in some ways, or a dichotomy. A high harmonic squawking from the strings programmed the scene: "the warm air fills with bird calls..." This movement seemed a naturalistic interpretation of life; even in the glories of spring it spoke of an end to all things, and the dissonant clarinet from the end of the previous movement felt like a foreshadowing. The music gloried in the transience of life rather than seeking to hide from it or become fearful of the inevitable end. The strings were not just an accompaniment to Fischer's recountal, but an equal partner in imparting meaning. The final movement, Crossroads, is really about the crossroads between life and death. Exactly the opposite of the story in the Bach cantata--here the music moves into atonality at the bitter end, not in trepidation of what comes after...but really the end doesn't have to be so bitter after all.
Die Forelle, (D. 550, Op. 32) a quick study into the life and death of a trout, was an oddly appropriate accompaniment to the Harbison, and presaged the "Trout" Quintet (D667, Op. 11) to follow. Neubauer, Wiley, Suggs and Copes were joined by Anna Polonsky on piano. These festival favorites dove into the chestnut with gusto. Polonsky in particular seems to have an innate ability to discern and perfectly execute the role of her instrument. The ensemble playing was spectacular, in addition to the individual fireworks. Copes displayed a spritely, rapid-fire saltando in the third movement, and Wiley and Suggs anchored the work nicely without being overpowering. It's a joy to hear Wiley--whatever he brings to the table is always fine. There was no grasping for glory by any performers; simply a purely professional and profoundly artistic ability to work with what was there at any given moment. The variations on the Trout theme in the fourth movement were spectacular; especially fun and satisfying was the sturm und drang variation, which fooled a knowledgeable audience into applauding a bit before it was time--much to the amusement of performers and audience alike.
Friday, July 11, 2014
This concert, sponsored by the Oregon Bach Festival, effectively used a camera, which projected Jacobs’ playing onto a very large screen that I could easily see from the back of the nave. It was fascinating to see how Jacobs, who is only 37 years old, engaged the keyboards, stops, and pedals. His first piece, J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (aka the “Wedge”), was a real eye-and-ear opener. The opening statement was bold and brilliant but not overwhelming. The fugue section was like a many-layered cake with delicious flavors. The theme traveled from one hand to the other and finally to feet, but then it all became transmogrified into a bigger, better, more expansive theme, with Jacobs’s hands and feet dancing all over the place, that just lifted everyone’s spirits.
Next came a piece that went in an entirely different direction, the Sonata in D Major by C. P. E. Bach. It was much, much lighter and more buoyant and it didn’t involve any pedal work. That’s because C. P. E. (one of J. S. Bach’s sons) wrote the piece for Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia (a sister of Friedrich II), who had limited pedal technique. The tonality of the piece was centered primarily in the treble register, with a nice meditative segment in the second movement that sounded like a duet for soprano and mezzo. The last movement alternated between strong, lower passages and delicate and higher ones, creating a slightly bravura finish.
Instead of playing John Stanley’s Voluntary in D Minor as stated in the printed program, Jacobs substituted the “Pastorale” movement from Guilmant’s Organ Sonata in D Minor, explaining that the Guilmant was better suited to the Rosales than the Stanley. In any case, it the Guilmant was a gem that took the audience in a different direction in which the main melody evoked a shepherd piping. This melody was supported by chords in the distance, which could have been sheep or clouds or just a gentle breeze. While playing, Jacobs would gracefully change the stops, teasing the audience with different qualities of sound.
J. S. Bach wrote six Trio Sonatas, by which he apparently wanted to teach his son, Wilhelm Friedrich to play the organ in a way that each appendage (left hand, right hand, and feet) would be independent of each other. With most composers, such a piece would probably be mundane and boring, but with Bach, it’s another masterpiece. Jacobs performed the Trio Sonata in C Major, and you could see and hear one melody starting in the right hand, then a different melody starting with the left, and finally another melody starting with the feet. How Bach got all of the themes to work together was mesmerizing and how Jacobs kept it all straight – who knows, but it right there in front on the big screen, and it just blew the audience away.
This complicated piece was followed by Mozart’s Andante in F Major, a rare work since Mozart wrote few pieces for organ. Jacobs explained that the Andante was written for a mechanical clock-cum-music box which an eccentric count kept in his wax museum. This was a lovely piece with several main themes in a cantabile style, yet it was interspersed here and there with sounds that reminded me of a calliope.
The final piece on the program was Mendelssohn’s sonata in F Minor. This work sounded grand and glorious. The first movement featured Bach-like sections and a massiveness that was delightfully punctured by meditative hymn-like chorales. The second movement was sober and subdued and had more of a Mendelssohn-like quality. The third movement alternated single line recitatives with bombastic outbursts and the fourth displayed huge toccata passages and enormous crescendos. It all wound up with a ray of sunshine that caused everyone to stand up and cheer.
Jacobs added an encore, Bach’s A Minor Fugue (BWV543), which again showed off Jacobs immense, impeccable, and virtuosic skills, including a crazy feet-only passage and wild phrases for both hands. That got everyone cheering again. It was just amazing.
Finally, this concert was a return engagement by Jacobs and with the OBF, which also named him as the director of the new OBF Organ Institute. So, it will be our good fortune to hear him, hopefully, again next year.