Tag Archives: Isaacson

Oratorio Chorale Ends Season with Amazing Grace

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
May 20, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

“Amazing Grace” is a simple pentatonic tune (it can be played on just the black keys of a piano), which has become a cliche at public funerals, but Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale, in Sunday’s concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, turned it into something magical, with drones, fugues of intermixed stanzas and more musical devices than you can shake a baton at.  It wasn’t a Negro Spiritual, but it sounded marvelous nonetheless.

Spirituals were at the heart of the program, presented in collaboration with the Portland Abyssinian Meeting House, which will be offering an Emancipation Celebration at St. Paul’s on June 10.

Isaacson programmed a varied selection of these works in roughly chronological order, from the darkest days of slavery through emancipation to the 20th Century. The Chorale was ably assisted by Reginald Mobley, countertenor, Mary Sullivan, soprano, Judith Casselberry, reader and Scott Wheatley, piano.

Casselberry’s readings, beginning with Frederick Douglass, were valuable in establishing context and significance, but sometimes difficult to understand. It would have been helpful to include them in the program.

Mary Sullivan’s solo in “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” with the chorale emulating a desolate wind, reminded me of Marian Anderson. She was equally effective in livelier spirituals.

Stealing the show, however, was countertenor Reginald Mobley. Countertenors are often featured in Baroque and earlier music, but using one as a soloist in spirituals is rather unusual. As usual with Isaacson’s innovative ideas, this one worked perfectly.

Mobley , although he sounded a little unsure of himself at first, soon came into his own, with marvelous renditions of “Were You There?” and “Steal Away.”  Toward the end, his “Precious Lord” was a prime example of what Gospel shout should be, full of perfectly timed musical ornaments, delivered in a powerful mezzo-soprano voice. with infectuous enthusiasm.

My favorite among the well-known songs by the chorale alone was a fast-paced, perfectly rendered version of “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel.”

If I had any quarrel at all with the concert, it would be with its very variety. The Gospel songs are good enough on their own without shifting choirs around, marching, alternating piano accompaniment with a cappella, and using (a few) gussied-up arrangements.

That said., it was a very satisfying coda to the Chorale’s outstanding 2016-2017 season.

(For more on the subject matter of this concert, see “Negro Spirituals” on this site.)

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A Musical Farewell

Portland Bach Festival
Episcopal Church of St. Mary, Falmouth
June 26, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Bach Festival closed on a high note Friday, at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary in Falmouth, with stunning performances of three major works and a cameo appearance by Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, who happens to have studied at Juilliard, majoring in drama. The Mayor emphasized the importance of the arts, especially classical music, in creating a vibrant city.

The concert included a world premiere of Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins BWV 1064R, reconstructed by Sebastian Gottschick. His wife, violinist Ariadne Daskalakis, was one of the soloists in Friday’s performance.

I am familiar with the version for harpsichords, apparently transcribed by Bach from a now lost three-violin concerto. It has virtuoso parts for each of the solo instruments and for the concertino as a whole, and was apparently written as a showpiece for Bach and two of his sons.

The violin version, artfully performed by Daskalakis, Renée Jolles, and Yibin Li, with the Festival Orchestra, works even better than the keyboard arrangement. Each violin (and its player) has a distinctive sound and style, making it easier to separate the voices and appreciate their combinations.

Either version is amazing when performed well, and Friday’s performance was as good as it gets. I must confess that as a youngster I agreed with Berlioz, that most of Bach was boring. I now share the opinion of festival founder Lewis Kaplan, that Bach is simply the greatest composer in the Western Classical Music pantheon. I was misled by somber, academic performances, and in any music, performance is (just about) everything.

The myriad cantatas are a case in point. The program began with Cantata No. 196, “Der Herr denket an uns.” written to be performed at a betrothal. As sung by Sarah Bailey, soprano, Jonathan Woody, bass-baritone, and Jason McStoots, tenor, with the festival orchestra and the Oratorio Chorale under Emily Isaacson, it was enough to make one want to go to church every Sunday in the year. Pure joy.

Its high point was an unusual duet for tenor and bass, which repeats the phrase “more and more” from “May the Lord bless you more and more, you and your children.” eleven times. Bach had 20 children, 10 of whom survived into adulthood.

The evening concluded with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, BWV 1050, with Jolles, violin, Emi Ferguson, flute, and Arthur Haas, harpsichord, with the Festival Orchestra.

I used to like the piano version, as played by Glenn Gould, since the keyboard part stood out, but the harpsichord, under Hass’ touch, wins the contest. unifying the structure and spinning out the intricate solo like a string of understated pearls. The combination of flute and violin, contrasting with the tone of Rob Regier’s harpsichord, was ravishing.

After the final note, and a long standing ovation, the audience didn’t want to go home. Kaplan and Isaacson plan to do it again in 2017. Better get your tickets now.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

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