Tag Archives: Oratorio Chorale

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.

Sweetest in the Gale’s Baroque Beauties

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
April 9, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Oratorio Chorale’s women’s choir is named “Sweetest in the Gale,” (from the Emily Dickinson poem “Hope is a Thing with Feathers”). Sunday’s concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick was more like an inland breeze from the ocean on a hot day, both surprising and refreshing.

Director Emily Isaacson has a knack for choosing scores that perfectly illustrate her concert titles, in this case “Beauties of the Baroque,” and that offer something to every member of the audience. The choir she has founded and coached is little short of phenomenal, and her choice of soloists, Mary Sullivan, soprano, and Jenna Guiggey, alto, complements it very well.

Add to this a fine baroque chamber ensemble, and you have recipe for a delightful, if short (one hour) Sunday afternoon.

The opening work, Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “Angelus ad pastors ait; Ubi Duo,” was both sweet and surprising. Sweet in the harmonies that Monteverdi achieves through counterpoint, and surprising for the contrasting lines the choir is able to obtain with female voices alone. The low altos served the essential purpose of the bass in mixed choirs that we have long been arguing for,

The second piece, “Duo Seraphim,” by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611), was surprising for what came after it: a setting of the same text by Caterina Assandra (c. 1590-after 1611). It is a good example for those who argue that female composers of the past may have been the equals of their male counterparts, but suppressed by societal conventions.

More evidence was offered by the sprightly and modern-sounding “Quis dabit mihi,” by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), which describes what seems to be a love affair between the composer and Jesus, evoking images of the ecstasy of St. Teresa as depicted by Bernini.

The second half of the program was devoted to the great “Stabat Mater” of Giovanni Batista Pergolesi (1710-1736), which describes in 12 cantos the agony of Christ’s mother beneath the cross. The narrative, which alternates between chorus and soloists, both alone and in duets, is highly operatic and ornamented to an extent that offers major challenges to the singers. There are dramatic leaps in pitch and changes in volume that must have delighted divas of the past, but tend to dismay modern singers. Not so Sullivan and Guiggey.

What is surprising about the Stabat Mater is how much musical conventions have changed. There are sections that to a modern ear sound almost cheerful, but which were intended to describe the depths of suffering. The music is still effective; it just doesn’t seem to illustrate the text as well as it used to. One thinks of the high-pitched counter tenors chosen by Purcell to depict British heroes.

Isaacson’s lively direction of the chorus and the baroque ensemble unified the work and brought it to life once more, earning a standing ovation from the capacity audience.

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

Oratorio Chorale: A Bach Festival Preview

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
Feb. 26, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

It would be advisable to buy tickets immediately to the Portland Bach Festival ,June 19-24. The first one, in 2016, was an immediate success, and the Oratorio Chorale’s “Bach+” concert on Sunday, a sort-of preview of the summer programs, was sold out.

As usual, director Emily Isaacson coordinated the Chorale’s chamber singers, guest artists St. Mary Schola, and a baroque trio, into one virtually flawless program. It was short, a little over an hour in length, but fully revealed the grandeur of both J.S. Bach and his predecessor, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672).

The integration of a baroque ensemble—Bruce Fithian, organ continuo, Timothy Burris, lute and Philip Carlsen, cello— with the chorus and soloists, was particularly well thought-out. For example, in the support given bass voices by the cello.

I hesitate to point this out, once again, but no chorus in Maine has yet developed a powerful enough bass section. Perhaps our current deepening relations with Russia will improve the situation. A Chaliapin pedal point would be paradise enough.

The otherwise astute program notes did not identify soloists in specific sections, but those with individual bass voices were well balanced. Of particular note was the Schola’s artist in residence, soprano Mary Sullivan.

I came to hear the Bach “Jesu meine Freude,” (BWV 227) one of my favorites, and to learn more about Schütz and his “Musikalische Exequien,” which is said to have influenced Brahms’ “German Requiem,” coming up soon at the Portland Symphony.

But I was amazed by the longer, more operatic Schütz work, which, like most of Bach, puts to rest any notion of “progress” in music. It is a dialog between Man and God, illustrating both poetry and Biblical verses, and is unfailingly interesting in its variety of vocal combinations, never the same twice. It also builds continually in intensity to a conclusion of chorus, Seraphim and the Holy Ghost, the latter three voices emanating from the organ loft at the back of the church.

Some of the musical effects are almost tactile, as in the begging repetition of “Lord, I will not let You go except You bless me.”

Both the Bach and the Schütz proceed rapidly through the German verses, without that bane of my youthful existence, the worrying of a phrase over and over, like a dog with a bone, prompting one to mutter “Can’t we just get on with it?”

What is there to say about Bach, who combines melody, inventiveness, technical perfection and architectural elegance in one diamond-like whole? (With a little numerology thrown in for good measure.) The fugue in the middle of the motet is one of his masterpieces, interweaving four voices so that polyphony generates celestial harmony.

Could the chorale, No. 9, have been studied by Mahler, who also employs the phrase “Gute Nacht” to good effect in “Des Knaben Wunderhorn?”

Both the baroque works, which welcome a Christian death, are considerably more cheerful than most of Mahler.  Strange, when one considers that they both originate in the Lutheran tradition, which is said to have generated the aphorism: “It’s always darkest before it gets darker still.”

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, Maine. 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.

(Note: I was receiving so much spam that I had to cut off the comment section of my web site. I would like to hear your thoughts and am working on a way to include legitimate comments.)

MIdcoast Symphony Presents a Truly Operatic Verdi “Requiem”

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Verdi “Requiem”
Franco Center, Lewiston-Auburn
May 14, 2016

Producing Verdi’s “Requiem” is aways a major undertaking, but the Midcoast Symphony under Rohan Smith, the Oratorio Chorale, Vox Nova and a fine cast of soloists carried it off in great style Saturday night at the Franco Center in Lewiston.

The full-length mass was sung without intermission before a full house, the largest audience I have seen for a Midcoast concert at this venue. The performance rightly emphasized the operatic nature of the work.

What never ceases to surprise me about the Midcoast is the caliber of soloists it attracts with regularity. Saturday’s vocalists, who play a star role in the operatic Mass, were no exceptions. They were Rachele Schmiege, soprano, Rebecca Ringle, alto, Kevin Ray, tenor, and Gustav Andreassen, bass. (Really good basses must be named Gustav or Boris.)

All were outstanding, but Verdi’s favorite in this work is the soprano, who gets all the good parts after the final Dies Irae, often seeming to be arguing successfully with God. Schmeige has the power and clarity to soar effortlessly above the full orchestra and two of Maine’s best choirs.

Speaking of choirs, it often appears to be a waste of talent to write the score for two; it is so difficult to distinguish the parts that the composer might as well have specified one large chorus. That is until the great fugue (also after the Dies Irae) in which Vox Nova and the Oratorio Chorale plainly distinguish themselves as separate voices. It makes the whole thing worthwhile.

For the other choral sections, it might help to separate the choirs physically, but that doesn’t seem possible within the limited stage space at the Franco Center.

The orchestral part of the Requiem is ideal for an amateur ensemble, but the Midcoast sounded anything but. The balance of forces was near-perfect. The visions of Hell in the Dies Irae were effective, as were the trumpet calls from the rear of that hall in the Tuba mirum, which startled some of the audience members. One child put his hands over his ears like the young Mozart at the sound of a trumpet.

The pause half-way through, to allow orchestra members to re-tune, was a mistake. It broke their concentration and there were a few sour noes afterward, but only for a measure or two.

All-in-all, it was a grand effort, surpassing a professional performance here a few years ago, and well deserved its standing ovation and curtain calls.

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

“Sweetest in the Gale” Is

Oratorio Chorale
Sweetest in the Gale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Brunswick
Apr. 3, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

It is an article of faith among feminists that the reason there have been no women composers among the ranks of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, is because they were so severely limited by the mores of their times, some even having to resort to male pseudonyms to have their work published at all.

The recent concert of Emily Isaacson’s new women’s chorus, “Sweetest in the Gale,” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, made a strong case for this view.

While every work on the program, in chronological order from Hildegard of Bingen to Gwyneth Walker, was written by a woman, and all were beautifully sung, the quality of the compositions seemed to improve as their writers began to shake off the shackles of male domination.

The final works on the program, “Three Heavens and Hells,” by Meredith Monk (b. 1942) and “Love is a Rain of Diamonds,” by Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947), are masterpieces that excel most of what I have heard from contemporary male composers of choral music.

The concert was led by assistant conductor Mark Rossnagel rather than Isaacson, who is expecting the birth of her second child this week.

None of the above implies that the earlier works were not masterpieces, although it was hard to tell about Clara Schumann’s Nocturne, Opus 6, No. 2, which accompanist Derek Herzer had to play on an electric piano. Having tried to do something similar, after being used to a real grand piano, I can testify that making anything at all of the score was a minor miracle.

Soprano Mary Sullivan was in rare form in three display pieces that I had not heard before, all of them works of high drama and fiendish difficulty. The first, like Bernini’s sculpture of St. Theresa in ecstasy, is enough to make a normal concert goer blush. It was written by Augusta Holmes (1847-1903), setting verses by St. Teresa of Avila, in which she “dramatically reimagines her intense and transporting encounter with God, which builds to a climax of ecstasy.” Shades of the Tantra.

The second, with members of the chorus, was “Les sirènes,” by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), who might have rivaled Debussy had she lived longer. It is equally erotic, but in a more classical way. One can hear how the seductive immortals might have tempted Ulysses.

The obligatory Amy Beach (1867-1944) came in the form of a charming “Through the house give glimmering light,” Op. 39, No. 3, reminiscent of bird song, with some unusual and well-done sforzando stops.

Sullivan returned for a heart wrenching rendition of “Anne Boleyn,” from “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII,” by Libby Larsen (b. 1950). Needless to say, in spite of her eloquent pleading, she does not get her wish and hopes that the executioner knows his job.

I have already mentioned the final works on a short but brilliant program. “Three heavens and hells” has everything a modern choral work should have, but usually doesn’t. A round is illustrated by a round dance of the singers. The words generate the music, instead of being accompanied by them, and the little details, such as a singer in a monotone totally off key, are both fitting and remarkable. The entire thing, based on a poem by an 11 year old boy, is delightful and make one ponder the corollary of Sartre’s dictum that “Hell is other people.”
“Love Is a Rain of Diamonds,” setting a poem by May Swensen, exudes pure joy, and resulted in a standing ovation from the capacity audience.
Sweetest in the Gale (from “Hope Is a Thing with Feathers,” by Emily Dickinson), is a group of 20 auditioned sopranos and altos formed by Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale last Fall. After Sunday’s concert one hopes to hear more from them.

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

Oratorio Chorale Misfires, Then Hits the Mark

Oratorio Chorale
Woodfords Congregational Church
Mar. 5, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

I like to listen to new music, but sometimes I have to remind myself that, like all music ever composed, 99.9 percent of it is ephemeral. Not merely fleeting in time, but rather easily forgettable.

I was looking forward to hearing the revitalized Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson, perform Nico Muhly’s “Bright Mass with Canons,” (2005), but alas it was no “1812 Overture.” That’s a joke, son. The canons refer to a simple sort of fugue, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” that pervades the mass. Why it is called bright, I have no idea, except that it sounds good on paper.

The opening night was at Woodford’s Congregational Church, and there will be two performances today (Mar. 6) at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Brunswick.

Muhly, born in 1981, is a sort of compositional wunderkind who, in addition to other feats, had an opera of his (“Two Boys”) performed at the Met, which then commissioned another one, to be staged in 2019-2020, based on the Hitchcock movie “Marnie.”

The mass has some nice atmospheric touches, like the imitation of flowing water in the Sanctus and Benedictus, but essentially, in the composer’s own words, it “(creates) a flurry of sound to fill the space in the sanctuary.” Some of it is actually irritating, like the low pedal points on the organ that made one wonder if something was wrong with the heating system.

The organ was Muhly’s primary mistake. If the object is to imitate early English polyphony, the mass has to be sung a cappella. Otherwise the precise intervals at the juxtaposition of melodic lines cannot be heard at all.

The chorus and soloists gave it their best shot, but the cannons misfired.

The lovely Dvorák Mass in D, Op. 86, was a different matter entirely. The organ works well in what is essentially a homophonic composition, although the composer breaks into a fugue every time the concatenation of voices suggests it.

Its beauties are too many to list, but the quartet at the end, with the individual voices entering one by one, was a high point, set off by the gentle conclusion of the “dona nobis pacem.” One could almost hear the voices of Dvorák’s friends and family in the country chapel for which it was written. The entire work is a hymn to Pan, the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”

The soloists, Deborah Selig, soprano, Margaret Lias, mezzo-soprano, Gregory Zavracky, tenor, and John David Adams, bass baritone, were uniformly excellent, with enough volume to fill the large expanse of Woodfords Church. They should sound even better in Sunday’s smaller venue.

The chorale was more enthusiastic in the second half of the program, with a full range of dynamics, but not quite enough power in the bass line. The latter is still hard to do in Maine, whose Russian community is too far from Portland.

The Dvorák made the evening more than worthwhile, and the program was short, about an hour in length, with 40 minutes of that time filled with melody, leaving time to caucus.

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

Oratorio Chorale’s “Prodigies” Does Not Disappoint

Oratorio Chorale
Woodfords Congregational Church
Nov. 21, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

The Oratorio Chorale’s “Prodigies” concert, Saturday night at Woodfords Congregational Church, examined many aspects of that vexed question, while presenting each in the best possible light. Director Emily Isaacson has mastered the art of combining chorus and orchestra, and the Maine Chamber Ensemble sounded the best it has in years.

The program opened with a work by a child prodigy, Henry Purcell, (1659-1695), written, however, when his genius had fully matured. His “Oh Sing Unto the Lord,” (1688) often sounded like Handel, but more complex (and a little better written). The vocal part is extremely difficult, with the chorus treated as an orchestra, offering varied instrumental combinations. It was written in a day when British households entertained themselves by singing seven-part madrigals.

The orchestral “symphony” itself is also brilliant, both at setting off the choral and recitative sections, and solo, with fugal writing that seems to come as easily to Purcell as to Bach.

It was followed by a premiere of “The Window,” a setting of a poem by Conrad Aiken, written by Christopher Stacknys (b. 1997) of Falmouth, now a sophomore at the Juilliard School. The composition was quite professional in its cycling from harmony to dissonance and back.

His musicality, however, was called into question by a performance of the first movement of the Chopin Concerto No. 1 in E minor. After a lovely opening by the string orchestra, the piano came in like a bull in a china shop, Stacknys apparently overcompensating for the acoustics of an unknown venue.

The performance was brilliant, too fast, and technically flawless. The music got lost in a cloud of notes. A concerto is always a contest between the soloist and the conductor; in this case, Isaacson lost the battle for control of tempo. The large audience loved it.

The two anthems by Mendelssohn (1809-1847), which followed intermission, “Jesu meine Freude” (1828) and “Christie, du Lamm Gottes” (1827) were delightful, lively and perfectly balanced. Any resemblance to the work of J.S. Bach, which the 18-year-old composer had been studying intensely, was purely intentional.

Isaacson saved he most astounding feat for last, a “Te Deum” (1769) written by Mozart when he was 13. He could orchestrate, write fugues, and invent choral harmonies which neither Bach nor Purcell would have disowned. He is one of the great composers whom we can honestly regret losing at an early age.

The concert will be repeated today (Sunday, Nov. 22) at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Brunswick, at 3:00 and 6:00 p.m.

Prodigies at the Oratorio Chorale

The Oratorio Chorale’s concert, on Nov. 21 at Woodfords Congregational Church, will be devoted to youthful music by three child prodigies: Mozart, Mendelssohn and England’s greatest composer, Henry Purcell (1659-1695).

The Purcell anthem selected by music director Emily Isaacson, “O Sing Unto the Lord,” is thought to have been composed when he was 14, although it is difficult to date many of Purcell’s compositions. (Even the name of his father is in dispute.)

Purcell died at the age of 46, Mozart at 35 and Mendelssohn at 38. There is a Romantic tendency to associate early death with musical genius; think of Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, as well as the above, but I’m not sure the facts bear that out.

In Purcell’s time, when people married at 12 and became admirals in the British Navy at 14, (those of Family, with good connections at Court) 46 was a ripe old age. Life expectancy was about 35. Mozart may well have been poisoned, and Mendelssohn worked himself to death, perhaps overcompensating for the death of his beloved sister, Fanny.

Schubert, like Beethoven and Schumann, died of syphilis, and Chopin of tuberculosis. Perhaps, as some have suggested, we owe a large number of masterworks to disease.

Neither is early genius a predictor of early demise. St.Saêns, who could play all of the Beethoven sonatas from memory before he was a teenager, is one example. A Renaissance man, he started composing at age 6 and died at 86.

It is customary to lament what might have been, had composers not departed this earth so soon, but I’m not sure that we have lost that much. Perhaps they had already said whatever was on their minds. Music channeled from the beyond by various mediums generally leaves something to be desired.

On a more serious note, it is quite possible that the quality of their compositions might have declined with age. I’m thinking of the Romantic poet Wordsworth, who, unlike Keats and Shelley, lived to be 80, writing more and more pedestrian boilerplate after a brilliant youth.

The Oratorio Chorale concert will include Henry Purcell’s, “O Sing unto the Lord,” the Felix Mendelssohn Chorale: “Jesu meine Freude,” written when the composer was 16, a Mozart Te Deum, written when he was 13, and Christopher Staknys’ “The Window,” a premiere of his newly written choral work. Staknys, who recently entered Juilliard, is already known as a piano virtuoso. He will play Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 in E-minor with the Maine Chamber Ensemble.

The concert will be repeated on Sun., Nov. 22, at 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Brunswick.