Great Music in December

bach choir photo

Bach Choir of Pittsburgh

The organizations of the Pittsburgh Music Alliance are presenting music all through the month of December. Have a look at the schedule below, and click on the event titles for more information. We look forward to sharing great music with you!

Bach Choir: Holiday Happenings
Sat., Dec. 6 & Sun., Dec. 7, 2014 at St. Agnes Center at Carlow University

Chatham Baroque, Presented by Chamber Music Pittsburgh: Masters of the Baroque
Monday, December 8, 2014, 7:30 at the 20th Century Club in Oakland

Rebecca Rollett, Artistic Director of the Pittsburgh Camerata

Rebecca Rollett, Artistic Director of the Pittsburgh Camerata

Renaissance & Baroque: New York Polyphony, performing “Wondrous Birth, O Wondrous Child
Saturday, December 13, 2014, 8:00pm at Calvary Episcopal Church

Pittsburgh Camerata: Recounting the Nativity
Friday, Dec. 12, 2014, 8:00pm at Mt. Lebanon Lutheran Church
Sunday, December 14, 2014, 3:00pm at Sixth Presbyterian Church
Saturday, December 20, 2014, 8:00pm at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church

Chatham Baroque: Fête Parisienne
Friday Dec. 19, 7pm at St. James Parish in Sewickley
Sat., Dec. 20, 2014, 8:00pm at Synod Hall
Sun., Dec. 21, 2014, 2:30pm at Campbell Memorial Chapel of Chatham University

Chatham Baroque: Andrew Fouts, Patricia Halverson, and Scott Pauley

Chatham Baroque: Andrew Fouts, Patricia Halverson, and Scott Pauley

Posted in Bach Choir of Pittsburgh, Chatham Baroque, Events, Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society, Pittsburgh Music Alliance, Renaissance & Baroque, The Pittsburgh Camerata | Tagged | Leave a comment

Thoughts on the November 16 Bach Choir concert, by an Occasional Reviewer : )

by Rebecca Rollett, Artistic Director of The Pittsburgh Camerata

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the Bach Choir’s performance of Handel’s Occasional Oratorio. This is a piece which I knew existed, but that’s about as far as my knowledge of it ran, and it turns out I’m not alone. In a brief talk prior to the performance, Artistic Director Thomas Douglas asked how many in the room had heard a performance of the work. Not a single hand was raised.

Douglas went on to explain the circumstances under which the work was written. Briefly, Handel had retired after a highly unsuccessful year. We modern conductors think we have it bad, but Handel was the underwriter for all of his concerts and productions, and if, for whatever reason, an insufficient number of people attended the performances and he had to cut the run short, he could lose a LOT of money. So “classical” music of the time functioned more like a Broadway play, except that, generally speaking, you were your own primary or sole underwriter.

But to return to Douglas’s remarks, he noted that 1746 was a time of great national unrest, as George II had returned to Hanover and “Bonnie Prince Charlie” was threatening an invasion on the Scottish border. Handel, despite ill health, was prevailed upon to write an oratorio to hearten the populace.

handel-fpSince he had only three weeks to write it, Handel, who was not opposed to the practice at the best of times, cribbed a great deal of the material from earlier works, particularly Zadok the Priest, Messiah, and Israel in Eygpt.

In honor of the political situation, Douglas chose to wear a kilt to conduct the performance. Or so he said. I think he just liked the idea of having a sporran available in which to secret cough drops, a handkerchief, and all the other things we conductors need but don’t have a good place to put. I may try it myself some time.

Prior to attending the concert, the one thing I pretty sure would be the case about the performance is that it wouldn’t be an oratorio performed in the standard “stand up and sing for x number of hours” oratorio format.

After all, Handel developed the oratorio form because, as an entrepreneur, he discovered numerous advantages to it:

  • you could perform them during Lent and other solemn seasons in which secular entertainments were discouraged or banned,
  • you could save a great deal of money up front on the spectacular costumes and complex machinery expected of any popular opera
  • you could get away with a few really good soloists, as opposed to a houseful of divas/divos,
  • you saved a ton of money on stage directors, props and people to disburse them, dance masters and troupes, and the various other accoutrements of a Baroque stage production, and most importantly,
  • a whole lot more of the gate would be going straight into your pocket.

But Douglas is steeped in the stage, and not a fan of the expected. And as a result, the Social Hall in East Liberty Presbyterian was a constantly-shifting tableau of singers and soloists.

In many ways, it was the ideal venue for such a production. The Social Hall has a large main floor, balconies running the length of the room on both sides, a dramatic double staircase at the back of the room, and a stage area in the front. Douglas used just about every possible configuration of the singers, mostly to good effect.

The one place where this venue falls short for a choral performance is in the acoustics. “Dead as a doornail” wouldn’t be an entirely accurate description of the room, but it isn’t very “warm,” in the acoustical sense, and just a little bit more reverb would have really helped out the soloists in particular. The little reverb it has decays flat, and this occasionally produced pitch difficulties when the orchestra and singer(s) were separated by a good distance.

I attended a Quantam Theater production of an opera a year ago or so, and they used very subtle miking of the singers. It was quite effective and really helped to overcome the inherent acoustical disadvantages of the space. Because of the numerous soloists in last night’s performance and their deployment in multiple spaces it would have been almost impossible to do, but almost all of the soloists would have benefitted to a degree from some help overcoming the spacial sonic limitations.

But let’s talk about the music.

The small orchestra of 14 musicians was good to excellent for the most part. Amazingly, the violins, who were sawing away pretty much without respite for the entire two hours, held up their end of things with verve and assurance. The oboists were also extremely busy, and Jim Gorton’s mini-concerto which began the third portion of the work was stunning. The orchestra was in the center of the room, with choir risers on either side and audience seating in front and behind the orchestra. As a result, because I was sitting at the back of the room, the conductor was facing me. You don’t think about how accustomed you are to seeing a faceless conductor until you have the opposite experience. It was very interesting, and I was able to appreciate the absolute clarity with which Douglas conducts.

Although the orchestra was comprised of modern instruments, and they were playing in a fairly modern interpretation of Baroque style, there was one aspect of the performance which turned out to be absolutely authentic. I was unaware of this until after the concert, and I think Douglas should have included this factor in his opening remarks, as I think it would have heightened the audience’s enjoyment. What might this possibly be, you may ask?

Well, I knew the Occasional Oratorio wasn’t performed very often, but it turns out that apparently no set of orchestral parts exists anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Possibly in the Eastern, but I don’t think they checked. This was a surprise to the good folks in the Bach Choir admin offices, as Barenreiter’s catalogue lists a set of parts. However, they lie. The only thing that exists is a full score.

Thomas Douglas, Artistic Director of the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh

Thomas Douglas, Artistic Director of the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh

So Douglas put his CMU connections to work and contracted an army of student labor to notate parts from the full score. And, very much like a Handel premiere back in the 18th century, parts were still coming in right up to the opening performance on Saturday night.

This also led to one of those wonderful moments you only get in a live performance.Because of the afore-mentioned central location of the orchestra, the bass player was only about four feet away from the first row of audience chairs. So when he attempted to quickly put up the part for the next chorus, somewhere during Part I, a number of pages of music flew to the floor. An alert audience member gathered up the sheets the bass player couldn’t get to and tucked them back on his music stand. You don’t get to see THAT on your CD!

As for the choir, they were extremely well-drilled, both in the “choralography,” if you will, and more importantly the music. The sound was generally very good, although it would have benefitted from better vowel matching. But I was particularly impressed with how cleanly they sang the many florid choruses. And despite the difficulties of ensemble when the singers were spread all over the room, ensemble was only occasionally an issue, and generally a minor one at that, which is impressive.

There were a number of soloists. This is mainly due to an artistic choice on Douglas’s part. One of the difficulties of performing Handel oratorios for an organization in which the choir is the central focus is that essentially all of them consist of endless da capo arias with infrequent choral interpolations. This work is no exception—by my count it consists of 13 choruses, one chorus with solo, two duets, and 29 recitatives and/or arias.

Douglas chose to deal with this in a couple of ways in addition to spreading around the solo work. He made judicious cuts of a number of solos, and chose several of the others to have the full sections sing. Depending on the section, this was more or less effective. The sopranos were particularly good on “Fly from threatening vengeance, fly.” On the other hand, the bass aria, sung by the whole section, suffered from ensemble problems, both within the ensemble and as a result of their being a good ways away from the orchestra. That said, it makes a nice contrast to constant solos to have a single section sound.

Douglas also varied the sonority by having two of the choruses sung just by the core singers (25 singers, out of a total ensemble of 74.) These were especially lovely to me, as I personally prefer the “historically informed” choral sound which uses a great many less singers and less vibrato. On the other hand, the double quartet he used in Hallelujah, your voices raise was almost inaudible.

As to the soloists, as mentioned, almost all of them would have greatly benefitted from miking. Soprano Nicole Tascarella was one of the few exceptions, and her aria was powerfully sung. Ben Filippone’s aria was well-sung but often difficult to hear over the orchestra.

As with the chorus, the soloists sang from all over the room, and some of them moved around during their aria. This led to another wonderful “live performance” moment. Sitting across the aisle from me was a woman and her guide dog, and during Jon Erik Schreiber’s tenor aria, said dog went on full alert as Schreiber moved up the aisle towards his mistress. She gave him a reassuring pat, and he looked around a bit more, sighed, and started licking some phantom speck of food off of the bluestone floor. Since the aria was The Lord hath heard my prayer, it seemed especially appropriate.

So although I may feel that musically the evening would have benefitted from the choir singing from the risers the whole time, if Douglas had gone with the standard choral static format I would have missed some fun moments. And I have to confess that a full evening of Handel, lovely as it is, can definitely benefit from a bit of visual variety.

Finally, I want to commend the Bach Choir singers for managing to move all over the place, on a hard floor, without covering up the music during which they were moving. That’s no easy feat! Altogether it was a fun evening, and I thank the Bach Choir for making it happen.

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Kristen Linfante Writes on Chatham Baroque

photo 1 This past week I had the pleasure of attending Chatham Baroque’s season opener, A Musical Banquet at both Synod Hall and at Chatham University’s Campbell Memorial Chapel. I also had the great fortune of performing on the concert with my beloved CB colleagues Andrew Fouts (baroque violin), Patricia Halverson (viola da gamba and violone), and Scott Pauley (theorbo and baroque guitar). As always, CB’s programming was creative, insightful, and enjoyable. Granted, I am a bit biased being a viola player since the program featured not one, not two, not three, but FOUR violists on stage! It is quite rare when violists outnumber violinists in any performance. In addition to myself, Karina Schmitz (baroque viola) Matthew Hettinga (baroque viola), Allison Edberg Nyquist (baroque violin and viola), and Adam Pearl (chamber organ) joined Chatham Baroque for this musical feast. The program featured seventeenth century string band music influenced by the musical trends in Austria and Germany. Johann Hermann Schein, Johann Heinrich Schmeltzer, Heinrich Biber, and Antonio Bertali were the featured composers. (While Bertali was Italian, he spent most of his career in Vienna, and was heavily influenced by the Austro-German style.)

“Reviewing” a concert that I performed on seems a bit self-indulgent to say the least, so I will refrain from doing so. Instead, I’ve chosen to write about the experience of preparing for these concerts. The concerts took place on Saturday, October 18th and Sunday, October 19th. Rehearsals began bright and early on the previous Wednesday, October 15th. We spent most of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday delving deeply into the works to be performed. From the start I was especially inspired and humbled by the fact that this concert was dedicated in memory of Emily Norman Davidson (1967-2003), one of Chatham Baroque’s founding members.   To bring even more poignancy to the week, both Andrew and Allison performed portions of the concert on Emily’s violin, which was recently brought back to Pittsburgh.

photo 2Much of the music on the program was written in a style called “stylus fantasticus” or “fantastic style”. In 1650 the music theorist Kircher wrote, “stylus fantasticus is especially suited to instruments. It is the most free and unrestrained method of composing, it is bound to nothing, neither to any words nor to a melodic subject.”

One of the things that I love about performing in the baroque style is that freedom of expression, improvisation; etc is not only encouraged but expected. Therefore, preparing for this type of concert was quite unique. Rehearsals were not focused around making a permanent musical blueprint that would simply be regurgitated in concert. Instead, preparation was focused on connecting musically on such an intimate level that flexibility and improvisation in each individual’s playing was felt almost automatically by the other players. There was constant give and take; constant creative spontaneity and constant connection. We breathed together, we phrased together, and we responded to each other on an almost telepathic level by the time the concerts came around. What an incredible experience! This is why I love being a musician. For me, music is the glue that connects human beings on a deep level. The connection happens both on stage among the performers and with the audience through a shared emotional experience.

I have included a few photos from the week leading up to the concerts. I hope you enjoy this “sneak peak” into the evolution of music making with Chatham Baroque!

Kristen Linfante is the Executive Director of Chamber Music Pittsburgh, as well as being a career musician.

photo 3

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Another Wonderful Performance by Pittsburgh Camerata

I teach a course in which we ask a question: Does beauty exist? The purpose of the question lies in understanding the ways in which we define art. The conversation typically moves through the academic threads of reason and logic, as it should because it is after all a course in a university. At the end of the conversation, however, I conclude by smiling silently and putting on a piece of choral music. I let it sit there for a while and then say, “For all we want to talk about beauty, at the end of the day there is something that hits us in a place that is beyond logic and analysis,” and then putting my fist to my stomach, add, “that hits us right here and for which there are no words.” I wish that I could have taken my class to the performance by the Pittsburgh Camerata last night because it hit in a place beyond thoughts and words.

I will single out one moment, in their performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in g. The piece is moving in many ways, and it travels beautifully between a range of emotions expressed. In the midst of it all, Vaughan Williams has individual voices rise through the choral textures, and in the process builds these beautiful dialogues — between soloists, between soloist and ensemble — that are so wonderfully affecting. The interplay has a sophisticated composition and history that Camerata’s Artistic Director Rebecca Rollett can explain far better than I (and you can find her discussion by clicking here). I want to report on the result of that mastery, and the result is nothing less than beauty. Two voices of Camerata deserve special praise, those of soprano Kathryn Copeland Donaldson and tenor Jon Erik Schreiber, whose artistry was moving and who indeed evoked that place that we try to describe but for which we ultimately come up short when we have only mere words with which to work.

The work of the Pittsburgh Music Alliance is making people ever more aware of the great music performances happening in our city. If you have never attended a performance by Pittsburgh Camerata, then I encourage you to make the next one. Take an evening to remind yourself of beauty.

–Andrew Swensen

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Pittsburgh Camerata Performs Reinventing the Renaissance

Congratulations to Rebecca and members of the Pittsburgh Camerata on a lovely concert, “Reinventing the Renaissance,” on Saturday. The Tallis “Lamentations” and Vaughan Williams Mass that made up the first half were sublime — made me close my eyes and just listen to the voices and complex harmonies and changing rhythms. The second half showcased the talents of the singers wonderfully. In particular, for me, Ousseley’s “O Saviour” was a perfect match for the octet, the men were superb on “Drink to Me Only”, and the quartet was excellent on “Never Weather-Beaten Sail”. Kudos to Rebecca for the interesting musical selections and the detailed program notes available online — they helped me catch the references to the earlier works in the 19th century pieces. Bravo!

Arlie Nogay

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The Newberry Consort: A Review by Rebecca Rollett

Renaissance & Baroque: The Newberry Consort
 
It may seem an odd thing to say in a review of a concert of medieval music, but thank heavens for technology. It really enhanced my enjoyment of Rosas das Rosas: Cantigas De Santa Maria, in a couple of ways.
 
The first was practical. My daughter is in Amsterdam this coming week for a conference, and had driven in from St. Louis to drop off her two kids, ages four and eight, for grandma to babysit. Being as I haven’t had young children around the house for more than a decade, I’m pretty much out of the babysitter loop. So we all got dressed up, I packed my bag full of digital gadgets, and we headed over to Synod Hall. Without said digital gadgets, I’m not sure they would have made it through.
 
But even more important was the wonderful slide show which accompanied the performance. It was sufficiently interesting that my eight-year-old grandson followed the words for the entire first half of the concert before succumbing to the lure of a book on the iPad for the second half. Even my granddaughter looked up from the iPhone games from time to time!
 
And it wasn’t just the smaller ones who benefitted from it, either. Although the singing and playing were wonderfully expressive, and the artists portrayed the emotions the words induced, we would have been hard-pressed to know exactly what was going on if we had spent the evening trying to read the translations in a dim hall. I’m not always the biggest fan of “multi-media” presentations, but this was spot on. Not only did we get to see the translated text, we saw it in the context of the original illustrations. Major kudos go to whoever put together the visual presentation.
 
But of course the lion’s share of praise for the production itself goes to Ellen Hargis and David Douglass, who conceived, researched, and compiled this delightful evening. As always when the Newberry Consort is involved you know impeccable scholarship is going to combine with exciting music making, and this program did not disappoint.
 
When the Newberry Consort proposed this program, they informed R&B they would need four additional singers. Since the Managing Director, Gail Luley, is also the Managing Director for The Pittsburgh Camerata, she took the easy path and grabbed several of our singers. So us “locals” listening to the program had the added fun of watching our friends and colleagues on the stage.
 
As to the actual performance, it is hard to know where to start. But I’ll plunge in with this: one of the difficulties of performing medieval music is that we have so little information as to how to do so, even compared to Renaissance music. At least one group, Estampie, came to the conclusion after a decade of attempting to perform this music in an “authentic” manner that perhaps it was a losing battle. Or, as they said in the 1990s:
 
Estampie felt itself committed from the start of its work to ‘authentic performing practice,’ though it always faced the problem that this term had really been coined for Baroque music – which was fully written out.  Medieval music was never fully notated and no instruments have survived from the Middle Ages; besides, there are very few contemporary texts dealing with practical music-making in contrast to music theory.  So a wide range of interpretative techniques have been needed to bring this music to life.  The interesting thing is that musicians are then free, indeed obliged, to set their own stamp on medieval music with their own personal interpretation.  The challenge, accordingly, is to recreate ‘ancient music’ as ‘modern music.
 Estampie tackles the challenge posed by the fluid boundaries between ancient and modern on the basis of its performing knowledge of ancient music and its experience of medieval instruments.  It is not preservation and (often fanciful) recreation of history that dominates but the desire to make room for creative impulses and continually create new musical designs.
 
Estampie ended up taking a somewhat different path than most of the groups performing this music, as they incorporated numerous elements of contemporary rock and new age music into their performances, as well as newly composing a number of works in this sort of medieval/modern synthesis.
 
The Newberry Consort, on the other hand, have taken what seems to me a highly creative approach to the interpretation of medieval music without quite leaving the boundaries of what would have been possible then. Whether it is “authentic” (a term long ago dropped by the early music community) or not, the results are, in a word, marvelous.
 
I’ll begin with the instrumentalists. Although they lost scheduled artist Tom Zajac, a popular performer with Pittsburgh audiences through his visits with Piffaro, and it took two people to replace him, the ensemble seemingly never lost a beat. There were a number of marvelous instrumental effects throughout the evening, including bagpipe drones, various percussive instruments and effects, lutes, zithers, flutes — it was a smorgasbord of instruments, all beautifully played and chosen for their effectiveness in echoing the text. There were also marvelous moments on interplay between the instruments and singers, particular Hargis and Douglass. Of course, they’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice this : )
 
I’m afraid I’m rather biased about the local singers. I know and love them all, and I thought they did a fabulous job. I want to especially note Jon Erik Schreiber, who, along with a two-hour rehearsal that afternoon for the performance had been involved as assistant conductor and singer in a five-hour Bach Choir rehearsal earlier that day. He sounded fresh as a daisy, which I thought was quite remarkable. I thought he was particularly effective in his solo work in Cantiga 422: Madre de Deus, ora pro nos. 
 
Another high point was Benjamin Brown’s confused monk (and for that matter the marvelous flute playing which accompanied him, imitating birdsong.) And I must mention the fabulously beautiful Alegria, Alegria, a hymn about the Resurrection from the viewpoint of the three Marys. It was sung alternately by the three women. The most astonishing part was the re-entry each time of the Alegria refrain. The two remaining women would begin the refrain, and the third women, who had sung the verse as a solo, would join. If you had closed your eyes you would have had no idea whatsoever which combination of two women began the refrain, nor could you tell when the soloist joined them. It was absolutely seamless, and most impressive.
 
I should mention as well the tastefully decorated vocal parts, created by David Douglass and/or Ellen Hargis. There were a number of Middle-Eastern fillips sprinkled in — appropriate given the Moorish influence pervading the continent. Mathew Charles Dean, the narrator who came as part of the consort, did a wonderful job setting the tone, even if we couldn’t understand the language. (And thanks to the slide show, we knew what he was saying in effect.)
 
But the star of the show was Ellen Hargis. Unusually, we almost never heard her soaring soprano — the entire program, with a few momentary exceptions, was in middle to lower voice. But her interpretive powers carried the day in the few sections where there were multiple verses of the same melodic material, and the balance between her and the instruments was generally excellent, despite the low tessitura.
 
Essentially all of the singing was unison, but a couple of thrilling moments, well into the program, perhaps gave us a bit of the feeling of medieval auditors when they heard the first tentative experiments in polyphony. The first such moment ended the first half — in Cantiga 300: Multo deveria, after a number of iterations of the chorus, the singers broke into parallel organum, with the melody doubled at the fifth. It was astonishing how effective this was after hearing 45 minutes or so of monophony.
 
The other instance ended the program. This was Cantiga 10: Rosa das Rosas. After a number of solo verses and “choral” (in the sense of all singers) refrains, on the last refrain they once again broke into parallel organum, and the instrumentalists put down their instruments and joined in as well, and eventually died out as one. It was a stunning end to an amazing program!
 
 
Rebecca Rollett
Artistic Director, The Pittsburgh Camerata
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Festival of Bach: Schedule of Performances Now Online!

The Festival of Bach program of performances is up and ready for your viewing!

Click here to go to the performance schedule for the day.

The Festival of Bach is free and open to the public. We will be accepting goodwill donations at the door, to support the festival and the good work of all the organizations in the Pittsburgh Music Alliance. Please spread the word about this incredible opportunity to hear the breadth of Bach’s genius — great choral works, concertos for three and four harpsichords, the violin concertos, and solo pieces for violin, organ, cello, flute, and lute. There is something for everyone.

The Festival of Bach runs 10:00am to 10:00pm on Saturday, May 10 at Calvary Episcopal Church.

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