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Virtuosic Latin choir packs Beall Hall

  • Jun 29, 2011
From the Eugene Register-Guard Wednesday June 29 By Terry McQuilkin When Schola Cantorum de Venezuela first visited Eugene during the 2006 Oregon Bach Festival, audience members were mesmerized by the ensemble’s virtuosity, urgency and sheer energy. Thus it was no surprise that Beall Hall was completely full Saturday evening, when the chamber-choir contingent of Schola offered a program of contemporary works from the Americas. The 15 works on the program used a variety of texts, and translations were displayed unobtrusively above the stage. But for most of the pieces, the text was just a starting point: Conductor Maria Guinand’s 27 singers served as storytellers, not so much through the words themselves, but by the way they clothed these words in complex harmonies and rhythms, thick textures and bright timbres, often with accompanying choreography. In one case, there were really no words at all. Using vocables and animal sounds, Canadian composer Murray Schafer’s “Magic Songs” evoked an ancient (if imaginary) world where the primal relationship between human and animal/spirit world was celebrated communally. In one of the eight songs, “Chant to make the stones sing,” glissandos and thick tone clusters created an ethereal, spellbinding effect. Schola performed two works by Catalan-born Alberto Grau, the ensemble’s founder: “Abraham” from his “Magnificat,” in which rhythmic, repetitive incantations alternated with complex contrapuntal writing, and “Binnamma” which began fairly conventionally as a modern setting of a Catalan song, but morphed into frenzied, ritualistic chant. “La Fiesta de San Juan,” by Venezuelan composer Beatriz Bilbao, vividly portrays the joyous clamor of a three-day celebration that is an amalgam of Christian and pagan traditions and is characterized by endless drumming and dancing. Assistant conductor Pablo Morales led the ensemble effectively. Late in the program, the choir delivered a hypnotic performance of American composer Eric Whitacre’s most frequently performed work, “Cloudburst,” set to a text by Mexican poet Octavio Paz. Using finger snaps, piano and percussion, the composer proved remarkably effective in simulating a thunderstorm. The concert opened with two works in which the words and melodic lines — rather than the sonic effect — were of primary importance. The “Lacrimosa” from Cuban composer Calixto Álvarez’s “Requiem” combined harmonically straightforward choral writing with doleful laments that represent the mourning of Santería’s high priests. The fairly conventional “Psalm 114” by Argentine composer Roberto Caamaño, showcased the vibrant sound and clear enunciation of Guinand’s choir. The pair of works opening the second half had a folksonglike simplicity that contrasted with the athleticism of most of the evening’s fare. The sweet and charming “Cancion de la Molinera” by Venezuelan Antonio Estévez was followed by “Se equivocó la paloma,” a melancholic song by Argentine Carlos Guastavino. For much of the evening, I was dazzled by Schola’s technical prowess and vigor. But these two songs still linger in my mind for their unpretentious beauty and for the way they were delivered — with sincerity and heart. The ensemble will repeat the program on July 6 at Trinity Cathedral in Portland. Terry McQuilkin, an adjunct instructor of composition at the University of Oregon, reviews classical music for The Register-Guard.