EACC Choir prepares for performance on Friday

This evening the Chancel Choir from Euclid Avenue Congregational Church rehearsed at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Cleveland for our performance at the Jubilation Festival on Friday night, May 21.  Although it is a competition, we are not competing, but we were invited to perform during the judges’ deliberations.  Jubilation starts tomorrow night and concludes on Friday night.  It will be broadcast live on WCLV 104.9 FM beginning at 8:00 PM EDT.  WCLV will stream over the Internet as well.

As you know from past posts here, it hasn’t been the greatest Spring for our church or for the choir, since the destruction by fire of our building, our music and robes (plus everything else in the building), so being invited to perform in such a venue as the cathedral, and on the radio, is such an honor for us.  It has brought a lift to the choir’s spirit, I think. I am really proud of the choir and their hard work to get ready for this appearance.  They sound awesome in the space.  If you’re available, it’s free and should be a good show.

Easter 2010 at Euclid Avenue Congregational Church in Exile

Easter Rainbow above the church in a clear sky
Easter Rainbow above the church in a clear sky
EACC Easter crowd on front church steps at E.30 & Euclid
EACC Easter crowd on front church steps at E.30 & Euclid
Balloon flight 2010
Balloon flight 2010

The congregation of Euclid Avenue Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ celebrated Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010, in the sanctuary of the former First United Methodist Church, East 30th Street and Euclid Avenue, in downtown Cleveland. There was a very large crowd, and the enormous First Church sanctuary was well-filled.

It was a very festive service, and the grief of the previous twelve days was, at least temporarily, set aside to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. There was festive music: Jean Langlais’s “Acclamations” for the organ prelude; Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia;” an arrangement by Mack Wilberg of “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above;” and, of course, the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The mighty Casavant organ got to sing at full volume with the energetic singing of the congregation.

Interim Pastor Terri Young gave a beautiful sermon about just as for the early followers of Jesus, it was necessary to pass through Good Friday in order to get to Resurrection Sunday. In the same way, EACC has passed through the death of the fire in order to be reborn into the new life that God has in store for the congregation.

Pastor Terri also baptized six or seven children, and there was Holy Communion. Rev. Curt Ackley, the Association Minister of the United Church of Christ Western Reserve Association, welcomed representatives from other Western Reserve Association churches who presented greetings from their congregations.

Following the service the congregation celebrated its traditional “Easter balloon release.” Prior to Easter, Sunday School students and other members of the congregation sign church-addressed postcards which are then attached to the strings of hundreds of helium balloons. After the service, each person is given a balloon, and the congregation assembles on the front steps of the church. In response to the Easter Acclamation, “The Lord is risen!” the congregation shouts, “The Lord is risen indeed!” and releases their balloons. This was a stunningly beautiful day, with a clear sky and a slight wind which took the balloons in a northeasterly direction. Just as the balloons were launched, the sun was hidden behind the church steeple and there was a mysterious “rainbow” or “corona” that appeared in the sky above us. Was it God renewing God’s rainbow covenant with our church? It did seem miraculous to have the colors of the rainbow at that particular moment.

The balloon launch was followed by a reception for all in the dining room of the church. After the somber tone of the Palm Sunday service and the palpable grief of just a week ago, it was good to see people set it aside, even momentarily. There is no doubt that there will be many challenges in the weeks, months and years ahead as the church decides on its future. But with God’s help, all is possible.

In honor of Holy Week

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For those who think I’m not thinking about anything but church fires and organ music, not so, and here is a recommendation for Holy Week. It is a wonderful performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion by the Scottish group the Dunedin Consort. There aren’t any star singers here, and it is performed in the somewhat controversial style of one singer per vocal part in the choruses. It has a freshness that is appealing.

The recording also can be downloaded as high-quality MP3s at the Linn Records site. (Linn Records is a small U.K. firm that produces very high quality recordings.)

Stephen Layton’s Goldilocks “Messiah” recording: Just Right

Each year there are multiple new recordings of Handel’s most famous work, Messiah. Since Handel revised the work for each performance that he gave of Messiah, there is no such thing as an “original version,” so most recordings now attempt to recreate some particular performance or other, or occasionally other arrangements (e.g. Mozart’s) of the oratorio. Many of them are outstanding, but it is somewhat refreshing to hear a new recording that is a middle of the road performance, with a nod toward being historically informed, but performed with modern instruments.

Such is Stephen Layton’s new recording of Messiah with that wonderful British vocal ensemble Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia.  The uniformly excellent soloists are Julia Doyle, soprano, Iestyn Davies, countertenor, Allan Clayton, tenor, and Andrew Foster-Williams, bass.  Iestyn Davies is an up-and-coming countertenor, and to my mind is the best of the group.  Andrew Foster-Williams has a lovely, well-produced voice, but it seems a little light for some of the great exclamations required in Handel’s arias, especially “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” which for me the standard will always be John Shirley-Quirk in Coliin Davis’s landmark recording from the mid-1960s.

The recording follows a live London performance with these forces in December 2008.  Polyphony’s annual performances of Messiah are a London tradition, so it is good to have a permanent audio souvenir.

Polyphony’s choral sound is clear and bright, with excellent diction.  A few of Layton’s dynamic choices seem a bit mannered, and I’m not sure what prompted his decision to begin the closing “Amen” chorus a capella, especially since Handel has a figured bass part for the opening of the chorus.

But like Goldilocks’s adventures at the three bears’ house, this recording is neither too hot at the cutting edge of performance practice, nor too cold with no style.  Rather it is a fine sensible and tasteful performance that should be pleasing to a wide audience.

Cleveland Orchestra’s “German Requiem”, plus a new work

This weekend Franz Welser-Möst is conducting the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus in Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) with soprano Nicole Cabell and baritone Russell Braun as soloists. Robert Porco prepared the wonderful Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.  Rarely have I heard this work performed with such clarity and directness, yet with the requisite boldness and tenderness.  Franz is an outstanding choral conductor–a trait not always found in orchestral conductors, even those with talent for opera. The chorus is not left “on their own” to figure out what to do. I have witnessed even such notable conductors as Pierre Boulez and Christoph von Dohnanyi leave the chorus behind in the dust.

With absolutely parochial interest, I note that the Norton Memorial Organ was used in this performance, played by Joela Jones, to give an added sonic “boost” to the bass, but also supporting the vocal lines.  It was mostly not audible, but it was “there,” and I’m glad they used the organ.

Russell Braun has a lovely voice, but he seemed a bit underpowered for this particular performance.  (Or perhaps Franz should have shut down the orchestra a bit more.)  In the single movement that the soprano soloist appears, one has gotten used to hearing light voices (think Kathleen Battle, Dawn Upshaw, or even the German Christine Schäfer). Nicole Cabell, although obviously a lyric soprano, has a darker, richer, more luscious voice.  It made a nice contrast with the “classic” texture of sound in the rest of the performance.

The concert opened with a Cleveland premiere of Chor (for orchestra), a 2003-04 work by German composer Jörg Widmann, who is beginning his two season tenure as the orchestra’s Young Composer Fellow. While it is impossible to judge a complex contemporary work on one hearing, what is not in question is the Cleveland Orchestra’s brilliant performance. The work is in a broad arc with a stupendous central climax marked with ear-splitting rolls on suspended cymbals, strings at extremely high pitch, and, I believe, multiple police whistles. (It was really too loud, and I felt forced to hold my ears.) The pace is slow, with many long notes overlapping one another.  An offstage solo trumpet (the orchestra’s amazing principal trumpet Michael Sachs) started the work with a dialogue with a bowed vibraphone and notes on an accordion (played by the ever-versatile Joela Jones).  The texture and amplitude gradually increase until the climax, then start to dissolve again, but with “speed bumps” along the way–huge interjections by the full orchestra interrupting the quiet flow of the music.  At several points there are quite tonal “chorale”-type passages of an almost of a Brahmsian nature, but always deconstructed, as if the aural equivalent of looking in a funhouse mirror.  The work makes extensive use of quarter-tone playing in all the parts, and the orchestra’s pitch and clarity were quite astonishing.  (After hearing Chor, I am tantalized by what the orchestra would make of Thomas Ades’s monumental and beautiful  Tevot, written for Berliner Philharmoniker.  The orchestra is performing Ades’s Violin Concerto later this season, and Franz has conducted more of his music in the past.  Come on Franz, let’s have Tevot!)

Virtual Farm Boy is constantly complaining about too many standing ovations at concerts in Cleveland, but this is a case where the ovation was richly deserved.  The orchestra is off for a few weeks on European tour and a residency in Vienna.  We’ll look forward to their return in mid-November.

Cleveland Orchestra Rachmaninoff / Janacek spectacular

This weekend the Cleveland Orchestra performed what should be considered a highlight concert of this season. Franz Welser-Möst conducted Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (“Rach 3”) and after intermission Leos Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass” in a new, recently reconstructed early version which is considerably different from the later version usually heard.  The magnificent Ceveland Orchestra Chorus was joined by soloists Measha Brueggergosman, soprano; Nancy Maultsby, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Skelton, tenor; and Raymond Aceto, bass.  The concert opened with Debussy’s “Sirènes” from “Nocturnes.”

Leif Ove Andsnes played the hell out of the Rachmaninoff concerto. I normally think of him as an elegant and refined player; in this case  his elegance was matched by the ferocious virtuosity required for this concerto, which was equalled by Franz Welser-Möst and the orchestra. There were poetic moments, but this was showpiece time.  The standing ovation (which for a change was richly deserved) was spontaneous at the end of this performance.

The star of the Janacek was the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, whose diction in the church slavonic text was impeccable. Their declarations in the Credo movement would make anyone believe.  The soprano soloist has all the best solo bits,  and Measha Brueggergosman was in heroic voice.  She was most impressive in the beginning of the “Sanctus” movement.  She was standing so close to the conductor that at times I was afraid the Franz would clobber her. The rest of the soloists have much less to do.   Stuart Skelton made a brave attempt at the impossible tessitura of the tenor solos; he was, unfortunately, completely covered at times by the chorus and heavy orchestration.  Poor Nancy Maultsby had to sit through the whole affair to sing about four phrases of music.

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra in Cleveland

I turned in my tickets for the Cleveland Orchestra concert on Friday night (Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony) in order to hear the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Tonu Kaljuste, at the Cathedral of St. John in downtown Cleveland.  I made the right choice.

I have several recordings of the Estonian choir, notably music by fellow Estonian Veljo Tormis, but also a landmark recording of the Rachmaninov “All Night Vespers,” so I knew that they were good, but their performance was nothing short of phenomenal, with laser-like precision in sound and intonation.  The Estonians make John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers and other famous choruses sound as if they are singing quarter-tone music.  What was downright eerie was that the Estonians did not seem to be working very hard to do what they were doing.  The discipline required cannot be underestimated.

The Estonian group has recorded  much of the choral music by Arvo Pärt (probably the Estonian composer best known in the West), and the first half of this program was devoted to Pärt’s music.  Only one of the works, “Da pacem Domine,” has been recorded.  The find of this program was Pärt’s 2004-2005 work “L’Abbe Agathon,” a musical parable about an abbot who encounters a leper and demonstrates Christian charity.  Sung in French, it was very moving. A soprano soloist sang the role of the leper, and a baritone soloist was the abbot.  The choir were corporate narrators (in much the same way that the chorus is the narrator in Pärt’s “St. John Passion.”)

The second half opened with an instrumental work by Erkki-Sven Tüür, “Action, Passion, Illusion,” which was also striking, especially the central “Passion” movement, which moved from low string polyphony upward through the string orchestra, ending in an unsettling high string cluster.

The remainder of the program was devoted to Antonio Vivaldi’s setting of Psalm 112, “Beatus vir” for strings, continuo, soloists and choir.  The virtuoso soloists were all drawn from the choir.

As I’ve written before here, I think that there are in general too many standing ovations in Cleveland, but this is one concert that I can honestly and vigorously say deserved the ovation the performers received.  The audience was rewarded with an encore, a meltingly beautiful arrangement of an Estonian Christmas carol, mostly for women’s voices with strings, but in the end with the men humming along on the tune.

This concert has to be considered one of the top concerts of this season.  Cathedral music director Greg Heislman is to be congratulated and thanked for bringing the Estonians.  (The concert was also co-sponsored by the Cleveland Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.)