Matthew Halls - Live Review - Oregon Festival - (2)

10 July 2011
Marilyn Farwell

History and legend tell us that women who want to be famous ought to consider martyrdom. St. Cecilia was the last of three women to be honored under the Oregon Bach Festival's theme this year, "In Praise of Women."

Like the others - Dido and Joan of Arc - she gained her fame by dying: Dido for love, Joan for her country, and Cecilia in the second century for her Christian beliefs.

For vague reasons, she became the patron saint of music in the Renaissance.

The festival presented a concert of English poetry and music in Cecilia's honor while at the same time introducing us to the English conductor and baroque specialist, Matthew Halls. Halls demonstrated an incisive yet expressive technique that made for an scintillating concert.

The program began with Henry Purcell's "Welcome to all the pleasures" from 1683. This delicate piece asks for a small ensemble mainly of strings, but its delicacy was lost in the Silva Concert Hall.

The instrumental group, especially the three upper strings, was dazzling, and Halls nicely elicited the details of rhythm and vibrato less texture from them.

Countertenor Reginald Mobley displayed a sweet voice that needed a smaller venue, and Dann Coakwell sang "Beauty, thou scene of love" with intelligence.

The concert's surprising gem was Benjamin Britten's "Hymn to St. Cecilia," written in the early 1940s employing W.H. Auden's poetry.

The inclusion of Britten's music, often in tandem with Purcell's, has been one of the joys of this year's festival. Auden's three-part poem has variety and depth, sometimes too much of the latter for song.

Britten responded with intriguing harmonies and contrasting musical styles. The small a cappella chorus was nearly perfect.

The sopranos sang together with unbelievable purity, like, dare I say it, a British boys' choir. When they sang solos, these same women sang with beautiful, fearless vibratos. Kathy Romey, who prepares these choruses, deserves much credit for the discipline and beauty of this choral number.

The concert ended with George Friderich Handel's "Ode for St. Cecilia's Day," after a famous poem by John Dryden. Handel's work resounds with musical word painting, just as Dryden's poem displays playful onomatopoeia such as the "double, double, double beat" of the drum.

This extended work showcased the magical talents of festival favorites Guy Few on the trumpet and Lorna McGhee on the flute, as well as two vocal soloists, soprano Robin Johannsen and tenor Thomas Cooley.

Johannsen sang with ease and beauty, ornamenting much of her music and singing the rapid passages with aplomb. Cooley is not a baroque tenor, and he blustered his way through the runs and trills.

Halls again displayed his precision, but his unwillingness to conduct the soloists led, in one case, to a cello solo that was more romantic than baroque. The Oregon Bach Festival orchestra and the festival's Berwick Chorus were magnificent.

Thanks in great part to Halls' adroit conducting, Cecilia reigned luminously on Thursday evening. But luckily, we have had other female models to praise during this festival, the very alive Marin Alsop and Monica Huggett.

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