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Music Review: Portara Ensemble, singing with luminosity in any language

portara2Portara Ensemble made history at the Cathedral of the Incarnation on Sunday afternoon. Over the years, various vocal ensembles have performed numerous works at the cathedral, singing in Latin, Italian, German, French and English, among other languages. But during a pre-concert chat on Sunday, the composer Matt Walker told the audience that they were in for a treat.

“For the first time ever, a group is going to perform a work in Elvish at this cathedral,” he said.

The occasion was the world-premiere performance of “A Elbereth,” Walker’s setting of an Elvish hymn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Ring. A noted linguist, Tolkien invented a couple of languages – complete with grammar and vocabulary – for his fantasy world of middle earth. The elves serenaded Elbereth, a goddess of the stars, in their hymn.

Female voices dominated Walker’s setting. That seemed only fitting, since their luminous sound readily called to mind the shimmering beauty of Elbereth. Soprano soloist Amy Darrow, for her part, sang with a pure and translucent voice, which suggested the goddess’ ethereal quality. Walker initially arranged the work for mixed choir, violin, cello and harp. The group’s harpist was unavailable for Sunday’s concert, so Portara artistic director Shreyas Patel substituted on piano, with Walker on cello and Zeneba Bowers on violin. The instrumentalists provided the singers with nuanced and sensitive support.

Portara is just three years old, but it has already achieved some significant achievements. In 2011, it gave the Tennessee premiere of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion. On Sunday, the group proved that it was fully committed to being in the premiere business, performing a second world premiere – Patrick Dunnevant’s Three Songs After Adelaide. These three settings of poetry by Adelaide Crapsey – “November Night,” “The Grand Canyon” and “Triad” – were beautifully scored for choral ensemble, with the men’s and women’s voice mixing into lustrous sonic colors. Portara performed the music with simplicity and immediacy.

Throughout Sunday’s performance, various singers took turns reading poetry before each of the songs. This culminated in the afternoon’s big piece – Jonathan Dove’s Passing of the Year. This 25-minute work sets to music the poetry of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, George Peele, Thomas Nashe and Alfred Lord Tennyson. The work proved to be a tour de force for vocal ensemble, with the singers showcasing their ability to produce a variety of vocal colors and textures, often in extreme registers. Portara sang every syllable with unfailing sensitivity, and Patel always keeping the group tightly together.

Hearing two world premieres in one afternoon was a memorable experience, but Portara was just getting warmed up. Later this season, Portara will join forces with Nashville Ballet and the Alias Chamber Ensemble to perform new music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec. Clearly, the best is yet to come.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.