Months from now, people will still be talking.
Auspicious does not even begin to describe the debut of Ryan Heller's exciting young Portland Vocal Consort. In the Consort's Friday night performance, the 18-voice a cappella chamber choir sprinted out of the gate with an ambitious, wide-ranging and exquisitely sung program that often left me breathless. The buzz has begun.
From the downbeat of Palestrina's Missa O Magnum Mysterium , they established their hallmarks: elegant blend, limpid tone and a bass section that would be the envy of any choir in town. Refinements await them; what's present now is already considerable.
The real revelations for the Consort came after intermission. In choice selections spanning five centuries and three languages, Heller hinted at the stylistic range and chops of his charges. "You like that?" Heller seemed to ask with each stylistically divergent piece. "Then how about this ?"
From a 16th-century antiphonal motet to a Moses Hogan spiritual, the Consort clicked off virtuosic coloratura, strode confidently through slippery harmonies and basically sang their hearts out. Sure it felt more like a warp speed choral history tour than a thoughtfully cohesive program, but so what? What other choirs in town have this type of adventurous spirit?
Opening the program with Palestrina was a bold decision by Heller—the music demands a rightness of intonation and clarity of texture difficult to achieve as voices warm up and settle into a concert. But the singers mostly held up their end of the bargain. Palestrina's perfect architecture doesn't need interpreting—it needs space and light—and Heller coaxed beautifully calibrated sounds from his singers, though I wish he had insisted on better accuracy of ensemble.
The most affecting singing came during Anton Bruckner's extraordinary short motet, Os Justi . In it, the composer stacks up tall blocks of shining harmony, sending soaring voices into the stratosphere before a simple and sublime return to earth. As the critic Virgil Thomson used to write, it "opened up the heavens and brought down the house." Heller feels this music deeply, and the Consort covered it in glorious sound.
A conspicuously large and enthusiastic crowd cheered the choir all night. Heller is on to something. The Consort's next performance is Schütz's St. John Passion , March 7.