Oratorio Chorale

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After 27 years, new leadership at Oratorio Chorale

Peter Frewen guided choir since 1986
The Times Record, July 19, 2013

PETER FREWEN, director of the Oratorio Chorale since 1986, stepped down following the final spring concert this year. Frewen’s successor is Brunswick native Emily Isaacson.

A staple of classical music in the Midcoast has been the Oratorio Chorale, founded in 1974 by Bowdoin College alumnus C. Russell Crosby, as part of an extension of the Bowdoin College Chorus and the old Brunswick Choral Society.

Peter Frewen was selected as music director of the Oratorio Chorale in 1986. Frewen, an alumnus of Pierre Monteux’s Domaine School for Orchestral Conducting in Hancock, as well as music schools across the nation, oversaw major changes in the chorale’s makeup and direction. Under Frewen, the chorale became fully auditioned. The former associations with the Bowdoin choruses, Brunswick Choral Society and Bach Choir ended.

“We were a smaller, more professional choir,” Frewen said. “And more nimble. We were able to reach out for different kinds of music and do things that the larger choirs couldn’t do.”

Peter Frewen announced his retirement as artistic director of the chorale effective after the spring performance this year. He had served in the role for 27 years.

During his tenure, the chorale has performed a wide range of music from the Renaissance to the present day. Highlights have included performances of Mozart’s Requiem with internationally known soprano Barbara Bonney; Maine premieres of Ronald Perera’s The Outermost House, with author Henry Beston’s daughter, poet Kate Barnes, as narrator; Bryan Johansen’s Lux Aeterna, with PSO principal cellist James Kennedy; and Dominick Argento’s Jonah and the Whale.

The chorale’s first commissioned work, “Pravasa, Travels of the Guitar,” by Vineet Shende, was premiered in spring 2013, with a preview at the Portland Conservatory of Music’s Back Cove Contemporary Festival.

Alternating with contemporary compositions were concerts of works by Bach (including a dozen cantatas, motets and chorales), Handel, Haydn, Mozart and other great classical composers; 20th-century pieces by a variety of British composers; works by Gilbert and Sullivan; and favorite songs by Cole Porter, Fats Waller and more.

Frewen also founded the Maine Chamber Ensemble, which still performs with the chorale on a regular basis. However, the ensemble has grown beyond its role as “backup” to the Oratorio Chorale, and has become a performing organization in its own right.

Frewen was a major proponent of new music.

“One of my operating premises,” he said in a 2008 interview, “is that music is a living art form, and that it’s important for me as an artist, it’s important for the performers and it’s important for the audience that has any interest in the art of music to be in touch with what’s new, what’s going on, in some respect or other. So almost every season I program music that is at least 20th century.”

It’s fitting that his last performance with the Oratorio Chorale was the world premiere of “Pravasa: Travels of the Guitar,” which was commissioned by the chorale for Frewen’s last time at the helm. Written by Vineet Shende, a Bowdoin music professor and guitar aficionado, as well as a former chorale member, the work encompassed the early history of the instrument that would one day become known as the guitar, from its earliest appearance in what is now Pakistan, to the Middle East, where it would one day become the oud, to China, where it was known as the pipa, and back to the Middle East, where the oud combined with multiple tonalities and rhythms.

The text was drawn from poetry from the regions at the time when the various instruments were coming into use.

Frewen’s successor is Brunswick native Emily Isaacson. She has long ties to the music and arts scene in the area, and credits the town of Brunswick with the success of her music career.

NEXT WEEK: The Oratorio Chorale’s new maestro.

Portland Press Herald, November 19, 2012

Concert Review: Oratorio Chorale in accord with Mozart and Mass



Oratorio Chorale

WHERE: Orion Performing Arts Center, Topsham


The Oratorio Chorale, under Peter Frewen, is always pushing the envelope. The opening concert of their 2012-2013 season, Saturday night at the Orion Center for the Performing Arts, was no exception, featuring Schubert’s gigantic Mass No. 6 in E-flat Major with an expanded Maine Chamber Ensemble.

The program began with three religious works by Mozart, ranging from the deceptively simple to the ultimate in counterpoint: the early “Sancta Maria, mater Dei,” the complex “Misericordia Domini,” and the familiar “Ave verum corpus,” all beautifully sung and accompanied. The delineation of fugal voices in the “Misericordia,” which alternates between joy and sorrow, was particularly impressive.

Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” is one of those works that is so familiar that it’s rarely heard live, which is a shame, since it deserves its popularity. The Maine Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Frewen, gave it a fine, lively rendition, while the size of the orchestra emphasized its intimate nature. (It probably would have been played behind a curtain at an aristocratic soiree.)

The first two works on the program, however, were primarily an appetizer for the Schubert Mass No. 6, written during the last months of his short life. (He died of syphilis at the age of 31.)

Traditional in form, with considerable fugal writing to conclude most sections, the Mass relies primarily upon tonal color to create the appropriate emotional response in the worshipper. It is fierce, sorrowful, reverent and joyful in turn, but never sentimental. The power of the orchestra and chorus was revealed almost immediately in a fortissimo passage during the Kyrie, which also demonstrated a fine balance of forces.

This balance was not always maintained throughout the lengthy performance, primarily because of the size of the orchestra, but was generally very good. Even Schubert must have bemoaned the scarcity of basses in church choirs, since he gives them all the help he can with trombones and other deep bass instruments reinforcing their parts.

Where other composers have emphasized the quiet coming of the spirit in the Benedictus, Schubert turns it into a march, which is surprising at first but soon seems inevitable. The Credo includes a waltz, another pleasant surprise.

The weakest parts of the performance were the solos, trios and quartets. With some notable exceptions, the voices, while perfect in the chorus, were not quite strong enough to soar over the orchestra as they should. Still, the overall effect was glorious.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: