Oratorio Chorale

Reviews of the 2013–2014 Season

Review: Oratorio Chorale delivers requiem with power, sweetness

For architectural construction, innovation, melody, counterpoint and deep feeling, Brahms’ German Requiem has no equal.


As a music critic I have attended a sufficient number of Masses to considerably shorten my time in Purgatory, but I would trade them all – by Mozart, Bach or Verdi – for one live performance of Brahms’ German Requiem. In terms of architectural construction, innovation, melody, counterpoint and deep feeling, it has no equal.

And in his selection of passages from Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible, Brahms creates a threnody that reaches far across religious boundaries.


Oratorio Chorale WHERE: Woodfords Congregational Church, Portland WHEN: Sunday

The performance of the requiem Sunday afternoon by the Oratorio Chorale, under the direction of Emily Isaacson at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland, was one of the most moving musical events of the decade.

Brahms’ own transcription for piano four-hands, played by Justin Blackwell and Derek Herzer, was more revelatory of the composer’s intentions, and his unique voice, than the standard version. At times it sounded like his piano concertos and at others like the “Liebeslieder” waltzes.

Soprano Margot Rood and baritone Bradford Gleim added significantly to the effect, but it was the chorale itself that took the honors, with a power that could raise the dead and a sweetness that could make them happy with it.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at:


This review will be updated.



Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine
March 10, 2014

Review: Oratorio Chorale celebrates Shakespeare with fine performance
The chorale bewitches as it combines music with scenes from his plays.

By Christopher Hyde

Anyone who doubts the popularity of classical music should have tried to get a seat at the last of three concerts by the Oratorio Chorale at Bowdoin College Chapel on Sunday. Management stuffed folding chairs into the chapel to the limits set by the fire marshal.

Those who got seats were not disappointed. The concert, celebrating the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with music and scenes from his plays, was the finest performance I have heard from the chorale, now celebrating its own 40th anniversary.

The work of the chorus, under director Emily Isaacson, was enhanced by good and great performances from the Naked Shakespeare Ensemble, soprano Mary Sullivan and accompanist Derek Herzer, who looks astonishingly like the young Mendelssohn, whose music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was the high point of the afternoon.

The program began with action, as members of the female chorus writhed and gestured their way into the chapel, portraying the witches from “Macbeth,” to the music of Verdi’s Witches’ Chorus. The effect was arresting, as was the music.

The comic turns that followed, from “Twelfth Night” and “Cymbeline,” were entertaining but served primarily as backdrops for good modern arrangements of “O Mistress Mine,” contrasting with versions of “Hark, Hark the Lark” by Benjamin Cooke (1734-93) and contemporary composer Matthew Harris.

Settings of “Orpheus with His Lute,” by William Schuman (1910-92) and Lord Mornington (1735-81), framed the tragic tale of Queen Katherine in “Henry VIII,” effectively portrayed by Karen Ball as Katherine, Michael Howard as Henry VII and Mike Levine as Cardinal Wolsey.

The emotional and musical level of the program was ramped up a notch by the appearance of soprano Mary Sullivan in a striking rendition of “Juliet’s Waltz” from Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet,” followed by Mary Fraser, as Juliet, delivering the “Wherefore art thou Romeo” speech.

Sullivan’s version of “Piangea cantando” from Verdi’s “Otello,” was heart-rending as a coda to the tragic conversation of Desdemona (Karen Ball) with her maid Emilia (Mary Fraser). The audience seemed too deeply moved to applaud.

Ralph Vaughan Williams settings for “The Tempest” were a revelation, vying with Debussy for the finest musical portrait of a sunken cathedral, while his galloping “Over Hill, Over Dale” for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was totally uncharacteristic, not necessarily a bad thing.

Benjamin Britten’s “Come Now a Roundel” for the same play showed his genius at writing for the voice, fully revealed by Sullivan’s crystal clear and perfectly pitched interpretation of this difficult score.

By far the high point of the afternoon, however, was the combination of Sullivan’s powerful voice with sopranos Jennifer Bradeen and Carly Anderson in Mendelssohn’s “Come Now a Roundel and a Fairy Song.” The effect was simply ravishing.

The program concluded effectively with a madrigal-like version of “Hand in Hand with Fairy Grace” by Benjamin Cooke, a form in which the chorale had earlier shown its expertise in “It was a Lover and His Lass” from “As You Like it.”

The image of Oberon watching over a sleeping Titania, by Michael Howard and Karen Ball, was a good one to go home with.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.


New Maine Times Review: The Oratorio Chorale stages a spectacle
Posted Tuesday, March 11, 2014 in Culture

By Gina Hamilton

This was not your father’s choral concert…

Emily Isaacson, the Oratorio Chorale’s new director, staged (and there is no other word for it) a performance called “Shakespeare in Concert,” using music and lyrics that were performed during Shakespeare’s plays and later, plays and operas based on works of Shakespeare.  Not much is known about the actual music that was played during the plays, with one potential exception.  That is Thomas Morley’s composition, “O, Mistress Mine,” which is thought to have been performed during Twelfth Night.

However, Shakespeare’s words survive, and that most of the Renaissance compositions were never recorded hasn’t stopped composers to this day from taking the words of the Bard and adding their own music to them.  The concert featured works of Verdi, Matthew Harris, Judith Lang Zaimont, Benjamin Cooke, William Schuman, Lord Mornington, Charles-Francois Gounod, Steven Sametz, Thomas Augustine Arne, Thomas Morley, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Benjamin Britten, Fritz Mendelssohn, and Amy Beach.

Joining the choir were members of the Naked Shakespeare Ensemble, who read scenes in between the musical offerings.  The small ensemble added tiny touches to a basic black outfit – a red shawl here, a simple diadem there, a pair of fairy wings or a Puck nose. The ensemble consisted of Michael Howard, Mike Levine, Mary Frazer, and Karen Ball.

The choir also got into the act – from the female members making an incredible entrance, covered in black shawls, singing Verdi’s Witches’ Chorus, to the choir returning to the nave of the Bowdoin Chapel to sing a bright version of Morley’s “It was a Lover and his Lass.”

Performed to a packed house, with some latecomers left standing, with the sun streaming in through the high stained glass windows, it was possible to experience what audiences in Shakespeare’s day may have experienced – sans the smells and the animals and the colorful props and costuming – at the Globe Theatre.

A lecture by Mary Hunter, professor of Music at Bowdoin, before the performance, put the music we were about to hear in context.

And the excellent soprano Mary Sullivan returned to sing several of the pieces, including “Je veux vivre” (by Charles-Francois Goumod) for Romeo and Juliet, “Piangea cantando” (from Verdi’s Otello), and two versions of “Come now a roundel” (by Benjamin Britten and Felix Mendelsohn) from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  She was occasionally joined by a few sopranos from the chorale – Jennifer Braden and Carly Anderson.  Other members were highlighted in “Hand in Hand with Fairy Grace,” Braden and Anderson, and Kim Compareetto, Anja Forche,Vivien Gray, Ruby Shields-Morse, Jim Parmentier, Andy Pitteroff, and John Todd.

The music was the Oratorio Chorale in very fine voice, and also a rollicking good time. And not only the audience seemed to be having fun; the Chorale also was having fun with this, and that’s half the battle.

One minor complaint, especially for our older bones and bifocals – it was difficult to see and focus on everything from our position midway through the chapel. We understand the desire to give the “Globe” experience, but please, in the future, take pity on those of us who don’t have the range of movement we used to have.

In every other respect, the performance was charming and sparkling.  We look forward to the next performance, of the Brahms Requiem, in early June.

Times Record, Brunswick, Maine
August 2013

Changes at the Oratorio Chorale: Introducing Emily Isaacson

Emily Isaacson, new director of the Oratorio Chorale, has deep ties to the community in Brunswick. “I feel very blessed,” Isaacson said. “I will be working with an incredibly committed group of individuals, deterimined to make the Chorale strong and healthy.”

Isaacson went through an eight-month audition process to replace retiring Peter Frewen. She will be taking the baton in time for the Chorale’s 40th season.

She’s very excited to be returning to Brunswick, which she considers her musical roots. Isaacson’s father was a longtime board member of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, and Isaacson herself was a participant. “I have to credit Lewis Kaplan and Richard Francis for helping me as a 12-year-old soloist,” she said.

She was also a member of the Bowdoin College chorus under Tony Antolini and Sean Fleming, the Maine Youth Orchestra under Paul Ross, and the Maine State Music Theatre. “That experience really helped me with my knowledge of how an orchestra works and fostered an early love of orchestral music,” she said.

Isaacson says that part of being a conductor is being able to “perform” the music and, for that, she credits her experiences with the Theater Project under Al Miller, Lee Paige, Chris Price, and Wendy Poole.

She would like to combine the arts into a larger spectacle, she said. “People come to a classical music event now and sit quietly in rows and listen to the music and clap at the end. But historically, that’s not how what we think of as classical music was listened to. Sacred music was heard in church; profane music was heard at royal courts, as part of plays, in drinking halls. I am very interested in how the arts speak to one another.”

Isaacson said she would like to provide those sorts of experiences with the Oratorio Chorale. She would like to form partnerships with theaters and other musical organizations to provide a more “complete” picture of the art. . . . She also says that it’s important to bring art into the community in other ways. “For example, we should be bringing music into the schools,” she said. “I envision working with teachers to bring in music that relates to what the students are studying, such as performing music from the Civil War as part of a history unit.”

“I am looking forward to using the Chorale and its music to enrich lives and the cultural fabric of the mid-coast,” she said.