ACDA Conference: choral camaraderie

Convocation of choral excellence in Portland features diverse music and a strong bracket, but ignores larger community

by BRUCE BROWNE

Think of it as March Madness. No rankings, no betting on outcomes, but this (approximately) “Sweet 16” of choirs from all over the Northwest who converged in Portland last month for the Northwest Regional American Choral Directors conference was no less a bunch of winning teams.

Like the storied Dukes, Kentuckies, and UConns, our representative choirs consisted, too, of nationally known programs of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska. Pacific Lutheran University, directed by Richard Nance, for example, has been a choral face on the national scene for some 50 years, since the great Maurice Skones put it on the map. The Marian singers of St. Mary’s Catholic School in Portland have established themselves as leaders in their school division. But there were some new kids on the block as well — University of Wyoming Women’s Choir and Graham-Kapowsin high school from Bethel, Washington.

St. Mary’s Academy Women’s Choir performed at the ACDA conference in Portland. Photo: Howard Meharg.

Middle school through college choirs and community choirs are selected to participate through a blind submission process in various categories including higher and lower voices, youth and adult. The quality demonstrated at concerts and workshops was a great testimony to choral education programs’ keeping the art alive. Only the aforementioned Marian Singers and Portland State University choirs represented the hometown scene. Three Salem choral programs did make the trip.

More Gown than Town

Although the ACDA conference is geared toward the professional conductor/singer – mostly in education – most of these concerts would have been very attractive to the choral aficionados of Portland and environs; this is a strong choral town. The public is welcome to these concerts but they may not know they are. Sadly, I saw very few, if any, non-ACDA members at these concerts. Perhaps ACDA leadership can explore this for future gatherings.

Those who did attend were rewarded with a wide variety of choral music. There were the standard classic composers: Monteverdi, Jannequin; Debussy; Rheinberger. Contemporary composers: Seattle’s John Muehleisen, Alberto Ginastera, Maryam Sameer Faheem Khoury, Portland’s Joan Szymko, Jaakko Montyjarvi, Libby Larsen. There were many different cultural flavors: Estonian; Japanese; Sami, Inuit.

Following is a roundup of as many choirs as I could hear in the four-day period. It was not possible to hear all the presentations at one convention, so the omission of a choir or conductor is no sign of their not being worthy of mention on another occasion.

Historical Perspectives

A few pieces portrayed tragic historic events, such as the Kipling Passion, composed by John Muehleisen around the poetry of several authors, but centrally focused on the death of Rudyard Kipling’s son, John. More on this later.

Also commemorated was the tragic sinking of the car ferry Estonia, wrecked in the Baltic Sea, claiming 910 souls, in Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae by Jaakko Mantyjarvi (b. 1963) This “joik” (song form of the Sami culture) was sung gorgeously by University of Washington Chamber Choir under the direction of Geoffrey Boers.

The Willamette Master Chorale, Paul Klemme directing, joined in with the historic perspective, their entire program sung in memory of our veterans, with four Oregon veterans narrating, from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and the Desert War. The central piece in their program was The Call by David Metzger. The text by Henry Hughes, professor at Western Oregon University, revolves around the general draft (“call”) for young men to fight abroad, for them to share “dark fears of their own,” and reflects that “in the end, there is no end, if for Justice all. Politics and people, wager power’s thrall.” It’s a strong marriage of text to music.

Ethan Sperry conducted Portland State choirs at this year’s ACDA Northwest Regional Conference. Photo: Howard Meharg.

There were mythical portrayals: Eriks Esenvalds’s The First Tears brings to life the story of an Inuit folk tale. This 2014 mini-cantata, says the program note, “is shamanistic in tone, as befits the nature of the text, dealing with the moments after the creation of the world by the Raven; a soundscape using a drum and other percussion instruments, a Jew’s harp and a solo recorder to huge coloristic effect.” Sung by Portland State University choirs directed by Ethan Sperry, the finely nuanced performance approached perfection on several levels. PSU also sang a rip-roaring O Vos Omnes by the distinguished Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983).

Choral Classics

I was happy to hear some of the university choirs — Portland State University, Willamette University, Idaho State University, and Pacific Lutheran University — include Renaissance and baroque compositions by Monteverdi, Jannequin, Handel, and Byrd, respectively. It is critical as educators, as we look forward to the terrific new choral efforts worldwide, that we also look back at how we got here.

Kimberly McConnell directed West Salem High School choir at ACDA. Photo: Howard Meharg.

That was then. In the spectacular now, the choral art is graced by authentic ethnic offerings and by works for, about and by women like Emma Lou Diemer (b. 1927). Her mid-century traditional Fragments from the Mass was sung by the University of Wyoming Bel Canto Women’s Chorus, who also performed The Womanly Song of God by distinguished American composer Libby Larsen (b. 1950). St. Mary’s Marian Singers sang Portland composer Joan Szymko’s Peace of Wild Things. She shares with John Muehleisen a closely bonded text to music relationship. Kimberly McConnell, director of choirs at West Salem High, brought her choir and a poigniant textual setting of her lushly harmonic work How sweet the moonlight to the conference.

Professional groups appeared too, including Putni (“Birds”), a group of women from Riga, Latvia, and the renowned American new music vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, which teased and engaged us with different fare, featuring Tuvan throat singing, floating harmonics, really any vocal effect you might wish to hear. Their performance sent educators off Googling “teaching safe vocal effects in the classroom.”

Seattle composer John Muehleisen’s music was a highlight of this year’s ACDA conference in Portland. Photo: Howard Meharg.

One of the strongest musical statements, on all fronts, was the oratorio But who shall return us our children? or so-called Kipling Passion. The famous author Rudyard Kipling lost a son, John, early in the Great War (1915), in the Battle of Loos. He and his wife wrote copiously, and grievingly — about it. Northwest composer John Muehleisen (b. 1955) combined Kipling’s texts with poetry of Carl Sandburg, Robert Nichols, Christina Rossetti, William Blake, and Wilfred Owen to create a magnificent pastiche of poetry on which to weave his tapestry of music. He also included a few barracks songs, some in a lighter mood, sung brilliantly by four men from the choir, and a version of Civil War song “Just Before the Battle, Mother.”

Muehleisen’s style is eclectic, tonal and accessible, but alternating lush, with spare harmonies, counterpoint with block chords. Above all, he relishes fitting the music to the text.

Robert Bode directed Choral Arts Northwest’s performance of ‘Kipling Passion’ at ACDA. Photo: Howard Meharg.

Choral Arts Northwest and their director, Robert Bode, came from Seattle to recreate their 2017 premiere of this piece. Soloists bass Charles Robert Stephens (as Rudyard Kipling), soprano Kimberly Giordano (his wife), and tenor Eric Neuville (son John Kipling) were spectacular in every way.

So this was an oratorio well worth hearing by convention attendees and community. How unfortunate that this was the only time at the convention when one headliner performance conflicted with another. The Jazz Honor Choir and three other select jazz choirs (from Edmonds-Woodway High School, Central Washington University and Bellevue College) were laying it down across the street at the same time. This set up a conflict for ACDA members and sent an unintended message to the jazz choir genre. Considerable funds are expended to bring any choir, let alone a professional choir and soloists. Why marginalize either? There were at most 80 audience members at the Muehleisen.

High school jazz honor choir performed at ACDA. Photo: Howard Meharg.

Unsympathetic Venue

Given this brilliant collection of performances by singers age 12 – 70, one other thing that I would advocate is a different choice of venue. First Congregational Church is a venerable site, and has served its purpose over the years. But it is both a very dry acoustic, and one that is high-end friendly, meaning one hears the soprano voice more prominently than say the bass or alto voices. Such a fabulous selection of choirs deserved better.

The convention came to an end on with a stunning performance of the Verdi Requiem by the Oregon Symphony, conducted by Carlos Kalmar. Portland Symphonic Choir, and University of Puget Sound Adelphian Choir were prepared by Stephen Zopfi. Conventioneers who could remain in the city got a chance to hear a first rate performance.

The American Choral Directors NW Conference will probably not be in Portland again until 2024 or so. It could be a choral music treat for the whole community. The next biennial convention of the Northwest ACDA will be in Spokane in February, 2020. Spokane, 2020. Hmmm. Go for the choral music, stay for basketball?

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. 

Want to read more about Oregon choral music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *