Chor Leoni preview: Baltic blues and beyond

Now led by a Portlander, the acclaimed Canadian choir makes its first Portland appearance

by BRUCE BROWNE

Fifty members strong, the Chor Leoni men’s chorus of Vancouver B.C., roars in Portland for the first time this Friday, May 5, and they’ll be led by a Portlander.

Chor Leoni (the Choir of Lions) will partner with guest male choirs from Union, Camas, and Heritage high schools, in Washington, and Portland State University’s Man Choir. The internationally acclaimed singers will be directed by Portland resident Erick Lichte, who also directs choirs at Portland’s First United Methodist Church. The lone non-Canadian in the group, he and his wife reside in Portland, and Erick commutes to Vancouver for rehearsals and performances. He recently received his Master of Music from Portland State University, studying there with Ethan Sperry.

Vancouver’s Chor Leoni performs in Portland Friday.

Just after graduating from St. Olaf College, prior to coming to Portland, Lichte distinguished himself as founder and Artistic Director of the male choir Cantus, which continues as one of the two full-time vocal ensembles in this country. In that position, Lichte collaborated with such artists as Bobby McFerrin, the Boston Pops, Doc Severinsen, and many others.

Appointed in 2013 as artistic director of Chor Leoni, he has brought with him a passion for new choral music, having taken part in the creation (through commissioning, performance and recording) of choral works by, among others, Lee Hoiby, Steven Sametz, Edie Hill, and Mary Ellen Childs. He has also created eleven acclaimed recordings, one named a Top 10 Classical Album by National Public Radio.

Erick Lichte

Chor Leoni was founded in 1992 by Diane Loomer (1940-2012) who also created its female counterpart, Elektra, in 1987, with Morna Edmundson. Since that time, the male choir has distinguished themselves in many ways, touring, winning competitions, and receiving awards from the Canadian government.

Their first Portland concert offers a widely diverse smörgåsbord of literature, including many pieces from the Baltic areas of Finland and Estonia. The latter is particularly well represented by composer Gunnar Idenstam’s setting of an ancient Estonian hymn including “blues infused pipe organ, with a funky bass line in the piece, and opportunities for the organist to improvise,” Lichte says. “Think Veljo Tormis meets The Doors.” Portland-born organist Jonas Nordwall, the organist at First United Methodist Church since 1971, accompanies the two pieces for pipe organ and voices.

Estonian composer Veljo Tormis is no stranger to Portland audiences, having been here three times to work with choirs from PSU and Clackamas Community College. The dean of Baltic composers passed away on January 21 of this year.

Also included in the concert repertoire are less well known but important composers Jaako Mantyjarvi of Finland and native Canadian Nicholas Ryan Kelly. Mantyjarvi’s music has reached the ears of audiences around the USA and Europe. His Glacial Funeral Waltzes sounds intriguing. Kelly’s “Evening Song” will be heard as well. This young composer is coming of age and this piece, according to Lichte, shows “an extraordinary compositional voice… [with] hints of (Samuel) Barber.”

One other featured composer will be the brilliant Latvian, Eriks Esenvalds, whose Twelve o’Clock Chant is also a feature of the choir’s new CD Wandering Heart, available at the show.

The choir will close their concert with a more populist set, singing songs like “Loch Lomond” and Paul Simon’s “Bridge over Troubled Water.” This is a rare chance to hear a male choir of international note here at home, and directed by a member of our own home team.

Chor Leoni performs at 7:30pm Friday May 5, at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, 1838 SW Jefferson St.  Tickets and info online

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

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