Chor Leoni review: Manlandia

Acclaimed Vancouver BC choir joins other male choirs in a cornucopia of choral contentment

by BRUCE BROWNE

Young people lifting their voices in singing was a prominent theme in Oregon last week: Oregon State (OSAA) Choir Competitions, held on the George Fox Campus and last Friday’s a visit from the Vancouver, BC male choir, Chor Leoni, directed by Portlander Erick Lichte. Event co-host Ethan Sperry, director of choral studies at Portland State University and close friend of Mr. Lichte, welcomed the Canadians to First United Methodist Church. Three high school male choirs and Man Choir from Portland State joined Chor Leoni in this benefit concert for First United Methodist Church’s Friends of Music program.

There were many gifts. The high school choirs, all from Southern Washington, weren’t just the opening act; they proclaimed “we are a proud and confident brotherhood in art” and demonstrated first-rate preparation, a tribute to their music programs: Camas High, directed by Ethan Chessin; Heritage High, directed by Joel Karn; and Union High, directed by Mikkel Iverson. Oregon high schools were conspicuous by their absence.

Vancouver’s Chor Leoni performed at Portland’s First Methodist Church.

The organization and advanced planning by Ethan Sperry, and Mr. Lichte was much appreciated, both in bringing the Canadian choir, and in that choir’s generosity of spirit in encouraging younger choirs on their program. (Full disclosure: I easily tear up when listening to young men sing so well). PSU’s Man Choir, directed by graduate assistant Allison Bassett, also sang well.

Just last January, we lost one of the world’s greatest choral composers, in fact, the dean of choral music in Estonia, Veljo Tormis. Chor Leoni director Erick Lichte reminded us of Tormis’ genius with his Vastalaulud, a short cycle of Shrovetide songs (Shrovetide, from the old English “shrive” – to confess, is a pre-Lenten celebration, in some cultures becoming a carnival atmosphere). The nursery rhyme-like settings use repeated, simplistic motifs, elaborated with modal shifts and airy, colorful harmonic changes to evoke Estonians’ celebration of the winter holiday by sleighing and sledding.

We also heard Tormis’ vaunted style in Incantatio marios aestuosi (Incantation for a Stormy Sea). The poem’s stormy effects were well wedded to highly dramatic music ranging from the ease with which we hear the sailors invoke Ukko, the god of mercy, to help them on their voyage; then to the rage of the storm itself, a furious harrumph of singing with howling winds; and finally, the invocation itself, ”Sea, command they warring forces… Sink… to thy slumber that our boat may move in safety.” The storm effects are delivered in billowing falsettos and speaking chorus narration, then as the storm dies down, there’s a lovely ending with very low voices singing ppp (extremely softly). Only a mature, well directed choir could, or should, manage this piece.

Chor Leoni sang with great vigor, excellent intonation, and a wide palette of colors, flattering the demands of their chosen scores. Many of the selections lent a Baltic/Scandinavian caste to the program: Along with Estonia, Latvia and Finland were well represented. This is in part because the male choir tradition is alive and well in these countries, among others in northern Europe – think Sweden. The most interesting were the Grim and Glacial Funeral Waltzes by Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyjarvi, and Twelve O’clock Chant, by Latvia’s Eriks Esenvalds.

The “funeral waltzes” were shimmering, evanescent, with a dramatically wide range for the men. In several of their songs, the falsetto -cum -male alto range was exploited to beautiful effect.

Esenvalds’ piece is a brilliant setting of the Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen’s “Twelve O’Clock Chant” (from his Spice Box of the Earth). It’s a compelling poem, with equally compelling music. The many added-note chords, and spell binding unisons are ethereal. Again, the choir brought to bear a masterful handling of varied hues, and a wide dynamic range to heighten the drama of the poem.

Since one of the stated objectives of Chor Leoni is to champion new music, they included on their program the Evening Song by Nicholas Ryan Kelly, a rising star in the constellation of Canadian composers (think Murray Shafer, Stephen Chapman, Imant Raminsch). Kelly won a prize in the organization’s inaugural composer competition this year called “C-4.” Kelly’s piece is a good marriage to the poetry of Sherwood Anderson, American novelist and poet from Ohio. It’s lyrical and linear, performed with excellent balance by the choir and their accomplished accompanist Ken Cormier.

The final pieces put a different face on the choir. Jonathan Quick’s sprightly arrangement of “Loch Lomond” was led by a fine tenor soloist, unidentified in the program. Perky rhythms, including the native “Scotch snap” were abundant. Paul Simon’s “Bridge over Troubled Water,” arranged by Miles Ramsay, was equally well sung and untroubled.

Erick Lichte led the combined choirs at Chor Leoni’s Portland concert.

The biggest, brashest songs appeared at the end of both halves of the concert, performed by the so-called “Manlandia Mass Choir.” Just before intermission, the combined choirs sang another Tormis piece, Laulja, which included organ music performed by longtime First Methodist organist Jonas Nordwall, who also contributed bluesy Hammond organ licks to O Kristus valgus oled sa by Gunnar Idenstam to open the second half. The massed male voices also closed the concert with We Rise Again by Stephen Smith. It was very well done, and great fun to hear some 150 men sing together, with an age range of perhaps 15 to 75, with such youthful energy.

The hope is that this concert will be repeated on a biennial basis, with Chor Leoni coming to Portland again in 2019.  Can’t wait!

Editor’s note: you can hear more men singing this Saturday, May 13, at Central Lutheran Church, 1820 NE 21st Ave. Portland, when Satori Men’s Chorus sings songs from childhood, including “Home on the Range,” “Shenendoah,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and other boomer faves.

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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