Portland’s contemporary choral ecosystem

Spring performances by The Ensemble, Choral Arts Ensemble, and Portland State choirs demonstrate the city's emerging, multi-level 21st century choral music scene

A few specialist performers does not a scene make; when they’re gone, what happens to the music? A vital new music scene requires a whole ecosystem — performers, composers, audiences, venues, often donors. Think Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, Classical-era Vienna, 19th century Italian opera, ‘70s LA, ‘80s downtown NYC, Austin, Nashville in their glory days.

One such scene may be a-borning in Portland. Well known as a choral music capital, and justly renowned for its developing contemporary and indie classical music scene, the city has recently seen too little intersection between them. While some major cities have a top professional vocal ensemble or two that specializes in contemporary music — San Francisco’s Chanticleer, Seattle’s The Esoterics or Roomful of Teeth and Conspirare (nominally based in New York and Austin, respectively, but in fact drawing singers from around the country) — Portland currently lacks a choir that sings primarily music of our time, like the late lamented Portland Vocal Consort and Choral Cross Ties. Here as elsewhere, most choirs cling to the classics.

Although the city’s top choirs such as Resonance Ensemble, Portland Symphonic and Oregon Repertory Singers sometimes sing new music, they mostly perform music by dead — sometimes long-dead — composers. Nothing wrong with that — as we’ve long argued here, mixing old and new music in concert probably broadens the audience for both. But this season they’ve all focused mostly on music from the last century or earlier.

Sterling Roberts conducted singers onstage and off at Portland State University.

Sterling Roberts conducted singers onstage and off at Portland State University.

Yet Portland choirs seem to be adding more and more new music to the mix, perhaps signaling a broader commitment to new choral music than just confining it to one or two specialty groups. Several of this spring’s concerts demonstrate the breadth of the city’s growing contemporary choral music scene.

The Ensemble: Part Party

The city’s top small vocal ensemble (along with the all-female group In Mulieribus) usually sticks to pre-21st century music by long-dead composers, particularly music for smaller forces that’s rarely performed by the relatively large choirs that dominate most choral scenes. The Ensemble‘s March 23 concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, however, focused on the music of a living composer — one of the most venerable, in fact — the Estonian master Arvo Part.

It’s a wise choice, because as much as any living composer’s, Part’s music — for all its minimalist, tintinnabulist innovations — harkens back to the ancient sounds that members of The Ensemble have long mastered.

And they did a glorious job with it here. Even though Part’s occasional unison passages and transparent textures can make every slip audible, I heard nary a one. Soloists approached real magnificence, including baritone Tim O’Brien in A Pilgrim’s Song (Ein Wallfahrtslied), alto Laura Beckel Thoreson in Long Years Ago Indeed As Now (Es Sang for langen Jahren), soprano Catherine van der Salm and tenor Nicholas Ertsgaard throughout — all contributed a sense of the sublime that makes Part’s music, performed at this level, utterly transporting. The contrast between Thoreson and Ertsgaard’s more rounded voices and van der Salm and O’Brien’s more penetrating tones made every line entirely audible in each combination, rather than blending into a single undifferentiated blancmange. Combined with the Bach-like, non-Romantic style chosen by music director and bass Patrick McDonough, the transparent approach worked just right for this austere music.

The Ensemble earns a well-deserved standing ovation at the conclusion of its Arvo Part concert.

The Ensemble earned a well-deserved standing ovation at the conclusion of its Arvo Part concert.

That’s not to say it was a perfect concert, though. Part hasn’t written that much music for voices and strings, leaving any concert of it sounding superficially similar: slow and solemn. Over the course of an hour plus with no intermission, the unavoidable sameness (especially in melodiously monotonous, incantatory/declamatory works like Stabat Mater and Missa Syllabica) sometimes grew a little wearying.

Those strings provided the other drawback: the music’s textural transparency revealed every slip, exposing occasional intonational waywardness that might pass unnoticed in busier accompaniment. Even in such challenging music, The Ensemble needs musicians who can match the singers’ quality — admittedly a difficult task. Judging by the prolonged and enthusiastic audience applause that concluded the concert, the sometime string sloppiness didn’t detract much from the impact of that spectacular singing.

Choral Arts Ensemble: Nocturnal expressions

For anyone who cares about choral music’s vitality as a living tradition, it’s exciting to see concerts of contemporary music like The Ensemble’s Part show or this spring’s concert by the city’s most acclaimed professional choral ensemble, Cappella Romana (which typically sings music from or in the tradition of ancient Byzantium) devoted  entirely to sacred music by living composers including James MacMillan, Michael Adamis, and others.

But both concerts involve highly skilled singers as accomplished as you’ll find anywhere in the country — superheroes of choral music. What really indicates the vitality of new music is how much it permeates a city’s music scene — including the many amateur choirs who form the backbone of a city’s choral community. Just this spring, Portland community choirs like Consonare, Unistus, and Satori have sung contemporary music in concert. And in April, Choral Arts Ensemble, which has often played second fiddle to other Portland choirs, continued its recent emphasis on contemporary choral music under the leadership of David De Lyser (who, probably not coincidentally, is a composer himself) with a rewarding concert of contemporary choral night music — much of it by Oregon composers.

After American Midwest composer John Leavitt’s placid Carl Sandburg setting, Prairie Waters by Night, the choir’s lower voices shone in the Oregon premiere of Cascadia Composer Greg Bartholomew’s lush, calm And the Wind, which set a poem by his father, Fletcher LaVallee Bartholomew. The ensemble mustered impressive volume and dynamic’s in Joshua Shank’s Rupert Brooke setting, Sleeping Out Full Moon, moving effortlessly to a more delicate sound in Northwest native Morten Lauridsen’s familiar Sure on This Shining Night (to my ears a more persuasive setting of James Agee’s text than even Samuel Barber’s famous one), for which DeLyser turned over the keys to assistant artistic director Megan Elliott.

David DeLyser led Choral Arts Ensemble at Portland's Old Church Concert Hall.

David DeLyser led Choral Arts Ensemble at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall.

The choir sounded more tentative in the world premiere of Portland composer Stacey Philipps’s whimsical Crickets at Dawn, which required the singers to unleash their “inner crickets” and which added some variety to the   smooth and pretty vibe. CAE closed the first set with a tight performance of what’s becoming a contemporary choral standard: the episodic Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, by the world’s hottest choral composer, Eric Whitacre, persuasively carrying off the percussive special effects, including whispers, throughout its twists and turns, including ten separate melodic lines.

Only in Sleep, a setting of Sara Teasdale’s text by another leading contemporary choral composer, Eriks Esenvalds, led off the second half with a pretty melody and engaging solos by Kelly Pierce and Kate Piper. The Oregon premiere of Washington composer Roger Briggs’s dramatic Watching the mid-Autumn Moon brought a harder edge that suited its Wendell Berry text. Rene Clausen’s appropriately cantering One If by Land, Two If by Sea (about, yes, Paul Revere’s midnight ride) added welcome variety, dynamics, fun and forward motion.

Debut performances are by nature often uncertain, which explains some members’ rapt attention to their scores throughout (at the expense of audience connection), and the choir’s slightly shaky performance of the world premiere of Portland composer Lisa Marsh’s evocative The Heart’s Constellation, a composition I hope to hear again soon. The choir rallied for a strong closer, erupting into a fervent climactic passage in Whitacre’s Sleep,  (which may also be  on its way to classic status.

Choral Arts Ensemble’s impressive recent artistic growth and ambition, especially in a challenging (to singers, not listeners) program of largely unfamiliar material, is one of the season’s happiest musical developments, and a promising sign for choral music’s continued contemporary relevance in Portland.

Portland State University choirs: Global Rhythms

This spring also revealed a third critical component in the city’s new music scene. Just as sports teams typically are refreshed by a steady infusion of new young talent from colleges and minor or development leagues, Portland’s choral scene benefits mightily from the visionary choral music programs at Portland State University.

Last month, Portland State Chamber Choir celebrated 40 years as one of Oregon’s primary generators of contemporary choral music, and its spring Global Rhythms concert a week later at PSU’s Lincoln Hall further demonstrated the school’s commitment to 21st century choral sounds.

Ethan Sperry led PSU Man Choir at Lincoln Hall.

Ethan Sperry led PSU Man Choir at Lincoln Hall.

It’s no accident that young people, raised in a more globally aware culture than their elders, oppose both Brexit and Trump. Portland State’s University singers took to music from around the globe (often arranged by PSU choral director Ethan Sperry, who led about half this concert) as though it were all part of their cultural heritage — which it is. In three indigenous songs from Brazil adeptly led (happily, sans scores) by graduate student Tim Havis, they rubbed hands, chirped, whistled, snapped fingers, crouched, and danced, their movements never appearing contrived or hesitant. Along with traipsing through a French-Canadian dance, the singers also effectively conveyed the pathos of Israeli and Syrian ballads.

PSU’s women’s choir, Vox Femina, entered from the rear of Lincoln Concert Hall humming the American spiritual “Keep Your Lamps,” down the aisles while percussion pounded from the stage, setting the stage for a vibrant performance under the masterful leadership of ArtsWatch contributor and legendary Portland choral director Bruce Browne and grad student Sterling Roberts. The choir followed with strong performances of renowned contemporary Estonian composer Veljo Tormis’s Song of the Shepherdess and Tundra by still another leading young choral composer, Norwegian-American Ola Gjeilo, and concluded the best set I’ve heard from this choir with an exuberant Sperry arrangement of a Pakistani wedding qawwali, accompanied by Shiva Bharadwaj’s ghatam drum and David Kelley’s guitar.

Bharadwaj, who grew up in Beaverton, then engaged in a spectacular percussion duet with concert guest artist and Saturday Night Live percussionist Valerie Naranjo (“an Indian American and an American Indian,” Sperry quipped when introducing them),  the latter playing what appeared to be a buzzing balafon with dangling gourds. (It was hard to tell from where we sat because she was angled in, and the left side of instrument curved up, blocking our view of it and of her mallets hitting the keys.)

After intermission, Portland State’s electrifying Man Choir entered, chanting and calling from the aisles, as Sperry conducted from onstage, facing the audience as the singers entered, dancing, hugging, grinning, singing a Haitian song. Their sturdy performances of a Serbian song, a middling contemporary number by the late American composer Lee Hoiby, and a powerful chain-gang song did nothing to make me question my  assessment of Man Choir as the most exciting vocal ensemble in town.

The action only intensified when other choirs joined in on music from Leonard Bernstein’s Missa Brevis, plus Ghanaian, Malian, and Navajo songs, the last arranged and conducted by Naranjo, who also elicited audience participation that turned Lincoln Hall into a giant, percussion-propelled music party. Once again, PSU’s choirs delivered Portland’s most exciting choral concert since their last one.

Global rhythms often inject a viscerality that grabs young (and even not so young) singers and listeners more than the primarily cerebral sounds of much Euromodernism, and seeing PSU’s singers swaying and dancing to the music, where appropriate, throughout added to their performance’s power. Yet as always with PSU choral concerts, all the intense physicality never came at the expense of musical integrity.

Led by Valerie Naranjo, PSU's combined choirs ignited a dance party onstage.

Led by Valerie Naranjo, PSU’s combined choirs ignited a dance party onstage.

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While each of these concerts proved immensely satisfying individually, collectively, they reveal a developing, thriving culture of contemporary choral music. Unlike a lot of new music that requires years of specialized training on an instrument, much choral music can be performed by anyone who can sing and is willing to practice hard enough, and Portlanders who want to sing (or even just hear) the choral music of our time have a wide range of choirs to choose from. The more choirs that sing contemporary music, the stronger the corps of performers and audience members — a virtuous cycle. In the long run, that widespread availability offers a much stronger recipe for choral music’s continuing vitality than consigning new vocal music merely to a few specialists.

Granted, it may be premature to generalize from just three spring concerts, impressive as they were. But if these and other city choirs continue to perform today’s music, and with PSU’s acclaimed Chamber Choir’s impending release of a new CD of Eriks Esenwalds’s music poised to raise the city’s contemporary choral profile even higher, Portland may soon be viewed as a national beacon for 21st century choral music. From young to old, top to bottom, the city seems to be cultivating a choral music scene that looks not just to the classics of the past, but also to contemporary culture.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

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