Like so many of the best musical ideas, Portland’s finest female vocal ensemble got its start in a bar. Recently relocated to Portland from Chicago, Anna Song was unwinding with her new friends from the choir Cantores in Ecclesia after a 2006 rehearsal when another Portland classical singer, Tuesday Rupp, met up with them after a rehearsal with a different group. They got to chatting, discovered a shared love for early music, and a desire to sing more intimate ancient repertoire for women’s voices. “If you choose the songs,” Rupp, a veteran of the city’s classical scene, told Song, “I’ve got the singers.”
A few days later, several of the city’s top female singers sang together at Song’s house and enjoyed it so much that they decided to do it again — and again. “This is really so fun, we sound pretty good, and we’re having a good time” Song remembers thinking. “Why don’t we put on a concert?”
They rented southeast Portland’s St. Philip Neri church for a solstice performance in December 2006. “I’ll take care of the logistics,” Rupp said, “and you take care of the music.” They needed one more thing: a name. A male friend suggested In Mulieribus for the all female ensemble, a Latin phrase meaning “among women.” Spreading the word via email in those pre-social media days, they were surprised when 150 people showed up. “This is crazy,” thought Song, accustomed to the rigid Chicago and East Coast classical music establishments. “It’s so easy!”
They certainly make it look that way. In the decade since that first informal concert, In Mulieribus has drawn ecstatic reviews and ardent applause from Portland listeners enraptured by their radiant voices and intrigued by the rarely performed repertoire they’ve sung several times per year for the past decade.
This weekend, Song leads In Mulieribus in tenth anniversary concerts that display both those resplendent voices and the group’s enthusiastic pursuit of ever-different sounds, including a first-ever venture into madrigals and a newly commissioned work by an Oregon composer.
After that first successful show, the group soon achieved nonprofit status, and began expanding its artistic ambitions, if not its size. A major milestone: receiving their first grant, on their first try, for their fifth anniversary season, which paid for accompanying instrumentalists and a newly commissioned piece.
“That was a key moment of growth,” Song recalls. “Once you get a grant, then other grantors take notice. It was a turning point for our budget and our ability to think bigger.” Subsequent grants funded increasingly ambitious undertakings such as last year’s Horae multimedia concerts at Mt. Angel Abbey and Portland churches, which took years to put together.
IM’s repertoire has mostly stayed true to its initial commitment to early music, especially medieval music. Song, who teaches at Linfield College, spends hours online (especially YouTube) in libraries, archives and conferences, seeking ancient sounds rarely if ever performed here. The group sometimes ventures into later territory including contemporary music. This year, they’ve premiered four new pieces. “I’m always looking for music,” she says.
The personnel have remained similarly stable. Rupp departed for graduate study early on, but turnover has been unusually low; most classical vocal ensembles feature a rotating roster. The current group comprises sopranos Catherine van der Salm, Arwen Myers, Ann Wetherell, and Kari Ferguson, mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn, altos Jo Routh and Susan Hale, all of whom perform regularly with major Oregon choral institutions like Cantores and Cappella Romana.
“Because of that longevity and our consistent roster, we’ve developed a rapport that goes beyond rehearsals and concerts,” Song says. “Seeing ten years of each other’s lives unfold brings a kind of closeness. Most of us are mothers, and it’s been great to be supportive of one another as we go through the different stages of motherhood. Even the most recent singers to join us come into that environment where we’re making music but we’re also friends. We have a shared understanding not just of music but of one another’s lives and the challenges and the triumphs we face outside the music. That companionship, that intimacy are something special.”
This weekend: Madri-gals, Males, ‘Maidens’
For all the group’s stability, this weekend’s concerts bring new dimensions: a new venue, downtown’s Old Church Concert Hall, and new-to-the-group repertoire: late Renaissance and early Baroque madrigals. “That’s where composers woke up to the possibility of expressing powerful emotions like the pain and ecstasy of love, through sound and harmony.” Song says. “The music is so incredibly expressive. It’s a different kind of music for us.”
Also different: an added trio of male voices, an accompanist (Musica Maestrale‘s Hideki Yamaya on the archaic theorbo, which resembles a guitar on steroids) — and another new piece, commissioned from Craig Kingsbury, a Portland composer who’s been a friend of the group from the get-go. The apropos title, “Song of the Seven Maidens,” comes from its text, by the great 20th century Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.
Each year, the group partners with a different community organization to benefit. This weekend’s shows support a bedding drive for refugees spearheaded by this year’s partner, Lutheran Community Services Northwest.
Song expects the group to continue to expand its boundaries, not just musical, but also geographical. They’d like to take their music for women’s voices beyond Portland and tour other West Coast cities, to make more recordings (they’ve released four albums and soon a DVD), and to continue finding and nurturing new music for women’s voices.
“As much as I’m committed to ancient music, I believe we need to be producing new music for women’s voices,” explains Song, who studied composition in college. “There’s nowhere near the quality or quantity of music as there is for mixed voices. I want to add to that repertoire to give women’s choirs more great music from around the world.”
Commissioning new works is always risky, because “you never know what you’re going to get,” Song admits. “But with everything that’s born, there’s an excitement there, too, in that unknown territory.” That’s a feeling a mother would understand.
In Mulieribus performs “Madrigalia!” Friday, March 3 and Saturday, March 4; both at 7:30 PM at The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave. Portland. Tickets online or at the door. A shorter version of this story originally appeared in The Oregonian/O Live.