Oregon Chorale review: Changing of the Guard

Hillsboro choir celebrates its 30th season and commences concert auditions for its next music director


Anytime the founder / artistic director of an arts organization announces his or her intention to step aside, one of three things happens: complete chaos, mourning and stagnation or, in a more salutary way, an organized, timely search for a replacement.

The last is the course chosen by the board of directors of the Oregon Chorale (neé the Washington County Chorale). Now on the cusp of their year of change, the Chorale board has capped their search with a slate of three worthy candidates: Robert Hawthorne, Jason Sabino, and Scott Tuomi. Each brings a good measure of experience to the choral table.

Bernd Kuehn founded and led the Oregon Chorale for 30 years.

Bernd Kuehn founded and led the Oregon Chorale for 30 years.

In this past weekend’s program of seasonal pieces, Rejoice, the Chorale introduced the first candidate, Mr. Hawthorne, the choral director at Tigard High School. It was a notable beginning for the choir’s 30th season.

Community Fixture

Let’s back up a few decades: in 1985, the newly baptized Washington County Chorale was founded by Bernd Kuehn. Affectionately known as “Bernie”, he later became director of choirs at Hillsboro high school and, in 1997, took the choral directorship at brand new Century High School.

Hillsboro in 1985 was on the verge of tidal wave of technology and population growth. The second high school, Glencoe High (the Crimson Tide), had opened their doors in 1980 and the population was approximately 35,000. Between 1990 and 2010, Hillsboro was considered the fastest growing Oregon city of its size. By 2013, its population punched in at 97,368, making Hillsboro Oregon’s fifth largest city. Along with that has come a Community Foundation which has already recognized some worthy arts projects, such as the Chorale.

When Bernie advertised auditions for a new community choir, he came up with 35 singers. They began rehearsals in the heart of Hillsboro at Trinity Lutheran Church. Four years later, Bernie, who had a “dream to take this choir on tour to Europe,” led them on their first trip, repeating that pattern every 4-5 years. They sang at festivals, at a church that Bernie attended as a child, and shared music with the world. The name “Washington County Chorale” created confusion about the home state of the group and, in 2002 they changed the name to the Oregon Chorale. The choir grew and the community of singers became a fixture in the community.

Saturday night’s concert was held in the Living Savior Lutheran Church in Tualatin and was repeated in Hillsboro on Sunday. There were many things to commend the choir: the men’s sound is elastic and almost an embarrassment of riches, pure gold most of the time; the group responds very well to rhythmic challenges, of which there were plenty through the program. The choir also faced the extra challenge of singing in mixed or quartet formation rather than in voice sections.

Mr. Hawthorne and the choir showed particularly well in the rhythmically charged “Gaudete,” arranged by Mark Burrows, and in two back to back pieces, “Riu, Riu Chiu,”a  16th century Spanish carol, arranged by Noah Greenberg, and then “Bethelehemu,” an African carol arranged by Barrington Brooks. Soloists Tom Hamann and Jacob Mott shone in both pieces. The choir displayed their commitment by singing both of the latter without scores. Their faces translated pure joy to the audience.

A John Rutter arrangement, “What Sweeter Music,” was sung towards the end of the concert. Perhaps we’ve heard a great deal of the popular British choral composer over the past years, but this one gets me every time. (It became so popular in the ‘80s that Volvo brought it to use in an ad. Rutter must still be counting the royalties.)

In this and all accompanied pieces, one of the choir’s most conspicuous assets was apparent: their flawless pianist. Give her a raise! But at the same time, please budget for a better piano. This upright piano is only capable of so much, and its upper registration fidelity was disappointing.

“We Three Kings” was another feisty arrangement, reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” all threes and twos, with the well-known melody undisturbed, except by the prevailing rhythmic hiccups.

I loved this choir. Their fresh-faced commitment to the music and lyrics was wonderful, and great testimony to amateur singing in the truest sense. Remember, “amateur” means “lover [of],” and as Robert Shaw said, choral music, like sex, is best left to the amateur.

And that’s not the only reason to like this choir: they give a percentage of their budget each year to music education, offering college scholarships to budding high school seniors who want continue to study music.

But wait, there’s more: they also sponsor a strong intern program, inviting gifted high school seniors to rehearse and perform with them each concert series. Last night there were four such: from the surrounding high schools of Glencoe, Hillsboro, Century, and Liberty. Would that all of our choral groups would do that!

Mr. Hawthorne did himself proud. Control is the name of the game for him, coaxing flexible lines and balanced delivery from the choir. The control only occasionally became cloying, when a few spots were over-controlled and the musical line became stagnant.

[Sidebar: the continuity of the concert was often interrupted by a gentleman who should either have stayed home, taken several cough drops, or left the building long enough to put a stop to his severe bouts of tubercular eruptions. These were Vesuvian in their power, and almost drowned out the choir in a few places. Memo to audience members suffering from winter colds: please stay home and listen to a nice recording. Thank you. ]

So a good time was had by all, including this reviewer. We should look forward to the choir’s next offerings, Songs from Nature, on March 12-13 with Mr. Sabino, and Songs for a Summer Night, June 4-5 with Mr. Tuomi. It’s an exciting year for the Oregon Chorale, and for its listeners.

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led the Portland Symphonic Choir and choral programs at Portland State University for many years.

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