Oregon Chorale review: Counting the stars

Washington County choir and other choral concerts make for a bountiful musical weekend

by BRUCE BROWNE

“This was hard,” one of the choristers told me after the Oregon Chorale‘s March 12 concert. Finding the balance between pushing the envelope and overextending the choir is one of the conductor’s first jobs, and it will be the task of whomever is chosen to lead the choir next year.

Jason Sabino led Oregon Chorale. Photo: Don White.

Jason Sabino led Oregon Chorale. Photo: Don White.

Formed in 1985, the Oregon Chorale (nee “Washington County Chorale”) is now in search mode, with three candidates vying to replace founder Bernie Kuehn, who stepped down at the end of last year. Robert Hawthorne, Tigard High School choral director, conducted in December; Scott Tuomi, music professor at Pacific University, will round out the field in June. This search committee will have a challenge on their hands, as all three candidates vying, are… quite viable.

This concert featured a constellation of “stars,” the only ones visible on a rugged, rainy evening in this part of the Pacific northwest. The program “Songs from Nature: Music of the Americas” was designed to help us celebrate spring.

First, a strong shout out to accompanist Linda Smith. She is not just good, she’s a virtuoso. A good accompanist is an imperative and even more so in this concert in which a good portion of the repertoire demanded her skills.

Pianist Linda Smith. Photo: Don White.

Pianist Linda Smith. Photo: Don White.

Naturally, another “star” was the choir itself. Made up of community members from Hillsboro and other satellite boroughs, this is an amateur choir, but never amateur – ish.

Third among the glitterati in this firmament was conducting candidate Jason Sabino, whose grace and command on the podium were firmly in place all night. Though just completing his degree in choral conducting from Portland State University, he projects an energy and Je ne sais quoi well beyond his years. He confessed “this is the first time I’ve ever conducted an orchestra” in concert, referring to John Corigliano’s Fern Hill, which demands equipoise and firm grasp over its 17 minutes running time.


The opening Mata del Anima Sola (Tree of the Lonely Soul), a Latino piece by Antonio Estevez, a rhythmically explosive piece with lush women’s tones, featured tenor soloist Paul Minor, who sang well.

After lengthy commentary by Mr. Sabino, we were treated to a trip back in American choral time: Randall Thompson’s Frostiana. This tickled my fancy in retrograde, as I had sung it in college. The texts, as per the title, are by one of our nation’s poet laureates: Robert Frost.

Randall Thompson (1899-1984), a Harvard alum (who was rejected for Harvard Glee), was a charming and witty man and a lifelong educator. He taught at Wellesley, University of California at Berkeley, Curtis Institute, University of Virginia and Princeton before returning at age 49 to Harvard, where he chaired the music department from 1952-1957. His best-known choral works, Peaceable Kingdom, Alleluia and Frostiana, were primarily the result of commissions, the last by the town of Amherst in 1959.

The seven movements of Frostiana are a model meld of music and poetry, as if Thompson shaped Frost’s words into a silver ice mold, poured in the water and let it freeze. What emerges is pure New England Americana. Choral music is inherently representational; some instrumental works also achieve this – Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite, for example, or Appalachian Spring by Randall Thompson’s contemporary, Aaron Copland. In Frostiana, even if we could not hear all of the words, a “woods on a snowy evening” could come to mind: the unison depicting solitude at the beginning of “Road Not Taken”; the one star sparkling on high in the sopranos in “Choose Something Like a Star” (this was especially poignant). Thompson’s friend and fellow New Englander Robert Frost (in attendance at the premiere) was overjoyed by the setting. On Saturday night at Living Savior Lutheran church in Tualatin, the audience seemed overjoyed at the reconnection with an old friend.

These are old settings, to be sure, but I think Thompson is making something of a comeback these days, as he was perhaps the original “soundscape” choral composer, especially with his Alleluia. The choral tone, rich and mature but never dark, was ideal for Frostiana.

In these pieces, the choir proved one thing: they are going to need a new hall. Not because of the audience size (it was average) but because they are capable of a formidable fortissimo when called for. These dynamics must be dialed back for our ears to survive in this relatively small space. (It isn’t the Schnitz, thank goodness). Again, Ms. Smith’s virtuosic playing was a luminary here.

Mr. Sabino smartly began the second half with light fare. Eric Whitaker has been a favorite of choral audiences almost two decades. He has engaged numerous Northwest high schools and colleges with his wit and grace and given the contemporary choral world such gems as “Sleep” and Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine and A Boy and A Girl.

Animal Crackers, Vol. 1 were the perfect complement to the more reflective Thompson and Corigliano pieces. “The Panther” (“…if called by a panther, don’t anther”; “The Cow” (…”one end is moo, the other milk”); and “The Firefly.” The basses mooed with elan and a few stuffed animals had bit parts. The poetry, for fain would you know, was by Ogden Nash, another American poet, but of a different ilk.

Oregon Chorale and orchestra. Photo: Don White.

Oregon Chorale and orchestra. Photo: Don White.

The centerpiece of the second half, if not of the concert itself, was Fern Hill, a major mid-length 20th century work by the esteemed New York composer John Corigliano, a faculty member at the Juilliard School and Lehman College in the Bronx. He once stated he “want(s) the audience to come along while” he explores “emotional needs and intellectual curiosities” through his compositions. Young Columbia University graduate Corgliano penned a setting of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s 1945 poem Fern Hill in 1959, conceiving it as one section of a Thomas trilogy. Decades later he was commissioned and wrote a second section, “Poem in October,” and both sections were premiered in 1976. He continued to think it and rework it, all the while experiencing several harmonic and rhythmic incarnations in his compositional style, and added “Poem on His Birthday” and solo interludes from “Author’s Prologue” to the trilogy’s “premiere” at Carnegie Hall in 1999.

The orchestra, led by Mr. Sabino, was, after a timid start, first rate, responsive and supportive to the choir. Sheryl Wood, mezzo soprano soloist, has a voluptuous voice, and was more than equal to the task of pulling off this challenging piece. She would have been best served by being elevated or being in front of the orchestra.

The trio of theme-appropriate Spanish language pieces provided spirit and momentum. In addition to the aforementioned Mata, the choir sang “Sensemaya” (snake killing chant) from Canciones por las Americas by Sid Robinovitch and “Estrela e lua Nova” arranged by 20th century Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos. Mr. Sabino not only has command of the Spanish language but also styled the three Hispanic pieces with nationalistic authenticity. The choir enunciated and projected the words with a facility curiously absent in the English texts. The program closed with “Unclouded Day,” a hymn text dating back to 1885, nicely arranged by Shawn Kirchner.

I heard very few distractions or missteps from the choir, but there sure were some from other sources.

I am not a fan of long monologues before each piece. I don’t want to be told how I should feel or how to interpret the text, most especially when it’s in English. Audience time is valuable, too, and when the program starts a bit late, then runs an intermission of over 15 minutes, the extra talking makes what was perhaps 65-70 minutes’ music time into a 90 minute concert.

It only takes the actions of one rude audience member to distract all present. I was dumbstruck by one person who left his cell phone on, answered it, got up, left the performance space, then re-entered, all while the music was going on!

Our ushers must be trained too. At one point an usher, who must have decided that his job was now over, opened the door with a loud clangor, disrupting the sonic aura completely. Both behaviors can be controlled with proper house management, please!

But these are minor quibbles, and do not eclipse the stars: the outstanding choir and their director, who succeeded in a challenging, well rounded, stimulating program of high pedigree. “This was hard,” as that chorister said, then exhaling, “but worth it.”

Weekend of Veritable Feasting

If one wanted to, could afford it, and could beam from one venue to another, this past weekend could have been a feast of five prime Portland-area concerts at least: along with Friday night’s Oregon Chorale, the Oregon Symphony with Bartok and Copland; the Bach Cantata Choir offering Hasse with guest conductor (and past PSU Professor and PSC Director) Dr. David Wilson; Portland State University’s “Choirs on Fire”; Portland Baroque Orchestra, with a program featuring Baroque vocal music.

I chose the choirs, naturally, and that was enough choral riches for the weekend.

Bach Cantata Choir.

Bach Cantata Choir.

A Lenten Sunday began with the Bach Cantata Choir at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, their usual venue. There were a couple of “firsts” for them: they performed a French piece for their initial time: La Reniement de St. Pierre (the Denial of St. Peter) of Marc-Antoine Charpentier. And this was a semi-staged version, also a first. Points of interest here: excellent soloists; unusual piece; good choral work. The soloists, Mildred Riggle, Kristie Gladhill, Tim Galloway, Brian Tierney, Ben Espana and Paul Sadilek, were well prepared and convincing. Mr. Nelson chose wisely.

Casals’s best known motet, “O Vos Omnes” was sung (a cappella) to open the concert. Well done, but intonation was not perfect. The next piece was right in the choir’s wheelhouse:  J. S. Bach of course, Cantata No. 23, Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn (Thou very God and David’s Son). Soloists Nan Haemer, Irene Weldon, and Brian Tierney were fine. Tierney always shines, and did throughout the afternoon. Weldon was in fine voice, her low register blooming at every turn.

The final piece was the entrée: Miserere in c minor by Johann Adolf Hasse. The crowning point was the appearance of David Wilson, former director of the Portland Symphonic Choir and music professor at P.S.U. Wilson knows this score inside and out, and showed it. His recent book revolved around the works of Hasse, whom he studied over a period of 30 years.

The choir was extremely well prepared throughout the day, and here was no exception.  This is an Italianate, emotional show piece (Hasse studied in Italy) and there was no holds barred on the composer’s ostentation. Soloists were again very well cast, and the duet of Vakare Petroliunaite and Hannah Penn was a match made in composer heaven. Brian Haskins and Paul Sadilek made excellent contributions as well.

In many ways, this was one of the best offerings of the Bach Cantata Choir. I’m glad they have not restricted themselves to Bach, but continue to explore avenues such as Charpentier and Casals – and Hasse! Read the book my Dr. Wilson!

Ethan Sperry (far left) led PSU Chamber Choir at Portland's First Methodist Church.

Ethan Sperry (far left) led PSU Chamber Choir at Portland’s First Methodist Church.

PSU’s concert involved the Vox Femina, Man Choir, and the Chamber Choir.  This is necessarily brief, but can be described in a few words: unbridled energy, rhythmic ferocity, and great variety.  Multi-cultural music is a password in choral music education these days, and this concert had it in spades. Music from India, England, Spain, Estonia, Latvia, South Africa, and — Stevie Wonder.

And the optics were little short of spectacular, and infectious. While all of the singers were dancing during a final piece, I watched as a three year old girl picked up the spirit and danced her way around the back of the church. She’ll join in about 15 years maybe.

Lovely singing; no forcing. Thank you conductors: Ethan Sperry, Tim Havis, and Sterling Roberts.

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

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