Oregon Chorale review: Dramatic cohesion

Choir gives satisfying musical response to historical conflict, new leadership and ambitious program

by BRUCE BROWNE

This past weekend the Oregon Chorale wove an array of dark and emotional music into one work of art – a patchwork in which a variety of finishes, colors and textures offered came together as a “Response to Strife.”

Jason Sabino, the choir’s new artistic director, laid out the design to provoke an emotional response. Creating a cohesive program around a single subject is not only laudable, it’s essential in our evolving arts world. Gone are the days of bits and pieces programs, or a chronological museum-like walk through music history.

When one is performing – or listening to – a large scale oratorio, like Handel’s Messiah or Brahms’s German Requiem, the composer has done the programming for us. Otherwise, we are chancing a variety show of small shards of choral music, with no governing concept. So hurrah for dramatic cohesion, Mr. Sabino and the choir, in its 31st year of existence.

One has to be careful though, with a program like this: slow tempi + static harmonies x foreboding texts = a tough date for audience members, maybe singers as well. Not an easy equation. Particularly for the choir, who, to their credit, stood tall while the 37-minute Gorecki Miserere exacted a toll of slow tempi, repeated text, and repeated harmonic gesture, all demanding a high level of concentration. They answered the call, and doubled down on the gamble.

Jason Sabino leads Oregon Chorale. Photo: Don White.

The first four pieces spanned continents and style, beginning with the soothing coo of mothers comforting the world To the Mothers in Brazil: Salve Regina by Gunnar Eriksson (original work by Lars Jansson). Requiem by Eliza Gilkyson (arr. Craig Hella Johnson) was written after the 2004 Asian tsunami. Norman Luboff’s iconic arrangement of the Bahamian folk tune “All My Trials” was performed dramatically and included a lovely solo by soprano Sheryl Wood. An African song, “Indodana,” (arr. Michael Barrett and Ralf Schmitt) told of redemption and comfort through Jesus Christ. The brief first half ended there, a very satisfying setup for the second half of the program and the upcoming despondency of the centerpiece Miserere by Henryk Gorecki.

Born in Poland in 1933, Gorecki lived most of his artistic productive years during the Soviet Communist dominance of Poland (roughly 1945–1989). He died in 2010. Gorecki’s 1981 choral work Miserere was written in response to the government assaults on Polish union solidarity activists. This was a period of simple, chordal and chantlike harmonic progressions for Gorecki who, during the 1960s was considered one of Poland’s premiere avant-garde composers. The work was tucked safely away later in that year when the martial law was enacted.

Henryk Górecki.

In 1987, Miserere was premiered in St. Stanislaus Church in Wloclawek. Five words make up the text: Domine Deus Noster (Lord Our God) and Miserere Nobis (Have mercy on us). The first three words are repeated through the first ten movements and the final two are complete the work in movement eleven.

Carefully scripted testimonies can add much to setting the stage for an artistic work inspired by historic events, as was the Miserere. To open the second half, two Polish-born speakers, congregants of the Portland Polish community’s iconic St. Stanislaus church, shared experiences in Poland, fighting against the prevailing, oppressive communist regime of the 1970s and ’80s and the rebuilding of their Polish community in Portland. It was lengthy.

The Miserere is tonally accessible to listeners. In terms of vocal stamina, it is as accessible as a hike to Mount St. Helens’s rim – in April. Preparation, conviction and aerobic conditioning win the day.

The closing piece, You do not walk alone, was anticlimactic. Composer Dominic DiOrio, a faculty member of the University of Indiana’s Music Department, has achieved a level of prestige, though this piece does not showcase his talent to that level.

This choir is, by several orders of magnitude, a better instrument than the one heard during last year’s audition series. The male voices are particularly well-honed. Their presence in the opening sections of the Gorecki was stunning in its simplicity and perfect intonation. The women are not far behind. Sabino’s fluid, easy gestures make for a welcome means of singing by the choir. Production values of dynamic spectrum and legato singing were first rate; tuning was just so in some places in the Gorecki, creating occasional overtones floating off into the fine acoustic of St. Matthew Catholic Church in downtown Hillsboro.

Given the strong musical values of this concert, it was a bit disconcerting to have so much talking from the podium. Mr. Sabino narrated each upcoming piece, even reiterating the material in the program notes. It is reminiscent of Ed Sullivan, introducing each new act; but in the choral music tradition of Robert Shaw, Eric Ericson, Roger Wagner, Frieder Bernius and many others, this is better avoided. And after designing such a provocative continuum, why break the emotional thread, chatting up the crowd in each interval? If there is a driving need to state the motivation for programming the piece or other personal reflections, let it be written in the program notes and then let the music and the text speak for themselves.

Otherwise, choir, conductor and soloists were nicely in sync in this second performance of their season. This was a well-conceived and satisfying performance by a dedicated choir that clearly loves what they’re doing with their new director.

Mr. Sabino and the Oregon Chorale will complete their first season with June 10–11 performances of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna and Maurice Durufle’s Requiem, performed at Bethel Congregational Church in Beaverton to accommodate the participation of organist Dan Miller.

Portland choir director Bruce Browne directed Portland Symphonic Choir and choral music programs at Portland State University for many years and was founder and director of Choral Cross-Ties, a professional choral group in Portland.

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One Response. Have your say.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    Congratulations, Jason and Oregon Chorale! Miserere impressed and lingered through the weekend in my mind. Agnieszka was also moved, literally to tears. She was on hand at the first performance to give an overview of Poland under the communist regime. Her contribution drew audible acknowledgement from both the chorale and audience when she noted that Poland’s desperate and disparately factionalized resistance to a dismally failing regime suddenly coalesced with the 1979 visitation of the Polish Pope John Paul II, whose public masses drew hundreds of thousands in several locations around the nation. Poles suddenly realized their strength in numbers and the nascent Solidarity Movement exploded. Gorecki’s Miserere is a vibrant tribute to the spiritual power of that movement. Thank you, Jason Sabeno and the Oregon Chorale.

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