Oregon Repertory Singers: Risk and reward


Last weekend, Oregon Repertory Singers took a risk. The audience came in an act of faith to hear two unknown works (and one beloved). Would they go home satisfied – would their reward of loyalty also be an artistic one?

To open their 43rd season this past Saturday afternoon, ORS presented three works on one theme: pursuit of peace — in the world and in the heart. Two of the pieces, both masses, were based on the “L’Homme Arme” (The Armed Man) cantus firmus – recurring theme – which in turn was based on a six-centuries-old Burgundian secular tune. Italian 17th century composer Giacomo Carissimi and 71-year-old Welshman Karl Jenkins threaded and wove the tune into full length works.

Ethan Sperry led Oregon Repertory Singers and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Allison Silverberg.

Ethan Sperry led Oregon Repertory Singers and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Allison Silverberg.

Beginning in 1460, in the Burgundian period of music, “L’Homme armé” served as the melodic center of more than 50 masses. Why? Because it was there and because the structure of the tune (tonic centered scale tones, perfectly suited to use in a round) is so user friendly — even easier than the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” lick.

First on the program, Carissimi’s Mass, from which the choir sang the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, is a Baroque adoption of the Burgundian theme. Now in his 45th year as organist and music director at First United Methodist Church, Jonas Nordwall, in his inimitable style, performed a fantasy on the cantus firmus, and segued seamlessly into the a cappella Carissimi. The effect was stunning and the choir, arrayed in a complete oval around the sanctuary, sang beautifully. But then, without pause, with the tones of the Carissimi Agnus Dei still ringing, they intoned the octave entrance of Agnus Dei, the choral transcription of Samuel Barber’s iconic Adagio for Strings.

Maestro Sperry, in his introductory remarks, brought up the word “risk”. And Sperry and the choir took several risks, with many rewards ensuing. The first risk was the simple act of encircling the audience with modified vocal quartets, to sing. The epic textures were plasticized by each section, ebbing and flowing perfectly.

Too, it’s a risk for any performing arts organization to put before the public something with which they are unfamiliar. But it must be done, otherwise we languish in repetition of only the known, therefore only the past.

Musically and spiritually, the centerpiece of the concert was the Jenkins mass, performed with the ORS’s recent partner, the Vancouver Symphony. Composed in 1999 and premiered in London a year later, the piece is populist and appealing, its melodies singable and harmonies moderate for a 21st century work.

Sperry himself came well armed: tempi were thoughtfully planned, and more important, pacing between movements was perfect, always moving forward. In this 59 minute work, with any amount of dead time, the movements can become unhinged. They didn’t.

Jenkins understands orchestration, and wrote music that wedded well to eclectic texts (Dryden, Swift, Tennyson, Kipling and Sankichi Toge and Muslim prayer) eliciting the varied emotions of conflict, war and peace.

The only drawback of this piece is the composer’s predilection for repetition, often iterating musical sections two or more times. Why? It comes off as self-indulgent.

The Vancouver Symphony was very strong and, if we look past several individual blips and blats, a few essential solos were very well played. Military fife was very effectively rendered by flutist Darren Cook; cellist Dieter Ratzlaf simply and serenely played the blessedly beautiful Benediction melody, which is then repeated in the voices.

Audiences will sometimes sit through a large work awaiting one melody, one movement, one breathtaking “so beautiful it hurts” moment. (See Rachmaninoff Variations on a Theme by Paganini or Bernstein Chichester Psalms or Lauridsen Chansons de la Rose.) The Benedictus is one such moment in the Jenkins Missa, but other moments in this work surprisingly involved the percussion section. And a very fine percussion section it was – crisp, accurate and properly balanced.

Soloists in the Jenkins were very effective: April Vanderwal processing up the aisle, her light, almost boyish soprano perfect for the Kyrie. Several others delivered lovely snippets: Lisa Riffel, and Rich Vanderwal and Alexander Garcia among them. Wajdi Said movingly intoned the Islamic call to prayer following the opening movement.

This year’s edition of Oregon Repertory Singers is the best in a long while. Intonation, phrasing and balance/blend are superb; each section stays firmly within its own sleeve of sound. Dedicated to bringing some of the finest unknown choral works to the Portland community. Sperry and the choir may carry on their risk taking, and reward us all in the process.

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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