The drums are pounding, a couple dozen choristers are frenetically dancing and ululating onstage, and the audience is clapping and cheering as the global beats erupt around them. When the song is over, the church reverberates with applause.
This isn’t your grandfather’s choral concert. Although it happened last spring, this could be almost any Portland State University choral concert from the past few years. Since director Ethan Sperry arrived in 2010, the university’s choral program has dramatically expanded in quality, range of repertoire, size, acclaim and, as last summer’s performance of a Sperry arrangement of a South Indian song demonstrated, sheer thrills.
The excitement extends beyond Portland. This summer, the chamber choir embarks for Bali for its latest international competition. On March 17, it will showcase that repertoire here in its hometown. And this weekend, it joins fellow Portland State choirs in a concert featuring American choral classics.
The Bali journey follows the choir’s sweep of 15 awards at a major Italian competition in 2013 — the first time an American college won the grand prize in the contest’s 52-year history. Another top award followed at a prominent Canadian competition the next year. The chamber choir has also made two acclaimed recordings: 2012’s A Drop in the Ocean, a finalist for a major choral music award (a rarity for any college classical music performers), and 2014’s Into Unknown Worlds, named a “recording to die for” by Stereophile magazine, another first for a student choir. A third recording, Horizon to Horizon, comes out this year on Naxos, the world’s largest classical music label.
The choir’s rise in quality parallels a surge in quantity. Since Sperry arrived, “the number of voice majors has doubled (and) we’ve gone from a program that had two choirs and 100 singers to now having six choirs and 250 singers,” he says. The chamber choir, all-male Man Choir and all-female Vox Femina choirs are chosen by audition, while the University Choir is open to any student.
Sperry recruits extensively in high schools, the choir frequently performs in area high schools, and his choral workshops regularly receive visitors from high school choirs from throughout the West. He has an attractive product. Sperry says that 80 percent of choir students graduate, a rate almost double the university’s six-year graduation rate, and that half of Portland State chamber choir alumni report having jobs in music.
Sperry attributes much of the re-energized choral programs’ appeal not just to the performances’ high quality and the sense of community they bring to what has historically been a commuter school, but also to their diversity. Along with contemporary and classic choral repertoire, the concerts often boast rhythmically charged global pop and folk music, much of which he’s arranged.
“To me, choir is as much about communication as music making,” he says. “Human beings everywhere throughout history have chosen to sing together. All these other traditions are part of the choral repertoire.”
Diverse programming brings diverse audiences — and singers. Since his arrival, Sperry says, Portland State choirs have gone from 20 percent nonwhite to almost 50 percent nonwhite, a diversity uncommon in American collegiate choral music.
“When the repertoire becomes not just ‘dead white guy’ music, a lot of people buy into it: ‘Yeah, this is my music, this is my home, I belong here,’ ” Sperry says. That creates a degree of audience connection and emotional, even physical, expression that usually make Portland State choral concerts more energetic, exciting and enjoyable than just about any others in town.
“I really think the classical music world has gone kind of off the rails in that so many classical musicians think the point of being onstage is to show off technique: making a beautiful sound on their instrument and not playing any wrong notes,” Sperry explains. “Of course, the music is more compelling when you sing it in tune, and sing the right note. But there are other artists like Bob Dylan who have atrocious technique but deliver an artistic experience every time he opens his mouth. [Some classical musicians have] forgotten that that’s even what they’re supposed to be doing, to make people have that visceral experience of music. I think that’s what people are drawn to, and they’re not used to getting it from classical music.”
The choir also excels in gentler, subtler, more complex music, as well as in traditional European repertoire and in music by popular contemporary choral composers, and yes, even dead white guys. This weekend’s concerts with the PSU Orchestra offer classics by great 20th and 21st century American composers including Aaron Copland (Appalachian Spring) and Randall Thompson.
Audiences have responded, with Sperry reporting average attendance at choral concerts growing from around 100 to more than 800, sometimes breaking 1,000. PSU choirs have also recently performed in concerts with the Oregon Symphony; they’re scheduled to do so again twice in May.
Ticket and CD sales and fundraisers help pay for choral programming that operates on a zero budget (beyond Sperry’s salary). But that’s about to change, thanks to a half-million-dollar donation last year from Portland’s Phil Bogue, which the choir will match. That money will help fund recording and touring projects as the choral program continues its journey, embracing music from across the globe — and taking it around the world.
PSU Orchestra, Chamber Choir, Man Choir and Vox Femina sing American classics at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 3 and 4 p.m. Sunday, March 5 at First United Methodist Church, 1838 S.W. Jefferson St. Portland.
The Portland State Chamber Choir performs “Take Flight,” a fundraising send off concert for its summer choral competition journey to Asia, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 17, Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 S.W. Park Ave. Tickets online or 503-725-3307. A shorter version of this story originally appeared in The Oregonian/OregonLive.