oregon repertory singers

Portland State Choirs & Oregon Repertory Singers: Making choral music hot again

Conductor and teacher Ethan Sperry channels music's primal passions

Choir concerts too often fall somewhere between treacly Up With People plastered smile sounds and uptight, rote solemnity — an uninspiring contest between dreariness and gooiness.

Bland is not an issue for the Portland State University Man Choir, which regularly unleashes some of the most energetic and thrilling sounds I’ve ever experienced on Oregon stages. Director Ethan Sperry has a genuine gift for conducting male singers, his joy and passion beaming through in his gestures and grins, urging the singers on to riveting performances that might occasionally stray from the Vox Femina PSU women’s choir’s close pitch matching but more than compensate in sheer compelling power. You can’t take your eyes or ears off them. The school’s director of choral activities is one of the most charismatic musicians you’ll ever see, even though he’s not, technically, performing. Without ever upstaging his singers, Sperry inspires the young men to unleash their emotional connection to the music they’re making, without sacrificing the precision, ensemble and other musical qualities that make a good choir a great one.
Sperry’s PSU singers go straight for the heart, with passionate, powerful performances that enrapture classical and pop fans alike.


Ethan Sperry conducted PSU Man Choir at Lincoln Hall.

That’s especially true of PSU’s annual Global Rhythms shows. You still have a chance to catch this year’s second performance, which happens at 4 pm Sunday, May 31 at Portland State’s Lincoln Hall — assuming the stage has cooled sufficiently after the choirs’ fiery performances I heard in the first concert Friday night. And it was only one of several commanding performances that Sperry has led this spring.


Oregon Repertory Singers review: Knockout Performance of a Heavyweight Mass

Choir's Missa Solemnis performance floats like a butterfly, stings like a Beethoven.


Saying that Beethoven wrote powerful choral works is like saying that Ali threw powerful punches in Zaire and Manila. LvB was a choral slugger. About his most potent choral work, the Missa Solemnis, Robert Shaw famously wrote, “It’s a little like setting off a bomb in the brain – to say nothing of the explosion in the larynx.”

Ethan Sperry conducted Oregon Repertory Singers in December concerts.

Ethan Sperry conducted Oregon Repertory Singers and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

You have to get in the ring with Ludwig Van and have it out, take his punches and be prepared to give back more than you get.

Saturday afternoon at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, the Oregon Repertory singers did exactly that. Extremely well prepared by artistic director Ethan Sperry, and capable of sparring with the best of Beethoven, they sang through all of the composer’s high-range pyrotechnics, high decibel dynamics, and complicated fugues, seemingly without effort. The tenors displayed an especially silvery and flexible sleeve if sound. Basses carried well, even in the low register, not an easy matter in this venue. Sopranos never seemed to overreact to the demands of the score, singing easily and fluidly throughout.

A few especially telling moments in the choir’s singing: the nuance of the mysterious whisperings at the “Et vitam venturi” (and the life of the world to come); their ability to pull off the dark setting of “…”passus et sepultus est.” (He died and was buried). Conductor and choir were particularly deft in transitions and definition of articulation, essential elements in interpretation of this type of work.

The accompanying Vancouver Symphony Orchestra did not fare as well. Perhaps because of his early training and activity as a classicist, Beethoven loved fugues, and the Missa Solemnis exhibits many of these forms. Last night, particularly in the instrumental lines, we could have heard more diversity of thematic importance. Absent that, we tend to hear simply a vast wall of sound. While there were moments of felicity in the instrumentalists’ playing, they at times lacked focus in ensemble, and most egregiously, overplayed their role as accompaniment. This listener never heard anything approaching a very soft (pp) dynamic from them. They clearly needed more time with the score.

The orchestra also posed a barrier to the vocal soloists, who had to sing from a position behind them. Forget the optics; it’s just that much harder for singers to project through such a wall of sound, and the soloists also have to battle Beethoven’s visceral vocal demands, and some of the fiendish harmonies of the score. This is not a “classical” Mass (a la Mozart or early Beethoven himself), easy to sing and predictably balanced. It’s a behemoth, a monster that challenges vocal soloists as well as the rest of the performers. The gentlemen soloists came away with flying colors, unscathed by the demands of the score. Bass Andre Flynn is the gift that keeps on giving – to the musical community of Portland. His vocal quality was perfect for this role. Carl Halvorson was an equal partner in both vocal quality and musicianship.

While the men did, in fact, soar over that orchestral wall, alto Haley Maddox and soprano Joanna Meline carried less well. These are younger voices, and needed every chance they could get. Meline started well enough, but by the middle of the work, her voice, which has wonderful potential, simply lost stamina, and with it, vocal color. Maddox possesses a lovely voice, one that carried well in the high register, but was lost in the low end. She also needed more time to learn the score; many notes were blurry and some seemingly short of the mark on pitch. Both soprano and alto seemed to wander a bit during the end of the Credo, but buttressed by choir and orchestra, found their way back.

The singers and players benefited from having an intermission for this concert — a respite much needed by singers and players. In addition, the audience, intentionally or not, gave the singers and orchestra a “mini-break” after each movement with their applause (yes, Stokowski et al. would have scolded us), but it turned out to be an advantage, again given the demands on stamina. Even Ali got his breaks between rounds.

And this work needs all the breaks it can get. The gumption to mount it, to take it on, to slug it out with Beethoven as Ethan Sperry and the masses did this past weekend… the verdict? After 12 rounds: the winner: ORS.

Portland choral conductor Bruce Browne led the Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties, and directed the Portland State University choral programs for many years.

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in PSU Opera's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Alan Smith and Whitney Steele perform in PSU Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: John Rudoff.


If “fear no music” were not already taken, it would be a perfect title for much of what went on this past weekend in Portland choral music. Not only were The Ensemble, Oregon Repertory Singers, and Portland State University Opera unafraid to tackle new, recent and unusual repertoire, they also showed their audiences that there was nothing to fear in the choral and vocal music of our time.


Round-up: Wiggers steps down and a choir’s missing records

An eventful day in Portland arts: Namita Gupta Wiggers won't head the Museum of Contemporary Craft and Oregon Repertory Singers' case of the missing money data

Oregon Repertory Singers is missing its financial records.

Oregon Repertory Singers is missing its financial records.

Yesterday in the arts was “eventful,” though most of the events we heard about aren’t complete and certainly not our understanding of them.

OK, that’s not very concrete. How about: In Portland yesterday, we learned that Namita Gupta Wiggers was leaving her dual posts of chief curator and director of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, and that the Oregon Repertory Singers couldn’t find its financial records or some of the money it thought it had.

Eyes at the Oregon Repertory Singers turned toward to Jed Shay, former executive director, who left the choir in January to lead the Portland Youth Philharmonic, though no charges have been filed and it may all be a big misunderstanding. Or not. The investigation is just starting.


Cappella Romana joined Portland Baroque Orchestra in Handel's "Messiah."

Cappella Romana joined Portland Baroque Orchestra in Handel’s “Messiah.”


Editor’s note: The holidays are peak season for choral performances, so ArtsWatch asked regular contributors Bruce Browne and Jeff Winslow to hear as many as possible and report back to our readers. Here’s part one, with a bonus assessment at the end.


Sing Awakening: Portland’s flowering choral landscape

The City of Roses is also a city of choruses.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble at Portland's YU Contemporary in March.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble at Portland’s YU Contemporary in March.

Editor’s note: this is the second in ArtsWatch’s spring look at contemporary choral music. See Jeff Winslow’s analysis of today’s choral compositions here.


“There is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and make new ones like them.” – Marcus Aureluis ‘Meditations’

A happy insight came to me indirectly last spring, from an event where hundreds of choral musicians appeared together, representing eight choirs. All Saints Catholic Church was the venue for an outpouring of spiritual and financial support for one of our own, Brian Tierney. Reflecting afterward on the variety of sounds that we had heard, I became aware of the several changes that had come about in six years my family had been gone from Portland. And in that time, Portland had cultivated a new choral landscape. Significant. Dramatic.

There are new faces in front of two of Portland’s heirloom choirs. Oregon Repertory Singers and Choral Arts Ensemble have new directors, Ethan Sperry and David DeLeyser. And these two join a cadre of new, smaller choirs conducted by energetic new talents who have blossomed on the scene: Katherine Fitzgibbon, Resonance Ensemble; Anna Song, In Mulieribus; Patrick McDonough, The Ensemble; and Ryan Heller, Portland Vocal Consort.

These new, downsized groups are what I would call “boutique choirs,” not at all a pejorative insinuation. I think it’s a good word that meshes with Portland’s boutique-y wine, beer and visual arts scene and general quirkiness, as seen on say, “Portlandia.” With these newbies comes the infusion of new ideas and styles. And they share similarities.


Sing Awakening: New directions in vocal music

Today's choral composers explore new sounds

Ryan Heller conducted Portland Vocal Consort's 2013 Best of the Northwest concert.

Ryan Heller conducted Portland Vocal Consort’s 2013 Best of the Northwest concert.

Editor’s note: This is the first in ArtsWatch’s two-part look at contemporary choral music. See Bruce Browne’s appraisal of Portland’s choral scene here.


New choral music is hot, no doubt about it. And in Portland, new choral ensembles are hot too. Recent years have seen the inauguration of several top-flight groups such as the Resonance Ensemble, Portland Vocal Consort, The Ensemble, and In Mulieribus. Established groups such as Choral Arts Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers have passed the baton to ambitious new directors, and the incomparable Cappella Romana has expanded forces and repertory. While none of these groups devotes itself exclusively to new compositions, they tackle them regularly and show no signs of losing interest. Portland Vocal Consort even has an annual “Best of the Northwest” show, with music written entirely by living Northwest composers. (Full disclosure: PVC included my “The Sun Never Says” in its 2011 “Best of the Northwest” program.)

On the national scene, publicity genius Eric Whitacre continues to woo and wow the choral singing multitudes, and for only the second time in its 60-year history (the first was only five years ago), the Pulitzer Prize in music was just awarded for an a cappella (unaccompanied) choral composition. Any local composer like me, who has written a few choral works and who wants to write more, or any fan of contemporary classical music, should be excited about the future, right?


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