oregon repertory singers

Doing anything Friday night? How about hanging out on 82nd Avenue?

The East Side strip, which runs north-south for many miles, was once considered a barrier of sorts between the city and the sprawl, and also an economic barrier, with a richer urban population to the west and a poorer, semi-rural population to the east. East County didn’t get in the game very much, and when it did, it was often as a political football. 82nd became neon central, home to everything from used car lots to Southeast Asian restaurants to massage parlors – and, increasingly, a rich stew of ethnic and immigrant cultures.

Signs of the times: Sabina Haque's 82nd Avenue.

Signs of the times: Sabina Haque’s 82nd Avenue.

That’s what makes it interesting to Portland artist Sabina Haque, a very good painter and collagist whose work in recent years has moved also toward installation, film, and cultural and cross-cultural projects, including her provocative series on drone warfare in Pakistan, where she grew up.

Haque, as artist in residence for the Portland Archives & Records Center, has been digging deeply into the area’s long and complicated history, finding a cultural through-line to match the strip of concrete that divides culture from culture and east from west. From 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday she’ll unveil what she’s created in Annexation & Assimilation: East 82nd Ave, a giant exhibition/event in the 8,000-square-foot APANO/JADE multicultural center at 82nd and Southeast Division Street. The free event will include video projections on 20-foot screens, oral histories, shadow theater, poster installations and more – for some, a rousing introduction to a part of Portland they hardly know; to others, a simple statement of the place they live.



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.

Want to read more about Oregon choral music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Oregon Repertory Singers review: Double treat

Double choirs excel in performances of a pair of very different Masses by Frank Martin and Ralph Vaughan Williams


Although they were contemporaries, British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and Swiss composer Frank Martin make strange musical bedfellows. But for one very enjoyable afternoon at Portland’s First Methodist Church last weekend, they made comfortable companions indeed, thanks to the mediation of Oregon Repertory Singers and their music director Ethan Sperry.

These two 20th century composers were similar in several ways. Both lived long lives, both were influenced by French music, both were sons of clergymen.  But their music differed considerably.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music is the epitome of British nationalism. He was influenced by Tudor style, such as the basis for his much loved Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis, and by British/Irish folk songs. His compositional style remained as British as clotted cream to his end.

By contrast, Martin was born in Switzerland but spent a good deal of his time in the Netherlands; for a while he embraced Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone compositional style until settling into an eclectic compositional voice.

For a piece that lay unknown in a desk drawer for some decades, Martin’s Mass is loaded with what were for their time, new, creative ideas. It’s like a compendium of nascent and varied musical motifs: from the neo-Medieval Kyrie to the pentatonic scales of the “Et Resurrect,” and the quasi-pointillistic opening of the “Gloria.”

One of the most expressive, coloristic choral pieces of the 20th century, Martin’s Mass for double choir is also one of the more exposed! Its transparent textures make it easy to hear every part, and every mistake. ORS did it proud, displaying a warm sonority through all of the movements, and a rhythmic and expressive dialogue between the two choirs that was tactile. The Mass is a kaleidoscope of varied hues, rhythms and tempi, made even more delicious by the interplay of the two choirs: a tone bath of the first order.

Oregon Repertory Singers performed at Portland's First United Methodist Church.

Oregon Repertory Singers performed at Portland’s First United Methodist Church.

Choir and conductor really “got” the wide dynamic spectrum available – and needed – for both pieces, and available to a choir of these dimensions (90 voices).  A ground floor pianissimo rose to a full-throated fortissimo.

One of the most difficult tasks for amateur singers is to maintain a continuous legato line, but it was no challenge for this choir. Ultra-responsive to Sperry’s cues, they met most of the demands of this daunting score.

Just a few minor cavils: there was a little accident in the Martin, where one choir was inconclusive in its entrance, and mild panic set in; but it was very soon resolved. And very occasionally, attacks were blunted by an amorphous, timid fuzziness – but only seldom.  

Composed, like Martin’s Mass, in the early 1920s, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in g minor harks back to the composer’s long hegemony over British music of the mid-20th century. Influenced greatly by Debussy and Ravel, with whom he studied, the composer luxuriantly flourishes his unique, modal style throughout the Mass.

In ORS’s performance, varied mixed solo quartets in most movements ranged from very good to excellent, but occasionally dropped slightly in pitch. Wisely, Sperry paused after each of the movements, to reposition the varied groups of soloists differently for each successive movement. This was doubly wise, as the audience could applaud each separate group and the choir could retune as necessary.

These two Masses have never appeared together on the concert stage in Portland. Looking ahead, I hope there is more of this type of programming. It offers us a little less of the flavor-of-the-year works that are already so much in the public ear, and so much wider a palette of sound and structure.

The Oregon Repertory Singers, now having been in Dr. Sperry’s capable hands for five years, has cultivated an appealing warmth of tone color. They seem to be evolving year by year, a good sign and something every artistic group, in infancy or adulthood, must do to survive.

Thanks, ORS, for your moments of ear candy, and genuine emotive singing. Not so many choirs can forge two such disparate pieces into a palatable concert whole. Under Ethan Sperry, they’re being asked to sing more and more challenging works: what’s next?

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

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch! 

ArtsWatch Weekly: a Will and a way

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

The first thing we do, let’s count all the layers. He’s been updated, squeezed down, rethought, rewritten, cleaned up, dirtied down, worshipped unabashedly, reviled occasionally, shrugged off as a front man for some more sophisticated writer (Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is the latest in a long line of contrarian candidates), quoted out of context ’til the cows come home.

Shakespeare's funerary monument, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare’s funerary monument, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Wikimedia Commons

And still, four hundred years after his death, old Will Shakespeare’s a survivor. In a lot of ways, it seems, he’s never been healthier. He’s translated into pretty much every language of any size on Earth, and adapted into everything from ballets to symphonic musical scores to teen-movie comedies. And he’s an economic powerhouse: towns from Ashland, Oregon to Stratford-upon-Avon, England are built on the sturdy foundation of the money and visitors he draws in.

So, happy anniversary, Will. No one’s absolutely sure of the precise date he was born, but he was baptized on April 26, 1564 (probably three days after his birth), and died on April 23, 1616, and April 23 – this Saturday – is the day that much of the world will be celebrating his legacy. In Portland, the biggest party might be Shakespeare at 400, an all-day event (8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.) at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall. It’s presented by PSU, the Portland Shakespeare Project, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Play On! Project” of contemporary “translations” of the plays (that word’s caused a lot of ruckus in the Church of Shakespeare), with input from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s The Wonder of Will celebration. There’ll be lectures, and readings, and a sonnet slam, and excerpts from three of OSF’s controversial translations by contemporary playwrights. Come see and hear for yourself what Amy Freed’s done with The Taming of the Shrew, Ellen McLaughlin with Pericles, and Douglas Langworthy with Henry VI: fresh approaches, or sacrilege?

Everything’s free, but organizers want to know how many people will be showing up, so click that link above and send in your RSVP.

"Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing," William Blake, ca. 1786, watercolor and graphite on paper, 18.7 x 26.6 inches, Tate Britain, London / Wikimedia Commons

“Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing,” William Blake, ca. 1786, watercolor and graphite on paper, 18.7 x 26.6 inches, Tate Britain, London / Wikimedia Commons



Once upon a time the woods were mighty, and so were the men who worked in them. Paul Bunyan could clear-cut a hillside with a single swing of his ax (such activities are frowned upon these days) and hard-working, hard-living woodsmen were memorialized in folk songs: I see you are a logger, and not just a common bum, for nobody but a logger stirs his coffee with his thumb.


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.

Want to read more about Oregon choral music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

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.


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