Washougal Art & Music Festival

100+: Oregon Rep Singers, Choral Arts Ensemble celebrate long life

The two choirs, longstanding pillars of Oregon's vital choral scene, wrap up their 50th and 55th anniversary seasons with premieres and music by Pacific Northwest composers.

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An onstage congratulations for the Oregon Repertory Singers and Camerata PYP.
An onstage congratulations for the Oregon Repertory Singers and Camerata PYP.

The Oregon Repertory Singers capped their 50th year with a concert centered on the quest to find light – as a metaphor for hope. The choir’s performance, at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton on the afternoon of April 27, presented two pieces that took listeners on this journey. The first was Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, (Eternal Light), followed by the world premiere of Finding Light, by Filipino-American composer Matthew Lyon Hazzard. Both pieces were deftly accompanied by Camerata PYP and conducted by ORS Music Director Ethan Sperry.

In his introductory remarks, Sperry noted that he studied at the University of Southern California with Lauridsen, who was born in Beaverton and still has strong ties to the Pacific Northwest, and sang in the first performance of Lux Aeterna. That certainly informed the music-making during this concert.

Based on a series of sacred Latin Catholic texts, Lux Aeterna took listeners on a spiritual journey that was laced with gorgeous, intertwined harmonic lines, which would ebb and flow against each other in an almost hypnotic fashion. The soothing and reassuring mood of the piece benefited from the lovely sonic blend and excellent diction, and the hushed tones of the final “Amen” wrapped up everything in a warm blanket.

Oregon Repertory singers in their 50th season-ending concert, with the young musicians of Camerata PYP.
Oregon Repertory singers in their 50th season-ending concert, with the young musicians of Camerata PYP.

The damage caused by climate change and the worrisome future made up the central themes of Hazzard’s Finding Light, which was commissioned by the ORS.  Hazzard, an award-winning composer who lives in Long Beach, Calif., gave an impassioned introduction to the eight-movement, 45-minute work, emphasizing the need to find light in spite of the “impending doom.”

Drawing text from various sources – but most often from the poetry of Sophia Mautz — Finding Light began somberly with a bass drum and strings during the “Prelude.” The chorus, augmented by the ORS Youth Choir, ardently launched into the “Oregon” movement, crescendoing with the words “Everything man-made will eventually be ground into nothingness.” A nervous, pulsating mood dominated the next movement (“The end of the world is a kind of weather”).

“This Far In” was the wordiest movement, topped off by questions such as “Do you still have hope?” “The River Is Proof” created the most haunting effect when one of the girls in the youth choir sang “I am young but feel close to death.” In “Footsteps” we got a glimmer of hope with the words “You don’t have to see the light to know it’s there.” The last two movements (“The Search for Light” and “The Light in You”) moved towards more hope and light.

Hazzard often painted the words with descriptive sounds, which worked very effectively. For example, the music became edgy when the words described polluted scenes. Sometimes it slowed down and descended when hopelessness came to the forefront. The finale lifted things a bit, but it didn’t let humanity off the hook, and it implied that we all have a long way to go.

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I found it curious that projected titles were used for “Finding Light,” which was in English, but no supertitles were used for “Lux Aeterna,” which was in Latin. The program contained texts for both pieces – with the Latin translation for “Lux Aeterna” – but with the lights down in the hall, it would have been more effective with projected titles – even with just the Latin.

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CAE, singing the sounds of the Northwest. Photo courtesy Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland.

THE CHORAL ARTS ENSEMBLE OF PORTLAND (better known as CAE) is even older: It began 55 years ago (originally as the Civic Choraliers), and celebrated on the evening of April 27 at St. Philip Neri Church with a program centered on composers from the Pacific Northwest. Hence, its season finale was titled Northwest Voices, and many of the compositions were written by members of Cascadia Composers, a collective of composers that is dedicated to developing and promoting works by its members.

Under the direction of Dr. David De Lyser, who is a professor of music at the University of Portland, the 50-voice choir excelled with a varied and challenging program.

The concert led off with e e cummings songs by Brian Holmes, a member of Cascadia Composers who is known for his writing for the voice. Holmes showed off his terrific wit and sense of humor with these songs. “In Just – “ had a whimsical, word-painting style that captured glee of childhood and balloons. “hist wist” offered clever syncopation to match up with the text. “when god lets my body be” expressed the beguiling lyricism of a love song. “Buffalo Bill’s” countered that with a bouncy humor that allowed the conductor to sit down while one of the baritones held a note for a long expanse.

Cascadia Composer Dawn Lenore Sonntag’s The Road Not Taken set the words of Robert’s Frost’s famous poem to piano and voice. It seemed to be a tricky piece, with the piano (Jennifer Creek Hughes) not giving the choir much to hang on to. At the end of the  piece, in which the narrator takes the road less traveled by and then states “And that has made all the difference,” the music subtly changed to another key, echoing the text perfectly.

Lyser joined the chorus so that Assistant Conductor Megan Elliott could take the podium and lead the ensemble in Patrick Vu’s This Is Nothing But Thy Love. According to the program notes, the text derived from a collection of Bengali devotional poems by Rabindranath Tagore. This piece featured a lovely solo by soprano Amelia Mulford. Elliott also directed Vu’s On the Hillside, a tender long song for choir and piano.

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CAE also sang Czernogorsk Fugue by Tomáš Svoboda, who was one of the founding members of Cascadia Composers. Based on a Czech folk song, it told of a farmer who planted trees to be guarded by a young girl. It was sung in Czech, and I assume done very well, because Svoboda’s widow, Jana Demartini-Svoboda, was in attendance, and she enjoyed hearing it.

The choir also excelled with Madrigali – Six “Fire Songs” on Italian Renaissance Poems by Morten Lauridsen. This demanding work, sung in Italian, captured aspects of burning passion, expressing mostly love that is all-consuming and the agony of unrequited love. The fifth song, “Luci Serene E Chiare” (“Serene and Cloudless Eyes”) had the most arresting sonorities, and the sixth, “Se Per Havervi, Oime” (“If to have you, Oime”) settled softly into oblivion with the embers of the final words: “What should I do without you, who are all that I love?”

The concert closed with a joyful rendition of Ay’bobo Pou You by Sydney Guillaume, a Haitian musician and composer who now lives in Portland. This piece added percussion (Jennifer Creek Hughes and Kris Voss-Rothmeier) and featured tenor Nick Herbert as soloist. It was a peppy number with yelps of gladness. The text, sung in Haitian Creole and French, praised poets, musicians, actors, singers, and all involved in the arts. The music sped up and made a grand finale that put a smile on everyone’s face.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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