In 1974, soprano Julia Nielson Ingram answered an audition call for a new choir. Pleased to make it into the group, she was even more pleased at the quality of voices, musicianship and enthusiasm for choral singing in Portland’s newest choir. “Our first director, George L. Clark,“ reflects Ingram, “deserves credit for assembling such a stellar group of singers.”
By the following year Ingram was the new choir’s first Board President, the name of the choir had changed from Portland Chamber Choir to Oregon Repertory Singers (her idea) and they had a new interim conductor, George Bell, to lead them into exciting choral repertoire. They were holding bake sales and garage sales–”gosh I don’t remember that” laughed Ingram– to help with funding but they kept singing and they were noticed:
Oregon Repertory Singers, that fledgling choir that “showed promise”, opens its 48th season with “Promise of Living” as a central theme. They approach this first concert weekend, October 23rd and 24th, well warmed up after their recent inspirational collaboration with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. They are ready for their season to bloom.
Today, Dr. Ethan Sperry is Artistic Director of the approximately 100-voice choir, having assumed that role from Dr. Gil Seeley who retired in 2011. Seeley–who was chosen to succeed Bell in 1976–served as Artistic Director of ORS for 35 years, building reputation, choir size and repertoire. Sperry’s two-part interview with his predecessor, one of ORS’s six 2020 Sperry Sessions, is still available for viewing (Part 1 and Part 2). More information on the choir’s history can be found in the Oregon Encyclopedia. Sperry is overjoyed to have a live choir before him as he gives the first downbeat of his eleventh season with ORS.
The cornerstone piece of this concert, Aaron Copland’s “Promise of Living”, is harvested from its original vocal quintet setting in Copland’s two-act opera Tender Land.
Tender Land was commissioned by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein around 1952 and contracted for television broadcast on NBC. Copland at that time was the musical representation of America, just as Norman Rockwell and Walker Evans were the visual (read more about Walker Evans below in Connections). Brooklyn-born Copland had established his Americana persona through works like the Our Town film score (1940), Lincoln Portrait (1942), Rodeo (1942) and Fanfare for the Common Man (1943).
Evans’ photographs, with James Agee’s words, were Copland’s and librettist Erik Johns’ inspiration for the rural midwest American characters in Tender Land. Ironically, when America’s most American composer submitted the finished product, NBC rejected it because the anti-communist HUAC hysteria of the 1950s had branded Copland as un-American. The work was finally premiered by New York City Opera in 1954.
“Promise of Living” seems a simple piece. But a closer look at this six-ish minute work reveals two tunes trading roles of melody/countermelody. “Zion’s Walls” from the 1850s Social Harp Collection seems to sprout from the beginning strains of Copland’s composed theme, which briefly recedes into countermelody and then blossoms again at the end. Complex, yet so listener-friendly; perhaps ‘tis a gift to appear simple.
Copland’s music is still oft-utilized as the sound of American promise. Spike Lee matches the orchestral piece “John Henry” with the footfalls of basketball players in He Got Game (1992) and snippets of the ballet Rodeo helped the beef industry answer “what’s for dinner?” But what Tender Land accomplishes is to capture a moment in American life and the resilience of people struggling to survive.
ORS will perform a different work that captures our own current moment in time. Composer Stacey Philipps wrote Close Distance as a personal reflection on pandemic isolation. First performed virtually by eight ORS singers in a Sperry Sessions interview with Philipps, Close Distance will be officially premiered by the full ensemble in this concert.
Sperry has programmed the works of two more local artists. Pacific Northwest audiences will always embrace Morten Lauridsen as a local; sit with him in Prayer, based on a poem of the same name by Dana Gioia, Poet Laureate of California from 2015-2018. Also featured is Portlander Naomi LaViolette, whose Everything is Brighter (solo version) can be heard here sung by the multitalented composer.
LaViolette is also the piano accompanist for ORS and her skills at the keyboard will be evident in “Una de dos” (“One of two”), one of two works on this program by late Argentine composer Carlos Guastavino.
Over a span of nearly five decades there will be some repetition of a choir’s repertoire—of any ensemble’s repertoire. There are the classics, the favorites, perhaps seasonal traditions such as Handel’s Messiah or ORS’s own former Rachmaninoff Vespers tradition. Familiarity is comforting and sometimes admittedly lucrative. That’s okay. It’s also okay and important to embrace the new and the future of the choral art.
True to its mission, ORS continues to expand its repertoire, reaching forward in this concert to introduce composers Matthew Lyon Hazzard and Santiago Veros, and to perform the Portland premiere of Infinity by Norwegian composer Kim Andre Arnesen.
Hazzard and Veros can be called promising composers; their works, primarily choral, are receiving more performances and they are both in their early thirties. Pause for affirmation—we can be emerging and promising at any age.
Both composers’ works offer stunning word painting. Incertitude by Angentine-born Veras is a disturbing little piece—in the best way. Gorgeous dissonances in close intervals, which require precision tuning, complement the muddled, fragmented dialogue. Resolution is but a wish. The singers need a hug after this one and they might get it on the open sea.
Filipino-American Hazzard’s The Prow recreates the sensation of perching on the bow of a small boat, sailing into a light wind, rolling on the gentle waves. Warning: listen at your own risk if prone to seasickness.
Arnesen’s Infinity, the longest work on this concert, was debuted in 2016 by Denver ensemble Kantorei. Arnesen is an Oslo-based composer whose choral works have garnered an international reputation. Sperry describes the piece as “spectacular…quite challenging, but just stunning both in how it sets the text and as a call to action for living life to its fullest.”
The final stanza of the poem by David Roberts is:
Our moment in time
one human race.
Choose the dark or the light
to rise or to fall,
for us all.(From Kosovo War Poetry, 2000)
Ingram said she would be happy to share more memories of those early ORS years. Then she paused and lovingly sighed “oh, singing in a choir.” There it is. A choir is its singers. Folks who love to sing the beautiful music composers write for singers.
Portland and Vancouver and Salem–these are singing cities. Thousands of folks who love to paint the words with their voices, capture a moment in time or to worship in song. What you said, Julia–they get it, too. And they are so ready to get back on stage.
Oregon Repertory Singers return to the stage, filled with promise, ready to sing for you. Garage sales are a thing of their past; this season premiere concert reflects their hope for the future.
ORS concerts are October 23, 5 pm and October 24, 2pm and 5pm (note the times) at First United Methodist Church, 18th and Jefferson, Portland. Purchase tickets here. Concerts are one hour long with no intermission. Masks and proof of vaccination, with ID, are required for all performers and audience. Seating will be limited to 50% capacity. For future ORS and other regional concerts check the PDX choral calendar.
Choral concert connections
Murry Sidlin was known to Oregon audiences for eight years as resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. Aaron Copland sanctioned Sidlin’s 1987 chamber version arrangement and revision of Tender Land which enabled more performances on a smaller scale. The 2000 premiere recording of the complete chamber version features Portland’s Third Angle New Music Ensemble and some familiar Northwest vocal soloists, including Richard Zeller, Christine Meadows, Scott Tuomi and Douglas Webster.
When Oregon Repertory Singers was showing promise in 1975, Beef Wellington was the new dinner-party craze. Copland and beef…it’s what’s for dinner™.
Special thank you to Julia Ingram who humbly shared her role in the history of choral music in Portland.
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