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A resonant electrifying current: Reflecting on Cappella Romana and Kingdom Sound’s recent concert and albums by Cappella Romana, Resonance Ensemble, Eugene Concert Choir, Oregon Repertory Singers

The Orthodox choral ensemble and Gospel choir joined their voices for February’s “Black Voices in Orthodox Music: How Sweet the Sound.” Recent albums released by Oregon choirs feature music by Melissa Dunphy, Renée Favand-See, Naomi LaViolette, Morten Lauridsen, Stacey Philipps, Undine Smith Moore, Joel Thompson, and more.

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Cappella Romana continues to amaze us. In January of 2023 they released their CD A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry’s Court, the music of a 1400s historic meeting of two cultures celebrating in common faith. One year later they are introducing us to Gospel/Jazz settings of the Orthodox liturgy in an event designed to unite people in common faith through music – a program entitled “Black Voices in Orthodox Music: How Sweet the Sound.” Joining them were Portland’s Kingdom Sound, with guest singer DeMeeshia W. Marshall and Kingdom Sound conductor Derrick McDuffey.

We were introduced on this program to two large works: Bright Sadness: Jubilee Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom by Abbess Katherine Weston and How Sweet the Sound, a setting of the Orthodox Vespers by Dr. Shawn “Thunder” Wallace. Scholarly illuminations came before liturgical segments throughout the singing of Mother Katherine’s liturgy. 

If you attended this concert on February 10 at Maranatha Church in NE Portland you might not recall any such spoken illuminations. Right you are; not spoken but sung. Mother Katherine has set the liturgy to melodies and rhythms of familiar African American Spirituals. What better way to illuminate each segment than by letting the music speak for itself – singing a choral arrangement of each spiritual immediately prior to Mother Katherine’s new setting. Bravo to using some of the earliest spiritual collections – by Nathanial Dett (1927) and the Work brothers (1907) – as example pieces. McDuffey conducted the choir in the illuminations and Cappella Romana Artistic Director Alexander Lingas conducted the liturgical settings. Great pairing!

The two seemingly diverse elements of spiritual melody and liturgical text fit together like two old friends. Mother Katherine deconstructs and reconstructs the melodic materials, weaving it into the sacred text. Unique elements within a spiritual, like the “H” in Hear de Lambs a-Cryin’, are subtly matched to the liturgy, like the “H” in Holy in the “Trisagion.” She uses open fourths and fifths implied in the harmony of Motherless Child for the setting of “Cherubic Hymn” – the precious spiritual melody is felt drifting above the ancient text. The choral writing in Bright Sadness is mesmerizing and deeply spiritual in every sense of the word.

How Sweet the Sound is not subtle. It is vibrant, driven and powerful from start to finish. After the intermission Chris Turner and Richard Lawrence, on organ and percussion respectively, completed the ensemble. The addition of the organ in the plentiful entonements added a resonant electrifying current, with percussion punctuating the responses.

Not everything was at a fast tempo. We heard Gospel and Rock and close-harmony vocal jazz – even an almost sultry Psalm. And there is prayer. Wallace grabs our hearts with his mezzo solo arrangement of Albert Hay Malotte’s “Lord’s Prayer.” How Sweet the Sound is chock full of music that honors the text and honors the traditions of Black Voices in the Orthodox faith.

Special acknowledgement to the tremendous talents of the many soloists in this concert. Catherine van der Salm’s early solo in Let Us Break Bread Together settled the audience into their seats; the voices of Kristen Buhler and Saeeda Wright shone brightly in Hear de Lambs a’Cryin; Wright soloed again in Sometimes I Feel, skillfully molding her voice with the moving lament melody. Emmanuel “Onry” Henreid (known locally for his artistry with Third Angle in Darrell Grant’s Sanctuaries) completed the work in his velvety and flexible tones. Photini Downie Robinson soloed in Lambs but also masterfully carried extended chant recitations with her smooth and even voice. Ben España and Leslie Green delivered powerful priestly intonements. And to guest artist DeMeeshia Marshall, who soloed on the “Lord’s Prayer” in How Sweet the Sound and I Couldn’ Hear Nobody Pray – special cheers for the excellent vocal work and expressiveness. 

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There is hope that these works serve to welcome and embrace all in Orthodox communities of faith. Music does have a way of bringing people together. The first steps are taken – the composers and Cappella Romana and Kingdom Sound took them together in this concert. The voices and faces of the performers on the stage and the enthusiastic voices and faces in the audience offered hope. Music serves to unite. 

RELEASED IN OREGON

We present to you four Compact Disc albums released by Oregon choirs in the last thirteen months. Two of those choirs are professional; two are community choirs, one of which partnered with a professional choir for their CD. Two of the CDs were produced to celebrate anniversaries. Two capture actual concert programs presented in Oregon – one of those a live concert. One takes us on a journey to 1400s England; the other three present repertoire only from the past 70 years. There are pieces on all four that have never been commercially recorded before. They are all the product of dedicated singers and instrumentalists, arts organizations, scholarly conductor/curators, talented composers and masterful recording engineers. They are Cappella Romana, Resonance Ensemble, Oregon Repertory Singers and Eugene Concert Choir partnering with guest artists Exigence. 

A Byzantine Emperor in King Henry’s Court, Cappella Romana, released January 2023.

Music as museum pieces? Not these artists. To Cappella Romana, music of the Christian tradition of the East and West, ancient and contemporary, exists to be sung, appreciated and enjoyed.

Perhaps in a Medieval Music 101 class you were a whiz at naming all of the modes (remember hypomixolydian?) without ever hearing or performing them in practice. That’s just topsoil. The music in this CD has deep roots in the Church, in the history of choral music and in world events. Cappella Romana singers, nurtured by the scholarship of Drs. Alexander Lingas and John Michael Boyer, dig deep.

In many Cappella Romana performances, as on this CD, we are placed in one historic moment. A Byzantine Emperor in King Henry’s Court could be a full lecture, which is why this CD booklet – 36 pages, no wasted space – is so much value added. You will find a complete treatise on the historic event and the music, a bibliography, and full texts in Latin and Greek with translations. 

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This CD is packed. Seventeen moments of music utilizing a variety of artists. After several listens I have tracks which are now my favorites (a Kyrie and Gloria) and those which I find most fascinating (Tropes of Psalm 50). The artistic arc in the CD comes from the natural arc of “roughly” (program notes) Christmas Eve to Christmas Day evening. And pieces were curated to emphasize common texture and musical techniques.

The engineering is clean and consistent throughout; the recording was made at The Madeleine Parish five months prior to the corresponding concert near the release date in January 2023. Ensemble tuning is impeccable. Brushstrokes of tones outside of the Western diatonic alignments familiar to most of us are so incredibly precise that at first they demanded appreciation at an elementary intellectual level – i.e. “how do they do that?” Then you let the scholars be the guides and the beauty takes over. 

Almost every singer has solos on this CD, all well done and most appropriately part of the whole cloth. Photini Downie Robinson and Catherine van der Salm shine in several roles. Boyer solos significantly in several tracks, and his fluency in the musical language is stunning. This CD in a personal or educational collection won’t just hang on the wall. 


LISTEN, Resonance Ensemble, released October 2023.

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It took 15 years for Resonance Ensemble to debut their first CD. It seems like a rather long stretch in our CD-pressing world but in this case it was worth the wait. In 2019, Resonance could have just rushed to lay down their recently premiered LISTEN by Melissa Dunphy, which was commissioned by the Ensemble. And founding Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon was probably yearning to release a premiere recording of Renée Favand-See’s Only In Falling commissioned by and first performed by Resonance in 2014. The Dunphy, the Favand-See and, of course, Vin Shambry’s Brother Man of 2017, so pivotal to Resonance’s shift in programming and purpose, would be eight tracks. Over half the CD right there. 

But how fortunate we are that they waited. The LISTEN CD of October 2023 celebrates even more of the pieces we have enjoyed in Resonance’s 15 years – music and composers they championed and new works they commissioned or introduced to the Northwest. This CD includes recent live recordings of Stacey Philipps Witch Trial and Mari Esabel Valverde’s When the Dust Settles. Resonance offers three other pieces – by Dominick DiOrio, Jake Runestad and Steven Sametz – which had meaning to them, and to us, over the last decade. The CD made its debut in conjunction with a launch concert event which took place at the end of October and was reviewed in Oregon Arts Watch

The CD packaging is humble – devoid of pictures, texts, bio or history; a link is provided for liner notes. The pool of 35 Resonance singers who participated in the CD are listed as a whole. Three different recording locations are noticeable in the slight shifts of choral sound. It is, however, a cohesive collection and generous to the composers and poets who have been partners in Resonance’s success. The album is good listening, good remembering and a wonderful model of music with purpose.


Black is Beautiful, Eugene Concert Choir and Exigence, released February 2024.

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Eugene Concert Choir and Exigence: A Sphinx Vocal Ensemble have cut a beautiful CD. Repertoire, musicality, booklet, sound engineering, historic significance – this CD is a valuable addition to any collection, personal or educational. There are four works on this album, three choral/orchestral and one for choir with percussion. But there are thirty tracks – chapters if I may – for this album is a fully developed story. It is beautiful.

You might find it unusual that my first kudos go to the sound engineers but listening to this CD is like sitting right there in Silva Concert Hall at the Hult Center, Eugene, in May of 2023 when the live concert on the CD was performed and recorded. The dynamic ranges throughout – of choir, soloists, narration and orchestra – seem natural. And the pacing between the multiple tracks is spot on.

Eugene Rogers, Artistic Director of Exigence, conducts the first three works. The ideal concert and album opener is the world premiere of “Hymn,” composed by Stacey V. Gibbs, a reinterpretation of the Battle Hymn, evoking the old and redressing it. Exigence sings full out as a lone snare drum cadence walks the hymn toward a powerful contemporary presence. 

Rogers also conducted the premiere of Joel Thompson’s Seven Last Words of the Unarmed in 2015 and this live recording of combined forces, which includes the composer as singer, is impressive. Every word is clear; each movement has a personality. Tyrese Byrd’s solo performance in movement 4, “Mom, I’m going to college” is gripping. There is stagecraft in this work and it is gently nurtured in this performance.

Thompson and Rogers participated in the creation of “Glory,” a work from the movie score of Selma. It is a perfect transition piece after Seven Last Words and before Undine Smith Moore’s Scenes from the Life of a Martyr.

The second half of Black is Beautiful is devoted to Moore, whose oratorio Scenes from the Life of a Martyr was premiered in 1982 at Carnegie Hall and then “languished,” said Eugene Concert Choir Artistic Director Diane Retallack in recent conversation. This is the premiere recording of the complete oratorio and it honors the subject and the composer.

Moore composed the music and text; Donald Rauscher orchestrated it expressively. The work partners narration, SATB solos passages and full choral/orchestral forces to create a powerful depiction of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Retallack conducted the 44-ish minute work in which 16 movements are sung and 5 narrated. Along with original texts you will also recognize some familiar texts used by Moore, such as “Arise My Love, My Fair One.” 

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This live concert/recording was an expansive undertaking for the singers. After a moment of choral fatigue around midpoint in Scenes the singers were revived, ending the CD with drama and vitality. Musicianship overall was topnotch; a satisfying artistic arc was created not only within the two larger pieces but from the start to finish of the whole album. 

Excellent soloists in the oratorio are Elaine Alvarez, soprano; Rehanna Thelwell, mezzo; Demetrious Sampson, Jr., tenor; and Marques Jerrell Ruff, bass and narrator. Total performers on stage at the finale: 92 singers in the Eugene Concert Choir, 21 Exigence singers, 3 soloists, 60 instrumentalists – 178. A major production very well done in every respect.


50, Oregon Repertory Singers, released December, 2023.

It’s not 50 singers. Not 50 pieces of music. It’s a 50th Anniversary Celebration CD! It was in Portland 50 years ago that the choir sang their first concert under their original name, Portland Chamber Singers. After two years and two conductors, the choir–now Oregon Repertory Singers–welcomed Gil Seeley to the podium. What began as a group of 39 ended their first decade with 64 singers having performed a wide variety of choral works, many by living composers. 

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But don’t expect 50 to be an hour of music plucked from five decades past. Certainly, Artistic Director Ethan Sperry and the ORS organization could have done it that way and we’d have had a good look back at some wonderful classic and premiere performances. But the music on this CD celebrates the ORS of today and the wonderful talent in the Oregon Repertory Singers community – singers, conductors, accompanists and composers.

The way in which the choir does pay homage to their history is through 7 pages of 24-page booklet being devoted to the history and far-reaching impact of the choir. A few photos of the choirs of the first decades will tickle choir alums (oh, those cinch-waisted women’s dresses). Here’s to the more comfortable and individual modern look of ORS today. 

The music on the CD is modern as well. The oldest work is Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria (1964), with Morten Lauridsen’s “Dirait-on” (1987) next in line. Occupying around one third of the CD is the 2008 Sunrise Mass of Ola Gjeilo recorded by ORS in 2019 and showcasing the talented students of Union High School (Camas, WA), prepared by their teacher and ORS singer, Tim Siess. 

The Mass is an innovative piece of choral writing set to Latin liturgical text. The CD booklet does not provide information about the way in which Gjeilo “bleeds” the chord changes into each other by holding certain chord tones, mimicking the wash of color in the eastern sky at sunrise. But you can hear these color changes quite well in the excellent choral singing.

This technique, blending and bleeding choral sounds, is also a feature of the first two pieces on the CD. Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Stars, such a favorite of ORS audiences at holiday concerts, uses tuned wine glasses to swirl washes of color into the air. After that ethereal beginning comes Eric Whitacre’s Sainte-Chapelle which evokes the ways in which a resonant acoustic captures both harmonious and dissonant tones before they fade away. The dissonance is subtle in this performance.

With regard to the acoustic, there are times on the CD where several pieces, recorded at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts auditorium, seem engineered into a cathedral-like sound and held back from fully blossoming. Pieces with piano were clear and more natural-sounding, particularly the engaging Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence of Naomi LaViolette, with the composer at the piano. All three world premiere recordings of LaViolette’s music were beautifully done; the cello solo role in Night of Silence is performed with so much yearning by Hamilton Cheifetz. ORS Assistant Conductor Lisa Riffel was on the podium for that piece as well as the Lauridsen “Dirait-on.”

The ”Dirait-on” is the final movement of Lauridsen’s Les Chanson des Roses, often performed as a stand-alone. Every phrase is caressed and coaxed and urged toward choral nirvana. Riffel’s carefully molded interpretation is a reflection of Rainer Maria Rilke’s words, carefully chosen by Lauridsen for this piece: “abandon upon abandon, tenderness upon tenderness.”

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The choir also honors Stacey Philipps, ORS singer and Composer-in-Residence with the ORS Youth Choirs. The premiere recording of Close Distancing demonstrates the composer’s ability to express meaning through music. Edging forward, pulling back; wanting but not able to lean in. Fine performance of a poignant piece.

The music on this CD is thoughtful and awash with choral color. It is a tribute to ORS’s 50 years of choral excellence and a testament to the fine choral works being created today in our own community.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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