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A weekend of winter songs

The collective radiance of Portland Symphonic Choir, Eugene Concert Choir, Central Oregon Mastersingers, and Choral Arts Ensemble

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Concert programming is fascinating. At times, one masterwork fills the entire programming canvas–the Beethoven 9th, Bach St. Matthew Passion or Handel Messiah. Sometimes, there is an anchor piece which occupies the majority of space and sets a tone—perhaps the Vivaldi Gloria in D Major, RV 589—with complementary pieces set around it like a jeweled brooch. 

And sometimes there are shorter individual pieces, each occupying its own space yet connected by, perhaps, the season. Like a strand of lights on a Christmas tree strung together–different colors, textures, some flickering, some fixed. Individual pods of light, but viewed altogether there is a collective radiance.

Four choirs representing three Oregon regions offer concerts on December 11th and 12th with this style of programming. Two choirs are taking the stage for the second time this Fall: Portland Symphonic Choir and Eugene Concert Choir. For Bend’s Central Oregon Mastersingers and Portland’s Choral Arts Ensemble, their concerts celebrate the season and their return to live choral performance.

“No central piece this concert, which feels strange!”remarked Christian Clark, Artistic Director of Central Oregon Mastersingers. The singers–45 strong with 17 new members–are thrilled, says Clark, who has been leading the choir since 2017. They will be joined in two works of Ola Gjeilo by the Dove String Quartet, who will then offer several seasonal selections of their own. The concert is at the Tower Theater Stage in Central Bend, Saturday, Dec. 11, 7 pm and Sunday, Dec. 12, 2 pm. The choir is fully vaccinated. Masks and proof of vaccination will be required to attend.

There will be favorite tunes, such as Silent Night and O Come All Ye Faithful, both in arrangements by Dan Forrest. But there is more than caroling on this concert. You will also hear favorite composers like Whitacre and Rutter. And Season of Light by Jacob Narverud and Elizabeth Alexander’s When the Song of the Angels is Stilled might become a new favorites.

Some pieces are new to the choir; others they have performed in the recent past. Clark knew this was the best way to mount their return concert. But, these are works worth repeating–and sometimes at Christmas “familiar” is a warm embrace. 

David De Lyser, Artistic Director of Chorale Arts Ensemble, agrees with Clark and is utilizing this same intelligent programming for their Light Renewed concerts, Dec. 11 and 12. “There is great comfort in the traditional/familiar in the midst of the pandemic,” says De Lyser. Like many choirs, CAE’s health-conscious rehearsals need to be shorter – with air-circulation breaks — and masked musicians appreciate taking a few extra breathers. 

De Lyser and Clark are also like-minded in their programming of Gjeilo, Whitacre and Hagenberg. CAE will also offer the contemporary modalities of Today the Virgin by John Tavener, guaranteed to inspire you to whip up an ol’ fashioned wassail. Two Non Nobis Domine interpretations demonstrate the a cappella skill of CAE in two very different styles. Dan Forrest’s Non Nobis strikes a humble and introspective pose while Rosephanye (ro-SEH-fuh-nee) Powell raises the same prayer–“Not to us Lord but to Thy name be glory given”–with exuberance. Assistant Conductor Megan Elliott will conduct this Powell work (heard here) as well as Eric Whitacre’s Glow.

Perhaps composer Joshua Rist isn’t on your choral radar yet, but this Salem music teacher’s catalogue of choral works continues to build. The text of his Lux Beatissima is “O light most blessed, Fill the inmost heart, Of all thy faithful, Enkindle your light in our minds.” Choir accompanist Jennifer Creek Hughes will shine in this piece.

Choral Arts Ensemble Concerts are Saturday, Dec. 11 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, Dec. 12 at 3:00 pm at St. Philip Neri, Portland. Masks and vaccination proof are required. Tickets and more information may be found here.

These two choirs offer a wonderful collection of songs but there’s a winter choral-works extravaganza in the 47thyear holiday offering of Eugene Concert Choir/Eugene Vocal Arts. Artistic Director Diane Retallack has programmed some of the best-loved arrangements of seasonal choral gems for the ECC concert. And chamber ensemble Vocal Arts will perform 16th century motets and madrigals with singers in Elizabethan dress. Gospel singer Theresa Thomason will also appear at this event (read Eugene Weekly writer Dan Buckwalter’s event profile here). The concert is Sunday Dec. 12 at 2:30 pm at the Hult Center. Vaccinations or testing proof are required for admission. Ticket information here.

PSC co-directors Wendy Bamonte and Alissa Deeter. Photo by Daryl Browne.
PSC co-directors Wendy Bamonte and Alissa Deeter. Photo by Daryl Browne.

And finally, on this popular weekend of glimmering holiday music, is an array of works representing several languages and traditions. Portland Symphonic Choir’s annual “Wintersong” returns with Co-Leaders Wendy Bamonte and Alissa Deeter sharing the conducting responsibilities in works by Britten, Rachmaninoff, Lauridsen and more. Deeter’s arrangement of O Magnum Mysterium offers the wonderment of the season while the 15thcentury Spanish Riu, Riu, Chiu rhymically proclaims “Jesus is born.” South Korean composer Hyo-Won Woo’s interpretation of O Magnum Mysterium will offer another view of the great mystery. Her work, says publisher J. W. Pepper “achieves a synthesis of different traditions and creates new vocal sonorities and effects.”

In Yemaya Assessu: A Hymn of Thanksgiving, an African chant set for SATB choir by local composer/educator Judy Rose, voices repeat the mantra until it permeates the heart and soul. Rose instructs singers to envision the theme as endless waves rolling to shore. Rose recently joined the faculty at The Catlin Gabel School as choral director and PSC has invited the Catlin Gabel Upper-School singers to participate in the program.

Judy Rose rehearsing at Catlin Gabel. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Judy Rose rehearsing at The Catlin Gabel School. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Portland Symphonic Choir is giving their music as a gift to the community this holiday season; the two concerts on Dec. 11 and 12 are free. In addition, they are shining a light on a long-standing Portland service organization, Rose Haven Day Shelter for Women and Children. Singers invite you to bring cold-weather clothing items (gloves, coats, scarves, sweaters) to the concert. Those clothes will be delivered to Rose Haven Shelter for families in need.

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Rose Haven, in its 25thyear, is expanding its services to meet increasing needs of the homeless. Although cold-weather items are most desired right now donations of new underclothing and socks are always appreciated.

Legacies

PSC is in the second year of their Legacy Project, collecting and documenting the choir’s history. Three generations of singers have made PSC their choral music family. But with longevity comes the reality of loss, and the choir has turned their thoughts and hearts to so many of the PSC family who have died. Some of these good people were in the choir for decades; some for a brief time. All were valued. Lifted in remembrance in these concerts are board officers, committee members, facilities helpers, accompanists, singers and conductors. 

Sadly in the past year PSC has mourned the passing of four of its conductors who served the choir from 1963 to 2002: Frank Holman, Jerry Harris, David Wilson and Bruce Browne. Each conductor continued the mission of the choir and its dedication to the community on the PSC podium or off. Interestingly, the paths and careers of these four men crossed at several points. 

Frank Holman and Jerry Harris were public school music teachers during the same period of time, Holman in Portland Schools and Harris in Beaverton. They nurtured thousands of young singers in their careers; many of those singers were part of the PSC family of singers and/or sang in other area choirs. Both men continued to make music in Portland and Beaverton after they retired. Frank Holman continued his duties as Choir Director of Rose City Park Methodist Church into his 90s. It seemed like Jerry Harris never missed a local choral concert, such was his love of the choral art.

The parallel paths of David Wilson and Bruce Browne began when the two were fraternity brothers and choir colleagues at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Twenty years later, after the both men taught, raised families and finished their doctoral programs, Wilson landed at Portland State University and succeeded Holman as Artistic Director of Portland Symphonic Choir. When Wilson went on to his final teaching home at USC, his successor at both PSU and PSC was his college mate, Bruce Browne. In “retirement” Wilson sang in the Los Angeles Master Chorale and directed church choirs. And Browne….let’s turn to the words of Oregon Arts Watch’s Brett Campbell: ”Browne was proudest of his work as an educator, and that’s where his considerable legacy will likely longest endure” (“Remembering Bruce Browne.” OAW. Dec. 3, 2020).

Portland Symphonic Choir sings at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Sat. Dec. 11, 7:30 and Sun. Dec. 12, 3:00. Admission is free although for audience distancing management you must make a ticket reservation in advance. Donations are appreciated. Masks and proof of vaccination are required.

Portland Symphonic Choir in rehearsal. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Portland Symphonic Choir in rehearsal. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Between these four choirs on this weekend there are approximately 57 pieces of music representing 8 different languages and numerous unique winter traditions. All of these beautiful choral works, choral gems, are sung around the world, tens of thousands of voices strung together. Voices of today and voices of the past, they become the radiance of the season. “Oh Light Most Blessed.”

Connections

Annie, the musical by Charles Strouse (composer), Martin Charnin (lyricist), Thomas Meehan (playwright) is NBC’s newest live-on-TV theater event, Dec. 2, 8 pm PST. Perhaps taken for granted today, live television theater productions in the ‘50s and ‘60s were sometimes the first introduction to that genre for families with little access to theater or musicals. These productions dropped off for a while and in the last decade have returned with mixed reviews. Anyway, just thinking about tomorrow, it’s only a day away (now, didn’t you just sing a little right there?).

And since we’re on the topic of musicals: ”I dim the lights, and think about you.” Thank you Stephen Sondheim (“Losing My Mind”, from Follies).

Food

Citrus is in season! And, after the Thanksgiving standard fare, doesn’t a plate striped alternately with roasted root veggies and fresh citrus, perhaps avocado, with a lemon cashew creamy drizzle sound good? If not, use the citrus in your chutneys or atop a nice salmon filet or pork chop. Yea, citrus.

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

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