Choral Arts Ensemble at 50: intimacy and approachability

As it celebrates its 50th anniversary season, the Portland choir builds on its legacy of singing diverse repertoire and creating a comfortable, inviting experience

Interview by AARON RICHARDSON

David De Lyser is artistic director of Portland’s Choral Arts Ensemble, a chamber choir now celebrating its 50th anniversary season. This weekend, CAE teams up with Cascadia Composers in a concert that includes new seasonal works by local Northwest composers Lisa Neher and Bill Whitley, as well as holiday and seasonal favorites from years gone by, including hymns, carols and works by Ola Gjeilo, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Beaverton native Morten Lauridsen, Arvo Pärt and others.

Choral Arts Ensemble opened its 50th anniversary season in October.

Now in his seventh season directing CAE, De Lyser spoke to Portland choral singer Aaron Richardson about the choir’s origins and evolution into one of the city’s top vocal ensembles. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Origins

The Choral Arts Ensemble started in 1969 and it was started like a lot of groups, by a small group of people that just wanted the opportunity to sing together.  There were only about 16 or so at that first rehearsal, but that’s how the group started.  I came to the University of Portland in 1999 to [study for] my Masters of Music degree. [Roger Doyle, who headed the choir for 34 years] was one of my professors, and he invited me to sing with the Choral Arts Ensemble and I joined and was in the group for one year before I moved away for additional graduate studies.  I was just very impressed with how he interacted with the singers and nurtured them, and how much they all seemed to enjoy singing with each other.  He was always full of life at every rehearsal and had a lot of energy.

Repertoire: a History of Diversity, an Emphasis on the Contemporary

What I hope is that people will come to our concerts for the diversity of repertoire and the quality with which it is performed. The hallmark of this group and its 50-year history is that diversity of repertoire, not limited by time period or style. There is so much amazing music to explore!

[Since De Lyser arrived] the group is a little more focused on contemporary choral composers. There are just a lot of young, passionate composers writing amazing music that deserves to be heard — a lot of them are looking around at the world and are writing really impactful lyrics and using texts that are relevant to what’s going on in the world. They’re looking at societal problems and issues through music and it just lends an emotional power that just words alone can’t do.

At the same time, there is a lot of great, historical music – a couple of years ago, we did a madrigal concert that started with the genre in the Middle Ages and worked through the Renaissance, and then looked at different pieces that were inspired by those early pieces – right through history to music written very recently.  We also perform a Pops concert every year, with lighter fare – jazz, Broadway, music from the moves – that’s one of the things that the group always enjoys.

Choral music has always been the genre that everyone can do. Everybody has a voice, everybody can sing, and so it’s been a little more accessible than some other genres. I think that really helps the audience stay engaged with choral groups.

Taking Audiences on an Emotional Journey

I think audiences will go to choir concerts for different reasons, either because they are inspired by the repertoire or they have some personal connection to the group – from a previous concert or to someone in the group. That is a lot of how our audience is built.  We’ve made a conscious decision to stay small.  We can certainty balance an orchestra when we need to and we have done a lot of collaborations with local orchestras and ensembles, but ultimately we’re after a little more intimate “chamber-like” setting.  We like smaller venues where we can be closer to our audiences – more like a house concert.

We want people to feel like they’re going to a concert to see their friends sing as opposed to a more formal concert setting where this is little interaction between performer and audience. We want to just be approachable and down to earth, and we really want our audience to feel very comfortable, that they can come up to us and talk to us afterward, ask us questions, and try to make it a shared concert experience with performer and audience alike. The music should draw us all together.

David de Lyser leads Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland.

Choral music was meant to be experienced by everyone.   We want people to come to our concerts and experience this amazing music.  We work on our music for months before we perform it. We go through the entire emotional journey of the music, and on stage, we want to take our audience through that same emotional journey. We want them to connect to the music as we have, so hopefully they will experience what we’ve already been experiencing performing this music.

There is a lot of energy in the choral scene here in Portland. I think that it’s really exciting. Historically, it had been three or four big choirs in the area – PSC, ORS, CAE, the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus and a few others. That was it and they all had longtime directors. Roger Doyle with the CAE, Bruce Browne with the Portland Symphonic Choir, Gil Seeley with ORS, and within the last five to ten years, all of those groups have turned over and are under new directors, and new choirs have formed.  The groups are getting better, there’s more of them.

For a singer, it’s a bit of an embarrassment of riches. There is a plethora of excellent choirs working in the city. That part’s great. We do our best not to step on each other’s toes in terms of putting concerts on the same weekend, but there’s always a little bit of that. There’s just no way to avoid it. All the directors know each other. I think we all want each other to succeed. I like that atmosphere.

CAE Today & Tomorrow

We are a fully auditioned, 40-voice ensemble and we don’t want to be any larger, or smaller.  We pull singers from the Portland metro area, including the Vancouver area. We have some that have performance degrees. We have music teachers, other people that just sang in choirs in high school or in college. They may have stepped away from it and really missed it and decided to go back to singing.  It’s a great group of people who enjoy being with each other both in and out of rehearsal.  They’re singing at a phenomenal level.  We’ve done a lot of collaborations over the years and I feel like it is something that we will continue to do – whether it’s a high school or college choir, or bringing in composers or guest directors, or partnering with other performing arts groups in town, other choirs, instrumentalists. I just really think that there’s a much richer concert experience when you can put more creative groups together.

Choral Arts Ensemble performs its holiday concerts Saturday and Sunday.

Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland performs CAE Yuletide: To Friends Old & New at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 8, and 3 p.m. Sunday, December 9, in St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, 2408 SE 16th Ave, Portland. Tickets, program notes and info.

Aaron Richardson is a recent graduate of Portland State University in Music Theory and a former singer in the Portland State Chamber Choir.

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