Choral Revival: Portland’s choral music scene is flourishing

Katherine FitzGibbon leads Resonance Ensemble's concerts this weekend

The past few years have seen a changing of the guard in Portland’s choral music scene. Last year, the city’s two most influential veteran choral conductors, University of Portland professor Roger Doyle and Lewis & Clark College’s Gil Seeley, retired after three-plus decades of leading two of the city’s three most important choral organizations: Choral Arts Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers (ORS).  The conductor of the third, Portland Symphonic Choir’s Bruce Browne, had left Portland for a teaching job in Oklahoma a few years earlier, after building Portland State University’s program to national prominence and founding the superb Choral Cross Ties ensemble, which folded after he left.

While the city’s choral scene still flourished during the 2000s (including the founding of strong new ensembles run by Browne’s former students Ryan Heller, David York and Alexander Lingas), some slippage was evident in several corners of the city’s choral establishment, and choral music lovers could have been forgiven for worrying about what would happen in the wake of the departures of these strong leaders.

No more. The recent arrival of two energetic, imaginative young successors to the Big Three have revitalized the programs at PSU and L&C, and the two conductors — Ethan Sperry (whom I profiled last month in Willamette Week) and Katherine FitzGibbon, who directs choral programs at Lewis & Clark, are also running, respectively, Oregon Rep Singers and the recently arrived Resonance Ensemble, which has already established itself as one of the Northwest’s finest vocal groups.

Last year, his first at PSU, Sperry arranged a highly successful tribute to Portland native Morten Lauridsen, America’s greatest living choral composer, and spearheaded a spectacular reunion concert featuring alumni of PSU’s renowned choral program and the current members. With music from Haiti, India, and beyond, and young choristers singing spiritedly from different parts of Portland’s First Methodist Church, it was one of the most exciting choral concerts I’ve seen in Oregon.

Sperry’s debut concert with Oregon Repertory Singers earlier this month (which included Seeley conducting several works in a kind of passing of the torch) at PSU’s Lincoln Hall definitively demonstrated that the 40-year-old new music director will continue his predecessor’s legacy of vivid performances of wide ranging repertoire, from across the ages and the planet.

With splendid younger groups like FitzGibbon’s Resonance Ensemble, the women’s ensemble In Mulieribus, Heller’s new music oriented Portland Vocal Consort, Lingas’s Cappella Romana and others regularly providing extraordinary performances of new and uncommonly heard repertoire, new groups like Patrick McDonough’s The Ensemble (which made its debut last week with a concert of music by Heinrich Schutz) and the alt.classical group The Julians (top classical singers who also often cover pop tunes) emerging in the past year, and longtime stalwarts like Portland Symphonic Choir, the Bach Cantata Choir and Cantores in Ecclesia (both conducted by former Browne students Ralph Nelson and Blake Applegate) still going strong, Portland seems awash in choral splendor. As Browne proclaimed during his speech at last spring’s reunion: “Choral music at Portland State, and indeed in Portland, is back!”

And so is Browne himself, who decided to return to his friends and colleagues in Portland after retiring from a position in Idaho. He’ll be running Lewis & Clark’s choral programs, and directing a Resonance Ensemble performance, while FitzGibbon is on sabbatical in Europe next year, and is one of three candidates (along with current CAE assistant conductor Tracey Edson and David De Lyser) auditioning to succeed Doyle at the helm of Choral Arts Ensemble. All three candidates will conduct the choir this season, and the choice will be announced at season’s end. Browne’s return bolsters a Portland choral music scene that’s blossomed over the last couple of years, despite the retirement of two of its stalwarts.

Reasons for Renewal

What’s fueling Portland’s choral music resurgence? “A lot of the scene comes from Bruce training amazing students and attracting really creative people,” Sperry notes. Browne, who’s taught and lectured around the nation, says that “choral music is unusually pervasive here for a city of this size. The alternative classical scene is a producer of great fermentation, and you already have a platform of great music making in the regular venues,” he says. “Some of it has to do with the fact that Portland attracts the type of person open to the arts.”

The New York born, University of Southern California-trained Sperry, who has taught in Ohio and around the world, agrees. “I’ve found Portlanders to be engaged in all the arts more than in other cities,” he says. “That relates to people here being less afraid of themselves and of each other.”

Browne also points to the legacy of the three main choral groups (PSC, CAE, and ORS), which have established a high standard of performances over the past couple of generations, and to guest appearances by famed choruses and conductors such as Robert Shaw, Erik Erikson, Andrew Parrott and others over the years. He offers high praise for FitzGibbon, Sperry, and his former students now leading other ensembles here.

That transition is stirring interest in choral music. “Portland has been blessed with a tradition of great choral singing and anytime there’s a generational shift in the profession, it tends to draw renewed attention to what’s going on,” explains FitzGibbon, who came here from Boston and still teaches summer workshops on the East Coast. “So having had this turnover recently, it could be that is getting people aware of singing and people who might have been thinking about joining in now have more frequent reminders about how much is going on here. With this big upsurge, additional people are coming in to try singing for first time or audience members are coming to check out a choral concert for the first time.”

She and Sperry suspect that pop culture references to singing in “American Idol” and similar shows may play a role, but believe the choral singing is especially invigorating in tough times. In community choirs both on campus and off, it’s possible to learn the skills “on the job” without extensive childhood musical training. “You don’t need an instrument or equipment,” FitzGibbon notes. “You get to make music with your body, and that releases endorphins and connects to the brain’s expressive centers. That can be uplifting to participate in, and for the audience to witness.”

Gil Seeley at Oregon Repertory Singers' October show

It’s impossible to miss the joy emanating from recent concerts conducted by FitzGibbon and Sperry. At Lewis & Clark’s annual Rogers concert last week, members of the school’s Community Chorale doffed their tux jackets and unleashed a series of choreographed dance moves — with FitzGibbon boogying along — to a Bollywood number called “Jai Ho.” At last spring’s PSU reunion concert, singers were encouraged to move their bodies and show their joy in a Haitian piece Sperry arranged. “In Haiti, you don’t stand still and sing,” says Sperry, who has taught in nearby Guadeloupe. “You find this in African-influenced cultures. Non-Western cultures tend to be less inhibited. In some places, the word for singing and dancing is the same word.”

This exciting infusion of new repertoire and performance styles is re-energizing the city’s choral scene, making it much more appealing to  young audiences and other arts lovers who seek out venturesome experiences regardless of genre. It’s a needed antidote to the old standard American choral formula, which for decades seemed to consist mostly of formally dressed singers standing stiffly on risers, smoothly performing stodgy music that focused more on vocal beauty and blend than musical or presentational innovation or excitement, especially compared to rock and other pop music performances or even those of postclassical new music ensembles.

Culture of Collaboration

Portland’s choirs are contributing to their own success thanks to a collaborative attitude that’s not so common elsewhere. “A lot more people are doing really creative concerts here, like Resonance and Cappella Romana and Portland Vocal Consort,” says Sperry, who contributed arrangements to Resonance’s last performance. “There’s a good sense of support among these groups for each other and in the community. It’s so collegial — they all want to support each other. We all go hear each other’s concerts, and a lot of people sing in several of these groups. There’s a lot of people who really love to sing here, and sing really well, and a good sense of support in these groups for each other. I’ve gotten dramatic offers of help from other ensembles. There’s no worry about a group stealing another’s audience. A lot of people sing in all of these groups. They’re collegial and want to support each other. We all go hear other’s concerts and that helps raise the bar.”

FitzGibbon, whose Resonance Ensemble has often collaborated with visual artists, poets, and dancers as well as other musicians, also praises Portland’s collaborative creative culture. “Anytime I’ve talked to anyone about Resonance, the first thing out of their mouth is ‘How can we work together?’” she says. “Everyone wants everybody else’s group to be successful. Everybody’s looking for ways to deepen the performing experience and the audience experience as well. And the more choral activity we have, the more it brings the community’s attention to choral music as an art form,” she says.

Whatever the reason, the scene is burgeoning. Sperry’s ORS is now a quarter larger than it was last year, and enrollment in his PSU choral programs has more than doubled, soaring so much that he has had to create two new choirs to provide performance opportunities for the many fine singers the program is drawing.

At Lewis & Clark, the choral program has septupled in size, from 30 to 210, since FitzGibbon’s arrival; she’s beginning her fourth year at the college.

“Because the campus has the sense that singing is part of our cultural life, and upperclassmen are touting the fact that choir is fun, freshmen are coming in and even if they didn’t sing in choir as high schoolers, they get excited about trying it,” she explains.

FitzGibbon is also reaching out to high school choir directors and instituting tours to the Bay Area and Puget Sound, which is both educationally valuable and helps with recruiting. She hopes to build on L&C’s reputation for international exchange with an overseas tour next year, and is also connecting with other communities by performing music from Africa, Russia, Latin America and Asia. And she’s putting the collaborative spirit to work in upcoming concerts with Venerable Showers of Beauty Gamelan, a community ensemble hosted at the college, and in concerts with her Resonance Ensemble.

Sperry, who has taught in Guadeloupe and India and edits the Global Rhythms series for Earthsongs Music, is programming more music from non-Western cultures, more new music, and new ways of presenting choral music that break the traditional mold he decries in much classical music programming.

“We can go to another country and put their style of singing into a choral context and generate a huge variety of styles and communicate a really global cultural experience. People have a lot more in common than the way modern societies try to divide us up. When we hear music from another culture, it feels less foreign.”

With ORS, Sperry is placing special emphasis on the youth choirs, which he hopes to use to fill the gaps created by cuts in school music programs.

The Rep Singers’ opening concert this season at PSU’s Lincoln Hall showed that the ensemble’s expanded size (80 voices) hasn’t diluted its power nor the artistic adventurousness Seeley cultivated in his 35-year tenure. The choir delivered classics by Brahms, Giovanni Gabrieli and Mozart with aplomb, and also handled the rest of the program, which comprised 20th century music from Russian, England, the US (Samuel Barber and a Native American piece by Valerie Naranjo), Venezuela and beyond, including Sperry’s arrangement of an Indian raga.  With both Seeley and Sperry conducting with characteristic vigor, and a guest appearance by still another young choral music rising star, associate conductor Erick Lichte (formerly with the great Minnesota choir Cantus), the group sounded rich and strong — almost too strong, at times, for the small recital hall used on opening night. Oregon Repertory Singers seem primed to continue their reign as one of the Northwest’s finest choirs.

Ethan Sperry conducts Oregon Repertory Singers / via ORS

Old and New Sounds

Another Portland choral concert earlier this month also demonstrated the power of combining ancient and modern music. In Mulieribus’s October 8 concert at St. Mary’s Cathedral surveyed music by female composers from the Middle Ages (Hildegard of Bingen, the Byzantine composer Cassia) through the Baroque (Chiara Cozzolani) and Romantic eras (Fanny Mendelssohn and Cecile Chaminade) and into the 20th century, including the beautiful “Sirens” by the tragically short-lived Lili Boulanger  and contemporary works by Seattle Pro Musica director Karen Thomas (her Hildegard tribute “Lux Lucis,” was the hit of the night), Portland’s Joan Szymko (a lovely “Ave Maria”), and the premiere of a new work the all-women’s ensemble commissioned (brava!) from young New York-based composer Kay Rhie, an appropriately amusing Gertrude Stein setting. As always with this virtuosic company of singers, the performances were accurate and attractive, and the audience responded accordingly. In Mulieribus is making some of the most beautiful music in the Northwest these days.

I wasn’t able to make it to last week’s debut performance of yet another all-star vocal collective, Patrick McDonough’s The Ensemble, but it certainly promises to be a vital addition to the city’s vibrant choral scene. McDonough arrived two years ago from America’s choral music Mecca, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and sang with several groups there, including the revered Dale Warland singers.

Lured in part by Oregon’s wine country (which offered him a day job as well as some fine vintages), McDonough immediately began adding his rich bass-baritone to Cantores in Ecclesia and Capella Romana performances. His new group will focus on “vocal chamber music” — repertoire for a small group of voices and chamber orchestra that’s seldom performed because it’s too ambitious for most choral groups and too small for most choral orchestral programs with their substantial choruses and symphony orchestras. That includes some gorgeous Mozart works as well music from the Baroque period on through to the present. Future concerts will include music by such 20th century English composers as Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, works by Haydn, Vivaldi, Mozart and more.

“Portland has a vibrant arts scene,” McDonough says, “ and the amount of choral music going on here is pretty fantastic. It competes on an equal footing with cities that are much larger.” Like In Mulieribus, Cappella Romana and Portland Vocal Consort, The Ensemble cherry picks some of the city’s finest singers, and the city’s other ensembles have embraced his efforts.

“It speaks highly of Portland that there’s so much good stuff going on  here,” he says. “They all have their niches that are very different. All of us are friends. I sing with them all routinely, and that’s another aspect of the [Portland] choral community I like. It’s wonderfully friendly and open. No one’s thinking ‘You’re stepping my turf,’ even though we’re all three [including Sperry and FitzGibbon] new in town. We’re all just interested in making great choral music.”

Hear It Now

This weekend brings a couple of excellent opportunities to experience Portland’s diverse and resurgent choral scene. On Saturday and Sunday at Portland’s First Unitarian Church, the Choral Arts Ensemble kicks off its season of auditions for Doyle’s successor with veteran conductor Tracey Edson leading a program of fairly rarely heard American and British music by Szymko, contemporary composer Kirke Mechem, Edward McDowell, Norman Dello Joio Frederick Delius and more, including the saucy Choral Dances from Britten’s opera Gloriana, performed at last summer’s Oregon Bach Festival. In keeping with the collaborative spirit of today’s choirs, CAE will be joined by PDX Dance Collective.

Also this weekend, FitzGibbon’s Resonance Ensemble (which performed last week in new music with Portland Chamber Orchestra) offers a typically unusual and compelling program of music by Samuel Barber, Johannes Brahms, Maurice Durufle and, the centerpiece, German composer Hugo Distler’s haunting 1934 Dance of Death, written in the wake of the Nazis accession to power, which combines modern influences such as jazz with medieval styles and more.

This and other Portland choral music concerts this fall offer programs as adventurous as any in the region, performed by some of our best musicians and led by artistically ambitious and energetic music directors. That combination may explain why newer and younger singers and audiences are flocking to Portland choral performances, which increasingly offer the excitement of new and unusual sounds, performed by excellent singers, and presented in ways that engage today’s — and tomorrow’s — music lovers. Portland has long had a strong choral scene, but it’d be hard for lovers of the human voice to find a more exciting time and place than Portland here and now.

Notes: Here’s David Stabler’s lovely tribute to Roger Doyle. And here’s James McQuillen’s review of this year’s Oregon Repertory Singers’ opening concert.

7 Responses.

  1. Gil Linder says:

    Unbelievable commentary here. Totally ignored the one choir that performs with the Symphony , Portland Symphonic Choir and then Pacific Youth Choir.

    As for your infatuation with Bruce Brown, he ran the PSC into the ground by siphoning all the best singers to his for profit ensemble. A very poor example of a supporter on the choral arts.

    Whoever wrote this should get out more.

    • Stephanie Kramer says:

      I don’t know anything about this commentator’s personal history with Dr. Browne. I only know mine. As a young student at PSU, he gave me my first opportunity to sing with a professional choral ensemble… Choral Cross-Ties (a nonprofit organization). As I recall, he also encouraged many of his best choral students to join Symphonic Choir. He helped instill in me a deep love for choral music, as well as the confidence and musical skills needed to turn ensemble singing into a part-time career, singing with CCT, Cappella Romana, Cantores in Ecclesia, Trinity Consort, and more. My love for the Portland choral scene has blossomed throughout the years, and is developing on the arts admin side as well.

      Portland Symphonic Choir is actually mentioned in the article a couple times. But no…this article isn’t about PSC. It isn’t about Bruce. It isn’t even really about Ethan or Katherine. It’s about the resurgence of choral music in Portland…about the fact that we have enough people who care about choral music (singers, artistic directors, staff, board members, volunteers, and audience) to support so many outstanding choral groups, both large and small, professional, semi-professional, and volunteer. I, for one, am proud to be a part of it.

      (By the way, I think Brett Campbell gets out plenty, covering arts events for the Willamette Week, Eugene Weekly, San Francisco Classical Voice, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as ArtsWatch. I’m happy that he’s promoting the arts, not only in Portland, but on a national level)

  2. Barry Johnson says:

    I can’t tell whether you’re serious or a troll…

  3. Joel Godbey says:

    We could be even more supportive of each other if they reestablished the arts council that got together to coordinate concert dates to lessen the conflicting concert dates. Richard Brown was instrumental in arranging this in the 80s. I don’t know what happened to it.

    • Stephanie Kramer says:

      This is something that’s been talked about reviving. I actually think that most of the choral groups in town work really well together when planning our concert seasons. We are often in conversation with one another, if not in an official manner. I know that when we planned our Resonance season, I spoke directly with the AD’s/ED’s of other groups in town to see what they were planning, and referred to the Portland Choral Calendar as well. But, with this many groups, sometimes concerts do land on the same weekends. But, most of us DO try! We want Portland audiences to have the opportunity to attend as many concerts as possible.

  4. Thanks to all for your comments. I do wish I’d had more space to do more than mention groups like Portland Symphonic Choir, Cappella Romana, Portland Vocal Consort, Cantores in Ecclesia and others I admire. But if I had, the story would have been even longer than it already is! So rather than attempting a comprehensive survey of Portland’s vast choral music world, I chose to focus on groups and institutions whose new leadership is boosting the city’s choral scene. That said, we regard these posts to be the beginning of discussions, not final judgments. So if any readers are aware of other Oregon choral organizations that are doing new (or for that matter, old) and exciting projects, by all means feel free to, er, sing their praises here. We do intend to cover more choral music in the future, and in at least one case, the near future. Thanks for reading.

  5. Liz Bacon says:

    Well written, once again, Brett! And thank you for acknowledging The Julians! We appreciate your support so much.

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