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Comforting and joyful: A choral holiday season, part one

Four “Messiahs,” choirs and harps, Northwest composers, and more.


One of Bandon, Oregon's famous cranberry bogs. Photo courtesy of Bandon Cranberry Festival.
One of Bandon, Oregon’s famous cranberry bogs. Photo courtesy of Bandon Cranberry Festival.

This is part one of our holiday choral guide; read part two here.


Recently, a delightful little piece out of Jefferson public radio on the wonders of cranberry harvesting on the Oregon coast prompted an amusing early-morning vision of cranberries dancing to choral music and initiated an awareness that holiday music is like a bowl of cranberries.

Some cranberry vines are centuries old, some are new. One hardly thinks of the tart fruit until it begins to ripen in September and October. Then there is a flooding – literally – and a churning which makes the berries float to the surface so the best can be chosen to appear on the holiday menu. New cranberry recipes often appear on the table, of course, but the jellied, the relished and the Jello-molded berries remain the traditional favorites. Like winter holiday music, right?

Welcome to the season of cranberries and of comforting and joyful seasonal music. Some of it centuries old, but–especially this year–a wonderful sampling of new.

Before we begin our jam-packed December concert preview please remember that the PDX Choral Calendar is a great way to avoid getting bogged down in concert scheduling. Tom Hard’s got it all laid out right here for the Greater Willamette Valley and SW Washington. Thanks, pal.


Behold! Four performances of Handel’s Messiah are just around the corner. Some of us like our Messiah delivered by a full modern orchestra (your Oregon Symphony) and large chorus; some prefer period instruments with a smaller vocal ensemble (Portland Baroque Orchestra). Some of you enjoy just the highlights of the great work; some like it cover to cover. And some of us look forward to the moment when our own Messiah scores turn into divining rods that guide us to a Sing-Your-Own Messiah (performed at Oregon Episcopal School campus). Fine soloists embellish each of the following performances – sometimes it’s you. Choose your own Messiah.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

“The Messiah” by Oregon Symphony and Portland State University is Saturday, December 2, 7:30 pm; Sunday, December 3, 2 pm; and Monday, December 4, 7:30 pm at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland. Tickets.

A Sing-A-Long “Messiah” is offered at St. John the Baptist on the Oregon Episcopal School campus, Sunday, December 10, 4 pm. More information is here. 

Alert! The almost sold out Portland Baroque Orchestra and Cappella Romana performance of “The Messiah”, in toto, is at First Baptist Church, on Friday, December 8, 7:30; Saturday, December 9, 7:30. Sunday is SOLD OUT. Tickets here.

Bravo! Northwest Chamber Choir and Northwest Chamber Orchestra’s Sunday, December 10, 3 pm performance of “The Messiah” is available in Portland at The Madeleine, Portland. Tickets here.


Do you enjoy a good holiday story? Good. This is the one about a composer (let’s call her Margaret Burk) who received a commission from a Portland Cathedral (say, Trinity Episcopal) and then the Dean (perhaps Trinity Cathedral Dean Nathan LeRud) suggested it would be nice to model it after the Britten Ceremony of Carols. Crikey. 

Did Maggie Burk, Carthage College Director of Choral Music, stagger back in terror and decline? No indeed. She ‘wolcumed alle’ challenges and made good cheer. And now Burk’s This Holy Hour: A Sequence of Carols for Christmas is a holiday premiere you will want to hear.

Trinity Choirs have sung some of Burk’s published works in the past few years so she has the trust of the singers and the support of her twin sister, Trinity’s Canon of Cathedral Music, Katherine Webb. She has chosen to let the Britten Ceremony inform her new work without overwhelming it. “It is connected to the original but goes in new directions” agreed the composer and her sister in recent interview with OAW.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

Indeed, you will note the influence of Britten in several respects: the multi-movement structure, a choir and harp partnership, bookended processional and recessional movements. But while Britten composed his eleven-movement work for treble voice, This Holy Hour, written for Trinity Cathedral Choir and Choristers, is more inclusive: its nine movements include a tenor/bass movement, two treble movements, with the remaining six SATB.

Burk doesn’t tap into the Middle English text Britten plucked from a medieval book of poems he happened upon in a Nova Scotia stopover on route to the US in 1942. But she does use the Early Modern verse of Shakespeare and The Christmas Silence of Margaret Deland, turn of the 20th-century American poet. And the sisters are honored that their good friend Charles Anthony Silvestri, one of America’s great lyricist/poets, provided text for one of the movements.

Britten was offered a commission to write a piece for harp and was immersed in learning how to compose for the instrument as thoughts of Ceremony came to him (he wrote a Suite for Harp years later). Burk admits that she, too, has had to study up on composing for harp. But local harpist Kate Petak, who is performing this premiere and is also quite familiar with the Britten, said in recent phone interview with OAW that she is “excited to welcome a new work like this into the holiday repertoire.” Burk’s writing, said Petak, employs techniques that harken to the Ceremony of Carols – oscillations, pedal tones – but has its own voice. Petak has no solo interludes, but partners with the choir in most movements. Coincidentally, Petak will be performing the Britten with Encore Vocal Ensemble at The Grotto within hours after the Trinity premiere. How fitting. 

Burk shares her thoughts about the creation of this new work in a recent Trinity Cathedral post. Catch it here.

Britten was 30 years old when Ceremony premiered, eighty years ago, December 4, 1943. The twin sisters turned 32 on their boxing day (December 26) birthday last year. This Christmas and birthday will be filled with memories of music arising from trust, tradition, faith and hope that in this holy hour all will find a welcoming home. 

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral’s premiere of “This Holy Hour: A Sequence of Carols for Christmas” with harpist Kate Petak is Saturday, December 16th, 7 pm, Trinity Cathedral, Portland. Tickets are here.


Trinity Cathedral Music Series is not alone this season in featuring the works of emerging composers, particularly those with NW connections. 


All Classical Radio James Depreist

Portland Symphonic Choir’s upcoming December 2 and 3 “Wintersong” concerts present the concert premiere of one of their three Summer Sing “Call for Scoreswinning pieces – Finding the Light by Vancouver, WA resident Drew Swatosh. The other two winning works, At the End of the Sunset by Anika-France Forget and Last Words by Andersen Viana have been added to the PSC library for future performance. 

ISing Choir is debuting Maria Regina Caeli by composer and ISing director Stephen Galván. And on December 3, 9 and 10 Oregon Repertory Singers will present the new orchestrated arrangement of local composer and ORS accompanist Naomi LaViolette’s Winter Solstice. 

Breaking news about ORS: the choir’s recent online release of their 50th Anniversary album 50 just hit Billboard’s Traditional Classical Albums charts! More information about this will be forthcoming on the ORS website. And the Compact Disc is now released and will be available for purchase at the ORS “Glory” concerts on December 9 and 10.

But fully embracing the promotion of new composers and compositions this winter season is Choral Arts Ensemble. It is appropriate that CAE will feature a piece by composer/educator Morten Lauridsen who shepherded so many new composers at USC. His Mid-Winter Songs is one of the beloved composer’s vocal cycles, based on the poetry of Robert Graves. This exquisite five-part set was composed in 1980, before O Magnum and Lux Aeterna and Les Chanson des Roses, some of your favorites. The choral language portrays the essence of winter. Listen here to one of the movements, “Lament for Pasiphaë“:

Did you catch the delicately brittle icicles or frosted tree limbs? It is wonderfully challenging to singer and pianist, with crisply paced asymmetrical rhythms. This part of the program stands on its own but three new works by Cascadia Composer members enrich the experience all the more.

“Our collaborations with Cascadia Composers have resulted in programming a large number of amazing choral works, mostly unpublished, that might otherwise not have been heard, and we are happy to give them voice,” said CAE director David De Lyser in recent email to OAW. One voice in this concert is Portland State graduate and current Professor of Music at Central Oregon Community College, James Knox. You will also hear the music of another PSU grad, Northwest artist Patrick Rooney (who sings in CAE) and a new setting of In the Bleak Midwinter by Portland composer and soprano Carolyn Quick, founding member and soprano section leader for In Medio Choir. Quick, Swatosh (mentioned earlier), and Lisa Neher are co-founders of Raindrop New Music.

University of Portland, where De Lyser is Director of Choral Activities, is an active champion of new works. UoP was a member of the consortium which commissioned Elaine Hagenberg’s five-movement choral work Illuminare. “I am very supportive of the commissioning consortium model,” said De Lyser. With a consortium the costs of funding a new work, often prohibitive for a single choral group, are spread over a number of choirs. Such a win for all.


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Choral Arts Ensemble will bring “Yuletide: From the Pacific Northwest” to stage on Saturday, December 9 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, December 10 at 3:00 pm, both concerts at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church. Tickets can be purchased here.

Home for the holidays

Medford based Rogue Valley Chorale will open their choral season with “Home for the Holidays” on December 2 and 3. The three children’s choirs under the RVCO umbrella will join the adult choir for “favorite holiday songs, stories and perhaps even a visit from a popular friend dressed all in red!” (from RVCO website).

Be at “Home for the Holidays” when Rogue Valley Choral Organization presents their holiday concert on Saturday, December 2, 3 pm and Sunday, December 3, 3 pm., both performances at the Craterian Theater, Collier Center for the Performing Arts, Medford. Concert information is here.

Portland Choir and Orchestra take to the stage on December 2 for two shows, afternoon and evening, presenting their “Visions of Christmas.” Watch a very nicely produced video promo for more information about this family-center holiday event. 

Enjoy a “Vision of Christmas” with Portland Choir and Orchestra on Saturday, December 2, at 2 pm and 7 pm, Newmark Theater, Portland. Tickets here.

On December 2 and 3 you are invited to “Christmas with the Oregon Chorale.” They guarantee that it will put you in the spirit of the season. Saunder Choi’s Meet Me for Noche Buena and select movements from Bach’s Magnificat are a few of the joyful works on the program which also features the Portlandia Brass Ensemble.  

Have “Christmas with the Oregon Chorale” on Saturday, December 2, 4 pm at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Portland and Sunday, December 3, 4 pm at Trinity Lutheran, Hillsboro. Tickets here


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Hello, Vancouver! You probably already have your tickets for Vancouver Master Chorale’s A Christmas Carol and Bach Magnificat performances on December 2 and 3 (covered in last month’s OAW choral preview). But don’t miss a special concert of the combined choirs of Clark College on December 9. The choirs will perform separate sets for you, then combine their efforts, with the Clark College brass and percussion students, for a rousing performance of John Rutter’s Gloria. 

Clark College Rutter “Gloria” and more concert is Saturday, December 9, 7:30 pm, First United Methodist, Vancouver. The concert is free with donations to Clark College Choral Fund greatly appreciated.


It’s A Small World 

In the abovementioned conversation with sisters Maggie Burk and Katie Webb I mentioned Duncan Tuomi, Portland native who has just been awarded the American Prize for Composition/Shorter works/University Division. Twin smiles burst upon their faces as they recalled that they and Tuomi attended St. Olaf together a decade or so ago. Let’s give a cheer to Tuomi for this acknowledgement of his choral work, The Second Coming, and wish him continued success. Bravo. Find out more about Tuomi’s award here.

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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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