Filling in the silences with harmony and flavor: Portland Symphonic Choir returns to center court

PCS enters 76th season backing Andrea Bocelli at Moda Center

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Portland Symphonic Choir returns to center court at the Moda Center as players – well, singers – on the A team. That’s A for Andrea Bocelli, and the choir is in excellent condition for that thrilling musical event on Nov. 4, at 7:30. And they are well acquainted with singing in that riverfront arena.

PSC helped christen the Rose Garden Arena–today’s Moda Center–within its opening months. That appearance, December 1995, was with the B team: that’s B for the Boston Pops with Keith Lockhart in his first year with BPO. And it marked Portland Symphonic Choir’s 50th year of participation in Portland’s community events.

Nan Haemer, Portland voice teacher and PSC soprano for 38 years, remembers the Boston Pops concert. “We sang from the second tier squinting down trying to catch Lockhart’s downbeat.” Then they got “a few minutes of a cappella glory on the basketball court with the high-tech sound-baffling system.” (Oregonian, Barry Johnson. November 14, 1995.) High-tech 2021 promises to be quite a bit higher for the upcoming Bocelli performance.

Bocelli’s “Believe” tour is traversing the US with a musical experience that will entertain, inspire and completely capture your attention and your heart. Colorful effects, mega screen viewing, dancers, very special guests, and the presence and voice of Bocelli. That’s the heart part, the Bocceli gift: to sing from his heart to yours.

A is for Andrea Bocelli.

On stage with him are approximately 130 Portland musicians, Portland Symphonic Choir and the Oregon Festival Orchestra. Both are honored that the Bocelli team has invited them back, confirming the success of their first collaboration in 2018. It’s the first 2021-22 season opener for both organizations. What a great kickoff!

Some folks might be puzzled about this Bocelli/PSC relationship. Isn’t PSC the choir that usually performs works like the Verdi Requiem and Bach St. Matthew Passion? They are, and they’ll get to show that side of themselves in April with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. 

Alissa Deeter, Artistic Co-leader of PSC, understands the choir’s bi-faceted community profile. “Perhaps it’s not what the choir is known for; people might have a different expectation. It’s our less serious side, but we and our audience will have just as much fun.” The sixty singers in this concert are professionals who bring their full talent to this or any event … and have fun. 

For PSC, as with many area choirs that have decided to reconvene, the opportunity to sing again safely is a thrill. In the past 19 months they maintained their public presence by offering Masterwork’s lecture/sings, like this one on the Missa Solemnis with guest lecturer Duain Wolfe. But they worked just as hard at maintaining singer morale and involvement. All the more reason for embracing Bocelli.

In this concert “we‘re the pips,” remarked singer Haemer. To fill the ensuing awkward silence, she emphasized “The Pips.” Ah! Got it! The backup vocal group for Ms. Gladys Knight.

Why the likeness to the Pips? They were a complement to Ms. Knight’s rich and soulful tone, adding vocal fullness, filling in the silences with harmony and flavor. However, PSC will not, promises Haemer, be performing any Pips-like choreography. On stage they’ll stand and sing the backup vocals written especially for those iconic Bocelli numbers. Now, dancing in rehearsal? Shhh; what happens in rehearsal stays in rehearsal.

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They’ve had the repertoire for a couple weeks, rehearsing in voice-part sectionals in separate rooms at First Presbyterian Church, fully masked and fully vaccinated. They came together in full ensemble just recently. On stage they will be masked and distanced as much as possible on risers. 

The musical challenge? Music from the Bocelli team is isolated choral parts, not full score, so they’ll be counting like crazy. Deeter says in addition to knowing the music perfectly, singers need to “watch the stick” and be ready for anything in the brief time they have with Bocelli’s conductor. They will sing classic Pips-style “oos and ahs,” switch to “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, then take on full-voiced opera for the Brindisi (drinking toast) “Libiamo, ne’ lieti calici” (Let’s drink from the joyful cups”) from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata

Even if you are not an opera buff, you know the “Libiamo.” You’ve heard it in movies, on TV and in product ads. Beer, pasta or a Corleone family wedding, this classic song from a very serious opera of 1853 has made it into pop culture. It’s accessible opera–a Bocelli hallmark. Choice selections from his wide operatic and popular repertoire to which everyone can relate.

Zackary Durlam, Director of Choral Activities at University of Wisconsin at Madison, says his UWM Concert Chorale was privileged to sing with Bocelli on October 13. They partnered with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Steven Mercurio for the first concert on Bocelli’s US concert tour. Durlam described guest artist Ayanna Witter-Johnson, cellist and vocalist, as one of the wonderful surprises of “this eclectic mix of music.”

Participation in this kind of cross-over experience is a good fit for UWM students in the BFA: Versatile Voice program. “That union clock is running in rehearsal,” recalled Durlam, “there isn’t time to run through one of the programmed pieces, Bocelli appears for a short sound check”… and you’re on! But students loved it and it no doubt reaffirmed for them how important it is to pursue the highest levels of vocal and musical skill.

Wendy Bamonte, also Artistic Co-Leader of Portland Symphonic Choir, boasts good musicianship as one of PSC’s great attributes. “These engagements require fast learning of repertoire and a very agile choir to adapt to a different conductor with one short rehearsal.” Most PSC musicians, auditioned and held to a high musical standard, are classically trained but can sing in many genres. As for adaptability, that’s been a signature quality over this choir’s long history.

C. Robert Zimmerman conducting the Portland Symphonic Choir in November 1956.

Serving in the community

In 1945, young conductor C. Robert Zimmerman believed Portland’s post-war community had a yearning for good choral music. Portland Symphonic Choir was founded to perform serious or classical choral works–masterworks–according to their mission. A scan of their performance history reveals an adherence to that mission with a preponderance of historic and contemporary choral-orchestral repertoire (passions, cantatas, oratorios, requiems, choral symphonies) and the a cappella masterworks.

Soon after they were formed, however, they found themselves serving in the community, also an important concept in their mission statement. News accounts within the next years document the choir singing at ecumenical, civic, education and charitable events. They would collaborate with Portland Civic Theater and then with the post-war reconstituted Portland Symphony Orchestra (Oregon Symphony since 1967). In later years they would appear with equal enthusiasm alongside Dave Brubeck or Helmut Rilling. They’d sing shivering on the Lloyd Center Ice Rink for the crowning of the Lucia Festival Queen and sweating in black robes standing on bleachers behind a stage scrim as Oregon Ballet Theater danced the entire Carmina Burana.

So, what are they really known for? Being team players – well, singers – for team PDX.  And right now they’re also known for singing in solidarity with the twenty other choral organizations around the country–like UWM Concert Chorale–who are on team Bocelli. 

Who are these other hometown choruses and orchestras on the Bocelli tour? Googling arts news in those cities. Who will be his collaborators in Seattle on Nov. 3rd? No coverage, okay, perhaps it’s too soon. He performed in Dallas on October 20th; searching, hmm, nothing there. Wait, there’s one line–St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. Okay! Chicago area? Surely the local choir got a mention. Nothing.

Honestly! Is that any way to treat our resilient musicians who are venturing onto stage right now to support music in their communities? Where’s the love?

It’s here at home where members of our community are performing with Andrea Bocelli. Let’s just acknowledge how absolutely cool that is and then, as a simple gesture of respect, call our local artists by their names.

The Portland orchestra performing with Andrea Bocelli is the Oregon Festival Orchestra and their Artistic Director is Zvonimir Hačko.

Backup vocalists, prepared by Artistic Co-Leaders Wendy Bamonte and Alissa Deeter, are Portland’s oldest community mixed choral ensemble–Portland Symphonic Choir. 

Seriously, we think you all are “the pips!”

Andrea Bocelli’s “Believe” tour Portland concert is Nov. 4, 2021, 7:30 pm at the Moda Center. Information and tickets can be found here

Connections

More music

You may have heard it through the grapevine: Ms. Gladys Knight is coming to town. You can see her on New Year’s Eve in concert with the Oregon Symphony. More information and tickets here. If you are having an R & B (soul/funk/gospel) craving right now, here’s an iconic GK and the Pips Soul Train clip. By the way, the Pips from 1964 to1989 were Knight’s brother Merald (Bubba) Knight, William Guest and Edward Patton.

Fantastic opera news. Portland Opera has added one more performance of Tosca by Giacomo Puccini who was born in the Lucca, Tuscany region where Andrea Bocelli now lives. Read in Oregon Arts Watch about this iconic season opener and then find tickets for the Nov. 6 closer. Tosca will also be available for virtual viewing. 

On the choral horizon is one more concert being produced for virtual performance by Willamette Master Chorus (previewed soon in OAW). Then into December with a whirlwind of choral offerings and more of our local groups back on stage. As always, the PDX choral calendar remains your resource for all things choral in greater Portland, Salem and Vancouver. Choirs, submit your concert information to this free community service provided by Tom Hard. More choral love.

Food

Italian. Tuscan. Ribollita. No, not warmed over minestrone with chunks of bread. Take time to make the real deal, with a caramelized sofrito combined with tomato and stirred to a mouthwatering jamminess before adding broth, other veggies and cooked beans (some mashed, some whole) and good quality Italian bread. Bread is mixed into the soup.

For a lighter accompanying course or all on its own try clams in a white wine sauce. You already have that good bread for dipping and dripping.

Art

Sandro Botticelli, Early Renaissance painter, was also born in Tuscany. And if you make a mistake and google “Botticelli concert” you get Andrea Bocelli. Now there’s a good connection.

Sandro Botticelli, ‘Judith with the Head of Holofernes’, 1464-1475.

Full disclosure: the author has had close ties to and has sung in PSC, including shivering and sweating, and still participates in alumni events.

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

About the author

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

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2 Responses

  1. What a great read! I speak of Daryl Browne’s work regarding the Andrea Bocelli concert with orchestra and the Portland Symphonic Choir. Thanks Daryl and thanks Oregon ArtsWatch!

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