Guest Review: Oregon Repertory Singers Holiday Concert

Newly appointed music director Ethan Sperry led the Oregon Repertory Singers in their fall concert.

By Bruce Browne

The Oregon Repertory Singers have returned, new wine in new bottles, and with a new musical sommelier. Newly expanded to 84 voices strong, they are now truly in the “large choir” category, making formidable fortes, and most important, the most hushed pianissimos. In their December 11 concert at Northwest Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, which reprises this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, the choir shone most brightly at the pianissimo to mezzo-piano levels. The soprano sound is most noteworthy: spinning effortlessly, never clutching at pitches, a lyric sleeve of sound.

[box]Editor’s Note: Here at Oregon ArtsWatch, we’re committed to bringing arts fans new insights into what happens on Oregon stages. From time to time, we’ll be giving you an inside view of arts making by Portland performers and creators, and we invite you to contact us if you’re interested in contributing. This week, we’re posting a review/preview of last week’s Oregon Repertory Singers’ concert — which repeats this weekend — by one of the best informed sources possible: Dr. Bruce Browne, who led Portland State University’s choral programs to national prominence in his years (1978-2006) at the helm there. He also directed the Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties and has conducted innumerable choruses, workshops, and other choral programs around the world. Dr. Browne will be leading Portland’s Choral Arts Ensemble in a holiday program this weekend at downtown Portland’s First Unitarian Church. — Brett Campbell[/box]

The first half of the program, thematically bound by pieces dedicated to the Virgin Mary (“Ave Maria”), was resplendent with legato phrasing and full dynamic response from the choir throughout. Especially effective was the opening piece by Alice Parker, “O Come Emmanuel.” Director Ethan Sperry coaxed seamless sounds with wide ranging dynamics from the choir.

Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to the Virgin,” led by associate conductor Erik Lichte, offered depth and plasticity of phrasing. (Lichte, a co-founder of the great Minnesota choir Cantus who’s completing graduate study at PSU, is a welcome addition to Portland’s thriving choral scene). But placing Choir II directly behind Choir I both hid them visually, and made auditory discernment between the two difficult for this listener.

A wonderful motet by the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, who died this year, offered plenty of opportunities for dynamic contrast among the iterated texts. We could have used even more of that. When the pitch drops a bit, what we perceive is mostly loss of lustre. That is often the trade-off for singing in such a wonderful venue like St. Mary’s. It is challenging for even the best choirs to keep long, slow, iterated pieces from dropping.

Anton Bruckner’s motet “Ave Maria” was beautiful, but not flawless. While inherently rich and full-blooded, it felt in a few instances fractured, when pitches were jolted by lack of control in the forte passages, particularly in the men. Occasionally, vocal production led to minor intonation issues, notably in the repetitions of “Jesu,” perhaps due to the choir’s more formidable sound, more Russian than Austro/German. But that treatment showed 20th century Russian composer Sviridov’s “Having Written a Wondrous Birth” to best advantage: Russian to the max.

Dr. Sperry and the choir bring to their program a much needed and deserved element – that of humor and irony. The “Nutcracker Suite” takeoff was hilarious, and the “Key of Hanukkah” arrangement by Dr. Sperry, a delight. Choral aficionados should rejoice at his presence in the musical community – he brings us a new voice for choral composition and arranging. His arrangement of “I Wonder as I Wander” should assume its place in the canon of folk arrangements. Soloists Daniele McFadden and Paul Neese were effective here. Among the other soloists,  Jim Griffith, baritone in “Go Where I Send Thee,” was scintillating.

This choir makes rhythmic complexity sound easy, as Lichte demonstrated in “Tomorrow will be my dancing day” and “Silent Night.” And – they look good! That may seem easy, but so many choirs sing well, and the faces look drab. They forget that our audience “hears” us first with their eyes. This choir enjoys themselves, and communicating with the audience.

Go hear this concert! I left smiling and laughing after the second part, and wondering and weeping after the first.


2 Responses.

  1. Peter Gunn says:

    I’m sure it’s just a simple oversight, but ArtsWatch doesn’t mention where and when the Oregon Repertory Singers will give their remaining performances of this concert.

    The last three performances of ‘Glory’ are December 16th and 17th at 8pm and December 18th at 2pm, all at St. Mary’s Cathedral on NW 17th and Couch. For more information, including the box office number, visit

  2. Gary Weidenaar says:

    Dr. Browne’s review is incredibly well-informed and even more well-written. I’m sorry I missed the concert – but I felt like I was there in spirit. Bravo – Ethan, and thank you, Bruce, for your continuing contribution to the Choral music world!

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