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How Sweet The Sound: Cappella Romana and Kingdom Sound Choir, Eugene Concert Choir’s ‘Music of the Americas,’ and ‘hut hut hut!’ for SuperBach Sunday

A collaboration showcasing Black composers working in the Orthodox tradition, ECC’s concert of choral music from Canada and Ecuador, and Bach Cantata Choir’s annual Super Bowl Sunday concert.

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Alexander Lingas and Shawn Wallace at dinner. Photo by Mark Powell.
Alexander Lingas and Shawn Wallace at dinner. Photo by Mark Powell.

“This music is about seeking and perceiving that there is common ground,” said Cappella Romana founding Artistic Director Alexander Lingas in a recent phone interview with OAW from his NYC residence. Lingas returns to the Northwest to co-conduct the upcoming Cappella Romana concert “How Sweet the Sound,” in Seattle on Friday, February 9 and Portland on Saturday, February 10. 

The sweet sounds, the beautiful voices, in this concert are not only the singers of Kingdom Sound Choir, who join Cappella Romana. They are the voices of the African-American Orthodox Church and the thousands of other Orthodox worshipers around the world. That African Orthodoxy exists–that Black, Indigenous and people of color are practitioners in the Orthodox church–comes as a surprise to many outside of the church. Within the Orthodox Church of today, there is renewed interest in elevating and listening to these voices. In this video is a straightforward and informative conversation about the challenges and bright future for the African-American Orthodox Church. And when the bright future is imagined, music is there.

Yes, we are aware that music can play a significant role in bringing people together, in healing, delivering a message and in finding common ground. For Shawn Wallace, one composer featured on this concert, proclaiming the good news, the gospel, through music as well as liturgy is his mission. His multi-movement choral/instrumental work How Sweet The Sound, an Orthodox Vespers, will be presented by the combined choral forces with instrumental combo. The work references, and at times directly quotes, Byzantine chant with the liturgical text set in modern gospel – and a bit of jazz – style. The composer is a master of both.

Dr. Wallace is Director of Jazz studies and associate professor of saxophone at The Ohio State University. If you are up on modern and jazz sax and jazz ensemble recordings you might know him as “Doctor Thunder.” The versatile artist, educator and Orthodox practitioner will be in Portland to co-conduct the concert. Listen to some of his skillful saxophone artistry here.

“Drawing on familiar tunes from both black gospel and Orthodox musical settings, this setting will highlight the sometimes unacknowledged connections between these traditions and reveal our commonalities as Christians.” (Program notes from a premiere concert at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Columbus, February, 2020).

Finding common ground, in choral preparation and style, was the topic of a recent OAW conversation with Kingdom Sound founder Derrick McDuffey. McDuffey has a classical music background for which he gives credit to one special person. “Momma noticed I had an ear, was playing by ear, made me take piano lessons all the while through high school,” he recalled with an endearing chuckle. It was in New Hebron, Mississippi that he also came to his understanding of the gospel music and style which he brought to Portland 28 years ago. 

Kingdom Sound artists are grounded and skilled in rote learning and in genre that is difficult to translate onto black dots. The Richard Smallwood gospel transcriptions are admirable said McDuffey but “certain things are lost in transcription, cannot be put on paper.” And not only for singers, noted McDuffey. Keyboardist Chris Turner might look at a few charts but he, too, will use his ear when he performs as organist.

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Kingdom Sound founder Derrick McDuffey and Chris Turner at keyboard. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Kingdom Sound founder Derrick McDuffey and Chris Turner at keyboard. Photo by Daryl Browne.

It is the possibility for learning by all participants that McDuffey appreciates about this concert. “There is mutual learning and understanding in this fusion. Intermingling, a camaraderie there, sitting together, in dinner, talking leaning on each other’s strength,” he said, referring to what he saw blossoming after the first few hours of rehearsal. 

Cappella Romana Executive Director Mark Powell confirmed it was after the first ensemble readings of Wallace’s work, during the social and dinner time, when the two ensembles and three conductors got caught up in the collaboration of making music. He remarked on one discussion on how to execute a triplet figure in gospel style – the lag, the placement of emphasis. Would you not have loved to hear that? Sharing in friendly debate and laughter led to common ground. This short clip taken at the end of the second rehearsal provides a sampling of the treat in store for you in this concert.

In the first half of the concert the creative voice belongs to Mother Katherine Weston, Abbess of St. Xenia Metochion monastery in Indianapolis. Hers is a remarkable story which you can enjoy reading in detail here. Cappella Romana celebrates her work as a composer of Orthodox liturgical music with a performance of “Bright Sadness,” Orthodox hymns based on African American spirituals. 

Weston grew up with the melodies of spirituals and has paired them with liturgical texts in service to her mission to nurture a Black voice in the Orthodox Church. “If a Black family comes into an Orthodox church and hears my music and thinks, ‘This sounds like us–it sounds like church,’ then I’ve fulfilled by mission. Of course, it’s not my music: it’s the music of the spiritual ancestors, offered to God anew in Orthodox Liturgy.” (AXIA Women, axiawomen.org, July, 24, 2023). You will hear the choirs sing each original spiritual before Mother’s Weston’s liturgical setting.

This concert is an invitation – from Cappella Romana, Kingdom Sound, the performers and composers – to join them on common ground, with one voice in music of faith.

Cappella Romana and Kingdom Sound singers at dinner together. Photo by Mark Powell.
Cappella Romana and Kingdom Sound singers at dinner together. Photo by Mark Powell.

You are also invited to attend “How Sweet The Sound, A Conversation. Black Orthodox Voices in Music”, a Q&A with the conductors and composer. Thursday, February 8, 6:30-8:00 pm at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Portland. Registration is required for this free event.

“How Sweet The Sound” will be performed in Seattle on Friday, February 9, 7:30 pm at St. Demetrios Greek Cathedral and in Portland on Saturday, February 10, 8:00 pm at Maranatha Church. Tickets and more information can be found here. Note there is no concert on Sunday.

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Bach for the Second Sunday

If you are a fan of the 49ers or Chiefs or football in general you know what event is coming up on Sunday, February 11. Oops, sorry. That was supposed to read “If you are NOT a fan of all of the above.” Ah yes; then the obvious answer is the annual SuperBach concert presented by Portland’s Bach Cantata Choir.

BCC founder and conductor Ralph Nelson says it was “FOFS” (foes of football) who were the original target audience for the free SuperBach concerts which premiered almost two decades ago. “It was also,” laughed Nelson in recent phone interview with OAW, “the one date in the calendar on which other concerts were never scheduled.” One of Nelson’s colleagues, Ryan Turner of Emmanuel Music in Boston, momentarily imagined instituting a similar annual event but quickly rejected it. The New England Patriots getting into the Super Bowl would leave even the baroque master high and dry. But so far in Portland the second Sunday in February belongs to Bach. 

Why is this choral group called the Bach Cantata Choir? Is the specificity intentional? Absolutely. Nelson was looking for music to listen to during office duties and found Helmut Rilling’s complete Bach Cantatas, recorded over a fifteen year span, the first in 1970 and last in 1985, Bach’s tercentennial birthday year. He realized these amazingly creative shorter works, so rarely performed, were ideal for a good community choir. And so BCC was formed. When the intention to attempt all 215+ extant choral cantatas was put into practice, did Nelson fully realize the scope of that undertaking? He did not. But over the years, the goal – still being pursued – has a gained a loyal following, with many audience members now wanting the privilege of hearing all cantatas performed live. Sometimes one per concert, sometimes two, the BCC perseveres as they approach their twenty-year anniversary in 2025.

The concerts often include other works which relate in some way to Bach – family, predecessors, contemporaries. Two such works are on this concert. The first, a Te Deum by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a French Baroque composer slightly preceding Bach. Then two short liturgical works, “Sanctus Deus” and “Santa Maria” by Guatemalan composer Manuel José de Quirós, whose dates almost exactly align with Bach’s. Soloists for the Te Deum are choir members Isabella Hanreiter and Sheryl Wood, sopranos; Grace Weaver, alto; David Foley, tenor and Karl Hein, bass. 

What fun to have two differing nationalist styles of the same era to compare to this concert’s cantata “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir” (Out of deep anguish I call to You), BWV 38. You probably know the work of the Cantata 38 soloists: Vakarė Petroliūnaitė, soprano; Hannah Penn, alto; Leslie Green, tenor; and Jacob Herbert, bass. This quartet will also be traveling with the Bach Cantata Choir on their upcoming summer tour to follow Bach’s life journey. Listen here to the tenor aria, “”Ich höre mitten in dem Leiden” (I hear in the midst of suffering). 

A value-added highlight of many a Bach Cantata Choir concert is when instrumental soloists are featured. (Instrumentalist are also more available on this particular Sunday). What a special treat to have Northwest artist Bruce Dunn on piccolo trumpet for the stunning Telemann Trumpet Concerto In D Major, TWV 51:D7.

2 pm PST is the SuperBach kickoff, sorry, downbeat. If you are a football fan, Super Bowl 58 kicks off at 3:30 PST, plus coin toss and National Anthem, so you’ll only be a bit late for the championship and probably won’t miss much. The only Super Bowl opening-kickoff touchdown return in football history was in 2007: Chicago Bears Devin Hester, SB XLI.

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Oops, enough football? Got it. See you at the SuperBach.

The Bach Cantata Choir’s Annual SuperBach concert is Sunday, February 11, 2 pm at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, Portland. The concert is free but donations to the choir are greatly appreciated. 

Touring the World in Concert

Eugene Concert Choir has been touring the world this season, in concert. France, Merry Olde England and this month, in their Music of the Americas concert on February 25, they will take us on a journey across the Americas including the music of Indigenous peoples and twentieth century ‘classics.’ North to the French and provincial traditions of Canada, including a song about the beautiful Mira River in Nova Scotia. Join a road trip across the U.S. with Woodie Guthrie, Paul Simon and Florence Price before sailing off to the island sounds of the Caribbean and Hawaii. The musical itinerary is packed.

Joining Artistic Director Diane Retallack and the ECC for the varied Spanish and Indigenous music of Central and South America is University of Oregon World Music Specialist Juan Eduardo Wolf and the Américas Ensemble. The instrumentalists will solo on a piece from Ecuador.

That’s the Sunday program for all ages. But on Saturday, February 24 Eugene Concert Choir offers a special treat to their younger music lovers. All Americas for Kids invites you to bring the little ones early to enjoy the pre-concert arts and craft activities. 

Music of the Americas is performed on Sunday, February 25 at 2:30 pm at Silva Concert Hall, The Hult Center, Eugene. All America for Kids is Saturday, February 24 at 2:30, same location. Tickets and further information may be found here. 

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CONNECTIONS

This December two women of music passed away, one known and beloved in our own community and one a composer whose music helped shape a choral generation.

Remembering Wilma Sheridan

Wilma Sheridan joined the Portland State music education faculty as an adjunct instructor in 1971. The energetic advocate of music for all rose to Dean of PSU School of Fine and Performing Arts in 1985. She nurtured the programs and the faculty who led them – opera, choral and music education and more. But most of all, she nurtured the creative efforts of all PSU musical artists. Attending concerts and recitals – observing creativity – delighted Dr. Sheridan. And her hand-written congratulatory note always appeared within a day or two after. She talked straight, listened carefully, governed with grace, had an impish humor and she cared. Wilma Sheridan died at the age of 97 on December 15, 2023. She will be missed and fondly remembered by so many. Read this Oregon Encyclopedia profile for more information on Wilma Sheridan’s full and meaningful life. 

Wilma Sheridan, former Dean of PSU's School of Fine and Performing Arts. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Wilma Sheridan, former Dean of PSU’s School of Fine and Performing Arts. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Remembering Alice Parker

We know Alice Parker’s name from the cover of two hundred of choral octavos from 1950-1967, most often coupled with the Robert Shaw, her creative partner. Indeed, the Shaw/Parker Choral Series filled music libraries of choirs everywhere. What singable and accessible pieces she gave us! But the skills she possessed in original composition and in nurturing choral singing through educational and community engagements had a broader reach into the choral world. Her final composition, finished in 2020 is On the Common Ground. “It drew on two of her major influences over a seven-decade career: the contemplative tones of chants and the call-and-response structure of traditional spirituals and gospel music.” (Washington Post, Dec. 29, 2023) That full Washington Post tribute to Ms. Parker, who died at the age of 98, on December 24, 2023 can be read here. But the best tribute is to listen once again to her music. 

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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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