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How the light gets in: Spring choral concerts include Renaissance and Baroque and Morten Lauridsen and Matthew Lyon Hazzard

Central Oregon Mastersingers and Bach Cantata Choir prepare for tour; Oregon Repertory Singers premieres Hazzard’s "Finding Light"; Choral Arts Ensemble performs Sydney Guillaume, Brian Holmes, Dawn Sonntag, Tomáš Svoboda, Patrick Vu.

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Matthew Lyon Hazzard. Photo courtesy of the composer.
Matthew Lyon Hazzard. Photo courtesy of the composer.

Spring choral music is flourishing like spring flowers this year. It sure looks like a colorful and fruitful April and May for Oregon choral ensembles. Here’s part one of what’s coming your way in the warmer weeks ahead.

Choral transplants

Two choirs, Central Oregon Mastersingers and Bach Cantata Choir, are presenting home concerts as they prepare to go on international tours.

Ah, choir tours. Itineraries, funding, packing, passports – such an undertaking. And then you’re there, standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta, realizing that you will be singing to her; your voices forever captured in the cupola of St. Peter with those of centuries of other singers. Or you tread the path J. S. Bach took between his two churches in Leipzig Zentrum and ascend the stairs to the choir loft in Thomaskirche, singing the music Bach wrote where he wrote it. Ahhh, choir tours.

Share some of Central Oregon Mastersingers’ June tour to Italy on April 20 and 21 in Bend and Sunriver. This is COM’s first international tour and Artistic Director Christian Clark decided to try for, as he said in recent email, “the mountain-top experience” for his singers. So he submitted a recording of the choir which was screened by officials in Rome, and COM received an invitation. The summit is now in sight. The community rallied around this cherished community choir’s tour with donations. These free concerts are a gift to all. 

COM’s itinerary includes trips to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast but a performance in the Sorrento Cattedrale dei Santi Filippo e Giacomo and a friendship concert with a local choir in Rome’s Basilica di Sant’ Eustachio will be some of the choral highlights. But of course, the peak will be singing in St. Peter’s.

Enjoy the sacred and secular Renaissance music of Spanish composer Tomás de Victoria and Flemish composer Orlando de Lassus. Music of other genres are also programmed including R. Nathaniel Dett’s Ave Maria, Pilgrim’s Hymn by Stephen Paulus and Moses Hogan’s Elijah Rock.

But Clark says the music that most needed to be programmed is that of composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. The choir will perform the Missa Brevis of the Italian master who once held a position at St. Peter’s Basilica. It is “complex and difficult to sing, yet serene, and a joy to listen to!” said Clark. Hear the Italian Renaissance at its best in this Tallis Scholars recording.

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Enjoy music that “Sounds Italian” from Central Oregon Mastersingers on Saturday, April 20, 7:00 pm at Nativity Lutheran Church, Bend and Sunday, April 21, 3:00 pm at Sunriver Christian Fellowship. And at the Vatican on June 30, 2024! The concert is free. More information here.

This is not the first tour the Bach Cantata Choir has taken to the professional home of J. S. Bach, but it will be a new experience for some of the singers. BCC was eagerly anticipating performing in a major European festival of Bach-minded choirs from around the globe when the pandemic put a fermata on travel. This year they are one of five American choirs invited to participate in the Leipzig Bach Festival and will also sing in Berlin, Potsdam and Prague. They are taking our best wishes and a couple of wonderful Bach cantatas on their upcoming tour.

Their “Tour Send-Off” concerts on May 19 and 25 will feature those cantatas – Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit, (Get thyself, my soul, prepared) BWV 115 and Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God) BWV 80. The free concerts will also include the Haec Dies of Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka, a contemporary of J. S. Bach who spent most of his professional life in Dresden and The Promised Land by Portland composer John Vergin. 

Get yourself prepared for these Bach Cantata Choir tour “Send Off” concerts on Sunday, May 19, 2 pm, Rose City Park Presbyterian Church and Saturday, May 25, 7 pm at St. Michael and All Angels. The concerts is are free but donations are always appreciated.

Warm up your Bach chops with the Willamette Master Chorus the week before the above BCC performance with what Oregon Arts Watch editor Matthew Neil Andrews, in his recent Music Watch Monthly piece, called “All Bach, the Whole Bach, and Nothing But the Bach.” Dead on.

It’s been a big Bach year for WMC Artistic Director Paul Klemme. In February, Salem’s St. Paul Episcopal Music Series–coordinated by Klemme in his role as Director of Music Ministries–gave us Bach’s Mass in B minor. And now Klemme turns once again to Bach. 

And he certainly deserves conductor’s choice! It’s his Silver Celebration year with WMC. Is he shouting it from the rooftops? No; if you know Paul Klemme you know he wouldn’t. But the choral community, especially in Salem, should. And so we will. Hooray, Paul Klemme, and thank you for strengthening and maintaining the choral arts in our region.

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In this concert you will be treated to a Bach choral triptych. A motet, a cantata and a mass. The 8-ish minute motet Lobet den Herrn (Praise to the Lord the Almighty) BWV 230 jumps out of the starting block, slows without pause to a smooth stride then builds and presses toward a photo finish. There’s been a bit of speculation about whether or not it is Bach because thematic material isn’t repeated when it should have been. Yikes. But perhaps that only adds to the joy of wondering – if not, then who did write this gorgeous motet?

The cantata offering, Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (God is our Sun and Shield) BWV 79 has the most beautiful alto/oboe movement. Listen to it here:

Hannah Penn is on hand to sing that role. Other soloists in this concert are soprano Arwen Myers, tenor Leslie Green, and bass Charles Robert Stephens. Nice quartet who will also shine in the Missa Brevis in G Major BWV 235, one of Bach’s four shorter Lutheran Masses. Bach parodied himself in this work, lifting the instrumental music entirely from earlier cantatas and simply changing words to fit the church calendar. And, ha! – the re-purposed music in the “Gloria” is from Cantata 79. Yeah, the one on this concert. Clever Klemme! See if you can hear that bit of Bach-ish-ness when you attend the concert.

Salem’s Willamette Master Chorus celebrates Bach and Paul Klemme on Saturday, May 4, 3:00 pm and Sunday, May 5 at 3:00 pm at Hudson Hall, Willamette University. Tickets may be purchased here

Pride of the Northwest

Morten Lauridsen, Northwest composer of some of the most beloved choral works in the past generation, is the cynosure of two of the Northwest’s long-standing choirs on the April 27 and 28 weekend. But both choirs, Choral Arts Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers, are placing new works alongside Lauridsen’s. And somehow, that pays great homage to the composer, educator and Northwest native so cherished in the global choral community.

Choral Arts Ensemble presents Lauridsen’s Madrigali: Six “Fire Songs” on Italian Renaissance Poems, one of the first choral works that brought the name Lauridsen to the attention of the international choral community. The song cycle was written for the University of California Chamber Singers twenty years after Lauridsen joined the faculty of USC – before he became composer-in-residence of the LA Master Chorale, before he received the National Medal of Arts (2007), before the Lux Aeterna and even before the endearing “Dirait-on.” The harmonic language breathes; complex rhythms are sling-shot from the page. And Lauridsen’s architecture, the way he constructs a work, is genius. He understands how far to take a piece, how to frame the text and when to aim right into the soul. So many young composers want to capture only the Lauridsen sound and miss this other aspect of Lauridsen’s craft. Listen here to “Fire Song 3”:

New compositions and works by local and regional composers complete Choral Arts Ensemble’s program. Included are The Road Not Taken by Dawn Sonntag, Pacific University Professor, which receives its NW premiere; Ay’bobo Pou Yo by Sydney Guillaume (read Brett Campbell’s 2022 profile here); and a neglected choral delight, Czernogorsk Fugue, by the late Portland State University professor Tomáš Svoboda (read Campbell’s tribute here).

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You will also hear two NW premieres of works by Cascadia Composer members Brian Holmes and Patrick Vu, including Wu’s On the Hillside, which was named the winner of the American Choral Directors Association’s 2023 Raymond W. Brock Prize for Student Composers. The Jesuit High School Chamber Choir, under the direction of Kristen Caldwell, joins CAE on their Sunday concert performing a work on their own and joining in on the Guillaume.

Northwest Voices take the stage for Choral Arts Ensemble’s spring concerts on Saturday, April 27, 7:30 pm and Sunday, April 28, 3:00 pm at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church. Tickets may be purchased here.

How The Light Gets In

On April 27 and 28, Oregon Repertory Singers is presenting two very special works. One is already a twentieth century masterwork, the other a new piece to keep it company. With both we will learn how the light gets in.

When Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna was premiered by the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 1997 ORS conductor Ethan Sperry was there, singing tenor in the choir. Witnessing the birth of a work that has been called a celestial beauty. Lauridsen composed the five movement non-liturgical Requiem at a time in his life when he needed comfort. The light was, to him, a universal and eternal symbol of illumination that brought solace and tranquility. As it does to us. We don’t have to elevate ourselves to be enveloped it in its nurturing embrace. It comes to us–mysterious yet accessible–right where we are, perhaps right when we need it.

One movement has become a favorite as a standalone. Here is Voces8 singing the “O Nata Lux”, movement three, from Lux Aeterna.

How did Matthew Lyon Hazzard feel when he accepted the ORS commission to compose a multi-movement choral/orchestral piece on the theme of light, to be performed alongside Lauridsen’s Lux? Elated? Challenged? Certainly! Scared? Perhaps. But Hazzard is skilled at his art. His dozens of choral octavos have garnered a following by choirs around the world. 

Lauridsen took his text from sections of the requiem mass. Hazzard has compiled the evocative and vibrant poetry of Portlander Sophia Mautz, a snippet of Rabbinic wisdom, contributions by Jonathon Talberg and one segment of newly composed prose. In recent email with Oregon ArtsWatch, Sperry commented on the text: “There are NO similarities in the librettos AT ALL. Lauridsen is all Catholic, Hazzard is modern poetry.” 

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And it isn’t always a sanctuary light. Sometimes it is harsh, as in Mautz’s text from movement five:

If the river is proof,
what is it doing to my sense of endings.

Growing up
listening to nightly reports.
The thousands of ways the world is dying.

I count the years I have left.
I count the arctic summer sea ice.
If I have children they will not see it.

“Mindblowing” said Sperry about this specific text. And yet the work is about (and is titled) Finding Light and about believing that the light is there even when it cannot be seen. Hazzard surely studied Lauridsen (who studied the great masters who preceded him) in reiterating Mautz’s hopeful text from the second movement, and accompanying music, in movement six:

Isn’t love a kind of action
even if powerless to stop things from happening
these footprints are happening.

As to the tonal language, listen here to an earlier Hazzard piece, There is no sea, which Sperry says is most akin to Finding Light:

Portland Youth Philharmonic Camerata will participate in this premiere. And the Oregon Repertory Singers Youth Choir will also join in on segments of the 8-movement, 40-minute piece especially written for this next generation of singers. 

Twenty seven years ago, at the Lux Aeterna premiere, did Sperry and his LA Master Chorale companions know what they were witnessing? How the piece they were performing would move the world? Will Hazzard’s new work – born light of light – shine as brightly in decades to come?

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Sperry recently interviewed Hazzard about his new oratorio, Finding Light. Watch that interview here:

Oregon Repertory Singers and Portland Youth Philharmonic Camerata present “Lux Aeterna” and “Finding Light” on Saturday, April 27, 4 pm and Sunday, April 28, 4 pm, Patricia Reser Center for the Arts. Tickets are here.

To be continued…

There is more choral music to come. Your preview of late April and May choral concerts continues on Thursday, in Part Two.

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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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2 Responses

  1. Great article, Daryl! It is a joy to see that choral arts are still thriving.
    Until reading this article I did not know that you write as well as you sing!
    -Steve

    1. Well, hello Steve. Indeed, NW choral arts are healthy. I hope you are still singing. Thanks for the kind words and reading OAW. d.

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