Wait till you hear this! Twenty-eight members of the Vancouver Master Chorale traveled to New York City to sing at Carnegie Hall in March. They participated in a Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) choral concert–always a memorable experience, but the March 27 Faure Requiem marked the return of DCINY programs, an extra-special thrill in one of the world’s great music venues. Cool enough! Well, yeah, but then some singers went to see Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in The Music Man and others went to the Metropolitan Opera. What a great musical tour!
But VMC is a true hometown choir which means on May 14 and 15 they are inviting you to share some of that musical theater mojo in their final 2022 concert A Night At The Theatre.
They already shared the Faure Requiem with our Vancouver/Portland audiences in their pre-tour mid-March concerts. On this weekend there will still be plenty of choral music, but VMC has invited some of their local artistic friends to join them: opera singers, a favorite bluegrass ensemble and a guy named Jonathan who plays the gut bucket bass.
Wait, the what?
You see, when you program (as did Artistic Director Jana Hart) a set of bluegrass tunes, you simply must have a gut bucket bass; in Vancouver that means you call Jonathan Gingery (hard ‘G’, as in gut). Originally from Tennessee, Gingery shared that he was a young man when he first heard the instrument and decided he would give it–and the music associated with it–a try. He says he can play a full scale on a single piece of rope, and uses a foot board “to get a special wah-wah sound.” It’s hard to picture, so here’s a photo of him working his GB magic.
You will see and hear it, and another Vancouver delight, the Misty Mamas, when the choir sings a choral medley from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou.
“We felt the JOY of singing together again,” remarked Katherine Nitsch who has been with the Misty Mamas since they were founded in 2005. Guitarist Nitsch, April Parker on accordion and mandolin and Eileen Rocci on string bass last performed with VMC one week prior to the 2020 shutdown. In concert, two artists will join them in the bluegrass set: Jack Mace on the Saturday performance, Greg Stone on Sunday.
How fitting, in this merry month of May, to hear the choir sing Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow,” from Candide. And what would this musical theatre concert be without at least one nod to Gilbert and Sullivan?
Isn’t that enough to finish the season in style? Not for this choir. They’ll be your singing tour guides on a 42nd Street choral fly-by. With special attention to Stephen Sondheim–“because his music is so fun to sing” says Hart–the choir will venture into the woods and come out on Fleet Street. How will you keep from singing along, especially when the voices of a small treble ensemble rise over the rainbow.
Now if you are hoping the Vancouver Master Chorale is going to save space on this program for some Met Opera vibe, that’s in this concert, too: choruses from Carmen and Tales of Hoffman; the “Va, pensiero” from Verdi’s Nabucco and a couple of great solo/duet works performed by members of Opera Quest Northwest. This is an organization that takes opera to the youth of our community; even during the shutdown they carried out that mission by producing videos to be used in the music classroom. Hopefully, they will be back with the children in person next year.
Singing some pieces with the choir and some alone, will be two OQN singers: Alexis Balkowitsch and OQN board chair Barbara Cholto (with accompanist Kate Hobbie) will perform “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” from Samson and Delilah and the favorite “Flower Duet” from Lakmé. Yeah, that one! Listen to that beloved work here.
Choral music from film and opera, a dip into the days of D’Oyly Carte, a few lullabies of Broadway and some very special home-town musical friends. What a fun season finale! Thanks, VMC for keeping the singing going. See you in the Fall.
Nexus: a series of connections
Choirs have personalities – qualities or raison ďêtre that form their distinctive character. A choir in existence for over half a century, like Vancouver Master Chorale, has settled into their personality. There is a comfortable constancy that attracts singers and audiences year after wonderful choral year.
Then we have a Nexus Vocal Ensemble, a choir in its infancy. This is their second concert–their debut concert was in November of 2019, and there’s no need to elaborate further on why they waited until now to pop up again.
So who is Nexus Vocal Ensemble?
The website artist info lists 14 singers living in the Portland metro area. They are local educators, choral singers, church choir directors, and several grads of Portland State University. And they are inspired and conducted by founder, Artistic Director, and PSU alum Lennie Cottrell, who came to Portland in 2016 and quickly established connections strong enough to offer one well-reviewed concert.
Memorable in that performance was one movement of a work written by seven modern composers each asked to compose a response to a seven-movement work by baroque era composer Buxtehude. In the Oregon Arts Watch review, Mark Powell stated “Cottrell is to be commended for assembling a top-flight group of singers and leading them with what is obviously a clear vision.”
So, after two years, Nexus will program music that feels good, makes folks forget about life and just get lost in a comforting choral cocoon. Play it safe, right? Nope. Cottrell and the singers are boldly stepping into “Process”–and inviting you to come along to concerts Cottrell describes as “free, short and impactful.” He continues, “my hope is that the audience will leave the concert wanting to have a conversation.” (Read Cottrell’s full “Notes from the Director” here).
Here’s the choral music Nexus thinks you’ll want to talk about. A brief work by David Lang, make peace, demonstrates the composer’s relentless insistence – hear this, hear this and then hear it again. The Ascendant by Wally Gunn, with text by Maria Zajkowski, is for SSAATBBB and drum kit; it’s a six-movement work commissioned for stellar choral ensemble Roomful of Teeth (who helped Caroline Shaw win her Pulitzer in 2013). In the second movement you can hear what Gunn calls his “angular harmonies” playing off of the barbs in Zajkowski’s poetry. Listen to RoT’s performance of that here.
Cottrell says Nexus’ focus is on “contemporary choral music and unconventional programming.” Contemporary simply means it’s being performed around the same time it was written, but the implication of “newness” heightens anticipation. “You Are Most Welcome” from the Jeff Quartets by Kile Smith, written in 2016, fulfills that expectation. The music relays the text as it was originally purposed – as a casual conversational email. It is harmonically accessible yet stylistically unconventional, with vocal texture as transparent as a string quartet. It has an unprocessed feel to it, no additives, just voices – fresh, crisp, forward. The work offers a delightful challenge to skilled vocalists. Listen here to a performance by the commissioning ensemble, The Crossing.
Actually, there is one modern choral piece that might just wrap you in its arms. Howard Skempton composed “More Sweet Than My Refrain” using the tender 12- word poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It presents as a meditative mantra that delicately rides each inhale and exhale of breath.
That’s it. That’s the whole concert as promised. Short and impactful.
Welcome Nexus. Your willingness to take on the unconventional might lead us all to adventuresome connections to the contemporary choral world. Thanks for allowing Portland to see the real you.
In media res
On Friday May 20th, Portland choir In Medio celebrates its fourth concert, “You Are My Companion,” marking the completion of their first full season! The concert, writes Artistic Director John Eisemann, “traces the connections we forge with each other.”
You will probably have immediate connections with some of the composers on this program, like Arvo Pärt and Eric Whitacre. But the music of Whitacre, who just buzzed through PDX last month, is only a fraction of the design elements that create the whole of this concert–a whole which includes a Northwest and a World Premiere.
How did Eisemann construct this concert? “It was Colin’s piece that initially inspired the whole idea.” That’s Colin Cossi, In Medio singer and Kelso Washington music educator who will begin his Master’s Degree in Choral Conducting at Arizona State University next year.
“The piece is called The Singh Verghese Wedding,” Eisemann explains. “He wrote it as a wedding gift for two of his friends who got married in August of 2021. The piece is a reflection on the two ceremonies that were held to join them, one being of the Sikh tradition and the other of the Catholic. Cossi employs sacred texts in Punjabi and Latin, as well as English texts and has created a music synthesis that weaves the two traditions together, just as his friends are now joined.” This is a world premiere.
Eisemann was further inspired by thoughts of his own life companion, soprano and In Medio singer Jen Milius, and how “we share a part of our soul with someone else who we trust completely.” That companionship, as many of us know, often extends to our partners in other aspects of life – in Eisemann’s case in music. In Medio offers the Northwest premiere of work by Carlos Cordero, composer-in-residence of Choral Austin (Texas). Seven Seconds of Love, premiered by CA in 2017, is a set of seven short vignettes about the “thoughts and emotions people go through when they truly find the person they love most.” Here’s a recording of that premiere concert conducted by former Portlander Ryan Heller.
It was serendipitous that Eisemann decided on the theme/title of the concert before finding Elaine Hagenberg’s My Companion. The text by contemporary poet Edith Franklin Wyatt is so tender, and Hagenberg’s music so rich, it’s the perfect way to close the concert. According to Eisemann, My Companion “pretty much encompasses everything we’re going for. Gratitude and recognition for the friends, romantic partners, family and the divine that support us and make us feel whole.”
Admission is free to In Medio’s Fri., May 20, 7 pm concert at Augustana Lutheran Church. Tickets can be reserved here. Donations are encouraged and very much appreciated. Proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test within 72 hours is required. Masks are also encouraged.
More new music
As you just read, in the Portland scene there’s good amount of modern choral music getting some great exposure. If non-choral new music, premieres and sometimes the unconventional sound good to you, check out the Cascadia Composers concert on Sat., May 14, 7:30 pm, at Lincoln Hall on the PSU campus. CC secretary/treasurer Jeff Winslow relays that this concert is chamber music, including some works with solo voice. “We do embrace modernism but that’s just one of the many esthetics we embrace.” In a CC concert, there are no boundaries. Tickets and more information here.
March crossword matches the moment
To complement the above Vancouver Master Chorale concert, check out the OAW Puzzlewatch March crossword “Magnificent Musicals” which paid tribute to musical theater. Learn about some musical theater coming up in our community this summer and challenge your knowledge of some iconic musical theater songs.