Portland Symphonic Choir: Voice of a City

Venerable choir celebrates its 70th anniversary with reunion concerts.



“We of the [Portland] Symphonic Choir are striving to offer adequate opportunity for participation and at the same time endeavoring to give the finest in training, so that we may rightfully fulfill our responsibility toward a greater development of the choral art in our community.” September, 1945.

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

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

This creed, penned 70 years ago, was the footprint for the Portland Symphonic Choir. This vision — blending high standards and wide inclusivity —was the reason that Portland Mayor Earl Riley sanctioned 27-year old C. Robert Zimmerman in founding the choir. It is the reason that KGW radio (same one that broadcasts in Portland today) supported the choir and featured them in broadcasts. The timing was perfect.

It was my privilege to serve as music director for Portland Symphonic Choir from 1979-2001. We performed some of the world’s great choral music with dedicated and talented people. The relationship with the Oregon Symphony under James DePreist was a particular gift for me and for the choir. On October 24 and 25, I’ll be joining the current choir, alumni and former directors to sing and share memories at a pair of concerts celebrating the choir’s 70th anniversary at Portland’s Rose City Methodist Church.

Portland Symphonic Choir in December 1957.

Portland Symphonic Choir in December 1957.

After years of reeling from the years of worry, sorrow, sacrifice — all things brought by four years of a country embroiled in international conflict – the desire around the country was to return to the enjoyments of life. Singing in a choir – uplifting, challenging and a chance to be out in the world again. (History sidebar: The Oregon Historical Society’s WWII “70 years after” exhibit is running now through December.)

Robert Zimmerman, 1940 graduate of Washington State College, began teaching music at Lincoln High School in 1944. Within three years he was both educational music director for KGW and had founded the choir. Bob Z, as he was called, knew that Portland already had a reputation as a strong musical community, notably the Portland Youth Philharmonic and Portland Symphony Society (now the Oregon Symphony). Music “salon” and church choir performances abounded prior to the war and national artists and groups often included Portland on their West Coast tours.

birth certificate

To be historically accurate, two choirs had been organized already in Portland: from 1878-1883 the Handel & Haydn Society founded by the later first conductor of the Portland Symphony, W. H. Kinross, and the Portland Choral Society (1930-1935) which was allied with the symphony and conducted by Willem van Hoogstraten.

The symphony had taken a break beginning in the years leading up to WWII, restarting again in 1948 and the choir’s longstanding relationship with the Oregon Symphony began.

The tremendous growth spurt in Portland during the 1950s was reflected in the arts community. The Portland Art Museum mounted several extraordinary exhibitions drawing record-breaking crowds. Civic Auditorium (Keller) renovation was approved.

In order, Frank Holman, David Wilson, myself (Bruce Browne), and Steven Zopfi (comprising over 200 years of collective choral experience) cover the custody of the venerable Portland Symphonic Choir from 1963 to the present. A few interim years were handled skillfully by notable Portland musicians such as Karl Ernst, Jacob Avshalomov, and Deborah Glaze. That’s a lot of singing, and a lot of singers. And the ranks will swell to well over the regular 130 singers of PSC this weekend when, at the invitation of current director Steven Zopfi, alumni from those past decades will join to sing the Beethoven “Hallelujah,” from the Christ on the Mount of Olives oratorio. Alumni should check out the choir’s web page or Facebook page for further information.

PSC in 1974.

PSC in 1974.

Zimmerman left Oregon in 1961 and Frank Holman, Portland Schools music teacher and frequent tenor soloist, assumed the directorship in 1963. In the city, the 1960s brought the Portland Opera, the seventies a second community choir (Oregon Repertory Singers), Metropolitan Youth Symphony and Chamber Music Northwest.

In 1973, Frank Holman relinquished his leadership to new Portland State professor David Wilson, who held the post until 1978. Dr. Steven Zopfi, professor at University of Puget Sound, continues to bring excellence and energy to the choir since becoming conductor in 2005.

Dr. Zopfi’s 10th anniversary season-opening vision will cover the gamut from Renaissance (Andrea Gabrieli) to Romantic (Mendelssohn and Bruckner) to 20th century (Morten Lauridsen and Lukas Foss). Brass and strings will join the vocal forces. A striking newer piece, The Heart’s Reflection, by Daniel Elder (commissioned for the Westminster Choir) will be welcome music to many ears.

PSC in 2010.

PSC in 2010.

Few American cities enjoy the choral music history that Portland Oregon boasts. A continuous rich choral climate in Portland began with the singing tradition in the Symphonic Choir. The phenomenal Portland Symphonic Girl Choir under Roberta Jackson started under the wing of PSC. Renowned soloists have made music with the choir; leading conductors have commended the talent and preparedness of the musicians. You can read more about the choir’s history here.

The choir has rejoiced in community festivals and celebrations, has mourned when the community mourned and has represented its city around the country and the world. The thousands of singers through the 70 years have represented the demographics of the city. The history of the choir is the history of our city.

PSC performed Carl Orff's 'Carmina Burana ' earlier this year.

PSC performed Carl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ earlier this year.

Portland Symphonic Choir performs its 70th Anniversary Celebration concerts at Portland’s Rose City Park United Methodist Church at 7 pm Saturday, October 24 and 2, 2:30 pm Sunday, October 25. Tickets are available online and at 800-838-3006.

Portland choral conductor Bruce Browne directed PSC and other choirs along with the choral programs at Portland State University for many years. Photos courtesy of Portland Symphonic Choir.

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