PSU Chamber Choir: connection through competition

A participant in the award-winning choir's trip to a major competition in Argentina finds that the most rewarding musical moments don't always happen onstage

by AARON RICHARDSON

The Portland State University Chamber Choir made it to San Juan, Argentina for the San Juan Canta International Choral Competition and Festival from August 16-20. I sang bass in the choir, and as much as we enjoyed the competition, for me, the best part of the experience didn’t actually happen onstage.

The Portland State Chamber Choir, led by Ethan Sperry, has won awards both nationally and internationally in its 43 year history. Last year, we placed first in the Bali International Choral Festival in Indonesia. That was an unforgettable experience because there were over 150 choirs creating amazing music together, and we were the singers who took home the gold.

This summer was the first time the choir had ever competed in South America. One of our previous grad students and section leaders grew up in Argentina, and her mother was a conductor of the host choir at the event, named Coro Arturo Beruti. We were all looking forward to sharing the music that we worked so hard on with other choirs from around the world.

Warming Up

Before the competition, we took a tour of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina.The city has so many music houses it looked like they were on almost every block of downtown. To prepare us for the competition, we first at one of the oldest and most famous opera house in South America, called Teatro Colón in downtown Buenos Aires on August 13. When we looked up in the music hall we performed in, we saw chandeliers twenty feet high, filling the room with light, and vibrant paintings on the ceiling, as well as the walls. The main stage faced thirty rows of seating, set up as an oval with all chairs leaning towards the stage, resulting in the sound surrounding listeners from every angle. Many famous singers have performed on the main stage since its opening in 1908. To be given that opportunity to sing in the main hall is one that I will never forget.

PSU Chamber Choir tearing it up in San Juan, Argentina.

We arrived at the competition in San Juan, Argentina on August 15 for the opening ceremony. The main hall at the Auditorio Juan Victoria consisted of a state with eight built in risers and a pipe organ behind the stage. At the opening ceremony, each of the ten groups sang one piece each as an introduction.That way, we were able to see how each choir performed and then to mingle afterward.

The next day, for the start of the festival, we had a concert featuring the choirs that weren’t competing called the Friendship Concert. The highlight for me was a Vocal Jazz Choir from Mexico named Vox Populi Project, who effortlessly used a variety of techniques to make their voices sound like different instruments like trumpet, sax, trombone. They sang pieces from Duke Ellington, Enrique Segarra and more, including an a capella rendition of Beyonce’s “Love on Top.” They looked like they were having a blast on stage, and put everyone at ease and relaxed for the competition the next day.

Competition and Communication

The competition day was filled with a lot of music, workshops and lectures from conductors and composers. While we were competing, we had the chance to talk with members of the other choirs. Though we were the only choir from the United States, many of us were able to communicate well with the others, since most of them were university students and could speak English. We also had a couple of students who spoke Spanish, so there was barely any communication barrier throughout the competition.

The competition was split into two categories. The Universal category included compositions from contemporary and modern composers, while the Folk category consisted of more traditional music.

In the green room before we took the stage for our performance, there were a lot of emotions, because of the pressure of the competition. Everyone was feeling excited, and while I was very nervous about singing at a competition, I felt a lot of support from my friends who sang with me.

We sang four pieces for each set. In the folk set, we sang Indodana, arranged by Michael Barrett and Ralf Shmitt, Janger by Budi Susanto Yohanes, Elijah Rock by Moses Hogan and Gede Nibo, arranged by our conductor Ethan Sperry. What I really liked about this set was that the first piece was about bringing people together, which is why we sing in competitions in the first place. I also really enjoyed how we were able to dance on stage in Gede Nibo, so I could really be more loose and show the audience how much fun we could have on stage.

Our Classical Competition set included Felix Mendelssohn’s Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen, Monteverdi’s Dara, la notte il sol, Ginastera’s O Vos Omnes, Eric Whitacre’s San Chapelle and Matsushita’s O Lux Beata Trinitas. I liked Mendelssohn’s piece because of its modulations. It is complex in trying to tell a story not just with the repetitive lyrics, but also with the modulations from G major to B minor key. Each time, the angels are bringing us back up to a major key, finally going back to G major. This was some of the best singing that we have done on stage in a while. I felt like everyone was giving 100 percent on stage, which led to a very emotional ending for me because I was able to give my best and trust everyone else to do the same.

Our performance wasn’t perfect. In some instances, our pitch went a bit flat on the Matsushita. Not only was that piece the hardest one of our set, it was also very fast and the last one that we received before we went to compete. I guess when we got on stage, everyone felt a bit apprehensive about the piece, which led to some minor pitch issues.

Still, singing on that stage felt really good. The acoustics and ring were really audible, and we were able to hear each other pretty substantially. After we sang our four pieces for the audience from each of our sets, they were floored. After Gede Nibo there was a roar of applause, and they even wanted us to give an encore at the last part of the competition.

While it was entertaining to listen and watch each of the choirs that were performing in those two sets, the one that really set it off for me was Incantare, an all women’s choir from Còrdoba, Argentina — the best women’s chorus I’ve ever heard. They had amazing intonation. Not a single note was out of place and the overtones they were able to make reached out to all parts of the stage and venue. When they hit the final chord of each piece, I was stunned by how it rang throughout the entire hall.

At the end of the competition, there was a closing ceremony where awards and prizes were handed out. Incantare got first place and the grand prize trophy for both categories, including being the crowd favorite. Portland State placed second! The first and second place winners received cash prizes, and the choirs and judges who participated also received trophies, plaques, and flowers.

After all the prizes were awarded, every choir that performed throughout the competition gathered on stage for one final performance: Psalm 148 by Gustav Holst, conducted by the United States judge Josh Haberman.

But for me, the best part of the experience happened while we were waiting in the main lobby for the judges’ decision, which took a couple of hours. We assembled into small groups of our own and started singing. It wasn’t anything planned. In fact, it was pretty spontaneous. More and more choirs started to get out their music and sing as well. Soon, every group sang their pieces and we were all cheering and dancing along to them. It was like a small party after all the stress of the competition was over. I really loved how it brought so many people together. That was when I realized that this is the reason why we make music. To share it with the world and for them to do the same. It wasn’t all about winning. It was all about the music that we create together, and bringing people from all parts of the world together to share it with one another.

Coming Soon

On November 9 and 11, Portland State Chamber Choir along with the Rose and Thorn Choirs (formally known as Vox Femina and Man Choir) are performing at Portland’s First United Methodist Church. This concert, named Gender Bender, features the world premiere of a new work by composer Gerald Gurss, conductor of the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus.

Aaron Richardson is a recent graduate of Portland State University in Music Theory and a former singer in the Portland State Chamber Choir. 

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