Rejoice greatly: The holiday season of singing has arrived

Oregon Chorale’s ambitious array; caroling with Oregon Repertory Singers and Jonas Nordwall; a variety of Messiahs with Rogue Valley Chorale, Vancouver Master Chorale, Portland Baroque Orchestra, PSU Chamber Choir with the Oregon Symphony

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Choirs all around the state are singing together again, and they are thankful. The concert themes of resilience, perseverance, remembrance and promise have paved the way for light renewed, songs of winter, glory and the spirit of Christmas. The holiday season of singing has arrived. Rejoice greatly.

While popular Portland venues ring with song in the next three weekends, choirs in almost every valley along the I5 corridor are mounting their post-shutdown debuts. 

Representing the Tualatin Valley, the Oregon Chorale is offering an ambitious array of holiday arrangements, some of which were previewed recently when the choir participated in Hillsboro’s tree lighting ceremony in Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza.

You can hear their entire program on Dec. 5, at 3 pm at Christ United Methodist Church of Cedar Mill. Special guest choir Synergy Advanced Vocal Ensemble from the Beaverton Arts and Communication Magnet Academy will appear with director Lauren Craig. 

In their 36th year as a Hillsboro/Washington County choral fixture, the Chorale–conducted by Artistic Director Jason Sabino–offers English, German and American holiday songs; a Filipino Christmas carol, Himig Pasko (Christmas Melody); and an arrangement of Abreme la Puerta (Open the Door to Me) by Cristian Grasas. Ticket and attendance details here.

This concert does not conclude the Chorale’s holiday singing, however. They will appear twice with the Oregon Symphony: on Dec. 8 for “Comfort and Joy: A Classical Christmas,” conducted by Raúl Gómez-Rojas, and again on Monday, Dec. 13 as background theater choir for Frank Kapra’s It’s A Wonderful Life.

Come unto the city

Oregon Repertory Singers take to the stage for the third time this fall: they partnered with the Oregon Symphony in the Mahler “Resurrection,” then opened their own 2021-2022 season with “Promise of Living.” On Dec. 5, 11 and 12, ORS proclaims the “Glory of Christmas,” lifting up their voices with strength for carol arrangements new and old.

Local composers Stacey Philipps (read Bennett Campbell Ferguson’s profile here) and Naomi LaViolette offer contemporary holiday arrangements, but LaViolette will relinquish her usual ORS accompanist role to a Portland legend whose talents will radiate in a Christmas masterwork.

Organist Jonas Nordwall joins ORS in a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 1912 Fantasia on Christmas Carols. Nordwall is a native of Portland who has served as organist at First United Methodist Church for 50 years. His role in the history of music making in Portland is not trivial. His early talent on the organ blossomed into an international reputation in sacred, stage and theatrical performance. Recordings, international competitions, television and radio broadcasts took him around the world, yet he didst not leave. He chose to remain at his church home, the venue for this concert.

Sponsor

This version of Fantasia, for organ, cello, baritone soloist and choir, was arranged by Vaughan Williams himself. He originally scored the instrumental parts for full orchestra, revised them for strings and organ and then once more in the version you will hear. To perform the luscious cello role, Ethan Sperry–Artistic Director of ORS–has turned to his Portland State colleague, Hamilton Cheifetz. An opportunity to hear Cheifetz is always a treat. Baritone soloist is choir member Jimmy Wilcox.

Vaughn-Williams (1872-1958), child of a vicar, identified in his adulthood as agnostic with an affinity for the beauty of the bible, English folk song and Christmas carols. He believed more in the transcendent power of music than of religion. On the surface, the Fantasia on Christmas Carols is an interpretation of three carols but when you listen between and within it is a medley of many more carols, some only in bits, strewn about like the remains of wrapping and ribbon on Christmas morning. 

To further capture that image you might enjoy watching Jonas Nordwall at the Wurlitzer organ in the Organ Gringer Pizzeria (1971-1996) performing a medley of Christmas songs. The Portland Wurlitzer was, in 1988, the largest Wurlitzer pipe organ in the world. This mesmerizing performance shows the virtuosic talent and theatrical side of Nordwall’s long career. Congratulations, Jonas, on your 50-year anniversary. 

The venue for these ORS concerts is First United Methodist Church in Portland, Dec. 5 (7 pm), 11 (2 pm  and 5 pm) and 12 (2 pm).

Oregon Chorale and Oregon Repertory Singers’ concerts require proof of vaccination with ID. Performers and audience will be masked throughout.

Where’s Handel

If you have been hankering for a Handel Messiah performance, the December choral calendar tellest good tidings. Vancouver to Portland to Medford, Hallelujahs will ring out.

Rogue Valley Chorale presents “Christmas Messiah” (the first approximately 20 movements plus Hallelujah Chorus) on stage at Medford’s Criterian Theater. They proclaim ”a dramatic presentation featuring the Jefferson Baroque Orchestra playing on period instruments” (website). This choir has been a stalwart artist presence in Medford for 48 years, 40 of those with conductor Lynn Sjoland on the podium. Current Artistic Director Michael Morris conducts the three performances, Dec. 4 (7:30 pm) and Dec. 5 (3 and 7 pm). Consult the website for tickets and health safety protocols.

On the second weekend in December they that dwell in (and around) Vancouver, Washington will delight in the return of the Vancouver Master Chorale for a “soul-stirring, roof raising” (website) performance of Messiah, as well as seasonal songs. Jana Christianson Hart directs the singers and orchestra at First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Dec. 11, 7 pm and Dec. 12, 3 pm.

You might be wondering where the traditional Portland Baroque Orchestra Messiah performance falls in the December schedule. Um, it’s not there. No, wait, it’s okay. Dissipate all fear! 

Portland Baroque Orchestra will perform Handel’s Messiah–on April 1-3, 2022. And they appeareth with Cappella Romana. Behold!– the world comes historically ‘round right. The first Messiah performance was in Dublin on April 13, 1742; the scheduling was purposeful as the largest of the three sections of the work is the Lent/Easter story. On a commission from Dublin’s Lord Lieutenant and with the libretto by Charles Jennens in hand, Handel composed the entire work within four weeks in the late summer of 1741.

The complexity of the music astounds and inspires Portland State University sophomore Xavier Davidson. Davidson is a music education major and member of the PSU Chamber Choir, which is performing the Handel masterwork with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra on Dec. 4, 5 and 6. This will be his first Messiah performance.

“It’s really difficult,” Davidson remarked with giddy delight. He appreciates the good amount of time the Chamber Choir has had to “bring the work to mastery.” 

Soprano Shayla Bailey agrees with Davidson. The Chamber Choir president, majoring in Sonic Arts and Music Production, first sang the Messiah at age 17 in a DCINY Carnegie Hall experience. In her four years in the Chamber Choir she has performed in several Oregon Symphony performances. At times, as in the early fall Mahler “Resurrection” partnership with OSO, prep time is short. But studying the Messiah in depth is part of the choral curriculum this quarter and Bailey feels it has allowed the choir to “live in the music.” 

Rebecca Parsons, an alto pursuing her Masters Degree in Choral Conducting, conducts PSU’s Rose Choir. She sang her first Messiah in Edmonton, closer to her Canada home. Parsons remarked upon the “amazing first experience” with OSO conductor David Danzmayr on the Mahler. It is a profound switch in style – romantic to baroque – but if Danzmayr’s OSO Bach debut, Concerto for Oboe and Violin, is an indication, Handel’s music will arise, shine and dance off the page.

PSU alto Rebecca Parsons. Photo by Daryl Browne.
PSU alto Rebecca Parsons. Photo by Daryl Browne.

PSU Chamber Choir director Ethan Sperry is specifically charged with the important job of shaping the Messiah to Danzmayr’s interpretation. More importantly however – the real story – is the valuable experiences Sperry brings to his PSU students by nurturing artistic affiliations in Portland’s music-rich community. They have lived in the music of Handel and it’s in their repertoire and hearts forever and ever (amen).

Portland State Chamber Choir and the Oregon Symphony perform Handel’s Messiah on Dec. 4 (7:30 pm), 5 (2 pm) and 6 (7:30 pm) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Consult the OSO website for tickets and more information. Proof of vaccination/with ID and masks are required.

How in the world can you keep track of these and more upcoming choral performance dates, times, locations? Comfort ye: the PDX choral calendar, created and maintained by Tom Hard, is so easy to access and it provides all of the information and links to information you need to plan your Portland, Vancouver and Salem choir-hopping. Take a look at a screen shot from this wonderful community-service site: 

The almighty PDX Choral Calendar.
The almighty PDX Choral Calendar.

Let’s let the music sing us off. The London-based Royal Choral Society will soon celebrate their 150th anniversary. Their first performance, May 1872 – crikey – in Royal Albert Hall was conducted by Charles Gounod and included the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah by England’s non-native son George Frideric Handel. Here is the RCS in a 2012 Albert Hall Performance.

Connections

Food (no not turkey): Hanukkah Latkes

It’s about the schmaltz. The home of PSU/ORS conductor Ethan Sperry and his wife Siri Hoogen is latke central during Hanukkah. For Sperry and Hoogen–a psychologist who, Sperry adds, also holds several Oregon state records in powerlifting–schmaltz is the key to their crisp, flavorful potato ‘cakes.’

Schmaltz is rendered chicken or goose fat which, when heated to the proper temperature, will enable a deep brown, crisp crust around a light potato center. For the potato mixture itself, be sure to wring the moisture out of the grated potato and test that the cake binds in your hand before it goes into the schmaltz.

If you don’t have schmaltz, try latkes anyway with your favorite frying oil. Applesauce and sour cream on the side? Joyous Hanukkah! Listen to Hannerot Hallalu (song for the lighting of the candles).

Poetry

Almost one hundred years after the first Messiah performance, Anne Brontë (1820-1849), youngest sister of Charlotte and Emily, wrote about music in her poem “Music on Christmas Morning” –

“It calls us, with an angel’s voice,

To wake, and worship, and rejoice.”

Behold

Handelians, you are correct: “dissipate all fear” is not text from Messiah. It is from another of Handel’s approximately 25 English oratorios, Judas Maccabeus, written five years after Messiah. It’s in a more pure oratorio style in which the soloists propel the story with dialogue.  

But how many of the Messiah references did you catch? Bet you got 100%!

From top down:

  • Rejoice greatly
  • Every valley
  • Come unto the city
  • Lift up your voice (thy voice)
  • He didst not leave
  • Tellest good tidings
  • They that dwell in
  • Appeareth
  • Behold
  • Arise, shine
  • Forever and ever
  • Comfort ye

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

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About the author

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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