The Portland choral director and educator leaves a legacy in sounds and singers
“I first saw him on the stage of Carnegie Hall conducting the Portland State Chamber Choir at the American Choral Directors Association National Conference in 2003. It was so powerful — music written in response to the horrors of the second World War…. Here was a conductor who understood that the choral repertoire went well beyond pretty chords, and could be used to process the harshest tragedies of our time. Here was a conductor that had gotten his singers to buy into this edgiest of music and sing it with 100% conviction. It was inspiring beyond belief.— Portland State University choral studies director Ethan Sperry on his predecessor, Bruce Browne.
The past few weeks of this dreadful year have brought sad news of significant losses in Oregon’s music scene. The one that felt closest to home was last week’s passing of Browne, who contributed many reviews of Oregon choral and vocal music to ArtsWatch, giving our readers choral music coverage unmatched anywhere else in the United States. That’s only appropriate, as Portland in particular is internationally renowned for its fertile choral music scene — and Bruce Browne deserves much of the credit for its richness.
Born in 1941 in California, Browne achieved his greatest professional success in Portland. Longtime choral music fans will fondly recall his tenures directing the Portland Symphonic Choir (1979-2002) and Portland’s first professional choir, Choral Cross Ties, which he founded. Their performances and recordings earned deserved acclaim. And though he conducted and admired the classics, which he understood down to the last detail, Browne garnered even more plaudits for championing the work of contemporary choral composers, including Oregon native son Morten Lauridsen and Estonia’s Veljo Tormis.
Nurturing the Next Generations
Maybe that contemporary orientation came from his extensive experience with emerging singers. For all his success as a conductor, Browne was proudest of his work as an educator, and that’s where his considerable legacy will likely longest endure. As the longtime director of choral studies at Portland State University from 1978-2006, Browne helped nurture several generations of Oregon’s finest singers. If you’ve heard live choral music in Oregon, there’s a good chance some of those sounds emanated from Browne’s proteges.
Dr. Browne was a bear of a man. Tall, stout, larger than life. His voice boomed. He had a wicked sense of humor and a demanding work ethic and ethos. He scared the crap out of me, but in that way that the best teachers do: you knew he could see you were capable of more and he was going to hold you to it. Beneath the sometimes gruff exterior, however, was the heart and soul of a true educator. He loved his students – he made that known – and wanted them to achieve their potential. He taught me what excellence was.Portland singer and actor Isaac Lamb, a student of Browne’s, on Facebook.
Browne received many awards for his contributions to choral music, including most recently the Oregon American Choral Directors Association Choral Hall of Fame award.
Browne’s devotion to education continued even after his retirement from PSU. Alarmed at Oregon’s deplorable declining support for music education, he did more than complain: in 2012, he started a program called Choro in Schola to elevate the level of singing in public schools, taught mostly by his former students — and sometimes their students, for Browne helped produce not just singers, but also teachers.
I sang in his choir for 4 years with rehearsals 3 times a week. He did not miss (or was even late to) ONE rehearsal. No sick days. No car troubles. No emergencies. No excuses. By his example, we learned dedication. Through his leadership, we learned about work ethic. He taught us how to be excellent by never settling for mediocrity. He caused us to set our sights higher by keeping the bar just above what we thought we could attain. He aroused a musical passion by being passionate. He tuned our ears by being a microscopic listener. He broadened our world by taking us into it. (Germany, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, NYC/Carnegie Hall, Canada, ACDA national, OMEA state, and more…)
He caused our minds to think more deeply by never settling for the surface. He taught us how to conduct by making conducting an art form. He brought music to life, and exemplified continually that it is so much more than black dots on a page. He pushed himself to explore genres that were outside the traditional scope, especially then. He was not afraid to step out of the boat of the Euro-centric choral world and take us sailing into waters of world music, too amazing to stay unexplored.
He never stopped learning or listening or growing. May we all learn from his example. Thank you, Dr. Browne.Erstwhile Browne student and now choir teacher Angela Hjertstedt, on a Facebook page created to celebrate Browne’s life and work.
I watched him teach some of those CiS classes, and even got to experience his teaching myself a couple times when he subbed for the regular instructors in the PSU Community Choir when I sang in it. I marveled at his still-keen ears, able to pick out even a subtle slip amid a sea of voices. And as a long-time teacher myself, I also appreciated his equally sharp judgment about which of many possible corrections he chose to work on. He knew how to evaluate his students so as to strike that fine balance between giving them enough to improve and challenge them, while not overwhelming, intimidating or undermining them. His affection for the music, and the singers, always shone through even the most detailed critiques.
Browne’s other generous late career work, for ArtsWatch (which he contributed gratis) is also part of his educational legacy — extended beyond campus to the entire Oregon choral community. His reviews, sometimes written in collaboration with his wife, Daryl Browne, were often enthusiastic. But they never shied from honest criticism, and always contained constructive advice for singers, conductors and presenters, all gleaned from his decades of experience on both sides of the stage. Though he specialized in developing singers, in those writings, he always put the audience experience foremost.
Although choral music was his jam, Bruce enjoyed a wide range of music, even reviewing a couple of Oregon Symphony concerts for us. He himself had sung tenor roles in musicals and operettas, and his love for them came through in his appraisals. Working with Bruce was one of the real highlights of my decades as an editor. I’ll miss him, and Oregon music will miss his valuable insights, but his generosity and wisdom will continue to resonate — in his writings, lessons and recordings, and in the voices of the many students and choristers he made sound more beautiful and more powerful together than they could have imagined.
Sperry posted a recording (below) of Browne’s beloved PSU Chamber Choir singing the last movement of music by Tormis’s Autumn Landscapes, under Browne’s guest direction during Sperry’s first year at PSU. Sperry wrote: “It is called Heather. In Estonia, as Fall turns to Winter, and all the plants are dying, that is when the Heather flower blooms in fields of bright purple ‘flaring the planet aflame.’ May we all burn as brightly as Bruce. He was a titan in our field, and I am honored to live in the professional house that he built.”
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