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Sing on: Choral seasons climax into summertime

Oregon choirs end their first full season in three years with Bach, Ešenvalds, Nancy Ives, Stacey Philipps, Judy Rose, and so much more.

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Leondra Bracket. Watercolor painting and ink on paper, 4 ½ x 24 inches.
Leondra Brackett, “Mountain-Sky Convergence 11.” Watercolor painting and ink on paper, 4 ½ x 24 inches.

June! How did it get to be June already? Rose Festival! Sandals! Rhododendrons! Graduations. Hiking. Mountains. Didn’t those April showers just end yesterday? Yes, June signals the conclusion of the “official” choral season. Signals–we’re not there yet! There are several wonderful concerts still to come. It’s going to be a big choral summer send off. 

Bach beckons in Portland. The Bach Cantata Choir is finishing its season with a special concert in a special location. “Sara Levy’s Musical Salon” will be presented on June 4th at the German American Society. How nice, but who is Sara Levy? This is a Bach concert, right? What’s levy got to do with it? (Thank you and “ruht wohl” Tina Turner). 

In the century after his death in 1750, the music of J. S. Bach was not readily performed–and if it was, it was “modernized.” There was no intent to be “historically informed” about the music of the “older” composers. Sara Levy was a talented musician, she was wealthy, she was Jewish and she was uniquely positioned to reintroduce Bach’s “old” music to Berlin culture. She studied with Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, J. S.’s oldest son, and her great-nephew was Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Mendelssohn, although modernizing a good deal of Bach’s music himself, would go on to champion a public revival of Bach’s music, using originals which were part of Levy’s vast collection of Prussian music. Music not heard for almost a century was revived. Rutger scholar and professor Rebecca Cypress writes, in an essay about her book Sara Levy’s Salon:

Seemingly in response to the accusation that Jews were inherently unmusical, Levy partook of German music and made it part of her own experience.

(Read the entire essay here).

Step into Levy’s salon and experience choral music that would have been performed there, with a dramatic portrayal of Levy by Emma Riggle. And yes, there is J. S. Bach on this concert: Brandenburg Concerto #5. It is paired with music of W. F. Bach, Mendelssohn, Lotti and Telemann. Sara Levy would have enjoyed this concert. 

Bach Cantata Choir season closing concert is Sun., June 4 at 2 pm at the German American Society. This concert is free. 

A Bach revival is also underway at Portland’s St. James Lutheran Church. Colin Stave, Director of Music Ministries, reports that June 11 will be the restart of the Bach Cantata Vesper tradition. Cantata 112 “Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt” (The Lord Is My Faithful Shepherd) with instrumentalists Matthew O’Sullivan (organist), Jonah Thomas (oboist), Victoria Racz (cellist) and SATB soloists Vakarė Petroliūnaitė, Sarah Beaty, Les Green and Jacob Herbert and the St. James Choir. The service begins at 5 pm. A free will offering is appreciated and reception will follow.

 The Oregon Chorale makes their first appearance at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts on June 3 and 4. Their season finale is only two works, both by modern Central and Eastern European composers. Secular and sacred, with orchestra and a cappella. Powerful, emotional, passionate and challenging. 

Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, who wrote the Marian Songs (Pienśni Maryjne) sung on this concert, was a Polish composer who journeyed through several style periods. These songs were composed during a prolific period of a cappella choral composition for Górecki, from approximately 1975-1985. It was also a time of political crisis as Poland moved toward anti-communism and creative expression was under martial law. This five-movement a cappella SATB set is unadorned and simply cloked in a modern harmonic language that retains the beauty of folk and religious music of Poland. 

Górecki’s songs are paired with the music of Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. His featured oratorio Passion and Resurrection was composed in 2005 when the composer was 26 years old and a recent graduate of the Latvian Academy of Music. Ešenvalds writes primarily for chorus but he employs unique instrumentation (percussion, electronics, water-tuned glasses, Tibetan bells and “prepared” piano). You’ll hear none of those in this Passion piece but you will encounter a less traditional use of forces: solo soprano, SATB and SSAATTBB choir divisis, SS soli, string orchestra, and a choral quartet positioned somewhere away from the larger choir. If Ešenvalds cooks, just imagine the flavors!

 And that is one way to describe his music. Eclectic and flavorful. Pleasing to the tonal palate, with bursts of chromaticism and modality. And his text for this Passion piece is just as untraditionally varied: Scripture, Byzantine, Protestant and Catholic liturgy and original contemporary text.

Portland State Chamber Choir recorded this work on their Ešenvalds album The Doors of Heaven in 2017; listen to that here:

In recent conversation with OAW, soprano Arwen Myers–soloist in the Passion–compared this role to soprano aria roles in the Bach Passions. “In Bach, the arias express emotion in reaction to the events” she said, continuing to explain that in Bach there is no dialogue between choir and soloist.

In her prominent and intricate role in the Ešenvalds, however, there is commentary and there is dialogue between chorus and solo. It is a tour de force for Myers, who is pleased to be revisiting the role she has performed once before. It’s one that you will want to hear.  (Myers recently spoke with OAW’s James Bash about her life as a sought-after concert performer. You can read that interview here.)

Arwen Myers and Jason Sabino in Oregon Chorale rehearsal. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Arwen Myers and Jason Sabino in Oregon Chorale rehearsal. Photo by Daryl Browne.

The Oregon Chorale presents the music of Górecki and Ešenvalds on Sat., June 3, 7 pm and Sun., June 4 at 3 pm at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts. Tickets here.

Sponsor
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Picnic and performance

How’s this for a pre-summer evening? Bring a blanket, a basket of food and head to the Lewis and Clark College campus. Eat, relax, watch the clouds float by and meet other choral music lovers. Connect with the vibrations of the earth as Nez Perce performers Four Directions offer drumming and dance. Then meander into the Agnes Flanagan Chapel for a Resonance Ensemble concert that honors the earth and offers hope that we can appreciate the wonders which sustain our lives.

In Earth’s Protection, Resonance once again calls upon other artists to embrace their theme. The photography of Joe Cantrell will be featured. Tabla player Shrikant Naware performs. Composer and cellist Nancy Ives’ Celilo Falls illuminates the effects on culture and planet when the Dallas Dam floodgates closed on March 10, 1957 and it took only hours for the Celilo Falls to be silenced. Ives herself and poet Ed Edmo tell that story in this concert (read Angela Allen’s review of last year’s multimedia premiere here).

Guest ensemble Fear No Music partners with the vocal ensemble and with visual artists Cantrell and Deborah Johnson in a multimedia Oregon premiere of Mass for the Endangered by Sarah Kirkland Snider. On her website, the composer states her Mass “appeals for parity, compassion, and protection from a mindset – a malignance or apathy – that threatens to destroy the planet we all are meant to share.” Listen to the “Agnus Dei” from that work here:

This is an arts event – a mini festival – designed to send you into the summer days with renewed appreciation of our environment, our communities, our earth. Food trucks will be available if BYO-ing is not your thing.

Inside or out, this event is free to all on Fri, June 9; picnic begins at 5; concert is at 7:30 in the Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Lewis and Clark College. Register for a seat at the Resonance Ensemble in-door concert here.

Choir hits the high seas 

In Medio finishes their season on the high seas. It’s a program that demonstrates why they are now a recognizable name in the Portland choral scene. Director John Eisemann conducts music which includes Darius Lim’s Dayung Sampan, composed for SSAA. The anchor piece, however, is Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae, which memorializes the cruise ship Estonia disaster in 1994. Text is from radio broadcasts of the tragedy and from Psalm 107. The beginning of the Canticum opens with a haunting solo voice above ghostly whispers. Listen to that here:

The text of a premiere piece by composer and In Medio bass Alex Johnson is taken from James Joyce’s Künstlerroman Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce’s “The Sea-bird” oozes with sensuality, the mental wanderings of a young man momentarily lost in a new awareness of physical beauty. How will Johnson set the luscious text? Attend, hear, find out.

Johnson has also arranged a collection of traditional sea shanties for this concert. Could be “Blow the man down” or “Sloop John B.” or “What Can You Do With a Drunken Sailor” or Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony – well maybe not the V-W. Another group has that covered this summer (read on).

Tune in to Portland All Classical’s “Thursdays at 3” June 1 broadcast (today!) on which In Medio is featured. Then, right after that, with your nautical blood already flowing, drop anchor at Steeplejack Brewing in NE Portland. Shanty Night begins at 6 and In Medio will preview their concert again, this time over a cold brew, with a portion of beer profits donated to support this “pay what you will” In Medio program. 

In Medio presents “Sea Change” on Fri., June 9, 7 pm at Augustana Lutheran Church. Reserve your concert seat here.

Voices of the children

A young ORSYC singer waiting to rehearse. Photo by Daryl Browne.

One child she had been shy until choir allowed her to have a voice. Another mentioned how much they enjoyed singing in different languages. Another agreed, saying singing in the native languages of some of their choir mates made them more of a community. One young singer said she loved performing; another shook her head – she did not. A few nodded when someone said “in choir it doesn’t matter when you mess up because someone takes your back.”

Then the pre-rehearsal interview on the cool grass at Portland’s St. Philip Neri came to an abrupt end. The children grabbed for their their music folders and rushed away. Don’t want to miss a moment of the Oregon Repertory Singer Youth Choir rehearsal.

The 5 and 6-year-olds were already rehearsing. They had just been learning to sing from loud to soft, using one finger as the softest and five fingers as, well, let’s not make that sound. But now director Koren Russ, Elementary Director of the ORSYC East and West programs, had developmentally appropriate visuals cues to offer her youngest singers. 

ORSYC Karen Russ and ORSYC youngest singers. Photo by Daryl Browne.
ORSYC Koren Russ and ORSYC youngest singers. Photo by Daryl Browne.

In the St. Phil sanctuary Aubrey Patterson, ORSYC program Artist Director, didn’t use finger cues. Her nuanced conducting and the score markings work just fine for the high-school age singers. They were rehearsing ORS Resident Composer Stacey Philipps’ newest work to be performed on the June 4 concert. In fact, all of the children had been rehearsing that same piece; K-12 will sing together in this piece written especially for them. The varied languages are those spoken in singers’ own homes. The theme of the work–stars and birds–was discussed with the singers as Philipps worked on the concept for the piece. The children see it as a piece just for them from a “real” composer named Stacey that lives in their city. Super cool. 

Philipps’ Like Birds, Like Stars will be sung by approximately 160 children from the three ORSYC regional choirs: Portland Metro East and West and North (Vancouver). And the choirs will perform their own sets. It’s the end of year 29, and the program is reaching out.

The directors met recently to design their continuum of music skills, said Patterson in a recent phone conversation with OAW. They are planning “music literacy with tangible goals.” ORS Youth Choirs are a music program. Choir done like this can be educational but most importantly it’s fun. Just ask the children.

Oregon Repertory Singers Youth Choir concert is Sun., June 4, at 6 pm, First United Methodist Church, Portland. Reserve your “pay what you can” tickets in advance here.

Speaking of ORS, over sixty ORS adult choir members haven’t turned in their music for the summer; they will need it on their upcoming choir tour to Germany. (Pack it in your carry-on!) You can hear their tour program and bid them bon voyage in an ORS pre-tour home concert on Thurs., June 15, 7:30 at PSU’s Lincoln Hall Auditorium. Pay what you can. 

Singing fun in the sun

We simply must give Satori Men’s Chorus the “Sing Your Way to Summer” award. Here’s what their website says: “This is the event that’s full of all that “lazy, hazy, crazy daze of summer” where it’s time to let loose and just go for it!” Elton John, Backstreet Boys, Neil Young and Toto. And if Toto revealed a hole in your background (finger pointing inward) this is your chance to let loose, go to this concert and learn something new. Sit back, enjoy what music can bring: laughter, community and peace. That’s Satori.

Satori Men’s Chorus will sing about “Summer Daze” on Sat., June 10, 7:30 at Unity of Portland Church. Tickets are here.

After Satori brings the “lazy, hazy crazy” another men’s ensemble brings “Disney” with a twist. Portland Gay Men’s Chorus website says they are “reimagining” some of Disney’s beloved songs with added video that is sure to delight. That’s their spirit! You will feel the love on June 24 and 25 at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall. Over 130 singers and a chamber orchestra of Oregon Symphony members–just the bare necessities–will envision a whole new world. Poor unfortunate souls who miss this concert weekend with PGMC will forfeit the chance to “let it go” as Walt Disney never imagined. 

How far will they go, back in time that is? To the “Ballad of Davy Crockett” or “Musketeer March”? Are you having an “Unbirthday” moment? They might have a song for you. (You sang a little there, didn’t you?) Perhaps a little Hakuna and a sprinkle of Matata. Well, you know PGMC–they can step in time, they can fly and, best of all, they can sing. 

A brief note: Mary McCarty is stepping down as Assistant Director (and occasional AD) after 19 years. She will remain with the Portland Lesbian Choir. Thanks, Mary, for your contributions to choral music and the life of the community.

Disney PRIDE is performed on Sat., June 24 at 7 pm and Sun., June 25 at 3, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Tickets here.  

Singing never takes a break

Indeed, June is the time of year for erasing pencil markings in scores and tucking the empty folder into the piano bench (except for ORS, packing it all in their carry-on luggage).  Are we to be bereft of choral music for three months? Ah, there’s your hand frantically waving in the air, ready to answer that there are wonderful summer Oregon choral opportunities this summer. Correct. You pass! But don’t pass on these long-standing summer choral opportunities. 

First, grab your calendar, turn to August and mark out August 4-20 for the Cantores in Ecclesia William Byrd Festival. This is the 400th anniversary of the death of this prolific and influential 16th-century English composer. The entire festival schedule can be viewed here and watch this OAW space for more detail on the numerous choral and instrumental offerings, Byrd and otherwise.

Portland Symphonic Choir’s “Summer Sings,” which they’ve presented for the past 18 years, are wonderful opportunities for enjoying and/or singing some terrific choral music. PSC continues its commitment to “building choral community through learning and singing together,” wrote PSC operations director Claire Robertson-Preis in a recent email, this year expanding to three offerings. All PSC “Sings” are free to you thanks to a Regional Arts & Culture Council grant.

The “Sing” experience works like this: You register online to reserve your seat and music score, say, perhaps the Mozart Requiem. When you get to the “Sing” venue you collect your score, take your seat in your voice section, wait for the downbeat and sing. Or just study the score as others sing and as the guest conductor – Shohei Kobayashi for the Mozart on July 19 at Warner Pacific – provides musical and historical insights about the work. 

On August 2, join local educator and composer Judy Rose as she presents “An Introspection on Black Women in Choral Music”. Help pull the names and music of Black women composers in from the margins at this informative and fun evening at Christ United Methodist Church.

Earlier this year PSC put out a call for new choral works to be presented this summer. Sixteen composers responded and three works were selected. The August 16th “Sing” at Multnomah Arts Center is a premier reading of these works. Have you ever participated in a composer’s first hearing of their work? Here’s your opportunity.

To learn more and to register for Portland Symphonic Choir’s three “Summer Sings” click here. The events are free; PSC will be greatly appreciative of any donations. 

Ah, there’s your hand in the air again. No, we aren’t going to forget the Oregon Bach Festival. Folks the world ‘round know the OBF and have been coming to enjoy the music of Bach (and now so much more) for over 50 years. Fifty years? How can it be 50+ years already?

The concert schedule is packed, beginning with the opening choral/orchestral concert on June 30 in Beall Hall in Eugene. But ears up, choral lovers on the Northern area border: that opening concert comes to Portland the next night, July 1. This concert, sponsored by Chamber Music Northwest, features the music of Telemann, Grauper and Bach’s Cantata 22 and Magnificat in D Major (BWV 243). You can see the OBF Period Musicians and Chamber Chorus and numerous soloists led by Jos van Veldhoven at Kaul Auditorium on Sat., July 1, 8 pm. Learn more about this concert by reading detailed program notes by Elizabeth Schwartz on CMNW website. Tickets to his single CMNW concert can be purchased here.

You will see more of the OBF chorus in the ongoing two weeks of wonderful music, although this might be your only chance to hear them singing the music of Bach. They will be singing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony and Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles under the direction of Craig Hella-Johnson. (Many of you heard this work performed by Oregon Repertory Singers this past October).

If it’s more Bach choral music you desire, two cantatas are offered by the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy. SFYCA will also perform with SFYCA Alumni (welcome back!), the OBF Chorus, U of O Chamber Choir and Pacific Youth Choir in a mega concert celebrating SFYCA’s Silver Anniversary and the anniversary of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Credo. OAW will give special attention to the SFYCA and Dr. Anton Armstrong’s 25th anniversary in the upcoming month. Absolutely gobsmacked by how much there is to see and hear and learn at the Oregon Bach Festival? OAW contributor Tom Manoff will provide detailed coverage and special insights on the entire OBF very soon. 

The complete OBF Schedule can be viewed here. Tickets, package and single, can be purchased here.

So here’s a toast to Choral Season 22-23, the first full season for many choirs in 3 years. There were new choral/orchestral collaborations enabling performances of the classic and the contemporary. And so many brand spankin’ new choral works were premiered this season, a whole bunch by Northwest composers. Composers know that the Pacific Northwest is a nurturing choral environment. It’s you – singers, patrons, volunteers, choir staff, parents, business partners, granting organizations, conductors and composers – and your love of choral music that makes that possible. Sing on.

Connections

If all of this talk of summer sun and adventure has you yearning for places to visit for health and rejuvenation, start at the Multnomah Art Center Gallery to see an exhibit of works by artists Leondra Brackett and Jessica Poundstone. The artwork at the head of this preview is one of Brackett’s works, inspired by her own connection with nature. You can imagine yourself sitting amidst those mountains and lakes. Ah! This free exhibit runs through June 9.

Read more about and view more of both artist’s works and learn about Brackett’s mini books here.

Signing off with that Tina Turner all-time favorite.

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

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