One night in 1999, Ethan Sperry heard five minutes of music that changed his life. At choral music’s biggest annual event, the American Choral Directors Association conference, the 28-year-old choral director was transfixed by Minnesota’s famed St. Olaf Choir’s performance of Eric Whitacre’s Water Night, a setting of a poem by Nobel Prize winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz.
“It changed my life and the life of all the thousands of choir directors at that conference,” recalled Sperry, who has directed Portland State University’s choral programs for the past decade. “We were all talking about it. Here was a new language in writing for choir, and a new way of setting poetry. Not only was there a new voice in choral music, but also somebody bringing new secular poetry into the realm of choral music,” which typically relied on Latin or other dead poets’ texts. Sperry, only a year younger than the then little-known Nevada-born composer, heard “something extremely profound about what he was doing at a young age,” he said. “It was the first time I’d been moved so much by music written by someone my own age.”
He wasn’t the only one. Since that watershed moment two decades ago, Whitacre has become one of the world’s most popular and most performed composers—of any kind, not just choral music. More than that, he’s become choral music’s first rock star, his long blond tresses (he’s signed with a major London modeling agency) gracing TED Talks and YouTube videos, young fans lining up to hear his many talks and presentations around the world.
He has his own record label, his own eponymous professional chorus, prestigious awards and commissions (including a Grammy) and collaborations with everyone from the London Symphony Orchestra to America’s most famous choir, Chanticleer, to film composer Hans Zimmer to pop star Annie Lennox, and is composer in residence with one of America’s finest vocal ensembles, the Los Angeles Master Chorale. He’s even joined the stars at NASA, with his Deep Field project combining music with astral images from the Hubble Space Telescope.
On March 1, Sperry brings Whitacre to Portland State’s new Viking Pavilion for a massive concert of his music. The composer will conduct PSU’s Chamber Choir, women’s Rose Choir and men’s Thorn Choir, and Wind Symphony in some of his new works. In the second half Whitacre will conduct a 500-voice choir comprising the combined PSU Choirs along with 350 high school singers from the best high school choir programs in the greater Portland metro area, plus the wind symphony. The culmination of a three-day Whitacre residency with the choristers, it’s one of the biggest local choral music events in recent memory.
From rock band to choir
Whitacre’s belief in choral music ignited when the college synth-band pop singer—who admired Depeche Mode, didn’t read music till he was 18, and joined his university choir in part to meet sopranos—sang in Mozart’s mighty Requiem, which so moved him that he shortly began composing his own choral works. That led to a master’s degree at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School and, two years after graduating, to the transformative ACDA concert.
Sperry praises the “joy and innocence and naïveté” of Whitacre’s music, as well as the composer’s ability to match music to words on a micro-level. “In some of his texts, he literally sets every word perfectly.” Whitacre’s style has become extremely influential in younger generations of choral composers who’ve followed.
Yet his music’s popularity is surprising at first blush because it generally lacks hooky tunes. “He writes chord progressions that stick with you like a melody does,” Sperry explained, “but you can’t go home and hum them.” Nor are his songs generally fast and poppy. Instead, many radiate a soothing warmth that draws many listeners, including non-“classical” fans. “You can just luxuriate in the chords,” Sperry said.
That includes singers, who need “the ability to sing with beauty and control,” rather than operatic belting. “It’s so satisfying to be in the midst of those harmonies,” Sperry said.
Not everyone is a fan. “While his music is aesthetically beautiful on the surface,” said a New York-based chorus director quoted in a recent Los Angeles Times story, “it has all the depth of a Hallmark greeting card.” Others lament what they consider Whitacre’s—and other composers who’ve followed—overemphasis on soothing harmonies at the expense of rhythmic or polyphonic interest. Not all his music fits the stereotype; I found plenty of melodic and rhythmic stimulation when singing his 1996 Five Hebrew Love Songs, for example. You can judge for yourself by streaming any of his recordings on Whitacre’s website.
Whatever your opinion about his compositions, any fan of choral music will find plenty to admire in his Whitacre’s promotion of it. “He really believes in the art form,” Sperry said, “and champions it in programs like his Virtual Choir project,” in which thousands of singers from dozens of nations uploaded to YouTube videos of themselves singing the parts to Whitacre’s music, with the composer arranging and conducting the final result.
Sperry also praises Whitacre’s contribution to expanding the canon of American choral music for unaccompanied professional choirs, noting that most choral repertoire comes from the Renaissance, as choral-orchestral music increasingly dominated from the Baroque era through the 19th century.
Whitacre’s advocacy stems from his deep belief in the value of singing—especially singing together. “One in every 11 people in America sings in some kind of choir,” he said, referring to a recent study. “It’s as close to a fundamental human art form as we have. Since the dawn of recorded history, we’ve been singing, using our bodies as an instrument. In a modern world where there are very few opportunities for a genuine ecstatic experience, which is what you have when people sing together, [choral singing] gives people a spiritual uplift that they don’t get in so many parts of their lives.“
The magic extends beyond singers to listeners. “There’s something transcendent about the sound of the human voice,” Whitaker mused. “I was listening to an Ella Fitzgerald album last night. There’s no instrument on earth that can communicate so much emotional information as the human voice. You hear Ella in the studio that night, the road she’s traveled, the history of where she lived … it’s all embedded in there somehow. When you come together with massed voices it seems to connect with our minds and spirit. When listening to people singing there’s a sense of this deep, deep visceral connection.”
The PSU concert will include Whitacre’s biggest hits, including the lively Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, Sleep, and, yes, Water Night. It also features selections from his latest big piece, The Sacred Veil, which sets words by Whitacre’s longtime friend and collaborator, Charles Anthony Silvestri, whose wife, Julie, died of cancer at age 36 in 2005, leaving two young children. It premiered in Los Angeles last year and will be released on CD later this year.
Whitacre sees an evolution in his recent music. “My aesthetic these days is to say as much as possible with the fewest number of notes,” he explained. “I’d like to think that I’m trimming more fat off the bone.” With a sister living in Corvallis and an uncle in Portland, Whitacre is a frequent visitor. “I love the people, the city, the nature—it’s a joy for me.”
PSU Chamber Choir will also sing a few of their favorites, including a piece from their new CD featuring music by Ēriks Ešenvalds. Scheduled for release March 12 on the Naxos label, it’s a follow up to their award winning 2017 recording of works by the renowned young Latvian composer.
Sperry sounds surprisingly enthusiastic about singing in a basketball arena, which the chamber choir tested out when singing at the inauguration of PSU’s previous president. “The new Viking Pavilion has the most insane acoustics,” he said. “It’s like you’re singing in the largest shower that’s ever been created. We’re not even using any amplification.”
Eric Whitacre Storms Portland
Sunday, March 1 | 4:00 – 6:00 PM
PSU Viking Pavilion
$25 and up
A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/OregonLive.
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