Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon

Sweet music in the air

Oregon choirs amass in Spokane for Northwestern American Choral Directors Association.

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There is choral music in the air above the Northwestern US right now. Winds aloft are heavy with song, with speeds clocked at a steady allegro non troppo. Skies are clear but there seems to be a bit of high pressure building right over Spokane, Washington. Not to worry, it’s just the voices of hundreds of conductors, educators and performers who have converged on Washington’s second largest city to celebrate the art of choral music.

The Northwestern American Choral Directors Association is holding its bi-annual conference in Spokane, March 9-12. Two years ago, there was more than March’s mercurial weather in Spokane to worry about–there was covid. The conference was held, but shut down early; some performing groups zipped in and out, and many canceled only days prior.

But here we are in March 2022 and the winds have changed: choirs are singing in person again with, according to the conference title theme, “Hearts All Whole.”

ACDA is a national organization of choral minded people – educators, composers, students, sacred service and community choir conductors. All who participate in and enjoy choral music are welcome. And when these folks get together by state, region or nationally–well, how can they keep from singing?

This year, winding their way toward Spokane are eight choirs from Oregon and Southwest Washington representing six out of 13 choral categories. They applied; they were chosen. Since they received their invitations early last summer, the singers and conductors have been celebrating, imagining and preparing for this appearance and whether it’s their fourth or first appearance at an ACDA conference, it’s a moment. 

For Scott Tuomi, Director of Choral Activities at Pacific University in Forest Grove OR, the invitation to perform at NWACDA is a validation of the choral program Pacific University offers its choral, vocal performance and education students, a program he has nurtured in his 31 years at the University. His Pacific students feel it.

“We know this is an honor” said Pacific MAT candidate Devon Garber, adding Tuomi’s enthusiasm is “infectious.” Garber’s favorite pieces on the program are Desmond Earley’s “Maid of Culmore” and “A Jubilant Day” by Portland composer Judy Rose. Carter Burenheide, senior tenor and Music Therapy student, looks forward to the collaboration and student exchanges at the conference; sophomore alto Jey Anderson is excited about the variety of music they will hear, such as on the concert by international guests St. Mary’s Varsity Ensemble from Tokyo, Japan.

Pacific Student Ian Imamura. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Pacific Student Ian Imamura. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Conference attendees will hear Pacific’s performance of “He Wahine Holo Lio” conducted by music education major Ian Imamura. But pride of place in Tuomi’s heart is the honor of conducting “The Rose that Bare Jesu” composed by the recipient of the National ACDA 2021 Raymond Brock Memorial Student Composition Award. That composer is Tuomi and wife Leslie’s son Duncan. Yeah, y’all, how cool is that! Duncan Tuomi is pursuing his Master’s Degree and studying composition at USC. 

Scott Tuomi has been a stalwart Oregon ACDA President during the past two covid years according to Karen Bohart, successor to that office as of this July and director of the choirs at Franklin High School in Portland. Another Willamette Valley choral educator, Danielle Warner of George Fox University in Newberg, has been elected to succeed Bohart in 2024. Teachers like these three, who volunteer their time to ACDA out of love and dedication to choral music, have kept ACDA moving forward for over fifty years. 

Choosing the music

You might be wondering, as you notice what a close-knit family these ACDAer’s are, how the performance selection process works. With just about everybody knowing everybody else how can choosing the performing groups be objective? In brief, here’s how it works: choirs submit mp3 audio examples of performances from the previous three years. These are compiled by category (youth, jazz, community, etc.) stripped of identifiers – made anonymous – and forwarded to selection committee members who spend hours (brava tutti) listening and selecting. 

For a laugh, ask someone like choral conductor/educator Rodney Eichenberger about the days when cassettes tapes and video cassettes were sent through US mail. (For those unfamiliar with the term “cassette tape,” here’s some history). Eichenberger served as President of NWACDA in the first years that ACDA became an independent organization, and has never missed his regional or national convention since that time. Will he be in attendance in Spokane? Of course he will.

So will the Portland State University Chamber Choir who has been honored to sing for numerous Northwestern and National ACDA audiences in the past four decades. Director of Choral Activities Ethan Sperry conducted the choir on the first conference Concert Session, Wednesday March 9. 

The PSU concert program is student centered; one half of the program is program pieces composed by PSU current student or alumni: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” set to music by Cleveland High grad and current PSU sophomore composition major, Henry Alexander; Chamber Choir alum Ara Lee’s “Aho”, arranged by Ethan Sperry; and “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor” arranged by Justin Miller, current PSU MM conducting student.

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PSU will also perform “And the Swallow” by Caroline Shaw and “Second Antiphon” (Blessed is the Kingdom) from Benedict Sheehan’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Portland-ears will recall that Cappella Romana performed the remarkable Sheehan liturgy this past December.

For Sperry, performing for colleagues and other choral professionals is a special moment made even more so when one of those colleagues is a former teacher, like composer Morten Lauridsen. Lauridsen–native of Beaverton, Oregon and National Medal of Arts recipient–is Headliner at this year’s NWACDA.

Two of Lauridsen’s pieces will bookend the conference. “Lux Aeterna”, sung by a collegiate mass-choir, including University of Portland students, and “Sure on this Shining Night” at the conference-closing “All Conference Sing.”

Linn-Benton Community College Concert Choir grounds their program, “Yearning To Be…” with 12th century chant by Hildegard von Bingen. The choir and Director of Choral Studies Raymund Ocampo then present modern works by Reena Esmail, Saunder Choi and Jocelyn Hagen which tell of yearning to be, free and united. With original text and music by Joel Thompson in “Draw Us Near” and a contemporary text in Kyle Pederson’s arrangement of the gospel song “Soon We Will Be Done” the choir yearns for peace. Ali Jones, collaborative pianist and LBCC faculty member, rocks on the Pederson piece. 

Raymund Ocampo. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Raymund Ocampo. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Inform and educate

Dean of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities Meg Roland is proud that Linn-Benton Chamber Choir stands among the highest quality choirs in the region. This NWACDA recognition of the music program comes as LBCC continues to expand their music education program and applies for NASM accreditation. 

In a recent post-rehearsal conversation with choir leaders Brogan Solaris, Kadyn Cutting, Grace Bender, Charlie De Rese and Joshua Wibbens, Ocampo listened as his students talked about their choir. Their prevailing attitude about this performance and any new choral experience seems to be “bring it on.” They love to share their singing – with the community, in exchanges with other college choirs, and in national and international touring. They and Ocampo love to learn more about their choral art by welcoming choral luminaries to the LBCC campus. These students leave Linn-Benton with a rich choral experience, ready for their next adventure in music.

Incoming Oregon ACDA President Bohart is encouraged by the ongoing efforts in Oregon to broaden “choral music and choral singing to all people” like Pacific University sophomore Noah Yamashiro who started getting interested in singing in 5th grade and who now “couldn’t imagine life without music.” 

The Pacific Youth Choir family of choirs is where many a 5th grader gets their start at singing. PYC founder and Artistic Director Mia Miller has nurtured PYC singers since 1989, taking them on numerous tours and preparing them to perform choral/orchestral masterworks with the Oregon Symphony. PYC offers 8 choirs, ages 5-19. It is the 59 singers of Pacific SATB High School Choir that are appearing at NWACDA. This will be a bittersweet ACDA experience for Miller–at the end of this concert year she will be leaving the role of Artistic Director to become Director Emeritus. Her service to young singers in our region deserves applause.

Pacific Youth Chorale. Photo courtesy of ACDA Conference website.
Pacific Youth Choir. Photo courtesy of ACDA Conference website.

NWACDA Discovery and Interests Sessions inform and educate, embrace the new and innovative spirit. Mountain View High School Choir from Vancouver, Washington, will be featured in a Discovery session “Ditch Your Auditions!” presented by their conductor Jenny Bell. And a 15-20 minute “original composition incorporating movement and voice” will be presented by Portland’s Yelling Choir.

Yelling Choir’s bio states they are “a femme and nonbinary performance group that reimagines voice, presence, gender and power.” Conductor and founder Maxx Katz and the singers “use social interaction, breath, voice and movement to help regulate as well as express emotions” (NWACDA bio). Into what neat little NWACDA category does Yelling Choir of Portland fit? They don’t and shouldn’t have to and we don’t need to jam anything into place trying to make it so. NWACDA invites these passionate performers to come near and tell – or yell – their own story, their way.

Bringing the conference to a close will be Vancouver WA choir Chor Anno and Portland’s Resonance Ensemble.

Chor Anno breaks with its moniker’s meaning to sing for the second time this season. Since most of the singers are choral music professionals from Washington and Oregon, they will–with Artistic Director Nicole Lamartine and Emeritus founding director Howard Meharg–regroup and refresh some pieces from the program Portland/Vancouver audiences were fortunate to hear this past September. One half of their program is Jake Runestad’s “A Silence Haunts Me,” based on Beethoven’s 1802 “Heiligenstadt Testament.” 

Resonance Ensemble conductor Katherine FitzGibbon and Chilean-born Latin Literature Professor and composer Freddy Vilches are collaborating with two other NW choirs and Matices Latin Ensemble to present “Abya Yala Choral Suite.” Resonance premiered Vilches’ composition in Portland last weekend, but now Spokane Kantorei Choir and Seattle Pro-Musica–Artistic Director Karen P. Thomas–will join in, adding more volume to Vilches’ “attempt to vindicate historically discriminated languages and communities throughout Abya Yala” (from NWACDA program notes).

We are the champions

NWACDA doesn’t crown champions among their performance invitees; it’s a place where choral music folks come to learn, to share, to “steal” ideas to use with their own choirs. It’s a celebration that leads forward. 

Margarita Arredondo, Pacific University senior alto and music ed major, shared her thoughts. “We’ll show what we can do as a choir. Growing as a choir is about learning through and beyond the performance.” 

We’re plenty proud of these choirs from Oregon and Southwest Washington. But let’s give a salute to all of the Northwestern region choral groups who also received invitations to perform at this conference. They are from Great Falls and Missoula, Montana; Vallivue, Nampa and Boise, Idaho; and Tacoma, Seattle, Spokane and Lynnwood, Washington. 

Unlike other professional conferences NWACDA opens its concert sessions to the public. (But then who would want to slip into the American Dental Association’s “SmileCon” for a demonstration on root canals? Ewww.) Choral concerts are way more fun. Each concert session features three 25-minute performances by outstanding choirs. Tickets and conference overview (link here) are $15 per session. Tell your Spokane friends. 

And in two years, the choral high-pressure system might blow ye winds toward Boise, Eugene, Cheyenne, Missoula, Seattle, Anchorage, Portland…whoosh….so much good choral music yet to be.

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History

Here’s a photo from 1969 from one of the first multi-state choral events under the ACDA umbrella – Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and, the host state, Montana. In the front, left to right: Dan Nelson, Montana State Event CoChoir; Jean Berger, composer and guest clinician; Harold Decker, Choral Conductor and ACDA Charter Member; and a young guy who would someday land in Portland, Oregon–Montana State Event CoChair Bruce Browne.

ACDA Montana five-state choral workshop 1969. Photo from Browne Family archives.
ACDA Montana five-state choral workshop 1969. Photo from Browne Family archives.

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

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