bruce browne

ArtsWatch Weekly: flood & mosaic

A look back, a look ahead: This week, the big news is the Vanport Mosaic Festival

SEVENTY YEARS AGO ON MAY 30 FLOODWATERS SWEPT IN from the Columbia River and burst through a 200-foot section of dike just north of Portland, inundating the city of Vanport, killing 15 people and wiping the city off the face of the Earth. Vanport was Oregon’s second-largest city at the time, with a population of 40,000 at its wartime peak before falling off after the end of World War II.

Henk Pander, “Vanport,” watercolor, 40 x 60 inches, 2018. On view at Cerimon House through Sunday in his Vanport Mosaic exhibition “Artworks of Henk Pander: War Memory, Liberty Ships, Vanport.” It then moves to the White Stag Building May 29-June 12.

Vanport was an “instant city” created primarily to house workers in the Kaiser shipyards and their families. It was for a time the most racially integrated city in the state, with a large African American population and many Asian Americans, too. Many white workers moved out after the war; black workers and their families largely stayed because of exclusionary housing practices in neighborhoods across Portland. The memory of Vanport remains strong in the city’s African American community.


Choro in Schola’s Choral FX: Modeling musical mastery

Value of high school music outreach program transcends music


“More face, more expression, more passion,” Bruce Browne tells the assembled singers of Choro in Schola. They’re at the only full rehearsal of the program they’re going to sing later this October night at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, a few feet away from this practice room. Their audience will consist of young singers from area high schools, who’ll also perform this night, and other choral music fans and family members.

“Exaggerate that note to sound ‘witchier,’” Browne says about a passage from Jaako Mantyjarvi’s “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble,” from Macbeth. “Be more outlandish,” he continues. “You’re witches!”

70 students from 11 different high schools participated in Choro in Schola’s Choral FX program this fall.

Those students have been working all day with these singers and with the renowned choral director Browne and his successor as director of PSU choral programs, Ethan Sperry. One thing they’re learning: how to bring more passion, more emotion to their singing. But they have to do that with clarity, with togetherness, with attention to dozens of details pertaining to dynamics, ensemble, and the rest — yet somehow not losing that passion that takes the music out of the score books and into the audience’s hearts.

“Sopranos, one note keeps going MIA in the second line of the second system on the second page.” They sing it, hear the problem, fix it in a minute.

The CiS singers Browne is working with are used to that focus on detail. Many have worked with him in other choirs or as PSU students when Browne (now a frequent Oregon ArtsWatch contributor) ran the programs there in the 1980s, ‘90s, and early 2000s. They don’t have much time, so as they run through each piece on the program, Browne quickly points out little problems that most choirs would never even notice, or couldn’t fix quickly if they did.

“Tune that chord without the basses.” The sopranos, tenors and altos all sing it until it’s solid. “Now add the basses.” It firms up.

A little softer here, a little louder there. More conversational. Less legato. More passionate. When the sopranos encounter a little problem with some tricky rhythms, he counts it out. The next time, they nail it.

Delight is in the details: musical transformation happens not in a single insight, but in dozens of small decisions like these, hearing problems, and knowing how to fix them. It’s what makes the difference between a merely dutiful performance and a show that really moves an audience.

“Altos, last two notes please.” They sing. There’s a clear disagreement on pitch, and tentativeness. The altos run that section a couple times more and it’s secure. Browne brings in the rest of the choir, and it sounds spot on.

Of course, these singers are all experienced choir performers and teachers, so they can fix the few problems Browne identifies with efficiency and speed. By the end of the half hour rehearsal, it all sounds solid. And passionate.

This is the level the young singers in the next room are trying to reach someday. But the lessons they’re learning, both in this concert and in CiS’s continuing programs in Portland-area schools, transcend singing, choir, even music.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Blue Ribbon Special

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

Summertime, and the feeling is scattered. The rhythm of the season is both relaxed and jagged, irregular, prone to long gaps and sudden leaps. Quick: a day in the mountains, a weekend at the beach, a backyard barbecue before the weather turns and the kids head back to school.

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 1.55.34 PMIn the past week or so I’ve spied a lovely giant wood-carved Bigfoot lurking by the side of the road on the way to Timberline Lodge, which whetted my appetite for funky folk art; and a swayback, smudged-white horse grazing idly beneath a giant Trump for President sign on a farm north of Ellensburg in central Washington, which whetted my appetite for oddball juxtapositions. Both are peculiarities that seem congruent with an August day.

Down in Salem the Oregon State Fair opens on Friday (“Here Comes the Fun!” the promos shout) and I doubt I’ll make it this year, but if I do I’m also pretty sure I’ll find some blissful oddities to contemplate. I note, for instance, that one of the ongoing features is something called Machine Mania, in which “Pistons Rule!” Plus, this year there’ll be a blue ribbon for marijuana crops. The mind boggles.



AUGUST ARTS EVENTS are often quick-and-dirty affairs, too, here and gone again almost before you can blink. A couple of short-term things coming up this week, plus a longer-running show to get on your calendar before it disappears:

"The Reimagining of French Gray by the Displaced Woman." Photo: Chain Reaction Theatre.

“The Reimagining of French Gray by the Displaced Woman.” Photo: Chain Reaction Theatre.

The Re-Imagining of French Gray by the Displaced Woman. The world premiere of Elizabeth Huffman’s reimagining of a 1967 Josef Bush play will run Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Milagro Theatre. A co-production of Huffman’s Chain Reaction Theatre and Cygnet Productions, it’s directed by Cygnet’s Louanne Moldovan and stars Huffman in the dual roles of a wealthy Austrian queen caught in the aftermath of the French Revolution in 1793 and a wealthy Syrian bon vivant caught in an Arab uprising in 2016.


Portland Symphonic Choir: Voice of a City

Venerable choir celebrates its 70th anniversary with reunion concerts.



“We of the [Portland] Symphonic Choir are striving to offer adequate opportunity for participation and at the same time endeavoring to give the finest in training, so that we may rightfully fulfill our responsibility toward a greater development of the choral art in our community.” September, 1945.

C. Robert Zimmerman conducting the Portland Symphonic Choir in November 1956.

C. Robert Zimmerman conducting the Portland Symphonic Choir in November 1956.

This creed, penned 70 years ago, was the footprint for the Portland Symphonic Choir. This vision — blending high standards and wide inclusivity —was the reason that Portland Mayor Earl Riley sanctioned 27-year old C. Robert Zimmerman in founding the choir. It is the reason that KGW radio (same one that broadcasts in Portland today) supported the choir and featured them in broadcasts. The timing was perfect.

It was my privilege to serve as music director for Portland Symphonic Choir from 1979-2001. We performed some of the world’s great choral music with dedicated and talented people. The relationship with the Oregon Symphony under James DePreist was a particular gift for me and for the choir. On October 24 and 25, I’ll be joining the current choir, alumni and former directors to sing and share memories at a pair of concerts celebrating the choir’s 70th anniversary at Portland’s Rose City Methodist Church.


Bruce Browne leads Choro in Schola.

Bruce Browne leads Choro in Schola.


“I want you all to conduct yourselves and see what happens,” Bruce Browne told Gresham’s Centennial High School mixed choir. As the students began moving to the music, Browne suddenly stopped and pointed to a tenor: “This young man right here! He’s got it! Come up front and show them how you’re moving!”

Red-faced but pleased, the tenor demonstrated his fluid hand motions, and as all the students began imitating the natural flow of the phrase, the stodginess of Mendelssohn’s Grant us Peace suddenly lifted to reveal refreshing vibrancy. This fabulous teaching moment captures the musical inspiration that Browne and Choro in Schola provide to Portland-area high school choirs that are struggling to maintain high quality music instruction because of budget cuts to the public school system.


Choral climaxes

In Mulieribus, Resonance Ensemble and PSU Chamber Choir embark on wide-ranging musical explorations

Anna Song led In Mulieribus's singers up the aisle to open the ensemble's May 5 concert.

Anna Song led In Mulieribus’s singers up the aisle to open the ensemble’s May 5 concert.

by Bruce Browne

 “The Spectacular Now” is the provocative title of an upcoming movie. It can also apply to the “now” of the time we are sitting in a concert hall. Last Sunday, it did exactly that for this listener.
I had no misgivings about the experience of hearing In Mulieribus on Sunday, May 5; I know many of the singers to be absolutely first rate, and this ensemble has sung together for a while. But I wondered: would it be too much of a good thing – for example, monochromatic, ancient music?
I was soon relieved of any concerns: the music, although drawn from a relatively narrow period of music, displayed a variety of differences in texture, style, color, and rhythmic activity.
The space, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, is ideal for this type of small group singing. The only deterrent there is the pew I was sitting in: hard as a rock, and unyielding. Not so the singers. They made stimulating use of the space, singing first from the rear, then moving in front, and often changing formations and numbers of singers. And, unlike my pew, they were plastic and malleable.

Sing Awakening: Portland’s flowering choral landscape

The City of Roses is also a city of choruses.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble at Portland's YU Contemporary in March.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble at Portland’s YU Contemporary in March.

Editor’s note: this is the second in ArtsWatch’s spring look at contemporary choral music. See Jeff Winslow’s analysis of today’s choral compositions here.


“There is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and make new ones like them.” – Marcus Aureluis ‘Meditations’

A happy insight came to me indirectly last spring, from an event where hundreds of choral musicians appeared together, representing eight choirs. All Saints Catholic Church was the venue for an outpouring of spiritual and financial support for one of our own, Brian Tierney. Reflecting afterward on the variety of sounds that we had heard, I became aware of the several changes that had come about in six years my family had been gone from Portland. And in that time, Portland had cultivated a new choral landscape. Significant. Dramatic.

There are new faces in front of two of Portland’s heirloom choirs. Oregon Repertory Singers and Choral Arts Ensemble have new directors, Ethan Sperry and David DeLeyser. And these two join a cadre of new, smaller choirs conducted by energetic new talents who have blossomed on the scene: Katherine Fitzgibbon, Resonance Ensemble; Anna Song, In Mulieribus; Patrick McDonough, The Ensemble; and Ryan Heller, Portland Vocal Consort.

These new, downsized groups are what I would call “boutique choirs,” not at all a pejorative insinuation. I think it’s a good word that meshes with Portland’s boutique-y wine, beer and visual arts scene and general quirkiness, as seen on say, “Portlandia.” With these newbies comes the infusion of new ideas and styles. And they share similarities.