Choral music

Oregon Repertory Singers & Santa Fe Desert Chorale: preserving musical moments

New recordings from esteemed choirs showcase American music, including Northwest composers

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

James DePreist, famed conductor of the Oregon Symphony from 1980-2003, once shared with me his thoughts on producing a recording. During his tenure, the orchestra produced 17 recordings, one of which, in 2003, garnered a Grammy nomination. He said it was definitely not to make money, but to preserve a moment in time in the history of the organization.

Two fine choral organizations – one local and volunteer, one operating from the Southwest United States and professional, have this past year each recorded a moment in their musical time. Let’s take a look at how the two recordings share a common goal – to celebrate our choral music journey in America.

Oregon Repertory Singers, founded 45 years ago, ably directed by Ethan Sperry in 2012 (succeeding Gil Seeley) has stood out among the numerous fine choral groups in Portland. Their CD Shadows on the Stars, released on the Gothic label, features Northwest American composers. Some are well known, such as Morten Lauridsen, Joan Szymko and John Muehleisen; some are rising stars like Giselle Wyers, Naomi LaViolette, and Stacey Philipps.

The Santa Fe Desert Chorale offers a broader spectrum, still hewing to the “Made in America” qualification. Artistic Director Joshua Habermann, currently director of the Dallas Symphony Chorus, is also in his tenth year with SFDC. In The Road Home, his programming delves more deeply into the American past, honoring the Shaker tradition by excerpting (Track 4) from the “American Vocalist” a collection of American voiced music, published in 1849, a valuable moment in American choral tradition in print form. Each CD provides a strong representation of the traditions and abilities of each choir.

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Choral Arts Ensemble & Cappella Romana: many ways of being many 

Portland choirs sing music programmed and created by diverse and unified voices

Portland’s choral scene is so abundant it has its own calendar. With such an bounty of choirs, it’s no surprise that they represent many different ways of singing together. Two concerts in October—Choral Arts Ensemble’s season opener on October 13 at Rose City Park United Methodist Church, Cappella Romana’s Heaven and Earth on October 14 at St. Stephen Catholic Church—showcased two quite distinct approaches to creating choral music.

For CAE, it was their varied assortment of choral works, chosen collaboratively from their vast repertoire as a celebration of the ensemble’s long history of singing together; most of the selections, from Bach and Brahms to Ēriks Ešenvalds and Randall Thompson, were comfortably familiar, in a Western classical sort of way.

Cappella Romana performed ‘Heaven & Earth’ at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

For Cappella Romana, on the other hand, the collaborative element was a matter of composers and singers working together within a unique and unified spiritual musical tradition—Orthodox Christianity and Byzantine Chant, traditions which are neither overly familiar (at least to Westerners) nor especially comfortable. Both approaches are valid, of course, but more importantly both demonstrate a crucial sense of unity-in-diversity, spiritual-musical solidarity, e pluribus unum, many voices coming together as one voice, seeking spiritual solace and satisfaction.

Choral Arts Ensemble: Fifty Years of Singing Together

In the opening performance of the the first concert of their fiftieth season, I was immediately struck by Choral Arts Ensemble’s brilliant tuning of even the simplest chords. This would emerge as their forte, a vertical sense of intonation, melodies and chords integrated in a way totally distinct from, say, Franco-Flemish Renaissance polyphony. It’s easy to hear a connection between the group’s democratic vibe and their approach to style, tuning, repertoire, and tradition. It probably wouldn’t be going too far to call it a distinctly Protestant attitude.

Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland opened its 50th anniversary season with a concert at Rose City Park United Methodist Church.

That big, resonant, vertical sound carried all through the concert, from the opening work—Schubert’s Gloria, its reverberant opening cadences turning on finely-tuned leading-tones—down through the full sound of English composer Colin Mawby’s 1995 Ave Verum. On Joshua Shank’s 2007 Sleeping out Full Moon, on a text by poet and WWI veteran Rupert Brooke, colorful Whitacrey harmony illuminated the lines “to all glory, to all gladness, to the infinite height.”

The chords got all melty and romantic on Josef Rheinberger’s 1855 Abendlied (Evening Song), and although their handful of Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzer (Love Song Waltzes) were perhaps not as lucid in this full choir setting as the quartet version we heard from The Ensemble a few seasons back, they were instead all lush and brimming with sehnsucht. In Ēriks Ešenvalds’s Only in Sleep, on a text by the Pulitzer-winning American poet Sara Teasdale, choir and soloists sang major thirds to make your eyes water. Offsetting Ešenvalds and Teasdale’s melancholy, the choir brought out a bright, poppy, Swingle Singers sound for Jake Runestad’s jolly John Muir song, Come to the Woods.

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