gil seeley

MusicWatch Weekly: human voices

Choral and vocal concerts take center stage this week in Oregon music

Portland’s big choirs once again present fans of choral music with some difficult choices. As happens too often — there’s a choral calendar that you’d think might help prevent this — several have scheduled shows on the same weekend, making it impossible to see more than a couple of shows, assuming your weekly music budget will stretch even that far. They’re all recommendable, and all feature contemporary as well as classic sounds. I just wish we didn’t have to choose.

Cappella Romana performed at St. Mary’s Cathedral in April.

• Best known for performances of ancient Byzantine music, Cappella Romana goes ultra-modern in Heaven and Earth: A Song of Creation Saturday at St. Mary’s Cathedral, 1716 N.W. Davis, and Sunday at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, 1112 S.E. 41st Ave. The concert features the premiere of a new setting of an ancient Orthodox psalm by six Orthodox composers — including Portland’s own John Boyer, the choir’s new associate music director, who’ll lead the performances. Read more about the new Psalm 103 project, and how the new piece connects to the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, here. I wish more groups originally devoted to being exclusively museums of old music by dead composers would open contemporary wings like this one and apply their historically informed insights to new music.

• That’s exactly what one of Portland’s most promising new musical additions, Big Mouth Society, does in Saturday and Sunday’s Portland premiere of The Gonzales Cantata at Mercy Corps Action Center, 28 SW 1st Ave. When Australian-America composer Melissa Dunphy cooked up her neo-baroque cantata (scored for choir with soloists, string orchestra and harpsichord) back in 2009, she couldn’t have imagined the even more operatic, scandalous senatorial outrage we’ve all just endured. It’s based on the 2007 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, which disclosed improprieties that ultimately forced his resignation in disgrace (though somehow didn’t disqualify him from becoming an NPR commentator and law school dean). The senators (including Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy, Orrin Hatch et al) are portrayed by reverse-gendered singers from Curious Voices, and performers include students from Willamette University and Reed College. During performances, Big Mouth Society will host Oregonians United Against Profiling, a coalition opposing Measure 105, which would repeal Oregon’s anti-racial profiling law and allow local law enforcement resources to be diverted to federal action against immigrants.

David DeLyser leads Choral Arts Ensemble.

• In Everlasting Voices, Saturday and Sunday at Rose City Park United Methodist Church, 5830 NE Alameda St., Choral Arts Ensemble celebrates its 50th anniversary season with a retrospective that looks both backward (classical composers like Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Copland) and forward, with some of the 21st century’s hottest young choral composers, including Ēriks Ešenvalds and Jake Runestad.

Gil Seeley at Oregon Repertory Singers concert

• Oregon Repertory Singers opens its 45th season with a new CD and a concert. Shadows on the Stars features one of America’s most-performed composers, Beaverton-born Morten Lauridsen, who splits his time between his teaching duties at the University of Southern California and Waldron Island. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, 1838 SW Jefferson St. He returns to accompany the 100-voice choir’s performances of his compositions Sure on this Shining Night and Ya Eres Mía. Accompanist Naomi LaViolette takes the keyboard in Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs, which sets poems by Robert Graves. The second half features another venerated choral master, this one from Estonia. Oregon Repertory Singers was the first American choir to bring Veljo Tormis, who died last year at age 86, to the United States. ORS emeritus conductor Gilbert Seeley returns to lead Tormis’s moving music.

• Portland Symphonic Choir also opens its season this weekend with exciting news: the world premiere of a new spiritual by Portland composer Judy Rose, I’ve Found Me a River. Saturday’s well-rounded concert at Portland’s Tiffany Center also includes Brahms’s Love Song Waltzes and Eric Whitacre’s popular 2001 composition Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine.


Chanticleer and VIR reviews: Testostertones

Venerable San Francisco choir and new Portland vocal ensemble showcase the beauty of men's voices.


We in Portland are blessed to be so close to San Francisco, the home of world class male choir Chanticleer, and doubly blessed that our Friends of Chamber Music embraces the group in their mission. They are turning Chanticleer’s short jaunt north into a yearly event, and it’s always eagerly anticipated, as packed houses have shown. This year’s visit, the last Friday in March at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, fully lived up to expectations, as the choir applied their trademark precision and clarity to selections ranging across the last 500 years of classical music, a nod to the Middle Ages, and as usual, several lively arrangements of spirituals, folk and pop tunes. They seemed to take fewer risks than on last year’s program, or maybe they were just running a tighter ship this year. There was certainly no dearth of challenging works beautifully presented.



The opening early music set featured the Spanish Renaissance masters Tomás Luis de Victoria and Francisco Guerrero, that darling of the Counter-Reformation Palestrina, and a respectful yet intriguing adaptation of medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen’s “O frondens virga.” (The adapter, who split the ravishing ending into many more parts than Hildegard would have likely contemplated, wasn’t credited.)

I generally prefer Victoria over Palestrina, the intense Spaniard over the reserved and lofty Italian, but Chanticleer’s selections turned the tables on me. Palestrina’s Marian motet “Gaude Gloriosa à 5” immediately and joyously took flight, its counterpoint almost bubbling like meadowlarks. The Spaniards seemed restrained by comparison, although Guerrero’s “Ave Virgo sanctissima” featured repeated high, sighing entries in the top voices, and the group’s (male) sopranos shone expressively every time.

Secular works of the time included Andrea Gabrieli’s “Thyrsis desired death…” and Claudio Monteverdi’s “Ah me, if you’re so fond…,” both on a universal guy theme: what gals won’t do and what to say to change that. Even Chanticleer’s expert performance failed to breathe much life into Gabrieli’s labored double entendres – my mind kept wandering to Monty Python’s “Nudge nudge, wink wink” sketch. Monteverdi had a happier way with the subject. By focusing on repeated sighs (“oimé”), setting them off clearly against doleful minor-key contrapuntal and harmonic surroundings, he made the point with much less fuss. Not that it’s easy to sing, though the group made it sound that way. The final line, “thousands and thousands of sweet ‘oimés,'” descended through pungent dissonances to a surprise ending in the major key. Maybe she just smiled and promised to “be back in a moment.”


Katherine FitzGibbon leads Resonance Ensemble's concerts this weekend

The past few years have seen a changing of the guard in Portland’s choral music scene. Last year, the city’s two most influential veteran choral conductors, University of Portland professor Roger Doyle and Lewis & Clark College’s Gil Seeley, retired after three-plus decades of leading two of the city’s three most important choral organizations: Choral Arts Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers (ORS).  The conductor of the third, Portland Symphonic Choir’s Bruce Browne, had left Portland for a teaching job in Oklahoma a few years earlier, after building Portland State University’s program to national prominence and founding the superb Choral Cross Ties ensemble, which folded after he left.

While the city’s choral scene still flourished during the 2000s (including the founding of strong new ensembles run by Browne’s former students Ryan Heller, David York and Alexander Lingas), some slippage was evident in several corners of the city’s choral establishment, and choral music lovers could have been forgiven for worrying about what would happen in the wake of the departures of these strong leaders.

No more. The recent arrival of two energetic, imaginative young successors to the Big Three have revitalized the programs at PSU and L&C, and the two conductors — Ethan Sperry (whom I profiled last month in Willamette Week) and Katherine FitzGibbon, who directs choral programs at Lewis & Clark, are also running, respectively, Oregon Rep Singers and the recently arrived Resonance Ensemble, which has already established itself as one of the Northwest’s finest vocal groups.

Last year, his first at PSU, Sperry arranged a highly successful tribute to Portland native Morten Lauridsen, America’s greatest living choral composer, and spearheaded a spectacular reunion concert featuring alumni of PSU’s renowned choral program and the current members. With music from Haiti, India, and beyond, and young choristers singing spiritedly from different parts of Portland’s First Methodist Church, it was one of the most exciting choral concerts I’ve seen in Oregon.

Sperry’s debut concert with Oregon Repertory Singers earlier this month (which included Seeley conducting several works in a kind of passing of the torch) at PSU’s Lincoln Hall definitively demonstrated that the 40-year-old new music director will continue his predecessor’s legacy of vivid performances of wide ranging repertoire, from across the ages and the planet.

With splendid younger groups like FitzGibbon’s Resonance Ensemble, the women’s ensemble In Mulieribus, Heller’s new music oriented Portland Vocal Consort, Lingas’s Cappella Romana and others regularly providing extraordinary performances of new and uncommonly heard repertoire, new groups like Patrick McDonough’s The Ensemble (which made its debut last week with a concert of music by Heinrich Schutz) and the alt.classical group The Julians (top classical singers who also often cover pop tunes) emerging in the past year, and longtime stalwarts like Portland Symphonic Choir, the Bach Cantata Choir and Cantores in Ecclesia (both conducted by former Browne students Ralph Nelson and Blake Applegate) still going strong, Portland seems awash in choral splendor. As Browne proclaimed during his speech at last spring’s reunion: “Choral music at Portland State, and indeed in Portland, is back!”