jason sabino

Oregon Chorale review: Dramatic cohesion

Choir gives satisfying musical response to historical conflict, new leadership and ambitious program

by BRUCE BROWNE

This past weekend the Oregon Chorale wove an array of dark and emotional music into one work of art – a patchwork in which a variety of finishes, colors and textures offered came together as a “Response to Strife.”

Jason Sabino, the choir’s new artistic director, laid out the design to provoke an emotional response. Creating a cohesive program around a single subject is not only laudable, it’s essential in our evolving arts world. Gone are the days of bits and pieces programs, or a chronological museum-like walk through music history.

When one is performing – or listening to – a large scale oratorio, like Handel’s Messiah or Brahms’s German Requiem, the composer has done the programming for us. Otherwise, we are chancing a variety show of small shards of choral music, with no governing concept. So hurrah for dramatic cohesion, Mr. Sabino and the choir, in its 31st year of existence.

One has to be careful though, with a program like this: slow tempi + static harmonies x foreboding texts = a tough date for audience members, maybe singers as well. Not an easy equation. Particularly for the choir, who, to their credit, stood tall while the 37-minute Gorecki Miserere exacted a toll of slow tempi, repeated text, and repeated harmonic gesture, all demanding a high level of concentration. They answered the call, and doubled down on the gamble.

Jason Sabino leads Oregon Chorale. Photo: Don White.

The first four pieces spanned continents and style, beginning with the soothing coo of mothers comforting the world To the Mothers in Brazil: Salve Regina by Gunnar Eriksson (original work by Lars Jansson). Requiem by Eliza Gilkyson (arr. Craig Hella Johnson) was written after the 2004 Asian tsunami. Norman Luboff’s iconic arrangement of the Bahamian folk tune “All My Trials” was performed dramatically and included a lovely solo by soprano Sheryl Wood. An African song, “Indodana,” (arr. Michael Barrett and Ralf Schmitt) told of redemption and comfort through Jesus Christ. The brief first half ended there, a very satisfying setup for the second half of the program and the upcoming despondency of the centerpiece Miserere by Henryk Gorecki.

Born in Poland in 1933, Gorecki lived most of his artistic productive years during the Soviet Communist dominance of Poland (roughly 1945–1989). He died in 2010. Gorecki’s 1981 choral work Miserere was written in response to the government assaults on Polish union solidarity activists. This was a period of simple, chordal and chantlike harmonic progressions for Gorecki who, during the 1960s was considered one of Poland’s premiere avant-garde composers. The work was tucked safely away later in that year when the martial law was enacted.

Henryk Górecki.

In 1987, Miserere was premiered in St. Stanislaus Church in Wloclawek. Five words make up the text: Domine Deus Noster (Lord Our God) and Miserere Nobis (Have mercy on us). The first three words are repeated through the first ten movements and the final two are complete the work in movement eleven.

Carefully scripted testimonies can add much to setting the stage for an artistic work inspired by historic events, as was the Miserere. To open the second half, two Polish-born speakers, congregants of the Portland Polish community’s iconic St. Stanislaus church, shared experiences in Poland, fighting against the prevailing, oppressive communist regime of the 1970s and ’80s and the rebuilding of their Polish community in Portland. It was lengthy.

The Miserere is tonally accessible to listeners. In terms of vocal stamina, it is as accessible as a hike to Mount St. Helens’s rim – in April. Preparation, conviction and aerobic conditioning win the day.

The closing piece, You do not walk alone, was anticlimactic. Composer Dominic DiOrio, a faculty member of the University of Indiana’s Music Department, has achieved a level of prestige, though this piece does not showcase his talent to that level.

This choir is, by several orders of magnitude, a better instrument than the one heard during last year’s audition series. The male voices are particularly well-honed. Their presence in the opening sections of the Gorecki was stunning in its simplicity and perfect intonation. The women are not far behind. Sabino’s fluid, easy gestures make for a welcome means of singing by the choir. Production values of dynamic spectrum and legato singing were first rate; tuning was just so in some places in the Gorecki, creating occasional overtones floating off into the fine acoustic of St. Matthew Catholic Church in downtown Hillsboro.

Given the strong musical values of this concert, it was a bit disconcerting to have so much talking from the podium. Mr. Sabino narrated each upcoming piece, even reiterating the material in the program notes. It is reminiscent of Ed Sullivan, introducing each new act; but in the choral music tradition of Robert Shaw, Eric Ericson, Roger Wagner, Frieder Bernius and many others, this is better avoided. And after designing such a provocative continuum, why break the emotional thread, chatting up the crowd in each interval? If there is a driving need to state the motivation for programming the piece or other personal reflections, let it be written in the program notes and then let the music and the text speak for themselves.

Otherwise, choir, conductor and soloists were nicely in sync in this second performance of their season. This was a well-conceived and satisfying performance by a dedicated choir that clearly loves what they’re doing with their new director.

Mr. Sabino and the Oregon Chorale will complete their first season with June 10–11 performances of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna and Maurice Durufle’s Requiem, performed at Bethel Congregational Church in Beaverton to accommodate the participation of organist Dan Miller.

Portland choir director Bruce Browne directed Portland Symphonic Choir and choral music programs at Portland State University for many years and was founder and director of Choral Cross-Ties, a professional choral group in Portland.

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Music News & Notes

Recent happenings in Oregon music

Been awhile since we rounded up recent news in Oregon classical music, so here’s some items that lit up our screens in recent months.

Laurels and Plaudits

• Composition Champ. University of Oregon composition professor Robert Kyr was one of four American composers to win this year’s American Academy of Arts and Letters $10,000 Arts and Letters Award for outstanding artistic achievement by a composer who has arrived at his or her own voice.

Mia Hall Miller

Mia Hall Miller

Wonder Woman. Pacific Youth Choir founder and director Mia Hall Miller received the Oregon Symphony’s 2016 Schnitzer Wonder Award, a $10,000 prize that “honors an individual or organization that directly works to build community through the next generation of artists and/or student musicians.” Now in its 13th year, PYC boasts almost 300 singers in 10 choirs.

Violin Virtuosa. Portland violinist Fumika Mizuno is the only Oregonian selected among the 109 young musicians (age 16-19) from across the country for the fourth annual National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. It’s her second stint with the NYO, which (after a training residency in New York) performed with the great pianist Emanuel Ax at Carnegie Hall in July, then played concerts led by Valery Gergiev at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, in Montpellier France, Copenhagen, and Prague.

• Operatic ascent. Portland tenor A.J. Glueckert was one of six winners of the $10,000 George London awards, one of America’s oldest vocal competitions.

Eugene jazz musician Tony Glausi. Photo: Tyler Sams. 

Eugene jazz musician Tony Glausi. Photo: Tyler Sams.

Trumpeter on the rise. Eugene jazz trumpeter and composer Tony Glausi has been named the recipient of the 2016-17 Laurie Frink Career Grant, a biennial $10,000 award to give a “young brass player an opportunity for serious study or to undertake a creative project.” One of America’s most revered brass instrument teachers, Frink, who died in 2013, played in some of the finest jazz orchestras (including those of Maria Schneider, Benny Goodman Orchestra, Mel Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, John Hollenbeck, Darcy James Argue and more), performed with Broadway orchestras, co-wrote the definitive book on trumpet improvisation, and mentored some of today’s top trumpeters including Dave Douglas and Ambrose Akinmusire. Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch profile of Glausi.

The Marylhurst Chamber Choir performs at the 2016 Cork International Choral Festival.

Choral Voyagers. Marylhurst University’s premiere choral ensemble, the Marylhurst Chamber Choir, was one of only 34 choirs from around the world, and the only American choir invited to perform at the Cork International Choir Festival in Cork, Ireland in May. It placed third to choirs from Sweden and Turkey in a close contest for the placed third in the festival’s top honor, the Fleischmann Award and won the Peace Award for the choir that best embodied the spirit of the festival.

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Oregon Chorale review: Counting the stars

Washington County choir and other choral concerts make for a bountiful musical weekend

by BRUCE BROWNE

“This was hard,” one of the choristers told me after the Oregon Chorale‘s March 12 concert. Finding the balance between pushing the envelope and overextending the choir is one of the conductor’s first jobs, and it will be the task of whomever is chosen to lead the choir next year.

Jason Sabino led Oregon Chorale. Photo: Don White.

Jason Sabino led Oregon Chorale. Photo: Don White.

Formed in 1985, the Oregon Chorale (nee “Washington County Chorale”) is now in search mode, with three candidates vying to replace founder Bernie Kuehn, who stepped down at the end of last year. Robert Hawthorne, Tigard High School choral director, conducted in December; Scott Tuomi, music professor at Pacific University, will round out the field in June. This search committee will have a challenge on their hands, as all three candidates vying, are… quite viable.

This concert featured a constellation of “stars,” the only ones visible on a rugged, rainy evening in this part of the Pacific northwest. The program “Songs from Nature: Music of the Americas” was designed to help us celebrate spring.

First, a strong shout out to accompanist Linda Smith. She is not just good, she’s a virtuoso. A good accompanist is an imperative and even more so in this concert in which a good portion of the repertoire demanded her skills.

Pianist Linda Smith. Photo: Don White.

Pianist Linda Smith. Photo: Don White.

Naturally, another “star” was the choir itself. Made up of community members from Hillsboro and other satellite boroughs, this is an amateur choir, but never amateur – ish.

Third among the glitterati in this firmament was conducting candidate Jason Sabino, whose grace and command on the podium were firmly in place all night. Though just completing his degree in choral conducting from Portland State University, he projects an energy and Je ne sais quoi well beyond his years. He confessed “this is the first time I’ve ever conducted an orchestra” in concert, referring to John Corigliano’s Fern Hill, which demands equipoise and firm grasp over its 17 minutes running time.

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