Oregon choral music

Remembering Bruce Browne

The Portland choral director and educator leaves a rich legacy in sounds and singers

The Portland choral director and educator leaves a legacy in sounds and singers

“I first saw him on the stage of Carnegie Hall conducting the Portland State Chamber Choir at the American Choral Directors Association National Conference in 2003. It was so powerful — music written in response to the horrors of the second World War…. Here was a conductor who understood that the choral repertoire went well beyond pretty chords, and could be used to process the harshest tragedies of our time. Here was a conductor that had gotten his singers to buy into this edgiest of music and sing it with 100% conviction. It was inspiring beyond belief.

— Portland State University choral studies director Ethan Sperry on his predecessor, Bruce Browne.
Bruce Browne

The past few weeks of this dreadful year have brought sad news of significant losses in Oregon’s music scene. The one that felt closest to home was last week’s passing of Browne, who contributed many reviews of Oregon choral and vocal music to ArtsWatch, giving our readers choral music coverage unmatched anywhere else in the United States. That’s only appropriate, as Portland in particular is internationally renowned for its fertile choral music scene — and Bruce Browne deserves much of the credit for its richness. 

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Safe Distance Sounds 3: Oregon voices

Recent recordings by Cappella Romana, the Broken Consort, Portland State University Chamber Choir and The Industry showcase Oregon choral and vocal music

Of all the music we’re missing in these days of suspended live performances, perhaps the most missed — and most lethal — is choral music. One of the first major outbreaks of Covid 19, after all, derived from a Northwest choir rehearsal, and every choral performance involves slinging a lot of breath and its hangers-on droplets around a stage.

And yet, choral music is to many of us the most life-giving music. Not just because it directly involves the breath — the same breath the virus threatens — but also because it combines musical and verbal communication. Even when we don’t even understand the language being sung, many of us crave the sound of the live human voice, especially when many of us are denied it during the lockdown when, sadly, we’re denied it. And it may be some time before we can hear it again live. Although, lots of folks are trying new things.

So, to continue our series of reviews of recent recordings of Oregon music (earlier installments covered jazz/improvised and chamber music), here are some choral, vocal and opera recordings that might help assuage the loss of live performances. For more Oregon voices on record, check ArtsWatch’s recent archives for Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch reviews of recent albums by Oregon Repertory Singers and In Mulieribus.

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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 at 50: intimacy and approachability

As it celebrates its 50th anniversary season, the Portland choir builds on its legacy of singing diverse repertoire and creating a comfortable, inviting experience

Interview by AARON RICHARDSON

David De Lyser is artistic director of Portland’s Choral Arts Ensemble, a chamber choir now celebrating its 50th anniversary season. This weekend, CAE teams up with Cascadia Composers in a concert that includes new seasonal works by local Northwest composers Lisa Neher and Bill Whitley, as well as holiday and seasonal favorites from years gone by, including hymns, carols and works by Ola Gjeilo, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Beaverton native Morten Lauridsen, Arvo Pärt and others.

Choral Arts Ensemble opened its 50th anniversary season in October.

Now in his seventh season directing CAE, De Lyser spoke to Portland choral singer Aaron Richardson about the choir’s origins and evolution into one of the city’s top vocal ensembles. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Origins

The Choral Arts Ensemble started in 1969 and it was started like a lot of groups, by a small group of people that just wanted the opportunity to sing together.  There were only about 16 or so at that first rehearsal, but that’s how the group started.  I came to the University of Portland in 1999 to [study for] my Masters of Music degree. [Roger Doyle, who headed the choir for 34 years] was one of my professors, and he invited me to sing with the Choral Arts Ensemble and I joined and was in the group for one year before I moved away for additional graduate studies.  I was just very impressed with how he interacted with the singers and nurtured them, and how much they all seemed to enjoy singing with each other.  He was always full of life at every rehearsal and had a lot of energy.

Repertoire: a History of Diversity, an Emphasis on the Contemporary

What I hope is that people will come to our concerts for the diversity of repertoire and the quality with which it is performed. The hallmark of this group and its 50-year history is that diversity of repertoire, not limited by time period or style. There is so much amazing music to explore!

[Since De Lyser arrived] the group is a little more focused on contemporary choral composers. There are just a lot of young, passionate composers writing amazing music that deserves to be heard — a lot of them are looking around at the world and are writing really impactful lyrics and using texts that are relevant to what’s going on in the world. They’re looking at societal problems and issues through music and it just lends an emotional power that just words alone can’t do.

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Byrd Ensemble review: corona of sound

Seattle vocal ensemble bathes Portland audience in clear, clean choral singing

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

When a choral tone bath is washing over me, I smile broadly, sometimes even giggle. Can’t help it. It’s a visceral reaction to a corona of sound. It envelops the audience, draws us in.

I smiled a lot Sunday afternoon, October 28 at Portland’s St. Stephens Catholic Church. The Byrd Ensemble, using just 10 singers, poured a program of motets that was clear and balanced in every way. The Seattle-based choir’s sound is clear, clean, never manufactured, without a wayward wobble in the pitch. The singers collectively exploit a brighter part of the color palette, enabling perfect intonation and balance.

Seattle’s Byrd Ensemble sang Renaissance and contemporary music in Portland.

This is clearly conductor Markdavin Obenza’s sound ideal. The sound is not an accident. It is cultivated. Several of these artists, including Mr. Obenza, had their start in the Northwest Boy Choir, and that, much like the English boychoirs in cathedrals over the years, is formative in their listening and the sound production they bring us.

Not to say they are trying to sing “like” a boy choir. This is an adult sound with a boy choir temperament. When excellent singers sing with their ears, sing into the mini acoustic among their colleagues, something magical can happen. A macro acoustic like St. Stephens is the perfect venue for a small group like this. And so, at the beginning tones of William Byrd’s Ne Irascaris Domine, I nearly giggled. At the end of the motet, the audience gave this opening piece a 30-40 second ovation.

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PSU Chamber Choir: connection through competition

A participant in the award-winning choir's trip to a major competition in Argentina finds that the most rewarding musical moments don't always happen onstage

by AARON RICHARDSON

The Portland State University Chamber Choir made it to San Juan, Argentina for the San Juan Canta International Choral Competition and Festival from August 16-20. I sang bass in the choir, and as much as we enjoyed the competition, for me, the best part of the experience didn’t actually happen onstage.

The Portland State Chamber Choir, led by Ethan Sperry, has won awards both nationally and internationally in its 43 year history. Last year, we placed first in the Bali International Choral Festival in Indonesia. That was an unforgettable experience because there were over 150 choirs creating amazing music together, and we were the singers who took home the gold.

This summer was the first time the choir had ever competed in South America. One of our previous grad students and section leaders grew up in Argentina, and her mother was a conductor of the host choir at the event, named Coro Arturo Beruti. We were all looking forward to sharing the music that we worked so hard on with other choirs from around the world.

Warming Up

Before the competition, we took a tour of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina.The city has so many music houses it looked like they were on almost every block of downtown. To prepare us for the competition, we first at one of the oldest and most famous opera house in South America, called Teatro Colón in downtown Buenos Aires on August 13. When we looked up in the music hall we performed in, we saw chandeliers twenty feet high, filling the room with light, and vibrant paintings on the ceiling, as well as the walls. The main stage faced thirty rows of seating, set up as an oval with all chairs leaning towards the stage, resulting in the sound surrounding listeners from every angle. Many famous singers have performed on the main stage since its opening in 1908. To be given that opportunity to sing in the main hall is one that I will never forget.

PSU Chamber Choir tearing it up in San Juan, Argentina.

We arrived at the competition in San Juan, Argentina on August 15 for the opening ceremony. The main hall at the Auditorio Juan Victoria consisted of a state with eight built in risers and a pipe organ behind the stage. At the opening ceremony, each of the ten groups sang one piece each as an introduction.That way, we were able to see how each choir performed and then to mingle afterward.

The next day, for the start of the festival, we had a concert featuring the choirs that weren’t competing called the Friendship Concert. The highlight for me was a Vocal Jazz Choir from Mexico named Vox Populi Project, who effortlessly used a variety of techniques to make their voices sound like different instruments like trumpet, sax, trombone. They sang pieces from Duke Ellington, Enrique Segarra and more, including an a capella rendition of Beyonce’s “Love on Top.” They looked like they were having a blast on stage, and put everyone at ease and relaxed for the competition the next day.

Competition and Communication

The competition day was filled with a lot of music, workshops and lectures from conductors and composers. While we were competing, we had the chance to talk with members of the other choirs. Though we were the only choir from the United States, many of us were able to communicate well with the others, since most of them were university students and could speak English. We also had a couple of students who spoke Spanish, so there was barely any communication barrier throughout the competition.

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Tudor Choir review: wall of sound

Seattle ensemble’s concert of early English and contemporary American choral music offers intriguing programming but monochromatic performance

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

The Tudor Choir re-opened for business this month. On hiatus since 2015, the ensemble presented one concert in their hometown of Seattle and two more in the Portland Metro area, at St. Mary’s Cathedral and in Hillsboro’s St. Matthew’s Church. The latter is a wonderfully accessible venue with a reverberant acoustic, challenging but with potential for this concert’s Tudor period music in which melismatic lines and reiterated melodies are woven through cleanly defined harmonies – when the choir and director find a way to bring this to the fore.

To a degree, the performance undermined that perfection of detail by creating a uniform wall of sound that obfuscated inner phrasing, was mostly uni-dynamic throughout, and void of nuance. There were, however, many wonderful duets that provided sonic and textural relief from the unvarying full-voiced mass sections.

Seattle’s Tudor Choir performed in Hillsboro, Portland, and Seattle. Photo: Sarah Wolf / Catholic Sentinel.

These concerts presented the music of two composers from an England in ecclesiastic turmoil. The music of John Taverner and John Sheppard represented some of the earliest examples of English choral polyphony. With insightful programming, however, founding conductor Doug Fullington ventured to the opposite extreme and paired that duo with two contemporary American composers: Jeff Junkinsmith and Nico Muhly. The gap of four centuries was bridged by subject matter and a common tune.

The performance, however, never quite rose above the purely technical. The music was not allowed to bloom and breathe. Of the thirteen voices, all but one was featured as a soloist throughout the ten-work program. Each was sumptuous, well trained with near perfect intonation. The entire ensemble blended vowels; entrances and releases were as one.

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