Pacific Lutheran University Choir of the West

National Choir Festival review: Choral cornucopia

National Collegiate Choral Organization conference bestows a wide range of vocal beauty on Portland

Photos by Chase Gilley

Last weekend was a high note for the choral community of Portland, Oregon, and the collegiate choirs of this country. For the first time in history, Portland played host to a national music convention: the biennial meeting of National Collegiate Choral Organization. This year, Portland State University brought it to our city. This national choir festival brought some of the finest choirs, collegiate or otherwise, to be found in the country. With thoughtful initiatives in choral literature, beautiful tone, and outstanding stylistic choices, they helped make a rainy weekend shine.

University of Louisville Cardinal Singers.

University of Louisville Cardinal Singers.

Perhaps the most striking concerts were the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers and the University of North Texas Collegium Musicum, nearly polar opposites in program content, and in some ways, style. The Louisville choir, directed by Dr. Kent Hatteberg, offered a wide palette of color and style (within the limitations of the disappointing venue at Portland’s First Congregational Church): Renaissance Palestrina, to newly minted Penderecki, but a softer, much less dissonant version of the composer than we knew two decades ago. Their “hit” was the Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds’ ultra-dramatic A Soldier’s Mother’s Lullaby, commissioned by the University of Louisville this year. According to the composer (as excerpted from PSU choral studies director Ethan Sperry’s program notes): “Prayers and mothers’ sung lullabies have no frontiers, and they do reach God’s heart and the souls of the wounded. Sing your lullabies, sing your prayers forever!” This was a powerful statement about mourning and hope, with the texts by Wilfred Owen and Jack Whalen, reflected in Esenvalds’ vivid writing, “capturing the vivid horrors of war, and the unsettling truths about the fates of the young men fighting in it” (see above).

University of North Texas.

University of North Texas Collegium Singers.

Dr. Richard Sparks’s fine Collegium Singers from University of North Texas sang a program of early music, including John Taverner’s “Sanctus” from Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas, and two Baroque motets: the Deutsches of Heinrich Schutz, and the famous Komm Jesu Komm, of J.S. Bach. The Schutz was clean clear, and stylish. The double choir motet was etched beautifully in the language of Bach, each choir pivoting by turns from homophonic echoing of one another, to fugal statements. Early music groups abounded at the conference: two, Juilliard 415 (a reference to using the tuning conventions prior to the 1800s), and the Yale Camerata, under the direction of David Hill, were the closing program Saturday night, but I was not able to hear that program.

Local Vocals

Portland State University cut a wide swath throughout this conference. Not only were Dr. Ethan Sperry and the School of Music the conference hosts, but the PSU Man Choir, Vox Femina, and Chamber Choir performed for packed audiences. Saturday at First United Methodist, the PSU orchestra, prepared by Ken Selden, performed with panache under the direction of Norwegian conductor Grete Pedersen, acclaimed on several continents for her CD recordings and live performances of convincing and brilliantly styled music. Ms. Pedersen and the combined choirs groups offered a compelling and satisfying rendition of Joseph Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass. The orchestra was stellar, the soloists were excellent, and combined choirs were wonderfully forthcoming with Pedersen’s creative interpretation. This is all the more creditable as the choral forces were not the renowned Chamber Choir but the two aforementioned male and female choirs. The B-team gave an A-team performance. The entire ensemble, under Pedersen’s stimulating direction, shaped phrases and defined articulations and ornaments more clearly than this writer has heard them in any previous performance.

The previous evening, at St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Chamber Choir itself impressed with a group of four Slavic appetizers (all based on Lenten motifs) from Rodion Shchedrin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alfred Schnittke, and Georgy Sviridov, all composers who deserve to be heard more widely. Here is the PSU Chamber Choir singing Inexpressible Wonder by Georgy Sviridov live at the conference.

Ethan Sperry led the PSU Chamber Choir and Orchestra at St. Mary's Cathedral.

Ethan Sperry led the PSU Chamber Choir and Orchestra at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

But the entrée of that evening was the glorious Passion and Resurrection by, once again, Eriks Esenvalds, all of 38 years old! This music is destined to be a classic. The composer was present for this (as he was for Louisville), and presumably had given at least some valuable input to the performers. Eschewing the traditional Gospel setting of the Passion, the composer uses eclectic sources from the Byzantine liturgy, the Stabat Mater, and passages from Job and the book of Psalms.

The musical style ranges from the Renaissance (!), using sections of a motet by Cristobal de Morales, sung by a vocal quartet; a string orchestra, portraying a jarring change of key against what’s come before in the quartet’s singing; then, the soprano soloist, clad in a brilliant white gown, and representing Mary Magdalene, walks slowly the entire length of the Cathedral, singing as she perhaps repents her own sins.

Finally the choir enters, and here Esenvalds looks back dramatically at the “turba” choruses of Bach and Schutz (meaning “crowd choruses” almost always used in Passion music), as the choir shifts from one dramatic role to another: the turbulent crowd of persecutors, the worshipping masses, and finally, the choir taking on as a whole the voice of Jesus, as they ask God to forgive the people who are killing Him.

Here is audio of The Heaven’s Flock: music by Eriks Esenvalds, text by former Oregon poet laureate Paulann Petersen, performed by the PSU Chamber Choir and the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers, Ethan Sperry conducting.