portland state university chamber choir

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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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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MusicWatch Weekly: Mahlerian May

Mega-symphonies and more resound in Oregon concerts this week

Mahler’s symphonies seem like a closing chapter, a culmination of big, Romantic orchestral music. So large (and expensive!) are the forces required, that orchestras often save them for the end of the season. On Thursday, Francesco Lecce-Chong concludes his debut season with the Eugene Symphony with Symphony #5, along with Haydn’s delightful Symphony #88, still one of his most popular. Mahler wanted to pack a world into each of his symphonies, and this 1902 colossus traverses an astonishing emotional range, veering from funereal to violent to inebriated to anxious to ardent to a demented orchestral punch line.

Gustav Mahler.

In Portland, the Oregon Symphony closes its season this weekend at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with Mahler’s relatively infrequently played 1905 seventh symphony (“A Lotta Night Music”), which does not need more cowbell. And next Tuesday, Corvallis OSU Symphony Orchestra plays his massive, summery third symphony at Oregon State University’s LaSells Stewart Center.

The excellent Delgani String Quartet also goes big in its season-ender Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night at Eugene’s Temple Beth Israel, and Monday night at Portland’s Old Church, adding a second violist (Elizabeth Freivogel of the award-winning Jupiter Quartet) so they can play a pair of too rarely heard (because they require that “extra” player) classical masterpieces: Mozart’s G Minor quintet and Brahms’s G major quintet.

Delgani Quartet adds a guest for its performances in Portland and Eugene.

In “Rituals” Friday night at N.E.W. Expressive Works, Portland/Seattle new music ensemble Sound of Late, one of the freshest additions to the Northwest’s burgeoning contemporary classical music scene, offers a pair of Portland premieres by Alvin Singleton and acclaimed Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, a composition by Chet Udell that uses motion-sensor electronics and horn, a 20th century classic by the late pioneering composer Pauline Oliveros, and the world premiere of a lament by promising Oregon composer Andrea Reinkemeyer, who just scored a major national award for emerging women composers.

Sophiko Simsive performs in Portland, Salem, and Hood River.

Speaking of Oregon composers, Portland’s Kenji Bunch contributed a new piece to Sophiko Simsive’s performances at Portland Piano Company (Wednesday), Salem Library (Thursday), and Hood River Middle School (Friday afternoon). The award-winning Georgian pianist’s free recital, part of Portland Piano International’s admirable Rising Star program that pairs new music by Oregon composers with emerging young touring pianists, also features sonatas by Mozart and Scriabin and Ravel’s marvelously modernized reinvention of an old dance form, The Waltz (La Valse) — which in turn inspired Bunch’s new Discothèque.

Speaking of Bunch, his father Ralph wrote the libretto for another new piece by still another Portland composer, John Vergin, which the latter will perform on piano with singers Alexis Hamilton and Brian Tierney Sunday night at Reed College’s Eliot Hall Chapel. Their song cycle Eleanora Andreevna takes its title from the name of Bunch’s Soviet-born wife, who escaped German bombing during World War II and grew up to become one of the nation’s top female computer scientists and to save Ralph’s life. They married when both were in their late 50s and she died in 2012.

Frank Martin didn’t even publish his 1922 Mass for 40 years, considering the devotional music too personal. But choirs have increasingly taken it up, including recent performances by Oregon Repertory Singers, Cantores in Ecclesia and now these Portland Symphonic Choir performances Friday and Saturday at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral led by PSC music director candidate Richard Sparks. When Sparks was with a Canadian choir, he also commissioned the other work on the program, Canadian composer Allan Bevan’s 2005 Good Friday meditation Nou goth sonne under wode, and now he’s bringing it here for its Portland premiere.

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