portland state university choirs

ACDA Conference: choral camaraderie

Convocation of choral excellence in Portland features diverse music and a strong bracket, but ignores larger community

by BRUCE BROWNE

Think of it as March Madness. No rankings, no betting on outcomes, but this (approximately) “Sweet 16” of choirs from all over the Northwest who converged in Portland last month for the Northwest Regional American Choral Directors conference was no less a bunch of winning teams.

Like the storied Dukes, Kentuckies, and UConns, our representative choirs consisted, too, of nationally known programs of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska. Pacific Lutheran University, directed by Richard Nance, for example, has been a choral face on the national scene for some 50 years, since the great Maurice Skones put it on the map. The Marian singers of St. Mary’s Catholic School in Portland have established themselves as leaders in their school division. But there were some new kids on the block as well — University of Wyoming Women’s Choir and Graham-Kapowsin high school from Bethel, Washington.

St. Mary’s Academy Women’s Choir performed at the ACDA conference in Portland. Photo: Howard Meharg.

Middle school through college choirs and community choirs are selected to participate through a blind submission process in various categories including higher and lower voices, youth and adult. The quality demonstrated at concerts and workshops was a great testimony to choral education programs’ keeping the art alive. Only the aforementioned Marian Singers and Portland State University choirs represented the hometown scene. Three Salem choral programs did make the trip.

More Gown than Town

Although the ACDA conference is geared toward the professional conductor/singer – mostly in education – most of these concerts would have been very attractive to the choral aficionados of Portland and environs; this is a strong choral town. The public is welcome to these concerts but they may not know they are. Sadly, I saw very few, if any, non-ACDA members at these concerts. Perhaps ACDA leadership can explore this for future gatherings.

Those who did attend were rewarded with a wide variety of choral music. There were the standard classic composers: Monteverdi, Jannequin; Debussy; Rheinberger. Contemporary composers: Seattle’s John Muehleisen, Alberto Ginastera, Maryam Sameer Faheem Khoury, Portland’s Joan Szymko, Jaakko Montyjarvi, Libby Larsen. There were many different cultural flavors: Estonian; Japanese; Sami, Inuit.

Following is a roundup of as many choirs as I could hear in the four-day period. It was not possible to hear all the presentations at one convention, so the omission of a choir or conductor is no sign of their not being worthy of mention on another occasion.

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‘Voices of Light’ preview: trial by fire

Camerata PYP, In Mulieribus, Portland State University choirs perform Richard Einhorn’s popular oratorio 'Voices of Light' with Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film 'The Passion of Joan of Arc'

Even the flames couldn’t destroy Joan of Arc. The 15th-century teenage revolutionary was infamously burned at the stake for leading a revolution, but her memory survived. Ultimately, she achieved sainthood and became a symbol of France itself.

Centuries after her immolation, Danish film director Carl Dreyer, a titan of silent cinema, made a magnificent 1928 movie, The Passion of Joan of Arc. After receiving rapturous acclaim, though, like Joan, the film fell victim to flame — all known copies were destroyed in a warehouse fire.

French stage actress Reneé Jeanne Falconetti portrayed Joan in Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc.’

Once again, Joan rose from the flames, when Dreyer assembled a second version from outtake negatives. And yet again, that version burned in a second warehouse fire. Devastated, Dreyer gave up on Joan, but went on to make a series of film classics.

In 1981, workers cleaning out a hospital storeroom in Norway found some old tape reels that turned out to hold a pristine copy of Dreyer’s original The Passion of Joan Arc. Its re-release won worldwide acclaim all over again for its stark, striking depiction of Joan’s ordeal.

When New York composer Richard Einhorn discovered the film, it so enraptured him that he created his own musical response. His oratorio Voices of Light earned its own abundant accolades and a classical chart-topping 1995 Sony recording featuring acclaimed early music ensemble Anonymous 4. On Friday, Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Camerata PYP, In Mulieribus vocal ensemble, three Portland State University choirs and some of the city’s finest classical singers will perform Einhorn’s oratorio to accompany the Northwest Film Center’s screening of Dreyer’s film classic.

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Portland State Choirs preview: knocking on heaven’s door

University's award winning Chamber Choir, Man Choir and Vox Femina sing music by acclaimed choral composer Eriks Esenvalds and more in CD release concerts

What a year it’s been for Portland State University’s Chamber Choir! In July, it became the first American choir to compete in the prestigious Bali International Choir Festival — where it won top prize among 124 choirs and went on to perform in several other concerts and other events in Indonesia.

A few weeks later, the choir’s newly released third CD, The Doors of Heaven, not only became the first college choir recording to make Billboard’s chart of best-selling traditional classical albums but also debuted at No. 1 and stayed on the chart for two months. The album earned worldwide play on streaming platforms, like Apple Music, and favorable, sometimes ecstatic reviews in Europe and the US.

The Doors of Heaven was the first recording by an American choir entirely devoted to the enchanting, sometimes haunting music of Latvia’s Eriks Esenvalds, who’s become the world’s hottest young choral composer. Portland State’s choir had previously been the first to record his music in this country after the choir’s director, Ethan Sperry, heard it at a choral directors conference. Impressed, Esenvalds specifically asked Naxos, the world’s largest classical CD label, which wanted to record an album of his music, to use the Portland State singers.

A recent review in the online journal Classics Today praised “the extraordinary performances by the Portland State Chamber Choir, whose virtuoso work here… place(s) it among the world’s finest choral ensembles.” Another praised its “stirring performances,” adding “any lover of contemporary choral music would do well to seek out this worthy collection.” If PSUCC isn’t already America’s top college choir, they’re surely knocking at the door.

This weekend, Oregon audiences get to hear the Chamber Choir and two other Portland State choirs sing Esenvalds’ music. The concert includes his prayer for peace, O Salutaris Hostia; a rare choral setting of a poem by Leonard Cohen; another featuring a poem by former Oregon poet laureate Paulann Petersen that Esenvalds wrote especially for the Portland State Chamber Choir.

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Oregon Symphony review: going big

Orchestra's season closing concerts feature large scale Mahler and Stravinsky, and a big success in a "Little Russian" symphony

by TERRY ROSS

On May 15, people came for the show, and thanks to dancers and puppets, they got it. And thanks to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, they also got some memorable music.

The “show” in question was the third in this season’s Oregon Symphony series of multi-media events, called Persephone. Earlier installments were based on Bela Bartok’s 1911 opera  Bluebeard’s Castle  and Olivier Messiaen’s 1948 opus Turangalila, and they involved projected images, creative lighting, unusual instruments (an ondes martenot for Messiaen), among other effects. For Igor Stravinsky’s Persephone, which premiered in 1934, the requisite large orchestra, giant choir, children’s choir, tenor soloist, and female narrator were abetted by the puppetry of multiple Emmy award-winning Michael Curry and dancer Anna Marra, from Portland’s BodyVox. The whole bunch were led by OSO maestro Carlos Kalmar.

Oregon Symphony’s ‘Persephone’ featured striking design by Oregon’s Michael Curry. Photo: Brud Giles.

The 48-minute Persephone show came after the intermission, with the orchestra onstage before an evocative set featuring a glowing sun/moon. The text by André Gide was declaimed and sung in French by, respectively, French actress Pauline Chelviller, who did the role a couple of years ago under director Peter Sellars, and American tenor Paul Groves, an opera singer in considerable demand. Gide famously didn’t care for Stravinsky’s refusal to treat his text as poetry and boycotted the premiere.

His point was well taken. Throughout his career, Stravinsky was never enamored of close textual settings, preferring to regard words as merely syllables and to appropriate their meaning in a more general sense. So in Persephone, the outlines of the music follow the heroine, who is the goddess of springtime, as she is abducted from earth and made to be the underworld mate of Hades, god of the dead, then released (for a while) each year to ensure the appearance of spring on earth before returning to her life below. In a generally vapid score (one of Stravinsky’s weakest), the orchestra makes some Stravinskyan gestures (introductory statements by high-pitched brasses of percussion, decorous string writing in his Neo-Classical stage) to accompany the narrative.

But the real heroes of this production were the lively massed choruses — Portland State University’s Chamber Choir and members of the Pacific Youth Choir — the puppeteer, and the featured dancer. Combined with the lighting director, these participants never let the action flag, even when Stravinsky’s music strongly suggests it might. They carry the “show.” I was especially enchanted by Mr. Curry’s flying spirits, by his puppet of Persephone (also known in mythology as Proserpina), and especially by Ms. Marra’s mind-bending contortions as a flying version of Persephone. She flew through the air as if freed from gravity, every gesture lyrical and lovely.

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Portland State choirs: American classics and global rhythms

Internationally acclaimed singers perform American and world music in two concerts this month

The drums are pounding, a couple dozen choristers are frenetically dancing and ululating onstage, and the audience is clapping and cheering as the global beats erupt around them. When the song is over, the church reverberates with applause.

This isn’t your grandfather’s choral concert. Although it happened last spring, this could be almost any Portland State University choral concert from the past few years. Since director Ethan Sperry arrived in 2010, the university’s choral program has dramatically expanded in quality, range of repertoire, size, acclaim and, as last summer’s performance of a Sperry arrangement of a South Indian song demonstrated, sheer thrills.

Ethan Sperry leads PSU choirs in global rhythms.

The excitement extends beyond Portland. This summer, the chamber choir embarks for Bali for its latest international competition. On March 17, it will showcase that repertoire here in its hometown. And this weekend, it joins fellow Portland State choirs in a concert featuring American choral classics.

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Portland’s contemporary choral ecosystem

Spring performances by The Ensemble, Choral Arts Ensemble, and Portland State choirs demonstrate the city's emerging, multi-level 21st century choral music scene

A few specialist performers does not a scene make; when they’re gone, what happens to the music? A vital new music scene requires a whole ecosystem — performers, composers, audiences, venues, often donors. Think Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, Classical-era Vienna, 19th century Italian opera, ‘70s LA, ‘80s downtown NYC, Austin, Nashville in their glory days.

One such scene may be a-borning in Portland. Well known as a choral music capital, and justly renowned for its developing contemporary and indie classical music scene, the city has recently seen too little intersection between them. While some major cities have a top professional vocal ensemble or two that specializes in contemporary music — San Francisco’s Chanticleer, Seattle’s The Esoterics or Roomful of Teeth and Conspirare (nominally based in New York and Austin, respectively, but in fact drawing singers from around the country) — Portland currently lacks a choir that sings primarily music of our time, like the late lamented Portland Vocal Consort and Choral Cross Ties. Here as elsewhere, most choirs cling to the classics.

Although the city’s top choirs such as Resonance Ensemble, Portland Symphonic and Oregon Repertory Singers sometimes sing new music, they mostly perform music by dead — sometimes long-dead — composers. Nothing wrong with that — as we’ve long argued here, mixing old and new music in concert probably broadens the audience for both. But this season they’ve all focused mostly on music from the last century or earlier.

Sterling Roberts conducted singers onstage and off at Portland State University.

Sterling Roberts conducted singers onstage and off at Portland State University.

Yet Portland choirs seem to be adding more and more new music to the mix, perhaps signaling a broader commitment to new choral music than just confining it to one or two specialty groups. Several of this spring’s concerts demonstrate the breadth of the city’s growing contemporary choral music scene.

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Summer music survey: The Young and the Restless, pt. 1

Young ensembles spice summer shows.

It’s still officially summer for another few days, but what with the first evening chills, the advent of Portland’s TBA Festival, and school starting for many, it’s starting to feel a lot like summer’s end is nigh. But before the classical music season ramps up, it’s worth taking a quick look back at what’s traditionally been the slow season. As we approach the equinox, today we begin a three-part survey of some compelling concerts by young and otherwise un-stodgy performers and composers (from Chamber Music Northwest, Cascadia Composers, even the Oregon Symphony and more) that made the summer of ’14 a season of renewal in Oregon classical music.

Ethan Sperry led the combined Portland State Choirs.

Ethan Sperry led the combined Portland State choirs.

The summer rocketed off to an incendiary start with Portland State’s last student concert of the year, “Indigenous,” a June showcase for its choirs at Portland’s First Congregational Church that demonstrated the two most prominent qualities director Ethan Sperry has fostered: a wide range of choral sounds from across the globe, and a youthful energy that older choirs, however skilled, just can’t match. Chris Edwards, Lucy Yandle and Jason Sabino led enthusiastic performances by the University Choir of works from South Africa, the Philippines, China, Brazil and Sctoland, variously propelled by Xhosa and Brazilian percussion instruments, tambourines, and other metal percussion.

Still wobbly from a spill that morning, PSU’s Joan Szymko (a veteran Portland composer and conductor) led the school’s Vox Femina choir in her own music inspired by Native American songs and stories, plus music by the great contemporary Estonian composer Veljo Tormis. The sound was obscured but maybe the message’s urgency enhanced when one piece offering a prayer for the Earth was nearly blotted out by the racket of an evidently large internal combustion engine belching and idling outside the church’s open window for the entire length of the piece.

PSU’s Man Choir followed, the singers entering singing down the aisles, with more percussionists, vocal soloists arrayed in the corners of the balcony, and songs from Haiti, India, Scotland, and Korea — the last, Filipino-American conductor Sabino informed us, having an entire museum devoted to just that song. Local guest Indian percussionists (playing a mridangam drum and jaw harp) and an alto saxophonist joined the 200 singers of the combined choirs, with Sperry conducting from the center aisle, in music from India (including a selection by Ravi Shankar) and, appropriately given the size of the choir, Szymko’s “It Takes a Village.” The performance level was as high as the programming’s ambitions, and a few weeks later, the Portland State Chamber Choir won the first-place in Adult Mixed Choir category at the 16th International Choral Kathaumixw in Canada, then released its latest CD.

These aren’t your grandpa’s choral concerts; under Sperry’s global visionary leadership, PSU’s international award-winning choral programs are presenting some of Oregon’s most effervescent, enlightening and enjoyable musical performances.

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