roger doyle

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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Roger Doyle conducting in 1979

Last month, we broke the news about the retirement of Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra music director Huw Edwards and the death of Oregon Chamber Players and Junior Symphony of Vancouver founder Timoteus Racz. Now comes news that Willamette Week performance editor Ben Waterhouse, who has anchored the paper’s theater criticism for the past six years and supervised its dance and classical music coverage, is leaving the paper to take a communications position with the estimable Oregon Humanities.

And we’re saddened to report Monday’s passing of long-time University of Portland director of choral studies and Choral Arts Ensemble music director Roger Doyle. One of the three major local musical figures who dominated Portland choral music for three decades (the others being Lewis & Clark College/Oregon Repertory Singers’ Gil Seeley and Portland State University/Portland Symphonic Choir/Choral Cross Ties’ Bruce Browne), Doyle was the subject of a touching portrait by Oregonian feature writer David Stabler upon the conductor’s retirement in 2010.

Here’s an excerpt from the item that the University of Portland ran yesterday.

The University of Portland community is mourning the loss of Roger O. Doyle, a colorful and beloved professor of music at the University of Portland for nearly forty years and cheerful sturdy pillar of the music community in Portland, who died Monday, April 30 of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – ALS, “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” Doyle was 72 years old and is survived by his widow Kay Reboul Doyle, as well as his stepmother Lucille and stepsister Elizabeth, and his nephews Kevin and Christopher Sanborn.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, on Christmas Eve, 1939, the younger of Daniel and Minnie Doyle’s two children, Roger earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in music education at the University of Wichita (where he was also a noted singer and tuba player, and served six years in the Kansas Air National Guard), and a doctorate on conducting and choral music from the University of Colorado. He taught in high schools in Kansas and at Saint Mary of the Plain College in Dodge City before arriving at the University of Portland in 1973, where he became legendary for his energy, creativity, exuberance, tireless energy for conducting choirs and orchestras, and booming laughter.

But for all his excellence as a teacher and admired colleague on The Bluff, Doyle’s energy and influence ranged much further than the campus. He directed Portland’s Choral Arts Ensemble from 1976 until his final concert with that group in 2010. He served as president of Portland’s classical radio station, KQAC (formerly KBPS) – famously persuading the station’s board to purchase the broadcast license from Portland Public Schools and become an independent station. He founded and directed the Mock’s Crest Productions professional light opera run every summer in the University of Portland’s Mago Hunt Theater. He was often a guest lecturer for the Oregon Symphony. He lectured and conducted in Japan, Austria, Denmark, and Ireland, twice conducting the National Chamber Choir of Ireland. He conducted the Multnomah Club Balladeers for 35 years, from 1975 to 2010. He was a board member of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony Orchestra for nearly thirty years. He was president of the Oregon Choral Directors Association. He wrote graceful essays and articles about music and composers for many periodicals. He founded the annual Best in the Northwest Choir Festival, which has brought thousands of talented high school students to Portland. He presented more concerts in and around Portland than can be easily counted, among them a series of famous sacred music events at Saint Mary’s Cathedral. He persuaded Aaron Copland to donate his scores to the University of Portland, he sang with Barry Manilow, studied with Robert Shaw, and taught thousands of students to sing and to savor and appreciate music and musical theater.

And among the many dreams and sweeping ideas he had that came to fruition, he finally did conduct Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, in 2008 in Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Portland, with the University Singers and the Choral Arts Ensemble, in two legendary performances; he finally did spend months in his ancestral Ireland, on a research sabbatical in 1998, where, among other entertainments, he conducted high school choirs and met the famous Irish composer Roger Doyle; and he did finally conduct at the farewell concert his wife Kay had always envisioned for him at the University, in 2010, with more than a hundred of his students and former students singing their hearts out for the professor who had changed their lives.

Yet for all his sweeping accomplishments and myriad projects, Roger’s legacy at the University and in the city of Portland is his character and cheer, his irrepressible humor and open friendliness, and the absolute integrity of the way he lived his life. He loved music, he loved his wife Kay, he loved bringing music to people and people to music. He was an unforgettable man with an immense heart, a lovely tenor voice, and a kindness bigger than an ocean. When he retired from the University of Portland in 2010, beginning to suffer the effects of his illness, the University community paid him the usual honors: emeritus status, scholarship gifts gathered in celebration of his work and spirits, an award for community service established in his name. But the most telling events, perhaps, are the stream of visitors, letters, calls, and notes to him from friends and admirers, so constant and dense that Kay had to resort to scheduling callers in advance; and that June 2010 farewell concert for him, organized by his current and former students, among them the wonderful Portland singer Julianne Johnson. During the show Roger sat on stage, beaming, as wave after wave of the young people he taught brought music back to him as a balm, a prayer, an expression of deep love and respect.

Gifts in memory of Roger may be directed to the Roger and Kay Doyle Scholarship Fund at the University of Portland, a scholarship devoted to students of music.

Katherine FitzGibbon leads Resonance Ensemble's concerts this weekend

The past few years have seen a changing of the guard in Portland’s choral music scene. Last year, the city’s two most influential veteran choral conductors, University of Portland professor Roger Doyle and Lewis & Clark College’s Gil Seeley, retired after three-plus decades of leading two of the city’s three most important choral organizations: Choral Arts Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers (ORS).  The conductor of the third, Portland Symphonic Choir’s Bruce Browne, had left Portland for a teaching job in Oklahoma a few years earlier, after building Portland State University’s program to national prominence and founding the superb Choral Cross Ties ensemble, which folded after he left.

While the city’s choral scene still flourished during the 2000s (including the founding of strong new ensembles run by Browne’s former students Ryan Heller, David York and Alexander Lingas), some slippage was evident in several corners of the city’s choral establishment, and choral music lovers could have been forgiven for worrying about what would happen in the wake of the departures of these strong leaders.

No more. The recent arrival of two energetic, imaginative young successors to the Big Three have revitalized the programs at PSU and L&C, and the two conductors — Ethan Sperry (whom I profiled last month in Willamette Week) and Katherine FitzGibbon, who directs choral programs at Lewis & Clark, are also running, respectively, Oregon Rep Singers and the recently arrived Resonance Ensemble, which has already established itself as one of the Northwest’s finest vocal groups.

Last year, his first at PSU, Sperry arranged a highly successful tribute to Portland native Morten Lauridsen, America’s greatest living choral composer, and spearheaded a spectacular reunion concert featuring alumni of PSU’s renowned choral program and the current members. With music from Haiti, India, and beyond, and young choristers singing spiritedly from different parts of Portland’s First Methodist Church, it was one of the most exciting choral concerts I’ve seen in Oregon.

Sperry’s debut concert with Oregon Repertory Singers earlier this month (which included Seeley conducting several works in a kind of passing of the torch) at PSU’s Lincoln Hall definitively demonstrated that the 40-year-old new music director will continue his predecessor’s legacy of vivid performances of wide ranging repertoire, from across the ages and the planet.

With splendid younger groups like FitzGibbon’s Resonance Ensemble, the women’s ensemble In Mulieribus, Heller’s new music oriented Portland Vocal Consort, Lingas’s Cappella Romana and others regularly providing extraordinary performances of new and uncommonly heard repertoire, new groups like Patrick McDonough’s The Ensemble (which made its debut last week with a concert of music by Heinrich Schutz) and the alt.classical group The Julians (top classical singers who also often cover pop tunes) emerging in the past year, and longtime stalwarts like Portland Symphonic Choir, the Bach Cantata Choir and Cantores in Ecclesia (both conducted by former Browne students Ralph Nelson and Blake Applegate) still going strong, Portland seems awash in choral splendor. As Browne proclaimed during his speech at last spring’s reunion: “Choral music at Portland State, and indeed in Portland, is back!”

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