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One night in 1999, Ethan Sperry heard five minutes of music that changed his life. At choral music’s biggest annual event, the American Choral Directors Association conference, the 28-year-old choral director was transfixed by Minnesota’s famed St. Olaf Choir’s performance of Eric Whitacre’s Water Night, a setting of a poem by Nobel Prize winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz.

“It changed my life and the life of all the thousands of choir directors at that conference,” recalled Sperry, who has directed Portland State University’s choral programs for the past decade. “We were all talking about it. Here was a new language in writing for choir, and a new way of setting poetry. Not only was there a new voice in choral music, but also somebody bringing new secular poetry into the realm of choral music,” which typically relied on Latin or other dead poets’ texts. Sperry, only a year younger than the then little-known Nevada-born composer, heard “something extremely profound about what he was doing at a young age,” he said. “It was the first time I’d been moved so much by music written by someone my own age.”

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