Washougal Art & Music Festival

The end goal is peace: In Medio sings Randall Thompson and Judy A. Rose

The Portland choir celebrated its “third official year” with the Thompson classic “The Peaceable Kingdom” and a commissioned companion piece from Portland composer and educator Rose.

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Composer Judy A. Rose and In Medio Choir Artistic Director John Eisemann. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Composer Judy A. Rose and In Medio Choir Artistic Director John Eisemann. Photo by Daryl Browne.

In Medio Choir’s recent concert was an absolute pleasure. It was one of those experiences that took me back to the first moments when choral music grabbed my attention and my heart. Thank you to the only two composers on this June 7th concert, whose music elevates the choral art: Randall Thompson and Judy A. Rose, And thanks to In Medio’s Artistic Director John Eisemann and the singers for making the music the star. 

Rev. W. J. Mark Knutson, pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church, settled the crowd still coming in out of the 90-degree heat with a few welcoming remarks. Great program notes told us about the pieces. And after intermission, Eisemann thanked the donors who funded the commissioned premiere of Rose’s Walk in Beauty, Walk in Light. But for the rest of the concert there was no “further ado” to go “without”–we entered The Peaceable Kingdom.

Thompson’s opening movement “Say Ye To The Righteous” can be a bit stodgy, a male voice chorus sermonizing right out of the box. It wasn’t. The smooth voices moved the piece forward from beat one, were joined by the women’s voices, still with a light step assuring “it shall be well.” But the rejoicing of the righteous suddenly flips to the condemnation of the wicked. This too can be weighty, but instead it was spiky, pointed and stung a bit, but buoyant. 

And that buoyancy is essential once the “Woes” of the second movement introduce the opposing natures of humanity – good and evil, to be reductive. Thompson, the choral craftsman, writes in a westernized chant style. Eisemann held it in strict tempo but concentrated on inflection and clear wording to make it musical. Onward galloped the punchy “woes.” If tempo could be measured like RPMs, the choir’s neared but did not enter the red zone. Then whoa, a change of texture, a brief hymn-like interlude that laments the noise of the multitudes, before returning to the strident chant. We are now aware that Thompson wants us to sit up and listen.

Eisemann is a humble conductor. He assumes an upright, balanced stance and conducts from his core. From the audience viewpoint his body is fairly still, not projecting the drama, not launching itself into each forte. It works. In Medio is a choir that sings with precision, with passion in every choral line and a sumptuous choral sound with no vocal constraint. And if vocal tension was there it might well show up in the third movement “The Noise of the Multitude.”

In Medio Choir Artistic Director John Eisemann. Photo by Daryl Browne.
In Medio Choir Artistic Director John Eisemann. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Thompson lets loose in “Noise” with provocative text selected from Isaiah 13’s ominous prophecy about the destruction of ancient Babylon. More textural shifts; clashing dissonance. It’s a frightening couple of minutes, feeling like the world is going out of control – as perhaps many felt in Thompson’s world of 1934. But because the performance remained in control the audience could stay in that creative moment, primed for what would come next. 

The ”Howl Ye” leaps from “Noises” without pause. It’s a 10-word movement that evokes J. S. Bach’s use of crowd chorus and layering of fugue lines, although Thompson is not strict in his counterpoint. The choir delivered the ending text “thou art dissolved” just as the composer painted: music and text just poof, gone. Pinpoint accuracy in the exposed entrances and crystal-clear running passages testified to the singers’ musical and vocal abilities. 

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The howls of anguish, the aftermath in the destruction and desolation are rendered with a harmonic hollowness in Movement 5, “The Paper Reeds By The Brook”. Thompson knew he needed to bring in the serenity – boy does he ever. In Movement 6 he gives us a simple tune, in unison, which evokes early Americana to quell the fear and then leads the listener to joy. In Medio already had my attention, now they grabbed my heart. The audience sat suspended and released a sigh at the end. Listen to that movement, “But These Are They That Forsake The Lord,” here.

A clean, true sound

Augustana Sanctuary offers a clean, true sound with moderate resonance. The only distraction in the hall was a pesky security light behind the choir that I swear sometimes seemed to react to dynamic level (but probably didn’t). The choir was positioned in two rows, SATB blocks, crescent shaped with no natural shell. The tenors and altos, at the deepest point of the crescent were occasionally overshadowed by the basses and sopranos. But to their credit, particularly the basses, there were rarely any singular or corporate vocal distractions. This community of singers never pushes the vocal sound, and they seem to appreciate the boundaries of their own voices. They sing as a choir.

One of those singers is soprano and In Medio Marketing Director Jen Milius. She and her husband, conductor and AD Eisemann, cofounded the ensemble and staged their first concerts, with 17 singers, in the fall of 2019. Now back in swing in what they call their “third official year” Milius remarked, in recent email to OAW, that she and her husband joke that their home life “sometimes feels like a board meeting.” They love it. 

The couple met in their first year of choir at Knox College in Illinois. Milius knows how choral singing can foster collaboration, but went on further in the same email to say, “when John and I started the choir we had no idea that it would blossom into such a vibrant community.” Many In Medio singers sang together in the University of Oregon Chamber Singers, and–in addition to an occasional nightcap after rehearsals–singers are hosted at the Milius/Eisemann home for monthly sight-singing parties they call “Level-Up Nights.” Oh, boy, these are choral folks.

Beauty and Light

In the last two movements of The Peaceable Kingdom, the biblical text asks “Have We Not Known?” and answers that in peace, “Ye Shall Have a Song.” In Medio maintained the performance intensity through to the lovely, simple conclusion, leaving us with beauty and light. A perfect pathway to the newest choral piece by Portland composer Judy A. Rose.

In the program notes Eisemann wrote:

When exploring programming to pair with the Thompson, I knew I had to find something that could stand up to the heft of The Peaceable Kingdom while providing a contrast that is more relatable to modern audiences. Rose’s work, Walk in Beauty, Walk in Light, is not necessarily a response to Thompson’s work, but more a companion piece that grapples with the same concepts of good versus evil in a modern, updated context.

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And a companion piece it is. Not a twin, but one of a pair that complements the other with an implied respect and appreciation without competition. Rose said, in telephone interview prior to the concert, that she took her initial inspiration from the titles of Thompson’s eight movements. Of course, those colorful and descriptive titles are ideal fodder for musical ideas–and ideas for Rose’s newly composed text and poetry. Yes, the libretto for this song cycle is her own. And the music and words fit together like Legos.

Composer Judy A. Rose with In Medio Choir. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Composer Judy A. Rose with In Medio Choir. Photo by Daryl Browne.

A nurturing companion is someone who sometimes repeats your words to show you that they listened, they understood. What fun to hear Rose throw in an occasional “say ye” or refer to the “multitudes” alongside a “talk about your karma” and “y’all listen up.” Rose siphons off the biblical in favor of the colloquial in a wonderfully conversational banter that provokes thought and invites response. 

Where Thompson’s Peaceable Kingdom is an in-your-face intervention, Rose’s Walk in Beauty, Walk in Light plays out like a series of group therapy sessions. She reasons with the better nature of the human soul. But the end goal for both composers is peace.

The first movement, reverently titled “Peaceable Kingdom,” begins with a question. Ah, you see…Rose, the composer, is a teacher, as was Thompson. She posits and then repeats “Is peace possible?” The music also repeats but adds layer upon layer, to end with more of a plea than a question punctuated with silences “Can…we…live…together?”

Movement 2, “Woe Unto You (Cause and Effect are Flipping the Script)” nods to Thompson but throws no “woeish” punches. It begins in a whisper rather than a roar then bluntly delivers a list of the daily ways in which humans hurt each other with words, with actions, with inaction. The fabric of this movement is so varied, so expansive. Patter, silences, an ethereal glissando on “karma” and, is that bit of 1950s “doo-doot” styling there toward the ending? Yes, of course. No threats, no retributions. State the grievances clearly, but with a heart open to joy. It felt natural. And inviting.

Are you getting the impression that this piece is no toss-off to perform? Right you are. Even though this excellent choir made it seem effortless, the complexities in rhythm, layered entrances, brisk tempi, exposed lines and a whole lot of text require a high level of musical skill and performance concentration. In Medio demonstrated both. 

“Do Unto Others: So It Shall Be” begins with a sweet fugue as the modified Golden Rule plays out. It’s a simple statement requiring little embellishment which Rose morphs into a bit of vocal jazz ending with a sparkling little open chord with added 9th

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“Noises from the Multitudes” is Rose taking a stand against inaction more than action: “If you don’t speak up to help your brother or your sister, silence is not golden.” But beautifully placed musical pauses, which Thompson employs generously in Peaceable Kingdom as well, were golden. And needed. Rose constructs this noisy little movement by overcrowding the vertical structure, compressing clusters of tone, building pressure which must then release like an old-style pressure cooker, on choral glissandos. Then to reset the circuitry – spoken quarter note beats. Yes, the choir literally counts aloud–“rest, 2, 3, 4”–and moves on. Noises, “what do we with them?”, asks the final line.

“Can we turn to the light?” In this central movement of the work, the music confronts us, causes a dis-ease that paints the movement’s title as more of a prayer. Full choral sound, cadences that deceive, clusters of tone that do not resolve. “Can we?” Brief, beautiful and disturbing, the musical world in which Rose places us feels almost too heavy to bare. 

And so we turn to the “Hummingbird.” Remember in Peaceable Kingdom there’s a point at which the annihilation of the human race seems imminent, and Thompson gives us that simple Americana unison line – an anchoring element to establish a sense of calm, a stability. Rose does the same by taking us to a basic element of musicianship study, solfège. Why does the choir begin Movement 6 with “Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do”? Elementary. It’s centering, cognitive, balancing. It prepares us for the beauty of the hummer.

“Hummingbird” is not music about the bird. It portrays the bird. Not in caricature–Rose goes for the real thing. Like when you are out in the garden you perceive the flutter, pick up on the buzz before you see the bird. From the stage the sounds rose organically from within a choral texture, beneath the words. The word “hummer” is repeated, with the voiced bilabial nasal “m” smoothing the vocal line like nectar. The rhythm and texture, ha, it’s the hummer in flight. Straight ahead, then sideways. Up one moment, down the next. With beak in the sweet water, a burst of color; the next moment a dot high in the sky above. Being present for the unveiling of “Hummingbird” was a privilege. 

And after the humming comes the affirmation of joy. “You Can’t Steal My Joy (Y’all Listen Up)” has hints of African American spiritual style and soaring revival-like ad libs by the soloist.

In the final two movements, Rose offers a lullaby, “Have You Not Known?”, which ends on a heart-opening 6/4 chord so we can find the answer in “Rise up Singing, Dancing.” Both are textual nods to Thompson’s Peaceable Kingdom, but Rose answers her own opening question–“Is Peace Possible?”–a bit more broadly than does Thompson. She hopes for the higher power within each of us to find the love and to rise up singing it out to the world.

A few moments into the postlude “Walk in Beauty, Walk in Light,” the crowd caught on that this finale was a 2, uh 3 – no, a super cool 4-part round. A couple hundred enthusiastic audience members seemed ready to rise up and join in. Oh, so tempting. But I’m glad the choir got the honor of finishing on their own. And then audience did rise to celebrate the artists and the music.

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What a masterful job! Bravo In Medio. Bravo Randall Thompson and Judy A. Rose. Here’s to many more peaceful walks together.

Composer Judy A. Rose and In Medio Choir Artistic Director John Eisemann. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Composer Judy A. Rose and In Medio Choir Artistic Director John Eisemann. Photo by Daryl Browne.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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