Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

The passion behind the origins of music: Autumn colors with Oregon choirs

Falling towards the holidays with secret music, west coast premieres, impending CD releases, a short Bach chorale, wintersongs, early Messiahs, and more.

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"Landscape with Trees," 1881, Vincent van Gogh.
“Landscape with Trees,” 1881, Vincent van Gogh.

“Sleigh-bells ring, are you listenin’?”

No, we’re not, thank you very much! We are still trying to decide how to off-load the extra Halloween candy. A couple of weird frosty nights do not a winter make. No, Northwest choirs, don’t you be singing those jingle-jangle songs at us just yet. Rehearse them if you must, but just hold off, please, just a little longer.

They hear you. And they shall abide…for at least a couple more weeks. Our early November choral concerts–season openers for some choirs–bring us Bach, Schütz, Chant in Asia Minor and vivid “Autumn” colors. Yet, this preview must serve as an early harbinger of holiday joy so you can catch the advent of seasonal offerings on the first December weekend. You’ll be warned when those Hallelujahs begin. But first…

Written in secret

After sponsoring the wonderful October appetizer of Nico Muhly and the Byrd Ensemble, In Medio Choir kicks off their own 2023-24 season with a concert that reveals hidden messages – of hope, courage or routes to freedom – in choral music from two different eras and two areas of the world. (See Connections below for an important note about the Muhly premiere.)

William Byrd, who maintained his Catholic faith during the reign of Elizabeth I, could have been severely punished or fined for practicing his beliefs. In Medio will perform Mass for Five Voices; Byrd wrote this Latin Mass (and two others for three and four voices) in these turbulent times, in the constant shadows of fear but always with steadfast devotion. 

Enslaved Africans in America used music as a means of communication – to a higher power, to each other, sometimes to aid in escape from bondage. We call the works ‘spirituals’, a designation given to them in the first published book of songs of slaves. They should be sung with spirit and In Medio will do so, but conductor John Eisemann and the singers offer us the deeper meaning in the text. 

When Dr. David Morrow of Morehouse College visited Portland in April of 2022 he spoke to Portland State and high school students about why we must understand the music, grasp the real meaning, to sing it authentically. He quoted the poetry of James Weldon Johnson several times. This excerpt from “O Black and Unknown Bards” is the essence of In Medio’s concert message:

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Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?

How did it catch that subtle undertone,

That note in the music heard not with the ears? 

(Read the entire poem and more about Morrow’s visit here).

This is the kind of concert that offers you two layers of enjoyment: the purely musical experience – which is bound to be satisfying with In Medio – and the substantive immersion in the reason for and the passion behind the origins of the music. 

Our choral loving friends in Eugene can hear this same concert when In Medio ventures southward on Sun., November 5, 3 pm to sing at First Methodist Church, Eugene. Admission is by donation at the door only.

In Medio’s Portland concert is Fri., November 3, 7 pm, at Augustana Lutheran Church. Please reserve your “Pay What You Will” tickets in advance here.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Also in Eugene on Sunday, November 5, is the Mozart Requiem Mass performed by the Central Chamber Singers and Central Orchestra at Central Lutheran Church as part of their music series. The All-Saints Day concert is conducted by A. Elray Stewart-Cook who this Thanksgiving will celebrate 39 years as a Central organist and choir director.

Hear Mozart’s Requiem in Eugene Sun., November 5, at the 8:30 am service, Central Lutheran Church, Eugene. The concert and service are also live-streamed at this link

Cappella Romana

John Michael Boyer curated and is directing Cappella Romana’s “Byzantine Chant from Asia Minor” concert, in Portland on November 11 and 12. Like In Medio, this concert invites several layers of engagement –in the beautiful singing of this beloved Portland choir, history about the heinous atrocities perpetrated against the Greek population in Asia Minor and highlights of music that arose from the perseverance of Greek refugees after their forced relocation.

This is a story – of people, of art and of resilience – that warrants special consideration. Watch for a special OAW feature next week on Cappella Romana’s “Out of the Ashes of Smyrna: Byzantine Chant from Asia Minor”. 

Cappella Romana is singing “Byzantine Chant from Asia Minor” in Seattle on Friday, Nov. 10, 7:30 pm, at St. Demetrios; in Portland on Saturday, November 11, 8 pm, St. Mary’s Cathedral; and Sunday, November 12, 3 pm, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Portland. Tickets for live concerts and On Demand are here.

Bach Cantata Choir

On their November 12 season opening concert, Portland’s Bach Cantata Choir is performing a Bach Cantata–steadfast on Portland’s list of musical treats we can count on. But Cantata 196: “Der Herr denket an uns” (The Lord is mindful of us) – with mezzo Sheryl Wood soloing on a lovely aria – is one of Bach’s shorter cantatas. So conductor Ralph Nelson has selected further Baroque delights to fill the program like “Jesu, Meine Freude” (Jesus my joy), the longest of Bach’s six (or maybe seven) existing motets. 

Heinrich Schütz’s beautiful double-choir motet, “Jauchzet dem Herrn” (Sing to the Lord), is programmed. Yea! Studied more than performed, Schütz’s compositional style greatly influenced German baroque choral music, ipso facto J. S. Bach. There is so much packed into this 6-minute work. Listen to this very nice recording which exaggerates the echo choir effect and is a model for moving seamlessly between triple and duple meter. 

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Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

This season BCC is featuring several underrepresented composers, and they begin with José Cascante, Renaissance/Early Baroque composer who was the music director of the Cathedral of Bogotá, Colombia. Cascante, wrote Nelson in recent email, “wrote many fine works in a beautiful ‘Palestrina-like’ style.” 

Then, Nelson teased, comes a bit of frivolity when Mary Rowell and the BCC orchestra perform “Autumn” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. “Look for some interesting theatrics from Mary!!” Double the exclamation marks, double the fun. And BCC artists are headed for fun next summer when they tour Europe. Watch for more news on that later in the season.

Motets, cantatas and “Autumn” will be performed by the Bach Cantata Choir on Sunday, Nov. 12 at 2 pm, Rose City Park Presbyterian Church. And pop in on BCC’s annual Holiday Market Fundraiser immediately after the concert. This concert is free; donations are always appreciated. More info here.

Multnomah Women’s Chorus

Move from the Four Seasons to the four elements of the universe with the Multnomah Women’s Chorus on Nov. 20. In recent conversation with OAW, founding conductor Jessica Israels said she was researching pieces for this fall concert when the elements – Fire, Water, Wind and Earth – revealed themselves and formed the program. One of the pieces is Sarah Quartel’s stirring Voice on the Wind, heard here. Percussionist Steven Skolnik joins the choir for “Voice” and several other pieces.

Also guest-appearing with the ensemble this concert are renowned jazz bassist Chuck Israels – yes, it’s a father and daughter duo – and pianist Rebecca Stager for a song made famous by Harry Belafonte, “Turn The World Around.” 

You may have heard the MWC in their first years in joint concerts with the Multnomah Art Center SATB choir. Now in their first semester of the 2023-24 season, leading up to their 10th-anniversary celebration in June, the choir is enjoying a renewed membership of thirty-five singers. (They do welcome new members each semester.) It is a multigenerational choir, says Israel – even an occasional mother and daughter duo – that is a embracing community. All the elements for a good choral experience.

Enjoy a Monday evening of singing with the Multnomah Women’s Chorus, November 20, at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, 7 pm. Concert admission is free; donations to MWC are gratefully accepted.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Special West Coast premiere for PSU

Portland State University choirs get a wonderful opportunity on November 10 and 12. They will perform a west coast premiere of a new choral work, Dust, by one of their professors, Ethan Sperry, based on the poetry of another, Coty Raven Morris. 

According to Morris, with whom OAW communicated by video recently, in 2022 Sperry was looking for inspiration and for text for a new choral composition. The previous year, Morris had written a new poem “From The Dust” as she was beginning her new position at Portland State. The move prompted her deep reflections on career, scholarship, her ancestral roots and her charge, as educator, to “influence the generation who come after.” After poring through Morris’s poetry collection, Sperry chose to set Morris’s soul searching personal reflection. Sperry’s composition Dust premiered in April 2023 in Richmond, Virginia at a high school all-state festival for which Sperry was Guest Director. 

“He’s a prolific arranger,” said Morris of Sperry. “Taking other music, ethnic music and expanding it into a new beautiful version.” This time he “expanded upon his gifts” said Morris, citing one particular passage: “He seemed to fall in love with the line ‘I rage against those who would dare covet this sacred space’.” 

Join Portland State University’s dual creators of Dust and the students who bring it to life in this concert, which will also include familiar classical greats and folk music of Haiti and Latvia. This concert is Friday, November. 10, 7 pm and Sunday, November. 12, 4 pm at Lincoln High School (not Lincoln Hall on the PSU campus). Tickets are here

There’s another choral event being brought to us by PSU on December 1: “At the Foundation: A Community Sing and Concert.” This is year two of a concert experience sponsored by the PSU Social Justice Choirs initiative under the direction of Morris. It’s an evening of seasonal and cultural selections, with performances by the Maybelle Community Singers and other special guests. There was a sell-out crowd at last year’s inaugural event so reserve your space in this free concert very soon. 

PSU’s Community Sing and Concert is on Friday, December 1, 7 pm at First Christian Church. Reserve free ticket here.

Satori

Get a second dose of composer/arranger Sperry’s work when Satori Men’s Chorus sings his arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s beloved “Hallelujah,” just one of many works that will offer an uplifting evening of celebration in Satori’s 30th Anniversary year. Join them as they “remember the music that awakened the spirit that is Satori Men’s Chorus and that brings the various winter traditions together” (from website). You’ll hear Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria and a TTBB setting of poet Sara Teasdale’s “Stars I Shall Find.”

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Chamber Music Northwest Beethoven's Complete Piano Trios The Old Church Portland Oregon

Conductor Susan Dorn states on the choir’s web page that the group “came together in a time when peace was a much-needed commodity. The musical inspiration that was needed then speaks just as loudly today. There is a continued need for the idea of ‘Men Singing Peace’.” And be prepared for a few extra surprises happening during the evening. Can’t pass that up, can you?

Satori sings of and for peace on Saturday, November 18, 7:30 at Unity of Portland Church. Tickets at the door. No one is ever turned away for lack of funds.

Ho ho ho!

Ready! Steady! Ho! It’s time to preview our December holiday concert offerings, beginning with one of the grandest of all, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah.

Is it necessary to conjure some obscure piece of information about The Messiah that would entice you to attend the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, with Portland State University Chamber Choir, Messiah performances on December 2, 3 and 4? Why not? Okay, here’s a good one: John Wesley, co-founder of the Methodist Church, was reportedly in attendance at the very first Messiah performance and wrote in his journal “there were some parts that were affecting, but I doubt it has staying power.” So much for pastoral prognostication. 

The work is a favorite and you probably know a lot about it already. Want to see how much? Take this fun Messiah fan quiz to test your knowledge.

If you’ve never seen a full Messiah score before but would like to, here’s a link to ChoralWiki, where free public domain choral music is often available. This is just one of many Messiah full scores you can view.

It’s all in good humor. But the most fun is to hear The Messiah live, watch the singers and orchestra, sit with others in anticipation of the season. There are several offerings around this season–hey, go hear them all (we’ll preview them all). But you can start with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Saturday, December 2, 7:30; Sunday, December 3, 2 pm; and Monday, December 4, 7:30. Tickets and details are here.

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Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

A Tale of Two ‘Story Scores’

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been filmed, parodied, cartooned, choreographed. It’s even been the libretto for five opera productions. But Benedict Sheehan’s choral adaptation, called a story score, has finally hit the right note for a choral adaptation and it’s coming to two Pacific Northwest towns in early December. If you are in the Vancouver/Portland Metro area you can hear it performed by Vancouver Master Chorale on December 2 and 3. And if you are in Bend, Redmond, Sunriver, Sisters and other Eastern Oregon cities please catch this stunning new work when Central Oregon Mastersingers presents it on December 9 and 10. It is beautifully accessible contemporary choral language woven with traditional Victorian era Christmas carols and a narration that brings the authentic Dickens voice to life. Perfect for the entire family.

Sheehan’s A Christmas Carol was premiered in Portland last year and OAW previewed it in depth. In a 2022 email correspondence with OAW Sheehan said that in constructing this a cappella work he chose 10 familiar carols that could serve as leitmotif in the music beneath the narration. Then his original music and those carols, or carol motifs, are carefully woven to complement the story arc. How very Bach-like, yes? Read that entire preview, with more of Sheehan’s reflections here.

Central Oregon Mastersingers’ conductor Christian Clark said in recent email that “fabulous local actor and professor” (at Central Oregon Community College) Lilli Ann Linford-Foreman will bring the Dickensian narrator role to life. 

VMC conductor Jana Hart is pleased to welcome local Vancouver actor and physician Rebecca Hoffman as A Christmas Carol narrator. Hoffman starred in the recently concluded run of the two-person show “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” at the Magenta Community Theater. Also included on this concert is J. S. Bach’s Magnificat being performed with the newly formed Vancouver Master Chorale Orchestra. 

Central Oregon Mastersingers performs “A Christmas Carol” at the Tower Theatre in Bend on Saturday, December 9, 7 pm and Sunday, December 10, 2 pm. Information and purchase of tickets is here.

Vancouver Master Chorale presents “A Christmas Carol” and Bach’s “Magnificat” on Saturday, December 2 at 7 pm and Sunday, December 3 at 3 pm at First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver WA. Tickets can be purchased here.

Annual anticipations of the season

Portland Symphonic Choir and Oregon Repertory Singers always bring the joy of wintersongs and the glory of Christmas in the first few weeks of December. Why do these two concerts always draw good audiences? They feature varied works that touch the heart; an array of pieces that shimmer and shine. If there was such a thing as scent-a-song the concert halls would be awash with fragrant pumpkin spice and perhaps a hint of peppermint. It is not unusual to see entire families in attendance. Seems there’s always someone’s Aunt Jen laying out coats to claim an entire row and waving with glee at the arrival of the rest of the clan.

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Chamber Music Northwest Beethoven's Complete Piano Trios The Old Church Portland Oregon

ORS’s three “Glory of Christmas” concerts are on the first two weekends in December in one downtown Portland location. Joining the adult musicians will be the Camas, Washington Union High School Orchestra under the direction of Tim Siess, longtime ORS singer who is celebrating his 40th year of teaching. Members of the Oregon Repertory Singers Youth Choir program will also perform at each of the three concerts. The choir, now celebrating 50 years of singing, also acknowledges the 20-year tenure of accompanist and composer Naomi LaViolette whose “Written For You” for SATB choir and orchestra is featured on the program. Three LaViolette pieces are also on the soon-to-be-released ORS Anniversary CD; perhaps soon enough to stuff some stockings this year. 

Portland Symphonic Choir brings us “Wintersong” on December 2 in the East Portland area and December 3 in the West. Joining the adult singers on December 2 will be a choir founded by PSC thirty years ago, the Portland Boy Choir. Under the new direction of Joshua Sommerville the Boy Choir is having a year of rejuvenation. Sue-Del McCulloch (BC parent, and also President of the Boy Choir Board) remarked to OAW in recent conversation on how long some of the members have remained in the group (from ages 6 to 15) even through the pandemic closures. As Portland’s only self-identifying, self-affirming Boy Choir, the singers proudly reunite with their parent organization to sing winter songs. 

Sidebar: The Portland Boy Choir and many other choirs will begin their Portland Grotto Festival of Choirs performances in late November. See the Boy Choir on November 28, at 8 pm. Grotto concerts here.

Tualatin High School choir, directed by Andrew Bergh, are the guest students on the December 3rd Westside concert. Along with a plethora of seasonal songs for all, the choir is revealing a winner of their Summer Sing “Call for Compositions.”. 

Oregon Repertory Singers’ “Glory of Christmas” is Sunday, December 3 and Saturday/Sunday, December 9 and 10, all at 4 pm at First United Methodist Church, Portland. Purchase tickets here.

Join Portland Symphonic Choir for “Wintersong” on December 2, 7:30 pm at Warner Pacific Auditorium and December 3, 4 pm, at Cedar Mill Christ United Methodist. Tickets here

Yup, we’re on the way to the season of song, with a stop off to give thanks along the way. I give thanks for music.

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Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Connections

If you missed the live Byrd Ensemble Seattle or Portland world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Fallings, a Byrd Ensemble commissioned homage to William Byrd, you can still virtually “attend” the Seattle concert, with Muhly conducting, by going to this link. This video option is available through November 12. Fallings will also be released on CD very soon.

Choral community thanks to Tom Hard for steadfastly managing the PDX Choral Calendar, and sincere personal thanks for his assistance in date-, fact- and spell-checking this piece.

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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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