Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

This season of harmony: Oregon choirs shift into a holiday mood

Soweto Gospel Choir brings their “Hope” to Portland; a collaborative barbershop concert in close harmony; a salon in Eugene; the Yuletide concert season begins, from Jenkins’s “Miserere” to Geter’s “Requiem” to Britten’s “Saint Nicolas Cantata” to Rutter’s “Gloria.”

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“Boys Christmas Choir,” Mead Schaeffer, 1953.

Seems really dark really early right now, doesn’t it? And chilly. And wet. Well, the concert halls are brightly shining. And warm. And dry. So let’s go hear some great choral music. It’s out there just waiting for you.

Let’s hope

It’s hard to keep up with the world-renowned Soweto Gospel Choir. They’re on tour right now: Nov. 3, 6, and 8 they are in Stockholm Sweden, Zagreb, Croatia and Graz, Austria. And they just keep going until right before the turn of the year. But on Thurs., Nov. 10 – woohoo – they are in Portland and they bring us “Hope.”

Soweto promises an entertaining evening all around, filled with humor and sentiment, singer interactions and dancing which embraces and authentically honors cultural roots. The South African ensemble has just released their sixth album, Hope, and a recent review states “these musical vibrations provide everyone around us extraordinary energy to overcome the most obscene of human experiences.” How? Through hope. (Read that review right here.)

Soweto performs at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland on Thurs., Nov. 10 at 8 PM. Tickets are here.

War is not kind

The irony in Stephen Crane’s famous three-word title “War is Kind” is a lot more poetic than stating the obvious. But that’s art for you. It can understate and scream out at the same time. 

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Metropolitan Youth Symphony Music Concert Rooted Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

So, here’s an understatement. On November 12th and 13th the Willamette Master Chorus is once again offering a Veterans Day concert as it has for almost two decades. It is a wonderful tribute honoring those who have dedicated themselves to protecting our lives. Now here’s the scream.

WMC is performing the Miserere by Karl Jenkins on that concert! Was that loud enough? Once more with feeling. Welsh composer Sir Karl JenkinsMiserere: Songs of Mercy and Redemption for choir, soloists and orchestra is being performed in Salem. This is a monumental NW premiere and it is one you will not want to miss! 

The US premiere of the Miserere was in Carnegie Hall on January 20, 2020 as part of the DCINY series. The then-75-year-old composer was present for the performance and was preparing to take the work on a UK summer tour. That tour finally came to pass in 2022.

In the last few decades Oregon has not been treated to much of this prolific composer’s oeuvre. But his choral/orchestral works are some of the most performed contemporary works in that genre. The Armed Man and Adiemus are perhaps most well-known, but there are several others including his Stabat Mater and Requiem.

The Miserere can’t be called understated but it won’t blast you from your seat. Jenkins’ critics have said he isn’t edgy enough, that his music is too accessible. Perhaps they meant those words as a rebuke but don’t they, instead, make you want to head straight to this concert? Mercy and redemption shouldn’t need to be pounded in; in the Miserere they embrace and have just as much impact. Hear Jenkins speak about his Miserere with portions of the work in background here.

The composer dedicated the piece to all who have suffered in Middle Eastern and other geo-political conflicts. Psalm 51 is the primary text. The English translation of Miserere is “have mercy.” Couple of profound words. 

“I’m hoping this concert will be a glimpse of beauty and an oasis of peace,” says Paul Klemme, Artistic Director of Willamette Master Chorus. In the 45-minute, 14-movement work you will hear text in English and Latin intertwined with Arabic and Hebrew. Klemme is also excited about the two key soloists, alto Sarah Brauer and Salem cellist Noah Seitz. Listen for the meshing of ancient and modern sound in this clip which features the two integral solo roles.

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

The Miserere honors veterans who have served and many who have suffered. Other concert highlights include patriotic and national anthems, and the fourth appearance of the WMC High School Honor Choir. There is a new work by Dan Davidson – a four-hand arrangement of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” – and a setting of “Oregon, My Oregon” by Chris Jones.

The Miserere is one of the “must hears” of our fall choral season – now that is an understatement.

WMC presents Miserere in Salem on Sat., Nov. 12 and 13th, both 3 pm at Hudson Hall, Rogers Music Center, Willamette University. Purchase tickets and find more information about health protocol here

Nothing but Britten

Benjamin Britten had amateur musicians in mind when he composed his Saint Nicolas cantata in 1948–notwithstanding engaging Peter Pears for tenor solos in the premiere. The piece can be within grasp of church or school choirs. But when you put it in the hands of conductor Solveig Holmquist and Salem’s Festival Chorale Oregon on Nov. 19 the rarely heard work will be given a stellar performance. 

Saint Nicolas cantata depicts consequential events in the life of 4th century Christian Bishop Nicholas of Bari. Accounts of the life of this man, recognized as a saint in the 800s, include numerous miracles, profound acts of caring and of his penchant for secret gift giving. St. Nicolas; secret gifts; patron saint of children. Hmmm. this rings a bell.

Listen here to Movement VII: Nicolas and the pickled Boys, the text of which describes how Nicolas discovers three boys brined by a butcher, saves them from being eaten and brings them back to life. It’s another delectable – ugh, sorry – collaboration between Britten and librettist/producer Eric Crozier; others were Albert Herring, Peter Grimes and Let’s Make An Opera.

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Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington

This is a superb set of vignettes for mixed choir, four young treble voices, soloist and orchestra to lead into the holiday season. But pair it with A Ceremony of Carols, perhaps Britten’s best known choral work–well, this concert is destined to put holly in your heart.

This all-Britten concert is Sat., Nov. 19, 4 pm at Salem’s First Presbyterian Church. Ticket and other information can be found here.

African American Requiem – still resonating

You knew that the May premiere of Damien Geter’s African American Requiem would not remain just a one-off spring 2022 happening, didn’t you?

No, that final cut off in May was not the end of this journey. Geter says it himself in part one of a four-part Requiem Video Series about the making of the Requiem:

“The Requiem ends with a gleam of hope, I think. The reason why I say I think is because I sort of left it as ambiguous. One person might hear it as hopeful; another person is going to hear it as incomplete, I think.”

You can watch the four short segments of the Requiem Video Series here:

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Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

But now there’s a full-length film! And you are invited to attend. On November 17 at Alberta House you can participate in the culmination of the next phase of African American Requiem – the 40-minute film produced by Resonance Ensemble and Oh! Creative, Around the Requiem. Grab a seat for this FREE screening and open house. 

This Requiem didn’t just “happen” in one year, or two. For Geter and Resonance Ensemble, the story behind the Requiem began about one half decade ago. No, that’s not right. The story of the Requiem began centuries ago. And the ending is as yet incomplete.

Register for your free ticket today. There are only 125 seats for this screening taking place on Thurs., Nov 17 at 6 pm at Alberta House, Portland.

Satori lights a cozy fire 

Looking for a cozy fireside to shake off the winter chill? Satori Men’s Chorus offers a soft and gentle reminder of days gone by in their “Autumn to Winter – By the Fireside” concert. But lest that sound soporific, they also acknowledge that frolicking and dancing and some jingling of sleigh bells might also be involved.

One composer whose work is featured on this concert, Randall Thompson, sure understood how the marriage of text and melody in choral music can ignite nostalgia.  Satori will sing Thompson’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (from the seven-song choral cycle Frostiana). You see, that old favorite drew a nostalgic sigh from some of you, didn’t it. Listen to it here:

Satori has brought their joy of singing to Portland for 29 years and in the words of one of their concert pieces, ”Homeward Bound” by Marta Keen, ”those who love you trust that you will return.” 

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

Warm up to the music of Satori on Sat., Nov. 19, 7:30 at Unity of Portland,  4525 SE Stark. Tickets here.

Eugene salon

From a fireside in Portland to an early 1800s “Viennese Salon” in Eugene. On Sat., Nov. 13, Eugene Vocal Arts takes you into the famous Michaelerplatz in Vienna, Austria, where architecture mimicked the structure of societal class. Lower levels were for the families of influence. The attics were for the invisible and the struggling. Marianna Martines, a brilliant musician and composer (and later a generous salonnière), was able to have her intelligence and talent nurtured from her family’s floors in the middle.

Indeed, it was from this middle class perspective that she was able to mingle with and be mentored by prominent court artists like composer Nicola Pompora and Pietro Metastasio, a family friend, court poet, and later her benefactor. And even before her teen years she was receiving music training from a struggling young composer named Giuseppe Haydn – yes, that Haydn – who lived in the leaky upper level above the Martines family. And her music did eventually receive some attention from the Esterházy court. But it was primarily in the middle floors that doors were opened to all, including women whose music would not receive other public performances and would receive scant publication possibilities.

But a public performance of one of Martines’ masterworks is what Eugene Vocal Arts is offering. Her Dixit Dominus, for choir, solo quartet and orchestra, will be featured in this program, as will the music of others who participated in her salon or thrived in 18th century Vienna. Listen to a sample from the Dixit Dominus here:

Imagine that pianists Nathalie Fortin and Brad Schultz are actually Marianna and Wolfgang – yes, that Wolfgang – performing a four-hand piano sonata. Hear the vocal soloists present, as if for the first time, “Ach, ich fühl’s” from The Magic Flute or “Il mio Tesoro” from Don Giovanni. Also on the program: even more Haydn and Schubert and Mozart.

Eugene Vocal Arts performs one “Salon” concert on Sun., Nov. 13, at 2:30 in Soreng Theater at the Hult Center in Eugene. Tickets information is here

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Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

It’s beginning to look a lot like….

Yes! Okay, you’re right! It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, but already on the PDX choral calendar there is an overflowing cornucopia of choral concerts being readied for you. No kidding! Just look at this screen shot for December 3 and 4.

So, let’s take a quick scan of the season of singing on that first weekend in December, beginning with a special zoom-in on some Portland musicians who deserve a little extra attention.

If you call these three groups – Pride of Portland, Vocal Summit and PDX Voices – barbershop choirs, you won’t be corrected; they are each a descendant of the barbershop harmony sound that surged in the 1930s. But if you call them Close Harmony A Cappella Choirs, you’ll also be recognizing what this unique sound is all about.

The three choirs are conducted by Drew Osterhout (Pride), Rob Roman (PDX Voices) and Justin Miller (Vocal Summit). In a recent conversation with ArtsWatch, conductors Osterhout and Roman offered a quick lesson in some key elements of this varietal of a cappella singing.

“We live and abide by the circle of fifths,” offered Osterhout. The circle of fifths facilitates smooth pivoting between chords – sort of a seamless gliding that keeps everything close (see here for more of the music theory behind this all-important circle). Roman then spoke about the roles of the voice parts. First, he said “the second voice, not the top voice, has the melody.” That melody is then harmonized above and from below, resulting in a tight stacking of tones which enables a special unaffected vocal resonance.

Oh, there’s so much more to it, but now when you come to the Dec. 4 concert, you can understand a bit more about why this sound seems to ignite your own internal harmonic series. Feel it here in this recent Washington state contest performance by Vocal Summit:

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

The three choirs’ collaborative concert “Season of Harmony” offers choral pieces representing everything the season has to offer – the familiar, the spirit of Christmas and wonder of Hanukkah, the snowy winter sights and the joyful jingling of bells. (Indeed, the very special setting of the text of Jingle Bells to the familiar strains of the Nutcracker Suite sounds like an extra big “ho, ho, ho.”)

But the added wonder this concert offers you and the singers is that it’s the first time that these choirs – women voices, men voices and mixed – will collaborate in a program. In the history of the “barbershop” choral culture this is a bold effort that seeks to recognize and celebrate individual identities within a shared history. Each of the three choirs will perform, as will representative quartets in all three voicings, and the choirs will sing the finale together. 

In the new year we’re going to keep watch on each of these choirs as they participate in regional and national competitions. But hear them in this concert as they usher in a new era of close harmony.

Two Sun., Dec. 4 performances are offered, at 3 and 7 pm, at the Sherwood Center for the Arts, 22689 SW Pine St in Sherwood. Ticket information is here.

Sharing the stage for the season

Other special choral collaborations are taking place on Dec. 3 and 4. Five familiar Portland choirs –iSing, Oregon Chorale, Portland Symphonic Choir, Portland Choir and Orchestra, and Oregon Repertory Singers – all welcome young singers to share the stage. How generous this is in a year of choral education rebuilding. Each of these concerts offers the familiar seasonal selections, and some offer sing-a-longs, but each choir is adding something new, something with a twist. 

Oregon Chorale, poised to sing the Oregon Symphony “Comfort and Joy” concert on Dec 7, is offering pieces from Handel to vocal jazz. ISing Choir, in their “Yearning for Christmas” programs at the Reser, shares the stage with Big Horn Brass , who will join the choir for John Rutter’s Gloria. Portland Choir and Orchestra is very happy to be back in Portland’s Newmark Theater for their performances of “How Great Our Joy.”

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Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

Oregon Repertory Singers is placing the choral works of local composer and pianist Naomi LaViolette in the spotlight this year, and on this concert you can hear the premieres of two of her works–plus a few more favorites. There’s humor, sentiment, sacred and secular–and, says conductor Ethan Sperry, “I’ve finally found a Hanukkah piece I like: Ochos Kandelikas arranged by Joshua Jacobson.” Many audience favorites on this concert will be included in ORS’ upcoming 50th Anniversary album due to be released next year.

Portland Symphonic Choir, featured this week in the finale of the wonderful KQAC FM (89.9) series Fall Into the Arts, hosted by Brandi Parisi, ventures into the Beaverton/Cedar Mill area for their Sunday evening performance. Students will join the choir for “Maoz Tsur” (Rock of Ages) written by PSC alum Shlomo Farber. Also, says Conductor Alissa Deeter, in additional to other seasonal favorites PSC will perform the understated but gorgeous “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming” by Jon Washburn. And get ready to sing along in true “Wintersong” style.

Visit each choir’s website for more information about the program and the youth collaborations, ticketing, and venue health protocols. Masks are still recommended and are being required at some choral concerts. And continue to use the regularly updated PDX choral calendar for all choral dates, times, venues and tickets. 

This year there is choice and variety — something for each of you and your loved ones in this season of harmony.

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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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