Oregon Cultural Trust

Welcome back: Celebrating choirs, choral programs, anniversaries, and new concert seasons

Choirs all over Oregon and Southwest Washington celebrate the close of summer programs and the beginning of fall concerts.

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St. Cecilia and medallions, stained glass, Church of Saint John the Evangelist in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Nheyob.
St. Cecilia and medallions, stained glass, Church of Saint John the Evangelist in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Nheyob.

Hot diggity dog. The Oregon and Southwest Washington choral season is about to begin. Okay, it’s not like we were bereft of choral opportunities over the summer. We had Festivals (Byrd Bach and Bend) and workshops and sing-a-longs. Kept our chops up and, perhaps, kept the juices flowing so we would anticipate this celebratory season all the more. Welcome back those of you who sing and all who love choral music. 

Celebrating? You bet we are celebrating. Choir membership is stabilizing, and auditions are open RIGHT NOW – not because singer numbers have significantly dwindled but because there is great optimism and a recognition that you might be poised, eager to return, after our viral intermission. Interested in singing in a choir? Our choral community has a choir for you. 

But who are we really? Singers, conductors, boards, accompanists, volunteers, audiences. Let’s crunch some numbers for you. (The following data is based on one person looking at websites – like the valuable PDX Choral Calendar maintained by Tom Hard – talking to folks and scribbling on pieces of paper. Margin of error significant; don’t write in). 

  • Performing choirs (paid or non-paid singers) in our Oregon and Southwest Washington communities: 55
  • Choirs for mixed voices (usually SATB): 40
  • Choirs for treble voices only: 8
  • Choirs for lower voices only: 7
  • Number of Season 23-24 choral concerts (scheduled as of September 10): 121
  • Approximate number of folks singing in those choirs: 2335

So what kind of music do we sing? Well, there are some obvious clues to that. The Bach Cantata Choir only sings Bach, In Mulieribus only sings music of or by women, Cappella Romana only sings, uh, Roman music in a chapel? Nope, there’s no ‘book-by-cover’ logic here. That’s the beauty of our choirs, the fun of our choirs. You will hear music that is centuries old connected, through creative programming, to music written just this year. You will enjoy pieces written by and for people in your own community. A cappella close harmony or chant; masses and madrigals. We have so many choices.

Numbers tell the who and the what. The music is the why – why we sing, why we listen. Here are some highlights for our upcoming choral season.

Massive illuminations

It begins with Southern Washington choir Chor Anno and Portland choir Cappella Romana each doing what they do best. Chor Anno’s September program illuminates the theme of their programmed pieces. Cappella Romana opens their season with the North American premiere by a contemporary Ukrainian-Estonian composer. We’ll dig into those two concerts in just a bit. First, let’s continue to soar over the entire choral 23-24 landscape. For detailed dates, times and venues click on the links to each choir’s website.

There’s a Mass at every turn beginning with Central Oregon Mastersingers Dvořák’s Mass in D major. Spring ‘24 brings Mass mania when the Oregon Symphony, with the choirs of Portland State University, perform the Mozart Requiem in D minor, and Choral Arts Ensemble offers us Beethoven’s Mass in C. And here’s a mass-ive head scratcher: have you ever heard the St. Cecelia Mass by Gounod, the “Sanctus” of which was used in a 1979 vampire movie? Eugene Vocal Arts performs the work, along with other French gems, in November.

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In Salem, Festival Chorale Oregon carries on the choral/orchestral frenzy with Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in the Fall and Dvořák’s Stabat Mater in the Spring. Vancouver Master Chorale has three choral/orchestral works scheduled for their special May anniversary celebration. (What anniversary? Tell you later). Looking for a Beethoven Ninth–or two? One is on that May VMC concert, the other in June when Portland Symphonic Choir joins the Vancouver Symphony

In December, Vancouver Master Chorale and the Central Oregon Mastersingers are each offering their communities Benedict Sheehan’s A Christmas Carol. You may have heard Choral Arts Ensemble’s stirring NW premiere of that work last holiday season. And tell your Central-West Oregon friends about Corvallis Repertory Singers’ holiday performance of Elaine Hagenberg’s five-movement Illuminare for choir and chamber orchestra. Don’t know it? Here’s the first movement to whet your appetite:

Check out the 23-24 concert venues! Choirs are taking music directly to the audiences in metro Portland. Northeast Portland’s Marantha Church is where you can hear Cappella Romana perform “How Sweet the Sound” with Kingdom Sound Gospel Choir in February. In March, CR sings in Lake Oswego. The Madeleine has become a favorite North Portland venue–that’s where you can hear In Mulieribus in their upcoming series opener “Songs of Loss & Lamentation.” The Alberta Rose Theatre is Resonance Ensemble‘s March concert site for the premiere of a new commission by Darrell Grant. And you will have several opportunities to choral-out at Beaverton’s Patricia Reser Center for the Arts which is proving to be a significant variable in the choral venue choices these past two years. At the Reser next month, Choral Arts Ensemble offers us a choral interpretation of The Diary of Anne Frank with James Whitbourne’s Annelies. 

Rachin’ the Reser

A wonderful opportunity awaits us this season: the 150th anniversary of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s birth. Two choirs, Oregon Repertory Singers and Portland Symphonic Choir, are performing the Rachmaninoff All Night Vigil (which you might know as Vespers). Both concerts are sung in Church Slavonic, and both are performed at the Reser, but that’s where the commonality ends. 

The PSC performance in January breaks with tradition (or proposes a new one) in collaboration with push/FOLD contemporary dance company who are choreographing the work. As an auditory experience: the original sonorous work, 108 resonant voices filling the hall. As a visual experience: mesmerizing movement enlivening every beautiful phrase in an intimate connection of body and sound. It is a “put it in your calendar now” event for our choral and our dance community. 

The very best of the traditional Rachmaninoff Vigil can be your expectation when Oregon Repertory Singers opens their season with the iconic work on October 21 and 22. The piece, so meaningful to the history of ORS, begins the year-long celebration of Oregon Repertory Singers’ 50th Anniversary. Congratulations ORS! Well done.

It also happens to be thirty years since the first performance of the All Night Vigil by this choir, perhaps by any choir in the Pacific Northwest. In 1993, by invitation of then ORS conductor Gil Seeley, Vladimir Minin, director of the Moscow Chamber Choir, made his first trip to Portland and led ORS’s 58-voices in two Vigil performances in Portland and one in Eugene. Minin would return twice more–some of you might have attended ORS’s multiple packed performances throughout the 90s. Experience it again. Watch for more coverage about these performances and the fascinating history of this great choral work in upcoming OAW previews.

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As we help ORS celebrate this 50th season we also join them in recognizing the 30th anniversary of their Youth Choir program. Their youth choir was one of three launched in 1994. One of the other two, Lake Oswego Children’s Choir, later named Oregon Children’s Choir, grew to 135 singers by 1999 but has since disbanded. The other is the Portland Boychoir who takes new steps forward into its 30th year. Cheers!

But the growth of the Oregon Repertory Singers Youth Choir (ORSYC) is noteworthy even without celebrations in this 30th Anniversary year. Most importantly, with choral educator Aubrey Patterson as Artistic Director of the nine-choir, K-12 program extending into three community locations -Beaverton, Sellwood and Vancouver – there is an instructional design being carried out by five ORSYC music educators. There is, said ORS Executive Director Lauren Bryan in recent e-mail “an entry point for everyone to experience the beauty and joys of choral music.” What a great choral feeder program. No, not for ORS, for our entire choral community. 

Smaller singer numbers grow

Indeed, there are numerous youth choirs in our region and the number of those singers – in Portland, Eugene, Salem, the Rogue Valley and elsewhere – was not included in the numbers above. Add 800. Several of these choirs are the offspring of community adult choirs: Rogue Valley Youth Choruses and Oregon Repertory Singers Youth Choir (both full multi-choir K-12 programs) both began and remain with their parent choirs. Portland Boy Choir and Portland Symphonic Girl Choir, launched by the Portland Symphonic Choir, are now independent organizations. Heart of the Valley (Salem), the Oregon Children’s Choir (Eugene) and Pacific Youth Choir (Portland) are long-singing choir programs for our young musicians.

Two of these Portland programs welcome new conductors this year: Chris Maunu (Pacific Youth Choir) and Joshua Sommerville (Portland Boychoir). You’ll also see both conductors on the podium with two other youth-related programs, Maunu with Choro in Schola and Sommerville with Bravo Youth Orchestra. You might also take note of Portland’s Trinity Choir School. Although sponsored by Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland, free enrollment in the choirs (3-12) and the Royal School of Church Music theory and musicianship training requires no religious affiliation. Special alert: September is enrollment month for most youth choirs but inquiries are welcome year ‘round. 

The music series of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and St. Paul Episcopal in Salem continue to bring quality music to our choral communities. Trinity’s monthly evensongs have resumed, the series will sponsor a concert by the Concordia Choir of Minnesota in March, and in a special choral concert in October the Kol Echad Choir of Beth Israel Congregation, Trinity Cathedral Choir and the Pacific Youth Choir present a “concert centered on themes of home, belonging and safety” (media info). Among several choral offerings on St. Paul’s music series is the jazz/gospel ensemble Take 6 and Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors in January–which, granted, is opera not choral, but “aww” – heartstrings pulling – its Amahl. And once again, Friends of Chamber Music and Cappella Romana bring us the splendor of Chanticleer and Tallis Scholars, respectively.

Anniversaries and longevity

Anniversaries celebrate our longevity, our commitment to each other and our role in our community relationship–in this case choir to community.

Here is a bit more anniversary data: year fifteen for Resonance; thirty for Satori Men’s Chorus; forty-five for Festival Chorale Oregon. Cheers to them all. But this season’s grandest choral anniversary kudos go to the Vancouver Master Chorale who are celebrating–hoowah!–75 years of choral music. Since 1949! Lots of choral literature, lots of singers and still going strong under the leadership of Director Jana Hart since 2009. It is quite an achievement and testimony to Vancouver’s healthy relationship with the choral arts. 75 years, hot diggity dog for sure. 

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But celebrate milestones for newer choirs like Portland’s In Medio, now beginning season five. They, too, are going strong, opening next month with a concert shared with Seattle-based Byrd Ensemble who performs their 2023 commissioned piece by Nico Muhly. But 5 years versus 30, 50, 75–how does any new choir compete? “I don’t see it as a competition,” said In Medio conductor John Eisemann in recent phone interview. “We measure our success on what we put in and get out. There is enough of an audience to go around and if the other choirs have full audiences it bodes well for us because then our choral community choral audience is lively.” Bravo.

Eisemann gets to the heart of the foundation that has nurtured choral longevity in Oregon and SW Washington’s choral arts. Excellence in choirs in our houses of worship, excellence of choral programs at our universities, symphonic organizations that have valued the masterworks and championed the new choral/orchestral offerings, conductors and organizations who advocate for K-12 music education. 

Do you recall that estimated number of singers from earlier…some 2335? And then we added 800 youth: 3135. But that does not include singers in 471 high schools (in Oregon alone), K-8s, church choirs, colleges, independent-living singing clubs, the Shape Note Singers in Enterprise, or your occasional neighborhood madrigals and margaritas get-together. Nor does it include the people in the car next to you singing along with “Dancing Queen” at the top of their lungs–or you in your shower empowering yourself to push on with a verse of “Oh, Happy Day.”

We are a singing community. Go gather with others in song. There is choral music out there for you. Count on it.

Heavenly October

Heavens, the October choral calendar is busy. Watch this space in the first week of October for greater detail on those numerous choral opportunities. But here’s what you will hear this month when Chor Anno takes to the risers on Sept. 16 and 17, followed by Cappella Romana on September 29-Oct 1.

“A Light Shines” is Chor Anno’s theme, taken from song texts such as Dan Schreiner’s “The Dawn” and Reginald Unterseher’s “This Light.” Both of these Northwest composers sing in Chor Anno. You might want to sing along as Chor Anno Conductor Nicole Lamartine leads the choir in Craig Hella Johnson’s “If I Had a Hammer” but be prepared for a twist as this arrangement is set for double choir and breaks out of folk song mode, adding rhythm and strength to the words ”I’ve got a bell ringing out love between my brothers and sisters.” 

Other Northwest composers – Dan Forrest, Joshua Rist and Richard Nance–are joined by world favorites Eric Whitacre, Morten Lauridsen and Elaine Hagenberg. The pieces on the program are careful placed, like facets in a stained glass window, to reflect healing light.

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All Classical Radio James Depreist

Enjoy Chor Anno’s concerts in Olympia (Sat., Sept. 16 at 7pm) at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church and in Vancouver (Sun., Sept. 17, 3 pm) at Holy Redeemer Church. Admission to either concert is free; a donation of $20 is suggested and appreciated. More information here.

Music Director and Founder Alexander Lingas opens Cappella Romana’s 32nd Season with a North American premiere – Galina Grigorjeva’s Vespers – and special highlights of the music of Arvo Pärt. Grigorjeva (b. 1962) has a bold voice within the sacred text. Contemporary harmonies embrace the traditional text, still emploring but through strength. Listen here to the ending of Vespers.

CR is releasing their Arvo Pärt Odes of Repentance CD in the weeks prior to this concert series. When Cappella Romana performed the work at their Arvo Pärt Festival in 2017, All Classical Program Director John Pitman blogged “At times, the music was dark and brooding, with dissonance creating significant tension; other times, the music would shift to a major key, and the voices would soar from a hush to full voice, filling the space.” Read the entire blog here. Come hear this music in live performance.

“Odes of Repentance” is first performed in Seattle (Fri., Sept. 29, 7:30pm) at St. James Cathedral and in Portland (Sat., Sept. 30, 8:00pm) at St. Mary’s Cathedral and at the Madeleine Parish (Sun., Oct. 1, 3pm). Tickets and more information here.

A Personal Connection

Previously untapped

Please allow me a personal note of thanks to the Echo Theater Company and dance Instructor Aaron Wheeler-Kay. From late June through August, for one hour each week, Aaron taught me how to tap dance. Well, endeavored to do so. I thought I would learn techniques, tap history and a few routines and that I did with classmates whose age range was 20s to 80s.

But I also experienced a connection of rhythm to body, of music to movement, of stillness to silence that will serve all of my musical experiences. You too can uh, “tap” into this wonderful community resource yourself through a PCC Community class or by enrolling directly through Echo Theater Company.

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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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