National Choir Festival review: Choral cornucopia

National Collegiate Choral Organization conference bestows a wide range of vocal beauty on Portland

Photos by Chase Gilley

Last weekend was a high note for the choral community of Portland, Oregon, and the collegiate choirs of this country. For the first time in history, Portland played host to a national music convention: the biennial meeting of National Collegiate Choral Organization. This year, Portland State University brought it to our city. This national choir festival brought some of the finest choirs, collegiate or otherwise, to be found in the country. With thoughtful initiatives in choral literature, beautiful tone, and outstanding stylistic choices, they helped make a rainy weekend shine.

University of Louisville Cardinal Singers.

University of Louisville Cardinal Singers.

Perhaps the most striking concerts were the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers and the University of North Texas Collegium Musicum, nearly polar opposites in program content, and in some ways, style. The Louisville choir, directed by Dr. Kent Hatteberg, offered a wide palette of color and style (within the limitations of the disappointing venue at Portland’s First Congregational Church): Renaissance Palestrina, to newly minted Penderecki, but a softer, much less dissonant version of the composer than we knew two decades ago. Their “hit” was the Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds’ ultra-dramatic A Soldier’s Mother’s Lullaby, commissioned by the University of Louisville this year. According to the composer (as excerpted from PSU choral studies director Ethan Sperry’s program notes): “Prayers and mothers’ sung lullabies have no frontiers, and they do reach God’s heart and the souls of the wounded. Sing your lullabies, sing your prayers forever!” This was a powerful statement about mourning and hope, with the texts by Wilfred Owen and Jack Whalen, reflected in Esenvalds’ vivid writing, “capturing the vivid horrors of war, and the unsettling truths about the fates of the young men fighting in it” (see above).

University of North Texas.

University of North Texas Collegium Singers.

Dr. Richard Sparks’s fine Collegium Singers from University of North Texas sang a program of early music, including John Taverner’s “Sanctus” from Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas, and two Baroque motets: the Deutsches of Heinrich Schutz, and the famous Komm Jesu Komm, of J.S. Bach. The Schutz was clean clear, and stylish. The double choir motet was etched beautifully in the language of Bach, each choir pivoting by turns from homophonic echoing of one another, to fugal statements. Early music groups abounded at the conference: two, Juilliard 415 (a reference to using the tuning conventions prior to the 1800s), and the Yale Camerata, under the direction of David Hill, were the closing program Saturday night, but I was not able to hear that program.

Local Vocals

Portland State University cut a wide swath throughout this conference. Not only were Dr. Ethan Sperry and the School of Music the conference hosts, but the PSU Man Choir, Vox Femina, and Chamber Choir performed for packed audiences. Saturday at First United Methodist, the PSU orchestra, prepared by Ken Selden, performed with panache under the direction of Norwegian conductor Grete Pedersen, acclaimed on several continents for her CD recordings and live performances of convincing and brilliantly styled music. Ms. Pedersen and the combined choirs groups offered a compelling and satisfying rendition of Joseph Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass. The orchestra was stellar, the soloists were excellent, and combined choirs were wonderfully forthcoming with Pedersen’s creative interpretation. This is all the more creditable as the choral forces were not the renowned Chamber Choir but the two aforementioned male and female choirs. The B-team gave an A-team performance. The entire ensemble, under Pedersen’s stimulating direction, shaped phrases and defined articulations and ornaments more clearly than this writer has heard them in any previous performance.

The previous evening, at St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Chamber Choir itself impressed with a group of four Slavic appetizers (all based on Lenten motifs) from Rodion Shchedrin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alfred Schnittke, and Georgy Sviridov, all composers who deserve to be heard more widely. Here is the PSU Chamber Choir singing Inexpressible Wonder by Georgy Sviridov live at the conference.

Ethan Sperry led the PSU Chamber Choir and Orchestra at St. Mary's Cathedral.

Ethan Sperry led the PSU Chamber Choir and Orchestra at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

But the entrée of that evening was the glorious Passion and Resurrection by, once again, Eriks Esenvalds, all of 38 years old! This music is destined to be a classic. The composer was present for this (as he was for Louisville), and presumably had given at least some valuable input to the performers. Eschewing the traditional Gospel setting of the Passion, the composer uses eclectic sources from the Byzantine liturgy, the Stabat Mater, and passages from Job and the book of Psalms.

The musical style ranges from the Renaissance (!), using sections of a motet by Cristobal de Morales, sung by a vocal quartet; a string orchestra, portraying a jarring change of key against what’s come before in the quartet’s singing; then, the soprano soloist, clad in a brilliant white gown, and representing Mary Magdalene, walks slowly the entire length of the Cathedral, singing as she perhaps repents her own sins.

Finally the choir enters, and here Esenvalds looks back dramatically at the “turba” choruses of Bach and Schutz (meaning “crowd choruses” almost always used in Passion music), as the choir shifts from one dramatic role to another: the turbulent crowd of persecutors, the worshipping masses, and finally, the choir taking on as a whole the voice of Jesus, as they ask God to forgive the people who are killing Him.

Here is audio of The Heaven’s Flock: music by Eriks Esenvalds, text by former Oregon poet laureate Paulann Petersen, performed by the PSU Chamber Choir and the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers, Ethan Sperry conducting.

The Chamber Choir was followed by another event with great impact: the Pacific Lutheran University Choir of the West sang an evocative

Simon Carrington led Pacific University's Choir of the West.

Simon Carrington led Pacific Lutheran University’s Choir of the West.

program under the guest direction of Simon Carrington, a founder of the Kings Singers who has been more recently guest professor at University of Kansas, and later, Yale University. Carrington brought all of his many-sided artistic facets to bear in coaxing nearly perfect renditions of contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan’s Strathclyde Motets. Perfectly in tune, balanced like a needle standing on a small pyramid, these were followed by the Brahms motet Warum is das Licht gegeben, a wonderful contrast, as the Brahms motet is full of the composer’s classical forms — chorale, fugato, and so on — while the preceding MacMillan motets are very modern, yet tonal and compelling in their own way. St. Mary’s Cathedral was the perfect setting for this work, spiritually and acoustically.

A fixture of the conference, Carrington also took charge of the conducting workshop, helping the graduate students rehearse the “Coro in Schola” choir. He continues to work prolifically with choirs all over the globe, so having him in our midst was a real coup for NCCO and Portland.

The conference offered to about three hundred choral directors, primarily from the US, the opportunity to hear concerts in three downtown venues. The First Congregational Church, while being perhaps a good spiritual setting, was far from a perfect acoustical one. One cannot help compare the acoustical advantage of a First Methodist Church (newly and pleasantly renovated) or St. Mary’s Cathedral, to the bare, dry acoustics of First Congregational.

University of Redlands Chapel Singers performed at First Congregational Church.

University of Redlands Chapel Singers performed at First Congregational Church.

This type of venue inconsistency happens at conventions more often than it should. We don’t ask football teams to play some of their games on 75 yard fields, but we do ask choirs to sing in venues as acoustically diverse as the analogous athletic fields. The ring time, for example, in St. Mary’s is upwards of 2.0 seconds, even with a large crowd. That same component in First Congregational is perhaps .5 seconds, with very little, if any, foldback — that is, the ability of the group to hear itself on stage. These groups represent the finest choral singing to be heard in Collegiate America, and most came a long distance to be heard, so they deserved the best showcase possible.

Temple University singers.

Temple University Concert Choir at First Congregational Church.

Another concert I heard at First Congregational was perhaps better suited to the choirs and their repertoire. Temple University sang a relatively austere program, presenting the music of Vincent Persichetti, in celebration of his 100th anniversary. The Persichetti Mass (1960) is complex, and to some listeners, less rewarding. I found it clear and concisely classical, at least in terms of what preceded and succeeded that composer’s works. Dominated by many “open” intervals, and  passing dissonances, it’s not pretty in the same sense as Brahms or Bernstein, but it makes one think and feel differently, and evokes an emotional response.

The two secular, and jocular, choruses by Persichetti, “sam was a man” and “uncles” (texts of e.e. cummings), were poignantly and clearly performed.

California Choruses

The other choirs on that same concert were University of Southern California’s Concert Choir, under the direction of Cristian Grases; and the University of Redlands Chapel Singers, directed by Nicholle Andrews. Opposing one another in size (U.S.C. had 50 plus singers, Redlands, 25), and repertoire, they both offered a bounty of contemporary music, but Redlands’s was Canadian and American, while, USC’s was Hispanic. The choices no doubt reflected the background of each conductor: Ms. Andrews is originally from Newfoundland; Mr. Grases is a native of Venezuela.

Azusa Pacific Chamber Choir.

Azusa Pacific Chamber Choir.

One other choir I heard deserves mention: the Chamber Singers of Azusa Pacific University. They sang within a narrow niche of styles: all Irish, and most from the past sixty years. Each singer is armed with their own tuning fork, and the choir’s intonation shows this, being spot in every beat. Another foreign visitor to the  conference was a guest of this choir, Dr. Desmond Earley, who has performed and directed with a huge array of famous musicians, including Christopher Hogwood, Ron Goodman, and Sir James Galway. He was the guest of Azusa Pacific on their campus this fall, and helped select music, and wrote the program notes for this concert.

This was a big step for NCCO, and for Portland. Prior locations in the organization’s 10 year existence have been Cincinnati, San Antonio, Charleston, Colorado State University, and Yale University. We all know that Portland, Oregon is a heaven/haven for choral music; now the rest of the country is in on it.

Portland choir director Bruce Browne, who participated in the NCCO conference, led Portland State University’s choral programs and the Portland Symphonic Choir for many years and has directed choirs all over the world. 

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