Portland State Choirs & Oregon Repertory Singers: Making choral music hot again

Conductor and teacher Ethan Sperry channels music's primal passions

Choir concerts too often fall somewhere between treacly Up With People plastered smile sounds and uptight, rote solemnity — an uninspiring contest between dreariness and gooiness.

Bland is not an issue for the Portland State University Man Choir, which regularly unleashes some of the most energetic and thrilling sounds I’ve ever experienced on Oregon stages. Director Ethan Sperry has a genuine gift for conducting male singers, his joy and passion beaming through in his gestures and grins, urging the singers on to riveting performances that might occasionally stray from the Vox Femina PSU women’s choir’s close pitch matching but more than compensate in sheer compelling power. You can’t take your eyes or ears off them. The school’s director of choral activities is one of the most charismatic musicians you’ll ever see, even though he’s not, technically, performing. Without ever upstaging his singers, Sperry inspires the young men to unleash their emotional connection to the music they’re making, without sacrificing the precision, ensemble and other musical qualities that make a good choir a great one.
Sperry’s PSU singers go straight for the heart, with passionate, powerful performances that enrapture classical and pop fans alike.


Ethan Sperry conducted PSU Man Choir at Lincoln Hall.

That’s especially true of PSU’s annual Global Rhythms shows. You still have a chance to catch this year’s second performance, which happens at 4 pm Sunday, May 31 at Portland State’s Lincoln Hall — assuming the stage has cooled sufficiently after the choirs’ fiery performances I heard in the first concert Friday night. And it was only one of several commanding performances that Sperry has led this spring.

Global Rhythms IV pulsed with the primal elements of voice and percussion, supplied throughout on various instruments by a variety of choristers and their conductors, plus Pink Martini guest percussionist Brian Davis. After what’s become a traditional opener, the South African miners song “Tshosoloza,” sung by the University Choir, triangle and drum laid down the rhythm in “Tonada.” The open-to-every-student UC followed with solid performances of a Serbian folk song, “Adje Jano,” and the African-American spiritual, “Hold On,” each preceded by brief explanations by grad student conductors in training. Student soloists Krestina Aziz and Abby Silva excelled in Heitor Villa-Lobos’s “A Star is a New Moon,” (“Estrela e lua nova”), which employed rhythms from indigenous South Americans.

Jason Sabino conducted University Choir in "Ukuthula."

Jason Sabino conducted PSU University Choir in “Ukuthula.”

In the hit of the UC set, “Ukuthula,” the singers (eschewing their score books) enhanced their heartfelt singing with coordinated gestures — raising fists, crossing arms, extending hands — that matched the South Africa folk song’s sentiments. The set ended with a swinging arrangement of the veteran socially conscious songwriter Claudia Schmidt’s “Promising Sky,” arranged by her friend Joan Szymko, who played percussion and who directs PSU’s women’s choir, Vox Femina, which took the stage for the next set.

Opening with the feel-good choral perennial, “How Can I Keep from Singing,” the women really got going with a tight performance Ernani Aguiar’s “Psalm 150” that might have sounded even better at a quicker tempo. Percussion also graced Szymko’s breezy setting (in Portuguese, because she happened to be on a Brazilian fellowship at the time) of a quote from an Inuit Shaman “Todo o Meu Ser” (“All of My Being”). Soloists Madison Howard and Emily Lucas probably didn’t need the amplification (which always compromises balance, depth and richness) to be heard clearly over a relatively small choir, nor did Joy Adler, Alexandra Habecker and Alexa Mansur in the Sweet Honey in the Rock song, “Wanting Memories.” Here as throughout the set, the women generally demonstrated precision of pitch, blend and ensemble you’d hear in many professional choirs, but I craved more of the rhythmically charged programming of the UC (and following Man Choir) set. That arrived in the Dominican Republic song, “Guayacanal,” which injected welcome jolt and should have been the closer, instead of the actual finale, Szymko’s sentimental “Benedizione,” which in the context of a concert devoted to global rhythms came off as pallid.

Joan Szymko conducted Vox Femina.

Joan Szymko conducted PSU’s Vox Femina.

Sperry’s exultation was all the more evident in the Man Choir’s opening Haitian voodoo song, “Fey O,” because it began with him conducting alone from the stage, facing the audience and singers as the men sang from aisles as they strolled down to gather on stage. Judging by the audience’s enthusiastic applause, potent percussion and exuberant singing blew away the second-set doldrums as the men rocked out.

A mournful spiritual, “You May Bury Me in the East,” showed that the men, too, can deliver sensitive and sad songs almost as persuasively as the peppier, punchier pieces. Graduate assistant Jason Sabino applied his characteristically incisive conducting and Filipino heritage to the Filipino folk song “Leron Leron Sinta,” which Sperry described as the hardest piece the Man Choir had ever attempted, and which they handled with engaging ebullience. (Sabino and the other assistant conductors, Sterling Roberts and Jaron Christman, like Benjamin España, now with Oregon Repertory Singers, and Erick Lichte, who now directs Vancouver BC’s Chor Leoni, showed that Sperry is equally adept at passing his skills on to his conducting students as he is at exercising them with his singers.)

The mood downshifted again in Veljo Tormis’s “God Protect Us From War,” a still-searing shard of Estonia’s early ‘90s Singing Revolution that commenced with dramatic low chants (the tenor and bass sections facing each other) interrupted by Sabino’s explosive gong strike and an eruption of voices decrying the evil weapons of war. Maybe my experience covering last year’s Song Festival in Tallinn, which overflowed with songs and feelings about past (and, given Russia’s recent bellicosity, possible future) oppression, made me more sensitive to Tormis’s ferocious cry for divine protection, but the cheers emerging from the large Lincoln Hall audience showed that the men had gotten the message across to everyone.

Global Rhythms encore!

Global Rhythms encore!

After cooling down with a sad sea shanty, “Lowlands,” the Man Choir closed with the Five Blind Boys’ volcanic mashup of “Amazing Grace” and “House of the Rising Sun.” I actually heard the group perform it a couple decades back, but even they would have doffed their hats to this incendiary performance, with sizzling solos by Ryan Rothstein, Pablo Saldana, Luke Smith and Ethan Reviere that each drew tremendous and deserved cheers, contributing to one of the most electrifying performances I’ve seen this year. All the singers and most of the audience joined in a simple chanted and clapped four part encore, “Tink of Me,” arranged by Stephen Holmes.

I’ll be thinking of this show for a long time. Just take a look at the faces in the photos above. Classical music desperately needs Sperry’s ability to engage young performers and young (and old) audiences in these exhilarating PSU Man Choir shows.

A Passion for the poor

Lowering skies frowned down on the hundred or so listeners scattered around a concert plaza on Portland’s Willamette River waterfront, conjuring an appropriately somber setting for Portland State University Chamber Choir’s May 19 performance of one of the most tragic works of recent American music. Gradually, the audience doubled in size, swelled by late arrivals as well as the joggers and cyclists who paused to check out the 40 singers standing on risers, their backs to the river.

Behind the audience and to the left sat another group of listeners in their usual place of shelter: a couple dozen homeless Portlanders who regularly congregate in the shadow of Portland’s Burnside Bridge. More lay in blankets and sleeping bags a few blocks away under the Morrison bridge, part of a contingent of nearly 4,000 Multnomah County citizens who lack homes.

They were the reason PSUCC music director Sperry had brought the choir to the west bank of the Willamette to sing American composer David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Little Match Girl Passion. The 2008 choral setting of H.C. Andersen’s story in which “a poor young girl, whose father beats her, tries unsuccessfully to sell matches on the street, is ignored, and freezes to death,” Lang wrote. “The girl’s bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories…. Andersen tells this story as a kind of parable, drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus. The girl suffers, is scorned by the crowd, dies, and is transfigured.”

Ethan Sperry conducted the PSU Chamber Choir in Portland's Waterfront Park.

Ethan Sperry conducted the PSU Chamber Choir in Portland’s Waterfront Park.

Lang set the story to music the same way J.S. Bach set his celebrated St. John and St. Matthew passions: interpolating into the narrative (chanted by a quartet of singers) choruses that reflect the response to and commentary on it by the crowd — which includes the audience. “Bach broke down the wall between the audience and the performers by making them the crowd in the chorales,” Lang told a PSU class during a 2011 visit.

Bringing it all back to the homeless

The choir had performed the piece in the ideal acoustics of Portland’s St. Stephen Catholic church two days earlier. By bringing a free performance to ground zero of Portland’s continuing homeless crisis, Sperry was giving the audience the chance to experience the story outdoors and at night, as the tale specifies. (On this balmy May night, though, it couldn’t be totally authentic, as the libretto says, “It was terribly cold and nearly dark on the last evening of the old year, and the snow was falling fast.”) And by extension, he was involving our homeless neighbors in Lang’s 2008 choral drama.

The conductor also made a more tangible contribution to the cause: listeners brought blankets and donated several dozen to New Avenues for Youth, which helps empower young Portlanders “to exit street life and lead healthy, independent lives.” Anti-poverty organizations including Mercy Corps, the Portland Food Bank and Janus were all involved in the event, and I saw audience members picking up informational brochures from a table near the singers. A rep from New Avenues for Youth spoke before the performance.

The unusual setting was no gimmick, and no surprise to anyone who knows Sperry’s work. More than most choral conductors, the PSU prof works hard to break down the barriers between audiences, an attitude partially forged in his experiences teaching and conducting in impoverished areas of Haiti and India.

“Most people go to concerts because they want to have fun and have an emotional connection with the music or with the performers,” he told me in a 2011 interview. “Our goal is to communicate with the audience and give them an emotional experience.” Now, he hoped that experiencing Lang’s music in the presence of the very homeless people the piece concerned would help the audience achieve just that.

Challenging circumstances

The admittedly experimental outdoor setting also posed challenges, as Sperry acknowledged in his brief pre-performance speech. Singing outside is notoriously difficult for both singers (who can find it difficult to hear each other) and audience (who lose the richness afforded by reverberation in concert halls). Moreover, though the needed amplification worked surprisingly well, it unavoidably flattened the sound, stifled the overtones, and sometimes made the closely miked soloists sound too loud compared to the chorus. The singers also had to compete with traffic noises and the periodic eruptions of the adjacent Naito Memorial Fountain. And as we would discover, Lang’s piece presented even greater obstacles to successful alfresco performance.

Bristling with dissonant harmonies, tricky rhythms, overlapping vocalisms, and other challenges, the spare Passion, like a lot of Lang’s recent work, exchanges the sensuousness that has given minimalism its appeal since Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass added pulsating, shifting rhythmic figures back in the early 1960s. Lang, a leading post-minimalist composer in the generation that followed, has written some beautiful music in that style and, he told me in 2012, admires his minimalist predecessors immensely. In recent compositions including the Passion, though, he’s focused on leaving a lot of space (via rests), in an almost confrontational way, as if to see how little material he can use and still communicate. That spacious technique places the emphasis squarely on the words and Andersen’s heartbreaking story.

After a short, three-song, warm-up set featuring one of the choir’s finest recent pieces, the simmering “Aho,” written by a former member, a soft mallet gently stroking a bass drum ominously announced the opening of Lang’s Passion, like thunder rumbling in the distance. As the Passion unfolded, its intentionally simplistic phrases and spare textures left every singer exposed, yet the choir (augmented by spare percussion) negotiated Lang’s treacherous territory with aplomb. Sperry’s arrangement, approved by Lang, of the narrative sections for quartet worked much better than the original recorded version, as did the characteristic commitment that his singers poured into this performance.

Ethan Sperry conducted PSU Chamber Choir on Portland's Willamette River waterfront two days after the church performance.

As darkness descended, the intensity began rising in the eleventh section, “From the Sixth Hour,” and by the climactic 13th, “When it is time for me to die/Stay with me,” a single voice shivered over the intoning chorus, evoking the sound of chattering teeth in the frozen night, as the little match girl dies. In the denouement, “In the Dawn of Morning,” the chorus/audience regards her corpse, clutching burnt matches, followed by a chant of “Rest soft, daughter,” accompanied by percussion. The final “rest soft” sequence serendipitously coincided with the silent phase of Naito fountain’s cycle, rendering the poignant death scene even starker.

Then after a brief pause, the fountain gushed ever higher as the choir launched into the lusher harmonies of a soothing closing piece, “Inexpressible Wonder” by Gyorgy Sviridov, that served as a kind of coda. The waters chuckled and splashed as the last notes faded.

The audience rose to applaud and the choir responded with its signature arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as an encore, but it had dwindled to about a third of its original size. Evidently, for a good portion of the audience, Lang’s parched latter-day minimalism lacked too much of the melodic and harmonic interest that kindles many listeners’ love for music to sustain the Passion’s half-hour length. The response was reportedly much warmer in Sunday’s resonant church performance, maybe because Tuesday’s outdoor setting accentuated the Passion’s aridity, turning the little match girl’s loneliness into unassuaged emptiness, throwing off Lang’s intended balance between despair and hope.

Yet even if the clutch of homeless listeners, huddled off behind the audience, didn’t mingle with those of us lucky enough to have a warm home to go to after the show, it’s hard to imagine anyone who attended not being reminded, as they walked to their cars and houses, that the story of the little match girl continues here and now. In that respect, at least, this unusual Passion setting achieved its goal.

From despair to jubilation

The performance brought and end to the chamber choir’s enormously successful season, which included award winning performances at international festivals. Its winter concert at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, devoted to the music of another American composer, Samuel Barber (“one of those people who make you feel bad about yourself,” Sperry cracked in his opening remarks, citing the composer’s prodigy qualifications, first opera at age 10, graduating from the Curtis conservatory at 14, etc.) revealed another facet of its versatility. After sure-footed performances of three short works — “To Be Sung Upon the Water,” “Sure on this Shining Night,” and “The Coolin’” —  the choir (with help from Man Choir, Vox Femina and the PSU Orchestra) performed another West Coast premiere of a major American choral work: Barber’s The Lovers. 

PSU Chamber Choir performed music of Samuel Barber.

PSU Chamber Choir performed music of Samuel Barber.

It was easy to see why it’s not so popular. Difficult to perform, with challenging vocal demands, requiring for orchestral accompaniment, occasionally R-rated lyrics (it’s a setting of Pablo Neruda’s sometimes erotic poetry), The Lovers  is also, dramatically speaking, a bummer, describing the arc of a relationship (mirroring Barber’s own abandonment by his longtime lover, composer Giancarlo Menotti) from innocent young ardor to  despair, a la Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds album with the Beach Boys. Neruda’s fervid lines match Barber’s heated neo-romanticism, which grows more “modern” as love fades into disillusionment, culminating at its nadir in Neruda’s famous “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines.”

Perhaps mindful of the nearby Vista Bridge, which attracts more than its share of jumpers, Sperry immediately followed the ending’s repeated resigned “forsaken”s with Barber’s “Agnus Dei,” the vocal version of his famous “Adagio” string quartet slow movement. Also a monument to sorrow, it nevertheless comes off as cathartic rather than depressing.

“If you think this is too sad an ending,” Sperry cheekily announced after the applause, “we have Romeo and Juliet in the second half,” prompting wry chuckles. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the PSU orchestra’s performance of Prokofiev’s music, but the Barber performances made an entirely satisfying concert by themselves anyway.

Angel descending

Sperry was back at the church in late April, conducting his other choir, the Oregon Repertory Singers in still another Portland premiere: Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s 1988 cantata The Sealed Angel, regarded as one of the most important Russian choral works of the last century.

Shchedrin’s extraordinary nine-movement commemoration of the Russia’s conversion to Christianity, written just before the Soviet Union collapsed, sets a story by 19th century Russian novelist Nicolai Leskov that recounts the triumph of a sect of Old Believers over repressive state officials. It begins with soothing flute music (played by Nancy Teskey) that quickly reaches a crisis, culminating in startling stomping and screams before soloists and the flute emerge from the somber atmosphere. Single-syllable, falling and rising staccato sequences demand extraordinary precision from the singers, who delivered. Gradually the music brightens along with the story, until it the music arrives at a hard-earned serenity that felt more authentic than the initial false placidity, with its troubled undercurrents: the stasis of repression replaced by the balm of spiritual healing.

Sperry conducted Oregon Repertory Singers in April.

Sperry conducted Oregon Repertory Singers in April.

Sperry deserves immense credit for sustaining tension and drama in stretches that could easily turn tedious, as do the Rep Singers for maintaining impressive focus in many treacherous exposed passages. It felt like an epic journey, skillfully navigated, a signal event in recent Oregon choral music that has seen several, one of several performances of major 20th century choral works rarely heard hereabouts this year, including The Little Match Girl Passion, Cappella Romana’s performance of Schnittke’s Verses of Repentance, following last year’s premiere of Steinberg’s Passion Week and next week’s Resonance Ensemble performances of major compositions by Schoenberg and Poulenc.

Although the second work on the ORS program, Leonard Bernstein’s jubilant Chichester Psalms, is one of my personal favorites and a bonafide American 20th century choral classic, following the Shchedrin it felt anticlimactic, despite a solid performance from ORS, its youth choirs, the church’s Chancel Choir, organist Jonas Nordwall, harpist Denise Fukogawa, and percussionist Florian Conzetti. Although I understand the need to lure listeners to a concert of a little-known work by a little-known composer by featuring such a beloved American classic, the choir’s expressive delivery of The Sealed Angel left me little emotional capacity to absorb more.

And I’m not sure how Sperry summoned the energy to direct it. Then again, his record this spring demonstrates that the indefatigable conductor, arranger, teacher and director is not only one of Oregon’s most valuable, visionary and versatile musical leaders— but also one of its most vigorous. With his ability to ignite both his singers’ and listeners emotional connection to music, he’s galvanizing Oregon’s choral scene.

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