Portland State Choirs preview: knocking on heaven’s door

University's award winning Chamber Choir, Man Choir and Vox Femina sing music by acclaimed choral composer Eriks Esenvalds and more in CD release concerts

What a year it’s been for Portland State University’s Chamber Choir! In July, it became the first American choir to compete in the prestigious Bali International Choir Festival — where it won top prize among 124 choirs and went on to perform in several other concerts and other events in Indonesia.

A few weeks later, the choir’s newly released third CD, The Doors of Heaven, not only became the first college choir recording to make Billboard’s chart of best-selling traditional classical albums but also debuted at No. 1 and stayed on the chart for two months. The album earned worldwide play on streaming platforms, like Apple Music, and favorable, sometimes ecstatic reviews in Europe and the US.

The Doors of Heaven was the first recording by an American choir entirely devoted to the enchanting, sometimes haunting music of Latvia’s Eriks Esenvalds, who’s become the world’s hottest young choral composer. Portland State’s choir had previously been the first to record his music in this country after the choir’s director, Ethan Sperry, heard it at a choral directors conference. Impressed, Esenvalds specifically asked Naxos, the world’s largest classical CD label, which wanted to record an album of his music, to use the Portland State singers.

A recent review in the online journal Classics Today praised “the extraordinary performances by the Portland State Chamber Choir, whose virtuoso work here… place(s) it among the world’s finest choral ensembles.” Another praised its “stirring performances,” adding “any lover of contemporary choral music would do well to seek out this worthy collection.” If PSUCC isn’t already America’s top college choir, they’re surely knocking at the door.

This weekend, Oregon audiences get to hear the Chamber Choir and two other Portland State choirs sing Esenvalds’ music. The concert includes his prayer for peace, O Salutaris Hostia; a rare choral setting of a poem by Leonard Cohen; another featuring a poem by former Oregon poet laureate Paulann Petersen that Esenvalds wrote especially for the Portland State Chamber Choir.

Sperry describes the major work on the program, The First Tears, as being about “a cathartic experience about the way mankind encounters grief in various times and places. There’s a lot of sadness in the world right now. Esenvalds is so good at building that mood and then releasing it. That catharsis is something a lot of us need right now.”

Along with the four Esenvalds compositions, the wide-ranging concert also includes music by Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Baroque master Claudio Monteverdi, 20th-century Argentine pioneers Alberto Ginastera and nuevo tango composer Astor Piazzolla, contemporary composers Ron Jeffers and Jake Runestad, a voodoo song from Haiti and a Xhosa song from southern Africa.

Sperry attributes the CD’s success to both good timing (catching Esenvalds just at the moment the world was recognizing his genius) and to conscientious work at Portland’s acoustically ideal St. Stephen’s Episcopal church by production team Erick Lichte and John Atkinson, who went as far as using tape measures to place singers at just the right distance from microphones, sometimes even having singers turn away from the mikes when the music called for restraint.

“Unlike most choral recordings, we wanted to put the listener standing in the middle of the choir, not sitting in the audience, so you can hear individual voices,” Sperry says.

As the choir’s recent international competition wins attest, singing quality had a lot to do with it, too.Those awards and the success of its three recent CDs draw attention to the university’s choral program and increase the number and quality of applications, both to the program and to the performing choirs, Sperry says. The number of voice majors at Portland State has doubled since he arrived, and the choral program is larger than ever; 150 students will be onstage this weekend. He plans to make more recordings and to take the choir to more competitions that have invited them based on their success.

Still, “I’ve never been interested in just winning competitions,” Sperry says. “It’s easy to derail a program because the program becomes about that. My job is to give (the singers) a solid education, cover a wide repertoire and give them pre-professional experiences. For a young American, hearing 20 choirs from different countries sets them up in different way for a career as an educator and performer. It’s a useful skill to perform under pressure like that.”

PSU’s Vox Femina also performs in this weekend’s concerts. Photo: Chad Lanning.

The choir’s recent achievements transcend its members, Sperry says, noting that many of them are older, first-generation college students who are paying for college themselves. “Success in the arts is more visible than in, say, chemistry, so I hope having a flagship program that achieves like this serves as catalyst for people to pay attention to what PSU students are capable of.”

Portland State University Chamber Choir, Man Choir & Vox Femina perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10 and 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12 at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, 1838 S.W. Jefferson St. Tickets online or 503-725-3011. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/Oregon Live.

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