Sing Awakening: Portland’s flowering choral landscape

The City of Roses is also a city of choruses.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble at Portland's YU Contemporary in March.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble at Portland’s YU Contemporary in March.

Editor’s note: this is the second in ArtsWatch’s spring look at contemporary choral music. See Jeff Winslow’s analysis of today’s choral compositions here.


“There is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and make new ones like them.” – Marcus Aureluis ‘Meditations’

A happy insight came to me indirectly last spring, from an event where hundreds of choral musicians appeared together, representing eight choirs. All Saints Catholic Church was the venue for an outpouring of spiritual and financial support for one of our own, Brian Tierney. Reflecting afterward on the variety of sounds that we had heard, I became aware of the several changes that had come about in six years my family had been gone from Portland. And in that time, Portland had cultivated a new choral landscape. Significant. Dramatic.

There are new faces in front of two of Portland’s heirloom choirs. Oregon Repertory Singers and Choral Arts Ensemble have new directors, Ethan Sperry and David DeLeyser. And these two join a cadre of new, smaller choirs conducted by energetic new talents who have blossomed on the scene: Katherine Fitzgibbon, Resonance Ensemble; Anna Song, In Mulieribus; Patrick McDonough, The Ensemble; and Ryan Heller, Portland Vocal Consort.

These new, downsized groups are what I would call “boutique choirs,” not at all a pejorative insinuation. I think it’s a good word that meshes with Portland’s boutique-y wine, beer and visual arts scene and general quirkiness, as seen on say, “Portlandia.” With these newbies comes the infusion of new ideas and styles. And they share similarities.

Patrick McDonough led The Ensemble in music of Haydn

Patrick McDonough led The Ensemble in music of Haydn in March.

The sound of these choirs is typically lighter and chamber-like, without loss of tonal muscle. The focus is on clarity and blend, which by necessity precludes much operatic, vibrato infused production. True choral artists know how to temper their “solo singer” voice.

Even more refreshing than how these new choirs sing is what they sing: programming that’s provocative, far-sighted, near-sighted and taken together, a breath of fresh new air. These directors often feature living choral composers, allowing a new tonal language to be heard. Resonance has quickly gained a reputation as the go-to choir for contemporary collaboration, partnering with Third Angle, visual artists and others, and willing to rock the boat a bit. They also present the masterworks in conventional style. You can hear Resonance perform sexy music on May 11 and 12 at Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Lewis & Clark College 0615 Southwest Palatine Hill Road, and May 12, Alberta Rose Theatre 3000 NE Alberta Street in their season-ending concert, The Big Oh!

The Ensemble seems more eclectic in their programming, presenting works of contemporary composers with a familiar tonal language and tackling a wide range of the a cappella body of work. Including, in the past three years, some very new works by American composers. In Mulieribus is exploring the plethora of medieval treble vocal music. You can hear them sing “Stella Splendens: Medieval Songs of Travel” this Sunday, May 5, at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, 1112 SE 41st Ave., accompanied by Phil and Gayle Neumann of the Oregon Renaissance Band.

Portland Vocal Consort champions contemporary music by rewarding one local composer with the premiere of her/his piece. On April 6 at downtown Portland’s First Christian Church, their Spring 2013 concert, titled the “Best of the Northwest,” included new music from some of Oregon and Washington’s finest composers, including the University of Oregon’s Robert Kyr, Portland State’s Bryan Johanson, Seattle’s Karen Thomas, and more. See Jeff Winslow’s review for ArtsWatch.

Ryan Heller directed Portland Vocal Consort in its April concert.

Ryan Heller directed Portland Vocal Consort in its April concert.

A Deep Pool

The vocal and technical acuity required in all these groups can be profound and in most cases the singers in these new groups are up to the challenge. Often, the same singers can be found performing in multiple groups. And herein lies another change in the landscape of the choral art of Portland.

Portland has a healthy pool of semi professional and professional choral singers. If you are lucky enough to attend concerts given by each of these groups, you might know their names and voices well by season’s end, as many of the choirs are peopled by the same singers. A European friend of mine refers to these as “telephone choirs,” in which one contractor calls singers to populate the choir for the season concerts!

And why not? This is the way in which many of our instrumental colleagues make a living. And while a living wage remains a rarity for choral musicians in this country, aspiring professional choral singers in Portland now have more opportunity than ever before. But let us bless the dedication of the gifted amateur singers, who make up 90 percent of the city’s choirs. Recall Robert Shaw’s tongue in cheek reflection “Choral music, like sex, should be left to the amateur.” Compensated or not, all of Portland’s choral musicians are in it for the pleasure and the artistry.

“Poor artists make copies, great artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso

Yes, many directors, and by extension their choirs, do share ideas, literature, and even singers! Since we live in a kleptocracy, that’s no surprise. (This is in stark contrast to the scene of just fifteen years ago, when only two small groups, and a few large ones, shared the choral stage.) But these cooperations are very much a positive and happy thing, keeping the best singers active, and promoting new choral music to willing audiences. Have a look at the theatre scene in Portland: actors move fluidly from Portland Center Stage to Artists Repertory Theater to Shoebox Theatre, all in a single season. Perhaps the singers have now caught up with the thespians.

Challenges and Changes

I find myself pondering the success of two specific choirs in Portland, diametrically opposed in style, size. The first, the Bach Cantata Choir,  launched in 2006 by Ralph Nelson, is a largish group whose concerts are well attended. Many of the PBC singers are familiar voices in the choral art community. The second, Alexander Lingas’ small ensemble Capella Romana, is not new. In fact, I was surprised to find that Alex’s first downbeat was in 1991, making him the longest tenured conductor of any independent choir in the city. Singers receive compensation, and in addition to a local presence, tour – this month, they’re performing in London, Germany and Greece – and do short residencies.

Both have found their niche. Cappella Romana sings within a relatively narrow range of very early or very late, sacred music, much of it esoteric, but offers a varied palette and a wide scope of scholarship. The Bach Cantata Choir has arisen to satisfy the craving for the choral music of Bach and a few other Baroque and other composers, often with orchestral accompaniment. And they do it well, as you can hear on June 2 at Portland’s Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, 1907 NE 45th Ave.

The city’s veteran large ensembles – Portland Symphonic Choir (started in 1946), Choral Arts Ensemble (1970), and Oregon Repertory Singers (1974) – continue to allow hundreds a chance to sing, and thousands the opportunity to hear and experience the world’s choral heritage. In this economy, in these times of diminishing choral consciousness in our public schools, our heirloom choirs must not go fallow. This might mean being open to change, continuing to provide something not available elsewhere. Be the innovators, the provacateurs, the breath of fresh air.

Ethan Sperry directs the Oregon Repertory Singers in their fall concert.

Ethan Sperry directs the Oregon Repertory Singers.

Even in this fertile time of unprecedented choral growth and development, our choirs old and new face serious challenges. Some of these choirs may well be gone missing in the next decade. If history is our guide, choirs that are founded by a person, or those without a special niche, cannot survive the fiscal challenges that arise over a period of time. Witness the Dale Warland Singers, and Texas Choral Artists. When their conductors stepped down, their boards packed up and the groups folded.

One notes a trend beginning perhaps a decade ago in the Portland community: the decline of large works with symphony and choir. In the 1990s we could rely on one or two choral symphonic masterworks per year from the large choirs mentioned above. Why have these offerings declined? Budget? Certainly. Programming preferences? Sure. Perception that these works are not what the public wants? Say it ain’t so.

Will these newer, smaller choirs act like pop-up shops in certain neighborhoods – here now, and gone in three years? My hope is that they will be around, but my educated guess is that some will go a-glimmering. The artistic world has an ecosystem too, and, well, Darwin will have his way, over time.

As for the moment, their journey is a pleasure for all of us who follow choral music. It is a tremendous gift to those of us who need to perform. It is essential to the health of our community! Thriving arts make for a thriving city. When we add in church choirs, college and university choirs, and affiliate choirs not mentioned here, choral music Portland is still in a growth spurt in the spring of 2013.

Over a three decade career, Portland choral director Bruce Browne led the Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties, and Portland State University’s renowned choral programs. He returned to the city last year. 

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