Chor leoni

Chor Leoni review: Manlandia

Acclaimed Vancouver BC choir joins other male choirs in a cornucopia of choral contentment


Young people lifting their voices in singing was a prominent theme in Oregon last week: Oregon State (OSAA) Choir Competitions, held on the George Fox Campus and last Friday’s a visit from the Vancouver, BC male choir, Chor Leoni, directed by Portlander Erick Lichte. Event co-host Ethan Sperry, director of choral studies at Portland State University and close friend of Mr. Lichte, welcomed the Canadians to First United Methodist Church. Three high school male choirs and Man Choir from Portland State joined Chor Leoni in this benefit concert for First United Methodist Church’s Friends of Music program.

There were many gifts. The high school choirs, all from Southern Washington, weren’t just the opening act; they proclaimed “we are a proud and confident brotherhood in art” and demonstrated first-rate preparation, a tribute to their music programs: Camas High, directed by Ethan Chessin; Heritage High, directed by Joel Karn; and Union High, directed by Mikkel Iverson. Oregon high schools were conspicuous by their absence.

Vancouver’s Chor Leoni performed at Portland’s First Methodist Church.

The organization and advanced planning by Ethan Sperry, and Mr. Lichte was much appreciated, both in bringing the Canadian choir, and in that choir’s generosity of spirit in encouraging younger choirs on their program. (Full disclosure: I easily tear up when listening to young men sing so well). PSU’s Man Choir, directed by graduate assistant Allison Bassett, also sang well.

Just last January, we lost one of the world’s greatest choral composers, in fact, the dean of choral music in Estonia, Veljo Tormis. Chor Leoni director Erick Lichte reminded us of Tormis’ genius with his Vastalaulud, a short cycle of Shrovetide songs (Shrovetide, from the old English “shrive” – to confess, is a pre-Lenten celebration, in some cultures becoming a carnival atmosphere). The nursery rhyme-like settings use repeated, simplistic motifs, elaborated with modal shifts and airy, colorful harmonic changes to evoke Estonians’ celebration of the winter holiday by sleighing and sledding.

We also heard Tormis’ vaunted style in Incantatio marios aestuosi (Incantation for a Stormy Sea). The poem’s stormy effects were well wedded to highly dramatic music ranging from the ease with which we hear the sailors invoke Ukko, the god of mercy, to help them on their voyage; then to the rage of the storm itself, a furious harrumph of singing with howling winds; and finally, the invocation itself, ”Sea, command they warring forces… Sink… to thy slumber that our boat may move in safety.” The storm effects are delivered in billowing falsettos and speaking chorus narration, then as the storm dies down, there’s a lovely ending with very low voices singing ppp (extremely softly). Only a mature, well directed choir could, or should, manage this piece.

Chor Leoni sang with great vigor, excellent intonation, and a wide palette of colors, flattering the demands of their chosen scores. Many of the selections lent a Baltic/Scandinavian caste to the program: Along with Estonia, Latvia and Finland were well represented. This is in part because the male choir tradition is alive and well in these countries, among others in northern Europe – think Sweden. The most interesting were the Grim and Glacial Funeral Waltzes by Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyjarvi, and Twelve O’clock Chant, by Latvia’s Eriks Esenvalds.

The “funeral waltzes” were shimmering, evanescent, with a dramatically wide range for the men. In several of their songs, the falsetto -cum -male alto range was exploited to beautiful effect.

Esenvalds’ piece is a brilliant setting of the Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen’s “Twelve O’Clock Chant” (from his Spice Box of the Earth). It’s a compelling poem, with equally compelling music. The many added-note chords, and spell binding unisons are ethereal. Again, the choir brought to bear a masterful handling of varied hues, and a wide dynamic range to heighten the drama of the poem.

Since one of the stated objectives of Chor Leoni is to champion new music, they included on their program the Evening Song by Nicholas Ryan Kelly, a rising star in the constellation of Canadian composers (think Murray Shafer, Stephen Chapman, Imant Raminsch). Kelly won a prize in the organization’s inaugural composer competition this year called “C-4.” Kelly’s piece is a good marriage to the poetry of Sherwood Anderson, American novelist and poet from Ohio. It’s lyrical and linear, performed with excellent balance by the choir and their accomplished accompanist Ken Cormier.

The final pieces put a different face on the choir. Jonathan Quick’s sprightly arrangement of “Loch Lomond” was led by a fine tenor soloist, unidentified in the program. Perky rhythms, including the native “Scotch snap” were abundant. Paul Simon’s “Bridge over Troubled Water,” arranged by Miles Ramsay, was equally well sung and untroubled.

Erick Lichte led the combined choirs at Chor Leoni’s Portland concert.

The biggest, brashest songs appeared at the end of both halves of the concert, performed by the so-called “Manlandia Mass Choir.” Just before intermission, the combined choirs sang another Tormis piece, Laulja, which included organ music performed by longtime First Methodist organist Jonas Nordwall, who also contributed bluesy Hammond organ licks to O Kristus valgus oled sa by Gunnar Idenstam to open the second half. The massed male voices also closed the concert with We Rise Again by Stephen Smith. It was very well done, and great fun to hear some 150 men sing together, with an age range of perhaps 15 to 75, with such youthful energy.

The hope is that this concert will be repeated on a biennial basis, with Chor Leoni coming to Portland again in 2019.  Can’t wait!

Editor’s note: you can hear more men singing this Saturday, May 13, at Central Lutheran Church, 1820 NE 21st Ave. Portland, when Satori Men’s Chorus sings songs from childhood, including “Home on the Range,” “Shenendoah,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and other boomer faves.

Bruce Browne is a conductor and educator. He is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

ArtsWatch Weekly: Great Graham

Revisiting Martha Graham's potent power of the past; a Wanderlust Mother's Day; Michael Curry's "Perséphone" with the Symphony; Brett Campbell's music picks

Martha Graham created her legendary American modern dance company in 1926, and it’s difficult to imagine, more than 90 years later, just how earth-shattering her early works must have seemed. Graham carved legends out of time and space: intense, pristine, pared to the bone. She created a hyper-expressionist, essentially American style of dance, built on the works of Denishawn and other pioneers but reimagined in the movement possibilities and theatrical impulses of her own body.

She collaborated with many of the great composers and visual artists of her time, which was long and artistically fertile: born in 1894, she created her final dance in 1990, the year before she died at age 96. Her bold, emphatic approach to dance can seem overstated to contemporary audiences. Yet it carries the intensity and hyper-expressionism of the great silent movies, and if you just give it a chance, something of the pure rawness of her glory years comes through, as if it were new all over again.

Martha Graham in “Dark Meadow,” 1946. Reproduced with permission of Martha Graham Resources, a division of The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, Library of Congress.

No company built by a daringly original dancemaker – not Graham’s, or Balanchine’s, or Alvin Ailey’s, or José Limón’s – can survive on memories of its founder alone, and it can be a tricky business to balance the tradition of what was once radical with the need to remain in the contemporary swim of things. The Graham company, under current artistic director Janet Eilber, mixes things up boldly. When the company performs Wednesday evening in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the White Bird dance season the program will include works by a couple of high-profile contemporary dancemakers: the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, who now runs the Berlin State Ballet, and the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. But the core of the program will be two of Graham’s own works, 1948’s Diversion of Angels and Dark Meadow Suite, a distillation of an ambitious 1946 work that ran 50 minutes in its original form (the suite is much shorter).


Chor Leoni preview: Baltic blues and beyond

Now led by a Portlander, the acclaimed Canadian choir makes its first Portland appearance


Fifty members strong, the Chor Leoni men’s chorus of Vancouver B.C., roars in Portland for the first time this Friday, May 5, and they’ll be led by a Portlander.

Chor Leoni (the Choir of Lions) will partner with guest male choirs from Union, Camas, and Heritage high schools, in Washington, and Portland State University’s Man Choir. The internationally acclaimed singers will be directed by Portland resident Erick Lichte, who also directs choirs at Portland’s First United Methodist Church. The lone non-Canadian in the group, he and his wife reside in Portland, and Erick commutes to Vancouver for rehearsals and performances. He recently received his Master of Music from Portland State University, studying there with Ethan Sperry.

Vancouver’s Chor Leoni performs in Portland Friday.

Just after graduating from St. Olaf College, prior to coming to Portland, Lichte distinguished himself as founder and Artistic Director of the male choir Cantus, which continues as one of the two full-time vocal ensembles in this country. In that position, Lichte collaborated with such artists as Bobby McFerrin, the Boston Pops, Doc Severinsen, and many others.

Appointed in 2013 as artistic director of Chor Leoni, he has brought with him a passion for new choral music, having taken part in the creation (through commissioning, performance and recording) of choral works by, among others, Lee Hoiby, Steven Sametz, Edie Hill, and Mary Ellen Childs. He has also created eleven acclaimed recordings, one named a Top 10 Classical Album by National Public Radio.

Erick Lichte

Chor Leoni was founded in 1992 by Diane Loomer (1940-2012) who also created its female counterpart, Elektra, in 1987, with Morna Edmundson. Since that time, the male choir has distinguished themselves in many ways, touring, winning competitions, and receiving awards from the Canadian government.

Their first Portland concert offers a widely diverse smörgåsbord of literature, including many pieces from the Baltic areas of Finland and Estonia. The latter is particularly well represented by composer Gunnar Idenstam’s setting of an ancient Estonian hymn including “blues infused pipe organ, with a funky bass line in the piece, and opportunities for the organist to improvise,” Lichte says. “Think Veljo Tormis meets The Doors.” Portland-born organist Jonas Nordwall, the organist at First United Methodist Church since 1971, accompanies the two pieces for pipe organ and voices.

Estonian composer Veljo Tormis is no stranger to Portland audiences, having been here three times to work with choirs from PSU and Clackamas Community College. The dean of Baltic composers passed away on January 21 of this year.

Also included in the concert repertoire are less well known but important composers Jaako Mantyjarvi of Finland and native Canadian Nicholas Ryan Kelly. Mantyjarvi’s music has reached the ears of audiences around the USA and Europe. His Glacial Funeral Waltzes sounds intriguing. Kelly’s “Evening Song” will be heard as well. This young composer is coming of age and this piece, according to Lichte, shows “an extraordinary compositional voice… [with] hints of (Samuel) Barber.”

One other featured composer will be the brilliant Latvian, Eriks Esenvalds, whose Twelve o’Clock Chant is also a feature of the choir’s new CD Wandering Heart, available at the show.

The choir will close their concert with a more populist set, singing songs like “Loch Lomond” and Paul Simon’s “Bridge over Troubled Water.” This is a rare chance to hear a male choir of international note here at home, and directed by a member of our own home team.

Chor Leoni performs at 7:30pm Friday May 5, at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, 1838 SW Jefferson St.  Tickets and info online

Bruce Browne is a conductor and educator. He is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties.

Want to read more about Oregon choral music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

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