choro in schola

MusicWatch Weekly: local, vocal and more

A selection of this week's Oregon music highlights

Fans of choral and vocal music have some solid choices this week in Oregon music, and so do locavore consumers of homegrown music, jazz aficionados and more. Please add your own suggestions in the comments section below.

Choro in Schola
Portland State prof Ethan Sperry and his distinguished predecessor, OAW contributor Bruce Browne, conduct 75 of the best student singers selected from 14 high schools in Vancouver, Portland, Tigard, Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Gresham. Under the tutelage of some of the state’s finest professional singers, they’ll sing music by William Byrd, Peter Warlock, and other composers. A new feature this year: seven interns from the high schools who’ve been working with the pro singers will join their teachers on several works. Read my ArtsWatch story about last year’s CIS performance and Jana Hanchett’s ArtsWatch story about this important Oregon arts education organization.
Wednesday, Lincoln Hall, Portland State University.

Bruce Browne with Choro in Schola singers.

Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet
Best known outside the jazz world for his work with Donny McCaslin’s band on David Bowie’s valedictory Blackstar album, the drummer/composer has also worked with some of jazz’s most forward looking stars, and is known for incorporating electronic elements into his work. Two shows.
Wednesday, Fremont Theater, Portland.

“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”
Read my ArtsWatch review of this production’s Portland stop earlier this year.
Wednesday-Sunday, Hult Center, Eugene.

Northwest Art Song and The Ensemble 
Superb soprano Arwen Myers and mezzo Laura Beckel Thoreson, accompanied by pianist Susan McDaniel, sing settings of poetry written by women composed by some of today’s finest female composers: Libby Larsen, Stacy Garrop, Juliana Hall, and Abbie Betinis.
Saturday, Beall Hall, University of Oregon, and Sunday, First Christian Church, 1314 SW Park Ave. Portland.

Arwen Myers and Laura Beckel Thoreson perform in Eugene and Portland.

Delgani String Quartet, Cascadia Composers
Two of Oregon’s most valuable exponents of new, homegrown music join forces in a program of contemporary sounds by Eugene’s Paul Safar, LA-based Latin Grammy winner Yalil Guerra, Willamette University alum Andrew Robinson, and Joshua Hey. The grand finale: the Sixth Quartet by internationally renowned Portland eminence grise  Tomas Svoboda, inspired by Shostakovich.
Saturday, Community Music Center, 3350 SE Francis St. Portland and Sunday, First Christian Church, 1166 Oak, Eugene.


Choro in Schola’s Choral FX: Modeling musical mastery

Value of high school music outreach program transcends music


“More face, more expression, more passion,” Bruce Browne tells the assembled singers of Choro in Schola. They’re at the only full rehearsal of the program they’re going to sing later this October night at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, a few feet away from this practice room. Their audience will consist of young singers from area high schools, who’ll also perform this night, and other choral music fans and family members.

“Exaggerate that note to sound ‘witchier,’” Browne says about a passage from Jaako Mantyjarvi’s “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble,” from Macbeth. “Be more outlandish,” he continues. “You’re witches!”

70 students from 11 different high schools participated in Choro in Schola’s Choral FX program this fall.

Those students have been working all day with these singers and with the renowned choral director Browne and his successor as director of PSU choral programs, Ethan Sperry. One thing they’re learning: how to bring more passion, more emotion to their singing. But they have to do that with clarity, with togetherness, with attention to dozens of details pertaining to dynamics, ensemble, and the rest — yet somehow not losing that passion that takes the music out of the score books and into the audience’s hearts.

“Sopranos, one note keeps going MIA in the second line of the second system on the second page.” They sing it, hear the problem, fix it in a minute.

The CiS singers Browne is working with are used to that focus on detail. Many have worked with him in other choirs or as PSU students when Browne (now a frequent Oregon ArtsWatch contributor) ran the programs there in the 1980s, ‘90s, and early 2000s. They don’t have much time, so as they run through each piece on the program, Browne quickly points out little problems that most choirs would never even notice, or couldn’t fix quickly if they did.

“Tune that chord without the basses.” The sopranos, tenors and altos all sing it until it’s solid. “Now add the basses.” It firms up.

A little softer here, a little louder there. More conversational. Less legato. More passionate. When the sopranos encounter a little problem with some tricky rhythms, he counts it out. The next time, they nail it.

Delight is in the details: musical transformation happens not in a single insight, but in dozens of small decisions like these, hearing problems, and knowing how to fix them. It’s what makes the difference between a merely dutiful performance and a show that really moves an audience.

“Altos, last two notes please.” They sing. There’s a clear disagreement on pitch, and tentativeness. The altos run that section a couple times more and it’s secure. Browne brings in the rest of the choir, and it sounds spot on.

Of course, these singers are all experienced choir performers and teachers, so they can fix the few problems Browne identifies with efficiency and speed. By the end of the half hour rehearsal, it all sounds solid. And passionate.

This is the level the young singers in the next room are trying to reach someday. But the lessons they’re learning, both in this concert and in CiS’s continuing programs in Portland-area schools, transcend singing, choir, even music.


Bruce Browne leads Choro in Schola.

Bruce Browne leads Choro in Schola.


“I want you all to conduct yourselves and see what happens,” Bruce Browne told Gresham’s Centennial High School mixed choir. As the students began moving to the music, Browne suddenly stopped and pointed to a tenor: “This young man right here! He’s got it! Come up front and show them how you’re moving!”

Red-faced but pleased, the tenor demonstrated his fluid hand motions, and as all the students began imitating the natural flow of the phrase, the stodginess of Mendelssohn’s Grant us Peace suddenly lifted to reveal refreshing vibrancy. This fabulous teaching moment captures the musical inspiration that Browne and Choro in Schola provide to Portland-area high school choirs that are struggling to maintain high quality music instruction because of budget cuts to the public school system.


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