ethan sperry

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.

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Music Notes

Wrapping up recent news in Oregon music

Every so often, when the live music schedule slacks off a bit, we wrap up news in various provinces of Oregon’s vibrant music scene. Many of the items originally appeared on ArtsWatch’s Facebook page, which you should follow to keep up with the happenings in Oregon arts and ArtsWatch.

Laurels

The Portland State University Chamber Choir, which has been featured often in these news wraps and elsewhere on ArtsWatch, continues to bring the state international acclaim. Last month, it became the first American choir ever to compete in Asia’s largest choral festival, the Bali International Choral Festival, which featured over 100 choirs. And it won the Grand Prix. The Chamber Choir won two categories: Music of Religions and Gospels & Spirituals, earning the highest score in the entire festival for the latter.

According to PSU’s press release, during the ten day trip, the Chamber Choir toured cultural sites, visited a program to alleviate poverty and sang at a charity concert to raise money for homeless youth. The choir also joined two Indonesian choirs to sing opera chorus at a gala for Catharina Leimena, Indonesia’s first opera star. The group also apparently spontaneously rehearsed one of its pieces in the Shanghai Airport, drawing international attention.

This is the second international competition that the Chamber Choir has won in recent years. In 2013 they were the first American choir to win the Grand Prix at the Seghizzi International Competition for Choral Singing, held in Italy.

Ethan Sperry and PSU Chamber Choir won the big prize at the Bali International Choral Festival.

Last week, the choir released its new CD, The Doors of Heaven, which immediately landed  at #1 on Amazon Classical, #1 on iTunes Classical, and debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical chart — the first university choir to chart. It’s the first recording made by an American choir exclusively devoted to the music of one of the world’s hottest choral composers, Latvia’s Eriks Esenvalds. We’ll be telling you more about it before the choir’s November CD release concerts in Portland.

Sperry was just named recipient of the first Portland Professorship, a new program that allows donors to name and fund termed PSU faculty positions.The first Portland Professorship position was recently created with a gift from longtime major PSU donor Robert Stoll of the Stoll Berne law firm.

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Today seems a good time to introduce you to one of our newest correspondents, C.S. Eliot. When the movie Kedi: The Cats of Istanbul prowled into town (it’s landed at Cinema 21 after a couple of sold-out screenings at the Portland International Film Festival) we found ourselves looking for just the right sort of writer to respond to the film’s unusual subject matter, a writer with inside knowledge of the peculiarities of the feline world. And C.S. made a poetic plea to speak up.

Well, all right, it was a yowl. C.S., we regret to report, is an imperious sort, given to stark pronouncements and prone to making unseemly demands on the management. Thus, forthwith, C.S.’s first dispatch for us, ‘Kedi’ review: Turkish delight.

The streetwise cats of Istanbul.

To tell the truth, this partnership is a work in progress. We’re not sure C.S. understands the concept of objectivity at all. But C.S. makes no bones about his opinions (he prefers to leave the bones for the dogs), and C.S. will speak out. There’s no stopping him, really, although you can slow him down if you put out a bowl of tuna juice. Let’s stipulate that a good writer is not necessarily a saint.

In the case of Kedi, not only is C.S. an expert on the subject, he also has a talented collaborator, longtime ArtsWatch correspondent Maria Choban. She speaks Cat semi-fluently and is adept at translating the pith of C.S.’s opinions. We see their partnership as vital to our coverage of the next touring production of Cats to hit town (lyrics and original concept by C.S. Eliot’s distant relative T.S.), and to the Puss in Boots scene in Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. And if someone in town will please put up a production of the musical Archy & Mehitabel, C.S. likely will be our representative in the reviewer’s box. We’ve tried, but we just can’t seem to come up with a literate cockroach who’ll work for what we can pay.

 


 

A GLIMPSE INSIDE THIS WEEK’S DATEBOOK:

 

Companhia Urbana de Dança at White Bird. Photo: Renato Mangolin

Companhia Urbana de Dança. White Bird brings the energetic Brazilian dance troupe to the Newmark Theatre for shows Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Born in the shanty towns and suburbs of Rio, the company blends hip-hop, urban, and contemporary dance into an Afro-Brazilian stew.

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Portland State choirs: American classics and global rhythms

Internationally acclaimed singers perform American and world music in two concerts this month

The drums are pounding, a couple dozen choristers are frenetically dancing and ululating onstage, and the audience is clapping and cheering as the global beats erupt around them. When the song is over, the church reverberates with applause.

This isn’t your grandfather’s choral concert. Although it happened last spring, this could be almost any Portland State University choral concert from the past few years. Since director Ethan Sperry arrived in 2010, the university’s choral program has dramatically expanded in quality, range of repertoire, size, acclaim and, as last summer’s performance of a Sperry arrangement of a South Indian song demonstrated, sheer thrills.

Ethan Sperry leads PSU choirs in global rhythms.

The excitement extends beyond Portland. This summer, the chamber choir embarks for Bali for its latest international competition. On March 17, it will showcase that repertoire here in its hometown. And this weekend, it joins fellow Portland State choirs in a concert featuring American choral classics.

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Choro in Schola’s Choral FX: Modeling musical mastery

Value of high school music outreach program transcends music

Photos by BENJI VUONG

“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.

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by BRUCE BROWNE

Last weekend, Oregon Repertory Singers took a risk. The audience came in an act of faith to hear two unknown works (and one beloved). Would they go home satisfied – would their reward of loyalty also be an artistic one?

To open their 43rd season this past Saturday afternoon, ORS presented three works on one theme: pursuit of peace — in the world and in the heart. Two of the pieces, both masses, were based on the “L’Homme Arme” (The Armed Man) cantus firmus – recurring theme – which in turn was based on a six-centuries-old Burgundian secular tune. Italian 17th century composer Giacomo Carissimi and 71-year-old Welshman Karl Jenkins threaded and wove the tune into full length works.

Ethan Sperry led Oregon Repertory Singers and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Allison Silverberg.

Ethan Sperry led Oregon Repertory Singers and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Allison Silverberg.

Beginning in 1460, in the Burgundian period of music, “L’Homme armé” served as the melodic center of more than 50 masses. Why? Because it was there and because the structure of the tune (tonic centered scale tones, perfectly suited to use in a round) is so user friendly — even easier than the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” lick.

First on the program, Carissimi’s Mass, from which the choir sang the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, is a Baroque adoption of the Burgundian theme. Now in his 45th year as organist and music director at First United Methodist Church, Jonas Nordwall, in his inimitable style, performed a fantasy on the cantus firmus, and segued seamlessly into the a cappella Carissimi. The effect was stunning and the choir, arrayed in a complete oval around the sanctuary, sang beautifully. But then, without pause, with the tones of the Carissimi Agnus Dei still ringing, they intoned the octave entrance of Agnus Dei, the choral transcription of Samuel Barber’s iconic Adagio for Strings.

Maestro Sperry, in his introductory remarks, brought up the word “risk”. And Sperry and the choir took several risks, with many rewards ensuing. The first risk was the simple act of encircling the audience with modified vocal quartets, to sing. The epic textures were plasticized by each section, ebbing and flowing perfectly.

Too, it’s a risk for any performing arts organization to put before the public something with which they are unfamiliar. But it must be done, otherwise we languish in repetition of only the known, therefore only the past.

Musically and spiritually, the centerpiece of the concert was the Jenkins mass, performed with the ORS’s recent partner, the Vancouver Symphony. Composed in 1999 and premiered in London a year later, the piece is populist and appealing, its melodies singable and harmonies moderate for a 21st century work.

Sperry himself came well armed: tempi were thoughtfully planned, and more important, pacing between movements was perfect, always moving forward. In this 59 minute work, with any amount of dead time, the movements can become unhinged. They didn’t.

Jenkins understands orchestration, and wrote music that wedded well to eclectic texts (Dryden, Swift, Tennyson, Kipling and Sankichi Toge and Muslim prayer) eliciting the varied emotions of conflict, war and peace.

The only drawback of this piece is the composer’s predilection for repetition, often iterating musical sections two or more times. Why? It comes off as self-indulgent.

The Vancouver Symphony was very strong and, if we look past several individual blips and blats, a few essential solos were very well played. Military fife was very effectively rendered by flutist Darren Cook; cellist Dieter Ratzlaf simply and serenely played the blessedly beautiful Benediction melody, which is then repeated in the voices.

Audiences will sometimes sit through a large work awaiting one melody, one movement, one breathtaking “so beautiful it hurts” moment. (See Rachmaninoff Variations on a Theme by Paganini or Bernstein Chichester Psalms or Lauridsen Chansons de la Rose.) The Benedictus is one such moment in the Jenkins Missa, but other moments in this work surprisingly involved the percussion section. And a very fine percussion section it was – crisp, accurate and properly balanced.

Soloists in the Jenkins were very effective: April Vanderwal processing up the aisle, her light, almost boyish soprano perfect for the Kyrie. Several others delivered lovely snippets: Lisa Riffel, and Rich Vanderwal and Alexander Garcia among them. Wajdi Said movingly intoned the Islamic call to prayer following the opening movement.

This year’s edition of Oregon Repertory Singers is the best in a long while. Intonation, phrasing and balance/blend are superb; each section stays firmly within its own sleeve of sound. Dedicated to bringing some of the finest unknown choral works to the Portland community. Sperry and the choir may carry on their risk taking, and reward us all in the process.

Portland choir director Bruce Browne directed Portland Symphonic Choir and choral music programs at Portland State University for many years and was founder and director of Choral Cross-Ties, a professional choral group in Portland.

Want to read more about Oregon choral music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Portland’s contemporary choral ecosystem

Spring performances by The Ensemble, Choral Arts Ensemble, and Portland State choirs demonstrate the city's emerging, multi-level 21st century choral music scene

A few specialist performers does not a scene make; when they’re gone, what happens to the music? A vital new music scene requires a whole ecosystem — performers, composers, audiences, venues, often donors. Think Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, Classical-era Vienna, 19th century Italian opera, ‘70s LA, ‘80s downtown NYC, Austin, Nashville in their glory days.

One such scene may be a-borning in Portland. Well known as a choral music capital, and justly renowned for its developing contemporary and indie classical music scene, the city has recently seen too little intersection between them. While some major cities have a top professional vocal ensemble or two that specializes in contemporary music — San Francisco’s Chanticleer, Seattle’s The Esoterics or Roomful of Teeth and Conspirare (nominally based in New York and Austin, respectively, but in fact drawing singers from around the country) — Portland currently lacks a choir that sings primarily music of our time, like the late lamented Portland Vocal Consort and Choral Cross Ties. Here as elsewhere, most choirs cling to the classics.

Although the city’s top choirs such as Resonance Ensemble, Portland Symphonic and Oregon Repertory Singers sometimes sing new music, they mostly perform music by dead — sometimes long-dead — composers. Nothing wrong with that — as we’ve long argued here, mixing old and new music in concert probably broadens the audience for both. But this season they’ve all focused mostly on music from the last century or earlier.

Sterling Roberts conducted singers onstage and off at Portland State University.

Sterling Roberts conducted singers onstage and off at Portland State University.

Yet Portland choirs seem to be adding more and more new music to the mix, perhaps signaling a broader commitment to new choral music than just confining it to one or two specialty groups. Several of this spring’s concerts demonstrate the breadth of the city’s growing contemporary choral music scene.

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