ethan sperry

Oregon Repertory Singers review: Double treat

Double choirs excel in performances of a pair of very different Masses by Frank Martin and Ralph Vaughan Williams

By BRUCE BROWNE

Although they were contemporaries, British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and Swiss composer Frank Martin make strange musical bedfellows. But for one very enjoyable afternoon at Portland’s First Methodist Church last weekend, they made comfortable companions indeed, thanks to the mediation of Oregon Repertory Singers and their music director Ethan Sperry.

These two 20th century composers were similar in several ways. Both lived long lives, both were influenced by French music, both were sons of clergymen.  But their music differed considerably.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music is the epitome of British nationalism. He was influenced by Tudor style, such as the basis for his much loved Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis, and by British/Irish folk songs. His compositional style remained as British as clotted cream to his end.

By contrast, Martin was born in Switzerland but spent a good deal of his time in the Netherlands; for a while he embraced Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone compositional style until settling into an eclectic compositional voice.

For a piece that lay unknown in a desk drawer for some decades, Martin’s Mass is loaded with what were for their time, new, creative ideas. It’s like a compendium of nascent and varied musical motifs: from the neo-Medieval Kyrie to the pentatonic scales of the “Et Resurrect,” and the quasi-pointillistic opening of the “Gloria.”

One of the most expressive, coloristic choral pieces of the 20th century, Martin’s Mass for double choir is also one of the more exposed! Its transparent textures make it easy to hear every part, and every mistake. ORS did it proud, displaying a warm sonority through all of the movements, and a rhythmic and expressive dialogue between the two choirs that was tactile. The Mass is a kaleidoscope of varied hues, rhythms and tempi, made even more delicious by the interplay of the two choirs: a tone bath of the first order.

Oregon Repertory Singers performed at Portland's First United Methodist Church.

Oregon Repertory Singers performed at Portland’s First United Methodist Church.

Choir and conductor really “got” the wide dynamic spectrum available – and needed – for both pieces, and available to a choir of these dimensions (90 voices).  A ground floor pianissimo rose to a full-throated fortissimo.

One of the most difficult tasks for amateur singers is to maintain a continuous legato line, but it was no challenge for this choir. Ultra-responsive to Sperry’s cues, they met most of the demands of this daunting score.

Just a few minor cavils: there was a little accident in the Martin, where one choir was inconclusive in its entrance, and mild panic set in; but it was very soon resolved. And very occasionally, attacks were blunted by an amorphous, timid fuzziness – but only seldom.  

Composed, like Martin’s Mass, in the early 1920s, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in g minor harks back to the composer’s long hegemony over British music of the mid-20th century. Influenced greatly by Debussy and Ravel, with whom he studied, the composer luxuriantly flourishes his unique, modal style throughout the Mass.

In ORS’s performance, varied mixed solo quartets in most movements ranged from very good to excellent, but occasionally dropped slightly in pitch. Wisely, Sperry paused after each of the movements, to reposition the varied groups of soloists differently for each successive movement. This was doubly wise, as the audience could applaud each separate group and the choir could retune as necessary.

These two Masses have never appeared together on the concert stage in Portland. Looking ahead, I hope there is more of this type of programming. It offers us a little less of the flavor-of-the-year works that are already so much in the public ear, and so much wider a palette of sound and structure.

The Oregon Repertory Singers, now having been in Dr. Sperry’s capable hands for five years, has cultivated an appealing warmth of tone color. They seem to be evolving year by year, a good sign and something every artistic group, in infancy or adulthood, must do to survive.

Thanks, ORS, for your moments of ear candy, and genuine emotive singing. Not so many choirs can forge two such disparate pieces into a palatable concert whole. Under Ethan Sperry, they’re being asked to sing more and more challenging works: what’s next?

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led Portland Symphonic Choir and Portland State University choral programs for many years.

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Oregon Chorale review: Counting the stars

Washington County choir and other choral concerts make for a bountiful musical weekend

by BRUCE BROWNE

“This was hard,” one of the choristers told me after the Oregon Chorale‘s March 12 concert. Finding the balance between pushing the envelope and overextending the choir is one of the conductor’s first jobs, and it will be the task of whomever is chosen to lead the choir next year.

Jason Sabino led Oregon Chorale. Photo: Don White.

Jason Sabino led Oregon Chorale. Photo: Don White.

Formed in 1985, the Oregon Chorale (nee “Washington County Chorale”) is now in search mode, with three candidates vying to replace founder Bernie Kuehn, who stepped down at the end of last year. Robert Hawthorne, Tigard High School choral director, conducted in December; Scott Tuomi, music professor at Pacific University, will round out the field in June. This search committee will have a challenge on their hands, as all three candidates vying, are… quite viable.

This concert featured a constellation of “stars,” the only ones visible on a rugged, rainy evening in this part of the Pacific northwest. The program “Songs from Nature: Music of the Americas” was designed to help us celebrate spring.

First, a strong shout out to accompanist Linda Smith. She is not just good, she’s a virtuoso. A good accompanist is an imperative and even more so in this concert in which a good portion of the repertoire demanded her skills.

Pianist Linda Smith. Photo: Don White.

Pianist Linda Smith. Photo: Don White.

Naturally, another “star” was the choir itself. Made up of community members from Hillsboro and other satellite boroughs, this is an amateur choir, but never amateur – ish.

Third among the glitterati in this firmament was conducting candidate Jason Sabino, whose grace and command on the podium were firmly in place all night. Though just completing his degree in choral conducting from Portland State University, he projects an energy and Je ne sais quoi well beyond his years. He confessed “this is the first time I’ve ever conducted an orchestra” in concert, referring to John Corigliano’s Fern Hill, which demands equipoise and firm grasp over its 17 minutes running time.

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National Choir Festival review: Choral cornucopia

National Collegiate Choral Organization conference bestows a wide range of vocal beauty on Portland

by BRUCE BROWNE
Photos by Chase Gilley

Last weekend was a high note for the choral community of Portland, Oregon, and the collegiate choirs of this country. For the first time in history, Portland played host to a national music convention: the biennial meeting of National Collegiate Choral Organization. This year, Portland State University brought it to our city. This national choir festival brought some of the finest choirs, collegiate or otherwise, to be found in the country. With thoughtful initiatives in choral literature, beautiful tone, and outstanding stylistic choices, they helped make a rainy weekend shine.

University of Louisville Cardinal Singers.

University of Louisville Cardinal Singers.

Perhaps the most striking concerts were the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers and the University of North Texas Collegium Musicum, nearly polar opposites in program content, and in some ways, style. The Louisville choir, directed by Dr. Kent Hatteberg, offered a wide palette of color and style (within the limitations of the disappointing venue at Portland’s First Congregational Church): Renaissance Palestrina, to newly minted Penderecki, but a softer, much less dissonant version of the composer than we knew two decades ago. Their “hit” was the Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds’ ultra-dramatic A Soldier’s Mother’s Lullaby, commissioned by the University of Louisville this year. According to the composer (as excerpted from PSU choral studies director Ethan Sperry’s program notes): “Prayers and mothers’ sung lullabies have no frontiers, and they do reach God’s heart and the souls of the wounded. Sing your lullabies, sing your prayers forever!” This was a powerful statement about mourning and hope, with the texts by Wilfred Owen and Jack Whalen, reflected in Esenvalds’ vivid writing, “capturing the vivid horrors of war, and the unsettling truths about the fates of the young men fighting in it” (see above).

University of North Texas.

University of North Texas Collegium Singers.

Dr. Richard Sparks’s fine Collegium Singers from University of North Texas sang a program of early music, including John Taverner’s “Sanctus” from Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas, and two Baroque motets: the Deutsches of Heinrich Schutz, and the famous Komm Jesu Komm, of J.S. Bach. The Schutz was clean clear, and stylish. The double choir motet was etched beautifully in the language of Bach, each choir pivoting by turns from homophonic echoing of one another, to fugal statements. Early music groups abounded at the conference: two, Juilliard 415 (a reference to using the tuning conventions prior to the 1800s), and the Yale Camerata, under the direction of David Hill, were the closing program Saturday night, but I was not able to hear that program.

Local Vocals

Portland State University cut a wide swath throughout this conference. Not only were Dr. Ethan Sperry and the School of Music the conference hosts, but the PSU Man Choir, Vox Femina, and Chamber Choir performed for packed audiences. Saturday at First United Methodist, the PSU orchestra, prepared by Ken Selden, performed with panache under the direction of Norwegian conductor Grete Pedersen, acclaimed on several continents for her CD recordings and live performances of convincing and brilliantly styled music. Ms. Pedersen and the combined choirs groups offered a compelling and satisfying rendition of Joseph Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass. The orchestra was stellar, the soloists were excellent, and combined choirs were wonderfully forthcoming with Pedersen’s creative interpretation. This is all the more creditable as the choral forces were not the renowned Chamber Choir but the two aforementioned male and female choirs. The B-team gave an A-team performance. The entire ensemble, under Pedersen’s stimulating direction, shaped phrases and defined articulations and ornaments more clearly than this writer has heard them in any previous performance.

The previous evening, at St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Chamber Choir itself impressed with a group of four Slavic appetizers (all based on Lenten motifs) from Rodion Shchedrin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alfred Schnittke, and Georgy Sviridov, all composers who deserve to be heard more widely. Here is the PSU Chamber Choir singing Inexpressible Wonder by Georgy Sviridov live at the conference.

Ethan Sperry led the PSU Chamber Choir and Orchestra at St. Mary's Cathedral.

Ethan Sperry led the PSU Chamber Choir and Orchestra at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

But the entrée of that evening was the glorious Passion and Resurrection by, once again, Eriks Esenvalds, all of 38 years old! This music is destined to be a classic. The composer was present for this (as he was for Louisville), and presumably had given at least some valuable input to the performers. Eschewing the traditional Gospel setting of the Passion, the composer uses eclectic sources from the Byzantine liturgy, the Stabat Mater, and passages from Job and the book of Psalms.

The musical style ranges from the Renaissance (!), using sections of a motet by Cristobal de Morales, sung by a vocal quartet; a string orchestra, portraying a jarring change of key against what’s come before in the quartet’s singing; then, the soprano soloist, clad in a brilliant white gown, and representing Mary Magdalene, walks slowly the entire length of the Cathedral, singing as she perhaps repents her own sins.

Finally the choir enters, and here Esenvalds looks back dramatically at the “turba” choruses of Bach and Schutz (meaning “crowd choruses” almost always used in Passion music), as the choir shifts from one dramatic role to another: the turbulent crowd of persecutors, the worshipping masses, and finally, the choir taking on as a whole the voice of Jesus, as they ask God to forgive the people who are killing Him.

Here is audio of The Heaven’s Flock: music by Eriks Esenvalds, text by former Oregon poet laureate Paulann Petersen, performed by the PSU Chamber Choir and the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers, Ethan Sperry conducting.

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Portland State Choirs & Oregon Repertory Singers: Making choral music hot again

Conductor and teacher Ethan Sperry channels music's primal passions

Choir concerts too often fall somewhere between treacly Up With People plastered smile sounds and uptight, rote solemnity — an uninspiring contest between dreariness and gooiness.

Bland is not an issue for the Portland State University Man Choir, which regularly unleashes some of the most energetic and thrilling sounds I’ve ever experienced on Oregon stages. Director Ethan Sperry has a genuine gift for conducting male singers, his joy and passion beaming through in his gestures and grins, urging the singers on to riveting performances that might occasionally stray from the Vox Femina PSU women’s choir’s close pitch matching but more than compensate in sheer compelling power. You can’t take your eyes or ears off them. The school’s director of choral activities is one of the most charismatic musicians you’ll ever see, even though he’s not, technically, performing. Without ever upstaging his singers, Sperry inspires the young men to unleash their emotional connection to the music they’re making, without sacrificing the precision, ensemble and other musical qualities that make a good choir a great one.
Sperry’s PSU singers go straight for the heart, with passionate, powerful performances that enrapture classical and pop fans alike.

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Ethan Sperry conducted PSU Man Choir at Lincoln Hall.

That’s especially true of PSU’s annual Global Rhythms shows. You still have a chance to catch this year’s second performance, which happens at 4 pm Sunday, May 31 at Portland State’s Lincoln Hall — assuming the stage has cooled sufficiently after the choirs’ fiery performances I heard in the first concert Friday night. And it was only one of several commanding performances that Sperry has led this spring.

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Cappella Romana and Portland State Chamber Choir: Contemporary psalms and passion.

 Two Portland choral powerhouses in two heavyweight works

by JEFF WINSLOW

Portland’s choral music fans got a serious double treat a week ago last Sunday afternoon. First, Cappella Romana took on Alfred Schnittke’s huge, demanding Verses of Repentance (often translated Penitential Psalms), composed for the thousand-year anniversary of the Christianization of Russia in 1988, at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. A few hours later, the Portland State University Chamber Choir presented David Lang’s magnum opus The Little Match Girl Passion at St. Stephen Catholic Church across the Willamette. Both works challenged these top groups to give their absolute best; both performances did full justice to the composers’ visions.

Cappella Romana performed music of Alfred Schnittke.

Cappella Romana performed music of Alfred Schnittke.

As if this weren’t enough, both choirs filled out – maybe overfilled — their programs with several other works. Cappella Romana’s program went well over two hours, including a long intermission, and with great regret I had to leave before the second half in order to be on time for the PSU group. Thus I missed an early Sergei Rachmaninov Choral Concerto, and recently composed works by Galina Grigorjeva and renowned guest director Ivan Moody. I’m sure the singers had recovered sufficiently from Schnittke to give them beautiful performances, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for them. The drive across town helped bring me back to the world, temporarily.

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Oregon Repertory Singers review: Knockout Performance of a Heavyweight Mass

Choir's Missa Solemnis performance floats like a butterfly, stings like a Beethoven.

by BRUCE BROWNE

Saying that Beethoven wrote powerful choral works is like saying that Ali threw powerful punches in Zaire and Manila. LvB was a choral slugger. About his most potent choral work, the Missa Solemnis, Robert Shaw famously wrote, “It’s a little like setting off a bomb in the brain – to say nothing of the explosion in the larynx.”

Ethan Sperry conducted Oregon Repertory Singers in December concerts.

Ethan Sperry conducted Oregon Repertory Singers and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

You have to get in the ring with Ludwig Van and have it out, take his punches and be prepared to give back more than you get.

Saturday afternoon at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, the Oregon Repertory singers did exactly that. Extremely well prepared by artistic director Ethan Sperry, and capable of sparring with the best of Beethoven, they sang through all of the composer’s high-range pyrotechnics, high decibel dynamics, and complicated fugues, seemingly without effort. The tenors displayed an especially silvery and flexible sleeve if sound. Basses carried well, even in the low register, not an easy matter in this venue. Sopranos never seemed to overreact to the demands of the score, singing easily and fluidly throughout.

A few especially telling moments in the choir’s singing: the nuance of the mysterious whisperings at the “Et vitam venturi” (and the life of the world to come); their ability to pull off the dark setting of “…”passus et sepultus est.” (He died and was buried). Conductor and choir were particularly deft in transitions and definition of articulation, essential elements in interpretation of this type of work.

The accompanying Vancouver Symphony Orchestra did not fare as well. Perhaps because of his early training and activity as a classicist, Beethoven loved fugues, and the Missa Solemnis exhibits many of these forms. Last night, particularly in the instrumental lines, we could have heard more diversity of thematic importance. Absent that, we tend to hear simply a vast wall of sound. While there were moments of felicity in the instrumentalists’ playing, they at times lacked focus in ensemble, and most egregiously, overplayed their role as accompaniment. This listener never heard anything approaching a very soft (pp) dynamic from them. They clearly needed more time with the score.

The orchestra also posed a barrier to the vocal soloists, who had to sing from a position behind them. Forget the optics; it’s just that much harder for singers to project through such a wall of sound, and the soloists also have to battle Beethoven’s visceral vocal demands, and some of the fiendish harmonies of the score. This is not a “classical” Mass (a la Mozart or early Beethoven himself), easy to sing and predictably balanced. It’s a behemoth, a monster that challenges vocal soloists as well as the rest of the performers. The gentlemen soloists came away with flying colors, unscathed by the demands of the score. Bass Andre Flynn is the gift that keeps on giving – to the musical community of Portland. His vocal quality was perfect for this role. Carl Halvorson was an equal partner in both vocal quality and musicianship.

While the men did, in fact, soar over that orchestral wall, alto Haley Maddox and soprano Joanna Meline carried less well. These are younger voices, and needed every chance they could get. Meline started well enough, but by the middle of the work, her voice, which has wonderful potential, simply lost stamina, and with it, vocal color. Maddox possesses a lovely voice, one that carried well in the high register, but was lost in the low end. She also needed more time to learn the score; many notes were blurry and some seemingly short of the mark on pitch. Both soprano and alto seemed to wander a bit during the end of the Credo, but buttressed by choir and orchestra, found their way back.

The singers and players benefited from having an intermission for this concert — a respite much needed by singers and players. In addition, the audience, intentionally or not, gave the singers and orchestra a “mini-break” after each movement with their applause (yes, Stokowski et al. would have scolded us), but it turned out to be an advantage, again given the demands on stamina. Even Ali got his breaks between rounds.

And this work needs all the breaks it can get. The gumption to mount it, to take it on, to slug it out with Beethoven as Ethan Sperry and the masses did this past weekend… the verdict? After 12 rounds: the winner: ORS.

Portland choral conductor Bruce Browne led the Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties, and directed the Portland State University choral programs for many years.

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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.

by BRUCE BROWNE

“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.

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