portland state university chamber choir

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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Oregon Symphony review: going big

Orchestra's season closing concerts feature large scale Mahler and Stravinsky, and a big success in a "Little Russian" symphony

by TERRY ROSS

On May 15, people came for the show, and thanks to dancers and puppets, they got it. And thanks to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, they also got some memorable music.

The “show” in question was the third in this season’s Oregon Symphony series of multi-media events, called Persephone. Earlier installments were based on Bela Bartok’s 1911 opera  Bluebeard’s Castle  and Olivier Messiaen’s 1948 opus Turangalila, and they involved projected images, creative lighting, unusual instruments (an ondes martenot for Messiaen), among other effects. For Igor Stravinsky’s Persephone, which premiered in 1934, the requisite large orchestra, giant choir, children’s choir, tenor soloist, and female narrator were abetted by the puppetry of multiple Emmy award-winning Michael Curry and dancer Anna Marra, from Portland’s BodyVox. The whole bunch were led by OSO maestro Carlos Kalmar.

Oregon Symphony’s ‘Persephone’ featured striking design by Oregon’s Michael Curry. Photo: Brud Giles.

The 48-minute Persephone show came after the intermission, with the orchestra onstage before an evocative set featuring a glowing sun/moon. The text by André Gide was declaimed and sung in French by, respectively, French actress Pauline Chelviller, who did the role a couple of years ago under director Peter Sellars, and American tenor Paul Groves, an opera singer in considerable demand. Gide famously didn’t care for Stravinsky’s refusal to treat his text as poetry and boycotted the premiere.

His point was well taken. Throughout his career, Stravinsky was never enamored of close textual settings, preferring to regard words as merely syllables and to appropriate their meaning in a more general sense. So in Persephone, the outlines of the music follow the heroine, who is the goddess of springtime, as she is abducted from earth and made to be the underworld mate of Hades, god of the dead, then released (for a while) each year to ensure the appearance of spring on earth before returning to her life below. In a generally vapid score (one of Stravinsky’s weakest), the orchestra makes some Stravinskyan gestures (introductory statements by high-pitched brasses of percussion, decorous string writing in his Neo-Classical stage) to accompany the narrative.

But the real heroes of this production were the lively massed choruses — Portland State University’s Chamber Choir and members of the Pacific Youth Choir — the puppeteer, and the featured dancer. Combined with the lighting director, these participants never let the action flag, even when Stravinsky’s music strongly suggests it might. They carry the “show.” I was especially enchanted by Mr. Curry’s flying spirits, by his puppet of Persephone (also known in mythology as Proserpina), and especially by Ms. Marra’s mind-bending contortions as a flying version of Persephone. She flew through the air as if freed from gravity, every gesture lyrical and lovely.

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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 classical music releases: Five 2014 favorites

Oregon composers and performers shine in new and old music.

It’s an arts journalism tradition to fill the year-end concert void with “best of the year” lists. I can’t pretend to have heard more than a fraction of Oregon music CDs released this year, so this roundup just represents a few favorites I expect many classical music-oriented ArtsWatch readers will relish.

Portland Baroque Orchestra, J.S. Bach: Concertos for Oboe and Oboe d’amore (Avie).

“Bach used the oboe as no other composer had before,” 20-year-veteran PBO oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz writes in the liner notes to PBO’s new CD, “treating it as an equal partner to the voice, and showering it with lyrically and technically demanding roles… the oboe must have been one of Bach’s favorite instruments,” receiving thrice as many solos as the violin in his cantatas.

PBOWhich makes the absence of any surviving manuscripts for oboe showcases in Bach’s most alluring music — the concertos he wrote in Cothen before moving to Leipzig to write primarily sacred music with voices — especially disappointing. However, some years ago, scholars realized that some of Bach’s lost oboe (and other) concertos were hiding in plain sight: in the guise of harpsichord concertos they deduced the busy Bach (obliged to deliver a huge quantity of music on deadline) had arranged from earlier concertos featuring other solo instruments — including the oboe and its older cousin, the larger and mellower oboe d’amore.

One of those scholars is Ruiz himself, who’s performed with most of the leading historically informed ensembles, teaches at New York’s Juilliard School and has mentored many of America’s leading Baroque oboists. His reconstruction of some of Bach’s Orchestral Suites with Monica Huggett’s Ensemble Sonnerie (recorded on a chart-topping, Grammy-nominated CD) proved far more persuasive than the previous editions that commonly — and mistakenly — replaced the composer’s intended oboe with flute.

“In Bach’s time, the oboe was considered to be the electric guitar of the 18th century, truly a virtuosic vehicle in the right hands,“ Ruiz told me, ”and there were plenty of right hands around. I hope this [reconstruction] stretches expectations of the Baroque oboe.”

Now, again teaming with Huggett, Ruiz continues his revelation — or more accurately restoration — of the oboe’s signficance to Bach’s music. This CD of concertos reverse-engineered by Ruiz and others from Bach’s own arrangements for harpsichord (with one exception compiled from a cantata movement and a concerto fragment) into showcases for oboe, oboe d’amore, and violin and oboe should re-establish the primacy of Ruiz’s instrument in Bach’s music. (In one case, it reclaims the spotlight from an earlier reconstruction from harpsichord to violin that, Ruiz contends, doesn’t fit that instrument nearly as well.) And, following its acclaimed 2012 St. John Passion recording, the disk could also place Oregon’s own historically informed period instrument band in the international spotlight for authentic Baroque recordings.

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News and Notes Oregon music edition

Oregon musicians and musical arts institutions score honors and dollars.

Let’s indulge in some holiday cheer by sharing some of the good news Oregon music artists and institutions have recently received. Information comes directly from press releases.

Eugene Symphony NEA Grant

Just in time for its 50th birthday, the ESO scored a $20,000 Art Works award National Endowment for the Arts – its biggest in more than 15 years and second largest ever. It’ll support a January residency and concert with alto sax master Branford Marsalis, who often performs in classical and pop music settings too. He’s performing with the orchetra January 22 at the Hult Center and will work with students from area middle and high schools and the University of Oregon and Lane Community College.

CD Booklet Cover and Back - Semifinal - 8-13

New Jazz Competition

Speaking of jazz, Portland State University will host the first annual Jazz Forward Competition on February 20 and 21, 2015 during the 12th Annual Portland Jazz Festival. Designed and curated by Origin Records recording artist and PSU Jazz Faculty member Jeff Baker, a critically acclaimed performer and award winning educator educator in the Northwest region, Jazz Forward is an outgrowth of the four year PSU Student Stage, organized by the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute @ PSU. The partnership with Portland Jazz Festival joins other major regional student jazz competitions across the country and represents a worthy investment in the future of Oregon music.

Chamber Music Northwest NEA Grant

The annual Portland summer festival also received a $20K NEA Art Works award, largest in its history, to support this summer’s 30-concert festival, which includes seven world and regional premieres commissioned and co-commissioned by CMNW, and composed by Peter Schickele (the nom de norm of PDQ Bach and an excellent composer in his own right), Pulitzer Prize winners David Lang and Aaron Jay Kernis, Pulitzer finalist Paul Schoenfeld, and the terrific Portland composers Kenji Bunch and David Schiff. Several other Oregon theaters, dance companies and other artists received Art Works grants.

Portland State Chamber Choir Award

The latest CD by the PSU Chamber Choir, Into Unknown Worlds, has been named a “2014 Recording to Die For” in Stereophile magazine. The list, which includes very few classical recordings and no other student recordings, will be published in the February. “This marvelously recorded compendium of ‘modern choral music from the far reaches of the globe’ rises to the top thanks to the quality of its music and singing and to its captivating sense of space,” raved Stereophile and San Francisco Classical Voice contributor Jason Serinus. It’s available at available at Oregon-based CDBaby.com, Amazon.com, and iTunes. I’ll have a review on ArtsWatch soon, just in time for stocking stuffer season. Spoiler alert: buy it!

Oregon Musicians RACC Up Support

Darrell Grant and Hamilton Cheifetz performed in Grant's "The Territory." Photo: Jim Leisy.

Darrell Grant and Hamilton Cheifetz performed in Grant’s “The Territory,” at Chamber Music Northwest. Grant won a 2015 RACC Project Grant to turn the composition into a CD. Photo: Jim Leisy.

The Regional Arts & Culture Council, which covers the three-county Portland metro area, has awarded $693,959 in project grants for calendar year 2015, including 66 grants to nonprofit organizations and schools, and 80 individual artists in Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington Counties. Oregonians winning support for various music-related projects include Beaverton Symphony Orchestra, Big Horn Brass, Matt Carlson/Golden Retriever, Creative Music Guild, Fear No Music, 45th Parallel, Metro Arts, Michelle Fujii, Darrell Grant, Jen Harrison/Northwest Horn Orchestra, Nat Hulskamp, Theresa Koon/John Vergin/ Sandra Stone, My Voice Music, Travis Neel, Obo Addy Legacy Project, One World Chorus, Stephen Osserman, PDX Pop Now!, Portland Symphonic Choir, Raphael Spiro String Quartet, Resonance Vocal Ensemble, Resonate Choral Arts, Ethan Rose, Venerable Showers of Beauty Gamelan, Vibe, and Jennifer Wright. Other grants (in theater, dance, education, and media arts, for example) have musical components.

This year’s project grants (one of several categories of grants doled out by RACC, including others for professional development, individual artists, and general operating support) were funded by the City of Portland, RACC’s workplace giving program, Work for Art, Clackamas County, Washington County, Multnomah County and Metro. Congrats to all — and to the Oregon audiences who’ll get to experience the music these grants help make possible next year.

Know of other recent good news in Oregon music? Please share it in the comments below.
Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

News & Notes: Musical Travelers

Oregon musicians take their sounds overseas.

Summer is travel time, and Oregon music is on the move. Last week, we told you about Oregon City’s Unistus Choir and its impending trip to Estonia. But they’re hardly the only Oregon musicians heading out this summer.

This Wednesday, June 25, you can bid bon voyage to Portland Youth Philharmonic at its free noon concert in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Squre, where they’ll perform music by two of today’s most appealing contemporary composers, Christopher Theofanidis (Visions and Miracles) and Portland’s own Kenji Bunch (Supermaximum!) along with 20th century American music legend (and West Coast contemporary music godfather) Henry Cowell (Ancient Desert Drone), plus Dvorak’s Symphonic Variations and Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture. After that, they fly to Chicago to conclude their 90th anniversary season with a July 5 performance at the annual Grant Park Music Festival, which is led by none other than Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar, who extended the invitation.

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