PSU 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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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 Choral Conference: College choir champions convene

PSU event brings some of the nation's finest collegiate choruses to perform in Portland for the first time.

by ETHAN SPERRY

Some of the nation’s finest college choirs perform in Portland’s largest choral event ever. On November 12-14, over 500 college choral singers and 300 college choir conductors will descend on the city for the 10th anniversary conference of the National Collegiate Choral Organization (NCCO). The conference includes six performances — all open to the public — as well as master classes, interest sessions, and panel discussions that are open to anyone who chooses to register for the entire conference.

Grete-Pedersen. Photo: Ole Kaland.

Grete Pedersen. Photo: Ole Kaland.

More 100 college choirs applied by blind tape audition to perform at this conference. The 10 best groups that were accepted will perform thematic programs 25 minutes in length for normal choirs and 50 minutes for headline choirs. Concertgoers should expect to hear the best of the best from around our country. Most of the choirs will be conducted by their own directors, but some will be conducted by our two headline guest conductors: Simon Carrington, founding member of the King’s Singers and Professor Emeritus from Yale University, and Grete Pedersen, founding conductor of the Norwegian Soloists Choir and world-renowned scholar on the music of Franz Joseph Haydn.

Here’s a walkthrough of the concerts and summary of other events for any Portlanders interested in crashing some or all of our conference.

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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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Choral climaxes

In Mulieribus, Resonance Ensemble and PSU Chamber Choir embark on wide-ranging musical explorations

Anna Song led In Mulieribus's singers up the aisle to open the ensemble's May 5 concert.

Anna Song led In Mulieribus’s singers up the aisle to open the ensemble’s May 5 concert.

by Bruce Browne

 “The Spectacular Now” is the provocative title of an upcoming movie. It can also apply to the “now” of the time we are sitting in a concert hall. Last Sunday, it did exactly that for this listener.
I had no misgivings about the experience of hearing In Mulieribus on Sunday, May 5; I know many of the singers to be absolutely first rate, and this ensemble has sung together for a while. But I wondered: would it be too much of a good thing – for example, monochromatic, ancient music?
I was soon relieved of any concerns: the music, although drawn from a relatively narrow period of music, displayed a variety of differences in texture, style, color, and rhythmic activity.
The space, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, is ideal for this type of small group singing. The only deterrent there is the pew I was sitting in: hard as a rock, and unyielding. Not so the singers. They made stimulating use of the space, singing first from the rear, then moving in front, and often changing formations and numbers of singers. And, unlike my pew, they were plastic and malleable.

MusicWatch reviews: Less is more

The holiday concert season: Cappella Romana, In Mulieribus, PBO, PSU Chamber Choir, Shanghai Quartet, more...

Portland Baroque Orchestra ended 2012 with three different concert programs.

Portland Baroque Orchestra ended 2012 with three different concert programs.

My mother, who I’m visiting for the holidays, has, like many seniors who live in retirement communities, downsized considerably. That must explain the surfeit of edible Christmas presents she received this year. Most of it is candy. Strictly in the interest of de-cluttering her small apartment, of course, I’m doing my best to help her consume as much as possible. Some of it (especially the handmade stuff her loving son brought from Portland) is really rich and tasty. Much of the rest, though, offers at most fleeting pleasures, and the surfeit actually reduces the pleasure of the best.

I’ve had similar feelings in attending the past month or so of classical music concerts in Portland. Many have been stuffed with musical pleasures, but often, in long programs, the mediocre works have undermined the gems. It makes me wonder whether classical music too often offers too much of a good thing — and whether that discourages audiences from appreciating, or even hearing, the good stuff. And to prove my point that you can have too much of a good thing, I’m going to make it in our longest post of the year!

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