By Brett Campbell
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. This could be a Portland State University choral concert from the past few years. Since director Ethan Sperry arrived in 2012, 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.
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.
The Bali journey follows the choir's sweep of 15 awards at a major Italian competition in 2013 -- the first time an American college won the grand prize in the contest's 52-year history. Another top award followed at a prominent Canadian competition the next year. The choir has also made two acclaimed recordings: 2012's "A Drop in the Ocean," a finalist for a major choral music award (a rarity for any college classical music performers), and 2014's "Into Unknown Worlds," named a "recording to die for" by Stereophile magazine, another first for a student choir. A third recording comes out this year on Naxos, the world's largest classical music label.
The choir's rise in quality parallels a surge in quantity. Since Sperry arrived, "the number of voice majors has doubled (and) we've gone from a program that had two choirs and 100 singers to now having six choirs and 250 singers," he says. The chamber choir, all-male Man Choir and all-female Vox Femina are chosen by audition, while the University Choir is open to any student.
Sperry recruits extensively in high schools, the choir frequently performs in area high schools, and his choral workshops regularly receive visitors from high school choirs from throughout the West. He has an attractive product. Sperry says that 80 percent of choir students graduate, a rate almost double the university's graduation rate, and that half of Portland State chamber choir alumni report having jobs in music.
Sperry attributes much of the re-energized choral programs' appeal not just to the performances' high quality but also to their diversity. Along with contemporary and classic choral repertoire, the concerts often boast rhythmically charged global pop and folk music, much of which he's arranged.
"To me, choir is as much about communication as music making," he says. "Human beings everywhere throughout history have chosen to sing together. All these other traditions are part of the choral repertoire."
Diverse programming brings diverse audiences -- and singers. Since his arrival, Sperry says, Portland State choirs have gone from 20 percent nonwhite to almost 50 percent nonwhite, a diversity uncommon in American collegiate choral music.
"When the repertoire becomes not just 'dead white guy' music, a lot of people buy into it: 'Yeah, this is my music, this is my home, I belong here,' " Sperry says. That creates a degree of audience connection and emotional, even physical, expression that usually make Portland State choral concerts more energetic, exciting and enjoyable than just about any others in town.
The choir also excels in gentler, subtler, more complex music, as well as in traditional European repertoire and in music by popular contemporary choral composers. This weekend's concerts with the PSU Orchestra offer classics by great 20th- and 21st-century American composers including Aaron Copland ("Appalachian Spring") and Randall Thompson.
Audiences have responded, with Sperry reporting average attendance at choral concerts growing from around 100 to more than 800, sometimes breaking 1,000. And for the past three years, Portland State choirs have performed in concerts with the Oregon Symphony; they're scheduled to do so again twice in May.
Ticket sales and fundraisers help pay for choral programming that operates on a zero budget (beyond Sperry's salary). But that's about to change, thanks to a half-million-dollar donation last year from a Portland State alumnus, Phil Bogue, which the choir is matching through fundraising. That money will help fund recording and touring projects as the choral program continues its journey, embracing music from across the globe-- and taking it around the world.
--Brett Campbell, for The Oregonian/OregonLive
PSU Orchestra, Chamber Choir, Man Choir and Vox Femina
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 3 and 4 p.m. Sunday, March 5
Where: First United Methodist Church, 1838 S.W. Jefferson St.
Portland State Chamber Choir, "Take Flight"
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 17
Where: Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 S.W. Park Ave.
Tickets: $7-$12, psuchamberchoir.com or 503-725-3307
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