By Brett Campbell
Like so many of the best musical ideas, Portland's finest female vocal ensemble got its start in a bar.
Anna Song, recently relocated to Portland from Chicago, was unwinding with new friends from the choir Cantores in Ecclesia after a 2006 rehearsal when another Portland classical music singer, Tuesday Rupp, met up with them. Song and Rupp discovered a shared love for early music and a desire to sing more intimate repertoire for soprano and alto voices.
"If you choose the songs," Rupp told Song, "I've got the singers."
A few days later, several of the city's top women singers sang together and enjoyed it so much that they decided to do it again. "This is really so fun, we sound pretty good, and we're having a good time," Song remembers thinking. "Why don't we put on a concert?"
They rented St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Southeast Portland, took a friend's suggestion for a name - a Latin phrase meaning "among women" -- and were surprised when 150 people showed up. "This is crazy," thought Song, accustomed to the rigid Chicago and East Coast classical music establishments. "It's so easy!"
Since that first informal concert, In Mulieribus has drawn ecstatic reviews and ardent applause for their radiant voices and the rarely performed repertoire they've sung several times per year for the past decade. This weekend, Song leads In Mulieribus in a 10th anniversary program that displays both those resplendent voices and the group's enthusiastic pursuit of ever-different sounds.
The group's repertoire has mostly stayed true to its initial commitment to early music, especially medieval music. Song, who teaches at Linfield College, spends hours online and in libraries, archives and conferences, seeking ancient sounds rarely if ever performed here. The group sometimes ventures into later territory; this year, they've premiered four new pieces. "I'm always looking for music," she says.
The group's personnel has remained similarly stable; most classical vocal ensembles feature a rotating roster. The current group comprises sopranos Catherine van der Salm, Arwen Myers, Ann Wetherell and Kari Ferguson, mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn and altos Jo Routh and Susan Hale, all of whom perform regularly with major Oregon choral institutions such as Cantores and Cappella Romana.
"Because of that longevity and our consistent roster, we've developed a rapport that goes beyond rehearsals and concerts," Song says. "Seeing 10 years of each other's lives unfold brings a kind of closeness. Most of us are mothers, and it's been great to be supportive of one another as we go through the different stages of motherhood. Even the most recent singers to join us come into that environment where we're making music but we're also friends. We have a shared understanding not just of music but of one another's lives and the challenges and the triumphs we face outside the music. That companionship, that intimacy are something special."
Also different: an added trio of male voices, an accompanist (Musica Maestrale's Hideki Yamaya on the archaic theorbo, which resembles a guitar on steroids), and another new piece, commissioned from Craig Kingsbury, a Portland composer who's been a friend of the group from the get-go. The apropos title, "Song of the Seven Maidens," comes from its text, by the great 20th century Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.
Song expects the group to continue to expand its boundaries. They'd like to take their music to other West Coast cities, to make more recordings (they've released four albums and soon a DVD), and to continue finding and nurturing new music for women's voices.
"As much as I'm committed to ancient music, I believe we need to be producing new music for women's voices," says Song, who studied composition in college. "There's nowhere near the quality or quantity of music as there is for mixed voices. I want to add to that repertoire to give women's choirs more great music from around the world."
Commissioning new works is always risky because "you never know what you're going to get," Song admits. "But with everything that's born, there's an excitement there, too, in that unknown territory."
--Brett Campbell, for The Oregonian/OregonLive
In Mulieribus: "Madrigalia!" 10th anniversary program
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 3 and Saturday, March 4
Where: The Old Church, 1422 S.W. 11th Ave.
Tickets: $15-$30, inmulieribus.org or 503-283-2913Verbum Novum HD
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