Our intent is normalcy: Oregon choirs adapting

On the second weekend of March, 2020, choral directors, educators and singers from the Northwestern Division of the American Choral Directors Association were gathering in Spokane for the biennial conference. But on the eve of opening day, many choirs scheduled to perform were cancelling. Friends and colleagues already in Spokane were beginning to replace robust hugs with quick handshakes, although smiles remained in full view – no masks as yet.

Back in Portland, getting ready to make the trip, Scott Tuomi, President of Oregon ACDA at that time, heard from colleagues: “this feels really weird; it’s not good.” Scott made a tough decision and stayed home. Hundreds did the same.

Within days of the conference, choirs like Oregon Chorale were going silent, cancelling rehearsals, then concerts. The singers and orchestra of Festival Chorale Oregon would not perform Schubert’s Mass in E-flat at Salem’s Elsinore Theatre. Choral Arts Ensemble’s hopes for their April season finale were dashed, and the Bach Cantata Choir had no St. John Passion. Portland Symphonic Choir’s late March performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis was not to be. But what was?  

Desperate attempts to continue in-person music making – individualized recording booths, moving everything into the open air, HVAC miracles – were still being explored. And then everything shut down and remote became the only option. Perhaps the answers would be found online.

Let’s take the view of a fanciful “musica” domestica housefly hovering on some 4G wall listening in on an imaginary emergency choir board meeting on that ancient technology, the conference call:

Board Chair: “So, that does it. Damn.” sigh

Members:    “Ditto.” deeper sighs

Member 1:    “We need to transition.” shrugs

Member 2:    “Transition to what?” furrowed brows

Member 3:      “Can we rehearse and perform on ZOOM?” grand pause 

Members:       “What is a ZOOM?”

Hard to imagine, but once upon a time not everyone in the lively arts was versed in ZOOM. That changed in a semiquaver. And for a while it seemed ZOOM might be a way to continue singing together. But as everyone soon found out, the synchronization required for choral ensemble-making – any ensemble-making – is not as simple as a login and password. Performing together on ZOOM was impossible. Nevertheless, the possibilities of technology were going to change the landscape. Heck, there’s a whole new musical footprint – zinging! (Hey, OED).   

There are many modes of zinging. In the basic zing-along choral gathering, musicians sing together all alone in their safe spaces, watching others zinging in their safe places. Handfuls of choirs began gathering this way. And some choirs transitioned into offering choral music events online, mostly to keep the membership active.

Full scores are projected on the screen. Singers can’t hear each other (not great) but they might be singing along with John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir (yes great). This “y’all come, unrehearsed” endeavor requires minimal background prep and minimal tech ability. Cost is low, value is high, enabling at least some human contact in the form of waves, air kisses, tears and z-oops. 

Yes, if chuckles are allowed, these live virtual choral gatherings provided some great z-oops. Open-mouthed thumbnail faces frozen in place on a double forte while 32 bars of inaudible Bach zoomed into the sonic stratosphere. A passionately intoned bass line in virtual solo until someone shouted out “Dave, hit mute. Dave. Bottom left!” A stray meow here, a barking best friend there. “Your internet connection is unstable” popping up just before the opening bars of the “Dies Irae.”

Then there’s the zing recording, in which singers record themselves singing their own part with a click track and/or virtual conductor, upload their effort and sit back to wait for a recording engineer to mix all of the voices and faces and accompaniments into one cohesive piece. The total product could include solos, feature subsets of the choir or integrate visual arts. Requires technological expertise and willingness of singers to record themselves and lacks the social contact. And it is a major commitment of time and/or budget. But the edited finished product can be polished, z-oopless and, in some cases, quite a classy choral happening.

A few choirs were compelled to return directly to recording safe live performances as soon as possible. This worked well for smaller ensembles or subset ensembles with fulfilling results.

Several choirs decided to showcase the choral arts in a different way. Promoting a pedagogical perspective, they offered opportunities to learn about the choral arts from choral luminaries near and far – a great pandemic pivot. Some of these offerings were one-on-one conversations; others were equal parts lecture, demonstration and zinging.   

Our choral community used all of the above and more, with great spirit and passion.

As you begin to enter choral events in your 21-22 calendar, please make use of a wonderful resource provided by local choral singer Tom Hard. A champion of the choral scene, Hard has since 2004 been maintaining a free google-site service, PDX choral calendar, listing community and higher-education choirs, links to websites, dates, venues and brief information about the programming.  

Before we look further at individual adult choirs in our community, a heartfelt acknowledgement of the Portland community-based children’s choirs which certainly made good use of virtual variety in their efforts to keep our young singers engaged. Oregon Repertory Singers Youth Choirs continued musicianship classes throughout the year. The 21-22 season will introduce their new Youth Choir Artistic Director.

Portland Symphonic Girlchoir held their Annual Gala virtually and just posted their 21-22 season. The Pacific Youth Choir family of choirs held a virtual program for all ages of singers throughout the year and their high school singers began gathering outside for rehearsals in April. The Portland Boychoir used engaging green-screen technology in performances and provided voice lessons, musicianship lessons and more virtually throughout the year.

Note the common theme among these choirs: use this time to enhance their educational missions.  

That’s exactly what Festival Chorale Oregon chose to do. FCO has been on full performance hiatus this past year, but they have continued to remain in contact through newsletters, virtual games and musicianship-enhancing workshops – and they won’t take a break over the summer for the first time in their 36 years. Conductor Solveig Holmquist says their 21-22 season offerings will include the postponed Schubert, and FCO proudly proclaims on their website “It’s A Go!” for the 2022 singing tour of Italy.   

Portland Symphonic Choir had to severely curtail the celebration of their 75th season (sure, take a moment to cheer for that longevity), and so launched a Virtual Masterworks series. Co-Artistic Directors Alissa Deeter and Wendy Bamonte invited five guest conductors to provide historic perspective and score analysis interspersed with zing-a-long moments. These offerings are still available on the PSC website as is the Wintersong virtual offering composite recording, which included three area high schools.

The choir also commissioned and premiered Dorcas Smith’s arrangement of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” released in solidarity with the August 28, 2020 march on Washington. To usher in the season, the choir will host a Vocalize and Socialize outdoor event in August, free by reservation to vaccinated singers and public. The three-part PSC Summer Sing virtual series has one to go, with Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem on August 16.

The modulation to a virtual lecture-demonstration model was a smooth one for Bach Cantata Choir as Founder/Director Ralph Nelson uses this format in live events (although his tabby, Anna Magdalena, does not usually participate in those). The choir is making plans to attend the Leipzig Bach Festival in 2022 and the anticipation of that event precipitated a virtual Bachish conclave for the master’s March birthday. Representatives of 12 Bach Choirs around the world – Germany, Belgium, Austria, England, Arizona, Paraguay, Netherlands – zoomed in just to talk Bach to each other. Groovy birthday bash for J. S.

These summer days, vaccinated members of the choir might be observed participating in lagniappe mini-performances around town: “little Bach-yard events”, said Nelson. Just to keep singing.

Artistic Director of Willamette Master Chorus Paul Klemme said colleagues warned him off the virtual choir model citing expense, time, payoff–but he went “down the rabbit hole” and is glad he did. WMC fulfilled their programmed season, even releasing their virtual performances on scheduled concert dates. In this 36th year of singing, they partnered with numerous Willamette Valley instrumentalists, including the Trail Band Sextet and Severin Sisters, to “bring something of beauty” in a variety of styles. Almost every choir member who participated this year is featured in small ensemble or solo. WMC also shared the choral love by producing and delivering Happy Birthday greetings.

Choral Arts Ensemble also featured solo singers from within the choir in the eclectic season – from art song to bossa nova. The choir produced two public events in their 52nd season. The first, a recorded composite performance of Elaine Hagenberg’s “Music of Stillness,” was chosen primarily for the poignant and timely text by Sara Teasdale. Choir members gathered on Zoom to sing, but always took time to check on the health and welfare of its members. CAE Artistic Director David De Lyser marvels at the ways the local and outlying choral community – composers, conductors, singers, educators – have shared with and supported each other.

Resonance Ensemble dropped nary a beat toward their mission to “creating powerful performances which promote meaningful social change.” The choral ensemble, one of Portland’s professional choirs, “responded to the shutdown by going visual, in a series of safely distanced outdoor performances around Portland” (OAW, Streaming Through the Shutdown, December 23, 2020). Their “Under the Overpass” series offers (on the RE youtube channel) five choral/visual vignettes, each segment recorded/filmed beneath one of Portland’s iconic bridges. Also available for viewing: a four-person panel discussion, Music as Activism, moderated by Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon; a recording of RE’s recent performances for New Music Gathering; and the June release of “We Hold Your Names Sacred”.

Dedicated Oregon Repertory Singers stepped outside, yes literally outside, on the grounds of the Pittock Mansion. Fully masked, with a backdrop of snow and sandstone, small ensembles conquered acoustics by lip-“z”yncing to themselves to shoot pieces for their virtual annual fundraising gala/concert. Cool workaround. Artistic Director Ethan Sperry mentioned that “Soundtrap” is his preferred sound capture app as it allows for singing with other recorded singers.

ORS, in their 47th year, also launched a virtual interview series – The Sperry Sessions – with the conductor in conversations with three choral composers (Morton Lauridsen, Joan Szymko and Stacey Philipps), and then a two-part session with former ORS conductor Gil Seeley. These interviews are available on the ORS website. In June, ORS presented a virtual concert of Renaissance music featuring four small ensembles recorded live this year at St. Philip Neri.  

A moment here to acknowledge all of the choirs who are up for the Unique Venue Award 2020-21. Bridge underpasses and underpasses, sandstone terraces, Washington Park, Cathedral Park, parking lots, in cars in parking lots, in cars in parking garages (great acoustics). Courtyards, front yards, back yards, living rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms (again, acoustics). Well done. But more sincerely: thanks to so many concert venues, traditional or not, for opening their grounds, halls and sanctuaries to safe recording this year.

Oregon Chorale, completing its 36th season with Artistic Director Jason Sabino on the podium, recorded pieces this season (still available through the choir’s website). ZOOM offered the opportunity to connect with each other, socialize and utilize long-range possibilities to talk choral music with guests from around the world. Oregon Chorale’s Emerging Voices program – high school singers joining the adults for rehearsal and concerts –  was transformed into mentorship of individual student projects and opportunities for voice lessons and coaching in choral singing. OC is returning with “renewed passion” in ‘21-22. Their program “Of Sound Mind,” focusing on the healing power of music, was abruptly cancelled last year and will be among the offerings this year.

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus executive director Richard Jung expressed pride in the full concert season they produced. Singers gathered together in the virtual world for the Halloween Cabaret, then reflected upon the choir’s 40 years of singing with archival footage and ended their season by meeting safely outside to perform “I Want To Dance With Somebody.” Portland area audiences will be able to welcome new Artistic Director John Atorino properly next season as PGMC comes back “with energy” for the Fall Gala and Winter concert. The choir’s first virtual endeavor, from April of 2020, is available on youtube. A UV Award contender for sure.

In Mulieribus performed their last on-stage concert at the 2020 Spokane NWACDA conference. But Artistic Director Anna Song and the seven voice professional ensemble were active this year. The choir was able to record several pieces in-person and produced three performance videos under the umbrella title “Visions in Sound.” Available on their website, the programs integrate visual arts, poetry and musical arts, drawing some pieces from their archives, interpreting “Eternity, Mystery and Beauty.” Just as “singing is collaborative,” said Song, so was the careful curating of the visual and choral works into programs designed to enliven the senses. Audiences might recall an integrated arts model IM employed in a previous concert (OAW, Hours Well Spent, March 10, 2016).

Whew! So far that totals over one thousand singers. A whole lot of people in this country sing in choirs: 1 in 6, according to Chorus America’s 2018 survey. There are several more choirs to which our friends, colleagues and families and audiences will be returning next year.

Chor Anno has scheduled its once-yearly, twice-performed choral offering for mid September 2021, with Artistic Director Nicole Lamartine and founder Howard Meharg. Vancouver Master Chorale, conducted by Jana Hart, has been concertising for 72 years. You can still see their virtual holiday concert on their site. Choro in Schola, a professional choir directed by Jacob Funk, plans to resume its choral education outreach program in the fall with some programs open to the public. Watch for news of Phoenix Choir (Artistic Director Alejandra Blech), on hiatus this past year and of Aurora Chorus. Aurora, currently seeking an interim Artistic Director, will celebrate 30 years of elevating women’s voices in 2022.  

Portland audiences enjoy barbershop harmony. Bridge Town Sound men and Pride of Portland women have been silent this past year but that barbershop 7th will be wafting through the air very soon. And don’t count out Portland Interfaith Gospel Choir. Conductor LaRhonda Steele acknowledged how profoundly the PIGC members look forward to reexperiencing the healing power of singing together.

Nursing homes and senior centers have not been able to enjoy choral singing from MAC Balladeers men’s chorus, active now for 80 years, or West Linn Community Chorus. WLCC’s 19th season virtual concert is available on their website. ISing Choir of Beaverton put its benefit concerts on hold this year.  So many choirs make it their mission to serve. Bravi that! 

Choirs are beginning to announce their 21-22 season plans. In a unison forte they are resolute: “our intent is normalcy.” Real choral singing, live singing, gathering-as-humans- voice-to-voice singing. Each group is engaged in discussions of vaccinations and venue mandates and masks and lots of talk about budgets. Of course, budgets.

Choirs understand there might be more zinging and more recording and plenty more social distancing in order to keep singing safely. But their intent is normalcy. They are doing, and will do, what they need to do to make a joyful noise once again.

And remember that NW American Choral Directors Association conference–it’ll be back in Spokane, March 2022. Yes it will.

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