OPB: PSU Chamber Choir Meets Eriks Esenvalds' Haunting Music
Author: Aaron Scott
Posted: May 19, 2016

Read the original story and listen to OPB's State of Wonder



With a pioneering approach to world music, the Portland State Chamber Choir regularly competes with top professional choirs in Europe for awards and accolades.


The Portland State Chamber Choir sings way above its weight class. It regularly challenges professional European choirs to top laurels at competitions, whether being the first U.S. choir to win the grand prize at the prestigious Seghizzi International Competition for Choral Singing in Italy or being the only student choir to ever make Stereophile’s Records To Die For list. Indeed, half the choir’s former members go on to full-time jobs in music — music teachers or star sopranos at the Metropolitan Opera (nearly twice the rate of Julliard alums).

Part of the choir’s success comes from the fact that PSU has one of the best opera programs in the Western U.S. But it’s also due to PSU’s choral director, Ethan Sperry. A prolific composer and arranger of world music, he has conducted everywhere from Bollywood to the Hollywood Bowl.

Sperry has forged creative partnerships with collaborators from around the globe, but perhaps none have been as bountiful as his relationship with one of Europe’s hottest young Mozarts, the Latvian composer Eriks Esenvald, whose works are regularly commissioned and performed by the likes of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, the Taipei Philharmonic Chamber Choir and many others across the world.

The Portland State Chamber Choir is in the process of making the first U.S. recording of Esenvalds music for the classical juggernaut Naxos. They’ll perform the works on May 22 at their 40th anniversary concert, “Horizon to Horizon,” at St. Mary’s Cathedral, including the North American premiere of “The First Tears,” a work inspired by an Inuit legend.

Here are several of the musical highlights from Sperry’s discussion with State of Wonder.

Sperry on “A Drop in the Ocean,” the Esenvalds piece that started it all for him:

“I was at the National Choir Director’s conference; it was the spring of 2011, and a choir from Latvia came and performed. It was the best choir I had ever heard in my life, and they were singing a piece I had never heard by a composer I had never heard of, named Eriks Esenvalds, called ‘A Drop in the Ocean.’ I was immediately like, ‘We need to do this.’

“He wrote ‘A Drop in the Ocean’ in memory of Mother Theresa. It begins with Mother Theresa’s favorite prayer, which is ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.’ And it’s beautiful unison chanting by the sopranos. And then he tries to obscure it, as if it’s going on far away. So some of the choir are whistling; some are doing these weird breathing effects. Then the tenors and basses change into yelling out the things that she’s fighting against in the prayer. So ‘where there’s misery, let there be hope,’ they’ll yell ‘misery’ or ‘pain,’ ‘despair,’ ‘hatred.’

And you literally feel the world that she lives in: here’s this fragile little melody and all around her are these horrific forces. And then everything explodes into this very loud moment, and then everything gets replaced by her most famous saying: ‘My work is nothing but a drop in ocean, but if didn’t put that drop in the ocean, the ocean would be one drop the less.’ And the same melody that was obscured in the beginning returns completely transformed, and I think it’s a parable for her life: her prayer turns into her drop in the ocean.”

On “The Heaven’s Flock”

“I asked [Esenvalds] if he would write a short piece for the Portland State Chamber Choir, and he agreed and wrote us this really wonderful piece called ‘The Heaven’s Flock,’ based on a poem by Paulann Petersen, who was our poet laureate here in Oregon.

“His ability to make narratives like that are very different from most other choral composers. He seeks texts that are narrative in nature, and if he doesn’t have them, he creates his own narratives.”

On “Passion and Resurrection”

“He can write some of the most beautiful music you’ve every heard, but he can also write music that has that real dissonance of the 20th century and the music of the Soviet occupation. He knows how to use both of them side by side in a way that I think is completely unique. And I think it’s because of his growing up under Soviet occupation and now getting to live as a free person, he can tell this story through music.

“He’s also very religious, but he wasn’t able to grow up religious. Religion was illegal until he was 14. So ‘Passion And Resurrection’ is his attempt to take this very important story and retell it all through the eyes of Mary Magdalene. Her watching these events unfold and her thinking it’s her fault: that because she sinned with Jesus, he’s getting crucified. And I think that’s the way a lot of us feel when someone close to us dies: that it’s our fault.

“I think it’s the best piece that’s been written so far this century.”