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Oregon Music News: Conductor Ethan Sperry talks about the choral explosion at PSU
Author: James Bash, Oregon Music News
Posted: August 29, 2011


One of the most exciting people on the choral scene in Portland is Ethan Sperry, who just completed his first year as director of choral activities at Portland State University. Sperry’s first year included exceptional concerts of music by Morten Lauridsen with Lauridsen in attendance (and on stage) plus a first-ever PSU choral alumni concert that drew over 100 singers. In April, Sperry was named as the new artistic director of the Oregon Repertory Singers, making him only the third AD, since the Rep Singers began in 1974.

Sperry has a very impressive background in choral conducting. From 2000 to 2010, he served on the faculty at Miami University in Ohio where he conducted three vocal ensembles. From 2000 to 2006, Sperry was the artistic administrator of the Arad Philharmonic Chorus in Arad, Romania, and from 2001-2003 he was the principal conductor of the Choeur Regional de Guadeloupe, which is the only symphonic choir in the French West Indies. Sperry has his Masters and Doctorate degrees for the University of Southern California and a Bachelors (in Philosophy from Harvard.

I met with Sperry at Cafe Destino last week to find out more about his debut season with the Oregon Repertory Singers and how things are going at Portland State.

Where do the Rep Singers rehearse?

Sperry: We are moving the group’s rehearsals to PSU’s newly renovated Lincoln Hall. We are in a room on the ground floor. It has huge windows and curtains that you can use to acoustically treat the room.

How many people are in the choir?

Sperry: We had an amazing round of auditions, and the size of the group will be increasing from 60 to 80.

Wow. You’ve really beefed up the choir!

Sperry: That wasn’t my plan, but we had a fine group of returning singers who re-auditioned, plus a large number of auditionees that were talented enough that I couldn’t say no to them. I think that a total of almost 140 singers auditioned for the choir. So the choir will have roughly 20 singers in each section with a few more men than women.

You’ve got your first season all planned out?

Sperry: Yes. The season is called “Renewal, Glory, and Sin.” With a group like the Oregon Repertory Singers, we should be able to cover a wide variety of music from the entire choral repertoire. So, the first concert, which will take place on October 15th and 16th, is called Renewal. Its program is divided into three parts: entering darkness, the transitions that happen there, and then renewal. The music covers a big range from Josquin and Gabrieli to modern pieces from Latvia, Russia, and Norway. We’ll have Native American music, music from India and three Night Songs by Brahms plus the final movement of Mozart’s Requiem. A personal favorite of my are Samuel Barber’sReincarnations – 3 truly amazing works which are surprisingly non-religious considering the title. I’m also excited to work with Gil Seeley, now ORS’s Artistic Director Emeritus, who will be conducting several pieces on the concert.

During the Christmas season, we will do our Glory concert, which will have substantial, serious pieces on the first half of the program and lighter numbers, mostly carols, on the second. We’ll do sacred works by Bruckner, Britten, Wilan, Howells, Gorecki, and Joan Szymko, who lives in Portland, on the first half. The second half will have fun works, including a parody of Hannukah music that I’ve arranged. I’m Jewish, but I’ve never been a fan of Hanukkah music, so my arrangement pokes fun at the Hannukah songs most of us were forced to sing in school. It’s for double choir and Klezmer clarinet, and even though it’s essentially a joke, it’ll be one of the harder pieces that we will sing in that concert. We will perform the Glory program on December 11th, and the 16th through the 18th.

For our last concert, called Sin, we will perform Orff’s Carmina Burana in the original version for choir, two pianos, and percussion. Richard Zeller will be our soloist. I loved the benefit recital that he gave earlier this year, and he is a master of the solos in the Carmina. If we can fit it in, I’ll also have the ORS women sing the witches chorus from Verdi’s Macbeth. It should be a great concert, and we will do two performances of it on April 22nd.

Sounds like a great season for the Rep Singers. What do you have planned for your groups at Portland State?

Sperry: At PSU, I’ve revised the entire choral program; so it is now more ambitious in scope. Over the past year, the core of the choral program involved the Chamber Choir, which is our high-level choir, and the University Choir, which is a non-auditioned choir. During the course of the school year, the University Choir grew very rapidly, and at one point had more than 120 people in it.

What a terrific problem!

Sperry: But the problem wasn’t the size. It turned out that many of our best singers were in that group because of their class schedule, or they didn’t get into the Chamber Choir, or they were singing in the PSU opera program, or something else. Whatever the reason, they were in the University Choir with singers who couldn’t match pitch and everything in between. I had to pick challenging pieces for the voice majors who were in that group, but those weren’t the best pieces for many of the novice singers.

So I’ve decided that between the Chamber Choir and the University Choir, I’ll start an auditioned men’s group and an auditioned women’s group. Those groups will rehearse and perform less often than the Chamber Choir, but the level to get into either group will be quite high. We should be able to fill the demands on all these choirs, because we have over 100 students taking voice lessons at PSU.

A hundred students taking voice lessons; that’s amazing!

Sperry: I think that we’ve become the largest vocal program in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s not surprising considering the amazing voice faculty we have at PSU. Also, we do have the largest music department in the Pacific Northwest overall. Part of the reason is the growth at PSU in general. We now have over 30,000 students, and we’re still growing.

So you will still be the director of the Chamber Choir?

Sperry: Yes. That’s our top-level group. I’ll also co-direct the new men’s and women’s groups with my graduate assistants. The University Choir will be a real beginners’ choir, and the GAs will conduct it. We also have a madrigal choir that Debbie Glaze conducts. It’s primarily for music education majors so that they can learn about Early Music. That group got too big last year also. It had 32 singers, but madrigals are supposed to be sung by a small group of people.

Because PSU is a commuter college, we will probably always have a lot of turnover in the choirs because students need to work the rehearsal times into their commuting and work schedules as well as their academic schedules. If we offer more choral opportunities, there are more chances that one will fit their schedules. The athletics department has already geared itself that way. They offer all sorts of classes like weight lifting and yoga that are only one credit hour. We can do that as well. We could start a gospel choir, a glee club-styled choir, or something else.

I’ve read a number of articles that discuss how singing is good for you.

Sperry: Especially singing with other people. One of the problems that we are having in America these days is the lack of a community. As you know, a choir can provide you with a community, and that can help you throughout your life.

I’ve been trying to collect stories about why people sing. I’m especially interested when someone starts singing, but not through the normal channels. The most powerful story that I’ve heard is of a guy in Montana who wrote to me. He started singing when he was in prison. Someone was brave, and came to that prison where he started a men’s chorus. People there thought that this kind of chorus would help to rehabilitate the men. The fellow who wrote to me believes that he has not gone back to prison is because as soon as he got out he joined a choir. The choir gave him what he never had in his life before: a community.