Portland State Chamber Choir - The Doors of Heaven - watch the interview
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Listen to The First Tears
Contemporary Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds conjures whole epochs in sound; vivid aural constructs that traverse the bounds of atavistic memory in search of deeper meaning and consonance in the present moment. His choral music is subliminal, invoking with resonant beauty the composer’s homeland, it’s legends and temperament. Empathic sonorities and texts of stunning clarity - often exotic, sometimes wholly ethereal - anoint the listener in an enthrallment of complicated but glorious vocal sound. The result is magical, the messaging transcendent.
Portland State Chamber Choir under the direction of Ethan Sperry has released a superb disc of Ešenvalds’ music The Doors of Heaven (NAXOS DDD 8.579008) that embraces, both as impressive sound engineering feat and consummate musical affirmation, the narrative mystery and stunning beauty of the composer’s consciousness. Two works focused on the natural world, The First Tears (2015) and Rivers of Light (2014) are conjoined with pieces using ecclesiastic texts, A Drop in the Ocean and the four-part Passion and Resurrection, both composed in 2006. A full circle is achieved artistically and philosophically on this CD; animism and faith become equal partners in humankind’s struggle to understand the universe.
The Doors of Heaven opens with The First Tears, an exquisite blend of voices and ancient sounds - jaw harp, percussion, Native American flute, and overtone singing – rationed with subtle but powerful effect to conjure a sense of primordial past and dark consequence in the telling of an Inuit origin tale that likely pre-dates Christianity’s Jonah and The Whale parable. Conductor Sperry, sound engineer John Atkinson (who edits Stereophile), and producer/editor Erick Lichte, artistic director of Chor Leoni in Canada, have found the perfect acoustic requisite for outstanding a cappella choral sound at Portland’s Saint Stephen’s Catholic Church. Utilizing the main sanctuary as well as its nooks and crannies, a spatial galaxy of sound is explored by the team. Choristers are heard close in, then drift away, return, circle, then separate, tone clusters and changing vowels, rhythms, pulses, repetitions; all shimmer in the exceptional sound quality of this ideally resonant venue.
The Doors of Heaven title text is found in the second track, Rivers of Light. The most luminous work on the disc, “The doors of heaven have been opened tonight,” is one of several texts describing the Northern Lights compiled by Ešenvalds from writings by Charles Francis Hall, Fridjof Nansen, and others. Clean diction from chorus and soloists, baritone Sterling Roberts and soprano Emmalyn Fox, the ubiquitous Jaw harp emanations suggesting the agelessness of this natural phenomenon, create a match of sound to word that is intoxicating. “From horizon to horizon misty dragons swim through the sky, green curtains billow and swirl, fast-moving, sky-filling.” Indeed!
A Drop in the Ocean (Track 3) includes texts by Saint Francis of Assisi and is dedicated to the memory of Mother Teresa, including setting to music her famous pronouncement, “My work is nothing but a drop in the ocean, but if I did not put that drop, the ocean would be one drop the less.” The most complex work on the disc opens and ends in ambient sound from around the building, inside and out. Various percussion effects, lots of sustained tones, a haunting soprano solo (Rebecca Yakos), sonorities melting into fervid whispers, then chants, and finally layer upon layer of complex harmonic density, give the piece an in-the-moment presence.
Passion and Resurrection is an oratorio for choir, soprano solo (Hannah Consenz), vocal quartet, descant sopranos, and string orchestra (Portland State University String Ensemble). At over 30 minutes, the four-part work is a journey not only from Judas’ betrayal to “He is Risen,” but also an aural history of sorts, sampling centuries of tonality beginning with an opening section that harkens to medieval polyphony, continuing through powerful sound images that could be Moorish, or Byzantine, or even Prokofiev (Alexander Nevsky). Concertmaster Jonathan DeBruyn enjoys a solo moment over drone chords in strings during one moving segment and the final words, Mariam. Rabboni (Mary. Teacher), echo and dissipate in a manner reminiscent of the last bars of Neptune, the Mystic from Holst's The Planets.
A bracing sonic achievement by the Portland State Chamber Choir, The Doors of Heaven is a must buy for those who like cutting edge choral music that is both contemporary and accessible.
Daniel Kepl | Performing Arts Review
An interview with Ethan Sperry, conductor of the Portland State Chamber Choir
Praise for "The Doors of Heaven" by PSU Chamber Choir
PSU Chamber Choir - Take Flight full intro
Talk about inovative marketing!
Composer Ēriks Ešenvalds
Conductor Ethan Sperry
Portland State Chamber Choir
Saint Stephen’s Catholic Church, Portland, Oregon