A drop in the ocean: Portland State Chamber Choir’s ethos of cooperation

The Portland State Chamber Choir can add two more achievements to its long list of successes: It’s the first American choir to compete in the Bali International Choral Festival, where it won the Grand Prix this summer, and is the first American choir to record a CD comprised solely of music by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds.

Big win in Bali

The PSCC took its trip to the Indonesian island of Bali from July 14–20. The festival is the largest of its kind in Asia and featured over 100 choirs competing. The Chamber Choir won in two categories: Music of Religion, and Gospels and Spirituals. Members also sang at a fundraising concert to raise money for homeless youth, toured cultural sites and sang opera at a gala celebrating Catharina Leimena, an Indonesian opera star.

International competitions are not a new venture for PSCC. In 2013, they were the first American choir to win the Grand Prix at the Seghizzi International Competition for Choral Singing in Gorizia, Italy.

Recording Ešenvalds

Described by The New York Times as “an inventive Latvian composer with an ear for a good hook and a knack for evocative effects,” Ēriks Ešenvalds is a highly sought-after composer who has had compositions premiered by major orchestras and groups across the world, including the Boston Symphony, Netherlands National Children’s Choir and even singer-songwriter Imogen Heap. He has composed one multimedia symphony—Nordic Light, about the aurora borealis phenomenon—and will premiere a second nature-themed symphony in 2018, this time focused on volcanoes.

PSCC’s new album, The Doors of Heaven, includes four of Ešenvalds’ narrative works—”The First Tears,” “Rivers of Light,” “Drop in the Ocean,” and “Passion and Resurrection”—and is centered around nature, religious faith and legend. These pieces and many others by Ešenvalds draw upon folk and liturgical inspiration. It is the choir’s fifth CD and their fourth under the direction of Dr. Ethan Sperry. They made headlines earlier this year when they toppled Yo-Yo Ma to reach the top spot on Billboard’s traditional classical charts—the first time any university ensemble has done so.

The Doors of Heaven

The album’s first track, “The First Tears,” is based upon the Inuit legend of the Raven and the Whale. The second track, “Rivers of Light,” draws from a folk song of the Sami people, an indigenous people who inhabit the far north of Scandinavia. Ešenvalds combines the folk song with journal passages from two Arctic explorers, Charles Francis Hall and Fridtjof Nansen, reflecting on their first sighting of the aurora borealis.

“A Drop in the Ocean” commemorates the life of Mother Teresa with alto voices chanting the Lord’s Prayer in Latin against English texts, including the Prayer of St. Francis and the Mother Teresa quote which gives the piece its title: “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 final track, “Passion and Resurrection,” is a complex four-part oratorio drawn from liturgical sources exploring the death and resurrection of Christ.

Two Singers talk Bali and recording

Portland State Vanguard spoke to PSCC bass singer Colin Frey and alto Marina Bubnova about the Bali trip and recording.

Vanguard: What was it like traveling to Bali and competing in an international competition?

Colin Frey: It was very different from going to that kind of a conference in the U.S. or Europe. It’s a very different feeling and environment than going to an ACDA (American Choral Directors Association) conference here. All of the choirs were really supportive of each other and of us; it kind of makes you feel like a rockstar. The organizers are really excited about getting choral music going in Indonesia, but the competition is still fairly new. They were excited to have several choirs from outside Indonesia.

In Indonesia there’s more small high school university and church choirs. The choirs that were really mindblowing were the kids in youth choruses. They had several categories for folk lore. Those performances involved choreography and costume changes and telling a whole story through a song.

Marina Bubnova: Traveling to Bali was such a beautiful example of how different cultures can come together and have fun making music for each other. The excitement of all the participants was palpable, and it was amazing to be able to share this common experience. At the end of ceremonial events, large dance parties would just erupt on stage as all the choirs would run up to participate.

VG: What were those 10 days in Bali like for the choir?

Frey: We put on a concert or we were performing a concert every night we were there. There was a benefit that took place at a cathedral in Denpasar. There was a friendship concert with a few other choirs at the beginning. We performed with Madame Catharina Leimena. She’s kind of the premiere opera diva in Indonesia. We got to see some other choirs compete too, which isn’t always true at other competitions. Sometimes everything is behind closed doors, and you don’t even get to interact with other choirs. Here we finish singing and come off stage and everybody’s giving high fives. Lots of cheering, lots of selfies. The organizers tried to make it as fun as possible. There was a dance party after a lot of performances.

VG: What was the recording process like?

Frey: It was good; it’s really grueling work because you’re singing the same couple measures over and over again. It definitely pushes you to the max of your musical abilities. It’s easy to get frustrated, and I’m happy [PSCC] did a good job of staying calm and focused.

Bubnova: Recording the CD for a living composer, especially someone like Ēriks Ešenvalds, was such a privilege. He writes powerful and moving music, and you want to do it justice and also create something that the composer can be proud of. Being able to have him come in and share with us what his intentions were when he was writing the pieces is an experience that I will always cherish.

VG: How long did the recording session take? What was it like having Ešenvalds there?

Frey: I think we recorded over two really long days. He was there for a bit of it. It’s always nice when the composer’s there and they’re happy with how you’re doing the music. He’s very encouraging and wants singers to sing from their heart.

VG: Do you have a particular piece on the CD that resonates with you?

Bubnova: My favorite piece to record on the album was most definitely “Passion and Resurrection.” Being religious, this story holds a lot of significance for me, and Ešenvalds brings it to life in the most heart-wrenching way. I remember getting emotional many times throughout the process of learning and performing it, as it paints such a vivid picture of what Jesus went through to pay the price for our sins. It definitely holds a special place in my heart, and still to this day I find myself singing random lines from the piece.

A chat with Dr. Ethan Sperry

Vanguard also sat down with Dr. Ethan Sperry, PSCC director and Barre Stoll Director of Choral Activities at PSU, to talk more about the Bali trip, Ešenvalds, and the choir itself.

VG: We recently read that half of the alumni from PSCC go on to full-time music jobs. How much do the professional engagements and training such as those with Cappella Romana or the Oregon Symphony play a role in that?

Ethan Sperry: That rate has improved: we’re closer to 57 percent now. The choirs in Portland that pay their singers they don’t pay them enough to make a living, and I wish they [would] and that’s something I’d like to see change. I think PSU kids come with a lot more realistic expectations about career goals. There’s a lot of interest in education. Most of our alumni who are working are doing so as music teachers or voice teachers. A number of them are singing professionally for a living or are singing in addition to teaching. One of our other illustrious graduates is Christine Meadows, who runs our voice program now. There’s a sense of community [at PSU].  

The whole ethos of choir is that people do stuff together better than they do it themselves. And that’s the way society is supposed to work. We’re supposed to all believe that if we lean on each other we can capitalize each other’s strengths and minimize our weaknesses. Choir is a good example of that, but I see other places at PSU modeling that too.

VG: What are some other areas at PSU where you see this being done?

Sperry: Definitely the College of Urban and Public Affairs. That program is making a huge difference in the city. People can think about the way that they build and design as being part of an urban fabric, not just what does my building do for myself. I see that in the School of Engineering, and there’s a sense of civil responsibility in our architecture program.     

VG: How did go you from hearing an Ešenvalds piece performed by a Latvian choir to commissioning a piece for the PSU Chamber Choir?   

Sperry: I emailed him. Just cold emailed him. I said, “we are going to do your ‘Passion and Resurrection’ with the Oregon Repertory Singers, would you like to come?” And he said yes and that nobody in the U.S. had invited him here to hear his own music yet. So I asked, “if you’re coming, what would it cost for you to write a piece for PSU Chamber Choir?” And he gave me a price and it was on.

VG: Ešenvalds writes these big narrative choral works that have layers of meaning that, outside of Gustav Mahler, you don’t hear as much in orchestral music. What are some of the challenges of performing these works and making sure all the pieces work and bringing out the layered meaning?

Sperry: Well it’s funny, I think it’s the reverse. The music is so good that it makes it easier to do a good performance because the story’s so compelling and the students want to bring it to life. The story aspect and libretto [text] makes it easier because it gives a very clear motivation to everyone doing it.

VG: Compared to other choirs, our choir is very diverse. How do you promote that? Is it just that everyone is welcome or do you have to go out of your way to cultivate that diversity?

Sperry: I don’t feel like I’ve done anything on purpose to cultivate that diversity. Last year’s choir was 50 percent non-white, and when I got here, it was around 11 percent. Part of it is that I choose music that isn’t just by dead white people. There might be a feeling that if you’re not white and you come in and do the music that were doing, which is music from all over the world, that you may feel like your music is being represented.

When we performed at the northwest ACDA conference about four years ago, there were more non-white people in PSCC than in all the other choirs that performed at the entire conference put together.

VG: You do these international trips almost every year. Did you start that up or was that already in the works at PSU?

Sperry: Sort of both. Bruce Brown, the former director, took the choir to a few international competitions, but they hadn’t been to one since 2005, so it’d been a long time. This is my eighth year here and we didn’t do anything my first two years, then in a row we did Italy, Canada, Spain, took one year off, then Bali, and then this year we’re going to Argentina.

VG: Considering what you and the choir here have already done, what’s next for a choral program that seems like they can do anything?

Sperry: It’s maybe an important question, but it’s not the most important question. If it becomes the most important question, then we are going to get in trouble. The most important thing about the choral program is that the students change every year and they need an absolutely top-flight education.

They need to be just as pushed musically and they need these pre-professional experiences because I think it does contribute to some of their success. While they’re here, our students are doing these professional level recording sessions, going to these international competitions and getting exposure to a world-wide breadth of choral music. But I have to be much more interested in educating students in the choir than worrying about what the next feather in the cap is. The most important thing is the education for the people that are in the group.


PSCC is performing two release concerts this weekend, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10, 2017 and 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017. Both concerts will take place at First United Methodist Church in Goose Hollow. General admission tickets are $12, and students get in for $7. Visit psuchamberchoir.com for more information.