The Southern Oregon Repertory Singers troupe began its 32nd season with a performance of “The Heart’s Reflection” on Saturday in the Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall, and the warmth felt for this wonderful institution and its musical director, Paul French, was immediately evident, even before the performance had begun. The house was packed, the crowd expectant, and the music that later filled the auditorium was glorious and uplifting.
The program began with "Cantate Domino" by Karl Jenkins, the Welsh composer who spent much of his early life as a jazz musician, before turning to sacred music. This work, a magnificent and devotional endeavor that sings the praises of God, was a fitting start to an evening that spanned the musical spectrum from Bach to African-American spirituals, to American folk singing, and back to the Western Romantics.
Following the Jenkins composition was the soaring and stirring motet "Stabat Mater" by Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni da Palestrina, whose work was considered groundbreaking for its anticipatory structure. Filled with glorious harmonic strands that lent an expansive tone to the participating voices, "Stabat Mater" is a moving and pathos-filled work that exalts the spiritual anguish of the Virgin Mary.
In Gabriel Jackson's "Vidi Aquam," SOU staff accompanist Jodi French gave a sensitive and exquisite organ accompaniment to the vocals, which featured extensive use of melisma in the upper-voice passages and robust homophonic structure in the fuller passages of the work. The result was a stirring performance of a luscious piece by an exceptional — and prolific — English composer. That piece was quickly followed by JS Bach's "Komm, Jesu, Komm," with French continuing on the organ, joined for additional accompaniment by cellist Lisa Truelove, a member of the Cascade Strings Trio. Paul French mentioned that the Bach motet was his personal favorite.
Another favorite of Dr. French quickly followed, with what he billed as "one of the most romantic things ever set to music," Eriks Esenvalds' "Long Road." Some music lovers may be familiar with the gorgeous compositions of this young Latvian composer who, at just 40 years old, has already recorded for such luminary classical labels as Hyperion and Deutsche Grammophon. In this particular performance, our audience was surrounded by singers, as some members of the assembled choir broke from the rest to stand in the crowd (mobility was a theme of the evening). Sensitive accompaniment was provided by Sherril Kannasto on the alto flute. "Long Road' was the highlight of the concert, and a fitting ending to the first half.
Following intermission came the interesting and eccentric "Drei Quartette (Op 64)" By Brahms, most notable of which was "Fragen" — the translation of a Turkish love poem — which exults the "joys" of codependent love with such lyrics as "I burn in hellfire" and "only death will end this." Then the program romped off into more crowd-pleasing American music, with three folk songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the most amusing of which was "Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie" by Huddie Ledbetter. A small group of female singers, predominantly soprano, broke away to downstage center where, accompanied only by their own rhythmic clapping and stamping, they gave a stirring performance of the song, whose author may be better known to folk and blues aficionados as Lead Belly. Next came "Angel Band" by William Bradbury, a moving, well-paced song, albeit with a morbid lyric. J.K. Allwood's stirring and familiar "Unclouded Day" filled out this compelling folk triptych, after which the concert reached its conclusion with two rousing spirituals, "This Little Light of Mine" and "Hold On!" both by American composer and arranger Moses Hogan.
The evening was a diverse and stimulating showcase that cut a wide swath through various periods and styles. It has certainly whet our appetite for what Dr. French and the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers will have for us next. In the meantime, Rogue Valley music connoisseurs can rest assured that their favorite choral group remains at the top of their game.
Southern Oregon Repertory Singers 2017-2018 program runs through Sunday, May 20. For tickets and additional information, visit www.repsingers.org.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.