Conductor Paul French leads the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers in an annual series of concerts. Photo by Christopher Briscoe

Southern Oregon Repertory Singers offer a trip to paradise

Paradise is defined as “a place of endless harmony.”

"Duruflé’s transcendent 'Requiem' is certainly a musical paradise," says Paul French, artistic director and conductor of Southern Oregon Repertory Singers. "It's a piece so elegant and beautiful as to make time stand still. For me, 'Requiem' is that endless harmony.

"It's kind of funny because we sang Mahler's resurrection symphony with the Britt Orchestra this summer, and I joked with the choir that Mahler's second is what's going to be playing in the elevator going to heaven. So when we started 'Requiem,' I said 'And when we arrive in heaven, this is what's going to be playing.' 

"Duruflé's style takes old Gregorian chants and wraps them in sensuous, secular music that sounds like Ravel or Debussy. It's like looking at a good impressionist painting for 40 minutes. It washes over you, and it is so lovely."

French and his choir will open their 31st concert season at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9, in the Music Recital Hall on the Southern Oregon University campus, 405 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland. Ed Wight will give a free pre-concert lecture. Tickets are $32 or $38, $5 for students and SNAPCARD holders, and can be purchased online at repsingers.org or by calling 541-552-0900. Season tickets are also available for preferred seats.

French composer Maurice Duruflé was certainly standing outside of time in resisting German atonality in the mid-20th century. Instead, he held to the lush impressionistic harmonies of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel and combined these sensuous sounds with the original melodies of the Christian church and the timeless Gregorian chants. The resultant piece is one of the pinnacles of French music — in which Italian high drama and German angst are banished to the outer darkness — and French brilliance, restraint and love of beauty shine in luminous harmony, French says.

"Duruflé wrote 'Requiem' at a time when classical music was turning atonal," French says. "German composers were writing harsh, cerebral music, while Duruflé's piece is just so human and lovely. In the mid-20th century, composers felt they had to create 12-tone music in the style of Arnold Schoenberg. Some composers were actually ostracized if they didn't.

"But who hasn't been touched by someone's passing?" French asks. "This piece is so affirming. The main metaphor in the piece is light, and it speaks of bringing them into eternal light and letting peace and light shine on them. It's a beautiful thought. It sounds like it would be somber, yet it's more transcendent. Hearing it takes listeners to a beautiful place."

Durufle's "Requiem" will feature mezzo soprano Shelly Cox-Thornhill and baritone Nik Nackley.

"What do you program to accompany paradise? More paradise!" French says.

The concert begins with Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds' "Te Deum," scored for choir, six-part brass, percussion, pipe organ and harp. An early Christian hymn, "Te Deum" offers a balancing athletic joy to the serenity of the "Requiem" mass, French says.

"This is a very joyful piece with big, swirling, gushy vocal roulades," he says. "It's one of the early chants of the church, but Ešenvalds' setting is big, boisterous music. Then there's this funny Thomas Hardy poem called 'The Choirmaster’s Burial,' set to music by Mårten Jansson. The story is about a choirmaster who was also directing music for funerals, and so he left instructions for his own. When he passes, there's no money to carry out his wishes, so they give him a simple burial.

"It's actually a moving, beautiful, tender piece," French says.

Ešenvalds setting of “In Paradisum” for choir, solo viola and solo cello follows next, featuring Kimberley Fitch on viola and Michal Palzewica on cello, French says. The piece's setting is in the French tradition, in that pleasure dominates the brain. While the choir occasionally sings fragments of text, more often they accompany the instruments with hums and wordless vocalizations. This gives the music the color and humanity of the voices but bypasses the brain, going directly to our emotions, leading us to … paradise.

Ešenvalds' jubilant “Trinity Te Deum” and "In Paradisum" fill the first half of the concert, and Duruflé's "Requiem" fills the last half.

"I don't think Duruflé's piece has been performed with orchestra in this area," French says. "I did 'Requiem' a number of years ago, but just with organ. None of the other pieces have been performed here, so it's music that people will never have experienced. It's nice to hear new things."

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