A Chat with Choral Conductor Ethan Sperry Print E-mail
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Written by Maria Nockin   
Wednesday, 03 April 2013

A Chat with Choral Conductor Ethan Sperry

Ethan Sperry is director of choral activities at Portland State University, where he conducts the school’s world-renowned Chamber Choir and the new ensembles: Man Choir and Vox Femina. He also leads the undergraduate and graduate programs in conducting. In addition to that, he is the artistic director and conductor of the Oregon Repertory Singers, the state’s most distinguished adult chorus. He also serves as the national repertoire and standards chair for male choruses for the American Choral Directors Association. A prolific arranger of world music for choruses, Dr. Sperry is the editor of the Global Rhythms series for Earthsongs Music, one of the best-selling choral series in the country. An enthusiastic cook, his recipes have been printed in The Cincinnati Enquirer and Bon Appetit Magazine.

Q: Did you really start conducting at the age of eight?

A: I did! My parents were really superb at following up on activities in which I showed an interest. It had been my idea to start piano at age six. At the Aspen Music Festival where my father was on the voice faculty, I attended my first orchestra concert when I was eight. Apparently I showed a real interest in knowing what the conductor was doing, so my father arranged to have one of the conducting students at the festival, Peter Bay, give me lessons. Currently he is the conductor of the Austin Symphony. From him I learned all the basic beat patterns, the names and ranges of all the instruments of the orchestra, where they sat on stage, and how to cue them.

Q: When did you begin to study voice?

A: I played cello all through middle school and high school but didn’t start singing until I got to college. I sang in the Harvard Glee Club all four years in college, though I didn’t take many private voice lessons until I began my master’s degree in choral conducting at the University of Southern California. I have been very fortunate in having some marvelous teachers and getting to play and sing for some truly great conductors. In college I studied orchestral conducting with Robert Spano. He taught me that the best way to learn to conduct is to conduct. The second best way is to watch a good conductor conduct. The third best way is to get a teacher. On day one, I share this with every conducting class I teach. And this is not just true of conducting. The best way to learn most things is just to try doing it, then watch a master do it. After that, you should seek a teacher to fill in the missing parts. I’ve learned a lot from my teachers, but I was able to put what I learned directly into practice because I’ve been the conductor of at least two ensembles every year since I was 19. I cannot even begin to tell you how much I learned from getting to sing for Robert Shaw, Seiji Ozawa, Simon Rattle, and Christoph Eschenbach. These four stand well above anyone else I have sung or played for. Their bodies literally transformed into the music from the moment they stepped up on the podium. When you watch them, there is just no doubt in your mind how the music is supposed to go.

Jonathan Strasser, who conducted the Interschool Orchestra of New York, demonstrated that the goal of a conductor or a teacher is to get your students to perform beyond what they initially believed was possible. Jameson Marvin, the conductor of the Harvard Glee Club, introduced me to the tremendous beauty of absolutely perfect intonation and matched vowels. Bill Dehning at the University of Southern California showed me the joy in working to bring every detail of your interpretation of a work to life, and the truly remarkable Tido Dejan taught me how to deconstruct a score to divine and demonstrate its architecture in performance. I think Dejan’s work in this area, which is based on the work of the Romanian scholar Constantin Bugeanu, is truly remarkable and unique, and I wish he were better known. Working with my friend, the peerless Erick Lichte, who is the amazing brain and matchless ears behind the editing and production of our new CD, and with the marvelous Steve Barnett who produced most of the sessions, has been one of the most rewarding and educational experiences I’ve ever had. If any reader has the chance to collaborate with either of these musicians, take it!

Q: Why make a professionally produced CD like this with a student choir?

A: It can be intimidating for students to know that whatever they do during a recording session is going to be preserved in a way that a live performance rarely is. But at its best, recording can be a chance to push a singer’s abilities to their limit. In rehearsal, we often throw a spotlight on small sections of music and try to perfect them, knowing that in performance we rarely retain all the details we achieved in rehearsal. But in recording, we can bring that same focus to detail and know that it can be preserved in small sections and edited into a perfect whole that is hard to match in the fleeting moments of live performance. I believe recording helped my students bring a new level of concentration to their music-making by creating a process with an immense reward for a strong focus. That focus may be the single most important skill for an aspiring performer to cultivate. An ensemble’s capacity to focus as a unit creates the environment that allows them to master any other skill you want to teach. It is very common for a high school or college choir to bring in a guest conductor or clinician for a few rehearsals or a performance. I would encourage my colleagues to think about bringing in a guest producer, someone who is used to working on a very high level and who thinks about deriving a musical result through a process other than a live performance. This experience will demand focus, and once the students have that experience, you can teach them other things more easily. We were lucky to work with Steve Barnett, one of the greatest recording producers. He demanded the highest level of perfection across the full gamut of musical expression, all in the most gentle and encouraging fashion. I’ve always believed that high standards can be better accomplished through clarity and affirmation rather than by beating people down or applying “tough love,” and Steve proved this to be true.

Q: What is your teaching philosophy?

A: I try to meet all students where they are, figure out where they really want to go, and then try to help them get there. I am very resistant to a one-size-fits-all approach to education. A good teacher-student relationship is one of mutual respect and interest in what the other has to offer. I think I learn more every day as a teacher than I ever did as a student.

Q: What made you want to conduct choruses?

A: At first, I set out to be an orchestral conductor and, to be honest, I still love that repertoire and miss being a part of it on a regular basis. But choirs have a sense of camaraderie about them that is very special. This is generally true not only between the members of the chorus, but also between the singers and the conductor. I do know some orchestras that have a great esprit de corps, but I know of almost none that actually have that bond with their conductor. Orchestral musicians are so well trained these days, sometimes even by the high school level, that they often don’t really need conductors or even want them. Yes, of course, in large ensembles, someone has to make interpretive and artistic decisions, but I think many orchestral musicians feel some resentment that they do not get to make their own artistic choices, and for good reason. I am a teacher at heart, and in our country choral singing is still mostly an amateur art pursuit. Even singers in very good choruses often have little or no private vocal training, thus choral conductors often need to have a great deal to offer to their singers as music educators. They have to be a great deal more than just the people who make the musical decisions in rehearsal.

Q: What vocal colors do you want to elicit from them?

A: As many as possible! The voice is the most versatile instrument there is, and it is capable of a wider variety of timbres than any acoustic instrument. I think choirs should exploit this ability as much as possible. If there’s a trend that bothers me in the choral world, it’s the tendency to create one pure and unified choral tone and apply it to every genre of music. For example, many choral conductors strive for cleanliness and clarity of intonation by asking singers to sing with little or no vibrato and with very bright forward vowels. While I do believe this achieves cleanliness and good intonation and is stylistically appropriate for Bach and some other genres, I find it to be a monochromatic sound that is not as germane to the expression of many periods of music. The creation of technically beautiful choirs can come at the expense of a diversity of musical styles and variety of sound. When singers sing with no vibrato, each voice loses its individuality. While that creates unity, it also makes all choirs sound alike. I want each choir to sound like an amalgam of its particular collection of individuals. I also believe that certain types of music demand vibrato, for example Mozart. Rachmaninoff’s works and gospel music ask for a great deal of vibrato. I like to have the sound of the choir fit the style of the music being sung, even if it is at the expense of some cleanliness. I also love choirs that can modulate and change easily from bright to dark vowels. This is something I focus on a great deal in warm-ups. Bright vowels give both clarity and projection, but dark vowels give richness and warmth. When we work to build a healthy range of sound, it becomes apparent that a loud dark sound has wonderful depth and power. I love these rich vocal colors. I believe they are particularly appropriate for the Russian music, the spirituals, and the gospel pieces on this CD.

My aspiration for American choirs is that we suit our sound to the piece we are performing. I think this skill is at the crux of great choral music-making, and I find it very inspiring. In contrast, Great Britain has an amazing choral tradition where they all sing so cleanly and so perfectly in a style that suits most British choral compositions beautifully. I think we in the United States have been trying to emulate that style for a long time. In doing so we created some beautiful choirs, but I think we have missed a lot of musical possibilities along the way. American choirs have been much more adventurous in programming, not only in championing modern music but in exploring the music of other cultures. Thus, one vocal style cannot hope to suit all the works we perform. I hope that we continue to expand our palette of choral sounds so that it will match our wide choice of repertoire.

Q: Can you tell us more about the composers whose music is sung on the CD, can you give us some information on them and/or their music?

A: Program notes, texts, and translations for every piece on the CD are available on our website: psuchamberchoir.com, but there are a few pieces on the disc that I’m particularly excited about. I think the music of the young Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, who was born in 1977, is truly stunning and I am very proud that we are the first American ensemble to record his music. I doubt we will be the last. Ešenvalds has a unique way of taking disparate compositional techniques from the 20th century, such as atonality, jazz harmonies, and aleatoric elements, and fusing them into a coherent whole. He also creates his own librettos for choral works by combining texts from different sources. Ešenvalds wrote the title track of our disc A Drop in the Ocean in memory of Mother Theresa. It begins with her favorite prayer, St. Francis of Assisi’s Lord, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace . It builds from a simple harmonized chant to a highly dissonant aleatoric section with half the choir yelling the words that describe the overwhelming weight of her burden. The piece resolves with incredibly lush harmonies set to Mother Theresa’s own words: “My work is nothing but a drop in the ocean, but if I did not put in that drop, the ocean would be one drop the less.” I know composers who can conjure the anger and horror that Ešenvalds achieves in the first part of this work, and other composers who can match the pure beauty of the ending. But what makes Ešenvalds unique is his ability to combine both styles and have that combination make sense as a whole. I will conduct Ešenvalds’s first oratorio, Passion and Resurrection , with the Oregon Repertory Singers shortly before this article goes to print. I am very excited to be giving the first performance of a new work of his with the Portland State Chamber Choir in May 2013, and I hope that work will be on our next recording.

The current disc also contains the world premiere recording of Having Witnessed a Wondrous Birth by the 20th-century Russian composer Gyorgy Sviridov. Sviridov was the head of the composition program at the Moscow Conservatory during much of the Communist era, and while his secular music achieved wide recognition, his sacred music has remained in relative obscurity. I learned about Having Witnessed a Wondrous Birth from Gil Seeley, my predecessor at Oregon Repertory Singers. He has opened the ears of American choral conductors to many previously unknown great composers. I believe this motet deserves to be heard alongside the motets of Rachmaninoff, Gretchaninov, and the other Russian masters. The CD also contains my favorite spiritual arrangement: Precious Lord , which Thomas Dorsey conceived as a solo work in the 1920s. In the 1930s Arnold Sevier arranged it for choir and added gorgeous eight and 12-part harmonies that foreshadowed the current pandiatonic style of choral writing. The album concludes with two pieces of Haitian Voodoo music by an incredibly gifted Swedish arranger, Sten Källman. These pieces capture the essence of the communal singing, drumming, and dancing that make Afro-Cuban music so special. It’s so nice to have a way to bring this music to life in the choral medium.

Q: What are some of the important works you arranged for the Global Rhythms series?

A: So far, most of my arrangements for the series come under two categories. The first is comprised of arrangements of Indian classical music in which I ask some voices to sing ancient Indian raga melodies and others to imitate the sounds of Indian instruments such as the tabla and sitar. The results are almost like pop a cappella versions of Indian ragas. The most popular pieces in this category are Desh for mixed chorus and Ramkali for male voices, which together have sold over 10,000 copies. The second category is the popular Indian music of A. R. Rahman, the great Indian film composer. He has written over 100 film scores including the Oscar and Grammy-winning score of Slumdog Millionaire . The most popular arrangement in this series is Jai Ho from Slumdog Millionaire , but I am particularly partial to Zikr, which is Rahman’s only attempt to date to represent his Islamic faith in music. Zikr is one of very few pieces of Muslim music for choir in print. In addition to the above, Sten Källman’s arrangements of Haitian Voodoo music are also published on my series, as is music by Native American musician Valerie Naranjo and several others. Global Rhythms is published by Earthsongs Music, the leading publisher of world music for choirs, and one of the only independent publishers of sheet music left in our country: earthsongsmusic.com

Q: What have you done in India?

A: My most exciting trip was to conduct at the Filmfare Awards, the Indian equivalent of the Oscars, in 2006. A. R. Rahman was performing music from his musical based on The Lord of the Rings live at the awards. The conductor of the show decided he couldn’t take a week off from rehearsals in London, so Rahman called me in. I arrived in Mumbai slightly less than 48 hours before the ceremony and found that the instrumentation of the orchestra in India did not in any way resemble the pit orchestra from London. I wound up having to rearrange all the orchestral and choral parts in addition to rehearsing the various ensembles. It was a fabulous, electrifying experience to be there among the Bollywood stars.

Q: What composers do you find most interesting for choral music?

A: My all-time favorites are Monteverdi, Bach, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff. Monteverdi especially covers so much ground in his music, both in his mastery of complex polyphonic and mathematical forms and his amazingly detailed and emotional approach to setting poetry to music. His Sestina: Lagrime dell’ Amato all’ sepulchro dell’ Amata from his Sixth Book of Madrigals and Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil might be my two favorite pieces of a cappella choral music.

Q: Do you have any other CDs coming out?

A: In the near future I hope to record more of the music of Ēriks Ešenvalds as well as David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion with the Portland State Chamber Choir. I also hope to record some kind of Christmas or Holiday CD with the Oregon Repertory Singers.

Q: Do you have time for a personal life?

A: I really do. Being a university professor takes a great deal of pressure off of a “normal” classical performer’s schedule in that my evenings and weekends are largely free. Most nights I get home in time to cook dinner for my seven-year-old son and my four-year-old daughter. My wife appreciates the fact that I always do the dishes and the laundry. I reduced my travel schedule dramatically after becoming a father. It’s amazing how easily and naturally priorities change.

Q: I hear you are a fabulous cook. What are your favorite dishes?

A: I’m a huge fan of Indian food, which I also love to cook, and I love gourmet French cuisine, for which I go to restaurants. I’ve been baking since I was very little, and when I was 13, I won awards for my chocolate chip cookies at the Pitkin County Fair in Colorado. Living in the Pacific Northwest has brought an incredible bounty of ingredients to work with, and I especially enjoy perfecting my preparation of fresh-caught salmon and sturgeon. Then there are the endless possibilities of wine pairing. That research, thankfully, is as pleasurable as it is exhaustive. It’s pretty easy to make Indian curries in a typical Western kitchen, but it’s difficult to make tandoori chicken without a tandoor, which is an Indian oven. However, I’ve been experimenting and have found that if you marinate some chicken pieces in Greek yogurt mixed with olive oil, garlic and cayenne for a while and then bake it in the oven at 425 degrees for 15-20 minutes and then broil it for 5 minutes, you can make a pretty good approximation. Buy a CD and I’ll include the recipe for my secret coconut cilantro chutney that goes with it.

THE PORTLAND STATE CHAMBER CHOIR—A DROP IN THE OCEAN Ethan Sperry, cond; Hannah Consenz (sop 1 ); Anna Moiso (sop 1 ); Rachel Buckholt (sop 2 ); Ian Timmons (ten 3 ); Andrew Kent (bs 3 ); Beth Scheppke (sop 3,6 ); Ara Gehl (alt 4,6 ); Katie Regan (sop 4 ); Kevin Lambert (pn 4 ); Celeste Goguen (sop 5,6 ); Bethany Nedelisky (alt 5 ); Evan Miles (ten 5 ); Eva Uherek-Cummins (alt 6 ); Jaron Christman (ten 6 ); Lily Breshears (alt 6 ); The Portland State Chamber Choir PDX C-1 (51:20)

EŠENVALDS 1 O Salutaris Hostia. 2 A Drop in the Ocean. T. DORSEY Precious Lord (arr. A. Sevier). RACHMANINOFF Bogoroditse Devo. SVIRODOV Having Witnessed a Wondrous Birth. VERDI Pater Noster. L. COHEN 3 Hallelujah (arr. E. Sperry). SPIRITUAL 4 A City Called Heaven (arr. J. Poelinitz). HAITIAN VOODOO SONGS (arr. S. Källman) Fré O. 5 Papa Loko 6

Ethan Sperry is the conductor of Oregon’s Portland State Chamber Choir and he has molded it into one of the most interesting choral groups to be heard recently in the United States. On this disc they sing many different kinds of music ranging from Catholic and Orthodox Church music to Christian Spirituals and Haitian Vodoo songs. First on the program is Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds’s O Salutaris Hostia (O Saving Host), a communion hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi. It is followed by the album’s more modern title song, A Drop in the Ocean , which is also a piece to put the listener in a contemplative state. Its pure tones cleanse the mind of worldly cares and invite meditation. The gospel song Precious Lord is a more direct prayer written by Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993). Sperry’s choir sings each of these very different compositions with finesse and stylistic understanding. The soprano soloists have crystal clear top notes and sing them with graceful arching lines. Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo (Rejoice, O Virgin) has harmonies that seem to be unique to its genre and I wish we got to hear them more often. This rendition is absolutely exquisite. Sviridov’s Having Witnessed a Wondrous Birth is similar, but it does not quite have the magic of the Rachmaninoff. Verdi’s Pater Noster (Our Father), is based on a text by 14th-century poet Antonio Beccari. The Portland Chamber Choir shows off the opulent voices of its alto section in this piece. The next one, Leonard Cohen’s well-known Hallelujah , gives the tenors a chance to shine and we hear the robust warmth of their masculine voices. As with all the songs on this disc, the artistic hand of Ethan Sperry brings out myriad gradations of dynamics. For A City Called Heaven, Sperry calls upon pianist Kevin Lambert and the earthy sounds of two strong voiced soloists to create the ambiance of a black church. It is quite irresistible. So are the final two Haitian Voodoo songs, but they are quite different from what I expected. Their smooth and inviting melodies with soft drumbeats that occasionally emerge from the background make you want to learn more about this oft-maligned culture. Sperry has found the right voices for these songs, too. Tracks 1 through 7 were recorded in a church with a very live acoustic that fits the music. The last three tracks have a drier sound and more easily understood lyrics. You can find the text and, when necessary, the translation of each piece on the choir’s website: psuchamberchoir.com. Maria Nockin

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 26 March 2013 )
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