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Laurence Vittes talks to Ethan Sperry

March 15, 2017

Since Ethan Sperry arrived at Portland State University in 2010 as Director of Choral activities, the Oregon public university’s choral program has expanded in quality, repertoire, size and acclaim. This summer, following a showcase concert in its home town on March 17, the Portland State University Chamber Choir will embark for Bali where it will take part in the latest of a series of successful international competitions, most recently in Italy and Canada. Last weekend, it joined fellow Portland State choirs in a concert featuring American choral classics.

Going into 2017, the Chamber Choir has also made two recordings: 2012’s A Drop in the Ocean and 2014’s Into Unknown Worlds, named a “recording to die for” by Stereophile magazine, a first for a student choir.

Now, a third recording, The Doors of Heaven, is being readied for release on Naxos, featuring the music of Eriks Esenvalds, the Latvian composer who has become a popular sensation leading to recordings on Hyperion, Decca, DG, Pentatone and Ondine.

Portland State University Chamber Choir
Photo: Jason Sabino

The repertoire for Naxos’ all-Esenvalds CD will be the first American recordings of The First Tears, for native American flute, percussion and choir; Rivers of Light, for vocal soloists, jaw and choir; and Passion and Resurrection. A Drop in the Ocean, for soprano and choir, will complete the program.

The two members of the production team, producer and editor Erick Lichte and the legendary engineer John Atkinson, editor of Stereophile, deserve interviews in their own right. The recordings were made January and May, 2016 at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Portland.

I spoke to Ethan Sperry in Portland.

LV: How did you first come across Eriks Esenvalds’ music?

Ethan Sperry: I  fell in love with his music when I heard his oratorio Passion and Resurrection in 2011. I programed the work as soon as I could. Then I took a chance and contacted him, asking if he would write a new, short piece for the chamber choir and inviting him for the premiere. I guess I was the first person in the US who had invited him to hear his own music. He had been here as a tourist, and with the State Choir of Latvia. So he wrote, and came, and we really hit it off; he’s been back four times since and stayed with me each time. We were the first American ensemble to record his music in 2012; they were smaller pieces and the recording was self-produced, but it sold well and won some awards.

LV: How did the new recording come about?

Ethan Sperry: In 2015 we performed Passion and Resurrection again because we were hosting a national choral conference; someone from Naxos was there and contacted Esenvalds about recording the music but with a different chorus; Esenvalds said you should use the Portland State Chamber Choir and eventually, after we sent them live tapes by our literally audiophile recording team, they agreed.

LV: How long has it taken to record the finished product?

Ethan Sperry: We had recording sessions in January and May, 2016; last week we finished editing and uploaded the master audio to Naxos. The notes and the cover are all done. We’re hoping for an August release.

LV: What should we know about Eriks Esenvalds?

Ethan Sperry: He writes brilliantly in longer forms. He crafts his own librettos, often constructed of separate texts. He’s Latvian, is best known for his choral music, and has become prominent only in the last decade. Now everybody in the choral world knows him, especially in the United States. He writes prolifically–like Estonians, one of every three Latvians sings in a choir, so there is an ongoing demand for new music.

LV: What’s his music like?

Ethan sperry: It’s like Eric Whitacre on steroids: lots of lush, post-tonal harmonies juxtaposed with really harsh sonorities, descending into the darkness of 20th century aleatory stuff then resolving back into the lushness of Whitacre. I know lots of 20th century composers who can do edgy, and lots of 21st century composers who can do lush–but few who can do both. Its also amazing how convincingly his music always fits his dramatic narrative texts; Eriks always take us on journeys.


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