Ethan Sperry here. This tour was also the premiere of a new arrangement of mine that I've become kind of obsessed with. It's called "Aho" and it's a collaboration with my friend Ara Lee who is also a former member of the Portland State Chamber Choir. She wrote the words and music and I turned it into a choral piece. If you're in PDX you should definitely check out her album release party on November 22 at The Secret Society.
People call me a composer these days, but I'm not. I'm an arranger. In my own opinion I am nothing without good source material. I spend much more time seeking out music to arrange than I spend actually creating the arrangements. Aho deals with how people turn to the divine in times of sorrow, need and desperation. We invoke holy spirits, nature or anything that comes to mind to give meaning when the loss of a friend or a loved one seems senseless or meaningless. We need a sense of meaning if we are going to be able to continue or keep going (Aho) ourselves. I have rarely found a piece music that is so cathartic to sing. This, in my opinion, is what good art does: it makes us experience our most powerful emotions in the absence of a real situation to cause them. It channels our most powerful emotions so that we can take ownership of them rather than the other way around. Hopefully then we are better prepared the next time we have to confront a senseless loss in our actual lives.
My thanks as always to my singers. This should be a hard piece to sing with complete honesty and openness, but not for this group. The willingness to share the darkest parts of our souls with each other and our audiences I believe makes us much stronger people. Thank you for your vulnerability.
It's really hard to even begin to summarize the last few weeks of my life. I can't even begin to list the peak experiences, but I've got to share at least a few of the thoughts that have come up.
I've been very lucky in life and had numerous chances to make music with great singers in foreign countries. The recent tour to Spain with The Portland State Chamber Choir was my 18th International tour as either a singer and conductor. There's just nothing like being able to get away from your daily cares and just focus on making music with people you care about. It brings out the best in people. I hope I never tire of this or cease to treat it as special. So far, I feel like as I get older I treasure these moments more and more. Even getting to do this once every year or two doesn't seem like that much. These are special moments.
So now some thoughts on this tour: The Tolosako Abesbatza Lehiaketa (Tolosa International Choral Competition) really knows how to take care of its competing choirs. We sang in five spectacular churches and all but one to standing room only crowds. We had mayors throwing receptions for us, and we were treated like professional touring artists. It really made us feel special, and I wish everyone treated artists and musicians the way you did. THANK YOU!!!!
Biggest Tour Highlight: After our very first performance in Borja, the music director of the church let us into the 15th-century wooden choir stalls and let one of my students play the (500-year-old) organ and let us sing from there. I have had the chance to do this before in some other churches and have generally been disappointed in the acoustics, which I assume is why these sorts of stalls were retired centuries ago. However in this church, or maybe with this choir and the particular piece we sang (Hear My Prayer by Purcell), it was an amazing acoustic phenomena. Different voices kept appearing in my ears as if they were right next to me. It was a much more immediate, direct, and human way to experience the piece. After that the mayor of Borja had a large reception for us. They asked us to sing more (of course) and after we sang one of our Spirituals they asked us to repeat a Guerrero motet we had sung in the concert: Nino Dios d'Amor Herido. This was not a piece I knew prior to the tour, but I selected it because I wanted to sing something from the Renaissance and sing something in Spanish, and Victoria (my favorite) didn't write much in Spanish. Everywhere we went, EVERYONE knew this Guerrero motet. In fact, the mayor and everyone else at this reception SANG IT WITH US and actually knew their parts. Apparently the Renaissance is still alive and well in Northern Spain and that makes me happy. Also to see my students and people from another country brought together by 500-year-old music really validates the timeless power of great music. Awesome!
The competition itself was a little weird as we never got to hear the other choirs. We were sort of competing in a vacuum. We sang our absolute best on that stage, which is all you can hope for. This time we finished in 4th place in both categories, but I feel just as happy about what we did as when we won two years ago. I think all the singers feel the same way. Entering the competition pushed us to sing at our best which really is its own reward. My biggest hope is that we can decide from now on to sing like that regardless of the day or time, because that is really the point of all of this... I do look forward to hearing the other choirs on YouTube when they post the performances.
Final Thought: Traveling with the PSU Chamber Choir is particularly special for me. Most PSU students, including those in Chamber Choir, are paying for college themselves. I'm kind of amazed at the workloads they are able to carry and still succeed in college and in life. Most have never been out of the country. The daily cares they get to leave behind when we tour are immense, much more than what I carried in college. This group really knows how to maximize a tour experience. They take advantage of all the sight-seeing and the chances to party but show up ready to sing at 110% at every single concert. Better still, everyone in the group always takes the time to get to know every other person and not just split into cliques. This includes me: I don't think I've ever felt so close to every member of a large choir as I do to you. Thanks to you all for being such amazing travelers and being so open and inclusive. Thanks also for taking what we share with each other and being willing to be vulnerable on stage and share it with the hundreds of people who came to hear us.
Although we’re across the ocean without much time to celebrate the holiday, a few of us kept up with the festivities. Emmalyn and I dressed up as each other, Haley was Beetlejuice, and Saori spent the day as Yoko Ono.
Soon after our breakfast croissants and coffee, we piled onto the bus and headed into San Sebastian. We went out to a famous pier called El Peine Del Viento (The Comb of the Wind) that a few of us who had spent the day in San Sebastian a few days earlier had discovered with the help of our awesome guides. With the wind in our faces and a phenomenal view of the city outlined by the crashing waves of the Atlantic, we rehearsed tucked away in a small hillside nook on the pier. After rehearsal, we all picked a rendezvous point and split up to explore the city for a few hours before our concert.
Emmalyn and I walked around the city, marveling the sights. We crossed a giant bridge with some interesting statues on it, went into a variety of shops and bakeries, and sat on open patios soaking up the sun. At one point I believe there was some freestyle rapping in english and spanish about the fat pigeons (seriously they are huge), but I won’t go into that too much. (When you’re tired everything is much funnier in the moment than it probably is in reality.) We also were granted the awesome experience of singing inside this HUGE cathedral. It was gorgeous and incredible beyond words. Water Night sounded great bouncing off of stone that has been standing for thousands of years.
The concert was once again amazing, ending with endless “bravo’s”, two encores, and two or three standing ovations. It’s truly incredible being able to talk to so many people after these concerts (I speak spanish) and hear how much this music means to these people. It’s a beautiful thing to share such a moment with an audience who really understands and connects with this style of music. Honestly these concerts have been life-changing for both the choir and the audience in a lot of ways. I love being able to be a part of creating a better image musically (and personality-wise) of our country, one concert at a time. These experiences will be in my heart forever, and I couldn’t be more thankful.
Hanaa El-Warari chiming in from the Soprano section. The day was as bright and beautiful as the others. After we all had breakfast, we knew it was going to be a rough rehearsal. Mornings just aren't our thing, even with the best tasting café con leché coursing through our bodies. I felt as though there was some tension in the beginning of our walk to the music school. A morning rehearsal was just asking for a struggle.
It's interesting how a song you hear over and over again, no matter how incredible and moving it may be can sometimes slowly lose it's meaning the more times you sing it. Hallelujah was like that for me. Whenever we had rehearsed it for the past couple of months, it was just a bunch of notes on paper. My heart had hardened to it's meaning.
During rehearsal, one of our altos had brought up a rough personal experience that connected to one of the last set of lyrics to Hallelujah. That moment fell silent, and the tears started to fall from nearly everyone. I didn't think it would happen to me, but there I was, crouched in a chair, weeping. It was the kind of crying you can't control. But it was so cleansing and enlightening. It felt as though I learned a lot about everyone I knew without even having to ask anything. We all needed it, but we didn't understand why we needed it in that moment.
The night in Pamplona was warm and energetic. The church's acoustics were so immaculate they gave us chills. It was a spiritual experience to stand in front of those empty pews and really take in what forte really sounded like in that context. Pamplona is a smaller town than I expected, around 200,000 people, so I thought the crowds would be similar to the smaller cities we visited, maybe around 100 people, if we were lucky.
I was dead wrong.
I don't think I could have guessed how many people there were based on the roar I heard upon our entry. When we saw the near 900 people, there was a visible "OH MY GOD" on all of our faces. It was unlike any feeling I'd had yet on this trip.
Then we started singing. Everything; all of our struggles in the morning, all of our frustrations, all of our grief, all of our pain, all of our hurt, and all of our joy was poured out in the pieces we sang. Hardly a single chord out of place.
This is why we needed our good cry on the morning. Nothing close to this could have been achieved without that barrier broken. It was a completely emotionally transcendent experience.
"I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah"
Thanks for reading!
Aaron Lange of the tenors here. Our second and final day without any performance, we got to enjoy the many pleasures that the beautiful Basque Country has to offer. Many of us went to the city of Bilbao, where we had a full day of wine tasting, exploring the city, and seeing the incredible Guggenheim museum.
The winery was on the smaller side but was still very interesting. They produce a wine called "Txakoli" (cha-ko-lee) which is known as breakfast wine by the locals (so I suppose 11:00 am wasn't too early for wine...). Our wonderful guides Álvaro and Adriana showed us an overlook of Bilbao. What an incredible site. The natural landscape plus the amazing architecture was breath taking.
We made our way down to the city and wandered around for a while, getting to see some beautiful buildings of old and new.
The Guggenheim museum is known for some contemporary art, as well as the famous spider statue. The highlight for us would probably have to be the various structures that bend and play with sound. From being able to hear a whisper from a long distance, to making the whole area ring with a certain pitch, we musicians had a blast. Many wonderful memories were made in the gorgeous city of Bilbao.
Kaixo, mi amigos! Grant here: Second Bass, first year grad student and newbie blogger. Eskerrik asko [thank you] for reading!
It’s amazing we slept at all last night. The fall (harvest?) festival outside in Musika Plaza roared on unabated till 3 am. Ah, the dulcet strains of the guitar intro to “Sweet Home Alabama”. Over and over again. Like a lawnmower that won’t start. In spite of that, I felt unusually refreshed and centered the next morning, ready for a focused rehearsal at the music school. We walked a rather more circuitous route than intended, but we were all, like, “who cares?! We’re in Spain!” Also overheard many times along the way: “I’m so happy right now!” and “I’m so glad to be here” and “I’m so glad you’re here!” Did I mention I love this choir?
After we all photographed the adorable little turtles basking outside by the duck pond, Ethan gave us a serious workout: Vowel unification, diction, dynamics, slow and meticulous tuning of major and minor chords—a choir nerd couldn’t ask for more. During momentary pauses, I found myself wondering about the people who rehearsed in the years and decades before us in that little room; the stories behind each of the portraits, certificates, and awards hanging on the walls; how many in this faraway place might have rehearsed the very same music as we? (I mean, like, “Ametsetan” and “Niño Dios”, of course. I’m hoping however that “Hallelujah” just might someday enter the canon of regional repertoire!)
We may have gotten slightly cranky during the photo shoot on the stairs. Thanks for your patience, Chase – We were probably just hungry for the paella that awaited us back at the hotel. I had never even seen, much less tasted paella before. Did I mention that the food here is INCREDIBLE?!
And then, off to la Colegiata de Santa Maria in Borja, our first performance site! It was a long (3 hour) bus ride. Close to our destination, the yellow bluffs were riddled with wind turbines. Awaking from a doze, I momentarily mistook the scenery for the eastern Columbia Gorge.
I’ll let the concert recording speak, or sing, for itself. The audience was eager to applaud (a few couldn’t even wait till the end of “Hodie Christus”) and wouldn’t stop till we offered two encores. Ethan confirmed that it was as fine a concert as Chamber Choir has ever sung, and in a resplendent acoustic that magnified all the energy and nuance throughout. We were rewarded with gifts of wine and a private tour of the church. Halloween seemed to arrive a bit early, as a realistic skeleton greeted us at the crypt, his scythe inscribed with: A NINGUNO PERDONO (“To no one pardon”).
The massive 16th Century pipe organ façade in the rear gallery had fascinated me since we first entered the building – especially its marvelous display of horizontal trumpets, and the way it leaned noticeably to the right after centuries of “settling.” But I wasn’t expecting our tour guide to suddenly ask, “are there any organists here among you?” Colin instantly outed me as such, and the parish organist led me up to the organ loft as everyone else gathered in the monks’ stalls below. Now, I’ve played historic instruments in Europe and Mexico, but this unprompted invitation struck me as particularly special. I was worried about not knowing any Spanish Baroque music, but the organist explained that the functioning parts inside the instrument were actually of more recent (18th C.) Romantic style. He suggested I sight-read a Spanish piece he particularly liked, followed by the rest of the choir singing an impromptu “Hear My Prayer O Lord”.
More fantastic food and wine awaited us after the tour, and we thanked our hosts by singing “Give Me Jesus” and “Hallelujah”. None less than the mayor of Borja was in attendance. I was sure I misunderstood his words, his compliments were so effusive, but I confirmed later he really did say what I heard: “En nuestra ciudad, el recuerdo de este concierto nunca morirá” … In our city, the memory of this concert will never die”.
Nor in our memories, mayor. Buenas noches!