Oregon Repertory Singers presents
Shadows on the Stars
3pm, October 13 & 14, 2018
First United Methodist Church

PROGRAM NOTES

Welcome to Oregon Repertory Singers 45th Anniversary Season! This year we are focusing on music by composers who have been featured prominently in our history, beginning this weekend with Morten Lauridsen and Veljo Tormis.

Morten Lauridsen is a special figure in my own life and in the history of Oregon Repertory Singers. He was raised right here in the Portland area and was a member of the first graduating class of Sunset High School in Beaverton in 1961. He is one of only two Oregonians to have won the National Medal of Arts (the other is Beverly Cleary). I studied choral arranging and composition with Dr. Lauridsen when I was a graduate student at the University of Southern California, where he has been a professor of composition for more than 50 years. He also advised my cognate studies in poetry.

I have rarely met a composer like Lauridsen, who understands the universal themes in the most complex poems and can illuminate them in music. Among these few, he is further unique as he sets poetry for choir rather than solo voice. For me, Lauridsen’s genius lies not only in the beautiful harmonies he creates, but also in his synthesis of text and music for choir, whose many voices represent the universality of the themes in the poetry he chooses. The fact that he asked Oregon Repertory Singers to be the first American choir to record his two most recent compositions, and that he sponsored the creation of our latest recording Shadows on the Stars, has touched the lives of all of us on stage in ways that are hard to describe. We hope you enjoy the recording as much as we enjoyed making it. We are fortunate that Dr. Lauridsen is with us this weekend to introduce each of his pieces and accompany several of them on the piano.

In the 1990s, Oregon Repertory Singers was the first American ensemble to bring Veljo Tormis to the United States. Many of our current members were in the group at that time, and were as thrilled then to host Tormis and make music together as we all are now with Morten Lauridsen. Veljo Tormis died last year at the age of 87. We dedicate these performances to his memory and inspiration. We’re also pleased at the outset of this 45th anniversary season to welcome ORS’ long-time director emeritus and Tormis champion, Gil Seeley, to conduct one of his favorite Tormis compositions.

Like Lauridsen, Tormis is a composer whose fame comes from his choral music rather than symphonies or operas. He was extremely prolific, writing over 500 choral works, mostly a cappella, and many based on traditional ancient Estonian folk melodies or legends. His composition most often performed outside Estonia is Curse Upon Iron (Raua needmine) (1972), which we will perform today. The piece invokes ancient shamanistic traditions to construct an allegory about the evils of war. It and many of his other works were banned by the Soviet government, as they understood his music (correctly) to be a criticism of the oppressive regime he lived under for most of his life. Tormis was extremely humble about his own musical gifts. He believed: “It is not I who makes use of folk music, it is folk music that makes use of me. My work demonstrates my conviction that traditional Estonian and other Balto-Finnic music represents a treasure which must be guarded and nourished, and that culture may be kept alive through the medium of song.”

In the 19th century, Estonians started a song festival tradition called Laulupidu, where choirs from around the country come together every five years to sing for days. Up to 30,000 people sing on stage at the same time. But the founding of Laulupidu was as much an expression of the desire for self-determination and independence as about singing. In the late 1980s Tormis revived this festival as a unifying force when hundreds of thousands gathered to sing forbidden Estonian songs, demanding their right for self-determination from their brutal Soviet occupier. Called “The Singing Revolution,” this movement led to one of the most successful non-violent regime changes in history.

The philosopher Santayana famously said that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. Art can serve the same purpose. While much of Tormis’s music reflects how beauty can be found even under horrid conditions, Curse Upon Iron takes us far into the experience of a culture living under centuries of oppression. Let us heed its warning.

Program notes by Ethan Sperry
October 2018