A triumphant 10th anniversary concert for the Northwest Repertory Singers

Posted: June 4, 2011 at 10:52 pm

Glad energy and a warm tone were the hallmarks of this weekend’s Saturday concert by the Northwest Repertory Singers. A celebration of the choir’s 10th anniversary, and repeated again tomorrow afternoon, the program highlighted the ensemble’s strengths – focus, warm singing and excellent programming – while only occasionally falling short of its usual high standard.

Much of the program was challenging singing. An opening of Samuel Barber’s three-poem “Reincarnations” brought out the always-excellent vocal balance, with nice bass support and good diction in the homage to “Mary Hynes.” The eerily chromatic descending canon of “Anthony O’Daly” had a fierce crescendo and moving dissonances; “The Coolin” a warm tone. When this choir sings love-songs, you truly believe them.

Two Bernstein songs had a full sound in the fortes but were rather timid in the softer sections, also true of the rhythmic declamation of Lukas Foss’ “Behold! I Build an House,” where accompanist Marjorie Skreen shone in the concerto-like piano flurries.

Also disappointing was John Corigliano’s “Fern Hill,” whose rolling neo-Romanticism perfectly suits the Dylan Thomas language but which sank somewhat into sameness, director Paul Schultz focusing on the beat rather than tonal variety.

Yet the direction and singing both were exemplary in “Invitation to Love,” a world premiere and choir commission from Schultz’ wife Donna Gartman Schultz. The pretty, feel-good harmonies weren’t breaking any musical boundaries but the melody was pleasantly singable, and the consonant tone-painting and Dunbar poetry brought out some very heartfelt singing.

After some spoken reflections on the NWRS by locals such as councilman Marty Campbell, Proctor business owner Sue Merrell and Tacoma Youth Chorus director Judy Herrington, the choir closed with two old favorites that epitomize both the group’s impressive singing and sheer joy: “Dirait-on,” that poignantly simple meditation by Morten Lauridsen, fell like hushed leaves on rippling water, and the wacky Swedish “Domaredansen” (despite intensely upright boogie-woogie from Skreen) showed a choir and director who just love to sing, and have fun doing it.


Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568


Northwest Repertory Singers mark 10-year milestone with season finale

There’s no shortage of choirs in South Puget Sound. It’s a measure of success the Northwest Repertory Singers has not only reached its 10th birthday, but has done it in style: consistently full houses, difficult and locally based repertoire, an eclectic array of programming and 60 singers who show up each Monday night because they love it.

Published: 06/03/1112:05 am | Updated: 06/03/11 3:53 am

There’s no shortage of choirs in South Puget Sound. It’s a measure of success the Northwest Repertory Singers has not only reached its 10th birthday, but has done it in style: consistently full houses, difficult and locally based repertoire, an eclectic array of programming and 60 singers who show up each Monday night because they love it.

“The choir has continued to grow, both in quality and in presenting a more professional image,” said founding director Paul Schultz. “I keep raising the bar in terms of repertoire, but also in our approach and commitment to preparation. And ... we’re blessed by a tremendous response – playing to full houses over the last four or five years.”

The response has been so positive, in fact, that for the choir’s 10th anniversary celebration this weekend they’ve decided to perform their concert twice, on Saturday and Sunday. The program covers everything this choir has done well during the past decade – Northwest composers such as Morten Lauridsen, difficult works such as Samuel Barber’s “Reincarnations,” a new commission from Schultz’ wife, composer Donna Gartman Schultz, and profound writing from poets such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Dylan Thomas and Rainer Maria Rilke.

“It’s one of the most challenging programs we’ve ever done,” Paul Schultz said.

Among the challenges is new work by Donna Gartman Schultz. Despite NWRS’s ongoing commitment to contemporary composers, this is only the second work it has commissioned. Schultz, a nationally respected local composer with 50 published works to her name, chose as text a poem by Dunbar, one of the first acclaimed African American poets. A love song that draws on images of nature (“the nesting dove,” “the redd’ning cherry”), “Invitation to Love” celebrates the choir’s 10th anniversary.

Like his wife, Paul Schultz picks his works as much on the text as on the notes. Barber’s “Reincarnations” (a fiendishly difficult piece that every choir should do, says Schultz) uses three poems by 20th-century Irish poet James Stephens, including a paean to acclaimed beauty Mary Hynes and a lament for the wrongly executed Anthony O’Daly. “Dirait-On” by Northwest composer Lauridsen explores the mystery of German poet Rilke. It’s an oft-performed NWRS piece that earned Lauridsen’s own esteem as the best rendition he had heard. “Fern Hill” by John Corigliano sets pastoral words by Welshman Thomas, memories that Schultz – who grew up on a dairy farm – can relate to.

Throw in a piano showcase piece by Lukas Foss for the choir’s accompanist Marjorie Skreen, two Bernstein songs for assistant conductor Kyle Haugen, and a fun Swedish dance to finish off. You have a summary of the Northwest Repertory Singers’ musical ethic, one that has seen collaborations with local groups ranging from jazz bands to dance groups to opera singers.

But it’s not just the programs that keep the choir’s 60 auditioned singers coming back each Monday night to rehearse – many for all of those 10 years.

“After a hard day at work, there’s something about the power of music that refreshes them. It’s music that binds (us) together,” Schultz said.


Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568


A Choral Christmas Tree

The Northwest Repertory Singers build a concert of well-sung choral works, each as individual as a Christmas tree ornament.

Published: 12/18/10 11:15 pm

Holiday favorites are pleasant, but it’s incredibly refreshing to hear a whole Christmas concert of unusual arrangements and new music; and that’s exactly what the Northwest Repertory Singers are offering this weekend in their home venue of Mason United Methodist Church. To a full house on Saturday night the choir sang with excellent musicianship and skill, plus the confidence born of performing familiar music – pieces all taken from nine years of Christmas concerts.

One of the favorites was “Snowforms,” by Canadian composer R. Murray Shafer. With clear, perfectly pitched voices the women created a powerful stillness out of this free-notation score, from the unearthly, snow-silent humming through flurrying Inuit words and solid drifts of chords. The men followed with Randall Thompson’s haunting setting of the Robert Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”: With Marjorie Skreen feather-light on the eerie piano arpeggios, the men sang the rich, Russian-deep harmonies with control.

The rest of the program, though varied, flowed well. Traditional carols met inventive settings, such as John Rutter’s sudden modulations in “Deck the Halls” and Kenneth Jennings’ “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the original melody leaping gracefully over a soft vocal pillow. A Chinese advent hymn was arranged and played by Tom Walworth on cello, his descant singing like an erhu to the serene pentatonic melody sung in canon.

Donna Gartman Schultz’s arrangements featured a solidly fanfaring Brass Unlimited but lacked imagination, and the shadowed “Sing Lullaby” from 20th-century English composer Herbert Howells needed less vibrato for a more English sound. “And the Glory,” from Handel’s “Messiah,” could also have used a lighter touch.

Overall, though, the NWRS demonstrated once again just how fine a group of singers they are. Led with thoughtful timing and impeccable architecture by Paul Schulz (and calm competence by assistant director Kyle Haugen), the choir really seemed to be enjoying themselves, adding ornament after glittering choral ornament to this NWRS Christmas tree.



Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568


Delicate and expressive, Northwest Repertory Singers fill season-end program with Romantic French music

Published: 05/22/1010:46 pm | Updated: 05/23/10 7:26 am

On Saturday night Mason United Methodist Church was packed, and it was easy to guess why: For the first time, the Northwest Repertory Singers were bringing in the Northwest Sinfonietta to tackle a choral work beloved of many – Fauré’s Requiem. Yet the rest of the French Romantic program was equally well-sung, though delicate.

It was a short program – just one and a half hours – with just half an hour of music before intermission. Yet, filled as it was with exquisite musical paintings and a few lesser-heard works, the first half more than satisfied. Opening with Fauré’s popular “Cantique de Jean Racine,” that lyrical prayer with cello and rippling piano, the NWRS found a light airy tone perfect for the simple melody and wistful harmonies. Tom Walworth provided a pleasant-enough cello line, though dragging a little, and the choral falling-away on weak French word endings was lovely to hear.

The focused, light tone continued through three of Hindemith’s “Chansons,” surprisingly soft for this often-austere composer. Olivier Messiaen’s popular “O Sacrum Convivium” had a few sopranos sticking out of the choir’s soft, mysterious texture, and the humming chords of Messiaen’s angelic vision never quite moved all together. Much better was the “Lux aeterna” from Duruflé’s Requiem, conducted with grace by Kyle Haugen and with NWRS accompanist Marjorie Skreen moving perfectly with the sopranos as they wove through the plainchant.

Best of the bunch were the “Trois Chansons” by Ravel, three marvelous examples of the kind of tone-painting the French Impressionists strove for. “Nicolette” had the sopranos skipping through the forest, the basses boisterous as the wolf, the men a delightful falsetto for the wooing page and everyone with truly nasty nasal sounds for the rich lover. Soprano Jane David sang with expressive warmth in “Three Beautiful Birds from Paradise,” and director Paul Schulz held the “Roundelay” together through pattering consonants and furious triplets.

And then, the moment the crowd had been waiting for. Playing the version for lower strings, harp and horn, members of the Northwest Sinfonietta descended through the solemn opening of Gabriel Fauré’s Reqiuem with emotional power, and kept it up throughout. Violas were silvery, celli/bassi were darkly sonorous, and James Garlick handled the stratospheric violin solos excellently. Baritone soloist Barry Johnson sang with fine control and prayerful restraint in the “Offertory,” and a hint of Italian opera in the “Libera Me.” The choir worked hard, with some fine moments (a deliciously scary pianissimo in the “Libera Me,” rich altos and basses in the “Offertory”) and a few weak ones (sopranos and tenors overcome by instruments.)

Nora Golden, soloist for the “Pie Jesu,” was unfortunately shaky – a pity she didn’t let her pure soprano shine without the covering vibrato.

The biggest problem was that Paul Schulz, while sculpting a pure, warm sound from his singers, was conducting them rather than the orchestra. And with Fauré’s swelling score, this resulted in a certain vagueness that was disappointing at key moments (like the forte chords in the “Introit”) and not helped by a lack of dramatic volume in the choir.

Still, by the time the “In Paradisum” reached its gorgeously tranquil end, the performance was moving enough that it more than overcame a cell phone and some folk at the back anxious to be gone. Let’s hope this choir-orchestra collaboration continues – Tacoma needs more choral events like this.


Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568


Northwest Repertory Singers offer joyful Christmas banquet

Published: December 21st, 2009 7:37 AM

At the Sunday performance of their “North American Christmas” concert at Mason United Methodist Church, the Northwest Repertory Singers spread out to a packed house a festive banquet of music that was as varied as it was well-sung, with an instrumental backdrop of brass, organ, flute and piano to add spice.

Linked with a North American theme, the program joined nine carols ranging from Huron to Appalachian with two larger classical works. The tone hit all the nuances of what makes American music American – simplicity, optimism, folksong, civil history and brillianc – without sinking into the trite or saccharine: no mean feat at this time of year. And at just 90 minutes, the concert was just the right length for a dose of Christmas music, however unusual.

Part of the success was the alternation of mood. After the vigorous Catalan carol “Fum Fum Fum,” the choir emphatic and focussed in the vocal strumming, came the “Huron Carol,” with the mens’ chorus delivering the haunting minor theme in a warm tone with wintry sadness. The wistful flute line was played by last-minute substitute Steve Franzke. “Bring a Torch” was lilting, though unfortunately weak in the soft sections, and “Hail, Christmas Day!” by Abbie Burt Betinis was light-footed through the shifting meter. The highly colored, eerie arrangement of “I Wonder as I Wander” featured the soaring soprano of Caitlin O’Brien (why the needless vibrato?) and Moses Hogan’s “Glory, Glory” had six choir soloists shining out of the sparkly, energetic sound like stars. Equally contrasted was the hush of “The Darkest Midnight in December” with the moto perpetuo of “Ding! Dong! Merrily on High” (a bit ploddy).

Set against this spread of styles was the “Gloria” setting of Randol Alan Bass and the Daniel Pinkham “Christmas Cantata,” both for brass and organ. As director Paul Schultz kept his widespread forces under excellent control, the choir gave its all in beautiful legatos and brilliant Amens in the Bass, and snowflake-light Glorias and suspenseful chants in the Pinkham. Accompanist Marjorie Skreen’s precision and sound made up for a sometimes lackluster brass, but by the final Largo the ensemble filled the church with a broad, shining sound.

The Northwest Repertory Singers’ next concert is an evening of opera scenes with the Rainier Family Opera on March 13, 2010.


Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568



Northwest Repertory Singers can swing it

Published: March 23rd, 2009 11:44 PM | Last updated: March 23rd, 2009 11:44 PM (PDT)

It’s always great to hear a group that’s excellent at what it does try something new.

Saturday night at Mason United Methodist Church, the Northwest Repertory Singers launched into jazz and, accompanied by the always-cool Kareem Kandi Band, they did a fine job, complementing perfectly their opening half of past choir favorites sung with gusto and finesse.

For the first half, the choir celebrated the last seven years of its existence, singing favorites of both choir and audience.

Mostly American, the program was heartfelt but not sentimental and conducted with his usual thoughtful expressiveness (and no musical score) by Dr. Paul Schultz. Assistant conductor Kyle Haugen led one piece.

Of the nine pieces, highlights were Z. Randall Stroope’s “The Pasture,” whose dreamy harmonies and serene Robert Frost words were sung in a hushed, well-shaded timbre; and “Dirait-on” by Northwesterner Morten Lauridsen, the choir’s soft, direct tone perfect for Lauridsen’s restful, murmuring tenderness. “Cindy” could have used more cheekiness (especially from the otherwise sensitive accompanist Marjorie Skreen), and the pattering “Neighbors Chorus” of Offenbach needed much more clarity of enunciation.

Yet most pieces showed off this choir’s excellently round, deep sound and balanced voicing: the warm arrangement of “My Heart’s in the Highlands” (with a rather too much vibrato from Marcia Ott on violin), and the gorgeously arching arrangement of the camp meeting song “No Time.” Finally, “Elijah Rock” overcame a complete lack of swing to hit a spine-tingling finale.

After intermission, though, the swing took over. A set by the Kareem Kandi Band highlighted each member: the endlessly creative drummer Jacques Willis, rocking bassist Osama Afifi, a very mellow Mason Hargrove on guitar and Kandi with effortless and bronze-toned tenor sax.

When the choir came in, the combination was unfortunately dominated by the drums. Microphones for the choir or less volume from Willis would have meant much more of the NWRS’ fine singing could have been heard. Because it was indeed fine: a good sound (though lacking a jazz edge) a good groove and obvious enjoyment from everyone.

“Time After Time,” a rather weirdly jazzed-up version of the Cyndi Lauper ballad, featured a honey-voiced Teresa Nickel as soloist, while Sharon Stearnes sang a clear alto in the Joni Mitchell “Both Sides Now,” with excellent a cappella backing and doo-wops.

Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova “Meditation” wove seamlessly with fine solos from Kandi, and the evening wound up with “Cheek to Cheek,” where—despite being sometimes drowned by the drums—the NRS sang with strong focus, excellent pitch and a toe-tapping rhythm for an upbeat version Fred Astaire would have loved.

The next concert by the Northwest Repertory Singers will be on May 2 at Mason United Methodist Church.


Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568



Northwest Sinfonietta gives triumphant performance of Beethoven's 9th

Published: April 6th, 2008 08:00 AM | Updated: April 6th, 2008 08:02 AM

Joyful, triumphant playing and a sold-out house combined in the Rialto on Saturday night for the final concert in the Northwest Sinfonietta’s main season: Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9, “Choral.” Along with the Northwest Repertory Singers and four sterling soloists, the chamber orchestra swelled both its ranks and its sound for this beloved musical monolith.

Just as it’s hard to open for Bruce Springsteen, so it’s pretty hard to know what to program before Beethoven’s colossal Ninth. The work is over an hour long, but you have to have something else to fill the concert. The choice of Beethoven’s lesser-known choral work “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” made an excellent start. His setting of Goethe’s poetry foreshadows the Ninth in many ways, and the Sinfonietta and Northwest Repertory Singers, finely conducted here by the choir’s director Paul Schulz, hit just the right notes: a calm, flat stillness for the opening, intense precision in the optimistic anticipation, bright and ringing for the ship’s sailing.

What came next, though, was debatable: 22 minutes of Sinfonietta director Christophe Chagnard giving a musical analysis of the mammoth work to follow. While this was thoughtful and sometimes funny, and may have been useful to some, it made a dry connection between the musical works. For this reviewer, it’s infinitely more enjoyable to listen to Beethoven than listen about him.

Yet with the Ninth itself, all this was eclipsed. This is a difficult work to play, running the gamut of exposed solos, high vocal notes, fast passages and sheer hard work. The Sinfonietta, NWRS and soloists Karen Early Evans (soprano,) Sarah Mattox (mezzo,) Stephen Rumph (tenor) and Clayton Brainerd (bass) gave it their all in a stunning show of musical skill.

Chagnard took very brisk tempi throughout, which sometimes resulted in messiness or slow-downs but mostly achieved a driving energy and light grace. Highlights included gutsy brass and spot-on haunting flute (Damin Thaves) in the first movement; and crisp string articulation and emphatic timpani in the wild, intoxicating ride that is the second movement, with a super-clear and liquid oboe solo from Shannon Spicciati. Occasional rough fortes from the violins could have used more vibrato, and the piano sections would have been far more effective if even quieter. In the third movement, Chagnard pushed a tempo more fluid than languorous, moving through mellow middle strings and supply balanced woodwinds to a barcarolle-like ending.

But it was the last movement that surpassed every terrific Beethoven concert the Sinfonietta has done this season. From the chaos of the opening through a rushed but well-toned cello/bass recitative, to an “Ode to Joy” theme alternately tranquil, happy, sweet and shining, this movement sang powerfully. Clayton Brainerd’s opening bass solo rattled every seat in the hall with compelling reverberance, and the solo vocal quartet held together excellently, the voices perfectly matched in clear, warm sound. From a difficult place under the back curtain, the Northwest Repertory Singers sang with strength, clarity and superbly intelligible words. Again, the fast tempo made for a spirited march and (finally!) a tenor solo that made sense—Stephen Rumph projecting almost gleefully—yet also some passages that were just too fast for the lower strings to manage, despite elegant control from Chagnard.

As the full stage of musicians wound up to a triumphant, joyful finish, their huge clear sound blasting straight back off the Rialto’s walls, the excitement in the audience was also palpable. What a joy to have an orchestra and singers of this caliber performing works like this—it’s something Tacoma should be proud of.


Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568