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Southern Oregon Repertory Singers presents 'Sing We Merrily'

It's an anniversary year for Southern Oregon Repertory Singers — a choir of about 50 vocalists directed by Paul French — and the ensemble wants to present something special for its 30th annual holiday concert. "Sing We Merrily" promises to capture the many moods of the season and reflect the rich history of choral music.

"There will be a kick-ass first half," French says with a laugh. "Very festive, the pieces are all big and spectacular, and we've added string and wind quartets, harp, piano, organ and percussion.

One of the pieces will be "Deutches Magnificat," by baroque composer Heinrich Schutz, which French considers the best German composer before Bach. This piece will feature strings, winds, organ and double choir.

"Schutz was brilliant at setting text to music," French says. "It's an artistic style he learned as a young man visiting Venice. The Italians were composing music for texts filled with emotion.

"During the Renaissance, it was the music that came first. That's why Renaissance music is so polyphonic and sometimes hard to understand. A big change came with the early baroque era around 1600, when words were put in the forefront of music. Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi said the text must be the mistress of the music, and his rationale was that when Plato talked about music, he said melody consists of words, rhythms and notes.

"Italy was leading the way, then Schutz established Germany as a music powerhouse," French says. "From his time forward, Germany was the guiding light. He brought Italianate light to Germany."

"Sing We Merrily" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20, in the Music Recital Hall on the Southern Oregon University campus, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland. Tickets are $26 or $32, $5 for students and Snapcard holders, on the day of the show. A free pre-concert lecture will be presented an hour before the concert. Tickets and information are available online at repsingers.org or by calling 541-552-0900.

Schutz' "Deutches Magnificat" is just one of the pieces in the first half of the program that French is excited about.

"Another — one I'm really excited about — is “O magnum mysterium” by Daniel Elder. Elder is a young American composer, born in 1986, and he writes stunning music. People are going to be knocked out when they hear it. It's full of cinematic gestures that the choir soars through, big build-ups and tsunamis of sound," French says.

"We'll also premiere 'Make We Joy,' commissioned by the choir from Portland composer Craig Kingsbury. He's written a lot of music for us. This piece is written for choir, strings, winds and the rest of the band. He was composer-in-residence for us for many years, and, in fact, we have a CD of all his pieces we've commissioned. The CD will be available at the show."

Composer Jodi French will present a setting of "Salve Regina" — also known as "Hail Holy Queen" — based on a Gregorian chant and accompanied by the choir. Two soloists — alto Shelly Cox and soprano Jennifer Matsuura — sing the chant line, and the choir will sing rich harmonies around them.

"I'll also pair Renaissance settings of Christmas texts with modern settings during the first half," French says. "So 'O Nata Lux,' a motet by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), will be paired with a setting by Morten Lauridsen (born in 1943). Lauridsen is probably the most famous composer of choral music of the last 50 years. People will know his work. And Giovannia da Palestrina's (1525-1594) "Rorate Caeli" will be paired with Leo Nestor's.

"Then, in the second half of the program, we'll be presenting fun settings of traditional carols, 'The Holly and the Ivy,' 'I Wonder as I Wander,'" French says. "People who attend Christmas concerts want to hear carols, so carols they shall have."

North Medford High School's Chamber Choir and the string and wind section will join the choir for John Rutter's "Candlelight Carol."

"It will be everyone's favorite," French says. "It's really pretty, and it's included on many, many recordings of Christmas collections. It also features harp by Laurie Hunter. An unusual piece we're doing is a Welsh carol, "Sou Gan," a lullaby with a solo by soprano Jeffri Carrington. She's quite soulful and brings the house down with her performances."

Look for fresh arrangements of such Christmas carols as "Joy to the World," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "I Sing of a Maiden" and "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day."