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French, Repertory keep holiday concert fresh

In years past, I stopped attending "holiday" concerts, most typically because — while they are heartwarming and community-oriented — the programming will not often stray far from an uninspired cache of surefire seasonal classics. Such songs are usually oriented towards Christmas and the Christian faith — not a philosophical problem, but more one of boredom and repetition.

No such problems emerged at the holiday concert weekend last of the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers at the Oregon Center for the Arts, the cornerstone event of the ensembles year, led as usual by Dr. Paul French. Interesting and original music abounds. French cajoles his audience into trying their ear for contemporary music, and that is so important for the future of classical music. Man cannot live by Hildegard von Bingen alone.

One of the many wonderful things about French and his acolytes is that they are willing and able to explore vast swaths of interesting music together, and then share it with a crowd who can trust French and his extraordinary depth of knowledge. While I can't speak categorically for the assembled patrons, it seems to me that one of the great aspects of the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers concerts is that French's audience, students and colleagues trust and admire him. As a result, hearts, minds, and ears are open to his recommendations where they might otherwise be stuck stubbornly in a preferred style or era.

The concert kicked off with a stellar rendition of the "Ave Maria" from Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, that great anonymous Catalonian manuscript that originated circa 1400 among the Benedictine monks of Spain. As can be expected, the music had a simplicity of texture that was as touching as it was refined. This was followed by the "Resonet in Laudibus" of Orlando di Lasso, one of the key composers of the Franco-Flemish era and an important proponent of the more melodic style found there. This transition was a clever one and an early indication of the degree to which French incorporates his deep intellectual appreciation of music into his programming.

Another "Ave Maria" followed, this time by 40-something contemporary composer Paul Mealor, a brilliant young composer who might be considered popular in the classical vernacular, having written the motet Ubi Caritas et Amor for the Royal Wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Kate) in 2011. Following this was the 2017 composition "The Rose that Bear Jesu" by American composer Ron Kean (the choir was accompanied by Jodi French on piano).

Then came "Spotless Rose," a divine piece of music taken from the 16th century German text and crafted to melody by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. This was among the most moving works of the evening. Mezzo-soprano Shelly Cox-Thornhill has a warm, agile vocal range, and her rendition of the song — which she sang in Norwegian — was quite exquisite.

The stage was reset for a horn section for the "Senex Puerum Portabat" of William Byrd, a discreetly expressive work from the Tudor-era composer. This was followed by the fresh and popular "Glow" by Eric Whitacre. As if to offset any suspicion of a turn into Disney-commissioned populist melody, French had programmed the Christmas classic "Angels We Have Heard on High" by Wachner to finish out the pre-intermission phase of the concert.

Upon returning from the break, the audience was treated to "Noel Nouvelet," the traditional 15th century French carol (arr. Lawson), followed by "My Lord Has Come" by Will Todd, a moving a cappella hymn with lush harmonic components and a particularly expressive soprano melody. Robert Applebaum's "Oh, Chanukah" followed, with the Christmas classic "Away In A Manger" close behind, with soprano Jeffri Carrington carrying the soaring solo with aplomb.

One of the more obvious joys of an established choir with a strong base of supporters is the ability of that institution to operate as an incubator for new talent. The Southern Oregon Repertory Singers were joined for this event by the North Medford High School Chamber Choir, an earnest and talented group of young performers led by Kendra Taylor, herself a summa cum laude graduate of the SOU Music program and a leading voice in the repertory group.

Taylor has become something of a permanent fixture across numerous artistic disciplines in the Rogue Valley, but her core talent and passion is evident as she sensitively led her small group of emerging artists in a rendition of "The Rune of Hospitality" by Minnesota-born American composer Alf Houkom. Delicate guitar accompaniment was provided by Grant Ruiz.

The North Medford High School Chamber Choir remained with the main group for a robust rendition of Wachner's "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," with robust organ and brass accompaniment that shook the walls of the auditorium. After hearing "The Very Best Time of Year" by John Rutter, the concert came to a rollicking end with another Wachner classic, "Joy to the World," complete with sing-along from many enthusiastic patrons.

It was a fine end to a great year, and we look forward to what Southern Oregon Repertory Singers has in store for us next.

— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.