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A glorious evening of new choral music

"First Light: The James M. Collier Festival of New Choral Music," a new music showcase held at the Oregon Center for the Arts on March 3 and 4, was as much a testament to new music and the exposure of the public to new music as it was to community spirit in Ashland and her environs.

For some long years, Dr. Paul French has championed new classical composition as a critical component in the evolution of music and in the ability of arts organizations to bring new audiences into the fold, as well as to offer something fresh for longtime subscribers to enjoy. The muscular financial assistance of local super-patron Jim Collier, combined with French's unbridled energy and enthusiasm for invigorating ideas and evolved programming, culminated in a Saturday evening of bright and beautiful choral music by a range of composers — a night that included no fewer than three commissioned premieres, two Oregon premieres, and a North American premiere.

The Southern Oregon Repertory Singers were joined variously by the North Medford High School Treble Choir, the South Medford High School Treble Choir, and the Southern Oregon University Chamber Choir. Soloists were prominently featured, as was robust percussion and lively orchestration throughout much of the show, with an occasional foray into gentler (and perhaps more academic) studies on the soprano voice, with particularly elegant vocal contributions by Jeffri Lynn Carrington, Jen Matsuura, Shelly Cox-Thornhill and Lindsay Panero.

Many in the audience were crying by the end of the night, and the evening felt like a kind of homecoming for numerous people involved, and a bittersweet one at that. On the one hand, the event represented the fruition of an idea long championed by French. The concert was recorded for purchase, and it is likely that "Made in Oregon" (a broadcast of musical events in the state) may air it. Chocolates and sparkling wine were served during a good-natured intermission. At the same time, the evening was cited as a homage to Michael Wing, the longtime choir director at St. Mary’s High School, who died just 11 days before he was to perform in this show.

Work of Will Todd, the English composer and pianist, was prominently featured at the concert in the form of "The Lord is my Shepherd" and "Stay with Me, Lord," being heard for the first time in Oregon. Ēriks Ešenvalds — the Latvian sacred music composer who is a favorite of French's and has recorded for the Decca and Deutsche Grammophon labels — had his "Gavilējiet tam Kungam" premiered for North America, in addition to a haunting and exquisite rendition of his "Only in Sleep," sung by Ms. Matsuura, whose voice was a highlight of the evening.

Southern Oregon University's own Jodi French debuted two commissioned premiers of her own, "First Light" and "Unquenchable Light," both of which were sublime devotional works that seemed to resonate deeply with a standing-room only crowd. American composer Craig Kingsbury's "Soft Stillness of the Night" was beautifully rendered by the assembled artists, and a selection from Sir James MacMillan's "Strathclyde Motets" — "Data est mihi omnis potestas" — was robustly gorgeous.

In all, the night was another example of French's particular gift for bringing high culture and local sensibilities together for an evening of stellar performances and genial audience response. This was the first in a series of annual festivals that will showcase contemporary composition at the Oregon Center for the Arts. The standard has been set, it's a high one, and we hope to see much more work of this quality in the years to come from French and his supporters.

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