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Harmonious Voices, Dissonant Notes

Drama, tension and beauty are all at the heart of “Bright Orb of Harmony,” the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers' first concert of their 29th season. The program is designed to take audiences on a lively and emotional journey, offering a variety of songs in styles that range from traditional baroque to 21st-century experimental and Chinese folk songs. While the musical styles are different, the use of dissonant notes, notes that are outside of the chords, is remarkably similar. The result is music that creates tension in some cases and lyrical beauty in others.

“It's amazing how music from different eras and different cultures can speak the same language,” says SORS artistic director and conductor Paul French. “The music is intense and powerful and just grabs you.”

“Bright Orb of Harmony” will be presented at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26, in the Music Recital Hall on the Southern Oregon University campus, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland. The performance will be preceded by a free one-hour lecture. Tickets cost $22, $25 or $29 and can be purchased at Music Coop, Paddington Station, at www.repsingers.org or by calling 541-552-0900.

French got the idea for the concert after listening to a CD that juxtaposed the music of baroque composers and 18th-century Romantic-era composers.

“It hit me how similar these very different composers were in their use of dissonant notes to create tension and add drama in the music,” French says. “I thought this would make a great concert.”

French ran with the idea and selected songs full of color and nuance.

“I love harmony and voices in harmony,” French says. “The composers we selected offer a rich palette, and the audience is going to love it.”

Selections will span centuries and include the music by 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis, 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell and 19th-century German composer Josef Rheinberger.

“These composers use dissonance to create expressive tensions,” French says, “while other concert pieces, such as those by French composers, will use the same notes to create color, sensuality and pleasure.”

French says audiences will be especially pleased with a piece by 37-year-old Latvian composer Erik Esenvalds, “Stars,” which sets to music a poem by American poet Sara Teasdale.

“Esenvalds is one of the young guns. He's a brilliant writer who has taken the music world by storm,” French says. “The piece adds an accompaniment of tuned wine glasses. It's very cool. The choir plays the wine glasses, and there is this gorgeous crystalline harmony around them.”

The concert will also include examples of the Chinese approach toward harmony.

“While most Western music is based on an eight-note scale, Chinese music is traditionally based on a five-note scale, which creates music that is less goal-driven. It's slower and meditative,” French says.

French adds that all the Chinese folk songs are lovely, but he expects the piece titled “Spring Dreams” will become an audience favorite.

“It's about the coming of spring, so the choir will be making bird calls and little clicking noises with their tongues, and sounds that represent nature in transition. It's pretty wild, and very different.”

Violinist John McGrosso of the Arianna String Quartet will join the small instrumental ensemble. McGrosso is a former artist in residence at the Britt Festival with close ties to the community. 

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com

Paul French, conductor and artistic director for the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers. PHOTO BY BOB PENNELL / REVELS.