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SO Rep Singers promise lush, lavish season

What is beautiful music? It’s difficult to define and depends on whom you ask.

A heavy metal headbanger and a country music fan probably have different answers.

Southern Oregon Repertory Singers’ audiences know how music director Paul French would describe it: lush, stirring and inspiring.

It will be on full display at the SO Rep Singers’ inaugural concert of the new season, “She Walks in Beauty,” which will be performed at the Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall, 450 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland, at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 26, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27. The group is 70 voices strong.

French would agree that beauty in music is in the ear of the beholder. “In my case, it has to move me,” he said.

But when he’s programming concerts, it can’t be just about pleasing himself.

“It also has to have something to say to audiences and to the singers,” he said. “Part of what attracts me to certain choral pieces is the interplay of text and beauty of the melody.”

The opening concert sets the tone with lush, romantic music by Eric Whitacre, Eriks Esenvalds and Paul Mealor; motets from the Spanish Renaissance; and crossover music by Craig Hella Johnson and Shawn Kirchner.

Whitacre is a Grammy Award-winning composer and conductor with a worldwide fan base. His set includes three pieces.

In “A Boy and a Girl,” Whitacre finds the music hidden in the tender, delicate words of a poem by Octavio Paz.

“Sleep My Child” was part of Whitacre’s work for music theater, “Paradise Lost, Shadow and Wings.” In that show it was performed by three angels. Later, he collaborated with the American choir Chanticleer to create a soprano, alto, tenor and bass arrangement, which is part of this program.

And after reading Margaret Wise Brown’s classic “Goodnight Moon” to his son countless times, Whitacre started hearing musical fragments in his head as he read. Those fragments became the sweet choral lullaby audiences will hear on opening weekend.

Esenvalds’ set includes “O Salutaris,” an a cappella work in Latin that has been performed throughout the world, and “Ancient Prairie,” a song for choir and violin with roots in Latvia but with echoes of an American landscape.

The Mealor selection is a soaring, rhythmic composition with text from Lord Byron’s poem, “She Walks in Beauty.” The Welsh composer creates images in the music that reflect the poem’s description of a woman who is both strikingly beautiful and dark.

The program’s crossover music includes “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” a tune by Dolly Parton that first appeared on her 1977 “New Harvest First Gathering” album. The song came out of her break with longtime musical and business partner Porter Wagoner. She left Wagoner’s band in 1974 to aim her career in a more mainstream pop direction.

Other concerts on SO Rep Singers’ 2019-20 calendar include “December Clear and Bright” on Dec. 21-22; “First Light,” the James M. Collier festival of new works, Feb. 29 and March 1; and “Alexander’s Feast: The Power of Music,” May 16-17.

French fills the yuletide concert with music of the season. “I find a mix of carols from around the world, most of them unfamiliar to audiences,” he said. “For that concert, we’ll also have accompaniment on the harp, violin, flute, piano and organ.”

Highlight of the “First Light Festival” will be “A Sheen of Dew on Flowers,” a new cantata by English composer Joby Talbot.

“It premiered in April in London,” French said. “Ours will be one of the first performances in the world.”

The London performance celebrated the bi-centenary of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s birth. In the work, Talbot sets rare and sensual poetry from across several millenia.

A large orchestra will share the stage at “First Light,” including up to eight percussion players. There will be two guest soloists.

“We’re pleased to have Kelly O’Connor, the same mezzo soprano who performed in the London premiere, join us,” French said. The Grammy Award-winning singer is acclaimed for her performances of the classical music cannon as well as new works of modern masters.

Also appearing will be Julliard graduate and rising new star Tobias Greenhalgh, a baritone who is equally at home in opera and musical theater.

“Alexander’s Feast” is the final concert of the season. An oratorio by Georg Friedrich Handel, it’s based on a poem by John Dryden in praise of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.

“We’ll perform it with a period orchestra of baroque specialists drawn from across the country,” French said. “It’s a lavish piece and absolutely delightful.”

Program details and tickets are available online at repsingers.org or by calling 541-552-0900. Ticket prices range from $15 to $36; or $5 at the door for students with ID and Oregon Trail Card holders, depending on availability. Season tickets are also available.

Jim Flint is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Conductor Paul French leads the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers in an annual series of concerts. Photo by Christopher Briscoe