“One thing that is true about human beings—it doesn’t matter what time period or where on the Earth—every civilization that we know of has gotten together to sing,” said Ethan Sperry, director of choral activities at Portland State.
PSU’s Man Choir, Vox Femina and University Choir will be singing songs from around the world for their fourth annual Global Rhythms concert on May 29. The choirs will be joined by percussionist Brian Davis of Pink Martini.
The concert will feature voice and drum music from 10 countries around the world. Some of the featured music will be from Argentina, Brazil, Estonia, Haiti, the Philippines, South Africa and the United States.
The concert will have five different PSU composers and around 130 singers with all three choir groups combined.
Man Choir is composed of all men, as you may have guessed. They are an audition-only vocal group that was founded in 2011 by Sperry, who is also the director of Man Choir’s 40 members, give or take.
Vox Femina, on the other hand, is an all-female, auditioned choir composed of mostly vocal and music education majors.
Joan Szymko, associate director of choral activities, directs Vox Femina, which was also started in 2011 when PSU added select men’s and women’s choirs to the vocal music department. They also have around 40 members.
“I do think that the single-gendered choirs offer the singers an opportunity to relax more into being themselves,” Szymko said. “Having directed women’s choirs for many years, I’ve seen value placed on personal connections with the stories behind the words that are sung.”
The division of men and women is not so unusual in choir. According to Sperry, the music just sounds different.
“Having both single-gender choirs allows for a variety in the choral program and a sense of community among singers with closely related or similar voice types,” said Sterling Roberts, one of five conductors for the concert.
PSU’s University Choir will be singing as well. With about 70 members, the university choir is not only made up of music majors but a diverse group of students across campus.
“We are a pretty serious classical music school, but when it comes down to singing, this is something that just connects people, and plugging into the music of some other culture from some other time period helps make the world smaller, helps bring some understanding,” Sperry said.
The concert will be backed by the drumming of Davis leading several student percussionists. Davis is from the band Pink Martini, a 12-person Portland orchestra that performs all over the world and features influences of jazz, classical and old-fashioned pop.
They got their start in 1994 when their first hit, “Sympathique,” was a huge sensation in France, and was even nominated for song of the year by France’s Victories de la Musique awards.
Davis was raised in Portland and teaches samba and body percussion throughout the West Coast, and is the founder and director of Lions of Batucada, a Brazilian dance and percussion ensemble. Davis plays a variety of Latin percussion instruments.
Global Rhythms IV is expected to be about an hour and a half long and will be comprised of around 20 songs.
Szymko and Roberts will be conducting Vox Femina; Sperry and Jason Sabino will conduct Man Choir; and Roberts, Sabino and Jaron Christman will conduct the university choir. Szymko also composed two of the songs that Vox Femina will perform.
Throughout the concert, conductors will be switching out, back and forth, as will the different choral groups.
“It’s a lot of really fun music, [and] a good way to hear what other cultures have to offer music-wise,” said Lila Yang, who sings alto two for Vox Femina.
Yang said they will be singing in many different languages as well.
“The main piece I’m conducting with Vox Femina in the concert comes from the Dominican Republic,” said Roberts, a graduate-level teacher’s assistant. “It describes the Mangulina, which is derived from a Spanish heel-tapping dance, and incorporates the güira, a metal scraper played with a metal fork, and tamborra, a double-headed drum.”
Global Rhythms IV will be Sabino’s last concert. A graduate student as well, he will complete his master’s of music in June.
“I’m very excited for the next stage in life, but it’s going to be bittersweet,” Sabino said. “The choral department has been a wonderful community and family, and I’m proud to be part of the legacy. I’m sad to leave, but I’ll continue supporting the choral department in any way I can in the future.”