Joining an amateur choir might not be a typical tourist activity, but Portland isn’t a typical destination. (And if you just want to attend an amazing Portland choir concert, that’s doable, too!) These three Portland choir groups take the art of singing to new places, creating community and unity in troubled times.
The Low Bar Chorale
When David Bowie died in early 2016, a friend sent Kate Sokoloff a video of 550 people gathered in Toronto to sing “Space Oddity.”
“I wanted to do it so badly,” says Sokoloff, a brand strategist from a musical family who loves to sing. She called Ben Landsverk, a Portland musician and experienced choral director, and together they organized a 200-person singalong at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) — complete with handclaps and harmonies.
After it was over, people wanted more. Low Bar Chorale was formed: a drop-in pop chorus that meets twice monthly at Revolution Hall. Led by Landsverk, who Sokoloff describes as “the Mr. Rogers of cool musicians,” the group belts out songs by artists like Lady Gaga, Duran Duran and Portland-based rockers Portugal. The Man. The only requirement to participate? A desire to sing.
“The medium is something that’s super accessible, and everyone’s welcome,” says Sokoloff. “Just being together and doing something with all these people of different shapes and sizes and sexual orientations and musical tastes — it’s light in spirit but has significance at the same time.”
While the Low Bar Chorale’s motto, “We’re just OK,” reflects its non-intimidating approach to singing with a group, the truth is that the choir sounds much better than “just OK.” Each session is backed by a band featuring talented Portland musicians (Hawks and Doves guitarist Jordan Richter and Blind Pilot keyboardist Dave Jorgensen are core members), and Landsverk gently guides the 50-or-so voices into harmony.
“There’s not a lot of places that people can go and have that feeling of being a part of something bigger than themselves,” says Sokoloff. “We’d love to have the city think of us as their crazy chorus.”
Nina Simone once said that an artist’s duty is to reflect the times. That perspective is shared by Katherine FitzGibbon, who, as artistic director of the professional Portland choir Resonance Ensemble, leads powerful vocal performances that examine issues of social justice.
“We have the power to create a sense of empathy among our listeners,” she says. An Associate Professor of Music at Lewis & Clark College, FitzGibbon formed Resonance Ensemble in 2009. “Just as music can be used as propaganda in negative ways, it can be used in powerful, glorious ways, helping people understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.”
Featuring a range of highly skilled Pacific Northwest musicians, Resonance performs four times a year. Their eclectic concerts mix various musical styles, including classical choral, opera excerpts and cabaret.
At their June 2018 performance (an official Pride Northwest event titled “Bodies”), the ensemble explored gender identity and sexual orientation through compositions by LGBTQ+ artists, including work about marriage equality by Dominick DiOrio. The concert culminated in an arrangement of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.”
Other themed shows have delved into topics such as racial inequality and the common threads between Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
“It’s our mission to make sure the music is connecting with people, both experienced choir goers and music novices,” says FitzGibbon. “There’s a visceral thrill of being in a room and hearing these amazing voices being so expressive together.”
Marion Van Namen believes that singing is a birthright.
“It brings the world together,” says the former music therapist and teacher, who leads Sing Portland!, the community choir she founded in 2013. “I started it because the world is a better place if we all sing together.”
At a Sing Portland! session members start by standing in a circle. There is no sheet music; Van Namen uses call and response, first creating rhythms, then vocal sounds and harmonies. “The music is alive because the harmonies are there right away,” she says. “There is almost no intellectual process — it’s very liberating and natural.”
Van Namen leads the group in stretches to warm their bodies before delving into uplifting world music, gospel, spiritual and folk songs. Sing Portland! participants also enjoy being sung to. Drawing on her music therapy background, Van Namen encourages those in need of nourishment to lay down on the floor and surrender to the music (an exercise called a “choral bath”).
Sing Portland’s adult choir is offered seasonally in 10-week terms, with weekly rehearsals. (No auditions or experience required.) Van Namen also leads drop-in vocal improv sessions, where visitors can join the group in making up music on the spot.
“It’s warm and welcoming and a lot of fun,” says Van Namen. “People say I do magic with them.”
Sing Portland! rates, locations and other info can be found at singportland.com.