Portland State Chamber Choir records Ešenvalds’ choir work

With his keen sense of melody and harmony, as well as the ability to create captivating and absorbing choir works, it is no surprise that Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds’ compositions have delighted and enchanted both listeners and performers worldwide.

Beyond simply including his works in their repertoires, many choirs also have begun recording his works. One such example is the Portland State Chamber Choir, conducted by Ethan Sperry, who recorded an album of Ešenvalds’ compositions entitled The Doors of Heaven. Released in 2017 on the Naxos label, the CD contains four Ešenvalds choir compositions, including the larger opus ‘Passion and Resurrection’.

Ešenvalds has often been inspired by the legends of various cultures, and, on a journey to Greenland, he learned of the Inuit legend of Raven, a being who created the world, but also brought destruction to it. The work is less a song but more a story in musical form, as it retells the legend through the voices and singing of the choir. Aided by traditional instruments and singing, the choir weaves a vivid and evocative retelling of the story, particularly the thunderous and tragic ending.

Many of Ešenvalds’ journeys were specifically associated with researching the Northern Lights phenomenon, and this has been another major source of inspiration for the composer. One such work is ‘Rivers of Light’, a composition that combines Sami Scandinavian melodies with quotes from British explorers who were seeing the Northern Lights for the first time. Ešenvalds fuses these two visions into one cohesive, flowing whole, and the choir brings forth both aspects in the works, especially the wonder of the explorers.

One of Ešenvalds’ most popular and best known works, ‘A Drop in the Ocean’, has been performed and recorded by many choirs (such as the youth choir Kamēr…, as well as the Latvian Radio Choir, to name but a few). This work, based in part on writings by Mother Theresa, is a deeply spiritual composition, but also a work of great humility, as Theresa wrote that all her work was ‘nothing but a drop in the ocean’. Beginning with the Lord’s prayer, then continuing with one of St. Francis of Assisi’s prayers and sections of Psalm 55, and concluding with Mother Theresa’s writings, Ešenvalds creates a work that is at times full of peace, but also has moments of harshness, and the choir adroitly reveals all of these musical elements.

The CD concludes with the four part oratorio ‘Passion and Resurrection’, and the choir is joined by the Portland State University String Ensemble. Combining elements from a number of different sacred texts, Ešenvalds has created a unique interpretation of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Soprano Hannah Consenz gives a memorable performance, including the expression of sins as taken from the Byzantine Liturgy, which is then balanced by the choir singing about forgiveness. Ešenvalds’ music for the actual crucifixion is harrowing and terrifying, as the intensity builds and climaxes with the choir repeatedly singing ‘crucify’ in harsh and almost violent tones as the string ensemble erupts in an explosion of sound. The work concludes on a meditative note, with the choir and soprano alternating ‘Mariam’ and ‘Rabboni’.

Ešenvalds fans would also be well advised to seek out the CD Wandering Heart (2016) recorded by the Choir Leoni (Eric Lichte, Artistic director), as that album also has some of Ešenvalds works for men’s chorus (including world premiere recordings of men’s choral arrangements of some of his best known works such as ‘Stars’ and ‘Long Road’, as well as the first recording of his cycle ‘Wandering Heart’ with lyrics by the late Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen).

The Portland State Chamber Choir’s The Doors of Heaven is yet another testament of Ēriks Ešenvalds singular ability and talent to compose choir compositions that resonate with choirs and listeners all over the world. The CD will be of interest both to those well familiar with Ešenvalds’ works, as well as those discovering them for the first time. In the hands of conductor Ethan Sperry, these performances are given lives of their own, which is appropriate, considering that many of the works are retelling of stories and legends. The Doors of Heaven is both an excellent recording and a document of Ešenvalds’ compositional skills and abilities.

For further information, please visit Ēriks Ešenvalds’ website, and the Portland State Chamber Choir website.

Ēriks Ešenvalds – The Doors of Heaven

Portland State Chamber Choir
Naxos, 8.579008, 2017

Track listing:

  • 1. The First Tears
  • 2. Rivers of Light
  • 3. A Drop in the Ocean
    Passion and Resurrection
  • 4. Part I
  • 5. Part II
  • 6. Part III
  • 7. Part IV

Egils Kaljois an American-born Latvian from the New York area . Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

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