High school choir aims for first state berth in 7 years

Sean C. Morgan

It’s been quite a while since Sweet Home High School’s Symphonic Choir has qualified to go to the state championships.

This year there’s a lot of hope in the choir room. The Symphonic Choir last week scored well enough in choral competition at Lebanon High School to earn a spot in the state choral competition, though it didn’t actually make it due to a technicality.

But another opportunity awaits.

To receive an automatic invite to the OSAA state competition, conducted by the Oregon Music Educators Association, a choir must score well enough and win in its division. Absent a win, choirs with qualifying scores must submit a recording for evaluation, with an invite to state possible. The group is called the “tape pool.”

Choir teacher Duncan Tuomi said his singers were disqualified on a technicality when the choir came up 20 seconds short of the required length for their performance at the Lebanon competition, held on March 21.

Had the choir not been disqualified, it actually scored well enough to qualify for state although it did not finish first among 4A schools at the event, which would have qualified it for the tape pool.

Results are blind, Tuomi said, so he doesn’t know exactly how the competing schools placed. He expected that Corvallis was most likely the overall winner, although West Albany was a possibility. Sweet Home was ranked fifth among 11 total schools, which included 5A and 6A choirs.

“We’ve competed every year,” said Tuomi, who is in his second year teaching at SHHS.

The last year Sweet Home qualified for state was 2012, after placing second in state the previous year.

Current Symphonic Choir members are Christian Black, David Briggs, Shelbie Brown, Justin Buchanan, Kylee Ceccato, Nadia Chumsri, CeCe Cloud, Carrie Collins, Haylee Collins, Jandy Drake, Ashley Farthing, Aubrie Furst, Seth Gaylord, Shelby Goodwin, Braden Greene, Mariah Harrington, Holly Lester, Baillie Majors, Kassandra Matney, Colby Montigue, Benjamin Mull, Jackson Musgrove, Cedar Paris, Karla Perez, Alisa Rouse, Jessica Sanderson, Tatiana Tolman, Abigail Underwood, Kirstin Weippert, Angeleah Williams, Ronald Wilson, Bradley Wolthuis and Bekah Woody.

Their performance at Lebanon leaves Tuomi optimistic. He plans to stretch the length of the program as he takes the choir to Roseburg on April 4, where he expects his singers to qualify for state.

This one will be a new festival, Tuomi said, so he is unfamiliar with the competition and the contestants.

“We have a very decent chance based on the quality of our ensemble,” he said. “If our act is long enough, we have the capability of going to state. We are at that level.”

Senior choir member Jackson Musgrove said he is happy, “excited,” with where the Symphonic Choir is at this year.

“I’m really, really happy in comparison to how we were doing just a week ago,” he said last week.

The choir is performing the same set list it performed during its “Songs of Springtime” concert on March 13: “Weep O Mine Eyes,” by John Bennett; “Danny Boy,” arranged by Joseph Flummerfelt; “Ohtul,” by Part Uusberg; “Sisi Ni Moja,” by Jacob Narverud.

“‘Weep O Mine Eyes’ is a 16th century madrigal that features a lot of polyphonics,” with many different parts throughout the piece, Tuomi said. Combined with its harmonic tension, it creates a deeply melancholic feel.

The poet melodramatically says he wants to cry so, so much, he could drown in it, Tuomi said. The meaning is debated, but the most common interpretation is that it is about unrequited love. A more modern interpretation is a commentary on the state of mental health, how depression or a suicidal situation is handled, “a beautiful means of expression for a topic that has a lot of potential to be very dark – to express anguish in a healthy way.”

“Danny Boy” was originally written to a different tune, Tuomi said. Over time, it was set to “Londonderry Air.” The exact historical context of the text is debated, but many believe it was written from the perspective of a parent singing to a child called off to war.

“Danny Boy” itself was written around 1918, the same time that Ireland was gathering support to separate from Great Britain, Tuomi said. Since its origin, it has more often been used as a sign of familiar love and pride in Irish heritage.

He included it in the March 13 performance because the concert occurred close to St. Patrick’s Day, Tuomi said, and it contains elements of departure, the fall, and returning, the spring, themes of life after loss and love after death.

“‘Ohtul’ is our only piece that’s entirely in a foreign language,” Tuomi said. “It’s in Estonian.”

Tuomi said he fell in love with Estonian music during high school, when he worked with an Estonian director.

At the end of the Cold War, Estonia was Soviet territory moving toward independence, he said. “There was this great tradition of music festivals in Estonia.”

When tanks rolled into Estonia in 1991, the culmination of the four-year “Singing Revolution,” a series of protests and acts of defiance, they were impeded by a musical people acting as human shields, Tuomi said. It was a great show of resistance to the Soviet tanks meant to quell Estonian progress toward independence.

“They were essentially pushed back” by music, he said. It’s that history that drives Tuomi toward Estonian music.

Tuomi discovered the song and its composer during a workshop, he said.

“I wasn’t certain I would be able to do it with this choir.”

The piece is complex and has the most parts of any song in the choir’s set, he said. Each of the four traditional parts are broken into two different parts, for a total of eight parts.

It sets the beauty of evening, described in an Ernst Enno poem, using flowing choral homophony and close harmony, Tuomi said. It follows the ebb and flow of life, with all things connected to music.

The final lines, in English, may be heard as the vocal parts each leave the texture, with the final tenor line carrying the melody associated with the final line of text fading into the distance, Tuomi said The final lines: “They are wistful for my song, now a wistful memory, as it paddles far away.”

“It always elicits a long pause (between the end) and the beginning of the applause,” Tuomi said. “That’s the most powerful moment – the space between the music and applause when you feel the room breathe the song and process it.”

Even if the words cannot be understood, the music communicates the meaning, he said.

The writer of “Sisi Ni Moja,” Narverud is typically associated with choral pop songs, Tuomi said. He encountered the song during a workshop, and he hated it.

In music selection, it’s referred to as a “words and music by” song, Tuomi said. “It’s very rare that a ‘words and music by’ piece is good. Chorally, it can be good, but the text is just garbage.”

The messages are ham-handed, he said, but as he processed this piece, he began to appreciate it. Working through it, he began to see how it was harmonically connected to the text, a theme of unity. Lyrics like, “we are one” and “we stand together” are sung in unison.

“It begins to make sense from a musical standpoint,” Tuomi said.

“If we make it to state, this will be the set we perform,” Tuomi said. The choir will also perform the set during its trip to Seattle, Wash., April 6-7 – the first out-of-state trip for the choir in six years.