News Column

Morten Lauridsen, choral star, in Portland for large-scale concert

November 4, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 04--Morten Lauridsen looks like Robinson Crusoe: untamed hair, bushy beard. Lives alone on a remote island. But Lauridsen is no castaway. He's the country's most frequently performed choral composer, even if you haven't heard of him. It's not like choral composers show up on TMZ.

But if you listen to choirs, or sing in one, you probably know his name. Lauridsen, 70 and a Beaverton native, is "one of the few living composers whom I would call great," says poet Dana Gioia, past chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

On Saturday, Nov. 9, 250 singers from five local choirs will perform an all-Lauridsen program that includes some of his greatest works. The choirs are the Lake Grove Presbyterian Sanctuary Choir, Lewis & Clark Cappella Nova and Community Chorale and the Marylhurst Chorale and Choral Union. Lauridsen will rehearse with the choirs in advance and accompany them in several works on the piano.

"Lux Aeterna" is one piece on the program all 250 singers will perform. It's a work of great power, but great simplicity, too, a Lauridsen signature. Chantlike spirituality occasionally rises in spiky dissonance. Nothing about his music is edgy or avant-garde.

The work is personal to Lauridsen, who writes about it: "I composed 'Lux Aeterna' in response to my Mother's final illness and found great personal comfort and solace in setting to music these timeless and wondrous words about Light, a universal symbol of illumination at all levels--spiritual, artistic, and intellectual."

He has also said this about the piece: "I didn't want to write an elitist piece that only the very best choirs in the world could perform. I wanted to write a piece that would be within reach of many people, many performers. It's a piece with a message, and I didn't want to complicate that message with complicated musical language."

I've been a fan of Lauridsen's music since I first heard it 19 years ago when the former Portland choir Choral Cross-Ties performed his song cycle "Les Chansons des Roses." I looked over at Lauridsen, who was sitting in the audience, eyes closed, a fitting way to absorb the music's extravagant beauty.

At the closing notes of the concert, I couldn't really speak, I was so moved.

Some details of his background: He's taught composition at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music for 40 years. In 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts named him an "American Choral Master" and in 2007, President Bush gave him a National Medal of Arts "for his composition of radiant choral works combining musical beauty, power and spiritual depth that have thrilled audiences worldwide."

His works have been recorded on more than 200 CDs, five of which have received Grammy nominations.

In contrast to his LA job and a busy career coaching choirs around the world in his music, he finds his musical voice on Waldron Island (pop. 104) in the San Juans. He lives alone in a renovated general store that overlooks Puget Sound, on the same beach he wandered as a boy. As he says in a 2012 film about his life and music, "Shining Night: A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen," it's a place that means a great deal to him, and therefore, to us.

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(c)2013 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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