Ryan Heller will touch your knee.
And, if in the course of conversation, the 29-year-old conductor gets especially excited about this composer or that singer, words like “enthralling” and “darling” may spill out of his animated mouth.
Heller is a larger-than-life impresario with the drive of a Mack truck. Fresh from running between two states to rehearse at least three ensembles that week, he’s arrived on a Saturday afternoon ready to gush about his newest baby, the Portland Vocal Consort. The ensemble debuts this weekend.
There’s an old-school flamboyance about Heller, as he punctuates our chat with flinging wrists and generous laughs. “I tend to lead by charisma and force of personality,” he says.
Heller has reason for excitement. This latest dream project, a fully professional Portland-based chamber choir, launches Friday night with an ambitious program of music from four centuries, from Palestrina and Poulenc to Bruckner and Lauridsen. While adding another group to Portland’s flush choral scene, Heller knows he has to find a signature for his ensemble. “I’ll leave the chant to Cantores and the Russian liturgical music to Cappella,” he says, referencing two of the top choral groups he could be contending with in town: “I’m looking to probe a little deeper into the demands of the singers.”
The 18 singers he’s recruited are what he calls “red hots”: the better young singers emerging from local colleges, as well as seasoned pros. Heller envisions this consort as a “truly professional choir” in the future, and one that would include residencies, touring and recording as part of its portfolio.
This type of close-knit ensemble work flips a switch for the conductor. “There’s something about people working close together that’s really hot,” he says. “It turns me on.” It’s then that I notice Heller’s smart black shirt is unbuttoned pretty low, with a few dark chest hairs spilling out.
After slaving away with amateur groups in the region, Heller could make his mark with the consort. Though he loves working with amateur musicians, “you get a lot of this,” he says, and pats his chest above his heart. “But it’s great with groups like the consort to get all of this,” and his hands swerve at the air, “too.”
HEAR IT: St. Philip Neri Paulist Center, 2408 SE 16th Ave., 209-7539. 8 pm Friday, Nov. 16. $10.