Monday, November 17, 2008

Ken Selden Leads the PSU Symphony and Choirs in an Ambitious Program

Ken Selden, Artistic Director of the Portland State University Symphony, led this group as well as the combined forces of the highly-regarded PSU Chamber and University Choirs in a concert cryptically entitled Avatar at St. Mary's Academy in Portland on Friday evening, November 14th. The program presented a diverse range of selections, with the U.S. premier of noted Portland composer Bryan Johanson's short sketch Fresco, as well as the West Coast premier of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Bach Measures. The main event of the evening was Beethoven's Mass in C Major, Op. 86.

Listening to Johanson's Fresco (the composer was on hand to receive the accolades), it is easy to hear why he is one of Portland's most sought-after composers of modern classical music. Though around only three minutes in length, what a breathless, exciting few minutes it was! The opening--honking, block chords from the entire orchestra interspersed with rapid runs on the strings, soon gave way to a chattering responsory between orchestra and the skilled Douglas Schneider on the organ. Extreme contrasts in dynamics, outbursts of frenetic, occasionally ominous syncopation from the percussion battery and shrieking exclamations by the winds ran out suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving an appreciative but somewhat surprised audience wishing for more.

Birtwistle's Bach Measures consisted of eight Bach chorale preludes for the organ transcribed for all manner of combinations in a modest chamber ensemble. The tunes of the chorales were in no way hidden or muddled by any sort of odd harmonization or radical reworking; for a piece that heard the juxtaposition of a delicate flute against squawking, muted trombones, as well as pairings of percussion, piano, winds and string quartet, in spirit this work remained surprisingly true to Bach's originals. The first few went off very well, as the ensemble was able to retain the delicate flavor of Bach's counterpoint in bohemian arrangements from the tender to the schmaltzy that were somehow strangely satisfying.

About the fourth or fifth prelude though, the piece began to suffer from intonation issues and what seemed to be a wandering focus, or perhaps an imprecise understanding of the overall outworking of the melodic motives as they were handed off from instrument to instrument, section to section. At times it was obvious that the fugal layering was a bit much for the group to handle; there were moments (as all who have performed intricate polyphony are probably familiar with) when it seemed the focus of each player was solely upon the horizontal outworking of his or her part, and it was not in sync enough for the vertical realization to pan out. The piece ended with a gentle string quartet on the famous Durch Adam's Fall ist ganz verderbt that somewhat redeemed the confusion of the preceding preludes.

Beethoven's Mass in C Major went off well for the most part: there were very excellent moments from the orchestra, punctuated here and there by some that fell flat. The choirs (led by Stephen Coker) are to be praised for their excellent diction, which was very clear and betrayed an understanding of the pronunciation of Germanicized Latin. It was a large force of singers, which occasionally overshadowed the orchestra but for the most part there was a good blend between choir and orchestra. Both singers and instrumentalists approached the fugal entrances of the Benedictus with confidence, and the solemn grandeur of the closing Agnus Dei was convincing.

The female soloists, soprano Anna Viemeister and mezzo Kirsten Hart, were well up to the task, but the male soloists, tenor Michael Sarnoff-Wood and bass Jeremy Griffin, were difficult to hear most of the time. The quartet moments, such as the end of the Credo, were quite lovely, but I'm not sure I'd have been able to hear the male leads had I not been sitting more or less directly in front of them. Their voices were good, their musicality sound--it was just a question of volume. Soloists of note were Kirsten Hart, whose robust, warm tone shimmered with just the right amount of power at all times, yet hinting at much more in reserve, and oboist Kirsten Saul, who displayed delicious gentility of phrase during the sing-song interjections punctuating the later portions of the mass. Ken Selden did a great job of giving his orchestra real meat to chew on, rich in learning experiences, and they should feel good about the performance they gave.

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