Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Portland Symphonic Choir sings past acoustical challenges in performance of Mozart’s Requiem and O’Regan’s “Triptych”

Tarik O'Regan

Just over a week ago, on Sunday afternoon (November 9th) at St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Portland Symphonic Choir performed Mozart’s Requiem and Tarik O’Regan’s “Triptych.” With a large chorus (almost 140 voices) and an orchestra, there could have been an acoustical disaster in St. Mary's, But fortunately the choir, trained impeccably by Artistic Director and Condutor Steven Zopfi, was in top form for both works.

For many listeners, Mozart’s Requiem is comfort food to the ears, one of those all-time great chorale works that soothes the soul. The Portland Symphonic Choir gave a fantastic performance, with excellence in diction, dynamics, balance, and tonal quality. It was just too bad that they had to sing this work in a space that is so boomy. The music would have had more of a personal touch if the choir could have stood closer to the audience, but the immovable altar in St. Mary's prevents that. Still, there was much to admire, including Angela Niederloh’s warm mezzo and Robert McPherson’s vibrant tenor. Emily Kalteich’s soprano voice needed more conviction, and Kevin Helppie’s baritone was lovely, yet his voice was overrun by the trombonist during the “Tuba mirum” movement.

The orchestra played well, but the sound became a little muddled during the faster sections. This may have been caused by poor sightlines, because the musicians were spread over different levels. Zophi chose tempos and dynamics that fit the nave as well as possible, and the audience responded enthusiastically after the final notes settled to the floor.

The pleasant surprise of the concert was Tarik O’Regan’s “Triptych.” O’Regan is a British composer (born in 1978), whose works have resonated well with audiences. His music, represented in a discography of 25 albums, has received two Grammy nominations and two British Composer awards.

“Triptych” is an engaging, tonal piece in three movements that deals with death from several perspectives. The first movement, “Threnody” discusses the presence of death and that it is not to be feared. It includes text from William Penn, Muhammad Rajab Al-Bayuoumi (an Egyptian poet), William blake, and Psalm 133 of the Bible. Vocal lines were threaded together in enticing ways that seemed to blend a Middle Eastern sound with a hint of Minimalism.

The second movement, “As We Remember Them” began with a plaintive solo, sung poignantly by soprano Margaret Braun with very little vibrato, followed by a response from various sections of the choir (women, men, or both). For example, Braun sang “In the rising of the sun and at its going down,” and the choir sang “we remember them.” This style and the words (from Roland Gittelsohn’s “The Gates of Repentance”) were hauntingly effective. After an orchestral interlude, in which the strings were unfortunately not quite together, the Braun delicately intoned “And the Heav’nly Quire stood mute, And silence was in Heav’n” from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

The orchestra and chorus picked up steam heading into the third movement, “From Heaven Distilled a Clemency.” Phrases from Indian Bundahishn, the Persian Sufi mystic Rumi, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Hardy made up the textual fabric. Some phrases that were repeated had an appealing rhythmic urgency. The commotion cleared out briefly so that we could hear Braun wistfully sing of “peace on earth, and silence in the sky” before the choir and orchestra returned with full force to drive home the words “Why then should I be afraid? I shall die once again to rise an angel blest.” That brought the listeners out of their seats with heartfelt applause.

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