Friday, October 30, 2015

Portland Symphonic Choir celebrates 70th year with sonic blast

The Portland Symphonic Choir, founded in the autumn of 1945, celebrated its 70th anniversary with a festive concert on Sunday afternoon (October 25) at Rose City Park United Methodist Church. The program, which featured a variety of chorale works, also brought together alumni of the choir (including this reviewer) and previous artistic directors – Frank Holman, David Wilson, and Bruce Browne – who shared conducting duties with the choir’s current AD, Steven Zopfi. (Each conductor was introduced with a pertinent anecdote by a member of the choir.) The church was full, and the mood was cheery as members of the 120-voice choir took their places across the front of the sanctuary.

Taking advantage of the church’s lively acoustic, the choir excelled whenever a forte was demanded. It also honed a rich texture, crisp diction, and an excellent blend, especially in the first selection, Mendelssohn’s “Hymn of Praise” (“Lobgesang”), which was conducted by Frank Holman (the choir’s AD from 1963 to 1973). Accompanied by organist Douglas Schneider, the singers impressively handled an exposed a capella section very well with no slippage in pitch, and the piece ended majestically.

David Wilson, the choir’s AD from 1973 to 1978, guided the choir in an uplifting performance of Bruckner’s Psalm 150. Lovely contributions by Schneider on piano, violinist Camilla Scott, and soprano soloist Kareah Nicoson fit wonderfully into the texture of the piece, but the big build-up with the “Halleluja” rang marvelously into the rafters. Wilson also led the choir in a soft and soothing interpretation of the “Agnus Dei” from Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna.”

Next to the podium was Bruce Brown, the choir’s AD from 1979 to 2001. He changed things up a bit by reaching back to the Baroque period with Andrea Gabrieli’s “Magnificat.” Dividing themselves into four separate choirs, the singers conquered the lively acoustic that got even livelier because they were accompanied by a small chamber ensemble consisting of strings and brass. That was followed by a spirited performance, with Schneider at the piano, of “Behold! I Build An House” by Lukas Foss.

Under Zopfi, the choir sang “The Heart’s Reflection,” a new piece by up and coming composer Daniel Elder. Taking its text from Proverb’s 27:19 (“Just as water reflects the face, so one human heart reflects another”), the music explored the words with many rippling harmonic layers. The soprano section of the choir really sounded terrific in this piece as did the basses who went deep into the basement for some of their notes. The choir’s performance of Hubert Parry’s “I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me” was quite thrilling, with Schneider scaling up the volume of the organ and the choir matching it with grand fortes.

For the final number, alums of the choir were invited to come forward and sing the “Halleluja” from Beethoven’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives.” I got to join in on the fun, and I think that we created a glorious sound that helped to cap the concert with a sonic boom of sorts.

Overall, it seemed that the size of the choir was still too big for the lively acoustic of the church. I had the feeling that the singers had to hold back their sound even in the loudest passages. If they had given a real double forte, then the varnish might have peeled off of the pews.

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