Sunday, April 16, 2017

Oregon Symphony and Portland Symphonic Choir deliver a fine Mozart Requiem

Stephen Zopfi
Monday night, April 10, saw the final OSO performance of the Mozart Requiem by a Stephen Zopfi-trained Portland Symphonic Choir, as he has announced his retirement from the PSC as of the end of this season. Guest conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni also led the group in An arrangement of Purcell's Chacony in G-minor, and Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements.

The Chacony, arranged by Joby Talbott, was a fascinating beginning. It was lovely and haunting, presaging the Mozart in its ominous glory. The copious use of bells, including bowed crotales, lent a  slightly cacophonous atmosphere to the piece, as dissonances held and then suddenly dissipated.

The first movement of the Stravinsky featured excellent, often subtle but important work for for the piano, following a sort of monstrous plodding opening. The OSO rendered this work as peripatetic and delightfully strange. Stravinsky must have loved the bassoon considering all the tasty arts he wrote for it over the years, and the OSO bassoonists did not disappoint.  Zeitouni guided the orchestra through difficult shoals in this piece, showing himself to be a capable leader.

As is Zopfi's wont, the PSC sang Mozart's iconic Requiem in D Minor using Germanicized Latin, different in many respects from the usual Church Latin, but the correct choice for this performance. There were balance problems with the choir and orchestra initially, with the sopranos and altos sublimated to the orchestra, but these issues were shortly remedied. Soprano soloist Katie Van Kooten set the standard early, scything through the thick orchestral texture without over-delivery.

By the Kyrie, the balance problems with choir and orchestra were largely resolved, and it was full and forceful.  The Dies Irae featured marvelous diction from the chorus (as did the whole work by and large).  Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke wowed during the Tuba Mirum, and the Rex Tremendae featured a delicious, knock-you-out of your seat 'Rex!' one of many features showing just how well the PSC knows this work.

The soloists, all fine singers individually, left something to be desired by way of ensemble performance. Van Kooten sometimes overpowered the other voices, but really left me wishing that the others could have stepped up to her level of sound production, as she was wonderful to hear. Nevertheless, balance and blend was sometimes lost.

The Confutatis and the Lacrimosa must surely be among the most satisfying choral movements ever, both in terms of performing them and listening to them, and the PSC thrived in this moment. The sopranos and altos execution of sighing, weeping motives, the bass and tenors thundering out the fearful dream of hellfire--the most anticipated moments of the evening lived up to their centuries-old hype and were everything a listener could wish for.

The Requiem shone as a collection of discrete movements, and because of the quality of the movements (obviously mostly because of Mozart but Levin's gold-standard completion should not be forgotten) this was not a bad thing to hear; quite the opposite.  Somehow, emotionally it didn't pull fully together as a cohesive whole; given the quality of sound from both choir and orchestra it felt as though Zeitouni did not quite get it done as he did the first half of the evening, and ensemble problems from the soloists did not help.

As a final note, Stephen Zopfi's contribution to Portland's choral community, and arts community as a whole, cannot be underestimated. The PSC has more performances of their own this season, but too often the work of a choral conductor is overlooked when the baton is handed to an orchestral conductor who will be leading the group in concert. Having sung under Stephen for a number of years in the PSC, I can say unreservedly that Portland audiences will miss the work of this brilliant, hard-working and extremely knowledgeable musician in the years to come. Adieu, maestro.

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