Concert review: Portland Symphonic Choir

Singers excel in Verdi’s “opera in disguise.”

Steven Zopfi conducted Portland Symphonic Choir.

Steven Zopfi conducted Portland Symphonic Choir.


“Wow, that was like an opera,” remarked my wife, my companion for the Portland Symphonic Choir’s performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem last Sunday at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Resisting the temptation to roll my eyes and “duh” myself into a very unpleasant remainder of the evening, I instead encouraged her to tell me when she tumbled to what myriad others have expounded on for the last century.

“The soprano, of course,” she said rolling her eyes and giving me a “duh.” (Funny how that works.) But, “duh,” she had hit the nail on the high C.

Yes, an opera — and perhaps one of Verdi’s best. One can hear echoes of AidaIl Trovatore, and others of the Italian composer’s earlier operatic masterpieces. Verdi’s Requiem is, writes Marin Alsop, Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony orchestra, “opera in disguise.”

And that speaks volumes about his late masterpiece’s content and sonic values: stentorian arias; a wide palette of orchestral colors; and a big chorus —a Portland Symphonic-sized chorus. But here’s the rub: opera chorus members often remark on how loud they must sing to be heard over an opera orchestra and out into the hall. And so, especially in a venue like Schnitzer Hall, which de-emphasizes the lower voices, a Verdi chorus either “belts” and risks sluggishness and poor tuning, or sings beautifully, in tune and with precision — yet risks occasionally being overshadowed by the orchestra. PSC chose the latter path.

Zopfi’s conducting was a pleasure to watch. Both orchestra and choir were sensitized to his every gesture; the rubati were just right, always natural, like the inevitable quickening and slowing of a roulette wheel. No stand-alone movements here: unlike his contemporaries (Brahms and Faure) who composed similarly titled works, Verdi links each of the constituent textual parts with instrumental transitions. Those transitions were measured carefully and with artistry by Zopfi and the orchestra.

In the a cappella portions, the chorus shone immaculately. Verdi was no stranger to unaccompanied writing. The Laudi alla Vergine Maria for female chorus, and the Ave Maria and Pater Noster for mixed choir, are some of the most demanding a cappella writing in late romantic composition. And in tuning a cappella, there is no middle ground: like being pregnant, you either are or you are not. The PSC was. In tune, that is.

Zopfi’s tempi were well suited to Schnitzer Hall: vivaces in the Sanctus and the Libera me fugue, proceeded lickety-split, with no split. Rhythmic declamation and diction were first rate; clarity was evident throughout.

There were several stars in the firmament of this concert. The choir was one, and the orchestra, named the Portland Symphonietta, made a fine ensemble, reacting musically and dramatically to Zopfi’s conducting. The orchestra itself, replete with a wealth of winds and brass – including three trumpets from the balcony – and the usual complement of strings, made a fine showing. The trumpet reports were stunning in their precious and unified timbre. And then there was the bass drum: heart-stopping perfection.

Stellar among the soloists were Kelley Nassief, soprano and James Slayden, tenor. Casting the Verdi Requiem should be just like casting a Verdi opera. Nassief’s projection of the naked drama of this age-old text was compelling, and her crystalline high notes added great color to each vocal line. Slayden, at age 26, is looking at a long and illustrious career moving forward. This is a voice of which Verdi would have approved: the timbre from low to high is beautifully round and smoky, in a good way.

Verdi calls for mezzo soprano and contralto in the same role, a very tricky casting. Kathryn Weld’s mezzo voice carried the upper range admirably, while occasionally finding challenges in tuning. The low end did not carry well in Schnitzer’s not-so-friendly confines. In the same acoustical vein, Matthew Scollin, the baritone, was effective and dramatic in the mid to high registers, less robust in the low end.

The background of the writing of the Requiem reads like an opera libretto, with controversy and irony. Though he was not religious in his adulthood, Verdi, raised Catholic and at one time a church musician, was moved to complete this setting of the Requiem Mass due to the death of his friend, poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, but it was performed a year after Manzoni’s death, in 1874. The first performance of what composer Hans von Bulow called “Verdi’s latest opera, although in ecclesiastical clothing” occurred in a church where applause was not permitted. Critique of the work was not always favorable, though Brahms thought it a work of genius.

And I am thinking, particularly after Sunday night’s standout performance, that while my wife, von Bulow and former Eugene Symphony music director Alsop rightly regarded it as operatic, in the end, George Bernard Shaw may have had it right in suggesting that none of Verdi’s operas would prove as enduring as the Requiem. Why? This “opera” grabs not only the senses, but the soul.

Bruce Browne conducted the Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties, and many other choirs, and directed the Portland State University choral programs for many years.

Bonus: Conductor Christoph Eschenbach discusses Verdi’s Requiem.

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2 Responses.

  1. Will says:

    Jason Slayden, not James.

  2. Wayne Carlon says:

    I remember Bruce Browne preparing us for the Verdi Requiem under James DePriest. Bruce emphasized diction, tonality, and rhythmic intensity. It was a joy singing under his direction. I am glad he is enjoying a new career as a music critic.

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