Oregon Symphony review: Time for a change

Professional Oregon vocalists could enhance orchestra's growing international standing


In keeping with an annual tradition, the Oregon Symphony presented a big choral work April 8-10 at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The choir was the Portland Symphonic Choir, founded back in the mid-20th century for just this purpose. In the years following, the Symphonic Choir went on to create an independent identity, giving a regular season of concerts.

Mozart’s monumental Requiem, which takes nearly an hour to perform, constituted the second half of the concert, and let it be said immediately that the performance was entirely adequate. The choir did its thing on cue, the pared-down orchestra played very well, and French Canadian guest conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni led the ensemble with evident appreciation for the music.

And yet… and yet. “Entirely adequate” is not acceptable these days for Oregon Symphony performances. This orchestra has improved immeasurably since the old days, and even more rapidly since Carlos Kalmar became Music Director in 2003. A former minor band has become an accepted major orchestra, perhaps not quite on a par with New York and Chicago, but not far behind. It attracts the same big-name soloists as the orchestras in New York, Chicago, London, and Berlin. Its use, therefore, of the all-amateur Symphonic Choir is a diminution.

In the April 10 performance, after the players and singers had two performances behind them, the effect of Mozart’s gloriously moving music was muted by the choir and by the staging, as well as the hall’s notorious acoustics. The choir should sound more immediate, more piercing, to give Mozart’s brilliant Handelian counterpoint its due. A 25- or 30-voice group of professional local choristers, singers who are paid by the likes of Cappella Romana, The Ensemble, and Resonance Ensemble, would make a far greater impact — and a louder “noise” — in performance than the 70 singers of the Symphonic Choir. And a smaller choir would allow for its being placed on the stage with the orchestra, rather than sequestered in the elevated rear-stage balcony, with its devouring acoustics and rotten sight lines.

The Symphony should profit by the example of numerous Portland Baroque Orchestra performances with chorus, in which 24 local singers (now usually Cappella Romana) never fail to provide a vivid presence. Performances with a giant choir are perhaps suitable for some late-19th-century repertoire and 20th-century extravaganzas like Carmina Burana, but for music of the 18th century and earlier, most conductors have long since abandoned cumbersome overcrowded stagings.

Perhaps the Oregon Symphony routinely brings in vocal soloists from elsewhere, as if to prove that it deserves international attention. But this seems unfortunate, both from a financial and artistic standpoint. First, importing soloists costs more in fees and transportation and housing expenses. In the case of April’s Requiem performances, local singers, auditioned by Carlos Kalmar, could easily have taken the place of soprano Katie Van Kooten, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Jack Swanson, and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams. These four did a reasonably suitable job with the rather meager solo material of Mozart’s piece, but certainly not a better job than a local quartet could have supplied. With a select local chorus and local soloists, the Symphony could thus have maintained its commitment to its community, while at the same time producing a better musical result and benefitting from the attendance of the Portland singers’ family and friends.

It could also have provided more interest to its program — if not necessarily more box office appeal — by choosing a different requiem. There’s always Giuseppe Verdi’s wonderful score from 1874, as well as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem from 1962 and Frank Martin’s Requiem from 1972, as well as Brahms’s A German Requiem of 1868. None of these, with the possible exception of the Verdi, is performed nearly as often as Mozart’s Requiem, and would therefore be refreshing to hear. Anton Bruckner and Antonin Dvorak also wrote requiems that one seldom hears live.

Cinematic Symphony

The April 10 concert wasn’t all Mozart. The first half provided an introductory warm-up with Henry Purcell’s famous Chacony (c.1680) as arranged by contemporary English composer Joby Talbot. Unlike Benjamin Britten’s earlier arrangement of 1963, Talbot’s relies almost entirely on percussion instruments, especially four different sets of tuned bells, for its effect. This makes for a pleasantly noisy experience until near the end of its six minutes, when the violins take over and play the melody entirely in otherwordly harmonics.

The Symphony in Three Movements of 1945 by Igor Stravinsky filled out the concert’s first half. Its first-movement Allegro seems an exercise in the contrasting sounds of musical material played in turn by the different sections of the orchestra: strings, woodwinds, and brass, plus piano and harpsichord. The second and third movements, marked Andante and Interlude, are played without interruption. The Andante is very quiet and the following Interlude the opposite, as the brass enter with percussion, the trombone then plays a duet with the piano, and the two keyboard instruments sum up before a somewhat raucous finish.

Composer Igor Stravinsky.

Stravinsky wrote that “This Symphony has no program, nor is it a specific expression of any given occasion; it would be futile to seek these in my work.” He then went on to qualify: “But during the process of creation in this, our arduous time of sharp and shifting events, of despair and hope… it may be that all those repercussions have left traces in this Symphony.”

A few years later, Stravinsky completely contradicted his first statement when he linked each of the Symphony’s movements to “a specific cinematographic impression of the war.” But he was nevertheless correct in noting the futility of “seeking these in my work,” because nothing is added to the listening experience to know that the first movement’s inspiration came from a documentary film about scorched earth tactics in China or that the second movement recalls the Hollywood film The Song of Bernadette, the score of which Stravinsky had briefly worked on. And if you hear in the third movement the goose-stepping of Hitler’s soldiers or even the war in Europe’s conclusion in the tutti finale, you’re succumbing to Stravinsky’s description of his program, not to the music per se.

Whether programmatic or not, and however randomly linked its movements, the Symphony demonstrates Stravinsky’s exquisite feel for orchestral colors and his connection to such early pieces from his Paris days as Petrouchka, The Firebird, and Pulcinella. The orchestra played it with precision and sensitivity, admirably justifying the band’s high reputation, which unfortunately suffered in the second half.

Recommended recordings

• Mozart, Requiem
Stuttgart Bach Collegium, Helmuth Rilling conducting, with soloists Christine Oelze, Ingeborg Danz, Scot Weit, and Andreas Schmidt (Hanssler Classics 98146), 2000.
La Chapelle de Québec & Les Violons du Roy, Bernard Labadie conducting, with soloists Karina Gauvin, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, John Tessler, and Nathan Berg (Atma ACD22722), 2015.

• Stravinsky, Symphony in Three Movements
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Simon Rattle conducting (Medici Arts 2056978), 2009.
London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev conducting (LSO Live LSO0688), 2012.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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One Response.

  1. Maria Hein says:

    Mr. Ross, with all due respect, the Portland Baroque Orchestra does not perform in the Schnitz. If it did I can guarantee that a small vocal ensemble would have no better luck being heard than the greater numbers of the Portland Symphonic Choir. The hall is a notoriously poor venue for choral works. Further, the last time the Mozart Requiem was performed with the symphony it was staged with the choir on the stage. The OSO deemed that staging impossible this time due to the larger orchestra needed in the first half of the program, precluding placing risers on the stage. There wasn’t time to re-set the stage with risers during the intermission.

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