Portland Symphonic Choir review: Strange bedfellows rest in peaceful coexistence

A Mozart classic and a contemporary masterpiece look beyond death.


Amadeus and Tarik: strange bedfellows, or well matched mates?

Our old pal Mozart, and a new acquaintance, Mr. Tarik O’Regan, became good friends Saturday night, as Portland Symphonic Choir and their artistic director, Dr. Steven Zopfi, brought to Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral a radiant pairing of two divergent works:  Mozart’s well known Requiem, and O’Regan’s Tryptych. The two works reside at the opposite ends of the spectrum for a variety of reasons, some very obvious — time period, style (Classical vs. 21st century), formal organization — and some less so (special string effects and non-traditional harmony in the O’Regan, for example).

Portland Symphonic Choir sang at Portland's St. Mary's Cathedral.

Portland Symphonic Choir sang at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Full of 21st century idioms such as newly wrought Al-Andaluz stylings, jazz-like rhythms, heavily syncopated bass underpinnings, and string effects ranging from harmonics to tremolo, the O’Regan work is the perfect antidote to the plethora of “soundscape” choral pieces that are presently heard in venues from church choirs to high school  choirs and beyond. Without benefit of counterpoint and rhythmic vitality, the “soundscape” piece often moves slowly move from chord to chord with harmonic variation and little else.

In a 2011 conversation with Atlanta Arts critic Pierre Ruhe, speaking  about his attraction to the Al-Andaluz style, the young British composer O’Regan said: “I’d gotten interested in Al-Andalusian music, music from Moorish Spain that was more or less linked to the Arab and North African world. That music has a peculiar fractal (regenerating, repeating in short segments) quality, where melodies and rhythmic ideas are driven forward all the way through. What appears to be the end of the line carries on and repeats and sometimes forms a repetitive pattern, which begins to merge with a new driving section.” To the listener, the effect is an unbroken, insistent repetition as heard with the line “I shall die once again to rise an angel blest.”

The choir sang immaculately in O’Regan’s setting, highlighted with a pitch-perfect soprano solo from Jen Milius. And what a brilliant stroke it was to follow the Mozart epic with the Tryptych. Both works have to do with death. But where Mozart uses the usual requiem mass liturgy, O’Regan has chosen six poems by diverse authors such as Blake, Penn, Milton, Wordsworth and the Egyptian poet Muhammad Rajab Al-Bayoumi. This eclectic wash of diverse poetry was perfectly woven into O’Regan’s music.

A good array of soloists were highlighted by tenor Robert McPherson. This singer has it all! Rays of silver pour from his tongue, every phrase perfectly turned. Angela Niederloh delighted, as well. Emily Kalteich, a good soprano, has room for vocal growth in flexibility and legato connection. Kevin Helppie, bass, was well prepared in his role.

A wide spectrum of dynamic expression should be the property of a large choir such as PSC, and it certainly was on Saturday night.  Although the orchestra sometimes won, they matched one another forte for forte on the acoustical battlefield that is St. Mary’s Cathedral. Diction too, was surprisingly good.

Even before preparing the performers, a conductor of Mozart’s Requiem must decide which version to use, and how to interpret a score that leaves plenty of latitude. Mozart famously never finished his final creation, and scholars like pianist Robert Levin have recently gone back to the composer’s incomplete original manuscript to craft new editions arguably superior to the flawed version originally prepared by one of his students. Other scholars have long maintained that Mozart and other composers of the Classical era expected fleeter tempos and other differences from the anachronistically Romanticized interpretations that long ruled concert stages.  Zopfi is an advocate of a Requiem informed by modern scholarship, in this case favoring speedy tempi, and using the “Amen” chorus that follows the “Lacrymosa” in the editions of Maunder and Levin (the one used for this performance). Only a couple of times did I feel as if I had pushed a fast forward button. But tempo is all about personal preference, unless the conductor has recently consumed a double espresso. Notwithstanding my personal proclivities, the tempi worked.

And the transitions were things of calculated beauty. Zopfi presented perfect proportions in the Mozart that were organic and rock solid. But even the clearest conductor needs the full attention of the choir and these singers’ eyes were riveted to their leader, not buried in their scores.

These two “bedfellows,” though they may seem an unusual pairing, each offered a glimpse of a life beyond, a requiescat in pace (“rest in peace”), presented through words and music in what was easily one of the Portland Symphonic Choir’s best showings of the past several years.

Portland choral conductor Bruce Browne directed the choral programs for Portland State University, Portland Symphonic Choir, and many other choruses for many years.

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