Oregon Repertory Singers review: Double treat

Double choirs excel in performances of a pair of very different Masses by Frank Martin and Ralph Vaughan Williams

By BRUCE BROWNE

Although they were contemporaries, British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and Swiss composer Frank Martin make strange musical bedfellows. But for one very enjoyable afternoon at Portland’s First Methodist Church last weekend, they made comfortable companions indeed, thanks to the mediation of Oregon Repertory Singers and their music director Ethan Sperry.

These two 20th century composers were similar in several ways. Both lived long lives, both were influenced by French music, both were sons of clergymen.  But their music differed considerably.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music is the epitome of British nationalism. He was influenced by Tudor style, such as the basis for his much loved Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis, and by British/Irish folk songs. His compositional style remained as British as clotted cream to his end.

By contrast, Martin was born in Switzerland but spent a good deal of his time in the Netherlands; for a while he embraced Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone compositional style until settling into an eclectic compositional voice.

For a piece that lay unknown in a desk drawer for some decades, Martin’s Mass is loaded with what were for their time, new, creative ideas. It’s like a compendium of nascent and varied musical motifs: from the neo-Medieval Kyrie to the pentatonic scales of the “Et Resurrect,” and the quasi-pointillistic opening of the “Gloria.”

One of the most expressive, coloristic choral pieces of the 20th century, Martin’s Mass for double choir is also one of the more exposed! Its transparent textures make it easy to hear every part, and every mistake. ORS did it proud, displaying a warm sonority through all of the movements, and a rhythmic and expressive dialogue between the two choirs that was tactile. The Mass is a kaleidoscope of varied hues, rhythms and tempi, made even more delicious by the interplay of the two choirs: a tone bath of the first order.

Oregon Repertory Singers performed at Portland's First United Methodist Church.

Oregon Repertory Singers performed at Portland’s First United Methodist Church.

Choir and conductor really “got” the wide dynamic spectrum available – and needed – for both pieces, and available to a choir of these dimensions (90 voices).  A ground floor pianissimo rose to a full-throated fortissimo.

One of the most difficult tasks for amateur singers is to maintain a continuous legato line, but it was no challenge for this choir. Ultra-responsive to Sperry’s cues, they met most of the demands of this daunting score.

Just a few minor cavils: there was a little accident in the Martin, where one choir was inconclusive in its entrance, and mild panic set in; but it was very soon resolved. And very occasionally, attacks were blunted by an amorphous, timid fuzziness – but only seldom.  

Composed, like Martin’s Mass, in the early 1920s, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in g minor harks back to the composer’s long hegemony over British music of the mid-20th century. Influenced greatly by Debussy and Ravel, with whom he studied, the composer luxuriantly flourishes his unique, modal style throughout the Mass.

In ORS’s performance, varied mixed solo quartets in most movements ranged from very good to excellent, but occasionally dropped slightly in pitch. Wisely, Sperry paused after each of the movements, to reposition the varied groups of soloists differently for each successive movement. This was doubly wise, as the audience could applaud each separate group and the choir could retune as necessary.

These two Masses have never appeared together on the concert stage in Portland. Looking ahead, I hope there is more of this type of programming. It offers us a little less of the flavor-of-the-year works that are already so much in the public ear, and so much wider a palette of sound and structure.

The Oregon Repertory Singers, now having been in Dr. Sperry’s capable hands for five years, has cultivated an appealing warmth of tone color. They seem to be evolving year by year, a good sign and something every artistic group, in infancy or adulthood, must do to survive.

Thanks, ORS, for your moments of ear candy, and genuine emotive singing. Not so many choirs can forge two such disparate pieces into a palatable concert whole. Under Ethan Sperry, they’re being asked to sing more and more challenging works: what’s next?

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led Portland Symphonic Choir and Portland State University choral programs for many years.

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