Oregon Symphony review: engaging the elements of drama

Abetted by two choirs and four soloists, the orchestra’s performance of Verdi’s mighty ‘Requiem’ attained near perfection — with a single omission 

by BRUCE BROWNE

An academic analysis of the Verdi Requiem reveals the brilliance with which one of the great romantic musical dramatists set text and music for the ultimate dramatic impact. It’s all there. No brainer…let it ride…can’t improve on perfection. Right.

Not so in this series opening performance from this Oregon Symphony. Not from the Portland Symphonic Choir and Adelphian Choir of University of Puget Sound. Not from the four soloists. And not from Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony. This performance respected the performers, the composition and the audience by focusing every note, every moment, from the very beginning. Total engagement.

Carlos Kalmar led the Oregon Symphony, Portland Symphonic Choir, Adelphian Choir and soloists in Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Requiem.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

Perfection started at the top. The Requiem’s simple opening elements — the first orchestral notes, a descending a-minor triad; the first choral line, simple open fifths on “Requiem” — floated down as if not from the stage but from the heavens. It was just one of the many precious pianissimo (soft) moments throughout the performance. And it was because of those moments that later, the powerful, ominous moments sounded even more profound. Heavens! The booming “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath) scared the Hall out of us – twice! Kalmar exploited this element of tension and then brought it home with exquisite timing/rhythm.

The Requiem runs 80-90 minutes constructed in several “movements” that can break the chain of drama. Or not, as in this uninterrupted interpretation of Carlos Kalmar, who lowered his baton only once in the entire work. The emotional state was maintained by all, including the four soloists who stood ready for every passage.

Verdi is best known for his operas, of course, and his Requiem is an operatic work that requires four operatic soloists. This quartet of soloists was very well cast and evenly matched, singing thrillingly in the ensembles (of which Verdi provides plenty) and in their solo passages. Soprano Amber Wagner was especially effective all the way from her top high C’s down to the brazen chest voice notes two octaves lower. Tenor Dimitri Pittas relaxed into his aria “In gemisco” (I groan), never “milking” the high notes but lustrously delivering the simple and humble prayer. Basso Raymond Aceto was ultra-dramatic in “Mors Stupebit” (Death and Nature shall stand amazed). Mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller warmed us with her silvery tone quality and managed, along with soprano Wagner, to pull off a silky, serene and well blended unison in the “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God).

One of the tricky movements for choir midway in the work, “Sanctus” (Holy) for double choir and orchestra, was studded with biting rhythms and delightful interplay between orchestra sections until the Aida-like ending.

Maestro Kalmar defined the mood of the work through stimulating, well calculated tempi; never rushing, never flagging, he moved the piece past the quotidian at every juncture. Each time it was needed, he injected a frisson of vibrancy into the orchestra and choir to lift the piece further. Positioning the trumpets within the box seats above the stage was a brilliant use of space.

While the music of Verdi’s Requiem conveys the general emotion, the liturgical language of the Mass for the Dead is essential. Elizabeth Schwartz’s program notes devoted numerous paragraphs to the importance of the text, for instance pointing out how Verdi’s choice of text of the liturgy differs from that of other composers. And yet the text went missing in this performance. While the choir articulated the Latin wonderfully, there was no projected English supertext, nor any text in the printed program. Diminishing the importance of language was a serious omission. And I was later to learn of another.

The Portland Symphonic Choir was prepared with distinction by Dr. Stephen Zopfi. This marks Zopfi’s final appearance with the choir, which is choosing its new Artistic Director in this year’s season. Zopfi has held that position since 2003.

He also directs the University of Puget Sound Adelphian Choir, which joined Portland Symphonic Choir for these performances. The addition of these approximately 40 young voices helped enable the vital tone and [biting] rhythmic exuberance evidenced in the very tricky double choir “Sanctus” (Holy) and final big concerted piece, “Libera Me” (Liberate me).

Up in the choir “loft” they may have wanted to be liberated by the end of the performance. Its an awkward space and the singers stood elbow to elbow. But the rest of us never wanted it to end.

In this performance I came to an awareness of this masterpiece as never before. I find myself revisiting passages in my mind’s ear and am still stirred by the magnitude of Verdi’s accomplishment and the beauty of this performance. Thank you all.

So, I went looking for the next opportunity for a choral/orchestral gem to be presented by the Oregon Symphony. In next year’s Classical series (A + B) there are no listings of any choral works, much less anything approaching the stature of the Verdi. Ah, if wishing could make it so….

In the meantime, Portland Symphonic Choir will perform its final season concert under the direction of Dr. Richard Sparks, on May 18 and 19.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. 

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