Portland Symphonic Choir review: new heights

Guest conductor Richard Sparks leads masterful performance of Martin's 'Mass' and a contemporary composition

by BRUCE BROWNE

A choir will rise to the occasion of a guest director, and new literature. But soar to new heights? Portland Symphonic Choir’s third candidate for permanent music director, Richard Sparks, brought something extra, something ethereal, to the confines of Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral last week. He coaxed a finesse, a cohesiveness of vocal tone in a cappella singing, in particular in the Frank Martin (1890-1974) Mass, that has not been heard in PSC for some time.

PSC’s performance shone a new, brighter light on themselves, and the justifiably famous Martin Mass (1922-26). This double choir a cappella mass is arguably one of the great pieces of the 20th century, though it lay in the composer’s desk drawer for a handful of decades, until brought to light by Eric Ericson and the Swedish Radio Choir in their magical BMI recording (first released in the 1970s and re-released in 2014 on Warner Classics.) This was an important impetus for many choral directors to learn the great depths of 20th century choral music, including that of Martin, Messiaen, Dallapiccola and Britten; no previous choral recording had ever had such an impact.

Portland Symphonic Choir

Never derivative, each movement exploring poetic new styles, the Mass is sui generis, compared to others of its ilk in the first half of the 20th century. One hears a pentatonic basis in the Resurrexit; long Renaissance polyphonic lines in the Kyrie; and a kind of thudding neo-primitivism in the Benedictus. The Sanctus is a revelation: washes of harmonic colors softly bouncing from one choir to the other bathing us in varied hues. One can almost hear the praying of the choir here and elsewhere in this work.

The Martin Mass is a barometer for choir excellence. Tuning must be taut – not the “did we end in the same key in which we started?” kind of tuning, but the internal meshing of intervals and harmony in the internal moving parts. This requires listening to each other and to the choral “core.” It also requires letting go of the personal singer sound for the co-operative one. All this must be mentored from the podium, and it happened here in the Martin.

Finesse is interpretive. Dr. Sparks asked things of the choir and they followed his lead. By performance time, the finesse – shaping a phrase, dynamics, tempi – must be internalized, and in this performance it almost always was.

Balance also has more than one facet. First, balances within each vocal section (soprano, alto, tenor and bass, and in this case SATB/SATB); and second, balance of forces to each other. The former was excellent within the high-end-enabling limitations of Trinity. Martin wrote so brilliantly for the double choir, each having its own sonic personality; the effect was stunning. The latter (soloists v. orchestra v. choir) proved a challenge in the second half of the concert, featuring the companion piece in the program.

Canadian composer Allan Bevan’s (b. 1951) Nou Goth Sonne Under Wode (Now goes sun under wood), was a lesser light by comparison. The choir sang it well, and soprano soloist Jolaine Kerley and narrator Timothy J. Anderson were superb. Mr. Anderson used a mike, but Ms. Kerley, singing without a mike, also placed behind and above the choir, was at times dwarfed in some of the tutti sections. (For future reference, I am not persuaded that the raised and hooded dais in this venue is an ideal placement for soloists. There is a stifling acoustic phenomenon in that corner.)

The piece itself is over-stuffed with derivative, heavy, loud chords in the Kyrie and the O Vos Omnes, and the former goes on longer than necessary. Aside from the stunning soprano lines, the work is not remarkable. There were some lovely moments, but it is uneven, and the Martin deserved a better partnering.

Composer Bevan appeared in the concert, performing admirably on the organ. Doug Schneider, accompanist and assistant PSC director, was also an important part of this piece, replicating the harp part on piano. The band (oboes, horns, piano, timpani/ percussion and organ) was adequate for the most part, but there were distractions in tone and intonation, and some awkward entrances. Nevertheless, it was overall a fine performance of an average piece. (Better that than the other way round).

Richard Sparks

Dr. Sparks has cut a wide swath through the choral world, from choirs in the professional ranks to those in higher education and community choirs such as PSC. He has taught at Mt. Holyoke, Pacific Lutheran University and, most recently, at North Texas State University, where he is head of the Choral Division. Guest conducting invitations have been extended to him by some of the finest choirs in the world, including the Swedish Radio Choir and the Santa Fe Desert Chorale.

Dr. Sparks’s appearances (a repeat concert on the following evening) complete the round of auditions for the PSC Music Director position. Previous guest conductors this season have been Erick Lichte and Dr. Samuel Barbera. Each brought special gifts to the Portland Symphonic Choir table but Mr. Lichte has dropped out of contention.

Portland Symphonic Choir will begin their 73rd season with a new conductor. We all wish the choir well in choosing the best artist for the position. So, Carpe Diem, Portland Symphonic Choir. Choose without delay, and choose well.Take advantage of this opportunity to define who you want to be for the next decade.

Full disclosure: I was at University of Washington with Sparks when I was completing my doctoral studies, and we became friends. (Mr. Lichte, the first candidate, is also a friend).

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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