by BRUCE BROWNE
Portland has waited a long time to hear two of the masterworks of choral literature side by side. Hearing both French composer Francis Poulenc’s and Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg’s greatest choral works Saturday night helped confirm something for me: choral music in Portland has progressed markedly during the last few decades, and Resonance Ensemble’s concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall last Friday was proof of just how far we’ve really come.
Pairing the two major 20th century works, Francis Poulenc’s double choir cantata Figure Humaine (The Face of Humanity), with the final tonal composition of Arnold Schoenberg, Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth) was daring in the extreme. Appearing first, Figure Humaine would by itself be a daunting challenge for any choir, and the Resonance singers met it head on.
Given the climate in Nazi occupied France, both Poulenc and his librettist and good friend, poet Paul Eluard, had to be careful. Eluard already had a reputation as a French Resistance poet, and the cantata includes the texts “An animal has imprinted its paws in the snow….on a path where death bears the imprint of life” (Movement 6) and “The menace from under the red sky came from under the jaws” (Movement 7). If Poulenc’s use of the Eluard’s thinly veiled metaphors were not nationalistic enough, then the cry “Liberte” certainly was. Both artists were taking great risks for the sake of art and country.
The choir too was taking great risks with the harmonic and rhythmic traps laid in this a cappella score for double choir. Tuning, phrasing, and nuance were in sync throughout. Particularly gratifying was the way in which the choir was singing the text, not just the notes.
“There is one work … that reassures me that I have the right to compose: that is my Cantata on the poems by Eluard,” Poulenc said. “Its integrity and conviction conquer my most somber moods and my sharpest self-criticism.”
The vaunted American composer/author Ned Rorem seems to agree. He lays claim to two of Poulenc’s pieces for the if-you-could- only-choose-five pieces-on-a desert-island game: Stabat Mater and Figure Humaine, because they “comprise every aspect of the sonorous variables… Figure Humaine changes meaning with each hearing.” This writer has to agree, since each time I’ve heard or conducted this piece, it turns out differently.
Peace on Earth
The second half of the program, which the choir repeated the next day in the Celebration Works series at Portland’s First Presbyterian church, gave us Friede aud Erden, Schoenberg’s final journey before the turning point to atonality, then serialism. Written in 1906-07, it is a piece that is steeped in rich and dense harmonies, and rapid fluctuations between major and minor modes, reflecting the texts of war and peace. The poetry is from a rather untraditional Christmas poem by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer.
Under the able direction of music director Katherine FitzGibbon, the choir navigated the sudden changes in tempo, modulations, and high ranges so successfully as to make it sound almost easy. It’s not! For the premiere performance, Schoenberg was forced to prepare an orchestral accompaniment to support the choir.
The Portland audience did not respond quite as effusively to the Schoenberg work as they did to Poulenc and later pieces by American composer Lee Hoiby and British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Was this because of a preconception about the composer, or just due to the density of such a score to the average ear? I hope audience members new to the work will pursue one of the fine recordings and experience it again.
A diversion from the more adventuresome harmonies of the latter pieces Last Letter Home by the late American composer, Lee Hoiby. This text comes from a letter written by Pfc. Jesse Givens to his wife and opened by her upon his death in America’s war on Iraq in 2003. Programmed after the Poulenc, the piece further underscored the ravages and sorrows of war.
Hoiby is known for his song settings and operatic works. While the highly personal and deeply felt text was portrayed well by the choir, the lack of a tangible melody and the through-composed form made it difficult to stick with on a musical level. At its core, it is rather like choral recitative, which affords great respect to every word written by Private First Class Givens.
This program was cunningly conceived, and the four pieces therein were placed perfectly to allow the singers to shift moods and focus appropriately and for the audience to connect with the varied texts.
For this repertoire, FitzGibbon assembled as strong a band of singers as can be found in Portland. The personnel in Resonance varies, but this was clearly a choir of well-trained, resoundingly confident singers. Their sound was not that of a European choir; it was truly an American choral sound, filling the hall with tonal edge and volume. They produced a formidable wall of sound during the moments of great volume. Dr. Fitzgibbon conducted the works with effortless clarity throughout.
The final piece on the program was, appropriately, the last movement from Dona Nobis Pacem, one of the great anti-war oratorios, by Vaughan Williams. The oratorio is set for orchestra, so the absence of those sonorities, especially trumpets and timpani, was evident. But the choir filled the room with the rich modalities of the composer, singing full out with the expert accompaniment of Portland pianist Janet Coleman. Soprano Arwen Myers and baritone Kevin Walsh sang triumphantly in the bookend solos.
There were a few times throughout where the composers, particularly Poulenc, called for a soft dynamic that the singers never reached. This was a Corvette of a choir, able to do almost anything; but in this hall, and especially in the Poulenc, it seemed that they may have felt restrained by the hall, and at times overcompensated in volume. That said, the first performance used some 160 singers (!), versus the 24 in Resonance. How might numbers have affected tempo choices and sheer density of sound in 1946?
A word about the singers: these are people who sing not for a living, but for the pure joy and artistry of it. One cannot make a full time living singing choral music in Portland. So our singers must be, in the words of Dr. FitzGibbon, “a musical community that is fully committed to their craft, and who sing with heart.” So, thank you, singers!
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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