by BRUCE BROWNE
Saying that Beethoven wrote powerful choral works is like saying that Ali threw powerful punches in Zaire and Manila. LvB was a choral slugger. About his most potent choral work, the Missa Solemnis, Robert Shaw famously wrote, “It’s a little like setting off a bomb in the brain – to say nothing of the explosion in the larynx.”
You have to get in the ring with Ludwig Van and have it out, take his punches and be prepared to give back more than you get.
Saturday afternoon at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, the Oregon Repertory singers did exactly that. Extremely well prepared by artistic director Ethan Sperry, and capable of sparring with the best of Beethoven, they sang through all of the composer’s high-range pyrotechnics, high decibel dynamics, and complicated fugues, seemingly without effort. The tenors displayed an especially silvery and flexible sleeve if sound. Basses carried well, even in the low register, not an easy matter in this venue. Sopranos never seemed to overreact to the demands of the score, singing easily and fluidly throughout.
A few especially telling moments in the choir’s singing: the nuance of the mysterious whisperings at the “Et vitam venturi” (and the life of the world to come); their ability to pull off the dark setting of “…”passus et sepultus est.” (He died and was buried). Conductor and choir were particularly deft in transitions and definition of articulation, essential elements in interpretation of this type of work.
The accompanying Vancouver Symphony Orchestra did not fare as well. Perhaps because of his early training and activity as a classicist, Beethoven loved fugues, and the Missa Solemnis exhibits many of these forms. Last night, particularly in the instrumental lines, we could have heard more diversity of thematic importance. Absent that, we tend to hear simply a vast wall of sound. While there were moments of felicity in the instrumentalists’ playing, they at times lacked focus in ensemble, and most egregiously, overplayed their role as accompaniment. This listener never heard anything approaching a very soft (pp) dynamic from them. They clearly needed more time with the score.
The orchestra also posed a barrier to the vocal soloists, who had to sing from a position behind them. Forget the optics; it’s just that much harder for singers to project through such a wall of sound, and the soloists also have to battle Beethoven’s visceral vocal demands, and some of the fiendish harmonies of the score. This is not a “classical” Mass (a la Mozart or early Beethoven himself), easy to sing and predictably balanced. It’s a behemoth, a monster that challenges vocal soloists as well as the rest of the performers. The gentlemen soloists came away with flying colors, unscathed by the demands of the score. Bass Andre Flynn is the gift that keeps on giving – to the musical community of Portland. His vocal quality was perfect for this role. Carl Halvorson was an equal partner in both vocal quality and musicianship.
While the men did, in fact, soar over that orchestral wall, alto Haley Maddox and soprano Joanna Meline carried less well. These are younger voices, and needed every chance they could get. Meline started well enough, but by the middle of the work, her voice, which has wonderful potential, simply lost stamina, and with it, vocal color. Maddox possesses a lovely voice, one that carried well in the high register, but was lost in the low end. She also needed more time to learn the score; many notes were blurry and some seemingly short of the mark on pitch. Both soprano and alto seemed to wander a bit during the end of the Credo, but buttressed by choir and orchestra, found their way back.
The singers and players benefited from having an intermission for this concert — a respite much needed by singers and players. In addition, the audience, intentionally or not, gave the singers and orchestra a “mini-break” after each movement with their applause (yes, Stokowski et al. would have scolded us), but it turned out to be an advantage, again given the demands on stamina. Even Ali got his breaks between rounds.
And this work needs all the breaks it can get. The gumption to mount it, to take it on, to slug it out with Beethoven as Ethan Sperry and the masses did this past weekend… the verdict? After 12 rounds: the winner: ORS.
Portland choral conductor Bruce Browne led the Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties, and directed the Portland State University choral programs for many years.
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