Portland Symphonic Choir review: happy homecomings

Holiday concert features guest conductor recently returned to his native territory and new homegrown music by an Oregon composer

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Samuel Barbara has come home for the holidays and more. The Portland native shared his pleasure at relocating to the Pacific Northwest with the audience earlier this month at the second season concert of Portland Symphonic Choir. Dr. Barbara, who studied with the late Roger Doyle at University of Portland, took his doctoral degree at USC, traveled and taught worldwide before returning to Portland to assume the choral directorship of Portland Community College’s Rock Creek Campus. And then, lo, arose the vacancy for the artistic director of PSC and the reason for his guest conductor role in the choir’s seasonal program.

Samuel Barbara conducted Portland Symphonic Choir’s Wintersong concerts. Photo: Toni Wise.

The venue was Portland’s Rose City Park Methodist Church, the program predictably holiday-ish yet eclectic, the presentation wonderfully well paced. Dr. Barbara assembled the repertoire well and then maintained the momentum from the podium. Holiday concerts seem to go in only a couple directions: a stand alone larger work such as Handel’s Messiah or a duo of medium-sized works, Magnificat by Bach or Britten’s Ceremony of Carols OR a “bits and pieces” collection of the conductor’s choice. Not to say folks don’t enjoy the latter, but sometimes it can just get a bit saccharine. But Dr. Barbara chose to anchor this concert with the John Rutter Gloria and offered up a creative variety of known/unknown and downright brand spanking new holiday fare.

Featured for added interest were Carl Thor’s hammered dulcimer (not a reference to overdoing the eggnog, but to distinguish it from bowed or electronic) played as accompaniment and solo, with eight jolly good brass players and percussion, engaged throughout in the Rutter; renowned Morman Tabernacle Choir’s Mack Wilberg’s Tres Cantus Laudendi (Three songs of Praise, second movement); and Italian late Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli’s polychoric Hodie Christus Natus Est (Today Christ is born).

The first half of the program offered some of the most delicious, novel pieces. Lo how a rose e’er blooming arranged by Swede Jan Sandstrom (on the well known Michael Praetorius, 1560-1629, theme) was a standout, performed primarily “in the round” with a satellite mixed group up front. This contemporary arrangement was smoothly sung by the choir in soft, shimmering pastel hues. The dissonance sent aloft from those singing in the round seemed to drift toward the mini choir and re-emerge as the soothing original theme.

Rose City Methodist is a fine venue for this type of varied repertoire. The acoustic is round, but clear, and flatters a choir more than, say, Arlene Schnitzer Hall or several other church sanctuary venues in Portland. The organ was featured throughout, played sensitively and expertly by assistant director and accompanist Doug Schneider. The choir could process and change formations with ease although moving them from the back after opening greetings still takes too long. There is a coziness to the sanctuary that lends itself to holiday intimacy and, indeed, it was packed on Sunday’s performance.

As with any venue, however, the idiosyncrasies of space and acoustic must be addressed. In this hall, a top to bottom soprano-alto-tenor-bass block formation might better afford equal opportunity listening to the men’s section, who were sometimes lost in the acoustical shuffle. Instead, the singers were assembled in linear sections, with tenors and basses across the back rows and sopranos and altos in the front. The upper (soprano/alto and lower (tenor/bass) voice forces seem imbalanced – 63 to 43 on the rolls.

The alternative formation might also have helped with tuning, which was a distraction in parts of the second half of the program, notably in Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna (not listed in the printed program), which demands a sophistication of tuning which at times eluded the singers. Sopranos, spread across the three front rows, occasionally pushed down on notes, affecting the pitch equilibrium of the entire choir.

Carl Thor hammered the dulcimer at Portland Symphonic Choir’s Wintersong concert. Photo: Toni Wise.

Notwithstanding, this entertaining production’s variety made it an overall success. The Star in the East of American composer and dulcimer performer/builder Malcolm Dalglish, particularly embraced the Celtic hammered dulcimer. Completing the international journey: from British Isles a Vaughan Williams and a David Willcocks arrangement of “O Come all ye Faithful” and Latvian carols by Andreis Jansons. The spiritual idiom was given a nod with a crisp performance of “Rockin’ Jerusalem” (arr. Andre Thomas) followed by the debut of the prize-winning composition of choir member Shlomo Farber.

Farber and thirty other artists nationwide submitted pieces under pseudonyms for the Winter Carol Composition Competition sponsored by PSC and Pacific University. Farber’s “Maoz Tsur” won. How serendipitous is that! Farber’s text is the Jewish liturgical poem, a weighty retelling of deliverance from captivity or persecution. The choir sang the premiere of the lushly scored work well; Farber has a career as a composer ahead of him if he wants it. Farber’s homophonic harmonic language is tonal and compelling. It’s a welcome new voice

And then there came Rutter’s popular Gloria. Gloria in ecclesiae (actually part of the Roman Catholic Mass) are non-specific Christmas favorites – see Vivaldi and the chorus from “Angels we Have Heard on High.” Rutter certainly cashed in on this festive and enthusiastic rendition which was composed in 1974. The middle movement was enhanced by a fine women’s trio. The brisk tempo of the third and final movement set the wheels a wobbling a bit until the choir steadied itself and finished to great fanfare.

Dr. Barbara is precise, his gesture clear, particularly with the choral and instrumental combined forces in this concert. He now passes the Portland Symphonic Choir baton to the final artistic director candidate. Dr. Richard Sparks will conduct Frank Martin’s Mass in Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on May 18-19.

Holiday concerts, like holiday movies, do not always garner critical acclaim. They strive for excellence in awaking the spirit of the season, in tapping the hearts and minds of the audience. The holidays, after all, are about traditions, memories, reaffirmation and a sense of returning home, spiritually or physically. Composer Shlomo Farber’s new choral work begins its journey, but Oregon will always be its starting place. To Sam Barbara, family, a new college position, conducting his hometown’s biggest choir…he’s come home.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer.

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