richard sparks

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.

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