Portland Symphony Orchestra
March 13, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
The change of date, from March 14 to March 13 to beat an oncoming blizzard, didn’t seem to affect attendance at Merrill Auditorium for the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Lenten program.
It wasn’t billed as Lenten, but that was the impression given by three Christian religious works, played without intermission, backed by the combined forces of the Choral Art Society and the Oratorio Chorale, plus two soloists: baritone Troy Cook and soprano Twyla Robinson.
Music director Robert Moody began the program with a Bach Chorale, “Kumm süsser Tod,” transcribed for full orchestra by Leopold Stokowski. (Disclaimer: I met Stokowski once many years ago when he came to Kodak looking for a grant to stage the Scriabin “Poem of Fire,” complete with light organ to be built by us. He was turned down.)
The chorale is one of Bach’s inspired shorter works, but everything transcribed by Stokowski sounds like, well… Stokowski. Given the state of world affairs, I’m not sure that the sentiment in the title is one that should be widely promulgated.
“Come sweet death” was followed immediately by “In Paradisum,” for orchestra and chorus, by Dan Forrest (b. 1978). It was pleasant enough, well played and sung in traditional harmony, but bears the same relation to religious music as Bob Jones University (which commissioned the work) does to Christianity. It descended into kitsch with a part for handbell ringers in the aisles.
Now we come to the meat of the evening, the great Brahms “Deutsches Requiem,” one of the most profound expressions of religious sentiment ever written, by a man who wasn’t very religious himself.
Only God knows why the work was sung in English. Brahms chose the passages from the Lutheran Bible himself, and the music was written to fit them—as beloved of the Germans as the King James Bible is of us— certainly not English.
With supertitles, one can follow the text perfectly well, no matter what language is being sung. So why the translation? Incidentally, the supertitles in both the Forrest and the Brahms, were their usual ham-fisted selves, complete with misspellings.
Moody put Robinson on the balcony for the movement that was written to commemorate the death of the composer’s mother, in which she seems to communicate with him. It was a nice touch, but the spotlighted singer could not be seen from under the left balcony overhang, and her part seemed to emanate from somewhere in the chorus. Both she and Cook have clear, well-projected voices, which would have been a delight to hear in German.
The orchestra was on its best behavior, but needed to expand its dynamic range beyond mezzo-forte to piano.
The combed choruses, under the direction of Emily Isaacson and Robert Russell, were fine, but could have been a little smaller, for better focus, and shifted toward the bass end of the spectrum.
Still, I would walk miles in the cold to hear the Requiem sung by a high school choir, and the audience agreed, giving the performance a for-once-deserved standing ovation.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.