The August issue of Choral Journal is online and features an article titled “Samuel Barber’s Interpretation of Choral Portamento as an Expressive Resource” by Desiree Balfour. You can read it in its entirety at acda.org/choraljournal. Following is a portion from the introduction.
For more than a half-century, portamento use has been in serious decline, and its absence in choral performance is arguably an impoverishment.
The issue is encapsulated by John Potter, who writes, “A significant part of the early music agenda was to strip away the vulgarity, excess, and perceived incompetence associated with bizarre vocal quirks such as portamento and vibrato. It did not occur to anyone that this might involve the rejection of a living tradition and that singers might be in denial about their own vocal past.”(1) This article aims to show that portamento—despite its fall from fashion—is much more than a “bizarre vocal quirk.”
When blended with aspects of the modern aesthetic, choral portamento is a valuable technique that can enhance the expressive qualities of a work. Potter’s claim asserts that even within the context of the historically informed performance (HIP) movement, portamento has been a neglected aspect of choral performance practice, overlooking what would have been in the imagination of Romantic-era composers. Indeed, historical recordings demonstrate its presence in the archived performances of Samuel Barber’s choral ensemble recorded in 1939 and 1940. Barber used portamento with intention to highlight musical events and as an expressive resource that added vitality and expression to the music’s poetry. Portamento, if reasonably understood and well practiced, remains a valuable resource in choral performance up to the present day.
1 John Potter, “Beggar at the Door: The Rise and Fall of Portamento in Singing,” Music and Letters 87 (2006): 538.
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