Doing the Brahms Requiem

On May 3 2014 Sharon and I formed part of the chorus of Albany Pro Musica to perform Ein Deutsches Requiem, by Brahms, under the direction of the opera director Sara Jobin, with John Cheek and Maureen O’Flynn and the Pro Musica Orchestra, the flexible ensemble organized by Anne-Marie Barker-Schwarz. Ms. Jobin is not the regular conductor of Albany Pro Musica, but stepped in for this concert after the founding director, David Griggs-Janower, died in August. Rehearsals started in September, and were interspersed with rehearsals for other concerts, including the Dvorak Stabat Mater only a month ago.

During her rehearsals, Sara concentrated on diction and text, but also worked hard on pitch and rhythm with the expanded chorus. Many of the singers had performed this piece a number of years ago, but many were new and had little experience singing in German. We worked on prononciation up to just before walking on stage at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Sara insisted that everybody also learn the meaning of the words, believing that this was an important key to conveying the emotional import of the text. Psychologically this makes sense, because a lot of vocal and facial expressions can be influenced unconsciously by the meaning of the text; it might be possible to conjure these up like an actor, but it is probably easier to depend on a more instinctive mechanism. Every conductor has an approach, but all the good ones I have worked with have insisted on singing with feeling. That is a large part of what choral music is all about.

A slender woman, Sara nevertheless is a commanding presence on the podium, moving at times more like a dancer. Most conductors harangue the singers to watch them, but she did not have to do this. I found it fun to watch her, and in the end I felt better prepared than usual.

The text of this well-known piece is not a standard Catholic requiem, but a selection of religious passages that are somber and philosophical, summarized best by the texts of the opening and last movements, remarking the happiness of those who have suffered but pass on in the faith. The final movement, “Seilig sind die Töten” is a serene evocation of this hopeful feeling. The melodies are beautiful and the dynamic shifts in the piece are impressive.

One never knows about the size of the audience in advance, but the house was reasonably full – about 700. After a couple dozen hours’ worth of rehearsal, and perhaps an equal number of hours of practice at home, the singers, the orchestra and conductor, and the officers and staff members of the collaborating organizations came together to produce about an an hour and five minutes of complex and beautiful music, a great classic. It was a satisfying experience.

I joke around with fellow choristers after concerts: “Another piece of ephemera down the tubes!” Maybe I should not. To me the enjoyment of being part of the performance lasts much longer than that of the audience member, but the regret of having to stop working on a piece calls for a sort of distancing. I remind myself that there will be other pieces to sing, and start looking forward to the next thing. I will file this one in my memory as one of the most rewarding ever.

An independent review of the concert appeared today in the Albany Times Union.

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