by Michael Caruso
In a gesture of courage many would call foolhardy, the musical forces at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill performed Johannes Brahms’ “Ein Deutsches Requiem” (A German Requiem) Sunday afternoon, March 4. Conducted by the congregation’s music director, Daniel Spratlan, and accompanied by pianists Laura Ward & Ken Lovett, the Church’s Gallery choir and vocal soloists Rebecca Siler and Jeremy Galyon gave this unique Requiem the most potently intimate rendition I’ve ever encountered.
In the wake of the death of his mother, Brahms chose to compose a Requiem unencumbered by past traditions. Rather than rely on the ancient Latin text of the Mass for the Dead, he gathered together texts from the German translation of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. By quoting verses from the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels and the Epistles, Brahms gave himself the words that meant the most to his grieving heart and soul.
Not surprisingly, he created a score unique in his own canon and in the entire repertoire of sacred choral music. While no one can deny the poignancy of Mozart’s “Requiem Mass” or the operatic extravagance of Verdi’s “Manzoni Requiem” or the modal antiquity of Faure’s “Requiem Mass,” and they all rely on the traditional Latin text used by countless other composers throughout the ages. Not so with Brahms’ “A German Requiem.” Because its texts were chosen individually by a particular individual composer, the music those words inspired is as equally individualistic as they are, and it sounds like nothing else ever composed.
While it is true that Brahms’ orchestration for “A German Requiem” is among the most evocative he ever penned, the reduction of the orchestral score for four-hand piano was arranged by Brahms, himself. It conjures up the entire tonal palette of a symphony orchestra yet delineates all those colors in a more intimate and, therefore, more touching language.
When played by peerless keyboard artists such as Laura Ward (a founder of Lyric Fest and a member of the congregation) and Ken Lovett (the Church’s organist) on an 1896 Steinway & Sons grand piano, the simpler arrangement comes close to being preferable. Interestingly, the Steinway was built the year before Brahms died.
Spratlan proved a masterful conductor. He began slowly and deliberately. He allowed the themes to build organically one upon the next over the piano accompaniment in the opening “Blessed are they that mourn.” By the conclusion of the first movement, the choir was in the full cry of Brahms’ grief.
Brahms caught the eerie quality of “For all flesh is as grass” through an opening choral melody that recalls medieval plainsong in its utter yet powerful simplicity. Spratlan directed his singers to offer an ever-growing crescendo to declaim the text’s eternal truths of life’s inevitable passing. He then lightened the touch with an almost Schubert-like lyricism.
Baritone Jeremy Galyon delivered the third movement’s “Lord, teach me that I must have an end” with the profundity of an Old Testament prophet like Elijah, his voice dark-hued and his phrasing stentorian. The choir projected the emotional tumult of the text via a clear delivery of Brahms’ complex counterpoint.
Spratlan and his choristers transformed the mood beautifully by singing the fourth movement’s “How lovely are thy dwelling places” like a gentle lullaby for a shepherd cradling a lamb. Soprano Rebecca Siler’s towering rendition of “You now have sorrow, but I shall see you again” reminded one and all that Brahms could be “Wagnerian” when he wanted to be, just as he could channel Bach’s counterpoint in the baritone/choral sixth movement, “For we have here no continuing city.”
Once again, Galyon sang splendidly and Spratlan commanded every detail without losing sight of the movement’s final measure. He rounded off the Requiem’s circle of life and death and life eternal with a moving reading of “Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord from henceforth.” His choristers’ voices sounded as fresh and sustained as they had at the start of what was an unforgettable performance of a matchless masterpiece.
PIFFARO ON THE HILL
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill will host Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, in concert Saturday, March 10, at 7:30 p.m. Joined by guests Kiri Tollaksen on cornetto and Adam Bregman and Erik Schmalz on sackbuts, the ensemble will present a program entitled “Back Before Bach.”
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1720) grew up in a family of wind players and a world rich in the sounds of shawms, sackbuts, dulcians, recorders, krumhorns, bagpipes, trumpets and drums. These, and many like them, are the predecessors of the modern instruments that comprise chamber ensembles and symphony orchestras today.
The concert will feature Renaissance polyphony by Heinrich Isaac, Heinrich Fink and Stephen Maher, hymns by Martin Luther (Bach, himself, and his family were devout Lutherans), Johann Walther and Michael Praetorious, virtuosic instrumental displayed by Jakob Obrecht, Antoine Brumel and Ludwig Senfl, fascinating chromaticism by Orlando de Lassus and Jakob Handl, and examples of the sweet dance music that underlies so much of the orchestral and solo instrumental music of Bach and his sons.
For more information call 215-235-8469 or visit www.piffaro.org.
Intercultural Journeys will present the internationally renowned Indonesian cross-gender dancer Didik Nini Thowok Sunday, March 11, 7 p.m. The performance will take place in International House, 3701 Chestnut St., in University City.
Didik’s work combines classical modern and contemporary Indonesian dance techniques. It explores the intersecting layers of gender and cultural identity.This will be Didik’s first performance in the Philadelphia area.
Longtime Chestnut Hill resident Miriam Fisher Schaefer works as the board treasurer of Intercultural Journeys. “I first learned about Intercultural Journeys (IJ) in 2003 through one of its founders, Sheldon Thompson,” Schaefer explained. “Sheldon knew that I am a music lover and am interested in international peace work because of my work as CFO for the American Friends Service Committee in the 1990s. I attended IJ concerts for many years and also provided some ‘pro bono’ consulting work on financial matters.
“Every time I came away with a new cultural understanding. Whether it was Vivaldi being played on a Chinese erhu, Native American flute music played by a member of the Navajo Nation accompanied by Udi Bar David (of the Philadelphia Orchestra) on the cello, or Brazilian capoeira, which is a combination of acrobatics, dance and music developed by Angolan slaves in the 16th century. I have a limited idea of what to expect from Didik’s performance of traditional Indonesian dance, but I know I will come away amazed.
“But more important than the variety of cultural experience, I come away every time celebrating the unity of human beings through artistic expression and reaffirmed in my belief that there is more that unites us than divides us.”
Schaefer added, “I love Chestnut Hill. I took a job in Wynnewood a few years ago and had the misery of a Lincoln Drive/City Avenue commute every day. I toyed with the idea of moving to the Main Line for a while but realized I could never leave our wonderful village!”
For more information about Intercultural Journeys and Didik Nini Thowok’s performance, call 215-387-2310.
Michael Tilson Thomas took to the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra to guest conduct the ensemble in three concerts, March 1-3, in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. The program’s principal work was Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Opus 74, “Pathetique.”
Tchaikovsky composed his Sixth Symphony in 1893, the very year of his death in St. Petersburg, Russia. It has been a part of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s repertoire since Fritz Scheel conducted it in 1901, one year after the ensemble’s founding.
Since then, it has been championed by such maestros as Stokowski, Ormandy, Toscanini, Muti, Sawallsich, Eschenbach and Nezet-Seguin, to name only those who have had an ongoing relationship with the Philadelphians. Eugene Ormandy alone recorded it five times, making his glistening, lush interpretations the symphonic world’s “gold standard.”
As with the music of his German contemporary, Johannes Brahms, a conductor must decide upon the primary approach to interpreting Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and, subsequently, the secondary tact to be taken. With Brahms’ four symphonies, it’s usually the view that the composer was basically an adherent of the classicism of the past who invested his symphonies with the hyper-emotionalism of the romantic era in which he lived.
With Tchaikovsky, it’s almost always the case that the opposite tack is taken. Tchaikovsky was a super-sentimental romantic at heart who could successfully funnel his musical impulses through the prism of the classical symphony. Effective interpretations of either Brahms’ four or Tchaikovsky’s six symphonies are characterized by a clear delineation of the two options for either composer.
Tilson Thomas, the soon-to-be former music director of the San Francisco Symphony, is one of America’s premier conductors. When he took over the ensemble in 1995, it was a highly regarded orchestra but not considered one of the so-called “Big Five” of Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago and New York. Since that time, the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have elbowed their way into the elite grouping to make at the very least a “Big Seven” in America.
Tilson Thomas led a performance Saturday evening that was good but not better than that. He marshaled his forces carefully in the opening “Adagio-Allegro non troppo,” headed in the right direction, and everyone arrived safe-and-sound but without a hint of excitement. The “Allegro con grazia” was played gracefully but not graciously. The “Allegro molto vivace” gathered steam as it went along but with none of the czarist martial brilliance I recall from Muti’s renditions. And the closing “Adagio lamentoso” lacked pathos to say nothing of the “Pathetique” of the Symphony’s moniker. Everyone played well, but then again, they always do.
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