Friday, June 15, 2018

Los Angeles Master Chorale Revisits the Brahms Requiem

LA Master Chorale at Disney Hall in the Brahms Requiem

Disney Hall, Los Angeles Music Center
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Orchestra and Soloists


Angst is a constant presence in the new century, and the local music scene has picked up its zeitgeist as both mirror and remedy. Last weekend, the Ojai Music Festival’s usual bucolic mix of new music and old birdcalls was turned on its head by Music Director-cum-violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who completed on Sunday a long weekend of dark, even dystopian works. But down the coast on the same Sunday came, as if on cue, a sonic palliative for modern angst with the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s season finale performance of the Brahms Requiem

Preceding it, however, two recent a cappella choral works transitioned the audience's ears from a lean contemporary sensibility to the more familiar complexity of nineteenth-century Brahms. It was a savvy touch for Music Director Grant Gershon. Both of the new work’s respective composers, Caroline Shaw and David Lang, have prominently featured in recent seasons at the Ojai Music Festival.

Shaw’s haunting Fly Away I is a spar deconstruction of America’s church hymn tradition, depicting a spiritual sojourn from an insubstantial somewhere to a place perhaps never to be known. Lang’s Where You Go, another haunting piece -- receiving here its West Coast premiere -- quotes the biblical Ruth, who promises to follow wherever the widowed Naomi needs to journey. The reference to Ruth links directly to the fifth movement of the Brahms, based on the same text. Gershon had earlier observed of these works, “Both are open-ended as well, asking questions. This performance of the Brahms is the answer to the questions that the first two pieces will raise.” Ethereally delivered as preludes by the Chorale, the two pieces felt like angelic annunciations for the Brahms to follow.

The Requiem was inspired, in part, by aspects of Brahms’s personal life. His mentor, Robert Schumann had died after some years ill in an asylum, and Brahms had become close to his friend’s grieving wife, Clara. By the time he completed what was to be the work’s fifth movement, Brahms himself was lamenting the recent loss of his mother, in whose memory it was written. 

With real personalities so much a part of its genesis, Brahms made of this work a personal statement, assembling his own text with selections from the Gospels and Old Testament. He would focus this work less on those lost to death than those remaining in need of comfort and divine explanation. Brahms announces this agenda in the opening lines: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The Requiem, long on lyrical reflections of sorrow, is relatively shorter with reassuring promises of rejoicing, redemption, and triumph over death. By not over-employing the brass in particular, when these hopeful moments do come, they are cathartic. 

From a performance perspective, what can frustrate in this work is Brahms’s preference for slow tempi and thick textures. He writes felicitous vocal lines that skillfully interweave with each other, but their combined effects can, if not carefully delivered, lead to muddy  inner voices. The orchestral writing in particular is jam-packed with moving lines and colors, as well as close harmonies written not just in the treble regions but also in the bass. Colors can blend in these thick textures. 

Baritone Justin Hopkins
Likewise, the composer’s preference for moderate to slow tempi across seven movements, lovely as any single one is, can become soporific unless given careful attention in performance. While slow pacing is also an issue in each of the four Brahms symphonies, it is especially the case with the Requiem; its seven movements are nearly equivalent in scope to two full symphonies.

This is where a hall like the Disney, a conductor like Grant Gershon, and a choral powerhouse like the Master Chorale, can make a difference. These ensembles and their leader have known their way around this work for many years, having performed it here as recently as five years ago. By now they have finely tuned its pacing to the Disney's clean acoustics, which allow more distinct colorings than the thicker resonances of many other halls. 

Coming in at approximately 70 minutes, Gershon’s moderately brisk pacing -- faster than Karajan’s stately 75 minutes for DG, slower than Gardiner’s very quick 65 minutes for Philips – allowed for clear lines and lively movement. Gershon and his choral forces and orchestra managed to avoid lugubrious homogenizations of textures, as they shaped each Brahmsian phrase to maximum effect

Gershon with soprano Jeanine De Bique
The two soloists -- bright-voiced soprano Jeanine De Bique and authoritative baritone Justin Hopkins -- humanized the reflective drama. De Bique did so in the fifth movement with passages from the Book of Ruth, suggestive of Brahms’s mother. Hopkins, in movements three and six, reminded mourners of their mortality, even as he anticipated for all a better life to come after death. 

The orchestra's contribution was solid but not quite as precisely delivered as that of the vocal forces on this occasion. Minor intonation and phrasing issues cropped up now and again. The Chorale’s singers, however, triumphed in as clear and even a vocal a delivery of the text as I can ever remember. An impressive outing overall.

With twenty-two performances since the Music Center opened a half century ago, the Brahms Requiem remains a work not just well-known, but still very much beloved by L.A. audiences. 

Gershon conducts the Brahms Requiem at Disney Hall.

Further Thoughts on the Brahms Requiem 

Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), so named by Johannes Brahms because it was to be sung in the language of the people, not in priestly Latin, is so frequently performed one is tempted to take it for granted. Over an hour in length, its seven movements would constitute the composer’s longest musical statement. In it, Brahms steers clear of judgement day theatrics, leaving depictions of shock-and-awe to overtly dramatic composers like the earlier Berlioz and later Verdi.

Brahms had gained some of the inspiration for his Requiem from Franz Schubert’s then recently discovered cantata, Lazarus. Schubert's introverted drama was much concerned with how the living cope with loss, but he abandoned the project, for reasons unknown, at the point where Lazarus is buried and before he was brought back to life. Even so, the extensive torso remains a masterpiece of sustained mood, which impressed Brahms, and perhaps suggested how he would approach his own work of similar narrative.

Raised a Lutheran, Brahms positioned the work to dwell in a narrow emotional ground between sorrow and hope, hewing close to the pietistic sentiments of the Protestant Reformation. He had studied techniques of Germany's Baroque masters and, resident in Vienna for most of his career, was also a choral conductor there. Brahms's mastery of Baroque forms was imposing; his fugues in this work strike me as more proficient than many in the works of Beethoven. (The Missa Solemnis in particular comes to mind.)

On its path to solace, the Brahms Requiem, one could say, emits fifty shades of gray. Its reflective movements can even drag. Three of the seven have tempo markings of langsam (slow), three andante or mässig (moderate) and the last one feierlich (solemn). Lively sections conclude many of the movements, especially II and VI, but the main tempi throughout are slow.

There are those, notably the late music critic Alan Rich and composer Benjamin Britten, who could not abide the work. However, Brahms’s long ruminations on sorrow also give his moments of elation more cathartic value. By employing his brass sparingly, for instance, their arrival is all the more thrilling.

A Personal Note

Certain choral works are for some of us even more rewarding to appreciate from the inside (the chorister’s position) than the outside (the audience). Perhaps, because it was the first choral work I ever sang in with orchestra -- at Crenshaw Christian Church, in Inglewood, California -- it remains one of those scores inside of which I would still prefer to reside. For this reason, and for many more having to do with the work's intrinsic musical values, the Brahms Requiem still travels well for me through the years and into these troubled modern times.

As I depart this discussion, I would like to pay tribute to my first choral director, Don Fontana, who directed the choirs at Crenshaw Christian Church, in Inglewood during the 1960's. The church was located just a half block from my family home. Don was also our choral director at Morningside High School, and in my senior year there, after laying aside the clarinet of band days after my sophomore year, and the oboe of orchestra days after my junior, I sang in Don's choirs at school and church as a senior. Don was an inspirational man, a bundle of musical energy, and he became a close friend of  our family for life. Rest in Peace, Don Fontana. How lovely must be thy dwelling place.


Photo credits: Patrick Brown for LA Master Chorale

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