Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Supplication, Serenade, and Cosmogony at Long Beach

The Long Beach Camerata Singers and UCLA Chamber Singers, with soloists Elissa Johnston
and Kevin Deas, perform Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, with the LBSO under Music
Director Eckart Preu.


Long Beach Symphony, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach

Some politicians are prone to saying that their attitudes to certain issues have “evolved”—and that does sum up my feelings toward Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45. Time was when its lack of the Verdi Requiem's operatic flamboyance and intensity, or Berlioz’s apocalyptic grandeur and extraordinary orchestral innovation, were minus points: perhaps as a hangover from first getting to know it via now-forgotten and less-than-ideal performances, there seemed always the threat that this choral magnum opus of Brahms’ earlier years could turn out simply dull.

But comparisons are indeed odious, and last Saturday’s performance of the Requiem by the Long Beach Symphony, Long Beach Camerata Singers, UCLA Chamber Singers, and soloists Elissa Johnston and Kevin Deas, all under the baton of LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu (right), was the perfect storm to blow away any last tatters of such a view: a cogent, lovingly-shaped account, clocking in at a trim 65 minutes or thereabouts, sung with skill, commitment, and palpable joy by the choirs, and underpinned by and clothed in orchestral playing of depth, sensitivity and poise.

By omitting the Requiem’s ad lib organ part, and with it any “churchy” connotations, Maestro Preu nailed his colors to the mast that this is essentially a humanistic rather than a narrowly religious work—a view that had been adumbrated in his rewarding pre-concert conversation with Dr. James Bass (below, left), Artistic Director of the Camerata Singers, and Mr. Deas.

The removal of that sepulchral rumble aerated Brahms’ textures in the lower register of the orchestra and exposed fascinating details often obscured. At the very opening, marked Ziemlich langsam und mit Ausdruck (Rather slow and with expression) one could hear far more clearly than usual the two low horns an octave apart: an arresting sound, at once ominous but somehow vulnerable. Again, at the beginning of the third movement, they perfectly complemented Mr. Deas’s oaken tones as he began his first big solo.

Brahms in 1868, the year he completed
the German Requiem.
Brahms began composing the Requiem in the wake of his mother’s death early in 1865, and it’s often been opined that in it he also memorialized his mentor and friend Robert Schumann. The work’s growth was spasmodic and protracted: movements I, II and IV were written by the end of April 1865, but the remainder of what was conceived as a six-movement whole was not completed until August 1866. This had its premiere, to considerable acclaim, in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday, 1868, but within a month Brahms had added a seventh movement, to be inserted between the existing IV and V.

For his texts Brahms did not use the traditional Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, instead selecting verses in the Old and New Testaments and Apocrypha from the Lutheran Bible, and in so doing side-stepped anything overtly doctrinal. Rather than redemption through Christ’s sacrifice, or condemnation for unbelievers (no Dies Irae here), the message is comfort for the mourning, acknowledgment of the transience of life, and a measure of aspiration for something after death.

Kevin Deas.
Musically, Brahms embraces the richest and widest of contrasts, from gentle consolation to implacable fortitude to exuberant hope—the latter expressed in propulsive contrapuntal and fugal writing for the chorus, especially in movements II, III, and VI. The massed Long Beach forces excelled in all of this, perhaps most notably in II, which was propelled from the solemn funeral march of Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras (For all flesh is as grass) into the fugal Allegro non troppo at Die Erlöseten des Herrn werden wieder kommen (And the ransomed of the Lord shall return) with a galvanic sense of accumulated tension being released.

Elissa Johnston.
The baritone soloist only appears in movements III and VI, while the soprano has even less to do: nonetheless Ms. Johnston duly seized her moment in movement V, exquisitely floating the solo line from the opening Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (And ye now therefore have sorrow) onward, while Mr. Deas was as sonorously reflective as could be desired in his two movements. Given the uniqueness of the German Requiem’s text and Brahms’ response to it, one’s only regret about the performance was that the words were neither projected as supertitles nor printed in or enclosed with the program book.

Brahms’ Requiem, unlike the Verdi, Berlioz or Dvořák, is a little too short to fill a whole concert but—as with the Requiems of such varied composers as Donizetti, Stanford, and Arnold Rosner—only requires an additional 25-30 minutes of programming to make up the full evening. The latter half of Maestro Preu’s imaginative solution was to turn to another composer who was a past master at cherry-picking texts from many sources to suit his expressive purposes, Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (center, back row) and
Sir Henry Wood (center, front row) with the
Serenade to Music’s 16 original singers. Their
recording was recently remastered, together
with solo performances by each of the singers.
However, unlike his large-scale choral works Sancta Civitas and Dona Nobis Pacem, for the Serenade to Music, composed by Vaughan Williams in 1938 to mark the 50th anniversary of conductor Sir Henry Wood's first concert, the composer chose a single text, from William Shakespeare, and set Lorenzo’s speech to Jessica in praise of music from Act V, Scene 1, of The Merchant of Venice for 16 celebrated singers of the day (right).

After 32 measures of orchestral introduction the singers come together as a chorus for the first four lines, but thereafter enter sequentially as soloists, singing one or two lines each, and only again together in four brief instances. The total effect is of magical intimacy and a rare perfect match between text and music.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1936.
Given the large choir, and the fact that RVW later made versions of the Serenade for SATB soloists plus chorus, and for chorus only (both with orchestra), I wondered whether Maestro Preu would opt for either of those, but in the event his performance retained the solo contributions, albeit shared between 10 singers rather than 16, and used the full chorus elsewhere.

All drawn from the Long Beach Camerata Singers, these were Emily Scott, Sarah Lonsert, Maddie Reynolds (sopranos), Kate Gremillion, Kim Mendez (altos), David Morales, Dongwhi Baek (tenors), and Randall Gremillion, Brandon Guzman, Connor Licharz (basses).

This really was a solution that made the best of both worlds, with the effect maintained in the main body of the piece of the differing solo voices seeming to hand on each to the next the jeweled words, but book-ended by and briefly interspersed with the sumptuous combination of full chorus and orchestra. Finally, the seraphic playing by Concertmaster Roger Wilkie of the violin solo that suffuses the introduction made me think that yet another of RVW’s arrangements of the Serenade, for violin and orchestra alone, would grace any future concert…

Serenade to Music.
Though the LBSO’s devoted playing was integral to the success of both the Brahms and the Vaughan Williams, neither work enabled the orchestra to properly show off its purely virtuosic chops. That, however, had already been remedied in the opening item. Many composers have been drawn to the cosmos as a subject, and to judge by its opening movement, Aleph, the Cosmic Trilogy by Guillaume Connesson (b.1970) is a worthy addition to the roster.

Guillaume Connesson.
Reviewers of its only commercial recording so far likened its sound-world to a range of other composers: for me the ones that came most immediately to mind were two Johns—Adams and Williams—given the prevalence of strong but intricately detailed and restlessly changing rhythmic patterns, punchy scoring with plenty of percussion (the opening represents nothing less than the Big Bang itself!), and in Aleph’s latter half, an aspiring theme emerging on violas that brought to mind ET and Elliott’s aerial bike-ride across the Moon’s disc.

It would be easy to call the piece derivative, but in this performance Aleph made a marvelously invigorating concert-opener, greatly contrasted with the works to come. The LBSO under Maestro Preu threw themselves into it with galvanic energy, commitment and, so far as one could tell, accuracy—proving yet again to be a virtuoso orchestra that seemingly can take on and conquer any challenge it's faced with, however unfamiliar. Bravo!

Overall this quite splendid concert made one look forward even more to the one remaining blockbuster program in the LBSO’s 2023-24 season: Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on June 1—will it really work with those two pieces in that order? We’ll see...


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, Saturday, March 9, 2024, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Joseph Hower; Eckart Preu: Caught in the Moment Photography; Dr. James Bass: Long Beach Camerata Singers; Brahms:; Kevin Deas, Elissa Johnston: artists' websites; Serenade to Music CD cover: Courtesy Albion Records; Vaughan Williams: National Portrait Gallery, London; Guillaume Connesson: Christophe Peus (composer website).

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