Transported: Choruses take us to Heaven
Bach Motet: Festival Chorus, the Virginia Consort, and the Youth Chorale
at Cabell Hall
Pictures of Johannes Brahms tend to show him in his later years, disguised from the nose down by a dark moustache and thick, gnomish beard. The only recognizable vestige of his youth is his bright, piercing gaze, gleaming out beneath a widow's peak, whittled into a Matterhorn by male-pattern baldness. In those photographs, he reminds more of the "Cradle Song" composer (the classic theme for Looney Tunes concussions) than the intense, sharp-featured young man who wrote Ein Deutsches Requiem.
Brahms began writing the piece in 1856, soon after the death of his close friend and mentor, Robert Schumann; he continued working on it throughout the next 12 years, which saw the sad loss of his mother in 1865.
The Requiem's debut in 1868 brought mixed criticism, for both its humanist approach and lack of Wagnerian high drama. Avoiding the standard Latin, Brahms chose to use Germanic text, out of his admiration for Martin Luther.
The result was unconventional, less run-of-the-mill doomsday; the words reflect more upon the small dead-ends of human conflict, and, over the seven movements, the process of finding comfort and completion (in the embrace of God).
Although the Requiem does not explicitly mention Jesus, or include redemptive terminology, the piece as a whole is not Christian-lite, as the Catholic critics of the time maintained. They misinterpreted Brahms' individualistic (and less tragic) attitude towards The End.
Section VI quintessentially makes his point– "Death is swallowed in victory. Death, where is your sting! Hell, where is your victory!"
Last Sunday afternoon, I returned to Old Cabell Hall's auditorium to hear the Requiem, in addition to selections by Bach and others, channeled by the best voices in the area. The Youth Chorale Treble Chorus began the program with three short, pretty pieces: "On this Day Join the Singing," by Giovani Maria Nanino; "Sit Nomen Domini" by George Handel, and "Panis Anglicus" by Cesar Franck. Olivia Bloom, a promising young violinist who made all-state last year, executed the accompanying melody to "Sit Nomen Domini" with considerable skill.
The Youth Chorale High School Chorus then took over, launching into the lively "El Grillo," by Josquin Des Prez, which was, if I heard correctly, about a heartbroken little cricket; the story of the sad chirper was followed by "Where E'er You Walk," a tender piece from Handel's opera Semele. (She was the girl who spontaneously combusted upon seeing Jupiter in all his "glory.")
The Virginia Consort led up to the intermission with the Bach motet, "Komm, Jesu, Komm," a prayer sung from the perspective of a tired and weary soul on his deathbed, ready to shed his physical form. The Consort's soprano section shone in this piece. I sometimes forget, with the steady diet of rock concerts, that words can sound like more than gargled gravel; it was a pleasant shock to hear so much bell-like clarity fill the air, in perfect pitch.
Intermission is the only thing that kept me from spontaneously combusting.
For the Requiem, the Virginia Consort was joined by the Festival Chorus and members of the Albemarle Symphony. As expected, the work did not mire itself for long in the swamps of death-dread.
During the third movement, I felt the chill crawl over the audience; Brahms lifted the veil and showed us as shadows, whirling within a blind "useless anxiety," reaching for wealth and esteem among the ephemera. Both soloists, Amy Cochrane, soprano, and Derrick Smith, baritone, possess intimidating resumes and impressive careers; Cochrane has twice been featured at Carnegie Hall, and Smith, in addition to performing at MOMA and the Schomberg Center, serves on the faculties of the Eastman School of Music, RIT, and Nazareth College.
The massive organizational efforts of conductor Judith Gary succeeded in every way possible. Judging by their faces at the close of the evening, Charlottesville's classical audiophiles had been transported to the place Brahms knew best– Heaven.