The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Master Singers
Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem - March 9, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
Billed as a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, there was much more to this concert, introduced as “songs of comfort.” Explaining the choice of that theme, Artistic Director, Dr. Ralph Hughes, told the audience that the concert was dedicated to the memory of Perla Warren, an influential and much-loved music faculty member at American River College and force in the music community in Sacramento and well beyond. (Read the dedication to her by clicking here to open the printed program in a new window.)
The concert began with “Earth Song” by Frank Ticheli. It was sung a cappella, and I found the control and expressiveness of the chorus to be instantly disarming. I released my impulse to analyze and let the beautiful sounds wash over me. The resonance of the nearly filled St. Francis Church was perfect for this piece, enhancing the stunningly beautiful blend of the ensemble and the richness of the bass section. It was nothing less than a sample of choral artistry of the highest order.
Eric Whitacre’s “I thank You God for most this amazing day” (sic) raised the emotional level several notches. Whitacre’s distinctive harmonies were delivered with disciplined, accurate singing that expressed a wide range of choral sounds and emotions. The room swallowed the words, but fortunately they were in the program, and there was enough light to read them. Despite the fact that the poem was explained as highly important to Whitacre, what I found most compelling about this piece was the sophisticated, adventuresome music that explored fresh musical ideas from one moment to the next.
Next up was “How Can I Keep From Singing?” a loved favorite of many. This was an innovative, yet melodic arrangement with piano accompaniment that featured a fresh approach to each verse of the song. As I listened, I was aware of the sharp cut-offs and the constant variation in dynamics. And I couldn’t help but be impressed by Justin Vaughn’s solo at the beginning of the piece.
There was another good solo, this one by Pat Pagendarm, in the following piece with the ponderous title of “The Road Home, Prospect Tune from Southern Harmony, 1835.” To my ear, this song brought back the feelings evoked by the lush harmonies of the first selection in the program. I was struck with the pure tone of each section, and with all the choruses I’ve heard live or in recordings, it’s hard for me to imagine a more beautiful choral sound than the one I heard on this piece.
At this point, the chorus put down their music books, and sang “Non Nobis, Domine” from memory. It had a repetitive text in a spirited, driving setting that built to a dramatic conclusion. To me, the whole piece was very listenable.
Next, “Laudamus Te” from Mozart’s Mass in C minor was presented by guest soprano soloist, Jessica Siena. Her big voice filled the church, and I found her singing nimble and effortless. It was clearly a virtuoso performance, as was the piano accompaniment by Heidi Van Regenmorter.
Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem was introduced by chorus member Rev. Lucy Bunch. In a very articulate and enlightening talk, she discussed the concepts of grief and mortality and how Brahms addressed them in the Requiem, and she alerted us to what to listen for as the piece progressed.
I have sung this piece myself on a couple of occasions, and as I listened, following the score, I was reminded how brilliantly it was composed. And the performance by chorus and soloists was worthy of this masterpiece. Brahms wrote two versions of the Requiem, one for a full orchestra and another for accompaniment by two pianos. We heard the latter, and the flawless work of accompanists Heidi Van Regenmorter and Joseph Silmaro was simply astounding.
For a singer, this is a difficult piece to sing, full of surprises and requiring thorough preparation and intense concentration. My overall take on the Requiem was that it was an authentic performance, obviously demonstrating much thought and effort in effecting what Brahms intended.
This concert of “songs of comfort” closed on an exultant note with “I Will Sing Hallelujah,” a phrase repeated constantly throughout the piece. I was amazed that the chorus (and the accompanist) had the strength to pull this piece off so well, but they maintained the same quality sound – tone and blend – as at the start. And the smiles I saw on so many faces seemed to underline the intent of the music, which was expressive of joy and determination in the face of obstacles. As the piece closed, I and the rest of the audience quickly rose to our feet in applause, energized, satisfied – and no doubt comforted – by what we had heard.