The Sacramento Choral Calendar
UC Davis University Chorus & Alumni Chorus & Davis Chorale
Brahms - Ein deutsches Requiem - March 12, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
If this performance of the Brahms Requiem wasn't sold out, surely it came very close to filling the vast Mondavi Center at UC Davis. Apart from the full audience, my first impression on entering the concert hall was "That's an awful lot of singers — and the orchestra is pretty big, too." Indeed, the combination of the UC Davis University Chorus (88), UC Davis Alumni Chorus (74) and Davis Chorale (54) netted 216 singers (according to the program). And the orchestra numbered 85 players.
I had arrived at the concert with only a few minutes to spare before it began. First on the program was Hubert Parry's "Blest Pair of Sirens," a piece composed in 1887 and about which I had absolutely no prior knowledge. So I spent what little time I had scanning Jeffrey Thomas' typically excellent introduction to the music (see the attached program) and read through John Milton's poem which Parry had set to music. As I read, the concertmaster got the orchestra in tune and conductor Thomas entered and began the performance.
Click here to open the program in a new window.
I didn't have enough time to get anything but a vague grasp of what poet and composer were trying to convey. And as the chorus sang, I found myself wondering what they were thinking about as they performed. Did they understand the poem, and were they sensitive to the meaning of the words? The articulation of this enormous group of singers was good enough that I was able to follow their words in the program. But it wasn't any understanding of the text that moved me during this performance: it was the energy and passion of the singers.
Overall, this brief (12-minute) piece was a delightful discovery: beautiful music with many glorious moments, especially at its conclusion. It was as satisfying to listen to as it must have been to sing. And the singing was excellent. To me, they produced a quality ensemble sound, with remarkably good cutoffs, besides articulation, for a group of this size. I'd call them smart singers, too. I didn't see any faces obscured by music scores, and I was impressed with how carefully they watched conductor Thomas. Many seemed to have long passages memorized.
Thomas spoke briefly at the conclusion of "Blest Pair of Sirens," echoing his comments about the music that were printed in the program. He also used the opportunity to note that this is the 15th consecutive year of collaboration between the University Chorus and the Alumni Chorus, and he expressed his thanks for a number of behind-the-scenes individuals. Then he turned to conduct the evening's "main event."
Listening to the Brahms' A German Requiem (sung in German, of course) was something of an emotional experience for me. I've participated in several performances of the piece and attended several more. And I've heard or sung its most familiar melodies in other contexts. So as the orchestra and chorus began the comforting opening measures of "Selig sind" ("Blessed Are They"), I was suffused with the feeling of renewing my acquaintance with an old, cherished friend. The first notes of the chorus were ineffably sensitive. As they proceeded, I was glad to notice the relative strength of the tenor section — not to take anything away from the other sections. To my ear, there was a good balance of parts that will yield an excellent recording of this performance.
I followed the music with the score in my lap, quietly thankful to all the directors in my past who had helped me become familiar with this piece. I was able to see, as well as hear, how Brahms' inspired composing had led to such beauty and to the range of emotions embodied in the music. As a singer, your focus is on your part, and of course it dominates your experience of your own performance. How rewarding then to see, as well as hear, more fully what is going on in the other parts. The alto part is especially hard to pick out, and as I read my score, I acquired a greater appreciation for the intricacies of their line.
As the performance proceeded, I noticed delicate entrances, the restraint when sopranos and tenors hit their high A's, and the great sensitivity which director, singers and players brought to this classic of classics. I watched for the pianissimos, no small challenge for 200+ singers. Though a smaller ensemble ( in a smaller hall) might have achieved a more diminished sound, there was still great variety in the dynamics produced by this orchestra and chorus. And I'm sure all of us in the audience were thrilled by the dramatic, prolonged crescendos led by the tympani. Most importantly, thanks to the skill of the director, it felt like all the performers fully embraced the many moods of this masterwork. To me, they were all about faith in the afterlife, with a text that was Biblically-based, translated so powerfully and beautifully into music.
I must confess that, with my profound love of the interplay of voices, what I most appreciate about Brahms' Requiem, in comparison to those of Mozart, Verdi, Faure, etc., is that so much of the Brahms is choral, as opposed to solo, duet, or quartet. That said, I was impressed with the contribution of both soloists to this performance. The fourth and sixth sections of the Requiem featured extensive solos by baritone Jesse Blumberg. It was remarkable to me that he sang without music. Although his arms stayed firmly at his sides, I felt he was expressive, with a pleasing tone quality that I could listen to for hours. Soprano Mary Wilson also delivered her part from memory and with a very listenable quality to her voice. What was especially notable to me was the serenity and confidence of her demeanor. It seemed to me that her performance was understated: she made me feel that the music was more important than her instrument, even when she was in the higher parts of her range.
This work was full of lyrical passages, a profusion of stimulating fugues, sections with great excitement, and many moments that were simply rapturous. Having had to hold their applause for more than an hour, the audience was understandably full of pent-up emotion at the conclusion of the piece, and they expressed their appreciation as conductor Thomas carefully recognized the contributions of key sections of the orchestra — as well as chorus, soloists and Alison Skinner (director of the Davis Chorale) and Christian Baldini (director of the Symphony Orchestra). I'd say that our ability to sustain applause gave out sooner than our enthusiasm for what we had heard in this concert that introduced what was surely for most of us a new composition, while delivering a familiar and much-loved classic in a performance that was in every way authentic and eminently satisfying.