Theatre Review Print

Harry Davidson's Brahms Journey

February 21, 2003 - Durham, NC:

Harry Davidson, the Duke Symphony Orchestra's inspired and inspiring Music Director, has taken the DSO on the road. This is pretty remarkable for a college or university group of any persuasion, but in this instance it provides further evidence of the tremendous strides made in the past several seasons by what some call the Great Gothic Rockpile's outstanding orchestral organization. Davidson deserves the credit for mobilizing the students (and a few community members), forging a coherent ensemble, and infusing the group with passion and fire. Last year, his emphasis was on Mozart, culminating in a pair of splendid concert performances of Don Giovanni in April 2002. The title role was taken by baritone Brian Johnson, whom CVNC colleague Elizabeth Kahn called one of the "two rising stars to watch for" (see Archives). This singer is back in the Triangle this weekend for a pair of performances of Brahms' German Requiem , the first of which was presented - on the road, as it were - at Campbell University on February 21. (The program will be repeated tomorrow, February 23, in Duke Chapel.)

Brahms' choral music in general and the German Requiem in particular get insufficient respect. I'm loath to knock our critical forebear George Bernard Shaw, but it's a fact that, at first, he found the Requiem to be a " stupendous bore." It may be that, in some circumstances, but none of the live performances heard here - no, not even the worst of them - has come across that way to these ears. It is possible to hear the work in German, as Davidson's forces are presenting it, in English (as the Concert Singers of Cary will give it on Palm Sunday), and in other languages (including Italian, in a recording of a wonderful RAI performance with Cartieri and Christoff, led by Bruno Walter). There are splendid recordings by many of the greatest conductors of the last century, ranging from a brisk reading by Masur (in German) to a startlingly slow one by Toscanini (in English) to a frequently-bizarre reading led by Mengelberg. Generally speaking, I concur with Lara Hoggard, whose 1997 edition is available from Hinshaw Music of Chapel Hill - the German Requiem works best when sung in the vernacular. Still, music lovers with any appreciable degree of familiarity with the work will surely appreciate Davidson & Co.'s reading, and there's much to be said for having young people who are doing it for the first time do it in the original language.

The concert began with Brahms' Tragic Overture, realized with levels of technical skill and musical integrity that were, in all honesty, unimaginable in the period preceding Davidson's arrival at Duke. There were some problems at Campbell, in Scott Concert Hall, a small, horn-shaped hall with a stage that was packed with the 70+ instrumentalists (and, later, by perhaps 180 singers); the problems related to some wayward woodwinds and brass, mostly, that were - mostly - inconsequential, in the overall scheme of things.

Johnson, who has two of the three solos in Ein deutsches Requiem , was partnered by Stephanie Northcutt, whose voice was, in the actual performance, warmed up and gleaming. (One problem with road shows is that the halls themselves are "new" to the artists, and in Buies Creek there were brief run-throughs and touch-ups, in part to check balances, that extended close to the actual starting time; during the soprano's rehearsal bits, we wondered..., but she came through splendidly.)

The chorus was large (and will be larger still at Duke because two choirs sat out the excursion to Campbell). In this regard, Davidson has done yet another remarkable thing, for he involved singers from seven institutions - Campbell, Duke, Elon, Meredith, NCSU, Peace and Shaw. These singers were prepared by their own directors (Phillip Morrow, Rodney Wynkoop, Stephen Futrell, Lisa Fredenburgh, Randall Meder, James Smith, and James Abbington, respectively) and then brought together for what was said to have been a single rehearsal that may have been battered by our recent spate of adverse weather. The singers were mostly - but not exclusively - students, and thinking back on my own college-days exposure to this wonderful work I can only assume that most of them were singing it - and perhaps singing in German, too-for the very first time. Never mind all the obstacles, however: this was a stirring performance, rendered by a choral ensemble that sounded consistently unified, as if its members had been doing this sort of thing together for many moons. As with the band, there were some minor glitches - some tentative entrances in exposed passages (one where the altos and tenors sing together lingers in the memory) and a couple of near-false entries (singers must watch the conductor all the time and trust their own, as opposed to the herd's, instincts!) - but, as with the band, these did not appreciably detract from the overall splendor of the evening. Brahms' score worked its customary magic, and there were surely many deeply-moved people in the hall, on both sides of the footlights.

The work was broken for an intermission after Part 3, which ends with one of the score's two large fugues. It's as good a place for a break as any, although no break at all is preferable. The problem with that is that the Requiem lasts over an hour (it was an hour and thirteen minutes as given at Campbell), and that can be a longish sit for the audience.

The major flaw of the evening was, alas, an ongoing balance problem involving the timpani, which provide the heartbeat that runs through much of the music (similar to the "heartbeat" in Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration"). Again and again we longed for harder sticks and greater vehemence from the timpanist, who was nonetheless more than adequate when she could be heard. The band could have used two or three times more basses, too, but the other low strings performed admirably. The work of many principals consistently exceeded expectations; among the stars was oboist Katrina Mergen. (I hope the printed roster accurately reflects the people who were actually there!) This was a wonderful performance of a work that is in large measure of our time , one that in theological terms has perhaps greater appeal than many traditional masses. For sure, it provided an evening full of reassurance and hope for the living , and that was good. The repeat at Duke on Sunday afternoon (see our calendar for details) should be even better, although the acoustics of Scott Hall are more favorable than the Chapel's.

The last of the Davidson-DSO mostly-Brahms concerts this season, slated for Baldwin Auditorium on April 9, will feature the master's Symphony No. 2 in D.