Presenting Brahms' German Requiem in a 1 hour 15 minute performance united the Hendersonville Symphony under the able direction of Maestro Thomas Joiner, the Carolina Concert Choir and Cantabile, soprano Tamara Matthews, and baritone Joshua Copeland. Matthews was a stand-in for Erin Kelley, who was unable to sing for health reasons.
It is just the luck of the draw that the First Baptist Church is undergoing renovations and things were less than perfect for the performance, including a monster dumpster blocking the front doors and part of the hall partitioned off; perhaps it was a plus that the pews, at least where I could see, had been removed and there were upholstered straight chairs in their place.
The evening got off to an especially exciting start as a result of the announcement, by Symphony president Bill Humleker, that the NEA had awarded the Symphony a $10,000 Challenge America Reaching Every Community Fast Track Grant in support of this performance. The HSO is one of only three organizations in North Carolina to receive this grant. In addition, this performance of the German Requiem was supported financially as a memorial to members of the Lackey and Barnett families. These are all exciting markers of the excellence of the HSO in its thirty-fifth anniversary year.
This reviewer deliberately eschewed taking a libretto along so that he might be on the same footing as the preponderance of the audience. It is unfortunate that in an 80-page program, space was not found to print the German text the chorus was singing. Although the singers seemed adequately prepared in German diction, the artsy translation provided in the program was of no use in figuring out exactly which bit of the rather turgid German of the original the chorus was singing at any given time.
The piece consists of seven sections. Reference will be made to the sections by number, and by quoting the English translation of the program.
Section I. The low strings were muddy in the introduction but soon came right. It was a fairly frequent occurrence during the performance that the first orchestral phrase was not at all good and then everyone would come together for really excellent playing for the rest of the section. In this section, as generally throughout, there was excellent balance between chorus and orchestra.
Section II is marked by the recurring theme and words, "Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras." This much was clearly understood, since it was printed in German. Then the whole chorus merged into a blur until the theme recurred. "But the word of the Lord" did succeed as really grand. The chorus was having a little trouble keeping up in the next bit, "The redeemed of the Lord;" but all came together nicely in the succeeding forte, "Eternal joy."
Section III, "Lord, teach me that I must have an end," is the first appearance of a soloist, in this case Copeland. He has a strong, youthful voice and brought a note of optimism to this section. Towards the end, the winds were having trouble staying together, both with themselves and the orchestra. About the same place, the tenors went through a patch of yelling but then became much more restrained. The final "The souls of the righteous" was a redemption; everyone was together, in agreement, and doing very nicely. This phrase was great.
Section IV is the old church-choir standby best known as "How lovely is thy dwelling place." After what was beginning to seem like a trademark ragged entry, everyone pulled together and produced a strong sense of joy and hope. The singers and players manifested a strong sense of conviction, with an excellent contrast between FFF and ppp. Although the direction started strong, it seemed to peter out; the last phrase was devoid of any feeling of going somewhere rhythmically. Having mentioned these faults, still the overall sound was absolutely beautiful, with strong singing and playing and excellent intonation.
Section V included soprano soloist Tamara Matthews. It is regrettable that she chose a glittery, shimmery silver bar dress instead of a quieter black performance dress such as female members of the Carolina Concert Choir are required to wear. Her German was completely unintelligible, much less understandable than the chorus, but her tone and intonation were lovely. There was a fairly strong sense that the vibrato was controlling the singer, instead of the other way round. The chorus really got into this rhythmically, bobbing their books in unison.
Section VI, with its emphasis on "Statt," had more esses and t-t-t-ts than the chorus could well manage, although Copeland had no difficulty in that area. The overall effect was truly lovely, far too lovely to be singing about Death's sting and Hell's victory. Handel had much the same problem with this phrase in Messiah. Perhaps composers just like writing about hell. The orchestra was especially effective in this section. The wonderful over-arching walking bass was just right!
The beginning, just the beginning, of Section VII, had the by-now for-sure trademark entry. This time it was pitch problems, which did not last long at all. Esses were an issue here as well, along with some burbling in the brasses.
Having mentioned a number of small faults, it is extremely important to say that the performance as a whole was masterful and strong, with high praises going to the CCC, Cantabile, and HSO, as well as to their respective maestros, Brad Gee, Edgar Billups, and Thomas Joiner, as well as thanks to NEA and the Lackey-Barnett family.