Choral Music Review



Chapel Hillians Take on Brahms & More

May 15, 2004 - Chapel Hill, NC:


If one were seeking a requiem for every day use, Brahms' German Requiem would be a good choice. It's far more ecumenical than most such works, and it is pretty much devoid of the hell-and-damnation passages that permeate so many others. For folks on the way out of this life and for those who mourn their departures, the less of that alternative-fate stuff one must deal with, all things considered, the better - especially since few of us are anything like saints. The Brahms also has the advantage of relative brevity - if it's done all by its lonesome, it lasts only a little over an hour, and it merits giving in one big gulp, rather than being broken up with an intermission. That's how the Chapel Hill Community Chorus presented it, in German, at the Bible Church on May 15, on a program titled "Songs of Light and Eternity." The work of the choir, the soloists, the orchestra, and the conductor kept the large audience constantly engaged.

The performance clearly had a great deal going for it, although the acoustics of the Bible Church made things somewhat dicey. We've heard solo artists and small ensembles there, and other CVNC ers have visited this venue from time to time for orchestral concerts - it is the NC Symphony's temporary home while Memorial Hall is being rebuilt.

CHCC director Sue T. Klausmeyer is an outstanding choral person, and her 125 or so singers performed admirably throughout the Brahms and four short opening works, too. The men are fairly equally divided between basses and tenors (there are some women in the latter section), but the sopranos and altos have a much larger presence, and there are more altos than male singers, combined. Nonetheless the balance was not a problem at any point during the concert. The soloists were soprano Penelope Jensen, long one of the Triangle's leading artists, and the music suited her admirably, so her singing gave non-stop pleasure. So too did the work of baritone Henry S. Gibbons, whose low A was as rich as a comparable organ pedal and whose other singing was radiant and clear. He has appeared in numerous area concerts and operas here and there, and he is, for the record, a freshly-minted Duke Ph.D. too - his degree is in biochemistry, and he's currently a post-doctoral fellow in microbiology at UNC, where he is studying tuberculosis.

The orchestra, a 43-person pickup band of considerable strength, included people from all over the Triangle, some of whom do not turn up in such undertakings very often. There was a near train-wreck at the start of Part V (which features the soprano soloist); elsewhere, few glitches intruded. Klausmeyer gave a great deal more attention to the orchestra than many choral leaders do.

The program included side-by-side texts and somewhat archaic translations - Chapel Hill resident Lara Hoggard has published a more current, singable English version. Most of the time the words were not needed, so clear was the diction and projection. This was especially true of the soloists, who stood to the director's right, but the work of the chorus was precise, too.

The music made its many lovely points without fail. The sections with soloists and chorus were beautifully integrated, and elsewhere much of the choral work was stirring. The choir gave insufficient emphasis to attacks, and the introductions of the lines of the several fugues were generally squishy, so the impact often made by these sections was weaker than usual. These and other staggered-entry passages must be nailed every time because they serve as reference points for the singers and listeners alike. (It was, incidentally, these fugues that roused the ire of George Bernard Shaw, writing as Corno di Bassetto.) It is easy to approach Brahms with too much gentleness. Here, greater emphasis would surely have paid bigger dividends.

All that said, however, the acoustics played recurring tricks. There is no shell, but some of the singers were under the little porch that covers the altar. Others were off to the left and to the right of this section of the church, the ceiling of which is high over the platform but rakes downward toward the back of the sanctuary. The concert began with four a cappella pieces - two somewhat strange-sounding works by Edwin Fissinger (one of which, the notes revealed, was supposed to sound a bit peculiar) and pieces by Tallis (sung by the CHCC's chamber choir) and Morten Lauridsen. In the works sung by the full choir, the first two of which also involved the soloists, there were occasional bits of atypical focus on individual choral voices, doubtless due to the acoustics. This was less of a problem in the Tallis, for which the small group formed in front of their colleagues, in the center of the "stage." And it was less of a problem, chorally, in the Brahms - but there the spotlighting shifted to the orchestra, which was spread out across the entire platform (again, with no shell to provide aural support and direction). As a result, individual instruments stood out in ways that were often bothersome - lines played by the low brass, harp, high winds, and even the basses and cellos were often audible as individual musical strands, rather than a well-oiled ensemble. Since we've heard this choir many times and know also the work of many of the instrumentalists, the fault must surely lie with the venue. None of this seemed particularly distressing to the audience, however - the performers were rewarded with extended applause and a standing ovation, too. And none of this diminished significantly the overall effect, as an old choir-director friend used to say.... Brahms delivered one of the great requiems in captivity, and the artists who brought his music to life on this occasion did so, for the most part, very handsomely, indeed.