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In 1868, when Johannes Brahms premiered Ein deutsches Requiem, it rejuvenated his career. Always feeling under the cloud of Beethoven's genius (how do you write a symphony after Beethoven's magnificent nine?), he had sketched numerous works but did not have the confidence to complete them. After the success of this enormous choral work, he had the confidence to complete and release his first symphony and chamber works that had been closeted until then.
It is believed that A German Requiem was influenced by the recent deaths of Brahms's mother and his patron Robert Schumann, but it is not a memorial to any individual but rather a deeply humanistic work for all mankind. Brahms wrote not in Latin (like the requiems of Mozart, Berlioz and later Verdi) but in German. He used not the form of the traditional requiem mass of the Christian church, but poetry that he pieced together from the Lutheran Bible (the German language version of the Jewish Bible, the New Testament and the Apocrypha). Rather than dwelling on the deceased person, the terror of death, the Day of Judgment (Dies Irae) and supplication for relief from sin, his work focused on the living, on the survivors who must adapt to the death of a loved one.
This weekend, in the Arden Presbyterian Church, the Asheville Choral Society (directed by Melodie Galloway) and the Asheville Symphony Chorus (directed by Michael Lancaster) combined forces to create a 220-voice choir that sang the work with soloists Sidney Outlaw, baritone, and Simone Vigilante, soprano. The accompanying 42 instrumentalists consisted of a stripped-down Asheville Symphony Orchestra.
The 75-minute work, in seven movements, was performed without intermission, conducted on Friday night by Dr. Galloway. There will be a repeat performance on Saturday, November 9, 2013, at 3:30 p.m. with the same musicians but this time conducted by Dr. Lancaster.
The underlying theme is of transition from anxiety to comfort. The theme is announced in the opening movement "Selig sind, die da Leid tragen" ("Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted") and echoed in the seventh movement "Selig sind die Toten" ("Blessed are the dead"). It soon became apparent that the chorus was approaching the Requiem with intelligence as well as emotion, recognizing the symmetry of the work, the recurring motives, and the arc of the narrative. It was a tribute to the preparation done by the two directors and to the musicianship of the chorus members.
Ms. Vigilante was adequate to her role, while Mr. Outlaw's baritone voice was outstanding. His voice has a magnificent resonance, and he uses a narrow vibrato that leads to a centered tone. He has the vocal power to balance against a 220-member choir; what more can we say?
What else was noteworthy? As reported above, the chorus presented the work as an organic whole, with integrity from start to finish. But of course there were highlights. The abrupt changes (subito fortes and subito pianos) were uniformly good. The fugue that concludes the sixth movement was executed with dignity and heartfelt feeling.
Were there deficiencies? Of course. After nailing the sixth movement fugue, the choir lost its focus and had a ragged entry at the beginning of the seventh movement. At times, the tenor section struggled in its high range, with a resulting harshness. And the principal disappointment was due to the size of the orchestra. The woodwinds were a pleasure throughout the evening, but twenty string players simply did not produce the lush string sound that sixty can provide to thrill you in a big work like this.
I had no illusions that this performance would surpass the one I heard in the 1970s when I was living in Connecticut. The venue was Carnegie Hall, the choir was the Wiener Singverein and the orchestra was the Berlin Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan, late in his career and using a stool but still commanding nuances from his orchestra with the slightest motion of his fingers. Dr. Galloway had to work harder than Karajan, but she achieved a high level of success. It was too bad that Asheville doesn't have a hall and a budget to use the complete Asheville Symphony Orchestra.
For information about the afternoon repeat on November 9, see the sidebar.