For their final concert of the 2009-10 school year, students in the East Carolina University choral music program performed one of the great choral masterpieces in all the literature, Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem. Under the direction of Dr. Daniel Bara, the 120 or so voices and a full ECU Symphony Orchestra missed nary a note of the glorious music in this monumental work, and the large audience in Wright Auditorium could only be impressed with how the choral students, consisting of the University Chorale and Chamber Singers, demonstrated near-effortless mastery of the demands of both the music and the language, and how the orchestral students provided such a satisfyingly rich instrumental accompaniment.
Choral directors say the work contains several traps, but one certainly could not detect any shortcomings in this performance. The choristers were set up as a double choir, with women on one side behind the violins and men on the other side behind the basses and violas. Despite a gap of perhaps 20 feet behind the center of the orchestra, all voices executed the intricacies of timing, the nuances of dynamic requirements and the difficulties inherent in the German language with considerable skill. Diction was crisp throughout the long piece, the voices (once again) exhibited a richness and maturity not always found in college-age singers, and the energy exhibited at the beginning of the piece remained steady through the forceful sixth movement, with its rousing “Death, where is thy sting?” line and into the sublime final chorus.
Joining the students were soprano Louise Toppin and baritone John Kramar from the ECU music faculty, and they provided excellent solos. Kramar’s two solos in the third and sixth sections were both sorrowful and forceful by turns. Toppin’s solo in the fifth section was achingly heartfelt. This is primarily a composition for choir, however, and the students (augmented by a handful of faculty and guests) delivered a riveting performance, full of surge and flow, and full of drama as well as moments of exquisite beauty that both balanced and resolved the tension.
Unless one hears the Requiem live, one misses some interesting aspects of the composition. The entire first movement, “Blessed are they that mourn,” is accompanied by the lower strings only; the violins do not come in until the second section, “For all flesh is as grass.” Brahms scored brief passages for harp, to end the first section and the last section. And he scored several accompanying passages for low brass that added considerable weight to the piece, and the orchestra players were up to the task. More than once, the ending of an alto line moved into the beginning of a tenor line, and the male singers’ voices carried the same tone and voice quality as the female voices, so that the blend was seamless.
One hesitates to single out highlights in such a uniformly fine performance, but there were memorable moments. After the measured pace to open the second section (perhaps a little less flowing than one sometimes hears), the singers delivered the lines “and all the glory of man as the flower of grass” with considerable force. That contrasted nicely with the famous “How lovely are thy tabernacles” section that followed, which soared majestically, and the next section, “And ye now therefore have sorrow,” led by Toppin’s warm solo. And the sixth section, in which Kramar and the choirs let it all out, was a stirring sound, a grand sound of considerable proportion. Not wanting to lose momentum after the climax of this section (there was scattered applause after each movement), Bara quickly led the forces into the dramatically quieter and sweeter closing.
The Requiem was not the only music on the afternoon’s program. The concert opened with a fine reading of Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A-minor, Op. 33, by senior Hillary Flowers, winner of the 2010 ECU School of Music Concerto Competition. Playing from memory and without pause, Flowers delivered a warm, assured reading of this popular piece, and the orchestra, under the direction of Jorge Richter, gave her fine support throughout.
The piece starts with nimble fingering and at a brisk pace, and the soloist and orchestra executed the timing well, with the lower strings providing an especially nice cushion behind the soloist. The concerto contains several shifts in dynamics and mood, as well as some pretty tricky technical demands, and Flowers and the orchestra met all the challenges. Flowers has played in Ara Gregorian’s “Next Generation” programs as part of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival this season, and she seems to be quite a rising star in the Music School.