Sunday, October 30, 2011

Did This Performance Make me a Brahmsian???

After a strictly instrumental opening weekend concert that inaugurated Helzberg Hall, Music Director Michael Stern and company focused on vocal/choral selections for the second concert. Anticipation was high as to how the Kansas City Symphony Chorus and vocal soloists would sound in the new hall. In my, and many other’s opinion, anything had to be an improvement over the Lyric Theatre, which usually rendered the chorus to mush and tended to obscure all but the most commanding of soloists. To show what the new space could or could not do, Stern chose two choral works, Beethoven’s rarely heard “Elegischer Gesang” in its chorus and strings version (original was  for 4 voices and string quartet) and the grand Brahms “Ein Deutsches Requiem”. For some orchestral contrast, yet still keeping with the requiem theme fitting for All Saints/All Souls Week, Stern selected Messiaen’s orchestral “Les Offrandes Oubliées” as an interlude.

Beethoven’s sweet, short and sadly all but forgotten “Elegischer Gesang” (“Elegiac Song” written in 1814 originally for 4 voices and string quartet here arranged for chorus and string orchestra) quickly demonstrated how the newly augmented chorus could sound. The verdict: much clearer and focused, neatly balanced with the orchestra and certainly cleaner diction. However, the sheer size of the forces frequently made their voices a sound texture rather than clearly defined text, most often noted in climactic passages. Yet the Elegiac Song received a most heartfelt and “elegiac” performance, the chorus well balanced with the strong, always elegant strings.

As a bonus, the chorus performed an a capella piece written for the center’s opening gala by local composer Mark Hayes, titled “This Moment”. Having worked with Mark Hayes and having sang many of his compositions over the years, it was instantly recognizable as his fine work. The soft, frequently whispered piece came off well in the hall and did not detract from the overall theme of the evening.

Stern has been successfully insinuating the atmospheric music of 20th century French composer Oliver Messiaen in his concerts the last few seasons. This season we are treated to Les Offrandes Oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings) written in 1930 for two pianos and later orchestrated by the composer. This fervently religious interlude made for a most fitting contrast to the contemplative Beethoven and the cooler Brahms to come.

The piece is cast in a single movement divided into three clearly delineated sections representing Christ suffering on the Cross, the decent of man into sin and finally salvation offered through the Holy Eucharist.

The opening section marked “fairly slow, sorrowful and profoundly sad” continued Beethoven’s elegiac, reverent mood. The strings and winds were admirable in their clear intonation in high registers, perfect for Messiaen’s characteristic modal sound.  Stern and his forces milked the cataclysmic burst of sound that announces the central “Lively, fierce, desperate, gasping for breath” section, representing human kind’s sinful ways. The orchestra relished the Bacchanalian passion while Stern kept the violence neatly in control. The brass and percussion were commanding and snarling, certainly not overly loud as I have heard from one complaint.

Heavenly calm, resembling much of the opening section, marks the final “Slow, with great pity and great love”,  celebrating the mystery and redemption of the Eucharist. Even in this early work, one hears the characteristic sound world of the masterpieces (Turangalila-Symphonie, Des canyons aux étoiles, Oiseaux exotiques, etc.) to come.

Having explored the white hot religious ardor of Messiaen’s faith, Brahms’ almost secular requiem comes into clearer focus.

Despite a text assembled by the composer mostly from Biblical passages, “Ein Deutsches Requiem” is actually a humanist rather than an overtly Christian work. Brahms recognized this and it is even suggested that he considered calling his magnum choral opus “A Human Requiem”. Thus Brahms’ classic coolness and restrained emotion suits this service for the dead well. This is a requiem for the living, a time of comfort and reflection rather than a sublime (In Paradisium in the Latin Mass) or anguished (Dies Irae) vision of what is to come.

To make this piece really work, it needs a bit of guts along with the grandeur, remembering that this is that “Human Requiem” and not a glacial Papal funeral mass. Slack tempos, little dynamic energy, unfocused chorus and coldly mechanical solos can quickly slip this monster into sonic drudgery. Unfortunately the traditional and all too common view of this work heads straight into such a wreck. Stern and company led a vital and well paced performance, steering clear of the tendency to sink into an interminable morass, providing the requisite good dose of guts to go with the glory.

Most impressive was baritone Christopher Feigum in his solos in Parts III and VI. Singing with style and with incredible diction, his two lengthy contributions provided a fine dose of the dramatic guts as mentioned above. So did the chorus’ earth moving “Death where is thy sting?” section in Part VI, well serving as the aural and dramatic climax of the work. Finally, with the spectacular sonics of Helzberg Hall, the power of the talented voices could be unleashed, really speak to the audience and not be buried in a haze.

Soprano Layla Claire’s contributions were equally fine yet more ethereal rather than overtly dramatic, perfectly fitting their role.

Brahms’ Requiem, as some of my readers may know since I sort of can not keep it a secret, is not on my top 10 (or even top 1000) list of favorites. I own nary a recording of it and have heard it live only once before, a previous Kansas City Symphony performance from sometime in the mid to early 90’s. Stern, Chorus Director Charles Bruffy and their forces can be proud of a fine performance of a work that many find inspiring and glorious and challenged this skeptics’ preconceived notions.

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