Thursday, October 02, 2014

Symphony Preview: Last Thoughts

Amy Kaiser
"It's a major work," says St. Louis Symphony Chorus Director Amy Kaiser in the program notes for this weekend's concerts, " full of challenges: complex fugues, expressive segments, rich in harmonic details. It's a choral symphony, really." She's talking about the piece that takes up almost the entire program at Powell Hall, Brahms's "Ein deutches requiem" ("A German Requiem").

At around seventy minutes (depending on the conductor's tempo choices) the "German Requiem" is the longest thing Brahms wrote, and one of the most deeply felt. Begun just after the death of the composer's mother in 1865 and incorporating material that Brahms had written after the suicide attempt of his mentor Robert Schumann eleven years earlier, the "Requiem" is both a work of mourning and of solace. "The work is all about comfort for the living," notes Ms. Kaiser. "People consider it a healing piece. There's no Dies irae. There is the sound of the last trumpet, but it's joyful, not fearful. A victory over death."

It's hard to say which death affected Brahms more profoundly: that of his mother or that of Schumann, his great friend and musical father figure, nine years earlier. What's clear is that the combination provided the inspiration for one of the composer's most important works, and one that brought him considerable respect and admiration. The 1868 premiere of the complete seven-movement version (earlier drafts had gotten public performances as early as 1866) at a private performance in Bremen was a hit, as were subsequent public performances in Cologne and Leipzig. It quickly gained acceptance with audiences, critics and, perhaps most importantly, with choruses.

Brahms, later in life
But that's hardly surprising. As Reneé Spencer Saller points out in her program notes, Brahms really knew how to write for the human voice, especially the low female voice (mezzo-soprano and contralto). "Most composers give sopranos all the best parts," she observes, "but Brahms's fondness for the duskier timbres is evident throughout his vocal music, particularly in A German Requiem." The work features solo parts for soprano (5th movement) and baritone (3rd and 6th), but the four-part chorus does most of the heavy lifting, making it an appealing choice for mixed chorus. Brahms also created a reduction for two pianos that could be substituted for the orchestra, making the piece that much more accessible for ensembles with limited budgets.

That's not to say that it was a big hit everywhere. Predominantly Catholic countries were initially cool towards it, primarily because of its Lutheran orientation (the text uses German language passages from the Lutheran bible) and because Brahms, ever the agnostic, de-emphasizes the Christians aspects of the traditional text of the requiem. As Ms. Saller writes, the work "shattered nearly every rule for requiems. It never mentions Jesus Christ by name and completely avoids the topic of Judgment Day. Its real subject is not divine grace and paradise but human grief and transience. It does not mourn the dead so much as console the living. Despite its focus on death, the word that appears most often in the text is, unexpectedly,'Freude,' or'joy.'"

And then there was the usual carping from Wagner and his clique, who hated Brahms and everything he produced. Brahms's work was seen as the diametric opposite of Wagner's "music of the future," making him a kind of musical Great Satan. "The importance of Wagner's stance toward Brahms cannot be overemphasized," writes teacher and essayist Nancy Thuleen. "[M]any critics echoed Wagner's sentiments, and while some devoted serious attention to an analysis of what they considered to be the work's particular flaws, others continued with vague polemicisms and ad hominem attacks against the composer, his beliefs and religion, and above all his 'academic' attitude toward music." Still, the power of the work could not be denied, and by the end of the 19th century it was widely regarded as an established classic.

I'm going to forgo any detailed musical analysis here since Ms. Saller has provided such a concise and readable one in her notes. Those of you looking for deeper background could do worse than Ms. Thuleen's well-researched essay on the subject and, of course, there's always good old Wikipedia. Besides, words really can't do this music justice; you'll want to hear it live.

Detlev Glanert
The concerts open with a bit of old wine in new bottles: "Vier Präludien und ernste Gesänge" ("Four Preludes and Serious Songs"). It's an arrangement of Brahms's op. 121 "Four Serious Songs" (his last published work) for baritone and orchestra (the original is for baritone and piano) by contemporary German composer Detlev Glanert (born 6 September 1960). The songs are pure Brahms, but the preludes that separate them are a mix of the two composers. Quoted in the program notes Glanert says of the original music: "...I tried to use it and transform it like a stylistic muscle, so that the music starts in his world, is sliding slowly into our world, and then falling back again." Composed in 2005, this unique work is having its local premiere this week.

Speaking of premieres, both the conductor and soprano soloist are making their St. Louis debuts this week. At the podium is Markus Stenz, Principal Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Halle Orchestra, and Principal Guest Conductor designate of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. His globe-trotting resume includes six seasons as the Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as well as a "Ring" cycle in Shanghai and a BBC Proms appearance; busy guy.

Soprano Carolyn Thompson gets around as well, mostly in the USA and UK. She has performed with the English National Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera and Opéra de Paris, among others, as well as at the Boston Early Music Festival. Her repertoire is wide-ranging, from the title role in Lully's "Psyche?" to Anne Truelove in Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress."

Our baritone soloist, on the other hand, will be familiar both to symphony audiences as well as to Opera Theatre regulars. Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi scored a real hit at OTSL this summer as the wily Dulcamara in a wonderful production of Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love" and was also part of the cast of the the much-praised concert version of Britten's "Peter Grimes" that the SLSO took to Carnegie Hall last fall.

The essentials: Markus Stenz conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, along with soloists Carolyn Sampson, soprano, and Patrick Carfizzi, bass-baritone, in Brahms's "German Requiem" and "Four Preludes and Serious Songs" (arranged and augmented by Detlev Glanert) Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., October 4 and 5. The Saturday concert will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 FM, HD 1, and via Internet streaming. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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