O death where is thy sting?

Seattle Choral Company

The two pieces of sacred music I turn to most often are W.A. Mozart’s Requiem – the first piece of music I ever fell in love with – and J. Brahms’ German Requiem – the first Brahms piece I heard in its entirety. These two pieces shaped my formative listening years and instilled in me an admiration and (minor) obsession with sacred music. After Brahms came Handel, Verdi, Haydn, Bruckner, Bach, and of course more Mozart. But even with a catalog of masses, motets, and cantatas at my disposal, Mozart’s and Brahms’ signature sacred pieces always stimulate my God Spot.

On Saturday, Fred Coleman and the Seattle Choral company ended their 2009/2010 season with half of my sacred music top two – the German Requiem. But, before I could get to the Brahms, I first had to go through Dvorak’s Te Deum.

The Te Deum contrasted sharply with the German Requiem. Composed for the occasion of Dvorak’s first concert in the United States, his bohemian roots are obvious in the piece. Thump, thumping, on the timpani leads right into an inebriated, portly sounding Te Deum Laudamus. Is this a Te Deum or a Czech bacchanal in Spillville, Iowa? Soprano Jennifer Ceresa’s solo, interjected amidst the tub thumping, elevated the piece from the earthly plane to a place closer to heaven. A tender baritone solo, finely sung by Victor Benedetti, is at the heart of the second movement. The third movement returned to the first movement’s push and pull, mirroring a scherzo. The final movement opened broadly, with stronger singing from Ceresa than she gave in the first movement. By the time Benedetti joined in with his own contribution, the piece was pointing toward an triumphant coda. Even though the orchestra and chorus began tentatively, it didn’t diminish the piece in the least.

Unlike the Te Deum, the German Requiem appears through the haze of grief and memory.  It imparts on listeners a sense of being but one part of a longer and more complex narrative. There is no judgment, fury, or day of wrath. Likewise, Brahms’ text selection asks more questions that provides answers. “We shall not sleep/But we shall all be changed in a moment.” “O death where is thy sting?/O grave where is thy victory?” Just as we feel like we are missing the beginning of the story, Brahms leaves us with an ending that suggests truths we may never know while we are alive on Earth.

Brahms requiem concerns the memory of, and not the judgment and return of the dead.  Brahms deviates from the traditional Latin requiem and without this deviation, I don’t see his focus for the work succeeding. It has been said Brahms drew inspiration from the death of his mother and to a lesser degree the death of Robert Schumann – a paternal figure of sorts. It has also been said (in the program notes even) that Brahms was standoffish with religion, faith, and God.  Yet, Brahms readily attributed his success as a composer to the divine hand of God.  Whatever ultimately inspired Brahms, his requiem as performed on Saturday, was anchored by deep emotions, a strong sense of purpose, and an excellent advocate in Fred Coleman and the Seattle Choral Company.

The Seattle Choral Company makes one more appearance this season with a special appearance with the Seattle Youth Symphony and a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony on May 23, 2010

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