Saturday, April 22, 2017

Urbanski puts an aptly severe stamp on the consolations of the Brahms Requiem

Collaborations between the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra — two organizations with
Expert choral preparation: Eric Stark conducting in rehearsal
a long history together but structurally independent — are always eagerly anticipated.

Not too many years ago, we heard John Nelson, who considered sacred music for chorus and orchestra a specialty, lead the same forces in Brahms' "German Requiem," which ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski conducted Friday night. The warmth the former music director imparted to the music on one of his rare returns was expected, and welcome.

But I also found attractive Urbanski's more chaste concept of the oratorio, with warmth being a standard quality of the ISC under the guidance of Eric Stark. Thus, there was nothing lacking in the consoling atmosphere essential to the work. Yet there was also no overemphasis on its color or drama; spectacle is best left to the liturgical requiem settings by Verdi and Berlioz. A rare exception: the end of the sixth movement, with its text being familiar from the culmination of Handel's Messiah, certainly sounded more "fortissimo"  than Brahms' typically restrained "forte." Indeed, the extra oomph may have encouraged a premature outburst of applause from parts of the audience that hadn't read their program notes. There was one more movement to go, of course, and its subdued quality is essential to the work's meaning.

On the whole, Urbanski was scrupulous about dynamics and tempos. He didn't apply unindicated ritards to concluding measures and he kept the occasional glow of brass subsumed within the orchestral fabric. The flow  of relatively independent lines, as in the fugal conclusion of the movement that aroused an intrusive ovation, was kept clear, with no orchestral detail allowed to poke out. The ISO's current music director favored a rhythmically enlivened interpretation, to which the large chorus was unfailingly responsive.

The oratorio's moments of excitement are judiciously placed, and conductor, chorus and orchestra rose to those occasions when required in the first of two performances under Urbanski's baton at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The "drama" in Brahms' Requiem is simply a matter of the contrast between mourning and sobriety on the one hand and the promise of relief and causes for celebration on the other. The overall tone never departs far from lightly theological reminders of the brevity of human life in the embrace of an overarching deity whose supremacy guarantees that loss and mourning are not what life is about, despite appearances.

This is a good place to raise a few oddities about the projected English translation of the scriptural excerpts chosen by the composer from the Luther Bible, the traditional standard for German Protestantism. It was a little jarring to appreciate baritone soloist Michael Kelly's extensive solo in the third movement ("Herr, lehre doch mich"), with its anguish vividly expressed, while reading a translation of the opening lines that appeal to God to teach the psalmist that "my life has a purpose, and I must accept it." This sounds kind of Rick Warren-ish or New Age-y to me. Where's the death anxiety? The context requires something on the order of the King James Version's "Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is, that I may know how frail I am." Or, to more directly render the German version: "...that my life has an end, and I must go hence."

The translation used seemed to be either too literal or too liberal, and more or less reliant on the Authorized Version,  but inconsistent about it. It was amusing later (to me, a former trombonist) to read the supertitle of Judgment Day being announced by "the last trombone," when the trumpet is of course the instrument all scripturally familiar English-speakers associate with the event famously prophesied in I Corinthians.

While on the subject of guest soloist Kelly, who struck the right note emotionally in both his solos — the worried one at first, the prophetic one later — there was an odd moment in the sixth movement when he kind of snuck back from his chair to the front of the stage, after the chorus had shouted about the resurrection of the dead, to indicate the meaning of all that with the words "Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written," by way of introduction to the chorus' thundering questions: "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" It was a startling effect, reminding me of when the immortal Oliver Hardy used to re-enter a scene he'd just left in a huff, wagging a forefinger and saying sternly: "And another thing..."

This weekend's soprano soloist, Christina Pier, was quite effective in her one appearance, the fifth movement's "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit."  I liked the way she regulated and intensified the fervor of certain words, to make the divine promises of "Trost" (solace) and "Freude" (joy) seem all the more real.

Stark's chorus performed with its usual polish and, as mentioned above, warmth of expression. I missed more tenor strength here and there, but particularly one place where a strong tenor section seems essential. That's in the opening movement, when the tenors are the first choral section to follow the sentence subject "They that sow in tears" with the radiant predicate "shall reap in joy." That very phrase is key to the uplift promised in this beloved work, and to hear it sung anything less than robustly detracts a little bit from a rendition of the Brahms Requiem. Nonetheless, this performance was one to treasure, right up through the final hushed iterations of "selig" (blessed).