Tag Archives: Oberlin

Singing Brahms at the Barbican: “Ein deutsches Requiem”

It’s October again, which in my world means singing in the first Crouch End Festival Chorus concert of the new season! Last year, we sang Mozart’s Mass in C minor with the London Mozart Players (LMP). This year, we were lucky to be joined by LMP again, back at the Barbican for Johannes Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem (“A German requiem”). Soprano Erica Eloff sang Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) to open the concert, as well as the soprano solos in the Brahms. Baritone Benjamin Appl took on the male solos in the Brahms. Brahms’s requiem is unique in that it is not set to the traditional Latin mass, but rather Brahms chose selections of German text from the Luther Bible. Even for a non-believer like myself, parts of the libretto are quite moving.

Didn't get any pictures during rehearsal, so here's a City of London shot on my way to the Barbican.

Didn’t get any pictures during rehearsal, so here’s a City of London shot on my way to the Barbican.

Now I’m not sure you you feel about Brahms, but I’ve had mixed feelings about his music ever since first hearing and attempting to learn his clarinet sonatas back in high school. It took me ages to understand what seemed to be a lack of melody and get used to the irregular, dancelike rhythms. A track teammate at Oberlin introduced me to Brahms’s symphonies, numbers 1 and 4 of which grew on me. His piano concertos are great fun to listen to. But I’ve never felt quite the same connection with Brahms as I have with composers like Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach (what can I say? I like the traditional stuff). While I did go through a period of enjoying sweeping, Romantic-era orchestral music, I’ve always come back to my three favorites for their melodiousness and simple complexity (is that a thing?).

All of the above goes to say that I looked forward to singing Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, but it didn’t enrapture me as much as it does some, including our chorus director (DT) and many fellow singers. But the piece grew on me, and I loved singing the rich, dark moments — like those in the second movement — where I could let out my inner mezzo soprano:

I also enjoyed singing in German, and we had a good language coach to help smooth out the choir’s tendency towards English diphthongs. Fellow soprano SG, also a German speaker, and I shared a few chuckles about how selige Toten (“blessed dead”) came out a bit like selige Torten (“blessed cakes”) at times! Overall, our hard work on the German paid off and the choir received many compliments on the clarity of our words — although F pointed out that we still had trouble with the “ch” sound, pronouncing Stachel more like “stackel.”

The performance went well. The LMP were incredible, as usual; Eloff’s singing was lovely (despite not having great German diction); and Appl’s diction was impeccable — it helps that he’s actually German — although he made a few mistakes, which I’m willing to forgive after seeing his busy event schedule. DT was very pleased, given the email he sent around to the choir afterwards, and I enjoyed finally getting a sense of the requiem’s story and drama when we sang it in full with the orchestra and soloists. My parents had come over to London for a week, in part to see the concert, and they loved it. A few current and former choir members in the audience were equally impressed. I’d say we pulled it off!

Next up: Sing Christmas! 2016 at St. Michael’s Highgate. Get your tickets now!


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Concert Review: Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall

F and I got £5 tickets — if you’re under 35, check out the scheme — to see cellist Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall in London last week. I had seen Isserlis, a fellow Oberlin graduate, perform in the Oberlin Artist Recital Series back in 2008 or so. It remains one of the most memorable concerts I attended during my four years at Oberlin — and I went to a lot of concerts — so I jumped at the chance to see Isserlis perform again. Here is my review of his concert at Wigmore Hall.

Isserlis’ program at Wigmore Hall included three of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites — No. 1 in G major (BWV1007), No. 5 in C minor (BWV1011), and No. 4 in Eb major (BWV1010) — interspersed with Signs, Games and Messages — short, fragmentary pieces by 90-year-old Hungarian composer György Kurtág.

Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 is probably the best-known of the cello suites, especially its characteristic Prelude. Isserlis opened the concert with this suite, although he played it a bit fast for my taste and it felt rushed. He followed this with two movements from Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages before flowing directly into Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5. The Kurtág pieces were short, fun, and playful; they reminded me of Penderecki solo string pieces, such as the Divertimento for cello. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 is one of my favorites — I’m a sucker for C minor — and Isserlis gave a gorgeous and moving performance of it, drawing a rich tone from his cello’s gut strings and letting the music dance in the faster movements.

After the interval, Isserlis played three more short Kurtág pieces — one of which drew a laugh from the audience as Isserlis glanced up with his characteristic impish look — before transitioning immediately into Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4. The audience was rapt by the time Isserlis got to the slow Sarabande, which he played with such feeling and emotional depth that even he seemed to tear up. The Sarabande’s gravity contrasted well with the playful last movement (Gigue).

Isserlis took three or four bows before settling down for an encore with another joyful movement from another Bach Cello Suites. Isserlis is a great performer to watch, as he so clearly feels the music and adapts his character to it without being distracting. He played all three Bach Cello Suites from memory and with such poise that the music seemed to flow out of him. He periodically glances at the audience with a half-smile, as if letting us in on a private joke.

It was a stunning concert. If you ever get the chance to see Isserlis play, do it. F said it’s the best classical music concert he has ever been to; his mind was sufficiently boggled. We talked about Bach’s genius: his music sounds so simple but is actually very difficult to play or sing (as I know well from recently tackling the Mass in B minor) and requires flawless technique and command.

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Go for Baroque: Singing Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610

I’ve come to realize that chorus concert days are sort of like track meets: it takes a lot of endurance, focus, and conservation of energy to get through a long afternoon and evening. We have a 3-hour afternoon rehearsal, an hour-ish break, and then the concert. Like track meets, it’s tricky to figure out how and when to eat on concert days. I usually have to leave the house around lunchtime, travel an hour or so to the venue, sing for a couple hours, take a short break, sing more, take a longer break, and perform. I’ve finally discovered that frequent ingestion of high-energy food is the key to keeping me going on concert day: nibbles of oatcakes and cheese, a peanut butter and banana sandwich, apples, even sports drink.

Anyway, all that goes on in the background of rehearsing and performing incredible music in gorgeous venues, as I was fortunate enough to do as part of the Crouch End Festival Chorus this weekend. We performed Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, accompanied by the period-instrument English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble and fronted by a fantastic group of soloists. The venue was also beautiful: 300-year-old St. John’s Smith Square, a large church just south of Westminster Abbey that is now used primarily as a music venue (not surprisingly, as the acoustics are wonderful).

Gosh, where to begin? Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 is a remarkable 90-minute piece, full of florid early Baroque runs, trills, and invitations for improvisation for the soloists and musicians. The chorus is split into two choirs for most of the piece, as the various movements demand up to 10 different vocal parts. Traditionally, the choir would have been all men and boys, but in today’s modern age the top 3-4 parts are sung by women. It’s also really meant for a chamber choir, with just a few voices per part, but our director (DT) decided to go for the challenge of getting 140 of us to sound like a small choir. Here’s the masterful John Eliot Gardiner leading his professional Monteverdi Choir in a performance of the Vespers:

Intonation and blend are key in a piece like this, which requires a pure sound and Italianate Latin vowels. Diction is tough to coordinate and execute well — especially Latin, as these Brits speak with so many diphthongs! — with so many singers. And the standards were high, as we were accompanied by the well-known English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, who could probably play the Vespers in their sleep! (side note: cornetts are really cool and the theorbo was likened to a “Renaissance banjo” by DT.) Not to mention the incredible soloists, all clearly trained in the unique early Baroque style, which requires so much vocal control to sing all those 16th and 32nd notes. Highlights include the two sopranos singing “Pulchra es” (24:15 in the above video) and the tenor duet/trio with baritone, “Duo seraphim” (36:24, above).

Although I may be biased, I think we pulled it off. Even if not, it was certainly challenging and great fun to sing. Despite the Vespers being a religious piece, DT kept emphasizing that, in fact, Monteverdi’s music is incredibly sensual and erotic (ever seen/listened to his operas? I can still remember seeing Oberlin Opera Theatre perform Poppea back in 2008 and being struck by the sensuality of the 17th-century music). I completely agree. Part of what I enjoyed about singing the Vespers of 1610 is the variety of moods and styles in the piece: in some sections we had to sound like a children’s choir, while in others we broadened our sound to that of a symphonic choir. It was a real treat to sing this 400-year-old piece of music and start to get inside its complexities. Well done all!