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[whitespace] Flowering Brahms

After tentative start, SC Symphony finds expressive core of Brahms' 'Requiem'

By Scott MacClelland

IF THE FIRST HALF of last Sunday's Brahms' Requiem at Watsonville had gone as well as the second, the result would have been nearly twice as memorable. Ideally, the chorus would be confident and spontaneous from the start. Ideally, the conductor would be relaxed and releasing.

In the meantime, it is good to recall that a multimovement oratorio for chorus, soloists and orchestra poses some of the same challenges as those in opera--and some of the same solutions. Each new "scene" is another starting place, another opportunity.

Like a well-crafted vintage of wine, this production of Ein Deutsches Requiem by Larry Granger's Santa Cruz County Symphony and Cheryl Anderson's Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus improved with age. What had been tight and tentative in the early movements blossomed fully in the later ones.

Of course, one of the reasons to attend the second of two performances is with the expectation that the kinks have been worked out in the first one. (Would that making music were so predictable! And who knows what might have happened if the piece had been performed without a break, as the composer intended.)

Though infrequently performed (relatively), the German Requiem remains one of the most beloved symphonic choral works in the repertoire. (At any given moment, at least 35 recordings are available on CD.) And if there's one thing that familiarity proves again and again, it is the need for interpretive elasticity.

More than anything else, this means fluidity of tempo, the subtle slowing down and speeding up that gives Brahms' heart its pulse. Add a concomitant increase and decrease of orchestral weight, and you begin to "feel" the distinctive expressive character that saturates virtually all of Brahms' music.

Last week, I heard a local musician and music lover complain that Granger was a "time-beater." While I don't agree with that rigid assessment, it is evident--even plain--that Granger has an affinity for some music more than others. (What conductor doesn't?) Then, increase the challenge in a piece like this by combining a professional orchestra with a large amateur chorus and it doesn't take rocket science to recognize that priorities must be established.

The work itself is primarily orchestral, as evidenced by the fact that Brahms' choral writing is symphonic in character. Ideally, the conductor leads from an orchestral perspective. But here Granger took exceptional pains to minister to the chorus (even though his determination to conduct from memory allowed a couple of crucial choral cues to fall through the cracks).

In short, the opening two movements were tentative, reticent in both chorus and orchestra, and stiff on the podium. For all of Granger's efforts, no one else on stage seemed comfortable enough to let the music soar. (Had he released the timpanist in the second movement to take the initiative--and to use more articulate mallets--the kettledrum melody might well have carried the piece, as indeed it has been heard to do.) Baritone David Cox gave the third movement a fine, smoky tone that only needed more consonants to move his vowels into discernible words.

Opening the second half, the 120-voice chorus imparted a warm intimacy to "How lovely are thy tabernacles," then went on to even more expressive ease in "And ye now therefore have sorrow," featuring soloist Julia Kierstine, who offered the perfect combination of vocal beauty and expressive "weep."

This led to what turned out to be the high point of the performance: "For here we have no continuing city, but seek one to come." Baritone Cox gave voice to the same words from Corinthians used by Handel in his Messiah, "Lo, I shall tell you a mystery," punctuated by a magnificent outburst on the chorus, "Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory." At last, the full dramatic force of the piece was let loose with a fury that, at its conclusion, provoked spontaneous applause.

Words from Revelations--beatitudes softly and yearningly intoned--restored the intimate mood of the great work's opening pages and brought it to its gentle final cadence. Audience enthusiasm swelled in particular acknowledgment of Anderson's ensemble, in size as well as acumen the region's only true symphonic chorus.

For his just-announced 2001-2002 season, Granger will preside over Khatchaturian's piano concerto, Bloch's Schelomo, Shostakovich's Piano Concerto no. 1, Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 4, Kirke Mechem's Songs of the Slave, Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, Mussorgsky/Ravel's Pictures at an Exhibition and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite.

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From the April 4-11, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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