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Utah concert halls are alive with the Brahms Requiem

Published February 25, 2014 9:31 am

Music • Three of the state's top choirs will perform the work.
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This is the season of Johannes Brahms' German Requiem. It is on the schedule of three of Utah's leading choral organizations.

Barlow Bradford's Utah Chamber Artists will perform the work this week; Craig Jessop's Logan-based American Festival Chorus and Brady Allred's Salt Lake Choral Artists will present it on consecutive evenings in March.

"What an amazing piece," Bradford said, echoing sentiments expressed by his fellow conductors. "It's a privilege to get to work with it."

Though the German Requiem uses texts from Martin Luther's translation of the Bible, it is not liturgical. "It has nothing to do with the traditional Mass for the dead," Jessop said. The opening line, "Blessed are they that mourn," makes that clear immediately.

"It is a requiem for the living, not the dead," Jessop said. "It's meant to comfort those who are living."

In a lovely bit of symmetry, the work ends with "Blessed are the dead." In between, it ponders the fundamental questions of human existence and offers the hope of immortality.

"It has a great deal of personal poignancy for me," Jessop said. One of his most memorable experiences with the work came in 1999, when his longtime mentor, Robert Shaw, was scheduled to lead the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Utah Symphony in performances and a recording. Instead, Jessop stepped in to conduct when Shaw died unexpectedly (followed shortly by the death of Jessop's father).

Jessop considered using Shaw's English-language translation of the German Requiem for the upcoming performances in Logan, but opted for the original German even though he knew that memorizing and internalizing the text posed considerable difficulty for his volunteer singers, a mix of Utah State University students and Cache Valley residents.

"We're an educational institution, and part of this is to perform the music in as authentic a way as we can," he said.

Allred believes that performing the work in the audience's native language is in keeping with the composer's intentions. "He wanted [his audience of] German speakers to understand it," he said. Allred studied the work intensively with conductor and educator Lara Hoggard and presented Hoggard's English-language translation with SLCA seven years ago; this time, he will use the Shaw edition.

Bradford agrees there's a strong argument for performing the Requiem in English. "But as I've come to work with the piece, I've come to understand that [Brahms] wrote that piece with that sound, with those syllables in mind," he said. "It's almost impossible not to sing the phrase well if you take the German seriously."

The German Requiem has long been on Bradford's wish list, but the large choral and orchestral forces it requires have held him back. Since taking over the University of Utah choral department in 2010, though, he has augmented his chamber choir occasionally with elite student singers. The U.'s Chamber Choir will appear on this concert.

"Boy, does it ever speak to me, and it speaks to the choir as well," Bradford said of the work. "I can see it; I can hear it." Singing the Requiem is physically and emotionally grueling, "but you can come out of the rehearsal more energized. Something about the piece seems to give more than it takes out."

"As a singer, you get through six movements and don't know if you have anything left," Allred said. "Then you find your last wind, like a runner would."

Allred said his volunteer chorus shares his passion for the piece. Initially, he'd planned to use a piano four-hands reduction of the score as accompaniment because of the expense of hiring an orchestra. The singers were having none of it — they raised the funds from friends and family members.

This will be the seventh time Jessop has conducted the Brahms Requiem. Each time, he marvels at the composer's craftmanship — whether it's the repeated D's underpinning the third-movement fugue and symbolizing the hand of God; or the voices of the chorus, representing human souls, ascending to meet a heavenly solo flute in the central chorus; or the horns and trombones of the orchestra chasing away death and hell in the sixth movement.

Equally impressive to Jessop is the work's spiritual depth. He noted that Brahms — demonstrating a remarkable understanding of the human condition while in his early 30s — considered calling it the "Human Requiem."

"Our journeys may have nothing in common, but birth and death are something we share with every human being on the planet," Jessop said.


Triple play

Three of Utah's leading choral organizations will perform the Brahms German Requiem in the space of about a month.

Utah Chamber Artists

Barlow Bradford conducts; soloists are Celena Shafer and Michael Chipman, with additional singers from the University of Utah Chamber Choir.

When • Monday, Feb. 24, 7:30 p.m.

Where • Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1375 E. Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $15; $12 for students; http://www.utahchamberartists.org

American Festival Chorus

Craig Jessop conducts; soloists are Cindy Dewey and Steve Meredith. Also on the program: Jeff Detton's 9/11-inspired "Tritone: A Concerto for Piano and Orchestra," with the composer as soloist.

When • Friday, March 28, 7:30 p.m.

Where • Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 S. Main, Logan

Tickets • $12, $16 and $20; http://www.americanfestivalchorus.org

Salt Lake Choral Artists

Brady Allred conducts; soloists are Carol Ann Allred and Tyler Oliphant.

When • Saturday, March 29, 7:30 p.m.

Where • Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1375 E. Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $20; $10 for students; http://www.saltlakechoralartists.org