The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Both Sides Now – University of Wisconsin violist Mikko Utevsky sees Brahms’ glorious “German” Requiem as both a singer and an orchestra player.

December 3, 2012
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post is an essay by guest blogger Mikko Utevsky (below). A freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the School of Music, Utevsky may be familiar to you as a loyal reader and commenter on this blog; as the former East High School student who founded and conducts the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO); and as a member of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) who, talented and articulate, also blogged last summer about WYSO’s tour to Prague, Budapest and Vienna.

Utevsky started off the first semester singing in the tenor section of the UW Choral Union, a campus and community choir. Then, when joint rehearsals with the UW Symphony Orchestra started, he moved into that as the assistant principal violist.

A loyal and discerning reader thought that this Tale of Two Requiems, or at least two views of the same requiem, would make for an interesting post. She was absolutely right, as you can read below.

Two performances of the “German” Requiem will be given, both in Mills Hall: next Friday night, Dec. 7, at 8 pm.; and next Sunday night, Dec. 9,  at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 for general admission; and $8 for seniors (60+) and $8 for all students, including uW students. Tickets are available at the Vilas Hall Box Office (also serving as the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office during renovations to the theater) or by telephone (608 265-ARTS (265-2787) or at the door. For more information, visit: http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/boxoffice.html

By Mikko Utevsky

The “German” Requiem by Brahms is core masterwork in the choral-orchestral repertoire, albeit a slightly unusual one. It is not a traditional Latin Requiem — like last spring’s performance of the massive one by Verdi, with its earth-shaking “Dies Irae” — but rather one compiled from German (Lutheran) translations of sacred, non-liturgical texts.

It is primarily a humanist work, not a specifically Christian one: in fact, for its premiere, the conductor insisted on including an aria from Handel‘s “Messiah” referring to redemption through Christ, a concept Brahms deliberately omitted. God is instead depicted as a supreme teacher (in the third movement, “Herr, lehre doch mich”), comforter (in the fifth, “Ich will euch trösten”), or a pillar of strength (in the second – “Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit”). The terrible imagery of the Day of Wrath that features so prominently in most requiems is here replaced with a solemn majesty and a comforting gentleness.

The piece is set in seven movements, composed for chorus and symphony orchestra with soprano and baritone soloists. (The latter are, respectively, UW School of Music undergraduates Olivia Pogodzinsky and Benjamin Li, respectively.) The conductor is Beverly Taylor. (A photo of Benjamin Li, who competed and won in the Metropolitan Opera regional auditions, is below.)

Its craftsmanship is excellent. Ever the classicist, Brahms places large, demanding fugues at the climactic points of the third and sixth movements, setting the texts, “The souls of the righteous are in God’s hand” and “Lord, you are worth to receive glory and honor and power.”

The orchestration is lush and evocative, making extensive use of the brass in particular. The first movement uses no violins (making it an excellent excerpt in this violist’s estimation), and Brahms (below) commonly pares the horn quartet down to two for more intimate writing.

As alluded to above, I will be playing viola in the upcoming performance of this work — a position in the orchestra I tend to describe as the best seat in the house, right in the middle of the sound both physically and aurally. (In point of fact, choral sound tends to go over one’s head at the front of the strings, so the seats in the house really are better than mine for a work like this.)

However, I have had the fascinating experience of approaching this work from another side – that of the chorus.

I had never sung in a choir before this semester, but I decided to try out for the Choral Union for the experience of it, and to make sure I’d get a chance to learn the Brahms. (A UW Chamber Orchestra, below) also exists and I had not yet learned which orchestra I’d be playing in this semester.)

I learned a whole new way of approaching a work there — one grounded in the text, a more gradual (and perhaps more organic) process of assimilating the words and music than I was used to from the orchestral side.

When it came time to move from chorus to orchestra, I realized that I missed the physicality of singing, and the direct connection with the text: but knowing the landscape of the work and its texts gave me a valuable insight into the role of the orchestra.

In any work with chorus, the text (below is the manuscript to the opening of the seventh and final movement, “Selig sind die Toten” or “Blessed are the Dead”) is the greatest key to the affect of the music. Having an awareness of that facet of the piece makes the process of bringing the text to the fore easier and more rewarding. The rationale for a slight tenuto before “So seid nun geduldig” is perfectly clear if one knows that the passage translates to “So be patient,” and the bit of text-painting Brahms indulges in with the “morning rain and evening rain” in pizzicato strings and harp is that much more playful. 

On the more concrete side, knowing when the viola doubles the tenors in the third movement’s massive fugue is an indispensable aid in determining balance, as is knowing where the orchestra gives the chorus its pitches. Since viola and tenor tend to overlap in register, particularly with Brahms’ high tenor writing, my place in both ensembles was particularly felicitous.

Each side has its advantages. Brahms’ writing for the viola (below) is excellent, and the instrument feels at home in the rich textures of his work. As assistant principal, there is a certain amount of leadership in the part as well, albeit more by example than in decision-making or addressing the section as is the principal’s role, and I think singing prepared me for that excellently, since I approached the part knowing that of the chorus already. By proportion, I think I am of more value to the 8-member viola section than to the tenor section of a 175-voice choir, too.


However, there is something vitally powerful about singing those fugues, or declaiming “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (Then all flesh is the grass”)… and “Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit” (But Still the Lord’s Word standeth”) together so many others, a strength and clarity of expression felt more directly with the text on one’s lips.

In general, regardless of ensemble, work, register, instrument or any other externalities, singing is a valuable (perhaps indispensable) experience for an instrumentalist.

Many things are obvious when sung that the technical considerations of an instrument make unclear. Questions of phrasing, tempo, articulation, and shape often resolve themselves if one simply puts down the instrument and listens. Particularly for string players, the physical considerations of the breath reveal much about how something ought to sound.

Many composers conceived of music vocally even when writing for instruments. Mozart wrote nearly everything as an opera, if one squints a bit when looking at it, and getting used to thinking in this way makes many things a great deal simpler.

The reverse is also true, though I think to a lesser extent. With text, particularly when it is spread between many long notes, it is easy to forget the musical line in favor of rendering each word as its own idea. Thinking instrumentally about such a phrase, as though one were governed by a bow that need never leave the string, helps minimize the disruption of breathing in the midst of a phrase too long to sustain on a single lungful, or keep continuity in staccato singing when it could easily become a series of disjointed syllables.

I feel more limited technically by the constraints of my developing voice than by my viola, but less as though I am struggling against the physical requirements of production to convey my musical intent.

The bow (below) betrays me far more than the breath, and I think the breath more commonly reveals the correct way to shape a phrase, when the bow might mislead. At the same time, breath limits the length of a phrase where bow changes can be disguised, and registral breaks in my young tenor voice are far more disruptive to the musical line than string changes or shifts.

Overall, though, I think the experience of singing as an instrumentalist has taught me more about the two disciplines’ similarities than their differences. (Below is a photo of Mikko Utevsky conducting the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra.)

Regardless of whether one is in a choir or an orchestra, singing with piano or playing in a string quartet, the basic truths of music remain constant.

There is still sound and there is still silence, consonance and dissonance (usually), tone colors, phrase shapes, articulations, and an overarching structure to the piece.

Both are physical activities, guided by breath (even when it is not necessary for the function of the instrument), intended to communicate and to express.

I would sooner urge an instrumentalist to sing than a vocalist to learn an instrument, because there is nothing external required and therefore the self-awareness it fosters is correspondingly greater, but in both directions the exchange is a valuable one. (Below is a photo of the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra).

From both ends, “Ein Deutsches Requiem” is a titanic work, with gripping climaxes, moments of extreme delicacy and poignant expression, and hairpin turns between anguish and joy. It is tautly constructed and formally intricate, intellectually exciting without losing an ounce of expressive power.

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to experience it from two sides, and I think my understanding is richer for it.


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