The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: John W. Barker finds the Wisconsin Chamber Choir “moving” and “overwhelming” in its performance of the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms. | April 21, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also provided the performance photos for this review.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

Having already established an enviable level of achievement with his Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below), conductor Robert Gehrenbeck led it to new heights with the concert on Saturday night at Luther Memorial Church.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir with conductor Brahms 2015 JWB

The program opened with two examples of Gehrenbeck’s interest in promoting new choral works through commissions.

The first, sung by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Chamber Singers at his academic base, was by American composer Christian Ellenwood (below).

Entitled “Prairie Spring,” it set a poem by Willa Cather, celebrating the Nebraska landscape, scored for choir and string orchestra. This is a gentle piece, full of lyric grace, in a neo-Romantic style, and reflecting a confident command of choral texture. It made me think a little of the music of British composer Gerald Finzi. The words were somewhat obscured, but that may partly have been a function of the church’s spacious acoustics.

Christian Ellenwood copy

The second new work was by the older British composer Giles Swayne (below) that sets selected lines from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, under the title of “Our Orphan Souls.” Solo baritone Gregory Berg (below) delivered reflections of Captain Ahab, with chorus, alto saxophone, harp, double bass and percussion.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Ahab JWB (1)

The solo writing has strength, and might have been built into a more extended soliloquy—and baritone Gregory Berg delivered it with strength. But the choral writing — sung by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir itself — was unsettled and unidiomatic, running from word to word without much continuity of lines.

Giles Swayne

Ah, but the main event! Nothing less than the “German” Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem), one of the greatest of choral works, by one of the greatest of choral composers, Johannes Brahms (below). Setting passages from Scripture in the Martin Luther translation, Brahms made this a big work, both in length and in performing demands.

brahms3

The chancel of Luther Memorial has only so much space, forcing a lot of crowding. The orchestra—37 players, familiar local performers—was arrayed through the center, while the two blended choirs were stationed on risers to either side: sopranos and tenors on the left, altos and basses on the right (below).

Wisconsin Chamber Choir, Brahms altos, basses JWB (1)

Such an arrangement could have strained ensemble coordination, but in fact it worked quite well. Indeed, it actually made it possible to follow the interaction of voice parts better than when the whole choir is in a single clump. German diction was a bit blurred, but, again, acoustics must take some blame. (I should note that I sat close and up front, so that what and how I heard may have been somewhat different from those in seating further back.)

The two soloists were both engaging. A last-minute replacement, soprano Catherine Henry (below left), was deeply expressive, a rich-voiced exemplar of the comforting mother we would all want to have.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Brahms Catherine Henry soprano JWB (1)

The baritone, Brian Leaper, was a deft guide to the mysteries of mortality.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Brahms Brian Leaper JWB (1)

The orchestra took on its large assignment with skill, and the choral singers were simply magnificent. But the highest praise must go to Gehrenbeck himself. His tempos were flexible, his balances neatly coordinated, and his sense of what each of the seven movements had to say was perfect. This is not only a superb choral conductor, but a musician of true artistry.

I write as someone for whom the Brahms Requiem has profound meaning. I have known and loved it since student days. I have sung in it several times, and listened to it in many recordings and performances. It is one of the musical threads of my life.

But I think I can honestly say that this was the most meaningful performance of the work that I have ever experienced. I often felt moved to tears by the beautiful, truthful messages that Robert Gehrenbeck (below) — who heads the choral program at UW-Whitewater — brought to realization out of it.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

There is a small lifetime list I keep of concerts and performances that I forever cherish, and this one is a rare addition—a presentation I will remember for the rest of my days.

One more reminder, then, of the riches Madison offers in choral music alone!

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2 Comments »

  1. I second John Barker. Most moving, most intimate, eloquent Brahms ever for me. It also was a treat to sit close to the harp.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — April 21, 2015 @ 10:15 pm

  2. It was a wonderful, intriguing program, and a wonderful collaboration of musical talents.

    Comment by Marika Fischer Hoyt — April 21, 2015 @ 8:12 pm


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