Duerr, symphony, chorus afford Brahms’ ‘Requiem’ a special propulsion

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Photos by Lauren Rock.

Tom Di Nardo | Guest Reviewer

Performing a work as complex and deeply felt as Brahms’ “Ein Deutsches Requiem” is a major challenge, especially when the instrumental and vocal forces can combine for only a single rehearsal led by a conductor making his Chautauqua debut.

Yet those assembled forces brought it to vivid life. Having heard the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus in Kleinhans Music Hall, there was little doubt about their prowess, especially in a work at the heart of their choral repertory. Baritone Tyler Duncan was also making his Chautauqua debut, with soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme a welcomed return guest.

Conductor Robert Duerr, a North Tonawanda native, minister, organist and founder of the Pasadena Chamber Orchestra, had led the chorus, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, last April. His extensive operatic assignments at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera have enriched him with a special sense of drama — an attribute that afforded Brahms’ work the special propulsion it requires.

The opening measures of “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” (“Blessed are those who mourn”) seemed just a touch slower than usual, but Duerr’s pulse and ability to keep the music flowing made his choice convincing as the movement grew in scope. These ears remember performances of the piece which were lugubrious, muddy and gloomily serious rather than philosophical. But Duerr stressed clarity and the most difficult challenge in Brahms’ always-thick soup: the balance between the chorus and the orchestral choirs. There are always inner voices making statements in Brahms, and his subtle dynamic shifts allowed many of them to become apparent.

The potent opening notes of “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras” (“For all flesh is as grass”) were serious but not ponderous, building to a very convincing crescendo, urgent and then-plaintive strings, a climax of enormous dramatic power and a stunning male-voices entry. The sudden transitions near the end sometimes seem disjointed, but not under Duerr’s baton.

It is very visually effective for the soloists to emerge from the tunnel behind the orchestra, and Duncan entered in passages high in his range with excellent diction and very impressive expression in “Herr lehre, doch mich” (“Lord, make me to know the measure of my days on earth”). The exchanges between Duncan and the chorus seemed like conversation, and after the solo, Duerr held back slightly to build tension for huge climaxes.

The middle section, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” (“How lovely is thy dwelling place”), is as tender as Brahms gets. In passages where the orchestra plays pianissimo, the chorus’ excellent diction could be heard — though any large chorus will always project more tightly in an indoor concert hall. They were obviously coached well in their German by Roland Martin and Duerr, a world away from amateur choruses who sing syllables phonetically. The interplay as Brahms bounces the emphasis from one vocal section to another was glorious.

Chandler-Eteme has sung with orchestras all across the country, including this work at Carnegie Hall. She has also sung in Porgy and Bess many times, with the special gift of having studied with Todd Duncan, the original Porgy. Her entrance was quite stunning in her solo, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (“Ye now are sorrowful”), with much of the writing high in her range. Yet she sang with clarity and poise, expressing tenderly — and with personal understanding, the texts offering a mother’s comfort. In a central passage, there are magic moments when the flute, oboe and bassoon alternate passages with her voice, almost as if they are moved enough to spontaneously respond to her heartfelt message.

(The movement was added after the first performance in the Bremen Cathedral, when the choirmaster inserted the aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Handel’s “Messiah” to satisfy the cathedral’s clergy.)

When Duncan returned to sing “Siehe, ich sage euch in Geheimnis” (“Behold, I show you a mystery”), it was appropriately declamatory and more emphatic. The timbres of the choral voices blended beautifully in this section, an effect that takes time and talent to produce. Duerr then built the orchestral and choral forces to almost-ferocious climaxes — not raging, as in Verdi’s “Requiem” to come five years later, but in the glory of passages honoring God from Revelation.

Another passage to lift a listener’s spirit comes with the female voices opening the final movement, “Selig sind die Toten” (“Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord”). After the passion of the penultimate section, in some readings this elegiac finale often runs out of gas — but not under Duerr’s baton. The reverential section held its intensity — with some lovely horn playing — summing up Duerr’s achievement. Balance, pulse, forward flow, clarity in instrumental choirs and that dramatic sense served him — and Brahms — well. And he had a splendid chorus, capable of floating a ravishing pianissimo, and an orchestra that played with great responsiveness and unity.

Brahms, who was not a traditionally religious man, wrote this German Requiem after the death of his mother, Christine, utilizing passages from Martin Luther’s Bible rather than the usual Latin Mass text. The work is more an exaltation of precious mortality, consoling those remaining, rather than a requiem for the dead, and that spirit pervaded this memorable performance.

Before the concert, director of programming Marty Merkley mentioned that the National Federation of Music Clubs, which provides scholarships to young talent, were in attendance, celebrating their 68th year at Chautauqua.

Tom Di Nardo was arts writer and critic for the Philadelphia Daily News from 1982 to 2011, and for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin from 1974 to 1982.