Symphony Finds Comfort and Triumph in Requiem Print
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 11 April 2006 18:00
Death. Everyone will face it. The Quad City Symphony Orchestra and the Handel Oratorio Society jointly presented a concert April 2 that addressed the power of death, the frailty of life, and the comfort we seek in the face of both. Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, combined with an orchestration of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata & Fugue, invoked a sea of unbridled, powerful passion through thundering and soothing unification of voice and instrument.

Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of Bach’s Toccata & Fugue opened the concert. The piece was originally written for organ, and Stokowski coupled winds and strings to create an airy, organ-like sound. With a tumultuous beginning, soothing interlude, and triumphant end, it foreshadowed the changes of emotion in the Brahms piece and provided a fitting introduction.

The Handel Oratorio Society and two extremely talented soloists – soprano Mary Wilson and baritone Paul Grizzell – joined the orchestra for the Brahms Requiem. Brahms’ choice of libretto offers consolation to the living on many levels, which is strengthened by the soothing, triumphant quality of the music.

First, a tender, gentle first movement comforts the grieving (“Blest are they who are grief-stricken, for they shall find great comfort”). The second and third movements speak of the tenuousness and pointlessness of life (“Every mortal, however righteous, lives a vain life of frailty”).

The second movement, led by a chorus of low voices, was filled with heavy, repeated, regular notes, at times sounding like the beating of an army of hearts or a group of mourners marching to a funeral.

The third movement featured Grizzell. His tragic, woeful voice portrayed grief and helpless frustration, and the choir echoed his lament. At the end of both movements, the libretto offers hope for the removal of grief and pain after death, even reminding the righteous of the joy everlasting awaiting them when they pass on.

After the fervent second and third movements, Brahms offers a melodic, spring-like movement of yearning to be with the Lord. It sweetly introduces the most beautiful movement in the piece, which offers further comfort and hope.

Brahms was influenced by the death of his mother when he wrote this movement, and his tenderness is apparent in the words he chose (“Though only for a little while were toil and labor my lot; I found the greatest of comforts”) and the beauty of the accompaniment. Wilson communicated the message with the clear tone of her voice and her sweet, comforting smile.

The sixth movement invokes hope for the rapture, during which “the dead shall be raised … death has been swallowed, vic’try won.” During this movement, conductor Donald Schleicher used the power of the orchestra and chorus to summon feelings of victory and hope. The final movement returned to the soothing and comforting theme of the first movement and the message of a better existence after death (“Blest are those who perish”).

I appreciated Brahms’ requiem for its tenderness and strength and for the text he chose to use. A requiem is a mass for a deceased person, which in my mind usually means slow, slightly boring, and macabre music.

Brahms approaches the requiem somewhat differently. He addresses those living rather than the dead. Brahms’ inseparable music and words powerfully project a message of hope, comfort, and joy, which is exactly what is needed when grieving for a loved one.

The Quad City Symphony’s interpretation of the requiem provided a pleasing afternoon. At times, the chorus or orchestra were a bit out of balance, and it seemed Schleicher had to work to keep them playing cohesively, but on the whole, the performance was adeptly executed.