Arts & Culture / Mosaic / Music / May 20, 2009

Brahms’ Requiem collaboration finally becomes reality

Parking lots and street side parking were full for several blocks around the Orpheum theatre, and groups of people on foot were making their way towards the Orpheum Friday afternoon. The crowd was coming to listen to “A German Requiem” (Ein Deutsches Requiem) by Johannes Brahms, performed by the Galesburg Community Chorus and the Knox College Choir with baritone Stephen Swanson and soprano Christine Steyer as soloists under the direction of Knox College’s own choir director, Dr. Laura Lane.

The entire piece was approximately an hour long, with no intermission. The two choirs combined under Lane’s direction and with the support of an orchestra that had been compiled and hired over the course of the past nine months specifically for the concert. The concert was a joint effort between Lane and Tim Pahel, the chair of the Carl Sandburg College music department and the director of the community chorus.

“Tim was critical to the success of this performance! He prepared the GCC [Galesburg Community Chorus] — that means hours of his own preparation on how to teach the score and hours of rehearsal, and lots of communication with me — he did all of it masterfully. Tim also arranged the Orpheum and worked with them on what they would do before we moved the timpani, chairs, stands, etc. over, and helped us do the move. There are thousands of other small tasks that Tim helped with, including lots of help with the printing of the program,” said Lane.

A performance of Brahms’ “A German Requiem” has been in the works for many years, according to Lane:

“In 2005 when I proposed the Brahms Requiem to the folks at Carnegie Hall, they said it was too long. I chose a different work to conduct there but said to Tim, next time we combine and I get to conduct, can we do the Brahms Requiem? I have long wanted to do it in German. I had only conducted it once before, with the GCC and the Elgin Choral Union in 1991, but it was in English then.”

A great deal of work went into making “A German Requiem” happen. One of the largest tasks facing Lane and Pahel was the coordinating of the two choirs. The two directors had to ensure that the Knox Choir (52 members) and the Community Chorus (66 members) were singing the piece the same way in everything from pronunciation of German vowels and articulation to cutoffs, dynamics, and phrasing. There were also difficulties that came simply with performing a large orchestral piece:

“For one thing, you teach from the piano/vocal score, but you conduct from the full score, which shows all the orchestral parts. So you have to put your markings into the big score and adjust to the way it looks. Then, of course, you have to prepare to give all the instruments, soloists and chorus members their entrances [….] That’s a mental challenge that I love…Finally, how do I make the tempos and dynamics and moods and gestures of each moment within each movement string together into a unified whole that will be true to what Brahms wanted and also my own interpretation?” said Lane.

The work that was put into the performance, however, was worth it. The house was almost full; all told, 611 people came to hear the Requiem. While the choirs had only had two rehearsals together, and the orchestra had been brought in from many different places, when the last note of the Requiem concluded, the audience immediately leapt to their feet in a standing ovation while shouting “Bravo.”

“The Brahms performance was fantastic! I was thrilled with our performance. The chorus, orchestra and soloists all gave their very best, singing and playing with incredible precision, focus, beauty and expression. The chorus was especially “on” Saturday night, nearly blowing me off the stage with their power and passion,” said Lane.

The concert was a resounding success and concertgoers, smiling and greeting friends in the Orpheum lobby, seemed pleased with “A German Requiem” which Lane said in the program notes, “offers consolation to the bereaved and hope for a life after death.”

Ben Reeves

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