No, we consider the ASO and Chorus against its own stellar recordings (two, one each under Robert Shaw and Robert Spano) and notable recent performances.
I last heard these The musicians in this piece in 2009, just as the 200-voice chorus, prepared by Norman Mackenzie, were set to travel to Germany to sing it with Runnicles conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. (That the ASO Chorus had cut loose from its parent orchestra to follow its own destiny was confirmation of its global reputation.)
For that Atlanta warmup, the praise was extravagant: “It was delivered with such fervent elegance, such melancholy optimism, such lyrical beauty that it felt historic—as if, perhaps, the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus and guests had never made music this good. ”
The stakes, and the energy levels, were significantly lower Thursday night in Symphony Hall. Runnicles and the ASO and Chorus returned, perhaps for the last time, to Brahms’ A German Requiem. (At the end of this season, the Scottish maestro’s two-decade tenure as the ASO’s principal guest conductor will come to an end.) The show repeats Saturday at 8 pm
They opened the evening with another Requiem of sorts, Adolphus Hailstrok’s seven-minute Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed, written in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. Premiered in Baltimore in 1980, this music is a tranquil space for contemplation or, as the composer describes it, “a study in understatement and control.” Lush and somber, the piece opens as quietly as possible with just a few strings, and only reluctantly adds more players.
Throughout, it moves in slow motion and features pauses of open-space silence. The full orchestra eventually joins in, but the mood and the affect doesn’t change. Christina Smith’s purring, low-voiced flute solo — at once lovely and sad and a little desperate — felt like an interjection at a graveside service, among the few cries that were specific and individual. It’s an attractive work and was especially meaningful on a program about death and the strength of the living.
There was no intermission, and Runnicles apparently intended the 70-minute Brahms to follow the seven-minute Hailstork. attaccawithout applause: Following the quiet end of epitaph, the conductor never faced the audience, never stepped off the podium, and seamlessly switched the big scores on his music stand. But even the best-laid schemes of mice and men go often awry; the audience applauded anyway.
A German Requiemsecular music for the concert hall with German texts drawn from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, opens quietly with just the strings (exactly where epitaph left off). Soon the choir enters to whisper the work’s thesis, a Beatitude from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
The ASO Chorus sang these first words, “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen,” in tones so hushed, so pristine, it was both a statement of life-affirming melancholy and a show of understated choral virtuosity. With supple precision, they almost snuck into the second movement with “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (“For all flesh is grass”), and later navigated Brahms’ fugues with care and awesome clarity.
We’ve grown accustomed to this level of great singing under Mackenzie’s choral direction, but it’s forever startling to re-experience it in the hall. Still, there were also full-throated moments where the score (and the conductor) pushed them past their preparation, with some shouting and barking in the mix.
Runnicles’ conception of the work is magisterial and weighty and luminous, and he pushed the orchestra in these directions all at once. They responded wonderfully, for the most part. In dialogue with the chorus in the fourth movement, the singers delivered the text with gentle persuasion and the orchestra’s playing, ideally matched, sounded effortlessly and lightly, floating on a cushion of air. If the orchestra grew fatigued near the end, notably with the horns and brass not ideally together in hushed sections, they at least never faltered in communicating the emotions and ideals of the text through music.
Perhaps Runnicles’ best trait is that he seems like an opera conductor who brings those musical and interpretive values — an emphasis on the heartbeat and the human breath, on organically turning a phrase as would a singer in an opera aria — to the symphonic world. And he usually brings exceptional solo singers, often scouted from the opera house, to the ASO stage.
Alas, Canadian baritone Russell Braun wasn’t in a good voice Thursday, with a wide, often wobbly vibrato and indistinct tone. From the opposite end, young Chinese soprano Ying Fang sang with an arrestingly beautiful voice, with a fine-grain texture and delicate bloom. The soprano only gets one number in this Requiem, a stark contrast in luminous G Major, where sorrow will be replaced and “your heart shall rejoice.” She sang with the sort of operatic charisma that, although the room was almost full, everyone probably felt like she was singing directly at them. We hung on the rise and fall of her every phrase, elevating the feelings imparted by this German Requiem to both the universal and the very personal.
Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington PostLondon’s Financial Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.
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