By Mike Keenan
How does one begin a new musical season (the 56th) on Nov. 10, the eve of this year’s centennial remembrance of the conclusion of WWI, “the war to end all wars?”
Chorus Niagara’s artistic director Robert Cooper chose composer Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem (A German Requiem). The agnostic Brahms declared that he would easily substitute the word ‘Human’ for German, appropriate given the millions who perished on both sides in trench warfare, often subjected to grotesque demise by poison gas in the muddy ditches of Belgium and France.
The performance was stellar with the animated Cooper, his left heel perpetually braced high in the air, a commanding presence, augmented by the huge chorus outfitted in red poppies, gifted musicians from the NSO and brilliant solos by two Canadians, baritone Alexander Dobson and soprano Leslie Fagan, the latter recently appointed to the Order of Ontario.
I attended the pre-concert talk by Cooper, which enriched my appreciation of the music comprised of seven movements, Brahms’ longest and most emotional piece. Cooper reminisced, claiming Brahms’ Requiem as his first classical stereo LP as a teenager, bought in BC, but lamenting the fact that sitting atop the back seat of the car on the long ride home to Ontario, to his chagrin, the prized record had warped!
Born in Hamburg into a Lutheran family, Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria, his status as a composer such that he is grouped with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the Three Bs of music.
Further enrichment was derived from an excellent, informative program that featured notes by Marian Van Til, biographies of the performers and a brief historical outline of Brahms’ career. Beyond that, their brilliant website includes two YouTube short videos, one from a singer’s perspective featuring alto Ursula Witkowska with 21 years’ experience in Chorus Niagara and also a conductor’s point of view with apprentice conductor, Elise Naccarato.
Witkowska: “The music hits my soul…the sound that Brahms makes with eight notes that provides me with a warm feeling in my heart…and the fact that this requiem is not a sad piece but uplifting music…reminds me there is always hope, that there is comfort when I’m in need…130 plus voices (aged from 18-80) making a sound that angels would appreciate…music that has the feel of compassion and humanity about it, that all of us can be connected…a piece of music that touches everyone…”
Naccarato: “You feel a sense of peace when you walk out of the concert hall. And indeed, a full house departed with enthusiasm from Partridge Hall in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, abetted as usual by a complimentary piece of chocolate. “Sweet,” as my grandchildren like to say. Check out the website at: https://www.chorusniagara.org/
The main Brahms’ piece was cleverly paired at the beginning with a modern composition, Ola Gjeilo’s Dark Night of the Soul (2010), based on a poem by 16th-century Spanish priest St. John of the Cross. It featured the Avanti Chamber Singers and Dr. Rachel Rensink-Hoff, conductor, who is also Director of Choral Activities and Assistant Professor of Music Education at Brock University. An excellent choice as a warm-up for Brahms, which featured the compelling soprano sound of Melissa-Marie Shriner.
Next up for Chorus Niagara and their talented Artistic Director is George Frideric Handel’s Messiah on December 15. The lyrics thrill me at Christmas, and I can hardly wait!