My First German Requiem

After performing the Brahms Requiem as the centerpiece of Chorus America’s Robert Shaw Centenary Symposium in mid-April, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus brought the work to New York for a special performance at Carnegie Hall. Music journalist Matthew Sigman attended the New York performance—which also included Jonathan Leshnoff’s newly-commissioned work Zohar—and reflects on his experience hearing the masterpiece for the first time.

There are certain great works of music I have saved for special occasions—to be tasted live with the right ensemble, the right venue, the right time. If I’m driving and I hear them announced on the radio I quickly change the channel. Some are relatively modern and relatively obscure (Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, Schoenberg’s Erwartung), some are common classics (The Barber of SevilleDon Carlo). In the choral-orchestral repertoire, some of my “holds” are downright heretical: God knows how, but I have managed to evade Bach’s Mass in B Minor and, up until now, Brahms’ A German Requiem.

I hear your gasps. I feel your incredulity. I see you clutching your pearls. It’s just that the stars have not aligned. Each time I come close, there's just one thing out of place. The chorus is terrific, but it’s a pick-up orchestra in a notoriously boxy hall. Ding. It’s a magnificent venue, a world-class orchestra and chorus, but I’m out of town. Ding. And for my very first time, I want to go when a renowned chorus that really knows the work inside and out is singing. Ding.

The stars finally aligned for the Brahms Requiem on April 30: in honor of the 100thanniversary of Robert Shaw’s birth the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus brought the masterpiece to Carnegie Hall under the baton of Robert Spano. Bingo! Adding to the perfection, my culturally adventuresome nephew, a pre-med student at New York University, was also available. The only thing that could have made it more perfect would be if my partner and my dog could have joined me, but they both had other plans that evening.

Shaw Symposium Online Resources

The Brahms Requiem: Questions for the Conductor
Along with questions about his musical and textual motivation, Brahms left several other issues to puzzle over—from interpretive matters like tempo to more practical programming concerns. Symposium faculty share insights into specific concerns conductors ought to address as they prepare the Requiem.

"Heard in the Halls": Robert Shaw's Legacy
Faculty members and participants at Chorus America’s Robert Shaw Centenary Symposium reflect on the qualities that made Shaw a choral icon.
Robert Shaw and the Brahms Requiem
Chorus America's Robert Shaw Centenary Symposium explored the conductor’s deep connection to this masterwork—and what it reveals about his approach to music and his legacy.

As a practicing journalist I surely could have call the ASO for press comps, but at the time I had no plans to write about it, and I’m averse to mooching without intent. Also, I’m fussy about where I sit, and while I’m sure the ASO would have offered prime orchestra, for such large-scale works I much prefer the balcony. (And when someone graciously offers you seats in the luxury box, you can’t really say “Thank you, but I’m much happier in the bleachers.”) There are, of course, no bad seats in Carnegie Hall, but I prefer that rapturous experience when the sound hits the rafters and rains down on your head.

Having written about the business of the arts for decades I know that the performance experience actually begins when you buy your tickets.  A bad online interface, an uninformed telephone agent, or a long line at the box office can put a bad taste in your mouth before you even hear a note of music. Fortunately, when I went to the box office to buy my tickets the lobby was empty. The box office guy patiently  helped me select my seats — and I can be a pain in the ask a lot of questions: “Something a little closer? A little to the left? On the aisle?” Kudos to Carnegie Hall. I got exactly what I wanted at an excellent price.

My nephew had never heard a major choral-orchestral work, and I was terrified that a cacophonic contemporary work might shut his ears down. To my relief, Leshnoff’s Zohar is lush and tonal, intelligent but not excessively cerebral. My nephew, like his uncle, is a Nice Jewish Boy, so we could relate to Leshnoff’s choice of texts from the literature of Jewish mysticism, some in Hebrew, some in English. The language and structure of a requiem Mass required a little more explaining, for both of us. Even I, more accustomed to the traditional Catholic mass, had to adapt my neuro-processors to Brahms’s selections from the Lutheran liturgy.

I’ve buried the lede of this story far too long so let’s get to the point: when A German Requiem began I thought I was dead. I don’t mean this as an “I-could-have-died” metaphor. I mean from the low rumble of the orchestral entrance to Selig sind, die da Leid tragen I thought, “I’m dead and this is my reward.” I prayed the afterlife also included the Bach B minor Mass. Otherwise I’d be eternally deprived.

I turned to my nephew and whispered “This is what heaven sounds like.”

I’ll not parse the entire score for readers. Those who know the work, and certainly those who have sung it, don’t need my recapitualtion. You know the glory and power. You know the beauty and majesty. You know the virtuosity, and you certainly know the necessary endurance, which only serves to enhance the experience. When Spano brought the work to a close, he held the ensemble and the entire house on the precipice of a perfect silence until the audience burst into applause. The ovations for the conductor, the soloists (the fine soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Nmon Ford) were appropriately fulsome, but did not compare to the hysteria offered when the chorus and director Norman Mackenzie took their bows. In an age of promiscuous standing ovations, this was the real, deserved thing.

As we strolled toward Carnegie Deli, my nephew and I belted a strange counterpoint: I could not let go of “alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (will I ever? I doubt it), while he was singing “Aleph, beis, gimmel” from the Leshnoff Zohar — on pitch and rhythm. And he is not a singer. He related to the contemporary work, I related to the traditional work. Chacun a son gout. 

I will wait a while before I listen to a recording of the Brahms Requiem — I need it to resonate in my heart for a while before I hear it in my head. But it is already fully programmed into the pantheon of my most personal repertoire. I will forever be indebted to those who made that evening’s magic: to Robert Spano, the Atlanta Symphony & Chorus, and Johannes Brahms I say “Thank you. It was worth the wait.”

Matthew Sigman, a three-time winner of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism, has served as editor of Symphony and Opera America magazines, and has been a regular contributor to Chorus America, American Theatre, and Opera News.

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