2003 Season • Review
Park, Brahms shine in Sunday concert
July 8, 2003
By Grant Menzies for The Register-Guard.
“Requiem” is shorthand for the first words of the introit or chant that begins the celebration of the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Mass for the dead. The full text is “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. (Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord.)”
Most rituals enacted by the living for the deceased – whether among Chinese sweeping ancestral graves at the Bright and Clear Festival or Americans carrying flowers to cemeteries on Memorial Day – have behind them a single purpose: to ease the pain of separation and the absence of light for those who have died, by signaling to them that we remember and love them.
Sunday’s Oregon Bach Festival concert at Silva Concert Hall, led with his habitual sumptuous care for detail by Helmuth Rilling, was all about that remembrance and that prayer for rest and peace, via a most unusual program that paired the vast choral canvas of Johannes Brahms’ 1866 German Requiem with the 1935 Violin Concerto of Alban Berg.
Berg’s concerto is a double requiem. Inspired by the death of Manon Gropius, teen-age daughter of Alma Mahler, the concerto also served as a requiem for its composer, who died shortly after completing it.
Maestro Rilling took a big risk with this program, particularly where the Berg concerto was concerned.
This two-part violin tour de force is essentially a somber piece on a sad subject – the death of a young person – ranging over her brief past in strange fragmented bursts of memory and shreds of music she may have heard. Thus grieving, it ends in a cold apotheosis, offering nothing but the ironic relief that mortal illness charts a finite course.
Shifting among the audience in mid-performance signaled plenty of mystified discomfort, possibly as much because of the music’s complex 12-tone structure as because of its melancholy mood.
That said, soloist Alyssa Park literally lifted the music outside of itself. Her riveting intensity, delivered with a technique both subtle and steely, communicated Berg’s message as both elegy and euphoric hysteria. She got lots of adroit support from the festival orchestra, superbly paced by Maestro Rilling.
For his German Requiem, Brahms brazenly took some of the most moving texts of the Bible – “Blessed are they that mourn,” “Behold, all flesh is as the grass” – and, by stripping them of their ideological context and clothing them in the ecumenism of music, allowed them to stand forth as the great poetry they are.
Brahms was a natural for this. Here was one composer who never wrote a note in his life that didn’t pass the test of absolute honesty, of beauty for its own sake, with no agenda to muddy the message.
That sweet purity characterized the performance given by the festival chorus, orchestra and two soloists, soprano Elizabeth Keusch and bass Sanford Sylvan.
Although her bright, white voice is lovely, Keusch didn’t quite open it up for her aria, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit.” Sylvan, however, was a wonder. He lent even the most ringing phrases of “Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord, make me to know mine end)” the hushed intimacy of a Lied.
Rilling himself led the ensemble as if giving a powerful sermon, with all the masterful sense of dramatic pause that only the greatest preachers allow, knowing as they do that religion is 50 percent theater and that in both the church and the theater, silence can be as meaningful as sound.
Grant Menzies is classical music critic for Willamette Week in Portland.
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