Under music director J. Ernest Green, the Annapolis Chorale's 187 singers joined two soloists and the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra in a transcendent performance of Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem last weekend at the first classical concert of the chorale's 35th season.
This was preceded by Green conducting the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra in Beethoven's "Symphony Number 1 in C Major."
Green offered an entertaining, informative pre-concert lecture about Beethoven's first symphony and Brahms' requiem, likening the construction of the four parts of a symphony to creating an essay.
Few conductors can so easily explain to an audience the major innovations of musical giants such as Beethoven and Brahms.
Beethoven's work "contains a number of surprises starting with the fact that it begins with a first chord of C7, which resolves into F before reaching the key of C Major," Green said, revealing that Beethoven in his first symphony was introducing sequences to take the listener into what in 1800 was uncharted territory.
Green traced the roots of Ein Deutches Requiem, suggesting that Brahms probably began the work in remembrance of his mother, who died in 1856.
Brahms sought to provide comfort to the living rather than offer prayers for the dead in the requiem, which was first performed on Good Friday 1869 in Bremen Cathedral. The composer would have preferred to call it a "human" requiem rather than a "German" one.
Neither Green's informative pre-concert remarks nor the two Brahms CDs I listened to earlier in the day prepared me for the live event Saturday evening at Maryland Hall.
Green and the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra summoned such inspired freshness to the 28-minute Beethoven symphony that they seemed to reintroduce us to the great composer, who moved from Haydn to Romanticism and on to musically defining humanism.
This orchestral performance provided an apt beginning for the major choral work that followed.
Brahms' requiem does not present any horrific Last Judgment scene, instead focusing on providing solace to those who mourn the dead. Based on the Lutheran Bible, Brahms' requiem offers the hope of resurrection while musically fusing Romanticism with earlier musical elements. Lovely melodies are contrapuntal to a robust Germanic vision to create high drama.
On Saturday - from the opening notes of "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted" - we were transported to a realm where the universality of confronting death was first gently revealed by the choir and orchestra.
The next passage "For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass" was more agitated and darker with male voices dominating. This section ends with the triumphant "they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away" to return to the earlier serenity.
Throughout these sections, there was a combined humility and praise of man sung by the chorus. The orchestral instrumentation enhanced the beautiful voices of the chorus to become a magnificent musical blend, each making the other better and the whole creating high drama to inspire a major statement: "The word of the Lord endureth forever."
Baritone Shouvik Mondle delivered a compelling solo with choral passage in a voice that combined sonorous power with arresting vocal beauty and profound spirituality. The blending of orchestra, chorus and baritone produced a momentous peak where Mondle became a powerful "everyman" pleading to God: "And now, Lord, what wait I for? My hope is in Thee." Mondle sang those words with authority and passion.
After an uplifting passage describing Heaven - "How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts" - soprano soloist Fatinah Tilfah was a worthy successor to Mondle in terms of vocal beauty and power, singing of sorrow and rejoicing.
Tilfah beautifully sang the passage: "And ye now therefore have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice." Her gleaming soprano spun out long notes that grew in strength and beauty.
Another baritone solo by Mondle was featured before a final passage sung by an inspired and tireless chorus. The chorus expressed serenity in the lines: "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord" to bring to a close a performance in which the whole was so much greater than any of its incredible parts.
After joining in the prolonged standing ovation, I started to walk up the aisle at Maryland Hall, weak-kneed from the emotion of what I'd just heard.
Only once had I had a similar experience - also resulting from an Annapolis Chorale performance - in November 2002 with its "Voices of Light."
When we are deeply touched by such artistry, we should acknowledge and savor these events.
Next on the Annapolis Chorale's calendar, on Dec. 6 and 7, is "Holiday Treats." Lyric soprano Amy Cofield, jazz singer Heather Venesile and folk singer Mollie Weaver will join chorale singers, the Annapolis Youth Chorus and the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra for a concert featuring sailing commentator Gary Jobson.
Two performances of Handel's Messiah will be offered at St. Anne's Episcopal Church on Dec. 14 and 16. Tickets are available for all performances by calling the Maryland Hall box office at 410-280-5640. Further information: 410-263-1906 or www. annapolischorale.org.