Live Arts Maryland has launched a new music series exploring why a piece of music is considered great. The series is under the direction of J. Ernest Green and works with the Chamber Chorus of the Annapolis Chorale and soloists.
For the first event, Green selected Johannes Brahms' version of his choral work "German Requiem" for piano and small vocal chamber ensemble. Based on the Lutheran Bible, "Requiem" does not present a horrific Last Judgment scene, and instead focuses on providing solace to those who mourn the dead.
At St. Anne's Episcopal Church on Oct. 24, Green encouraged the audience to discuss why this choral music is timeless, inviting them to interrupt with questions at any time.
Soon we were involved in a lively exploration of Brahms' masterwork. We were somewhat bemused to find the informal atmosphere conducive to examining a solemn Mass for the dead. Before the music ended, some had discovered profound solace to dispel fears of the final journey we all must face.
Green explained, "Brahms gives us none of the fear and fire normal to the Requiem text. Brahms worked on this opus for 11 years, from 1857 to 1868. For the past month we have looked at it with fresh eyes in the chamber chorus, and brought new insights to our rehearsals.
"At a basic level, live performance is sharing your personal perspective," he said. "Soloists Shouvik Mondle and Fatinah Tilfah and I came up with a new way of thinking about this music.
"Brahms created a structured arch with bookends at the beginning and end to offer blessings on the mourners and on the dead. The D major chord that begins the third movement is like sunshine," he said. "The overarching theme is comfort - 'Lord, let me know that I must have an end, that my life has a term, and that I must pass on' applies to all of mankind."
Engaging the audience in a pre-concert dialogue and, earlier, exchanging views with chorus members and soloists, proved to be an essential component of great music making.
The choice of pianist/accompanists Eric Apland and Carolene Winter was also inspired in delivering the composer's own version, which Green said had originally been performed by Brahms with Clara Schumann.
From the first movement conveying blessings upon mourners, which opens with the expressive lines "Selig sind, die da Leid tragen" ("Blessed are they that mourn"), the chorus invested such profound feeling that even those of us who knew little German could understand.
Grouped differently than in the usual male/female voice sections, the chamber chorus sounded brighter and more engaged, each beautiful voice multiplied by others.
The second section, "For all flesh is as grass," has a darker color with male voices dominating, as it describes the human journey through life's stages. Again the chorus brought a welcome dimension of warm human compassion and a promise of joy, even in this darker section.
Mondle delivered the baritone solo of the third movement with sonorous beauty, summoning a kind of inspired "everyman" who pleaded the universal human case to God - "And now, Lord, what wait I for? My hope is in Thee."
After an uplifting passage describing heaven - "How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts" - soprano soloist Tilfah brought consolation and hope to the lines "And ye now therefore have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice."
Another magnificent baritone solo by Mondle preceded the final passage by the chorus, who closed the work with serenity in the lines, "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord."
Next on the Annapolis Chorale's calendar will be the opening concert of the Classics series, "Musical Fireworks," Nov. 13 and 14. The next Noteworthy Encounters event will be "Carmina Burana Undressed," May 7 and 8 at St. Anne's Parish House. In between are several holiday concerts in December. Go to annapolischorale.org or liveartsmaryland.org for more information.