A German Requiem

Texas Choral Consort's performance proved how strikingly different Brahms' Requiem is and how compassionate

Texas Choral Consort
Texas Choral Consort
Photo courtesy of University of Texas Choral Consort

A German Requiem

Northwest Hills United Methodist Church, 7050 Village Center Dr.
Aug. 18

None of us gets out of this world alive, and the Requiem Mass has long been classical music's most magnificent response to that truth: scores of voices, buttressed by a grand union of orchestral instruments, raised toward heaven, petitioning the Almighty to ease a human soul's passage from our mortal realm into eternity. That plea on behalf of the dearly departed has inspired many a composer to majestic heights – Verdi, Dvorak, Fauré, Duruflé, not to mention Mozart, who died giving birth to a Requiem – but when Johannes Brahms turned his hand to the task, he turned his gaze earthward, directing his German Requiem to those who survive the dead. In place of intercessions for the deceased, it offers solace for the living, reminders of death's place in the natural order and reassurances of rest beyond this life. It was a striking departure from tradition, and Texas Choral Consort's performance proved not just how different a Requiem it is but also how deeply compassionate a one.

That note is struck at the outset, the first movement beginning as a hand resting softly on the shoulder, a hushed blessing for one in mourning. Although the Choral Consort stood 150 strong, its sound was subdued, almost a whisper, and the restraint infused the music with exceptional poignance; this was no thunderous entreaty to God but an acknowledgment of a personal loss, a private grief, to one still bound to Earth. Artistic Director Brent Baldwin displayed a keen sensitivity to the work's softer sections, repeatedly focusing his legion of singers into the still, small voice of scripture, counseling patience and promising consolation. Many of the choir's most beautiful and affecting moments came when it was quietest, as was true of soloist Suzanne Ramo, her radiant soprano a distillation of serenity and comfort and hope.

Not that the performance lacked thunder. As often as it ebbed to near silence, the ensemble swelled to a roar, declaring God's righteousness and power with the full-throated conviction of the believer. Indeed, much of what makes the Brahms so demanding is its constant swing back and forth between extremes. But Baldwin and his chorus were never at a loss to bring the might, as they showed most memorably late in the performance when soloist David Small, his baritone commanding authority, led the way to the Last Judgment, with the chorus echoing the Final Trumpet's blast, then defiantly challenging Death: "Where is thy sting?"; and Hell: "Where is thy victory?" – each clipped German syllable like a slap across the face.

That imposing force ultimately subsided, and the chorus ended in the subdued voice that it began, singing soothingly, peacefully, of rest after life's labors. In that calm came a cleansing or the spirit, and all you needed to know about how deeply affected the audience was by the efforts of Baldwin, the Texas Choral Consort, and the superb instrumentalists playing with them, was in the blessed moment of silence that followed the final note before the applause began.

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