Fisher Center presents a Weekend of Brahms – Tragic Overture and A German Requiem under Botstein, Bagwell and Howlett

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Johannes Brahms, 1853

Johannes Brahms, 1853

Fisher Center presents a Weekend of Brahms

Sosnoff Theater, Fisher Center for the Arts
Bard College
Friday, April 15 – Saturday, April 16, 2011

Johannes Brahms
Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1880)
A German Requiem
, Op. 45 (1865–68)

Members of the American Symphony Orchestra
Bard Conservatory Orchestra
Leon Botstein, Conductor

Bard College Chamber Singers (James Bagwell, director)
Vassar College Choir
Cappella Festiva Chamber Choir (Christine Howlett, director)
Soloists: Faylotte Crayton, soprano
Yohan Yi, bass-baritone

What could be more gratifying than to be on hand when a well-intentioned paedagogical and social experiment results in an exceptional artistic success? Two nearby colleges with a distinguished tradition in the arts decided to pool their musical resources for an all-Brahms program centered on his early masterpiece, A German Requiem, adding in some fine professionals and semi-professionals as support. The Bard Conservatory Orchestra, about which I have heard many good reports, played alongside members of the American Symphony Orchestra, while the Bard College Chamber Singers sang alongside the Vassar College Choir, and the Capella Festiva Chamber Choir, a local group which fills its ranks by audition, favoring singers who have excelled as soloists. Although this is apparently the first time the groups have sung together, there are previous connections between them, as James Bagwell, choral director at Bard, was Christine Howlett’s predecessor at Vassar and with Capella Festiva. Hence there was more comfort among the diverse participants than one might imagine. A former (Mr. Yi) and a current (Ms. Crayton) student at the Bard Conservatory took on the solo parts in the Requiem.

I went to the Friday concert with Yuri Temirkanov’s great Brahms Fourth still fresh in my mind, and I was looking forward to this “Weekend of Brahms” with warm anticipation. While the Tragic Overture that began the program was somewhat stolid and lacking in energy and expressivity, the orchestral playing was impressive. There were few if any problems with intonation, and the professionals and the far more numerous students blended well together to produced a substantial, rich sound in the exceptional acoustics of Sosnoff Auditorium. Ensemble was clean, and showed a unanimity that came from within. There was some fine wind playing; the horns were solid; and the cello and viola sections were exceptionally pleasing. The shortcomings of the performance were most likely due to the extra care given to its execution, as a curtain raiser. Maestro Botstein showed no signs of finding the music uninteresting and was clearly engaged in producing the best possible playing. His interpretation in fact had a stark, Klemperer-like monumentality which was in itself a compelling perspective on the work.

I heard none of this caution in the Requiem, which followed without an intermission. Its leanings towards secularity and humanism are cultural factors which would appeal to Botstein, not to mention its eloquent counterpoint, which harks back to the tradition of Heinrich Schütz, a composer Brahms especially admired throughout his life. Botstein’s literal, unpretentious approach, which serves the cause of helping the audience listen to what the composer wrote, worked well in this piece, and was aided by the almost divine singing of the choral forces. Their quality of tone was truly extraordinary, and so was the expressiveness of their phrasing. Their diction was also absolutely perfect. In fact, Maestro Botstein placed special emphasis on the clear enunciation of the words and the comprehending declamation of the Bible passages that make up the “libretto.” Rich vocal sound, free from excessive vibrato of course, clarity, and precision came together to make a choral component that was pretty much ideal for this music. The co-directors, Howlett and Bagwell, deserve the highest praise for producing something so beautiful collaboratively. The result was only more alive and exciting.

The acoustics also played a part in this splendid hall, which is closer in size to the venues of Brahms’ lifetime. The choruses, making up a very large group, were massed against the back and side walls of the stage, as is customary today. Two years ago, Botstein and Bagwell experimented with the arrangement current in the mid-nineteenth century, in which the chorus stood in front of and to the sides of the orchestra. The bloom and clarity of this was amazing. In the present situation, there were probably just too many singers for this to be practical, and the combined groups had enough to deal with. In any case this bit of authenticity would most likely prove effective in A German Requiem.

Of the soloists, Yohan Yi truly excelled. His large, dark-toned, bass-baritone was absolutely right for “serious” Brahms, and he lightened his timbre and adapted his phrasing for the more hopeful music in the final movements. Many older singers simply stay in a single groove throughout this work. The soprano part, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit,” is much smaller, but important in that her number introduces the turn of mood which carries the work to its conclusion. At first Faylotte Crayton’s voice seemed rather light, bright, and lacking in body for this music, and her qualities were indeed different from what is usually sought out, but she shaped her phrases expressively and sang with immediacy and feeling.

The tempi were fairly active, always within the limits of what was appropriate, and Botstein stressed the continuum of the different movements, as each one proceeded into the next. The coherence of the performance, as the melancholy opening movements gave way to the consolatory spirit of the latter part, and the balance between them, showed a profound grasp of Brahms’ aims. This was not lost on the audience who listened raptly throughout. For my part, I was fascinated, as if I were hearing A German Requiem for the first time.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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