News Column

GO Arts: A solid, heartfelt Brahms Requiem from Northwest Repertory Singers and Rainier Symphony

May 18, 2014

By Rosemary Ponnekanti, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)



May 18--Brahms' "Ein Deutsches Requiem" is a hefty work for a community choir and orchestra -- which makes Saturday night's performance at Pacific Lutheran University'sLagerquist Hall such an impressive feat by the Northwest Repertory Singers and Rainier Symphony. A one-off collaboration crowd-funded to the tune of $8,250 on Indiegogo.com, the 80-minute work filled the hall with dense, warm sound and a rolling architecture, held back only by diction issues in the choir and a few non-conducted orchestra moments.

Much of the success of the performance (which repeats tomorrow at Foster High School, Tukwila) was due to the Rainier Symphony, whose members played with excellent ensemble and beautiful solo moments throughout the work. After a pulsing opening ("Selig sind") with well-blended lower strings, the choir came in sounding like they needed more warming up: a thin tone, not quite reaching to the back of the hall (a longer one than they're used to in Mason United Methodist) and with sopranos a little hedgy on the upper notes. Things improved with Part II: the dramatic "Denn alles Fleisch" funeral march, first hushed and haunting, then thundering. Yet real energy was missing from some of the instrumental entrances -- an unfortunate by-product of having a choral director (Northwest Repertory Singers' founding director Paul Schulz) conduct an orchestra. Despite this, and a few messy sections later on, the Rainer Symphony adroitly kept a tight ensemble.

The other issue with this "Requiem" was the choir diction. Brahms can and does go on and on -- part of his romantic charm, but also a potential trap into dullness. Messy sibilants and a general lack of consonants between words made the choral lines peaceful rather than powerful, removing the urgency that underlies much of the text about the shortness of this life and the revelation of the next one.

That said, the NWRS' "Requiem" was well-sung. Robust basses and clear, strong brass marked "Die ErlÖseten des Herrn," with fine tone-painting for the fierce "Weg" ("Away") at the end. Baritone soloist Charles Robert Stephens sang his warning passages ("Herr, lehre doch mich") with rich, focused tone, stern yet penitent. Soprano Jeananne Houston gave her "sorrow" solos a sparkling tone and long, expressive phrasing, though perhaps an overkill of vibrato.

Other highlights were a shining violin section in "Wie lieblich," an angelic wind chord to end "Ich will euch trÖsten," suspenseful pizzicato and smooth altos in "Denn wir haben" and thrilling choral contrast in "Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis" ("Behold, I tell you a mystery,") which Brahms, unlike Handel, makes truly mysterious.

The rollicking fugue of "Herr, du bist wÜrdig" ended with sopranos finally warmed-up and hitting high notes with purity, before the repeat of "Selig sind" featuring a truly lovely oboe solo over a soft cushion of strings and an emotional ending that held the Lagerquist audience in a spellbound moment of total silence.

Northwest Repertory Singers and Rainier Symphony perform Brahms' "Ein Deutsches Requiem" again at 3 p.m.May 18. $18 adult/$15 senior, student, military/free for 12 and under. Foster High School, 4242 S. 144th St., Tukwila. 253-265-3042, nwrs.org

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(c)2014 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

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