Brahms German Requiem by Chamber Orchestra (1st review)

Another challenge for the Chamber Orchestra (it's called the Perelman Theater)

Susanna Phillips: In a rare class of sopranos.
Susanna Phillips: In a rare class of sopranos.

Broad Street Review has been blessed lately with musical conversations that sound as if they might have been written in Vienna around 1790: sophisticated exchanges of ideas among musical amateurs, using that word in its purest laudatory 18th-Century sense.

As Beeri Moalem himself points out, his exchange with Tom Purdom about adventurous programming (or the lack of it) has been enjoyable as much for its civil tone as for its content. I wish the same could be said of the Rod Goodwin's response to Nathan Sivin's article about the relative virtues of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.

It happens that I'm with Sivin on this one: I, too, for reasons similar to Sivin's, have abandoned the Orchestra for C.O.P. and have not regretted my choice. (See my article of February 2008.) And, although I agree with Goodwin's evaluations of both Muti and Sawallisch, his dismissal of the Chamber Orchestra ("an OK part-time/freelance outfit, but with many inferior talents") strikes me as arrogant and mean-spirited.

I will grant Goodwin this much: There have been a few times, usually when the Chamber Orchestra plays exposed passages in Mozart, when its violins have displayed just the slightest hint of that scratchy student orchestra sound. But many inferior talents? Give me a break! Has Goodwin auditioned Chamber Orchestra members individually? Have I been fooled, along with the many joyfully enthusiastic audiences who have attended the same Chamber Orchestra concerts, into erroneously thinking that I have been listening to a season and a half of varied repertory, beautifully and lovingly performed?

Which brings me to the recent performance of the Brahms German Requiem by the Chamber Orchestra and the Choral Arts Society.

A critic's mea culpa

I should say at the outset that it's very hard for me to write objectively about this work, since I know it far better as a participant than as a passive listener. I've been a choral bass in several performances, spaced out regularly over the past 45 (oh my, can that really be true?) years, and each time the experience of hearing this gorgeously difficult work metamorphose from chaotic musical sludge to beauty over the course of a few months has grown richer. Although one of my most vivid musical memories concerns a live performance at Carnegie Hall, circa 1962, featuring the great lyric soprano Phyllis Curtin, it has probably been decades since I've heard this Requiem from the audience.

(By the way, there are many Youtube performances of the German Requiem available, most notably this terrific one under the direction of Claudio Abbado, spread out over several excerpts, saving me the trouble of creating my own music examples.)

The care and feeding of singers

Under Solzhenitsyn's direction, this German Requiem was a cornucopia of musical riches. To wit:

"¢ As any experienced choral singer knows, very few orchestral conductors know how to bring the best out of a chorus. From the very first, Solzhenitsyn showed that he understands what's involved in the care and feeding of singers: eye contact and physical gestures that help singers breathe, as opposed to merely letting them know where the downbeats are.

"¢ The first few notes of the soprano solo in the fifth movement are fiendishly difficult; only once in a great while do you hear a soprano who can make this simple-sounding phrase sound effortless and tender. Susanna Phillips is one of them.

"¢ Her colleague, baritone Randall Scarlata, is a favorite of Solzhenitsyn, and with good reason. As was evident from the post-concert Q. and A. session (one of the great benefits of Chamber Orchestra concerts, by the way), he has thought long and hard about every word he sings, and his intelligence is matched by his musicianship.

The subtle pleasures of Martha Hitchens

"¢ One of the subtle pleasures of attending Chamber Orchestra concerts is watching timpanist Martha Hutchins go about her business, whether it be playing tonic and dominant again and again in a Haydn symphony or playing a duet with a tuba in a contemporary premiere, and this performance was no exception: The timpani part in the German Requiem, especially in the second and third movements, is the glue that holds everything together and demands unrelenting precision and restraint.

"¢ The measures of a well-prepared chorus are crisp consonants at the end of words and consistent vowel sounds. No matter how lovely the voices are, without these two a chorus will sound just awful. The Choral Arts Society's artistic director, Matthew Glandorf, had done his job impeccably.

A hall that's like a chimney

The Choral Arts Society is, as far as I could tell, a jewel of a group. Its singers consistently returned Solzhenitsyn's eye contact"“ always a good sign"“ and in soft passages, like the opening of the first movement and, especially, the opening of the sixth, one could hear what a fine bunch of musicians they are. But in the Perelman Theater— which, simply put, is ill suited to choral singing— they never had a chance.

Perhaps the situation was better in the hall's upper levels, but from where I was sitting— in the center of row H— the chorus sounded as if they were hundreds of yards away, singing into a chimney. In fact, at the post-concert discussion it came out that this is, indeed, literally the case: Most of the choral sound was vanishing up the open space at the back of the stage, escaping all the way to the top of the Kimmel Center.

Is it technically impossible to use an acoustic shell at the Perelman? It seems like such a simple solution. Without one, this was, I must sadly report, a performance as frustrating as it was satisfying.

To read another review by Tom Purdom, click here.

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