in: Reviews

November 22, 2010

Requiem in West Roxbury

by

Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, prefaced with two of the composer’s a capella motets, Ach arme Welt, and O Heiland reiss die Himmel auf, was the program on Nov. 20 by the Newton Choral Society, led by Boston’s David Carrier (a former faculty member of the New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, and Wellesley College). The motets were performed by a select group of twenty singers from within the ensemble; the Requiem was presented by the full ensemble. The full chorus was joined by a 57-piece orchestra, in addition to the soloists, soprano Leah Hungerford and baritone David McFerrin.

Hungerford, a Midwestern native, received her graduate performance certificate from the New England Conservatory, where she participated in numerous opera productions. McFerrin, a rising star in the world of professional opera, will appear in the Boston Lyric Opera’s upcoming production of Handel’s Agrippinia (March 2011). The concert was held at the Holy Name Parish Cathedral in West Roxbury, one of the Boston area’s many beautiful religious edifices.

The use of chorale and counterpoint in the motets testify to Brahms’s admiration of the motets of J.S. Bach. Ach, arme Welt speaks to a sinner’s struggle against earthly temptation; O Heiland reiss calls for heavenly blessing to rain down upon the earth. These two selections were among the most polished of the evening, as the singers navigated the higher tessitura admirably, though an over-zealous tenor did occasionally pop out of the texture. The lack of variation in timbre and articulation was disappointing (particularly in the third and fourth verses of O Heiland reiss), as it obscured Brahms’s emulation of Baroque musical styles and textures.

Brahms’s great Deutsches Requiem is a setting of Biblical texts chosen by the composer himself; unlike earlier “German Requiems” which focus on doctrine-laden texts (such as Schütz’s Musikalisches Exequien), Brahms selected his texts for their universality; in fact, the composer had even considered naming the piece “A Human Requiem.” The composer once declared that the primary aim of this work is to comfort the living rather than to pray for the soul of the dearly departed, again departing from tradition.

The NCS had clearly invested a great deal of time and effort in their presentation of the Requiem, as the chorus showed vocal ability and dexterity beyond their amateur status. Despite this level of musical ability, the group failed to achieve a commensurate level of technical efficiency and artistic expressiveness. In general, the ensemble was unsuccessful creating clear stylistic contrasts, often with little apparent consideration for the disposition of the text. Carrier seemed ill at ease leading the orchestra, which often encountered rough transitions and clumsy landings; poor balance between the orchestra and the chorus was a frequent issue.

The opening movement (“Blessed are they who mourn”) began well, as the chorus seemed focused and unified for their first utterances. This focus broke down quickly, however, as vocal articulations became less unified and even badly out of sync. The second and third movements (“For all flesh is as grass” and “Lord teach me that I must have an end”, respectively) continued in this manner, as the ensemble failed to offer contrasting textures and timbres between contrasting musical sections.

The third movement, however, also featured the highlight of the performance, the first appearance of baritone soloist McFerrin. The first notes of his dark, supple vocal quality actually caused a number of concert-goers to sit up a little straighter in their seats, as he quickly engaged the entire audience. Returning in the sixth movement, he again offered a skillful, expressive contribution in the “set up” of the entire work’s most exciting moment, namely the choral declaration, “O Death, where is your sting?” Soprano soloist Hungerford also sang with power and confidence, executing a number of very expressive moments, though her consideration of the text occasionally seemed to give way to a singular focus on vocal production, a tendency which will surely improve as she continues to gain experience.

Carrier’s tempo for the fourth movement, “How lovely are your dwellings,” seemed a great deal faster than Brahms’s description, “Mäßig bewegt” (with some motion), and so created a pace which I feel was inappropriate for the vision of heavenly repose presented in the text. Ensemble balance was effectively achieved in the fifth movement , “You now have sorrow,” though again the soloist occasionally seemed preoccupied with vocal production at the expense of textual expressiveness. The sixth movement, “We will not all sleep,” opened with the concert’s strongest contrast of choral articulation, creating an effective sense of restrained excitement, related to the text; again, the baritone soloist sang with great dramatic power, though the chorus’s transition into “O Death where is your sting” was tentative and ineffective, followed by a great deal of rushing.

The ensemble seemed to overcome almost all of the above-mentioned issues in the final movement (“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord”), which was the most beautiful and moving portion of the concert. The ensemble executed Brahms’s long, arching lines gracefully and expressively in effective dialogue with the orchestra. This closing musical offering created a proper “benediction” to the NCS’s concert.

As a veteran of volunteer choirs for many years (as both singer and conductor), it gives me no pleasure to write a predominantly negative review for a concert which represents so much effort and time invested by so many volunteers, particularly in view of the fact that this performance was given in memory of a member of the group who recently died. Hopefully the group will find greater success in their future endeavors.

Joel Schwindt is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.

18 Comments

  1. I feel sorry that Mr. Schwind could not hear or see the same performance that more than 800 people greatly enjoyed. The church (not cathedral) was a wonderful setting with fine accoustics that enhanced the well prepared chorus, orchestra and soloists. The precise and artistic guidance by Maestro Carrier was superb. The richness and style of the German / Brahms romantic music seems to be not understood or apreciated by Mr. Schwind who is pursuing his Phd in French Barogue and focussing on Charpentier. As someone who has lived in Austria for 12 years, speaks German and has perfomed for more that 50 years I know this was one of the best performances in Boston. The Newton Choral Society deserves many thanks and should celebrate!

    Comment by Josef Porteleki — November 22, 2010 at 5:56 pm

  2. Mr. Schwintdt, although displaying an intellectual grasp of The Requiem, seems to fall quite short in his emotional/musical intelligence. His hatchet job review seems more appropriate as a doctoral exercise in self promotion. The enthusiastic and appreciative audience response seems to be a more accurate and authentic assessment of the performance.

    Comment by Richard Arnold — November 22, 2010 at 8:34 pm

  3. Hyuk, Hyuk…
    What happens when a reviewer/writer is determined to come to a conclusion? For… every review needs a theme, right?

    Comment by Robin Cochrane — November 22, 2010 at 8:58 pm

  4. As a visiting musician in the audience for this concert, I cannot fathom this review. It seems wrong on just about every count, except for the positive comments on the chamber choir and soloists. It reads as cruel and unusual punishment with no relation to what we actually heard that evening. I found it to be an inspired performance by all involved.

    Comment by Jon Litchfield — November 22, 2010 at 10:36 pm

  5. Mr. Schwindt did himself and the concert-going public a disservice by missing the mark in his review of Newton Choral Society’s performance of the Requiem. Rarely does one hear a community chorus or orchestra rise to such a level of technical mastery and combination of exhilaration and control that rivals performances of semi-professional or professional organizations. In particular, Mr. Carrier’s clear baton and sensitive interpretation did indeed carry the emotional arch across the span of loss and mourning into hope that Brahms’ score demands. It was clear that the endeavor was more than a musical challenge for the chorus, as they seemed to communicate a sense of collective loss for their fellow chorister in whose memory the concert was given. Furthermore, the orchestra should not be faulted for the two early entrances of the bassoon, as there was very little else that marred their performance.

    Comment by Richard Bunbury — November 22, 2010 at 10:39 pm

  6. This review, as implied by several of the comments above, says much more about Joel Schwindt than it does about the concert at Holy Name Church on Saturday evening, which was, though not perfect, received enthusiastically by a capacity audience.

    Letitia Stevens
    Executive Director
    Newton Symphony Orchestra (the nameless orchestra in the review).

    Comment by Letitia Stevens — November 22, 2010 at 11:56 pm

  7. I wish that “volunteer” choirs and orchestras didn’t have to put up with “volunteer” reviewers. I rate performances of the Requiem on the goose bump scale but then I’m not pursuing a PHD or an ego boost. Early in the performance I lost count of goose bump outbreaks and closed my eyes and gloried in the skillfully balanced textures and thrilling dynamics. Magnificent! Thank you.

    Comment by Stephen Blake — November 23, 2010 at 7:39 am

  8. In concluding his diatribe, the reviewer complains that it gives him “no pleasure to write a predominantly negative review.”  This calls to mind the oft-quoted line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  To paraphrase, the reviewer doth protest too much, methinks.

    Comment by David Powsner — November 23, 2010 at 9:00 am

  9. Mr. Schweindt: Great job of writing the assigned review panning a performance for the course in Musical Criticism. Now that your project has been completed, how did you really feel about the concert?

    Comment by Daniel Sheingold — November 23, 2010 at 9:19 am

  10. To those who read this review and did not actually hear the performance, this is quite damaging to the Newton Choral Society. To those of us who were in attendance, this review is quite damaging to Mr. Schwindt. As stated in the above comment, these performers approach the quality of professionals. Mr. Schwindt lets us know at the end that he is also a conductor and singer, and that he takes no pleasure in writing such a negative review. However, it seems he did take pleasure in this, as the writing throughout strives to give the impression of someone with superior depth of musical understanding. Considering how magnificent the performance actually was, it is easy for us who were there to see through this review and realize its intention – to build and inflate the reputation of Mr.Schwindt. Bravo Newton Choral Society and Bravo Newton Symphony. We were greatly moved by your singing and playing, and we hope to hear you together again soon.

    Comment by Mark Dilorenzo — November 23, 2010 at 9:33 am

  11. My wife and I must have been at a different concert than Mr.Schwindt. What we experienced and are still enjoying was a wonderful evening of great music and spiritual enrichment.

    Comment by Ken & Sally Chaulk — November 23, 2010 at 10:20 am

  12. To Joel Schwindt I submit the following question: What drugs did you take before coming to this concert?
    Your review is so off the mark, so riddled with preposterous observations that one has to conclude you had snorted, smoked or injected something illegal before attending.
    How interesting that you “remind” the readers of your status as conductor/singer. I can only guess what little league choirs you’ve conducted. After reading this review I feel deep pangs of sympathy for those who have suffered under your baton. That you challenge David Carrier’s masterful negotiation of Brahms’ hemiolas and other rhythmic complexities illustrates your ignorance and, dare I say, incompetence.
    We can hope that the universal panning of your obscene review results in the termination of your status as a writer, thus sparing the concert-going world any more of these enormities.

    Comment by Alfonso Rodriguez — November 23, 2010 at 10:27 am

  13. I don’t think you’re even credited enough to write a musical review for the Wendy Williams Show.

    Good day, sir.

    Comment by Juanita Rivera — November 23, 2010 at 11:04 am

  14. From where I was siting, I heard a balanced and richly textured choral performance. I thought that O Heiland reiss die Himmel auf was worth the trip to Holy Name Church all by itself, but what a joy to have so much more glorious music!

    Comment by Roy Chatalbash — November 23, 2010 at 11:09 am

  15. Perhaps Mr. Schwindt and I attended different performances last Saturday night. I attended the one at Holy Name in West Roxbury where the Newton Choral Society and the Newton Symphony Orchestra combined to deliver a superb performance of the notably difficult Brahm’s piece, Ein Deutsches Requiem. The delivery by both NCS and NSO were so enthralling that I can’t wait to receive the CD’s of the evening’s performance so I can enjoy it again and again. Not only was the Requiem well played and sung,but also the church added it’s own parentheses by delivering reverberation amounting to four second decays of the sound after the last notes finished. The entire experience sent chills up and down my spine. Perhaps Mr. Schwindt should have checked his GPS to have found the right venue for last Saturday’s warmly received performance. Or perhaps he can catchup with what he appears to have missed by listening closely and carefully to the CD’s when they become available. Maybe he could then amend his review.

    Comment by Jim Nelon — November 23, 2010 at 4:43 pm

  16. I missed this performance of NCS, but have seen several others. While past experience tells me that there is perhaps some valid criticism of the performance, I am shocked to read a review that, while repeatedly pointing out that the NCS is a volunteer chorus, seems to hold the NCS up to professional standards. As a reader of the review, I question Mr. Schwindt’s motivation for the review – I don’t know if there is malice, or simply a self-aggrandising attempt at an academic analysis. Whichever the motivation, the review suffers from a serious logical disconnect. Perhaps the NCS can take some comfort that their efforts were apparently measured on a professional scale.

    Comment by commentor — November 23, 2010 at 5:08 pm

  17. As a music reviewer myself (who was not present at the concert) I am struck by the ad hominum vitriol being slung at Mr. Schwindt, by people who are personally affiliated with organization. What do you people expect to achieve by bullying a critic? It was a public performance by an organization that calls itself “world-class” (the newton symphony) and elsewhere “one of the finest choruses in the Boston area.” But now you want kid gloves? Your defensive response is indicative that there might be more than a little truth to Mr. Schwindt’s evaluation. You had an off night, everyone does, get over it.

    Comment by commentor 2 — November 23, 2010 at 5:54 pm

  18. This string is closed. After the holidays we will consider other avenues for discussing the issues raised here.

    the publisher

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 24, 2010 at 5:23 pm

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