Things to listen for in today’s Brahms performance

For anyone attending or listening to today’s all-Brahms concert, here are a few things to keep an ear out for during the choral pieces so that you can appreciate some things that differentiate our performance from what you might hear on recordings or YouTube videos:

In Nanie, you’ll hear that the melodic lines are very difficult, with lots of sustained notes.  Notice how the chorus keeps renewing the vowel sound, with the sound constantly “spinning,” to make sure the tone doesn’t bottom out and get lazy, or the pronunciation of a vowel slip back into a schwa.

See how the character of the piece changes slightly when we switch to 4/4 from 6/8 time as we sing about all the daughters of the sea-goddess coming to the surface to sing a lament.  It’s a majestic moment that previews the moral of the story, revisited in the reprise of the opening hymn.  (Oh, and the oboe solo is delicious to listen to.)

There’s also a great moment where we sink to a barely audible pianissimo as we talk about even the perfect and beautiful dying.  It’s a great moment.

And, of course, there’s the great agogic accent toward the end, but I’ve written too much about that already.

In Schicksaslied, the contrast between the two sections is what makes the piece shine.  Here are the people in heaven, the gods, the souls that have ascended, living in a utopia.  As a chorus, we have to convey this beauty in our legato without getting lost in the music ourselves.  Meanwhile, the rest of us on earth suffer, water falling from rock to rock into the darkness below.  (Great word painting there as we fall vom Klippe zum Klippe).   We will spit out consonants and maintain a harsh rhythm, but we must still keep a legato line so that the whole piece has unity.

FdB pointed out that Brahms did something marvelous at the end, returning to the same heavenly utopian theme, but in the tonality of the second half, perhaps suggesting that there might be a way for us to transcend this earthen prison and make it up there.

Finally, in the Alto Rhapsody, prepare to be blown away by the wonder that is Stephanie Blythe.  In an earlier rehearsal she apologized for “marking,” or singing softer or down an octave from the actual music.  This was hilarious, because her idea of marking is still louder than many of us can sing.  This piece is for men’s chorus only, and originally we were creating a beautiful accompanying sound.  Now, we are forte right from the beginning, because, as John Oliver pointed out to us, it’s really a five note chord (bass 1, bass 2, tenor 1, tenor 2, and Stephanie) and she was blowing us away.  So we will try to keep up with her volume while still making a sumptuous, rich tone, rather than shouting or oversinging, or trying to hard to keep up.

I hope you enjoy the concert.  I believe it will be broadcast on the Internets around 2:30pm EDT from

2 responses to “Things to listen for in today’s Brahms performance

  1. Thanks for this and the previous post. Without them, I’d have missed at least some of these details. Posts like this are useful in the way pre-concert talks can be; and the pre-concert talks and program notes rarely focus on the chorus.

  2. Great Post! Amusing to think that Stephanie will be fine with a male chorus blasting away in forte throughout. Yes, this kind of post is so informative and I wish it were more a part of pre-concert talks.

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