The John Oliver Brahms Requiem

Now, THAT was a rehearsal.

Our chorus had had two weeks of rehearsals with Martin, our rehearsal pianist, and a fine musician and composer on his own… but he’d be the first to admit that he’s not a choral conductor.  If there were questions about interpretation, about specific cutoffs, about rewrites that had been inserted in half the scores (and contradicted in the other half) over the many years of performances, all Martin really had the authority to say was “sing it as written” or “we’ll see what John and Christoph [von Dohnányi] say next week.  As always, those rehearsals were great for [re-]learning the notes and text and fine-tuning or catching up on memorization.  But they barely serve as making music.

Tonight we made music.  Tonight was almost a religious experience for me as we rehearsed down in the chorus room with John Oliver leading us: leaning into the chords and lines, responding to his baton and playing off of his familiar cues, creating a sound that felt fulfilling and rewarding, and making John’s interpretation of the piece come alive.  John even joked about it at one point in the second movement.  He remarked to the basses, “I see you’re familiar with the John Oliver version of this Requiem, because you didn’t do the diminuendo until the last syllable of abgefallen, which is how I like it.”  Oh, we stopped to fix things when they needed to be fixed.  The connectivity of the movements was interrupted by the necessity of mundane comments like “At rehearsal letter K, the baritones should double the tenors” or “What are the tenors singing in the second system”  or “Altos, take out the rest that’s marked and finish with the lower voices so that the subito piano… you know, the one the sopranos aren’t doing (laughter)… comes through.”  He even brought up a debate about whether the “hairpins” written into our scores were accurate, as recent editors were suggesting those swells should be over the entire measure.  It didn’t matter.  For me, pausing for those adjustments did not diminish the feeling of accomplishment just from being a part of that rehearsal.

But what made this non-performance such a special experience for me?  Well, having sung this piece with John once at MIT in the early 90’s, and once out at Tanglewood almost a decade later, I’ve internalized “John’s version of the piece” as my own.  It makes it distracting to listen to any other version, recorded or live, because a tempo will be different, a dynamic won’t be there, a certain character or tone won’t be present… fundamental decisions by the conductor and the choir can create discordances within my memory of “how it’s supposed to go.”  Like hearing a different comedian tell a joke you know — still the same joke, but the retelling of the story, the timing of the punchline, can make the joke unrecognizable or even not funny.

On the drive down this evening, I told my wife, “I will bet you dollars to donuts that John stops us to tell us three things tonight, because we’re not doing them yet.”  Those three things:

  1. He will make a pained look on his face and say “shh shh shh” in the recapitulation of the 4th movement, finally stopping us to say that this second occurrence of the Wie lieblich theme must be “absolutely pianissimo.”
  2. He will make us go back and repeat a very important agogic accent at the end of the Die loben dich immerdar section in the transition to the subito piano because we’re plowing through it without any separation.
  3. He will tell us that the opening of the sixth movement needs to sound like we’re exhausted, like we’re trudging home from work after a long day, carrying a huge burden.

Bingo.  John said all of these things, almost verbatim.  My wife shot me a smile across the room after each one of them.  To be fair, John painted a slightly different picture on the third point–he did use the word “trudging” but he described it as “several overweight pallbearers marching along carrying a coffin with another overweight man inside.”  It’s an amusing mental image, but it’s an important point to convey — that part of the piece is supposed to drive home the human side of the requiem equation, the “this is our place on Earth and we’re pushing through our days here hoping that our work before we die makes it a better place.”

There were many other familiar dynamics, phrases that John motioned to bring out from the texture, ritardandos in all the places I’m expecting them, gestures to tenors and altos on certain sections that are quintessential moments for him… and remind me that yes, THIS is the version of the Brahms Requiem I enjoy.  This rehearsal was my one and only performance of it this year.

Because that’s the shame of it all, really.  Starting tomorrow, at the piano rehearsal, Maestro Dohnányi will begin shaping us to his version of the Brahms Requiem.  I’m sure it will be glorious… full of subtlety and majesty, musically intelligent, and conveying his retelling of perhaps Brahms’ greatest work.  John will reconvene with us in the rehearsal room, and remind us of what Christoph wanted here, and advise us to watch his stentando on this cadence and an accelerando going into a fugue that we hadn’t seen before… and, as always, we will shape ourselves to deliver on a new vision.  We will embody the decisions that Christoph asks for, and I will love singing every minute of it.

But it won’t be my favorite version.

2 responses to “The John Oliver Brahms Requiem

  1. Nice, Jeff! Last night was indeed a special event. –david k

  2. Pingback: Critical Reviews of the Brahms | Just Another Bass

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