Musical tones of hopeful reflection filled the Holland Performing Arts Center as performers and audience thought back a half-century to another, deeply bitter Friday, Nov. 22.
Johannes Brahms wrote his “Ein deutsches Requiem” (A German Requiem) of 1868 to offer a reverent yet comforting outlook on life and death. When one recalls the themes and dynamics of President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, one well understands why Omaha Symphony Music Director Thomas Wilkins turned to Brahms to commemorate the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. The program repeats at 8 p.m. today.
Though the word “community” denotes a group of people pursuing a common purpose, “it doesn’t say how we should react when evil enters into that community,” Wilkins said after telling the audience he had learned about Kennedy’s death at school from his second-grade teacher.
Violence and death have struck Omaha and the nation many times since, he noted, but Brahms’ work “is as much for the living as for the dead. ... The question, then, is ‘How shall we live?’ ” He proposed that “we shall be persuaded that of all the things America is, it is America the beautiful.”
With that, Wilkins led the audience, the symphony and the evening’s four combined choirs and two professional soloists in the first verse of “America the Beautiful.” The nearly full concert hall was left to ponder the brevity and frailty of human life as the seven movements of Brahms’ immortal choral-orchestral work unfolded over the next 70 minutes.
Rather than reset the ancient Catholic Mass for the dead, Brahms chose 16 biblical texts for “Ein deutsches Requiem” that speak of rest, joy, patience and the Christian’s gaze beyond this world to the hope of eternal life. The symphony’s cellos, basses, low brass and timpani provided a solemn musical foundation, but the ominous undertones of many Requiem Masses (most notably Mozart’s) were virtually absent.
The deep vowels and prominent consonants of the German language are well-suited to Brahms’ purpose, but choirs must guard against swallowing the sounds. Happily, sharp diction and rich sonorities were the rule for chorusmaster Judith Clurman’s ensemble, consisting of the Omaha Symphonic Chorus, the Creighton University Chamber Choir and the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s concert and chamber choirs.
Soloists play a relatively minor role in “Ein deutsches Requiem,” but the symphony’s two guest soloists were impressive when called upon. Soprano Teresa Wakim, who took part in a Grammy-nominated recording of the work, seizes and holds the audience’s attention with a deeply expressive face. She floated sweetly high notes from the stage over the audience to open the fifth movement, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (“So you have sorrow now ...,” taken from John 16).
Both Wakim and baritone Jorell Williams, featured in the third and sixth movements, sang without benefit of microphones. Williams sang with clarity, depth and authority in the sixth movement’s pivotal passage, “Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis” (“Lo! I tell you a mystery”), drawn from 1 Corinthians 15 and also used in George Friedric Handel’s “Messiah.”