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The Phoenix Chorale opens the 2015-16 season with Johannes Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requeim. K-BACH's Sterling Beeaff speaks with artistic director Charles Bruffy about the upcoming performance of masterpiece and the intimacy of the piano four-hand version.
SB: This is a pretty exciting thing. I am not sure everyone in the audience will know just how exciting -but to have this version of the Brahms’ Requiem, which actually lets a group like the Phoenix Chorale do this, this is really exciting.
CB: We are all very excited about it, and you know, and it’s so fun to watch the singers really bite down on this as it were.
SB: The times that I have been involved in singing the Brahms' Requiem, it’s that massive chorus with a romantic orchestra, and that is a marvelous experience. This one it’s a whole different experience musically, lyrically, the feeling that you walk away with and the intimacy. Have you done it before with a chorale this size?
CB: I have never done it with a choir this size before, but I have done it with a choir of 160. I've prepared it with the Kansas City Symphony Chorus before, that was performed with the Kansas City Orchestra, which is a big ensemble. And as a singer, I also got to do it a couple of different times with Robert Shaw, back in the day. And while that was overwhelming onto itself, with the smaller version with the Phoenix Chorale, it is a completely different experience. It allows for a little more insight into the inner workings and the intimacy of this piece. we can make more subtle tempo inflections, textual inflections, and dynamic inflections than you can with the Mack truck of the mass forces of big orchestra and big chorus. So I think people that will that know this piece already; will come away from this experience having heard the piece in a new way. They may come away feeling that they've never recognized before the way the inner voices intertwine and entertain each other. Its a little bit more macro when you have such a large force, that we can get on the insides better with this smaller group and the versatility of the piano.
SB: In Brahms' orchestrations and certainly in the Requiem, there is a lot of bass. And while you have Brahms the Great Pianist himself making the transcription that we are going to hear, there is a whole different flavor to it and when you talk about the intimacy. Very often you've got that, what you call the Mack Truck of the Chorus with the cast of thousands, and getting the words across- and you've done it with Robert Shaw and you've done it with massive forces, so I know that the annunciation was there, but the same effort is not required to make it clear to the audience what is being said. Seems like another level of intimacy.
CB: That's true. And of course the acoustic really impacts how one must articulate text. If it’s a very wet acoustic then we have to do a more cathedral kind of diction than in a dryer hall, which would be one like an orchestra hall. It heightens the level of drama that there is such personal- well, frankly, we depend on each of the singers, the individuality of each of the singers, perhaps a little more than they do... when you have forty sopranos, you ask one thing of them, but when you have only six or seven of them, then it becomes imperative that each of the individuals bring their “A” game and bring their complete musicianship to the performance. When all the singers of the Phoenix Chorale then do that and have that immediately ready, then the piece becomes terribly dramatic, and then the moments of sweetness and catharsis become of excruciating joy. The big fugal moments, the "death where is thy sting", and then we all have twenty something of the Phoenix Chorale singers shaking their fists above their heads, vocally at least, "where is thy sting", and it really makes the piece stand up on its feet, requires you to listen, and then gives you a huge reward for having done so.
SB: When you have a group of soloists, people that can stand up and they have that character, and then you hear them do early music, more pop style things; you hear them doing more romantic and more classical pieces, and then those folks all surrender that solo sound to the sound of the chorale. I am sure each of them has done this, as you described before with the huge chorus and the huge orchestra, this must have been quite an experience for those folks to surrender to this kind of Brahms, different kinds of Brahms sound.
CB: (Chuckles) We have a short hand for it: we call it our big boy voice, and we are all using our big boy, our big girl on this, which includes a lot of hysteria in the tone. We are all using our voice in a way we would if we were soloists with an orchestra where we need to carry over the orchestra, but then, keeping that just reigned in around the edges so nobody sticks out and so that we never exceed beauty. It becomes impressively loud when everyone sings full throated and with full vibrato and full coloration of their instrument. It is a very compelling experience, and frankly almost more than I can stand being in the middle of it. Just having that wall of sound rush over me- it is bliss, I tell you, but it is a lot.
SB: Well, we can look forward to hearing that- your great Rachmaninoff recording of late told us that, what the choir can get in volume, what the choir can get in dynamic level...I am looking forward to that, the bigness of Brahms, but also the chance to hear Charles Bruffy and the Phoenix Chorale with a more intimate version. There are those big statements that Brahms makes in the Requiem obviously, but there are also those very personal ones. This is written after the death of a great friend and his mother, and that intimacy is pretty special.
CB: Yes, and so conversely, it becomes larger than life on moment, but then it becomes very intimate and genuine, self disclosing and honest. All those kind of words where it makes a very subtle transformation between merely telling a story, just stating the narration in a very truthful and meaningful way, however, and from it becoming narration and an involvement of personal experience. That's the really delicious part about what this choir is able to do. Probably the most famous section of the Brahms Requiem is the section, "How Lovely is thy Dwelling Place". Are we merely telling the story of that, or are we having a personal experience when our own eyes are the ones that see how lovely this dwelling place is, no matter what your beliefs are. It brings a whole new level of meaning and vulnerability when we become the ones that are saying it, rather than just telling a story about someone else's experience.
For concert details, visit The Phoenix Chorale.
Music---excerpt of "How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place" from The German Requiem - Johannes Brahms.
Produced by Jane Hilton