Brahms Requiem with Eric Ericson Chamber Choir
The tears came in the middle of the fourth movement (Wie lieblich sind diene Wohnungen), and they didn't stop until after the concert when we had walked out into the fresh, crisp Stockholm air. So, what caused the waterworks? The Eric Ericson Chamber Choir's sublime performance of Brahms Requiem in the piano four-hands version with timpani.
My tears are explained in part because the piece has emotional baggage for me. I conducted it in the fall of 2010, when my mom was in the last, difficult months of her life, and it was hard for me to make it through those rehearsals and performance. I associate the Brahms with my mother, just as Brahms did with his. In addition, in the past 18 months, we have all experienced grief, fear, frustration, and disappointment caused by Covid, and I was hoping that the concert would help me address that.
I have sung, prepared, and conducted the piece before and after that 2010 performance. I know every pitfall and every trap. I know how awful a chorus often sounds in certain passages, and I can visualize where on the page those passages reside. I know every word of the text, and I can sing every note of every voice part, largely from memory. When you know a piece this well, it is difficult to be impressed.
While catharsis didn't happen (I realize it's a bit much to ask from a single performance of a single piece), I had a thrilling, emotional afternoon. The Konserhuset was packed, and one could tell that the audience was excited about what was to come. As the 32 members of the Chamber Choir began the opening “Selig sind...” they were so soft that I could feel the audience collectively stop breathing. The room was…perfectly…still…and…perfectly…quiet.
As the piece evolved, the Chamber Choir sang with technical precision and nuance, and when it was time to be loud, they filled the hall with gorgeous, majestic sound. The fugues were crisp, with important lines peeking out of the texture at exactly the right moments. Diction was expressive, and phrasing was impeccable. This is what a professional choir should sound like.
I well remember my Westminster Choir College teacher, Joseph Flummerfelt, saying, “With Brahms, only conduct what is on the page. If he wants a ritardando or an accent, etc., it will be on the page. If you don't see it on the page, don't do it!” And that surely seemed to be conductor Florian Benzer’s approach, which was simple, honest, and without grandstanding. His leadership was generally reserved, allowing the music to ebb and flow naturally, but when the music was grand, his gesture was grand to match. When you sing for a truly great conductor, that person can bring things out of you that you didn't realize were possible. Even with these seasoned professionals, that's what seemed to happen Saturday afternoon.
The baritone soloist was disappointing. There were moments of poor intonation and even a few wrong pitches. (Remember, I know this music.) On the other hand, the soprano, after a tentative beginning, sang nicely. (Brahms gives the soprano soloist a very difficult task, indeed. Not only does she have to sing after sitting silently on stage for four long movements, she must begin at the top of her register with a very soft dynamic. No wonder almost all sopranos sound tentative when they begin.) The pianists and timpanist played with both sensitivity and virtuosity.
There was a very long stretch of silence after the final chord, but when the audience finally felt free to applaud, they gave the performance a huge ovation, apparently agreeing that the Chamber Choir was the absolute star of the afternoon.
When my husband and I left the hall, I felt drained and a bit moody. But then, in a wonderful metaphor for life's up's and down's, we found a woman giving group dance lessons in an outdoor amphitheater. We broke out in huge smiles and headed to dinner.