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A choristers' piece

Bay Choral Guild performs Brahms' 'German Requiem' without an orchestra

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When the Bay Choral Guild presents Brahms' "Ein deutsches Requiem" ("German Requiem"), audiences familiar with the more commonly performed orchestral version will not hear the booming bass, brass or timpani. Without a symphony orchestra to overpower the quieter piano and pianissimo movements, concertgoers can bask in the subtle harmonies of this 50-voice chorale, accompanied only by a single piano played with four hands.

The piece, accompanied by pianists Timothy Getz and Tyson Dauer, includes solos for soprano and baritone, featuring professionals Jennifer Ashworth and Ben Kazez. But the seven-movement, 70-minute-plus piece includes no arias, which means no respite for the chorale.

"It's a choristers' piece," said tenor Bill van Melle during a rehearsal break at Palo Alto's First Baptist Church. "There are solos, but the choristers don't get much rest."

The challenge involves "keeping up the energy through the entire piece," said tenor Steve Kispersky. "It just keeps going and going and going."

Sanford Dole, Bay Choral Guild's artistic director, agrees. Unlike many of the chorale's previous concert programs, which have tended to feature shorter works and an intermission, this is a one-piece concert without a break. "Singing pretty much constantly throughout the whole piece requires stamina," he said.

The chorale will perform on Sunday, Nov. 23, at All Saints Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, following performances Nov. 21 in Campbell and Nov. 22 in San Francisco.

Those who have not heard Brahms' German-language requiem will discover a kinder, gentler liturgy than Mozart's, without the vehement "Dies Irae" (Day of Wrath) pleadings to an angry God. Brahms chose the text himself, selecting passages from the Martin Luther Bible to provide comfort to the living, rather than pleas for the souls of the dead. Begun after his mother's death in 1865, the piece begins with the words "Selig sind, die da Leid tragen, denn sie sollen getröstet werden" ("Blessed are those who bear suffering").

Others may be familiar with the Requiem's fourth movement, sung in English as "How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place."

"I grew up singing it in church choirs without ever knowing it was part of the Brahms Requiem," Dole said.

The requiem is not an easy piece to perform, he added. Sung in the style of the Romantic period, it includes tricky tempo and dynamic variations. In addition, much of the singing is pianissimo -- very soft -- requiring technical skill and abdominal control to sustain.

First soprano Mary Holzer said Dole "has been telling us since we've started, 'I'm warning you, sopranos: You will be exposed in a way you won't be while singing with an orchestra.'"

That exposure intensifies during the transition from the vociferous sixth movement -- "Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt" ("For here we have no lasting place") -- to the tranquility of the final seventh movement "Selig sind die Toten" ("Blessed are the dead").

The sixth movement feels like it should be the conclusion of the piece -- and before the final movement premiered in 1869, it was.

"But Brahms had one more thing to say," as Dole put it, and the composer put the onus on the sopranos, who get no resting place themselves. They open the seventh movement, singing a very exposed high F for two slow measures.

Standing on a podium in the center of the room, Dole explained the transition. Although the score is marked forte, he said, "it's a floated forte, not blasted. Start mezzo forte and let it blossom, shooting for the top side of the cloud, not coming up from the bottom."

Then he asked the sopranos to sing a particularly tricky phrase from memory. "Just be blissful. Look at me. I'll give you the triplets."

First soprano Padma Rangarajan, whose tone is bell-like, followed Dole's directive. Having sung in several choirs, she joined the group after moving to the area, joining her sister, Vai Rangarajan, who also sings first soprano.

Brahms' "German Requiem" is a challenge, Padma noted. "You have to be able to sing beautifully for a very long time." But the joy lies in performing exquisite music. The pieces Sanford chooses are "amazing," she said, "both cerebral and enjoyable."

Dole, born in Berkeley, has long been active in the Bay Area music scene. A founding member of the all-male Chanticleer a cappella group, he now serves as music director of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco and as artistic director of the Sanford Dole Ensemble, which focuses on contemporary music. He's currently completing his own choral work, "Gertrude and Alice: Scenes From a Shared Life," about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who also have roots in the Bay Area.

In 2000, Dole took the helm of Bay Choral Guild, an auditioned volunteer chorale founded in 1979 as the Baroque Choral Guild. In 2008, before the group's 30th anniversary season, the name was changed to reflect their expanded repertoire, which has ranged from Bach to Bobby McFerrin. Last year's American Heritage concert included works from the 18th to 21st centuries, including such composers as Stephen Foster, Richard Rodgers and Aaron Copland. Their 2013 Mozart Festival included three works for chorus and orchestra, including the Coronation Mass.

"We tend to sing things that are not easy, even if the music is moderately familiar to us," noted first soprano Holzer, who has sung with the group on and off since its founding.

"If people come in expecting they're going to sing only one kind of music, that can throw them. We tend to have singers who have either been with us for a while or are very experienced." In fact, singing show tunes can be challenging for those who have sung only classical music. Whether it's the composition itself or a different vocal technique, she said, "I never fail to learn something from each of the concerts."

Holzer has sung the Brahms requiem several times, sometimes in large pickup groups with experienced singers who get together for several practices before performing with an orchestra. Concentrating on the piece for an entire quarter is a different experience, giving the director "the luxury of trying different things as we're practicing, making subtle changes here and there," she observed.

Dole has wanted to direct this requiem for years.

"We're a relatively small choir, not big enough for a full orchestra," he pointed out. "Nor do we have the money." The local nonprofit is funded by contributions, ticket sales and by a grant from Arts Council Silicon Valley, in partnership with the County of Santa Clara and California Arts Council.

And because the music of this requiem is soft and intimate, performing with four-handed piano allows the choir to come through, Dole said, adding, "Being in a small venue brings the audience closer to the singers."

What: Bay Choral Guild's production of Brahms' "Ein Deutsches Requiem"

Where: All Saints Episcopal Church, 555 Waverley St., Palo Alto

When: Sunday, Nov. 23, at 4:30 p.m., preceded by a 4 p.m. lecture

Cost: $25 general, $20 seniors, $5 students

Info: Go to baychoralguild.org or email info@baychoralguild.org

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Like this comment
Posted by Lynn Huidekoper, Chorister
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 22, 2014 at 3:58 am

Our concert last night in Campbell was well received. Brahm's would have appreciated the soprano and baritone soloists,Jennifer Ashworth and Ben Kazez, with their interpretation of his beautiful composition. The 4 hands piano accompaniment brought drama to the choral part. Singing for Sanford, our director, is a true pleasure as he takes us to higher and higher levels.
I look forward to tonight's performance in San Francisco and on Sunday in Palo Alto.

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