Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why You Should Hear The Brahms Requiem This Weekend

Herbert Blomstedt (above) is in San Francisco for two weeks to conduct concerts at the San Francisco Symphony, his old orchestra where he was Music Director from 1985-1995. I heard him conducting the Sibelius Second Symphony last week in a precise yet smoothly controlled performance that was wonderful to experience. Blomstedt is 87 years old and only conducts a few orchestras where he has a long rapport in Germany and Scandinavia and San Francisco.

On Wednesday evening, the Friends of the SF Symphony were invited to an evening rehearsal of this weekend's program, the Brahms Requiem, and I asked a few of the attendees whether or not they were Blomstedt Fans.

Michele above was definitely one. "Blomstedt was the person who turned the San Francisco Symphony from what was, honestly, a so-so orchestra to a world class one. You could hear him elevating the sound from the time he arrived. He's also a very genial, gallant man. I used to sit in the Center Terrace a lot when he was Music Director and you could see that in his interactions with the orchestra."

The rehearsal was fascinating, as Blomstedt would play through each movement without pause, and then spend the next five to ten minutes singing and talking his way through what he REALLY wanted, and then entire sections would be replayed, and they always sounded better. The SF Symphony Chorus, with plenty of competition, is the eminent choral group in the Bay Area right now and they were sounding exquisite, particularly after Blomstedt would tell them that they must "accent it like so [singing] on these particular words like so [singing]." The performances should be very special.

I'm making this recommendation even though I can't abide requiems. George Bernard Shaw, the Pauline Kael of late 19th century London musical critics, put it better than I ever could: "I do not deny that the Brahm's Requiem is a solid piece of music manufacture. You feel at once that it could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker. But I object to requiems altogether. The Dead March in Saul is just as long as a soul in perfect health ought to meditate on the grave before turning lifewards again to a gay quickstep, as the soldiers do. A requiem overdoes it, even when there is an actual bereavement to be sympathized with; but in a concert room when there is nobody dead, it is the very wantonness of make-believe." (Pictured above is baritone Christian Gerhaher, who was sounding great in his short soloist role.)

In the short Wikipedia entry on Herbert Blomstedt, my favorite paragraph is this: "A devout Seventh-day Adventist, Blomstedt does not rehearse on Friday nights or Saturdays, the Sabbath in Seventh-day Adventism. He does, however, conduct concerts, since he considers actual performances to be an expression of his religious devotion rather than work." Even in rehearsal, you could tell he was completely energized by the music, and it required a functionary from backstage to tell him that he had to take a break after ninety minutes or many union rules were going to explode. In any case, you have been alerted that a possible religious experience is in store at Davies Hall this weekend. There are performances on Friday and Saturday, and you can get ticket info here.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

I love Shaw, but for me his attitude towards the German Requiem (and Brahms in general) has always been a "consider the source" thing:

(1) Shaw was always polemical, and as the author of the Perfect Wagnerite he definitely chose sides in the "Wagner is the future" vs "Brahms is a traditionalist" battles of the mid- and late-nineteenth century musical world. He needed to attack Brahms to make way for Wagner, just as he needed to attack Shakespeare to make way for the new theater of Ibsen (and Shaw himself).

(2) Shaw's was essentially a comic spirit -- when he told the story of St Joan, for him it ends not with her execution but with an epilogue (both amusing and profound) in which she gets the last word with her old opponents. He believed that, however slowly and imperfectly, humanity could progress forward. As such, all requiems are alien to him.

Civic Center said...

Dear Patrick: I take Shaw's writings about Brahms AND Wagner with a "consider the source" grain of salt. He's best when describing his first love, Mozart.

And I must be essentially a comic spirit because requiems are alien to me too. Some stranger tonight at the Symphony asked me what I would want played at my funeral, and all I could reply was, "Good question, but I know it wouldn't be a requiem. Something more festive."

lb said...

Went to the performance last night (Saturday). Awesome singing. Not to be missed if you are not Shaw. Very spiritual work.

Civic Center said...

Dear lb: I was there last night too and it was a wonderful performance. I enjoyed the piece as music, however, projecting my own scenario, which was all over the place rather than a meditation on God and mortality.