Wrapping up 30 years, with Brahms

'Requiem' caps Juneau Lyric Opera's anniversary season

Posted: Thursday, July 14, 2005

Of the 55 Juneau Lyric Opera members performing Johannes Brahms' "Requiem" on Saturday night in the company's Mid-Summer Vocal Festival, roughly half are familiar with the notoriously layered text.

The JLO chose to end its 30th anniversary with the piece - the same selection it performed for its first Mid-Summer workshop in 1975. The opera also sang Brahms' "Requiem" in 1995, for its 20th anniversary.

"Interestingly," said guest conductor Byron McGilvray, "enough of them have said, did I really do this?"


Juneau Lyric Opera

When: 7:30 p.m. saturday, june 16

Where: juneau-douglas high school auditorium.

Tickets: $14 for adults, $10 for students and seniors; available at hearthside books or the door. children 5 and under free.

That's because the text, though English, contains lush, romantic harmonies couched in complex, contrapuntal rhythms.

"It's a very difficult piece, far more difficult than I remember," said choir member Lena Simmons. "Brahms loved Bach, so there's lot of counterpoint in the fugues that Bach loved to do. But because he's part of the Romantic composers, it's far more lush than Bach. And when you put the lushness of the Romantics against the very classical sort of counterpoint, it's all got to fit together in the right place at the right time."

The JLO performs "Requiem" Saturday at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. Sue Kazama and Doug Smith will play Brahms' four-hand piano accompaniment on the high school's Steinway piano. Soprano Kathleen Wayne and baritone William Hurr are the featured soloists.

Tickets are $14 for adults, $10 for students and seniors and available at Hearthside Books or the door. Children 5 and under are free.

Because of the continuing construction at the high school, opera-goers are asked to enter through the stage shop door, close to the intersection of Glacier Avenue and Highland Drive.

The performance should last just more than an hour.

"If I do it well," McGilvray said, "an hour and six minutes."

Brahms, a Protestant, used passages from the Bible for the words of his "Requiem." It's not a requiem in the traditional sense of a Mass for the dead.

"It's more like a Protestant requiem, with a German Lutheran idea of death, which is death as a release from the trials of life," McGilvray said.

Brahms began the first draft of his "Requiem" in 1861, when he was just 28. A series of crushing setbacks likely provided him fodder, according to author Kurt Pahlen in "World of the Oratorio."

In 1856, the celebrated composer Robert Schumann, one of Brahms' stalwart supporters, died in an insane asylum. Brahms rushed to console Schumann's daughter, Clara, his lifelong friend and unrequited love. Their friendship soon became tangled. In 1863, Brahms was passed over for a position he had been seeking in Hamburg. Two years later, his mother died.

Composing the "Requiem" was very much a release from his earthly troubles. It was first performed, with three of the seven movements, on Dec. 1, 1867 in Vienna. At the beginning, McGilvray said, it was not well received.

The legendary British critic and playwright George Bernard Shaw was in the audience for one of the early performances and famously proclaimed, "I'm sure there won't be another one."

"He was just saying that it wasn't worth anything," McGilvray said. "He also called Brahms an overgrown, big, burbling baby with absolutely nothing to say."

But Brahms was not to be denied.

The complete seven-piece movement premiered on Feb. 18, 1869, in the Leipzig Gewandhaus and was heralded almost immediately.

"It really marked his unassailable arrival on the real-world international stage as one of the great composers of that era," McGilvray said.

"The whole idea up until that time was you wrote music to be performed now, and you don't really pay attention to the past," he said. "Brahms was one of those who did pay attention to the past. He did have a large collection of music of past eras. And really he and Mendelssohn began the trend of performing the music of past periods, as well as your own period."

So much for Shaw.

"Just overall, seldom did any of (Shaw's) prognostications in the musical realm come true," McGilvray said.

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