Back Bay Chorale closes season with a warm, consolatory Brahms Requiem

May 7, 2022 at 11:56 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Scott Allen Jarrett conducted the Back Bay Chorale in Brahms’ “German Requiem” Friday night at Sanders Theatre. Photo: Lydia Bittner Baird

In the 1860s, death must have seemed a constant companion for Johannes Brahms. Dealing with personal tragedy and loss, he etched his ideas about the hereafter into A German Requiem, a work that offers solace through spiritual renewal.

Conductor Scott Allen Jarrett clearly sees this beloved score less as a musing upon grief than a testament to consolation. He found an enveloping warmth and splendor when he led the work with the Back Bay Chorale in their final program of the season Friday night at Sanders Theatre.

With texts drawn from biblical and apocryphal sources, Ein deutsches Requiem stands apart from other works in the genre. Latin settings by Mozart, Verdi, and Dvořák, among others, plead to the Almighty to be saved from judgement. But Brahms sets the focus upon sweet sorrow and the eventual acceptance of things as they are.

A German Requiem was born from personal struggle. Brahms had lost his mother in 1865, four years before he completed the score. Yet the requiem also captures his lingering grief over his mentor Robert Schumann, who died in 1856 after years of mental illness.

The work’s seven movements shows Brahms at his most expansive and intimate, with a sumptuous grandeur that looks ahead to Mahler. Voices intone the text with the soft glow of a mother’s lullaby. Yet the music reaches beyond anguish to channel serenity. By focusing on those left behind, Brahms achieves a humanist universality.

Under Jarrett’s fluid direction, the Back Bay Chorale sang with a plush blend and clear diction that revealed the emotional sweep from every chorus. “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” took on subtle urgency to capture the fleeting glories of divine promise. The singers rendered “Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras” with earthshaking power. Buoyant tempos in the middle section and triumphant conclusion delivered momentary light.

“Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” also retained a congenial tenderness in its swift tempo, while the raw force of “Denn wir haben keine bleibende Statt” sounded with palpable angst. In the final “Selig sind die Toten,” the singers found heavenly tranquility.

The soloists were equally superb. Ryne Cherry’s dark, clarion baritone revealed the inner turmoil of a man facing his end in “Herr, lehre doch mich.” The chorus provided searching complement, rendering every repeated phrase with prayerful fervency. Soprano Maya Bloom brought angelic grace to “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit.”

Jarrett’s keen eye for detail threw the peaks and valleys of Brahms’s orchestration into sharp relief. Woodwinds soared in their key moments while resonant harmonies from the brass provided robust anchor. Through it all, the strings’ silvery resonance conveyed comfort and uplift.

Those qualities also made Karen Thomas’s Alchemy into a similarly affecting call for transcendence. Co-commissioned by the Back Bay Chorale, this bright, five-minute score relays the optimism of a poem by Sara Teasdale. Jarrett drew a fiery exuberance in the world premiere of its orchestral version.

Mykola Lysenko’s Prayer for Ukraine has become the most visible symbol for strength amidst conflict. The chorale’s haunting performance opened the concert with heartfelt support for the war-torn nation.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Back Bay Chorale closes season with a warm, consolatory Brahms Requiem”

  1. Posted May 07, 2022 at 11:20 pm by Elizabeth Noel-Cushenberry

    Back Bay Chorale
    Thank you! I was there because my daughter,Catherine, is a Soprano, and one of three African American members.
    This concert was wonderful!
    The music was beautiful and inspirational.
    It was perfect at a time when our Society/Community needs Beauty and Peace.

    Thank You

  2. Posted Mar 08, 2023 at 11:21 am by Alex Brown

    Good to read about this performance of one of my favorites, by a group of fine musicians I will never forget.

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