Music from and for the soul: Fresno Master Chorale presents the monumental Brahms Requiem. Conductor Anna Hamre can’t wait.
For most hardcore choral music lovers, it’s a natural instinct to seek out any and every performance of the Brahms Requiem that you can. The music is that powerful.
The Fresno Community Chorus Fresno Master Chorale offers one of those special opportunities. It will perform the towering work at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, at Shaghoian Hall.
Music director Anna Hamre is thrilled. The piece is big – in more ways than one.
Related stories: Why is the Fresno Master Chorale so excited about returning to full-concert form? Ask Alan Peters, who has been singing for 80 years.
And: Critic’s notebook: In a dark world, Fresno Master Chorale finds life in a requiem
There will be 130 singers on stage plus an orchestra of 39 instrumentalists, which will give the Brahms Requiem the scale and sound it needs to reflect such a monumental work.
It’s big in terms of what Hamre calls the architecture of the piece. This is the kind of thing that music theorists gush over. The structure of the piece is among the most intriguing, inventive and satisfying ever constructed.
Beyond all that, it’s a big work in terms of psychology. There were many requiems that came before Brahms finished his in 1868. Typically, composers set them to the words of the traditional Latin mass, which lays out a traditional, Catholic view of the afterlife: Heaven and hell. Reward and punishment. A narrow take on salvation.
But Brahms threw everything out the window, Hamre says.
“There’s no judgment. It’s all about comfort. It’s all about beauty. It’s all about dealing with grief and sadness, but then he launches into this incredible statement of hope and confidence in the future.”
He borrowed heavily from the actual Scriptures, putting the emphasis on passages that offer comfort and redemption, not transgression and castigation. The piece begins with a passage from the Beatitudes: “”Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Though Brahms never specified exactly why he wrote the Requiem and whom it was for, scholars believe it could have been for his mother or his good friend Robert Schumann. Whatever the impetus, the piece focuses on human grief, a universal affliction.
Adding to the performance impact will be something that notches up the difficulty factor: The chorus will sing the work in its original German.
That’s important. Brahms wrote it in the “language of the people” because he wanted folks to understand it. (What good is breaking conventions if most people can’t understand it?)
The last time the Fresno Community Chorus performed the Brahms Requiem, it was in English.
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Singing in German will make a difference.
“Brahms is just so astute,” Hamre says. “Having the word stress in the right place actually creates the phrasing or it creates the pattern. It’s just crucial to the beauty of the piece. And we have spent many hours trying to get the pronunciation just right.”
This will be the second time she conducts the piece, though she’s heard it performed live every chance she gets. Why is she so excited to do it again?
Her answer, simply: It’s worth it.
“This work is so profound that I never feel that I can completely explore the depths of it. I always find something new when I study it, when I read about it, when I listen to a performance. It’s worth doing. It is always an extraordinary experience for me.”