After a week of very public contract disputes that culminated in the heroic acceptance of salary reductions, the members of the Honolulu Symphony came together Friday night to play Brahms' powerful "German Requiem" in equally heroic fashion.
The issue of performing sacred music in a public concert was debated long before the age of political correctness. In the 19th century, composers like Berlioz, Verdi and Liszt challenged traditional views by writing large-scale sacred works for the concert hall rather than the church. The issue for contemporary critics was not whether it was appropriate to promote one's religious views in public, but rather whether the secular atmosphere of the concert detracted from the solemnity of a sacred work.
The Majesty of Brahms
The Honolulu Symphony presents Brahms' Requiem:
Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Time: 4 p.m. today
Tickets: $16, $28, $33, $44 and $59
With his 1869 "Requiem," Brahms took the challenge a step further by substituting nontraditional words for those of the Latin Requiem Mass. He chose sacred texts from throughout Luther's German translation of the Bible, resulting in a prayer for the comfort of the living rather than for the salvation of the dead. The word "German" in the title is not nationalistic but is meant to emphasize the vernacular text.
The star of Friday evening's performance was the Honolulu Symphony Chorus, which has blossomed under the leadership of Karen Kennedy.
Especially noticeable this year is the larger number of tenors and basses, which allows for better balance between men and women. The chorus showed beautiful control of soft dynamic levels in the opening movement, as well as ample power in the second movement. The opening section of this movement, on the text "Behold, all flesh is grass," was chilling in its evocation of death.
The inexorable march of the orchestra paired with the precise German diction of the chorus made for a powerful climax. The precision and rhythmic energy of the ensemble were further highlighted in the final movement, with its fortissimo chords followed by sudden rests.
Bass-baritone soloist Burr Cochran Phillips brought warmth of tone and an elegant sense of line to his solos in the third and sixth movements. Soprano Sandra Andersen sang the fourth-movement solo with conviction.
Conductor Samuel Wong held the large number of musicians together effectively. Perhaps because of the scale of the performance, his gestures were unusually large and dramatic. The wide-flung arms were especially appropriate, as they seemed to emulate the sign of the cross.
The first half featured three short works for orchestra. Hampton Albert Sisler's "The Cosmic Divide" opened the concert on a mildly dissonant yet rhythmically predictable note. The work was interspersed with short readings by the composer from the book of Revelations.
Busoni's "Concertino for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra" and Debussy's "First Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra" both featured principal clarinetist Scott J. Anderson. The two works showed off his virtuoso technique and a wide range of tone colors. His fellow musicians gave him a hearty round of applause after his performance.