Winter Holiday Concert:
Memorial: Brahms' Requiem
After the hurt, there can come healing.
So thought the 24-year-old composer Johannes Brahms when he set about writing his German Requiem in 1857. Instead of stern church music warning of the ultimate day of reckoning, Brahms attempted to create a musical restorative, something to promote life in the face of death, hope at the brink of despair.
To the members of the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra and the JHU Choral Society, Brahms' life-affirming masterpiece was the most apt way of memorializing slain student and former orchestra member Rex Chao. They will perform the German Requiem at a special concert dedicated to his memory at the Homewood campus' Shriver Hall on Saturday, Dec. 7.
"The Brahms Requiem is a piece of consolation," said Choral Society director David Neal. "It doesn't have the Dies Irae of the Catholic mass. It is very inclusive. Its sentiments are Christian, but it's not dogmatic. The first and the last word are 'blessed'--that tells you a lot about the piece."
The Dec. 7 concert will feature not one, but two choruses, with the Goucher College Chorus joining the Hopkins Choral Society to create a mixed ensemble 100-voices strong. Together with the 85 or so members of the orchestra the combined group will more than fill the Shriver Hall stage.
"We've done combined concerts before, and you find that as the chorus fills the risers behind the orchestra you have to start using air space to fit them all on stage," said Symphony Orchestra musical director Jed Gaylin. "Still, it's a very nice sound when they're all together."
The event is the second performance in the Hopkins Orchestra's season, and the first this academic year for the Choral Society. Both groups are drawn from students, faculty, staff and members of the community.
"This group is wonderful, it's the nicest, most welcoming bunch of people," said Bobby Miller, an administrative assistant in the Office of Development on the Homewood campus. A practiced singer in her school days, Miller stopped performing years ago when she got married and began raising three boys. "I've been saying for years that I should go back and do another choral piece," she said.
In September Miller saw a poster inviting singers to a Choral Society open rehearsal. With her sons grown and her husband lending his support, she decided now was the time to start singing again.
Since then, her Tuesday evenings have been devoted to group practices as musical director Neal takes his chorus through the intricacies of Brahms' first major success as a composer. An additional day each week is devoted to sectionals, shorter rehearsals of just the soprano, alto, tenor or bass parts.
The rest of the time Miller and other members of the chorus listen to tapes prepared by Neal, which use two pianos: one playing the orchestral music line, the other playing accompaniment for the specific choral section, with Neal talking along, telling the singers when to come in and when to stop singing.
"There are two fugues and a lot of complicated entrances so you have to pay very close attention," Miller said. "I have been listening to the tape every night for two months. My husband has been very patient with me."
Patience and considerable fortitude are required on all sides whenever a volunteer organization like the Choral Society undertakes a major work such as the Brahms Requiem. "Technically the chorus is a performing arts group sanctioned through Student Activities," Neal said. "While there is certainly a social element to our activities, our singers take this music very, very seriously, and it shows."
The Choral Society has the distinction of being--by their own account--the oldest student activity on campus, originating as a student singing group founded by doctoral candidate Woodrow Wilson and his peers in 1883. Since then, the group has been through numerous incarnations, including stints as the Banjo Club, the Mandolin Club and the Glee Club before settling on their current name in 1985.
The Hopkins Symphony Orchestra, by contrast, is a relatively new organization. It was founded nearly a century later, in 1981, to provide university and community members an opportunity to develop and enjoy their musical talents. Currently administered through the Office of Homewood Student Affairs, the orchestra performs four subscription concerts, three chamber music concerts, a free children's concert and assorted "run-outs"-- performances at outside locations--each year.
And like the chorus, said Gaylin, the orchestra takes its music seriously.
"The biggest challenge in a group like this--where you have different musicians of differing backgrounds and abilities--is to make sure that at whatever level people are playing you still invite them to give their all in the most profound ways they can," he said. "My job as musical director is to see that this disparate group comes together and speaks as one, and in so doing, does justice to the composer's intentions."
In the past several seasons both the chorus and the orchestra have grown and matured noticeably, said their respective musical directors.
"Our audience is particularly moved by their friends and peers in the Hopkins community devoting their hearts and souls to this incredible music," Gaylin said. "People walk away from our concerts feeling they have been changed by the very personal relationship they form with the orchestra. It's an entirely different context than going to a Baltimore Symphony performance."
The December concert will be particularly meaningful for many of the people involved. Many of them knew Rex Chao, who played in the orchestra's first violin section. "Rex was a romantic in his musical taste," Gaylin said. "He was one of the more noticeable members of the orchestra, very inquisitive and outspoken. This piece speaks to our feeling of loss. It is a very consoling work, very inspirational, very comforting. I hope there will be a sense of catharsis for the orchestra and the whole community in this performance."
Tickets to the 8 p.m. concert in the university's Shriver Hall are $7, $6 for students and seniors. Hopkins students with a valid ID are admitted free. For more information call (410)516-6542.
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