Brahms Requiem Becomes Impromptu Tribute to Robert Ward

Roy C. Dicks, What's the Score?By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?

Raleigh, NC – Meymandi Concert Hall – April 12, 2013

Friday night’s moving performance of Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem” by the N.C. Symphony and N.C. Master Chorale not only revealed the work’s warmth and beauty but also served as an unplanned but fitting tribute to Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Robert Ward, who died April 3 at age 95. Ward came to North Carolina in 1967 to head the N.C. School of the Arts in Winston-Salem and later taught for a decade at Duke University in Durham, NC, the city where he continued to reside until his death.

Composer Robert Ward September 13, 1917 – April 3, 2013
Composer Robert Ward September 13, 1917 – April 3, 2013

Ward’s pieces have been regularly scheduled with the orchestra, most recently in February with music director Grant Llewellyn at the podium, a concert with Ward in attendance. Llewellyn announced Friday that the weekend’s Requiem performances were being dedicated to Ward’s memory.

Brahms’ 1869 composition is a welcoming, comforting and ultimately joy-filled piece that mirrors Ward’s own personality and music. Brahms began the Requiem after his mother’s death, choosing passages from the Lutheran Bible that focus on the consolation of the bereaved. The work wraps the listener in soothing compassion and promise of better days.

Friday’s performance was a highlight of the season, showing off orchestra and chorus to maximum advantage. Llewellyn set the standard early with a first movement (“Blessed are they that bear grief”) that surged and fell with wonderful flow. The chorus’ precise phrasing and admirable clarity indicated the expert preparation by Master Chorale music director Alfred E. Sturgis.

The orchestra brought appropriate weight to the second movement’s funeral march cadences, offering thrilling support to the joyous choral outbursts in the latter part, the text promising “pain and sighing shall flee away.” Llewellyn brought out all the gorgeous richness of the fourth movement (“How lovely are thy dwellings”) and the reverent calm of the last movement’s blessing of the dead.

Baritone Mark Schnaible impressed with his clear, firm solos in the third and fifth movements, each expressing acceptance of death and a coming transfiguration. Ilana Davidson applied her light, silvery soprano to the fifth movement’s foretelling of great joy and comfort.

At 65 minutes, the Requiem is often programmed with other works and not divided by an intermission, as here. But it’s a long stand for the chorus, and the evening nevertheless felt complete with such an all-encompassing masterpiece.

[A version of this review originally appeared in the Raleigh NC News & Observer on April 14, 2013]

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