Its Humanity In View, ‘German Requiem’ Gets A Full-Power Treatment

The Greensboro Symphony Orchestra and Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale performed Brahms’ ‘A German Requiem’ under music director Dmitry Sitkovetsky. (Photos by Lynn Donovan)

GREENSBORO, NC — Brahms’ monumental Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) is the longest of his creations, its seven movements spanning 75 minutes. It departs from the “standard” Requiem about death: no Kyrie, no Gloria, etc. Rather, Brahms chose words that his audience could understand from German writings, including the Lutheran Bible. A telling quote from the composer: “I’d happily give up the ‘German’ in the title and just put ‘Human.'” It is a profoundly moving work, as well as a test of stamina. Music director Dmitry Sitkovetsky led the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra and Master Chorale in an emotionally charged and stirring performance Feb. 18 at the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts.

The Greensboro Symphony is the third largest orchestra in North Carolina, after the North Carolina Symphony and Charlotte Symphony.

The death of two key people in Brahms’ life may have inspired the composer to undertake the composition of the Requiem: His mother died in February of 1865, and his mentor, Robert Schumann, nine years earlier. Brahms had originally planned a six-movement work that had its premiere in Bremen, Germany, in 1866. The seven movements that are now the final version of the Requiem were first performed in Leipzig in 1869.

The work is scored for large orchestra (including organ, which was absent in this performance), chorus, and two vocal soloists (here soprano Julia Sitkovetsky, the conductor’s daughter, and baritone Andrew Garland).

Dmitry Sitkovetsky has been music director of the Greensboro Symphony since 2003.

The German Requiem has a wonderful overarching structure. The first and last movements both begin with the words “Blessed are.” The second and sixth pair a funeral march with the Day of Judgment theme; three and five offer two solos — the first, the baritone reflecting on his mortality, the second, the soprano singing of comfort. The central movement, the emotional heart of the work, is a superb chorale.

Soprano Julia Sitkovetsky singing under the baton of her father, Greensboro Symphony music director Dmitry Sitkovetsky.

The opening “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” (“Blessed are they who mourn”), which is indicative that this is a Requiem for the living as much as for the dead, begins with the low strings. The violins are silent throughout the movement. The dark and somber mood is introduced by the orchestra and picked up by the chorus, which paid close attention to Sitkovetsky’s precise conducting. 

“Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (“For all flesh is as grass”) begins as a funeral march, with the timpani playing an incessant four-beat motive. What begins with a sense of resignation intensifies into a terrifying fortissimo. A more soothing section presented by the chorus and orchestra provides some comfort with its setting of the words “Now, therefore be patient, loving brothers.” The movement, which begins in minor, ends in a hopeful, radiant major key.

“Herr, lehre doch mich” (“Lord, teach me”) introduces a solo voice that wonders about the impermanence of life; the chorus responds with gloomy exchanges. Garland’s voice was powerful and rich, demanding attention.

The centerpiece “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” (“How lovely are thy dwelling places”) provides a calm and splendid respite from the darker moments presented in the previous movements. One could have asked for more contrast from the chorus — quieter pianos and louder fortes. Still, attractive singing was present throughout.

Andrew Garland was the baritone soloist.

The following “Ihr habt nur Traurigkeit” (“You now have sorrow”) is a gem, a soaring vehicle for the soprano. Sitkovetsky’s voice was lyric and dramatic, with great beauty and power that cut clearly through the orchestra. The chorus gently accompanied her through several passages.

“Denn wir haben hier keine bleibend Statt” (“For we have here no continuing city”) is the longest movement, beginning with a lament about the ephemeral nature of life, to which the baritone responds with a catastrophic vision, dramatically presented by Garland. The terrifying music sung by the choir ushers in a grand fugue in the style of Handel. Thrilling.

The finale, “Selig sind die Toten” (“Blessed are the dead”), brings the work to a gentle close, providing solace to the living and the dead. It is always a pleasure to hear this final segment’s consoling and reassuring mood, with a reiteration of the first movement’s “Blessed are” music and atmosphere.

The 80-plus-member Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale was well prepared by founding conductors Jonathan Emmons and James Keith. The members of this amateur choir showed stamina, standing for the entire 75 minutes. In an ideal world, it would have been better to have a few more tenors in a couple of passages and a bit more sound from the entire ensemble, but these are insignificant details given the all-around fine singing.

Sitkovetsky’s conducting was by turns intense and passionate, earnest and pleading, or lyrical. He kept the orchestra and chorus on point.

Helen Rifas’ harp playing added ethereal sounds, and timpanist Peter Zlotnick’s solid support was felt throughout. Superb playing from the winds and brass was matched by the strings, which provided the foundation for the entire piece.

The 80-plus-member Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale was well-prepared by founding conductors Jonathan Emmons and James Keith.

According to its website, the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra goes back to the 1920s, “when a group of musicians at Woman’s College (now University of North Carolina–Greensboro) banded together under the direction of Henry Fuchs. In 1939, the dean of music at the Woman’s College formally organized the group as the Greensboro Orchestra, which was financially sustained by the college.”

In 1967, Sheldon Morgenstern (who also founded the Eastern Music Festival at Guilford College in Greensboro) became the first conductor whose salary was fully paid by the Greensboro Symphony Society, formed in 1959. Sitkovetsky, who began his Greensboro directorship in 2003, will step down at the end of this season. He has not only led the orchestra but also developed the Rice Toyota Presents “Sitkovetsky & Friends” chamber series, usually featuring whatever soloist is playing with the orchestra at that time. Next season will feature seven conductors vying for the post of music director.