Brahms in the summer with Mountainside Master Chorale

By Amber Peters, Lister reviewer

Imagine a Sunday afternoon in early summer. The sun beats down and hints at greater heat to come as you stroll along an avenue of mature, shady trees. Songbirds are twittering, robins strutting on the grass, while you wend your way along a garden path toward a stately, classical building. You join others as a trickle of pedestrians becomes a flood. A more pleasant prelude to a concert of glorious music could scarcely be contrived.

Dr. Jean-Sébastien Vallée conducting

The Mountainside Master Chorale presented A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms on Sunday afternoon, June 14, at Pomona College’s Bridges Hall of Music. The stately Italian Renaissance-style hall, with its massive pipe organ, painted wooden beams and dark paneling, did not disappoint the eye or the ear.

Artistic Director Dr. Jean-Sébastien Vallée gave a clear and insightful picture of the work to the crowd of three hundred. The German Requiem is Brahms’ longest work at 65-85 minutes, depending on the forces performing it.  Brahms wrote it between 1865 and 1869 in honor of two beloved people: his mother and the composer Robert Schumann. In his preface to the performance, Dr. Vallée explained that the Requiem was intended to comfort those left behind and hurting, and that Brahms chose his own Biblical texts instead of the traditional Latin mass for the dead. He also set the texts in his native tongue, to give it immediacy for his audience. In that spirit, the Chorale chose to present the work in English. Vallée also pointed out that there is much repetition of text, because time aids people in processing their feelings and dealing with their grief.

Christina Bristow, soprano soloist

As the choir began the opening movement, the audience was enveloped in the warm, flowing harmonies of Brahms’ profound music. Ty Woodward played the impressive organ from a balcony above the platform, performing with confidence and precision. The choir of about seventy singers had a fullness to their sound that resonated well in the beautiful hall, with an especially lovely unity in their forte singing. It was a well-rehearsed group and a knowledgeable conductor.

Brahms’ Requiem features baritone and soprano soloists. Christina Bristow’s sparkling top notes decorated her smooth, beautifully legato tone, showing off her excellent intonation; added to this, her countenance displayed sweetness and tender compassion. Baritone Steve Pence commanded attention with his powerful, vibrant voice and masterful diction.

Baritone soloist Steve Pence

Executive director Natalie Moran was on hand to share some of the exciting plans in the Chorale’s future, including a competition for choral composers. Next season will include two guest conductors along with Vallée, as he has taken a teaching position in Montreal and will be relocating.

In all, the German Requiem was a pleasure to experience, and a delightful way to spend an afternoon.

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