On Sunday evening, April 23, choral works by Johannes Brahms were liberated by Pasadena Master Chorale for the enjoyment by naïve and sophisticated listeners alike. This was one of two performances at Altadena Community Church.
Artistic Director and Conductor Jeffrey Bernstein crafted an all Brahms, all a cappella program for mixed voices. We were treated to unfettered romanticism for an hour and a half, without intermission, and the chorale did justice to the beautiful, signature sound of unaccompanied Brahms.
Blend, unity of tone, careful attention to balance – these were the pillars upon which the whole performance were built. Additionally, intentional crafting of long musical phrases for each poetic stanza was fully realized. The choristers stood spread across the altar area and into the common area of the sanctuary, in fully mixed positions instead of by voice section. Notably, their ability to stay together and their balance were uncompromised. The most gratifying moments occurred where the lowest bass note of a chord was deliciously reverberant in the hall, a well-balanced chord built upon it.
With the first downbeat of the sacred piece, Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz, op. 29 no. 2 (“Create a pure heart within me, O God”), it was clear that a lovely ensemble sound has been honed over many rehearsals. A beautiful gewissen Geist (“sure Spirit”) floated to the surface from the lowest voices, having spun out of the texture of the full (but not overbearing) choir on the same text. It seemed to signify the sureness one may feel, accompanied by divine guidance, amidst any chaos. Other occurrences of this gratifying bass foundation were found throughout the concert, for example, during the secular songs, Drei Gesänge, op. 42 (“Three Songs”) and Vier Gesänge, op. 104 (“Four Songs”).
In particular, what made PMC’s sound so delightful was their straight-tone blend from soprano I through bass II. The soprano section did not over-balance the rest of the choir, and their melodic lines remained lovely and one with the ensemble. The only additional thing one might dare ask for is greater use of piano and pianissimo dynamics.
Maestro Bernstein is an efficiently communicative conductor. His choir maintains the tempo very well on its own, as well as the majority of entrances and cutoffs. As a result, Bernstein focused on shaping the phrases, changing the colors of the sound, and establishing meter changes. One such moment was the conclusion of the sacred motet, O Heiland, reiβ die Himmel auf, op. 74 no. 2 (“O Savior, tear open the heavens”.) Bernstein, first, unleashed a throng of voices, (divided into eight or more parts at this point), into the lively fugue, then, harnessed them to a place of stately resolution, all with masterful and expressive technique.
Interestingly, Bernstein is dedicated to breaking the Fourth Wall of the traditional concert experience. In welcome, he greeted the audience directly, balancing the warmth of a host with the sensibility of an educator. Then, prior to starting the first piece, he led the singers in a vocal demonstration, to alert the audience to “what to listen for”. The singers sang these excerpts fully memorized, obtaining the pitch given by the maestro on a pitchpipe. The demonstration set the tone for the audience to both be at ease and be ready to listen to remarkably complex music.
Four pages of text and translation (by Mason Funk), thoughtfully laid out, were provided, thoughtfully laid out. There was enough lighting in the “house” of the church venue for audience to read along, whether by design or providence.
PMC manifests a “Listen First, Then Give” system of patronage which began with the 2014-15 season. To hear a concert, all one must do is arrive, be seated, and listen. Advance reservations are made available, but pre-payment is not required. Rather, PMC shares their entire concert generously, asking for contributions only at the conclusion. Folks give out of gratitude for what they have just experienced. Based on the magnificent beauty and proficiency of the evening’s presentation, one imagines PMC could have filled their treasury many times over.
For more information about PMC’s upcoming appearances, contact www.pasadenamasterchorale.org or call 626-208-0009.