Saturday, May 25, 2013

UP IN BRAHMS! a radiant Rundfunkchor Requiem

Friday night in Berlin. Concert night.
Radialsystem. Brahms Requiem. Rundfunkchor. Sasha Waltz staging. Yeah. Alles gut. Extra gut. Go for it! Should be a winner.

A winner? It was a total champion in every respect. I’m 67 years old, and I’ve just come home from the most enjoyable sacred music evening I have ever experienced in all my years of concert-going.

Radialsystem. What is it about this venue that it so consistently brings forward outstanding and original entertainment. Last night was my fifth visit and I’ve had four and a half terrific evenings.
Tonight we saw the venue with a different face on. The stage and bleachers had been cleared away and the main hall was a virtually empty space. We had noticed the ticket said ‘Stehplatz’ … but happily there were a few banquettes for the old and infirm. So what was coming? Sacred music stripped of its usual straightjacket? Oh, yes …!

Brahms Deutsches Requiem. Here called (with the composer’s blessing) ‘A Human Requiem’. Not in Latin. Not following the traditional liturgical lines. Seven ‘movements’ for choir and baritone (Konrad Jarnot) and soprano (Marlis Petersen) soloists, and piano duo accompaniment. Lovely stuff: especially the opening choral movement and the latter two solos. Last movement a tad too long, but who am I to tell Herr Brahms?

The Rundfunk choir. A quite lovely chorale. The sound that they made in the first few bars let us know we were in for a night of special choral music. What it didn’t tell us was just how special.

Which brings us to the staging. And herein lay the triumph of the evening. Instead of being delivered our sacred music by a serried rank of   vocalists in dicky-fronts and black ball-gowns, turning score pages frantically and seeming totally disengaged from the subject of the evening, here we had … as the title said, ‘a human requiem’. People singing: not just a choir. Real people. For Sasha Waltz and Ilke Seifert clad their cast (and ‘cast’ was what they were) in a panorama of ‘normal’ clothes, and brought them out of their frozen ranks to wander amongst the standing or floor-sitting audience. OK a simple idea, but you have to have it, and then put it in action.

The immediacy, the intimacy of it! The human dimension thus given to a piece of religious text and matching music. Brahms would have been delighted. How much more does one get involved in the piece, when you have a stocky tenor in your left ear, a conductor (there were two, one for each direction) climbing onto a box by your right elbow, a dark slender contralto wandering past a few centimetres in front of you… and, as they pass, the seemingly hundreds of singers are more than choristers: they are each one a choir soloist for a few magic moments, to one person, then the next …
The concept was a total triumph, carried out triumphantly.

Of course, the singers couldn’t wander for all of the 80 minutes the piece lasts. There had to be other ideas. And there were. You couldn’t miss the ropes hanging expensively from the ceiling. We were going to have acrobatics or swings at some stage. And we did. Not even this choir was venturing acrobatics, but down came the swings – an old revue chorus trick, but done here with a calmness and a joyous feeling, which reeked of ‘humanity’.

There were lots of ‘pictures’, too, to catch the eye. Conductor Simon Halsey, a back-lit silhouette against the warehouse window, the baritone high up in the lighting gallery, throwing his beautiful voice and the Andante to the people below, the soprano vanishing up what I think was a fire escape after her adorably tuneful solo, and – best of all – the moment when the choir, scattered through the seated crowd, gradually rose and began to sing. It seemed as if the whole room was singing, every one of us … oh! how I longed to! … Magic moments. Wet-eyed moments. Lump-in-the-throat moments…

After the piece had ended, in a long, long silence, I couldn’t help myself from jumping up and pumping the hand of the nearest singer: a bass who’d spent the last movement nearly sitting on my knee (and my walking stick) … and pouring out my thanks.

A wonderful evening! But it’s only playing five nights at Radialsystem. Every one of them, by the way, a total sell-out. Surely this splendid ‘production’ must go on and be seen elsewhere, again and again…
although the logistics (and the budget…)

Anyway, thank you Radialsystem – and everyone concerned -- for another superb evening. If anyone had told me I’d have such a ‘human’ experience at a Requiem… well, now I know better!

Thought: tonight I go to the Staatsoper to see a staged version of another piece written for choir and soloists, Martin’s Le vin herbé. I wonder how it will compare…

Footnote: thank you, too, management, for not ’branding’ us this time, But I think the audience should be warned in advance that some (only some) of them will be made to leave their shoes, jackets and handbags outside. My soft new espadrilles would have made less noise or mess than the sneakers that other folk went in wearing! Oh well, at least they let me keep my walking stick!
And PS: cauliflower cheese goes cool and soggy very quickly…

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