Matthias Heyde/Rundfunkchor Berlin
"Human Requiem," as performed by Rundfunkchor Berlin, in collaboration with Jochen Sandig and his partner, choreographer Sasha Waltz, was unveiled at the Radialsystem on February 11th.
"Human Requiem," as performed by Rundfunkchor Berlin, in collaboration with Jochen Sandig and his partner, choreographer Sasha Waltz, was unveiled at the Radialsystem on February 11th. Matthias Heyde/Rundfunkchor Berlin
A chorus represents the most democratic of musical institutions. The ability to blend one's voice overrides individual sound, liturgical repertoire tends to dominate, and, in many religious organizations, pretty much anyone can join.
The Rundfunkchor Berlin has managed to preserve some of these values while nurturing professional musicianship that, under the direction of Artistic Director Simon Halsey, has won the ensemble three Grammy awards in the past four years. Recent seasons have included annual "Mitsing" concerts that invite outside singers to join and, most recently, initiatives to bring choral music into dialogue with other art forms.
As part of this undertaking, the chorus unveiled a "Human Requiem" in collaboration with Jochen Sandig (founder of Tacheles and the Radialsystem) and his partner, the choreographer Sasha Waltz, at the Radialsystem on February 11th. The production, as attended on February 12th, is a semi-staging for Brahms' "German Requiem" that sets out to transcend the traditional stand-and-deliver choral format and bring another dimension to the experience.
Brahms' Requiem, viewed in its historical context, is a fitting choice. The composer departed from a preoccupation with death and the instead sought to provide consolation for the living, adapting texts from Luther's translation of the Bible and making no explicit mention of Christ. He also broke with the traditional musical structure that alternates passages for four soloists and chorus.
Brahms himself said it could be called a 'human' requiem with regard to its universal message, although its drafting in his native tongue shortly before the creation of the German nation state in 1871 implies other allegiances.
At the event, audience members were required to put on felt slippers before entering the auditorium (most likely to avoid the tapping of boots against the floor). The space was mysteriously cleared out with the exception of a grand piano and two raised platforms.
When the lights dimmed and the singers, scattered in mostly daily dress throughout the hall, uttered the hushed opening line, "Selig sind, die da Leid tragen" (blessed are those who bear suffering), the boundaries between the performance and the audience's immediate experience quickly dissolved. As a former singer, I also couldn't help but feel pressured as I saw Halsey waving his arms under a spotlight at the center of the room, drawing warm, rounded phrases from his chorus.
The proximity to individual ensemble members proved both a detriment to an even acoustical blend and a powerful means of reaching the listener viscerally. The singers, often moving freely throughout the room, demonstrated solid mastery of their parts despite the challenging logistics, with only one audible early entrance at the reprise of "Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras" (for all flesh, it is as grass).
The loose cross between theater and the mundane was at times incredibly moving, at others ceded to an excessively touch feely approach. During the solo "Herr, lehre doch mich," (God, do teach me) the baritone Konrad Jarnot stood up from the within the audience and sang with beseeching tones before huddling around the piano with the entire chorus.
In addition to the audience's slippers, felt was in overabundance, with bundles for the audience to sit on, soft-seated swings that descended from the ceiling, and, upon the entrance of a group of children at the chorus' proclamation of death, a carpet which stretched across the middle of the room for the audience to occupy (the message seemed to be that adults also need something warm and fuzzy in this difficult passage through life).
While most of Sandig's blocking was only beneficial to the singers, requiring the soprano Marlis Petersen to swing at the outset of her solo "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" (You now have sadness) caused slight intonation problems and pinched vocal production. Her timbre loosened up and created an ethereal glow as she entered the audience in a long white dress as if an earthly angel, departing on a spiral staircase as the chorus looked to her with an expression of renewed salvation.
As the Requiem ended in pitch darkness with the chorus encircled around the outer edge of the entire room, the music flowed over the audience with unusual sensorial clarity. Despite some über-democratic gestures, the production provided an affecting modern vehicle for Brahms' melancholy reflection on the nature of human existence.
The Human Requiem receives one last performance on Sunday, February 19th.