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May 16, 2021

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Vancouver USA Singers to let voices ring with ‘A German Requiem’

Ensemble to perform Brahms masterwork for first time

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The Vancouver USA Singers rehearse for their upcoming performance of Brahms’ “German Requiem” on Monday evening at First Presbyterian Church in Vancouver. Nearly 100 singers and a small orchestra will perform in this weekend’s show.
The Vancouver USA Singers rehearse for their upcoming performance of Brahms’ “German Requiem” on Monday evening at First Presbyterian Church in Vancouver. Nearly 100 singers and a small orchestra will perform in this weekend’s show. Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Performing “Ein Deutsches Requiem” (“A German Requiem”) has been a goal of most large choirs ever since the work’s composer, Johannes Brahms, led the premiere performance in 1868. Now, the Vancouver USA Singers, under music director Jana Hart, will perform the entire piece for the first time in the ensemble’s history.

“The ‘German Requiem’ is so gorgeous, and every note and word makes such sense,” said Hart. “Brahms was so precise about what he wanted. You can conduct this piece a million times and always find something new.”

The lush yet powerful music and text of the “German Requiem” has been beloved for its emotional impact. It takes listeners on a journey through heights and depths, finally resting on consolation and hope.

The title of the work refers simply to the fact that it is in German. Brahms later admitted that he would gladly have substituted “Human” to reflect the broadest scope of his intentions.

The hourlong piece does not follow the form of a traditional Catholic Mass for the Dead. Brahms followed his own path choosing texts from the Lutheran Bible and creating a requiem for those who have experienced the loss of a loved one.

If You Go

What: Vancouver USA Singers perform “A German Requiem” with orchestra.

When: 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.

Where: First Presbyterian Church, 4300 Main St., Vancouver

Cost: $25 at the door. $20 in advance.

Information: vancouverusasingers.org.

Some of the “German Requiem” came from a funeral march that Brahms had written in 1854 for a projected symphony. Brahms then shelved much of his ideas for the work, but in 1865, his mother died and that caused him to work on a full-scale requiem.

Over the next three years, he kept at the Requiem, adding more movements until it was ready to be performed on Good Friday, 1868. Afterward, he tucked in the fifth movement, which seemed to reference his mother with the words, “I want to comfort you, as one is comforted by his mother.” With that music, the “German Requiem” reached it final version and was performed to critical acclaim in 1869, establishing Brahms as a major international composer.

The Vancouver USA Singers have been learning the music diligently over the past few months.

“We are doing the piece in German,” Hart said. “I am so proud of all the singers. They have been coming in for extra rehearsals and they sound fantastic. It sounds so much better in the original language.”

Hart retired from teaching music in the Battle Ground School District last year and has relished the amount of time she has gained to devote to her choir. She sang the “German Requiem” when she was in college in the Los Angeles area. That gave her the opportunity to sing the “German Requiem” with TV star Andy Griffith.

“The two times that I sang in college in L.A., Andy Griffith sang the ‘German Requiem’ with us both times,” said Hart. “He loved the Brahms Requiem. Whenever a college would do it, he would ask to participate. He was a bass. He had it memorized. For him, it was a complete spiritual experience, and after the concert, he would make a donation to the choir.”

The Vancouver USA Singers will perform the piece twice with a reduced orchestration that uses 25 musicians instead of the original 50.

“The piece was written for a choir of 200, and we have 80,” Hart said. “But with the reduced orchestration, you get everything that you need. You have a full complement of strings and woodwinds but fewer brass.”

The soloists for the concert are bass Gennadiy Tsybikov and sopranos Alexis Balkowitsch and Megan Conroy. All three are members of the choir.

“The range for my solo is right in my wheelhouse,” said Conroy. “The music is beautiful, and I am looking forward to it.”

It is particularly fitting that the Vancouver USA Singers are finally doing this masterwork. After all, the group’s original name, until 1993, was The Brahms Singers.

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