From Music Director Daniel Meyer
This weekend, our vocal soloists and chorus will not be lugging big, heavy full scores of Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem onstage. You can imagine how it would feel to hoist a chunky book above your waist and hold it there for over 65 minutes, and that is one reason why choristers do not do it. Instead, our singers will perform from piano-vocal scores. Piano-vocal scores are vital tools to understand and ultimately perform a grand choral work with the complexity and breadth of Brahms’ masterpiece. Rather than having to sift through over twenty independent orchestral lines, vocalists can focus on where his or her line lies and how it fits into the texture of the orchestral contribution. A piano-vocal score can distill an enormous and complex orchestral score into only the parts that the vocalists will need. This includes a piano reduction of the orchestral part, tucked just beneath the voice parts for chorus and solo singers. This alone can get complex, and during rehearsals, many choristers take a pencil or highlighter to their music to deconstruct the piece further and make it more digestible, particularly knowing that the emotion and pace of a live performance will require quick and precise access to the right notes at the right time.
I keep every score from which I have ever performed. Full scores, piano-vocal scores, even old, marked-up pages from my early violin studies; they are all there on my shelf should I ever need to reference something from my musical past. It's a rare occasion when I open a score I have not seen in a while and something drops out of it that surprises me. In fact, I rarely ever tuck something into a score for safe-keeping or to savor as a memento. Truth be told, I would likely forget that I had even stashed it there, and more practically, I want to insure that my scores stay in relatively good shape in hopes that I will have the honor of conducting or performing that piece again. In the case of my piano-vocal score for the Brahms Requiem, however, I was delighted to find that I had indeed stashed an old concert program between its pages. It was the first time I had ever come into contact with this incredible piece of music, and it reflected a seminal moment in my development as a musician.
In my old piano-vocal score of the Brahms Requiem, I discovered a concert program documenting the first time I had ever sung the piece. It was indeed a fond memory. It was a performance conducted by the late, great American conductor Robert Shaw, prepared by Gareth Morrell, and introducing a then-unknown American soprano by the name of Dawn Upshaw. The Cleveland Orchestra was performing at their summer home - the Blossom Music Center, and sure enough, scanning down the names in the chorus roster, there was my name listed in the bass section. So much of that performance made a deep impression on me. I was in high school at the time, and to have had contact with such challenging and inspiring music-making was as invigorating as it was humbling. Morrell had us drilled with such conviction and passion. I remember his ability to model German diction, and was never satisfied to let us gloss over a mispronounced umlaut. He insured that the chorus was in precise, top shape before we were ‘handed over’ to Shaw.
When Robert Shaw came to work with us before the orchestra rehearsals, it was a transformative experience. He, too, was driven to detail, but he also had an ability to make magic and approach the Brahms with an awe and wonder that put us all into the right framework for a spiritual experience as much as a musical one. His work with choruses has been well-chronicled, and while his musical techniques were unorthodox, he got results that were in alignment with how he believed choruses could sound and ultimately communicate with an audience. I loved every minute of it. I was in the same room with an electrifying speaker, leader, preacher, and artist. I believe I will always be influenced by what I learned from Mr. Shaw that week.
Working under those two musical leaders would have been enough to make it an unforgettable experience for me, but then at the orchestra rehearsals, I heard the soloists for the first time. A young woman strode onto stage in a most unassuming and un-divalike fashion. And then this soprano’s voice rang into the rafters of the reverberant pavilion at Blossom. I was stunned by her voice’s purity and ability to drive straight to the center of my core. I was not alone. We in the chorus were amazed by what a remarkable talent she had and how perfectly-suited she was to this particular role in the Brahms. The way Dawn Upshaw sang that weekend was perfection to me. Not the kind of perfection that you want to polish and leave on a mantle, but rather a perfection of expression and sincerity. It was a perfection that composers like Brahms can come close to touching, and I can’t help but think he was smiling behind that big beard of his when he heard the performance that was assembled to perform his music that fateful weekend.
Music Director, Erie Philharmonic