Concert review: Norman Scribner leads Choral Arts Society in swan song performance of Brahms’s ‘Requiem’

Johannes Brahms’s “Ein deutsches Requiem” has been Norman Scribner’s lodestar for his entire adult life. And on Sunday afternoon, he conducted the piece for the last time as the artistic director of the Choral Arts Society.

Scribner founded the chorus in 1965 and has shepherded it ever since. He’s the Robert Shaw of Washington: the big man on the chorus scene, epicenter of a group of symphonic choruses that flourished around him. Now, at 76 years old, he’s stepping down at the end of the year, and he chose to end his tenure with the piece he loves most.

Sunday’s performance at the Kennedy Center was, accordingly, a valediction. It also was the statement of someone who has spent a lifetime in the service of music, and internalizing this particular piece. It was a deeply moving experience even before it took place. Thus to subject it to a mere evaluation — to compare it to other moving performances of “Requiem” one has heard, or measure it against the work of other great conductors, or lecture about slow tempi or shrill sopranos — would be a disservice to everyone involved. It would fail to represent the point of this particular exercise.

Art can be spiritual. We all want it to be spiritual, whatever that may mean for us individually, and we believe that the great works of the canon have endured because they offer some kind of sustenance beyond the mere stuff of the everyday. A concert represents the junction of the everyday and the larger-than-life: a great score, music that’s prevailed for 144 years, brought to earth and presented in real time on a cold and rainy April afternoon by one group of humans to another. Everyone is joined for a moment, if not by the music itself, then at the very least in the tacit attempt to contemplate something beyond the nuts and bolts of daily life, the parking tickets and work assignments, buying a new pair of shoes for the child or packing for an out-of-town trip.

That’s all left aside. The concert impresses by its sheer scale: 160 choristers, the women in blue robes, the men in black, all standing on risers along the back of the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, forming a literal wall of sound. Phil Spector has nothing on Norman Scribner. Below them sits a carpet of instruments, warm wooden violins and gleaming brass: the National Symphony Orchestra and Choral Arts Society Chorus. And all of these people are joined in a common purpose — in the case of “Requiem,” to contemplate death. The mere subject ensures that everyone knows it’s important.


Christopheren Nomura handled the bass solo in Brahms’s “Requiem” on Sunday at the Kennedy Center. (Harry Heliotis/Courtesy of California Artists Management)

Brahms’s “Requiem” represents an extra layer of collision between art and the everyday: rather than the classic Latin Mass, Brahms set texts from the Lutheran Bible, in vernacular German. His “Requiem” seizes you by the collar, spitting out “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras,” or pleading, through the bass soloist (on Sunday, Christopheren Nomura sounded somewhat gruff in a big sing), “Herr, lehre doch mich . . . dass mein Leben ein Ziel hat.” It’s direct communication, but blunted by the language barrier for non-German listeners — poignantly so, given the crisp diction of Scribner’s well-drilled choristers. What are they saying? What does it mean?

In the climactic fifth movement, one of the most beautiful passages ever written, the soprano soloist — the cool but accurate Twyla Robinson, vastly improved from her last outing here in the Verdi Requiem — sings words of solace in achingly beautiful phrases, but the listeners have to follow along in the printed text to understand: “You are sad now, but I will comfort you.”

The challenge of live performance is to create an experience that matches the buildup. The classical canon comes so well-hyped that sometimes a performance can do no more than evoke a sense of greatness. Sometimes it takes repeated hearings to penetrate the sense of anticlimax and embrace a work on its own terms.

Scribner is one of music’s most devout acolytes: He takes it exactly as it is. He venerates it, but does not pontificate; his whole manner is homespun. Scribner stands soberly on the podium, conducting with literal, almost schoolboy gestures of the baton. There’s no great emoting, no excess, no attempt to present himself as a conductor. Instead, there is a kind of self-effacement; even in this, his swan song, Scribner conducted as if he wanted to stand aside and give the music center stage.

Could any performance quite match the desire of hundreds of people to give the best possible send-off to a giant of Washington’s music scene? Brahms’s “Requiem” certainly has a way of rising to great emotional challenges. And at the end, Scribner was forced to take center stage to receive a long, and unusually heartfelt, standing ovation.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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