Saturday, June 20, 2009

Brahms' Sublime Requiem at the NAC

I'm not a regular at the symphony, but I saw this announcement last weekend and was intrigued by the lineup of performers. The orchestra, a guest Bass-Baritone, a guest Soprano, the Capital Brass ensemble and three choirs. Sounded really interesting. When I asked the system for a pair of tickets, it returned two tickets in one of the boxes at the mezzanine level along the sides and above the stage .... I've never sat up there. That was too much to resist. This concert is in the Bostonian Bravo Series, sponsored exclusively by The Bostonian Executive Suites.

Note: I'm not familiar with the appropriate terms for describing music. I do not claim to have a "golden ear." So what you are reading is my own impressions expressed in plain English.

I played first trumpet for several years in high school, then after an injury I played treble Baritone for the remaining years. A short stint as the snare drummer for the junior high school band to help them at the Manitoba Music Festival rounds out the fun from those days. So I really like to follow specific instruments playing melody and / or counter-melody in most pieces. And J.S. Bach is someone whom I have learned to really enjoy through his Brandenburg Concertos. This concert includes five pieces by J. S. Bach, which of course adds some spice to the rather subdued Requiem.

For those interested in the details of the concert and performers, here are the relevant pages from the program ... as with any image on my blog, click on it to see the larger version, then press the back button to come back here:



Now, I had a problem of course. I bought the tickets barely five days before the concert. How would I find someone on such short notice to accompany me? Well, the weather worked against me, as it built to a very nice weekend, so plans for Friday evening were not canceled, leaving me well-lurched (is that a word?)

But by a particularly good stroke of luck, my good friend Sue was in town and available to share the evening. We met at an Indian restaurant around 6pm with intent to see the walk-through of the requiem at 7 by members of the performance. Well, the food was great and so was the conversation, so we missed that and then chose instead to take a walk down by the canal to stretch our legs before the concert.

We encountered a huge houseboat that looked like a bus from the Phillipines transplanted onto a pair of pontoons. Quite amusing ...


I had the enormously original idea of photographing her in front of the "bus", which is actually mildly relevant ... those who know Sue and Don know that boats (big ones with sails) are a big part of their lives.


Looking underneath the bridge, we can see the Quebec side across the Ottawa River ... of course, one must navigate the locks first ...


We arrived back at the NAC with perhaps 15 minutes to spare. As we were walking up to the box, Sue pointed out the spectacular multi-story chandelier and suggested we walk to the bottom for an image ... why didn't I think of that?



Am I the only one that thinks of the "Crystalline Entity" from ST:TNG when I see that image?

And finally, the view from the box. The opening setup was quite simple. Seats for the (fairly small) brass ensemble, separate seats out front for the harp and the two french horns. The choir (60 women) would array themselves in two groups when the ensemble would play, and across the stage when the harp and horns would play.


So how did it sound? Well, the short answer is pretty much incredible. I love live music. I love instrumental music, large bands and orchestras being a special case of that. I love choirs. In fact, voices in harmony will touch my soul every time ... the main reason why I left the Nevermore performance with a lump in my throat was the heartfelt chorus at the end ...

The Capital Brass opened with Fantasia in C Major. I enjoyed this piece, and the acoustics really surprised me. Sue and I were sitting quite a ways away, and yet the sound was full, rich and ... well ... maybe the word is sonorous.

The women's chorus came next with Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. This was not the familiar melody that was to follow with the Brass. This was simply a beautiful, quiet piece. The Brass then played the melody that is so familiar that anyone knows it instantly. The sound again resonated throughout the hall ... lovely.

Interestingly, despite my love of Bach's music, I will have to admit that Brahms stole the show for me. I suppose that was intended, but he stole it in the first half! The "Songs for Women's Choir. Two Horns and Harp" is a 12 minute piece with 4 movements. And from the opening note, I was completely absorbed. The French Horn is a wonderful instrument, and as I remember from high school days, not all that easily played :-) ... well, Lawrence Vine has certainly mastered it. Full, rich notes that move smoothly through the piece. Wow ... I was taken in completely. Julie Fauteax joined him in a later movement and their harmony was as beautiful as I'd hoped. But his outstanding performance in the early movements was one of the evening's highlights for me ...

Two more Bach pieces closed the first half and off we went for intermission. A couple of sodas later and the lights were flashing ...

We switched seats for the second half, Sue took the edge seat and the spectacular view for the requiem, while I took the inner seat and a little more privacy so I could sneak a couple of images of the performance for this blog. (Apologies to the NAC, but you really need to relax that silly policy against all cameras. Ban flashes and professional equipment by all means ... but compact cams with no flash? Where is the harm?)

An aside for the photographers and techies out there ... I shot all of these images on the Canon G10. This camera is a bit tough to process at 800 ISO and above, but a lot of these images are shot at 800 and I am pleased with the results.



If you follow the lower level structure to where it breaks up into little boxes, that first one on the right side is the sister box to ours. A very nice spot with a mostly unrestricted view of the performance.

The orchestra filed in first ...



The lead violin (I presume) came last ...


But then came the choir(s) ... all three ... oh ..... my ..... god! They had 150 members there ...


So ... on to the Requiem. The opening movement grabbed me immediately, the lump rising to my throat quickly. I did say I love choral music ... but this 150 member chorus was something to hear ...


The soloists sat in front on each side of the conductor's podium throughout the entire performance of the Requiem.


Nathan Berg was a bit twitchy, but Nicole Cabell was a rock. Unbelievable ... almost no movement whatsoever. Sue noticed one twinkle from her earring, the only sign of life until the fifth movement, where she sang like an angel.

Nathan sang two movements, the third and the sixth. He has a lush voice, very deep ... he is billed as a baritone in the program, but I've seen him referred to as a bass-baritone. Either way ... wow. He has a jerky style while singing ... meaning that he is so invested in the music that his body convulses as his voice explodes. It's really something to see and hear.

Nicole Cabell, on the other hand, has a smooth, almost liquid voice with the expected incredible range. What stunned me, though, was her instant reach into the highest notes ... the sound instantly connected me to my favourite aria of all time ... the "Duetinno" Sull'Aria from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, ossia la folle giornata, which is the one played over the loudspeakers in the movie The Shawshank Redemption.

That connection, and the power in her voice and beauty of the music kept me completely engrossed through this movement. I can't say enough about it ... and as well as Nathan sang his parts, I would have loved to just listen to Nicole for the evening ... *sigh* ...

The Requiem came to a very slow and somber ending ... which caused me to fight drowsiness ... seems strange, but that how wired I am into music. Certain parts of the 1812 Overture, a dramatic and exciting piece if there ever was one, can knock me down as well. So can the William Tell ... I can't resist connecting that deeply, which poses a real problem for listening to classical music while driving :-)

Of course ... the performance ended to a standing ovation, with three curtain calls for the soloists and conductors.





And we left. While walking to the cars, Sue pointed out that European-style automated bicycle rentals have arrived in Ottawa. Very cool.


A stop at a Tim Horton's on Laurier Street West (this *is* Canada after all) for a coffee and a chat and then off to the cars. Another wonderful concert shared with a friend ...

2 comments:

Sue W said...

Brilliant blog. I know a lot more about it now and I was there, swelp me guv!
That's the downside to the "specialize too early" education system - I know next to nothing about music!
You should be a spy...even I didn't notice you taking those shots during the performance!
The pic of me is great, np. The ducks are pretty nice too. And the stair porn...fabulous!

Kim Letkeman said...

Thanks Sue ... you really didn't see me sneak those images? Awesome! I'm ready for the big leagues then :-) I really should have tried somehow to capture the stairs from above as well ... perhaps next time.