By Jenny Neyman
Many things were different 19 years ago, when the Kenai Peninsula’s music community first came together to perform Johannes Brahms’ “Requiem.” Traffic between Homer and the central peninsula for rehearsals and performances wasn’t as busy — and Cheryl Crow or Bruce Springsteen were likely on the radio — and the numbers of high school and community singers and orchestra musicians were a little less, as were their collective accumulation of musical experience, maturity and, yes, unavoidably, lines around the eyes and other signs of wisdom.
Many other things are the same. Some of the local singers and musicians have returned for this reprisal, and even the new ones dive into the work with the same dedication and enthusiasm that have become a hallmark of these community music events. The baton is once again in the hands of conductor Mark Robinson. He, too, has seen change — growth and maturity, as well as retirement last year from his 27 years of teaching, most as the choral director at Homer middle and high schools. But he hasn’t retired his love of the profession or community music.
“When I retired I was not burned out on working with the kids, I was not burned out on music or conducting, so even before I retired I knew I wanted to find ways to stay active — just not quite as active,” Robinson said. “I thought about this particular work and it was something I wanted to revisit. It was the first (joint community music performance) that I had done and I feel like I’ve matured since then, and they’ve matured since then.”
The biggest constant is the piece itself — still the same powerful, emotional and achingly beautiful masterwork today as it was in 1865 when Brahms wrote it, as it was for Robinson when he first conducted it nearly two decades ago, as it was when he first performed it as a sophomore in high school choir.
“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say it was life-changing for me. I didn’t really fully appreciate that at the time, I just appreciated the music. I didn’t realize how impactful it was going to be for me. I think, to a larger extent, I did what I did for a living in part because of that experience. I’d just never experienced anything that grand and glorious and beautiful and powerful and dramatic, and it just kind of blew me away as a 15-year-old and stuck with me ever since,” he said.
One might think that life-changing would be forte fortissimo that a piece could achieve, and yet the “Requiem” has managed to expand its impact and personal meaning for Robinson each time he’s conducted it.
Between the time he selected the piece in August 1993 for his debut in combining the Homer High School choir, adult community choruses in Homer and the central peninsula, and members of the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, and the time it was performed in spring 1994, Robinson’s mother died. A requiem being a funeral piece, it became, for Robinson, a tribute to his mother.
“It took on this kind of profound meaning for me,” he said.
After deciding to conduct it again this spring, Robinson was in Indianapolis — where he grew up — visiting his high school mentor in music.
“I talked to him about this work and he, being the teacher he was, was giving advice and things I should do,” Robinson said. His teacher passed away the following month. “So for me, personally, this will be a tribute to him.”
These personal experiences with the “Requiem” have led to two conclusions.
One, if Robinson ever decides to conduct this again, his loved ones had better get to the doctor for a checkup first.
“I know, I’ve thought about that. It’s kind of scary,” Robinson said.
And two, the unique character of Brahms’ “Requiem” makes it particularly comforting in times of transition. More typically, requiems are a Roman Catholic Latin Mass sung in prayer for the deceased. But Brahms called his a German requiem, created for the mostly Protestant Lutheran population of northern Germany, and meant more to comfort the living.
“It’s all biblical text but he was a humanist, and so it’s not really Christian dogma, per se. He meant it to be universally applicable and the idea of comforting the living, not praying for the soul of the deceased,” Robinson said. “This takes the philosophy that death is a changed state from which we will be relieved of our pain, our suffering, and there is great joy in that.”
Wait — joy? In a requiem? Strange as it may sound in concept, in performance it’s quite fitting. Five of the seven movements begin in a somber, minor key, and all seven end in a brighter, more uplifting major key.
“So there’s this definite process of recognition of sorrow and human frailty and the temporariness of life, but then finding joy and peace and so forth. The drama in it, it’s incredibly beautiful, incredibly powerful. It’s constant movement from sorrow to joy,” Robinson said.
And this time around, he’s paying much more attention to featuring that emotion.
“I’m just not the same person I was 19 years ago. I was young and naive, as an individual and musically, I think, at the time, compared to now. Then it was all about, ‘Let’s get the notes, let’s survive, let’s get through the piece and let the music carry itself,’” Robinson said. “My sense is we’re dealing with things on a much more musical level, and a deeper level than we were then, so it’s more rewarding — musically and personally and any other way.”
Audra Faris, of Soldotna, who will be singing the soprano solo, said the focus on the emotional musicality and meaning of the piece has made its preparation a richer experience.
“Mark is so talented and he has a way to bring out all these phrasings and emotions. He spends so much time explaining the technicality of how Brahms wrote the piece and how things repeat themselves and how Brahms has little melodies kind of overlapping. It really makes you appreciate Brahms as a genius when you really start looking closely at how he put the four pieces together, and then put the orchestra with it,” Faris said. “Mark has worked really hard for us to have an understanding of what we’re singing so we’re not just up there blindly going through it. He’s talked about how well Brahms put it all together to have the best meaning that it could have.”
Her solo epitomizes the sweet sorrow of the piece — sorrow because there is death, but sweet because that separation isn’t eternal.
“She’s saying, ‘You will again see me, and you’ll behold me someday.’ So it’s about death, but in my particular solo it’s more about the hope of what’s to come after you die. It has some sad moments but then it has some really beautiful moments of, ‘Don’t be too sad because in the long run it’s going to be OK and you’re going to behold me again,’” Faris said.
Brahms composed the piece in German, though the peninsula chorus will perform it in English, in keeping with Brahms’ intention that the music should be accessible to its audience. But even without the translation, the sound of the music makes the emotion quite clear.
“The melody is this kind of haunting line. Most of it is in kind of a sad major chord, so it kind of speaks for itself,” Faris said of her solo. “It’s challenging because you have to be intense through the whole thing. It’s not this, ‘Ha, ha, ha, we’re having a good time, la, la, la.’ You’re really working it through the whole piece. If I’m singing it too happy it won’t sound the same as what you could really get from it. But it’s very pretty, and the ending just kind of holds you there. She ends with, ‘You shall behold me, you shall behold me,’ so it gets a little happier there.”
Robinson said that rehearsals are coming along well. Kyle Schneider, who filled Robinson’s teaching position, is preparing the Homer High School choir and will sing the baritone solo — though it’s the former, not the latter, that got him hired, Robinson insists.
“I did sit in on the hiring committee but we did not hire him because I could use him as a soloist in future works. He’s got great teaching and choral-directing chops and he’s a really great fit,” Robinson said.
And the community musicians and singers have continued to grow over the years, through the several other community music performances Robinson led in his tenure as artistic director of the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra and Community Chorus.
“The high school singers are pretty mature and sophisticated, and the adult singers have been doing this kind of thing for a number of years, many of them. And the orchestra is just becoming really, really wonderful through the years. There’s a level of sophistication we didn’t have 19 years ago, myself included,” Robinson said.
It’s a challenging piece, “So it’s always kind of a leap out into the unknown when we tackle these sorts of things,” he said. But even when butterflies start trembling like flute trills, Robinson trusts in another constant he’s discovered since his first experiences in music on the Kenai Peninsula — audience support.
“They’ve always been really supportive, and the participants are the same way. It’s kind of a crazy idea to say, ‘Let’s do the Brahms’ ‘Requiem,’ and everybody says, ‘Yeah, let’s.’ People’s dedication to stuff like this just astounds me, over and over again, and it has for 30 years,” he said.
“I think it’s going to be pretty wonderful, something we will be very proud of and moved by,” Robinson said. “Our ultimate goal is that the audience is moved, that they’re touched, that they find it beautiful and inspiring and exciting and exhilarating and dramatic and all that sort of thing, and I think we’re going to accomplish that. It will fill the space, and with 150 voices and two wonderful soloists and an excellent chamber orchestra, I think it’s going to be pretty wonderful.
“And it’s such a worthy work, it could be done way more often than every 19 years anyway.”
The Kenai Peninsula Community Chorus, Homer High School Concert Choir and members of the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra will perform Brahms’ “Requiem” at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Renée C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Mariner Theater at Homer High School. There will be a 45-minute lecture before each concert. Tickets are $18 in advance at River City Books in Soldotna and the Homer Bookstore in Homer, or call 907-235-7333. Tickets also will be available at the door.
Striking chords — Powerful piece no easy feat to perform
By Naomi Klouda
Performing all seven movements of Johannes Brahms’ German “Requiem” poses sufficient challenge.
Not all critics responded favorably to the work when it was first performed in 1869. George Bernard Shaw wrote, “It could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker.”
The requiem nonetheless established Brahms’ reputation as genius. No doubt the German composer would be proud if he could meet concert director Mark Robinson, who wasn’t sufficiently intimidated.
“The essence of good teaching is that students or individuals in general will rise to whatever bar you set for them,” Robinson said. “This is one of the great mysteries of working with a small town.”
Robinson gathered a group of 180 choral singers and orchestra members with the Kenai Peninsula Community Chorus, Homer High School Concert Choir and Kenai Peninsula Orchestra to rehearse for nine months to Brahms’ “Requiem Opus 45” to Homer and Kenai audiences. A group of 65 met regularly in Homer to practice. Ninilchik was the central designation for the Kenai-area and Homer orchestra, and in Soldotna another 15 met for community chorus rehearsal.
Brahms’ large-scale work provides movements for chorus, orchestra and a soprano and a baritone soloist. Requiems were traditionally performed at funerals and included Latin liturgies. Brahms began his in 1865 after his mother died, which could have influenced its mood. Robinson chose to perform the concert in English rather than Latin or German.
“He found text that was personal to him, in German in the Luther Bible. It had universal application as a comfort to the living,” Robinson said.
When the popular teacher retired last spring, he promised his Homer following he wasn’t giving up music.
This year, he came up with Brahms’ requiem and next year it will be another piece he hasn’t yet identified. This concert raises funds for Pier One Theatre and for the Homer High School Choir.
“I knew I would be involved. I didn’t know what kind of project I would take on, but I am not done making music and I am not done working with kids and adults,” he said.