Under the direction of conductor Scott MacPherson, the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble has created a magnificent 15th anniversary concert.
The concert, which opened on August 5, was devoted to the truly great Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) by one of the truly greatest choral conductors of all time, Johannes Brahms. Using texts in German from the Lutheran Bible, this masterpiece avoids the formality of a Latin liturgical requiem and instead leads the listener through the realities of mortality and the promise of consolation.
The work is sung in the original German. The proper orchestral accompaniment is provided, not some piano substitute. The able 44 players are a bit thin in strings, but that allows the wind writing to make its effects heard more clearly. The players are thoroughly competent.
Of the two vocal soloists, soprano Sarah Brailey soars in her one solo movement, evoking a mother’s comforting. Reliable local baritone Paul Rowe brings his strong feeling for German vocal style to his two solo sections.
But the true glory is the chorus. This is no chamber group, but a massive force of 114 singers. They sing with wonderful coherence and balance, a result of obviously diligent preparation. The other result is a clear German diction, really extraordinary for so large a group.
The creation of so wonderful a chorus is the memorable achievement of MacPherson, who will retire from directing the ensemble next summer. This concert demonstrates not only the thorough preparation but his skilled musicianship. His tempos are spot on throughout, always moving strongly forward, never allowing anything to lag. He works without a baton, and his hands cue every entry, draw out every nuance.
Of all the very many performances of this work I have heard (or sung in), I think this is about the best I have yet encountered.
Programming other music with such a massive score is always problematic. For this occasion, MacPherson drew from a friend, composer Andrew Rindfleisch, a piece written as a prologue to the Brahms work, called Song of Jubilation (2016), which sets in English one of the texts that Brahms used in German. It mixes choral sounds, both lovely and silly, with excruciatingly painful wind writing in the orchestral part. Nice try, but no cigar.
Ironically, this Brahms performance provides a prologue to the 2016-17 season, which will end next May with the Madison Symphony Orchestra presenting the same work in its final program. MacPherson has set a high standard for John DeMain to match.
This concert, given on August 5, will be repeated on Sunday, August 7 at 3:00 pm in Mills Hall. Lovers of great choral music should not miss it.