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Brahms would approve

Festival orchestra, choir heavenly
by Christopher Key

Johannes Brahms was an enormously talented composer who spent far too much of his life trying to achieve escape velocity from the giant musical gravity well created by Ludwig van Beethoven. Even when his talents as a symphonist became obvious, his own self-doubts haunted him for years. Of course, the media of the times didn’t help much by referring to him as “Beethoven’s successor.” Thanks to his friendship with Clara and Robert Schumann, he was able to survive the rather catty sniping of Tchaikovski and others. One can almost imagine his image plastered on tatty tabloids at the supermarket checkout complete with scandalous headlines about his efforts to win the hand of Clara Schumann after her husband died.

Maestro Michael Palmer and his extraordinary musicians seem to collect standing ovations the way Britney Spears collects paparazzi and with far more justification. The audience at tonight’s performance of Brahms’ A German Requiem sat in stunned silence for a few moments before leaping to its feet. I have already sung the praises of the orchestra and the Festival Choir deserves equally high encomiums. One of the striking things about this performance was how beautifully the orchestra and choir were balanced. That’s not as easy as they made it look. These musicians are consummate professionals and it shows in every moment of every performance.

It took Brahms 11 years to assemble the elements of his Requiem. I suspect his spirit was mightily pleased by the way the BFOM musicians delivered the emotional power of his work. The Requiem departed from the text of the Latin mass and some have suggested that the title of the work could be Lutheran Requiem or Protestant Requiem. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s an amazing accomplishment. The Festival Choir navigated every nuance, from the whispery to the thunderous.

As something of a percussionist myself, I couldn’t help but notice that principal timpanist Rob Tucker got quite the aerobic workout tonight. His work was both subtle and strong and his dedication to his craft is obvious. Give yourself a rimshot, Mr. Tucker.

Baritone soloist Charles Robert Stephens brings a rich tonality to his singing. He has both power and finesse over a marvelous range. Stephens cites his role in Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah as a career highlight and that makes me wish I could have heard him. That work is a favorite of mine and is one of the most dramatic roles in sacred music.

Photo courtesy Northwest Artists.

Photo courtesy Northwest Artists.

Lynden’s Katie Van Kooten sang the soprano solo and left no doubt that the rave reviews she’s been getting around the world are no fluke. The only word I can come up with to describe her voice is thrilling, with the tonal richness of a contralto in the higher range. She gave me goosebumps that may last longer than a case of the measles.

Photo courtesy IMG Artists.

Photo courtesy IMG Artists.

Tomorrow night’s performance is a chamber concert at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal and it will be interesting to see how the different acoustical environment affects the performance. There is still time to get your tickets for the performance of “rock star” cellist Joshua Roman and the legendary Romero String Quartet. Call the Western Washington University Performing Arts Center box office at (360) 650-6146. See www.bellinghamfestival.org for a complete schedule.

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