Festival Review: Human Requiem

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Presented by Rundfunkchor Berlin
Reviewed 14th March, 2018

Spoiler alert: this is a rave review.

The event is a concert performance of Brahms’ German Requiem (in German). It is to be sung by an elite choir, Rundfunkchor Berlin (the Berlin Radio Choir, if you will), accompanied by piano (four-hands). Cavernous Ridley Hall at the Wayville Showgrounds isn’t the first venue you might choose. But the event is headed Human Requiem, and Jochen Sandig, the man who first conceived its unique presentation, uses this famous choral piece to highlight community, ritual, sharing, humanist principles and connectedness.

The event begins before the performance; all audience members are asked to remove their shoes. The lobby is filled with benches and shoe-racks. Suddenly, a first-night concert audience is sitting down, unlacing brogues, slipping off stilettos, and chatting with each other. When we walk into the hall, its size is daunting. There is no standard concert seating. We see a grand piano over in one corner, a small two-level choir stand, within which is incorporated a large, shallow rectangle filled with rice, and a gazebo-like wooden hexagon in the centre of the room, hung with a large container of water with mint leaves floating in it. Around the sides of the hexagon are the folded stages of an origami drinking cup, plus a stack of paper.  We follow the wordless directions, fold ourselves cups, and serve each other a drink. It’s a simple ritual that serves to focus the audience as the room fills. Almost everyone is standing (apart from a few who need to sit at all times). Some walk, some stand still. The gazebo structure is removed from the centre of the hall, the light state changes, there’s a bang and the duo pianists quietly begin. When the choir sings, it is apparent that they are scattered throughout the room. A soprano begins singing next to me.

Hearing the first movement (Selig sind, die da Leid tragen – Blessed are they who bear suffering) gently rise above our heads and mix throughout the hall is an ecstatic experience. It is one all choristers know, but the staging of this performance enables the audience to experience the immediate sensory delight of human sound at its most elemental. Singers stand among us; they move constantly around, behind and above us. Each of the seven movements of the Requiem is treated differently, with dramaturgy by Ilke Seifert and Sascha Waltz illuminating Sandig’s concept for the piece. The choir sometimes moves in groups, sometimes singly. They mostly move slowly and soundlessly. Sometimes they run. There are thematic set-pieces which anchor the spirit of the work in visual and sonic effects. A body is carried above a column of singers. They keep singing. In the fourth movement (Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen – How lovely are Thy dwellings), two sets of seven swings are lowered from the high ceiling. Fourteen of the choristers swing to the rhythm of this bliss-laden pulse. They all keep singing brilliantly. Pianissimi are perfectly observed and even more effective when there are a wodge of baritones singing pianissimo next to you. This is a choir of people that know each other well.

Soloists are English baritone Konrad Jarnot, whose opera and Lieder pedigree is well-known, and soprano Christina Gansch from Austria. Jarnot’s singing is both authoritative and effortless; his unobtrusive technique serves both his rich vocal quality and commanding presence.  The soprano solo work of Christina Gansch was less compelling but beautifully performed.  Conductor Gijs Leenaars is everywhere; he is lit on specific perches around the room, with an associate  (Benjamin Goodson) enabling all choristers to see the beat.

For the final movement, all the audience sits on a mat on the floor in the centre of the hall, encircled by the standing choir. With no light except a pale beam on conductor Leenaars, we are calmed, comforted and reassured by the embrace of these extraordinary voices. Old Papa Brahms, that agnostic humanist, reminds us that we all belong to the same human family and have much in common; that there is life as well as death, and hope as well as despair.

Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson

Venue:  Ridley Centre, Adelaide Showground
Season:  14th – 18th March 2018
Duration:  1 hour 15 minutes [no interval] Tickets:  Full Price: $99:00 Concession: $82:00
Bookings: https://www.adelaidefestival.com.au/2018/human-requiem

https://www.adelaidefestival.com.au

 

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