Romance at St Mary in the Castle
The Hastings Philharmonic Choir is looking forward to having grandstand seats to what should be a splendid concert of orchestral music, namely Brahms’ violin concerto in D, performed by the Ensemble OrQuesta. At the same time, the choir is taking on a choral programme of Brahms and Cherubini Romantic music that will surprise and stun. The choir’s youthful music director, Márcio Da Silva, is building a reputation for taking on challenges brilliantly, in the words of John Kennedy, not because they are easy, but because they are hard – and next Saturday 26 April at St Mary in the Castle, we’ll be transported to the moon on the crest of a wave of Romantic music, writes HOT’s Chris Cormack.
Brahms’ violin concerto is one of the most difficult concertos for virtuoso and orchestra, but it is also one of the most famous and popular ones. It features at 196 in the 2014 Classic FM ‘Hall of Fame’, and most people will find the second adagio movement and the third movement (which ‘inspired’ Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Don’t Cry for Me Argentina) both familiar and accessible. Brahms’ concerto is generally recognised as one of the top four violin concertos that all violin virtuosi must play to be regarded, the others being those of Beethoven, Bruch and Mendelssohn. We are blessed to have Aysen Ulucan on violin to take on this challenge.
Born in Bulgaria in 1985 of Turkish descent, and studying violin since age four under the guidance of her brother Özcan, Aysen Ulucan, who plays the violin concerto, has performed in many concerts in Europe as a soloist and chamber musician and has participated in various CD recordings as a member of the Trio Ulucan and the Young Opera Company Freiburg. In October 2004, glittering prize-winner, Ms. Ulucan, began studies at the Freiburg Musikhochschule under Latica Honda Rosenberg and Rainer Kussmaul. This endears her already to the writer, who spent a happy year studying in this beautiful Black Forest university city; it also places her in the good company of both Márcio and Hastings’ beloved composer and pianist, Polo Piatti, who both studied there. Aysen took part in the Hastings Philharmonic Concert of Haydn’s Creation back in 2011 and was very well received.
Márcio said he added this piece to the program to achieve a ‘different balance’ and encourage music lovers, whose preferences err towards the orchestral rather than choral music. This Romantic repertoire is a first for Márcio since he took over the choir and the orchestral expressive content is pronounced even within the choral pieces, making it rather special. Most of the Ensemble OrQuesta has studied or is still studying at the Royal College of Music. The ensemble first performed under this name in Hastings last November – the 1610 Vespers of Monteverdi. However Márcio first started working with some of the players in a hugely successful ‘Brazilian Day’, which he organized at the Royal College of Music.
Some of the same musicians also participated in the highly regarded Carmen at the Woodhouse Opera Festival last September. Soon the orchestra is due to perform together at the Brazilian embassy in London, which will be their first independent concert. But you saw them first in Hastings!
On 25 May, Aysen Ulucan (violin), Márcio da Silva (tenor) and Francis Rayner, (piano), are due to perform Blooms of May, “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” at the magical Woodhouse Copse near Dorking. It is next to a lake and in a forest clearing with the classic raked auditorium seating of a Greek amphitheatre. The concert will include Brahms violin sonata 3 in D minor and Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’. In the early Autumn, Márcio is again music director of three opera productions at the Woodhouse Festival.
Márcio regards Cherubini’s Requiem as a very original and powerful master-piece that does, however, need some adjustments in the score in order to work. The piece does not make use of soloists, something which puts lots of pressure on the choir with absolutely no time to rest during the whole piece. Felix Mendelssohn regarded it as second only to Mozart’s Requiem. Beethoven said if he were to write a requiem, it would be modelled on Cherubini’s. The Requiem was performed in one of the memorial services following Beethoven’s death in 1827.
Cherubini’s Requiem was a pathfinder in the transition of the requiem from church to concert hall piece. It was one of the first requiems to take on political significance, being identified as it was with the restoration of the monarchy in 1815 France and the commemoration of the beheading of King Louis XVI.
This may be one reason why the Requiem is not so well known today – the modernising and secularising trend set in motion by the French Revolution made the Restoration a bit of a blind alley in nineteenth-century history. Musically, however the piece is both progressive and reactionary with a Romantic approach to thematic development and novel instrumentation, juxtaposed against a more old-fashioned counterpoint and canon. Another reason for its loss of currency is that Cherubini was not championed by the Italian musical establishment – an Italian, he had made his career mainly in France and was most highly regarded by the Germans (Beethoven and Mendelssohn).
Finally we have the two Brahms choral pieces, Schicksalslied and Gesang der Parzen; from my point of view as a singer, these are the crown jewels of the concert. I spent half my life thinking that Brahms was too ‘heavy’ and ‘German’ for my liking. Then, at an unsuspecting moment, my German brother-in-law, a fine musician in his own right, popped some head phones on me and dared me not to like what I heard. It was Brahms’ 4th symphony and I needed less than a minute to revise completely my view of this composer. At about fifteen minutes long, these Brahms ‘songs’ are longer than the average and they benefit from a full choir and orchestra to give that complexity and depth of harmony that befits a symphony – now I know why I am in the ‘Philharmonic’! Indeed Gesang der Parzen is redolent of Brahms’ fourth symphony and I already think of it as an old friend.
And the songs are filled with the dramatic and powerful words of German poets, Goethe and Hölderlin. The text of Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates – Parcae) is from the fourth act of Goethe’s play Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris). Iphigenia expresses her despair in the song of the Fates, of the three goddesses that are supposed to control man’s destiny, and even have the power at whim to bring down the most exalted of men and leave a curse down the generations to come, while the gods ‘feast endlessly’ unperturbed. However Goethe’s interpretation of the ancient myth stems from the Age of Enlightenment and allows for a more optimistic view that human reason can prevail over the apparently despotic and arbitrary power of the ‘gods’.
The text of Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) came from Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion, oder Der Eremit aus Griechenland (Hyperion, or The Hermit from Greece), published in 1799. The orchestral overture, marked ‘Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll ‘ (Slow and full of yearning) opens to a serene world of blessed spirits – ‘selige Genien’; however the mood changes with abrupt chords not unlike the Song of the Fates, to contrast the charmed life of the gods with that of man, whose life is compared to water ‘flung from cliff to cliff’.
Hastings Philharmonic Choir and Ensemble OrQuesta perform Brahms and Cherubini at St Mary in the Castle,7 Pelham Crescent, Hastings, TN34 3AF 7.00pm, Saturday 26 April – tickets online or at Hastings Information Centre (Aquila House), IMAGEN Gallery and Youngs or by telephone 01424 552119