Moving Masses

12.22.09
Donald Runnicles
Berliner Zeitung

By Martin Wilkening

Donald Runnicles is the man for musical mass spectacle at the Philharmonic.  After Britten's "War Requiem" [in 2003] and the "Grande Messe des Morts" by Berlioz [in 2008] came this weekend’s "German Requiem" of Brahms.  And as with the previous musical celebrations of death, it was the chorus of The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra who was again the guest – with almost 200 participants, a huge organism with nevertheless astonishing agility.  The singers are all volunteers, which – given the sheer number of participants –  gave this performance from the start its distinctive, direct and somewhat rough timbre.  Text declamation was not only completely understandable and virtually accent-free, but had also a moving simplicity and naturalness without overly ennunciated consonants and also without excessive highlighting of individual words – a unified, clear expansiveness, corresponding to the expression of so large a number of human voices.  This expression was at its strongest in moments of soft singing, but in forte passages the choral sonority sometimes lost its unification.

Runnicles led the large sound apparatus in calm sovereignty.  His gestures, both economic and strong, brought singers and musicians back again and again easily into an internally dynamic piano.  The two soloists sang with urgency – Gerald Finley, light and agile, and soprano Helena Juntunen, with noble tone and a slightly stereotypical tremolo.  The veiled connection between Brahms’ Requiem and the first half of the concert remained unclear.  "Traces" by New York composer Sebastian Currier, here in its first performance, was commissioned by the Philharmonic Foundation and the Gran Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, where Runnicles is Director.  One does not have to make Brahms the measure of all things musical.  But a somewhat more substantial contribution would have been more appropriate than what Currier’s piece communicated in friendly small talk  –an ingratiating concerto for harp and small orchestra in five movements that, on the one hand, indulged in sketchy, fragmentary mood painting, and on the other, put forth the composer’s thoughts with penetrating long-windedness, the ideas following one another as predictably as the triad from the microtonal chord (and vice versa), and the charmingly enigmatic soundscape of the pensive melody (and vice-versa).  The fact that Marie-Pierre Langlamet (Principal Harpist of the orchestra) is a highly gifted musician was here experienced only on the surface.