Contrast Between Beethoven, Brahms Highlighted in Orchestra, Choir Concert

Andrea Goltz

Brahms and Beethoven are not a natural duo on an orchestra program — Brahms accentuates quirkier chords than Beethoven does and is free with musical form and rhythm. Nonetheless, the concert presented by the Arts and Sciences Orchestra, the Oberlin College Choir and the Musical Union in Finney Chapel on May 4 united the two. The program took the audience on a trip through time, making stops in the Romantic era with Johannes Brahms’s Shicksalied (his “Song of Fate,” completed in 1871) and the late Classical period with Beethoven’s 1807 Mass in C Major. However, the combination was not totally disjointed: The pieces are tied together by their use of internal contrast. Sunday’s concert occasionally tripped itself up with a regretable lack of enthusiasm, but in the end, it managed to pull things together, uniting the pieces in a way that seemed more natural than would have been expected.

Conducted by Assistant Professor of Choral Conducting and Director of Choral Ensembles Jason Harris, the Oberlin College Choir and the Arts and Sciences Orchestra successfully conveyed Brahms’s intended contrasts with their excellent balance between instrumental lines and vocal parts and their masterful control of dynamics. The piece openswith an instrumental theme that returns re-orchestrated at the end of the piece. In these first few bars, the orchestra artfully set the tone of the piece, not rushing the soft, majestic opening in the slightest, which allowed the choir to make an equally effective entrance. The delicate pizzicato, or plucking, technique employed by the string section supported the tone of the choral lines, relieving some of the tension Brahms had built into the vocalists’ parts. At the endof the second stanza, though, the piece becomes suddenly violent, with accents added to the chorus’s longer chords. In this passage, along with the potent sudden crescendos of the choir, the orchestra’s brass section really shone, adding more tension to the piece.

As a whole, the original poem changes its tone from hopefulness to despair only once, after the first stanza. However, Brahms’s piece modulates from major to minor and back again, making the music for the third stanza incongruous with the lyrics. The orchestra brought out this remaining sorrow in the lyrics with a slight slowing of tempo in the final lines. Even with the first theme returning in a major key, the orchestra — in particular, the woodwind section — still managed to bring out a sad tone in the line that had, at the beginning of the piece, sounded so hopeful and peaceful.

In Beethoven’s Mass in C Major, performed by the Musical Union and the Arts & Sciences Orchestra and conducted by Professor of Accompanying and Coaching and Director of the Arts & Sciences Orchestra Philip Highfill, most of the mass had transitioned into a different tone by the end of the piece. The choir brought out the evolution in each movement with very pronounced dynamic changes and strong enunciation of consonants. Soloists Conservatory senior Alyssa Hensel, double-degree fifth-year Marisa Novak, Conservatory junior Daniel King and double-degree fifth-year Eric Fischer faithfully represented the piece’s fluctuatingtone with their vocal interactions; when a movement was violent, their parts seemed to be arguing.

One particularly poignant moment was a vocal quartet in the Benedictus movement that accentuated the lighter quality of this section. The singers’ vocal blending was better than it was throughout the rest of the piece, and their balance allowed each part to come to the foreground when appropriate. As in the Brahms, the orchestra did a wonderful job restating one of the first movement’s original motifs in the last movement, the Agnus Dei.

Though as a whole, the ensembles presented a good interpretation of Beethoven’s piece, a few minor details were not as refined as they could have been. For example, in the Gloria, the tempo fluctuated when it should have remained stable, detracting from the control normally exhibited in a mass. Of special note in this half of the performance, though, was Highfill, who was unafraid to encourage performers to be more expressive. Unfortunately, in spite of his animated gesticulations, the choir did not always respond in kind; if the conductor’s energy had translated to the choir, the performance might have greatly improved.

All in all, both halves of the concert — the Brahms and the Beethoven — were of high quality. In spite of the minor technical deficiencies sprinkled throughout the performance, the execution of dynamics and contrasts in both pieces was excellent and brought out a faithful depiction of the composers’ intents. While a little more energy from the performers could have gone a long way and brought the performance to the next level, the orchestra and choirs were ultimately able to unite the disparate pieces, creating a cohesive, musically adept whole.