Kelsey Burritt | Staff Writer
“It goes from where there is a profound grief, but then to comfort; from exile, to homeland; from weeping, to shouting; from despair, to hope; from suffering, to joy.”It is even a feat for guest conductor Robert Duerr, musician and minister, to find so many words to capture Brahms’ “Ein Deutsches Requiem.”
The grandson and great-grandson of pastors, he was raised in the church and deeply moved by its music from a young age. He was trained as an organist, directed his first choir at age 10 and was ordained a minister in 2004.
Brahms’ “Ein Deutsches Requiem,” he said, is not a liturgical requiem, but a human requiem.
The difference, besides being written in German instead of Latin, is in that very dynamism that comes from the transition from a harrowing sorrow to a triumphant hope. The requiem, the traditional song for the dead, was written to celebrate life.
Duerr will conduct the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, the visiting Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and guest soloists Janice Chandler Eteme and Tyler Duncan for a performance of the Requiem at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater.
Brahms’ mother died in February 1865. Two months later, Brahms had already composed three movements of the piece. The entire seven-movement piece, including the soprano solo in the fifth movement, was completed by May 1868.
Brahms’ Requiem comforts the living as much as it mourns the dead, Duerr said.
“It had to do more with universal themes of sorrow, and joy and a lot of things that humanity could relate to outside of a liturgical, proper requiem mass,” Duerr said. “Brahms is a little bit more tender and can relate to when people are in mourning.”
Duerr cited the first movement, “Blessed are those who mourn, they shall be comforted,” and the last, “Blessed are those who die in the Lord, from henceforth they are at peace.” The fire and brimstone of Judgment Day are kept at bay, and in their stead, Brahms composed music that reflects peace and hope in the afterlife.
The piece in English, “A German Requiem,” is also considered a human requiem because it was written in Brahms’ language — the vernacular as opposed to the Latin traditionally used in the requiem mass.
“I think one of the reasons he set it in German was to make it accessible to the people,” baritone Duncan said. “The audience knows what you’re singing about, because either they’ll have the translation, but also (because) Brahms sets this music in such a beautiful way.”
The connection with the audience is a sacred one for Duncan. A seasoned concert vocalist who is fringing more and more on the opera scene, he said that singing oratorio is a more exposed and vulnerable style without the front of playing a character.
“As an oratorio singer, you deliver a message to the people directly, so it’s a one-on-one connection that you have with the audience,” Duncan said. “Even in that huge, 2,000- 3,000-foot concert hall, you can have a very intimate connection with the people you are performing for.”
Duncan studied at the University of British Columbia and then at Germany’s Hochschule für Musik in Augsburg and Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Munich. Duncan has performed Brahms’ Requiem on numerous occasions and said he believes it is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.
“And the baritone gets to have this beautiful pleading line to heaven saying, ‘Please teach me about my end,’ and, ‘Please show me the way,’ ” Duncan said.
The fifth movement, featuring the soprano solo, was the last to be added to the overall work, often said to be in particular tribute to Brahms’ mother. This will be soprano soloist Janice Chandler Eteme’s fifth time at Chautauqua and her second time performing the Brahms, which she sang before in 2004.
“My favorite is probably the end where the soprano comes back in with the choir,” Chandler Eteme said. “It’s just very, very jubilant. ‘I’m going to see you again,’ and it’s in the voice of the mother. ‘You have sorrow now, but I’m going to see you again.’ And the choir’s kind of weaving in and out with the soprano … it really has a wonderful climax at the end.”
After switching from a nursing degree to a music degree at Oakwood University, she received her master’s degree at Indiana University and has led a successful solo career, even performing the Brahms Requiem at Carnegie Hall in 2007.
“At the very, very end, you can almost imagine the mother is withdrawing again,” Chandler Eteme said. “She comes in really close and really intense … but then at the very end, you can sort of see her flying away.”
A mother of two children, Chandler Eteme said she loves bringing her family to Chautauqua for its peaceful but stimulating atmosphere.
Duerr first came to Chautauqua after his friends urged him to in the 1970s, and he has returned occasionally throughout the years. He will return this summer for Week Seven as the Episcopal chaplain-in-residence at the Episcopal Cottage, enjoying all that Chautauqua has to offer for his two disciplines.
“Theology and religion give us a whole other reality, a dimension, of what a profound truth is, and music just can help give a perspective to it that we can’t even articulate sometimes,” Duerr said. “When the two can work hand in glove, it can transcend what either of them can do individually.”
After years working as a celebrated conductor with some of the finest ensembles in the country, including the Metropolitan Opera, Duerr felt there was a calling he still had not answered. He enrolled in Cambridge University in 1999 and now works both as a priest and a guest conductor.
“When I was in high school and people said, ‘What are you going to be when you grow up,’ I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be a pastor.’ And they said, ‘But no, what about music?’ And I said, ‘Well, I am a musician,’ ” Duerr said. “I knew back then … I am a musician, but I was going to be a minister someday.”
Duerr said the Brahms tries to communicate an “earthly pilgrimage,” a process of sowing and reaping in a journey to find a place that “feels at home,” whether that is a heavenly afterlife or a place of rest.
“You might sow the seed with sorrow and great mourning … and then yet someday there will be this plenteous harvest,” Duerr said. “And there’s great joy and happiness to that.”