Arts & Events

Chora Nova Presents Brahms at First Congregational Church

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday May 22, 2008 - 10:27:00 AM

Chora Nova, under the artistic direction of Paul Flight, will present Brahms’ German Requiem in a rarely performed chamber setting, along with the composer’s “Four Serious Songs” and his short choral piece, “Begraebnissgesang,” 8 p.m., Saturday, May 24, at the First Congregational Church, Dana and Durant streets. Tickets are $10-18, available at the door or at 

Director Paul Flight will sing the “Four Serious Songs,” accompanied by Nalini Ghuman on piano. Pianist Lino Rivera and Bay Area soloists Rita Lilly, soprano, and Jeffrey Fields, baritone, will also join in the concert.  

Paul Flight commented on the chamber version of Brahms’ famous Requiem: “It’s a wonderful thing that Brahms took the time, and a lot of care, crafting this originally four-hand piano version—we do it with two pianos. It’s not just a reduction; it stands on its own. Sometimes composers of symphonic music would have a student or assistant rearrange a piece for piano. This is a true chamber experience, with a lot of intimacy. Brahms rescored the ac-companiment to better balance the voices, revealing their interplay with the accompaniment. The counterpoint is precise and clear. 

“This was special in a day when there were no radios or TV,” Flight continued. “Back then, piano versions were the only way the middle class had to get to know great musical works. And it’s a pragmatic gesture. Choral groups couldn’t—and can’t—always afford a big orchestra, which would drown out the choir anyway!” 

The three pieces on the program are all “reflections on death from different parts of Brahms’ life. “Begraebnissgesang” is one of his first choral works, with an interesting setting, showing his interest in early Lutheran tunes. The “Four Serious Songs” are among the last works published in Brahms’ lifetime. He knew he was sick, and Clara Schumann had just been diagnosed as very ill, and would soon pass away. All the texts are biblical. And all the pieces are very closely related, some of the same musical gestures as in the Requiem found in the others. 

“It’s amazing, too,” noted Flight, “to hear Brahms’ high regard for music from the past, the German composers of the early and later Baroque, especially in the Requiem.” 

“Four Serious Songs” is usually performed by a bass-baritone, but—as Flight put it—the surprise of the program will be him singing it as a counter-tenor.  

“We chose the version scored for low bass and came up an octave,” he said. “It works extremely well, suits my voice and my personality. Counter-tenors have grown from being a vocal curiosity, a special voice in old operas, to more mainstream. We’re always looking for ways to expand our repertoire. I just did John Adams’ ‘El Nino’ a few nights ago in Washington, DC. It has a chorus of three counter-tenors, beautifully written.” 

When Flight sings the “Four Serious Songs,” Nalini Ghuman, who has taught music at Mills, will accompany on piano in a reunion for the two of them, as well as for the group she was originally intended for as accompanist, before a still-unexplained order of exclusion kept her out of the U.S. for two years, living in her hometown in Wales. 

“It’s sweet to be performing the ‘Serious Songs’ together,” said Flight. “We’re excited.”