MOUNT VERNON — When delicate wooden musical instruments absorb the abundant moisture of a humid evening, they literally swell. The amount of swelling is invisible to the naked eye, but it can surely make it much more difficult to play an instrument in tune, just as excessively dry weather can also wreak havoc.
The players of the Knox County Symphony gamely fought the elements Sunday in Rosse Hall, on the campus of Kenyon College, and in remarkably short order they were giving radiant and resonant support to the Kenyon Community Choir in a warm, gentle performance of Johannes Brahms’ “Ein deutsches Requiem” (”A German Requiem”).
Brahms named his work “A German Requiem” because he specifically wanted to distance himself from the more “southern style” requiems some earlier composers had written. In this case, “southern style” is largely a euphemism for “Catholic,” which most musical requiem masses are, including the Judgment Day sequence and other perilous moments, which can be heard in the Austrian Mozart’s or the Italian Verdi’s much more theatrical requiems.
Unlike those fire-and-brimstone requiems, Brahms’ piece is mellow and is written to console the mourners, leaving the afterlife to take care of itself. The work features few loud moments, and even fewer lively tempos, gathering its legions of fans by being warm, cradling and lovable. Sunday night’s performance, under the direction of Dr. Benjamin Locke, lovingly caressed the work’s broad pages, earning a standing ovation from a considerable portion of the audience at the end.
The Kenyon Community Choir characterized the work’s subtly varying moods with a handsome blend of sound, from the stern resignation of the second movement to the gleaming lines of the last movement. The flow and moulded shaping of their melodic lines added to the way the work seems as tender and cradling as the rolling hills of Ohio itself. Bet Brahms never planned that!
Baritone Sean Hoffman brought an appealing sound color to his two solos, originally designated for bass. Hoffman’s baritone voice has the reach to hit the low notes, but has a chocolatey sweetness and smoothness that is almost tenor-ish in weight and flexibility, adding to this performance’s sense of gentleness.
Soprano Elizabeth Boskovich brought a gleaming agility to her solo movement, conveying both a simple joy and a motherly consolation in a movement that is clearly the core of the work, which Brahms wrote in the wake of his own beloved mother’s passing. Boskovich captured the emotional weight of the movement without letting the vocal line become indulgent or mawkish.
The orchestra served both as support to the voices and leader through Brahms’ close-knit, harmonically dense writing, including the big fugue in the sixth movement. The concert brought the symphony’s 44th season to an expressive, radiant close.