There’s an interesting visual echo, as well as a sonic likeness, between a 100-plus person chorus and the pipes of a great concert organ. Both are comprised of numerous vertical bodies capable of adding both visual shape and enormous sound and nuanced color to a symphony performance.
For the final concert of its 2016-17 season, the Madison Symphony Orchestra took advantage of both of these musical resources. It eschewed the typical structure of overture, concerto, symphony and just did two big pieces: Charles Villiers Stanford’s Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra, opus 181, and Johannes Brahms’s German Requiem, opus 45. These pieces drew on, respectively, the massive concert organ in Overture Hall, and the Madison Symphony Chorus, directed by Beverly Taylor.
The Irish-born Charles Villiers Stanford is a relatively unknown figure, but during his lifetime (1852-1925) he was a prolific composer and leading light in the late 19th-century movement to cultivate a distinctly English musical style. He also taught composers whose fame has outpaced his own, among them Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughn Williams.
Composed in 1921, Stanford’s Concert Piece for Organ did not receive its premiere until 1990. The MSO’s performance, with Nathan Laube as soloist, marks its first professional performance in the United States.
Stanford was no fan of modernism, so it’s a thematically accessible piece, but it also has enormous sonic volume, taking full advantage of a concert organ’s capacity to produce thick walls of sound as well as multiple complex lines.
Mr. Laube’s encore — the first movement of Charles-Marie Widor’s Sixth Symphony for Organ — was, if possible, even bigger and more overwhelming. Although it was technically impressive, with, at one point, at least three simultaneous musical lines, it was also delightful for some of its simpler moments, as when the same musical gesture was traded between different voices on the organ juxtaposed against one another.
Brahms’ German Requiem is so named because it draws its texts from Luther’s German-language translation of the Bible rather than from the Latin Catholic Mass for the Dead. The differences between Brahms’ Requiem and the traditional texts is more than linguistic: where the traditional Requiem is filled with images of wrath and judgment, Brahms selected texts that balance the sorrow of loss and death with the comfort a believer might take in God’s grace.
Again and again Brahms’s requiem depicts linguistic and musical balance: individual movements start with words of sorrow but shift to joy; the piece as a whole has an arch shape with parallels between different pairs of movements (1 and 7, 2 and 6, etc.); and movements that start in heaviness gain energy and momentum through fast-moving fugues. Brahms even draws on that long-standing tradition of word-painting at times, using descending lines to depict tears, and pointed rising lines to depict joy.
The symphony, chorus, and soloists were all wonderful, powerful and expressive here. They rang with power and floated in ethereal intimacy.
It was a wonderful gift with which to conclude the performing season.