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Review: Nelson conducts Requiem with ISO 

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click to enlarge Former ISO music director John Nelson
  • Former ISO music director John Nelson

After centuries of predominating in religiously inspired music, Europe took a rather sudden downturn in the 19th century, following the Age of Enlightenment, in numbers of compositions set to Christian related texts. But those few from that era which survive to the present remain among those most popular and most presented to symphony-goers. 18th-century exceptions are Handel's Messiah, Bach's two Passion settings and his B Minor Mass.

While in the 1800s, we have Requiem settings by Berlioz, Fauré and Verdi based on the Latin Mass for the Dead -- and, last but not least, Brahms' A German Requiem, Op. 45, set to Biblical texts, in German, of the composer's own choosing. We also have Beethoven's monumental Missa Solemnis -- about more of which below.

Former ISO music director John Nelson (1976-1987), an acknowledged choral conductor and devoutly religious himself, was an excellent choice to be the podium guest for the Brahms Requiem on Friday and Saturday, along with two vocal soloists and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir.

This was Nelson's first podium appearance anywhere since losing his wife, Anita, three weeks earlier to cancer. In the words of a former staffer Anita was "the perfect conductor's-wife," enlivening everybody with her outgoing personality, her obvious joie de vivre. Clearly this concert had special meaning for Nelson.

In the pre-concert Words on Music session, host and ISO assistant conductor David Glover had Choir director Eric Stark as his guest. During the audience-question part, I asked both gentlemen why the Brahms Requiem is given fairly often though the years, but the Beethoven Missa has been given only once in the ISO's history -- by Nelson himself, at his final classical-series concert before leaving the orchestra.

Stark responded first, saying, "Hey, if anybody asks us, we'll be happy to do it." Whereupon Glover asserted that the work is too "cerebral." His evident non-familiarity with the Missa belies its profound beauty, its rich orchestration and Beethoven's own admonition that it was his greatest work. The real reason it's so sparsely presented is its incredible demands on the chorus; many conductors won't chance it. More power to Stark, however, for being willing to take it on.

But I digress. The Brahms Requiem is divided into seven parts, four for chorus and orchestra, two adding a baritone soloist and one adding a soprano soloist. Aga Mikolaj provided the latter voice for Part V: "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" ("And ye now therefore have sorrow"), in turn giving us splendid vocalism: powerful, well projecting and evenly centered. Mikolaj made that part the high point of the evening. Baritone Nathan Berg impressed a bit less on all counts.

The Choir did its usual good job handling Brahms' thick-textured harmonies and occasionally digressive forward motion. Nelson was clearly at home throughout the hour and five minutes, keeping his players and singers well in tow with a slightly brisk tempo. The ISO Wurlitzer organ was used most effectively to supply the pedal-point bass of which the Circle is otherwise so bereft.

Our former conductor opened his concert with Mozart's short, early motet, Exsultate jubilate, K. 165, for soprano and orchestra, again featuring Mikolaj. This time, however, she did not impress so much, her delivery seemingly nervous, her vibrato too rapid. I was dumbfounded later when she showed what she really had in the Brahms. Perhaps changing her gown from red to black made the difference. Nov. 1-2; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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