By Jan Harrington, For The Republic
Maestro David Bowden and the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic, along with the Philharmonic Chorus, the Anderson Symphonic Choir and the Anderson University Chorale, scored a double triumph Saturday evening in a concert devoted to music of Brahms and Beethoven.
The first triumph came with the performance of Brahms’ rarely performed Triumphlied, Op 55 (Song of Triumph), a grand ceremonial paean of thanksgiving to celebrate the 1870-71 Prussian military victory over France. Unlike many celebratory patriotic occasional pieces, the Brahms work, whose text is drawn from Chapter 19 of the Book of Revelation, is infused with the spiritual fervor of its apocalyptic text that resonated with enthusiastic response from his audiences as a religious work.
The music combines references to German Lutheran hymns familiar to his audiences, musical references to the famous Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s Messiah (whose text is a setting of verses from the same chapter of Revelation), and contains contrapuntal and vocal demands reminiscent of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The music requires vocal stamina and incisive musicianship from the choruses, and the combined forces of the Philharmonic Chorus and Richard Sowers’ singers from Anderson University filled the bill brilliantly.
The spiritual aspect of the work was enhanced by Bowden’s insightful sung English translation, which allowed the music to speak directly to our audience as a familiar testament of faith instead of as an archaic patriotic piece.
Bowden’s other courageous decision to place the divided chorus on the extended side wings of the newly remodeled Erne Auditorium provided the perfect sonic realization of the alternating double chorus writing and solved many of the balance problems between the chorus and orchestra that such a piece presents when the chorus is placed behind the orchestra.
The solo passages in the third movement, which offer a respite from the piece’s inexorable texture, were beautifully and stylistically sung by baritone Grant Farmer. This piece has never been a favorite of mine, but to hear it live in the fantastic acoustic of the newly remodeled venue was a tremendous privilege, and the audience agreed with a standing ovation.
Two other beautiful works for orchestra and chorus from earlier in Brahms’ life preceded the Triumphlied. The solemn processional Begräbnisgesang (Burial Song), Op. 13 with its unusual orchestration for brass wind band, timpani and chorus opened the program. Bowden organized the chorus parts to reflect the antiphonal possibilities of alternating choruses that would be heard later in the concert; the immediate impression was how fantastic and rich the acoustics of the room sounded — so appropriate for the music being played.
The Begräbnisgesang was followed by Brahms’ masterful Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 for alto, men’s chorus and orchestra sung with magnificent warmth and artistic insight by returning mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn, a favorite artist with the Columbus audiences.
The second great triumph of the evening was the extraordinary performance of Beethoven’s familiar Fifth Symphony. The orchestra and Bowden brought a fresh and compelling reading to what could have been simply another hearing of this often-performed piece. We were compelled to listen, as if for the first time, by an elegant and insightfully shaped performance where no detail of form or the composer’s intent was left to chance.
The orchestra was beyond reproach — clear textures, beautiful balance, and a joyous mixture of passion and even some of the humor that often goes missing in the numerous performances of this long-revered work. Special kudos go to the fantastic wind section and beautifully balanced brass, the clarity of the strings, and the standout solo passages of oboist Nancy Argersinger, bassoonist Mackenzie Brauns, and especially the French horns — Victoria Knudtson and Kenji Ulmer.
This was a performance worth remembering and treasuring, and a testimony to the value of hearing music live in the presence of a masterful and committed orchestra and conductor.
Jan Harrington is Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Conducting at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.