Nov. 7 2012 12:00 AM

Choral forces join Lansing Symphony for Brahms' 'German Requiem'


There are pious requiems, stormy requiems, raging requiems, imploring requiems. In the end, they all start to mix in your mind, however magnificent, like sunsets.

But it’s easy to single out Brahms’ “German Requiem.” You don’t often get to see a sunset from a Zeppelin. The main work in the Lansing Symphony’s big choral concert Saturday is the only requiem that takes you into the clouds and gives you a lingering ride over the crags of life and death.

“It is a monumental work,” Saturday’s guest conductor, MSU choral director David Rayl, said. “If it goes well, one feels relief, exhaustion, but also satisfaction at having made this emotional journey.”

Extra large forces, including the massed choral groups of Michigan State University, will join with the symphony under Rayl’s baton. He´s been rehearsing the huge choruse for weeks. 

Despite its hour-plus running time, Rayl finds the work “very accessible” and bountifully heaped with gorgeous Brahms melodies.

“The whole piece moves to the penultimate movement, which has this very long, triumphant, exultant fugue,” Rayl said. “The last movement is kind of a coda to that, or a reaffirmation.”

Far from sliding in for emphasis here and there, the choral lines are just as much a fabric of this vast tapestry as the orchestra. 

In the last week and a half, his brain has been bifurcated between worrying about little things, like tempo changes and transitions between sections, and “the arc of the piece and how it all hangs together.”

Rayl only gets to work on this scale a few times a year.

Later this year, he will lead a performance of Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem” at Carnegie Hall in New York, with a mix of church choirs, high school choirs and soloists from several states, including some MSU Choral Union members. In April, he comes back to join the Lansing Symphony for a rare performance of Monteverdi’s ringing “Vespers of 1610.”

Rayl finds these stage-collapsing mashups nerve-wracking but rewarding. He has conducted “A German Requiem” twice before, but never in German. 

“I spend my life as a choral conductor, not an orchestral conductor,” he said. “I’m working to make sure I have the fabric of the orchestration in my head and that I’m conscious of who needs your attention when.”

The vocal soloists Saturday are soprano Melanie Helton, the head MSU’s vocal department, and baritone David Small of the University of Texas — two pros who probably won’t need much attention.

“She has the perfect voice for this,” Rayl said of Helton. “It requires long, spinning, silken vocal lines, not a dramatic aria at all.”

Rayl credited Small with a “big, warm, beautiful baritone with plenty of power but lots of nuance.”

Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt said he tosses the orchestral keys to Rayl with complete confidence.

“We’re fortunate to have David Rayl as part of the family here,” Muffitt said.

Rayl, in turn, likes the orchestra’s pickup and the way it handles.

“Orchestral union musicians sometimes have the reputation of being jaded, or a little cynical and sitting back and making the conductor’s life miserable,” Rayl said. “I have never had a sense of that from them. They are committed to making music for the community.”

It was Muffitt’s idea to balance the heavy “Requiem” with a Haydn symphony, but with 108 to pick from, that doesn’t narrow it down much. Minor key stuff was out. Rayl chose No. 104 (“London”), a brisk foil to the languorous Brahms.

“I wanted something joyful, playful, upbeat,” Rayl said.

Lansing Symphony Orchestra
with University Chorale, MSU Choral Union and State singers
David Rayl, conductor
Melanie Helton and David Small, soloists
8 p.m. Nov. 10
Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall