Sanity and comfort

By Lawrence Cosentino

Lansing Symphony, soloists, choirs apply the balm of Brahms

After two drama-drenched performances in a row, the Lansing Symphony opted to soothe rather than rile at Saturday’s MasterWorks concert. As if addressing a severe case of post-election jangles, guest conductor David Rayl, director of choral programs at MSU, measured out generous doses of sanity and comfort, in that order.

The decorum and grace of the Enlightenment saturated Franz Joseph Haydn’s “London” symphony, No. 104, although the silk tights on Saturday night’s performance weren’t wound very tight. Rayl kept the pulse warm and sure, but the fabric showed a few runs, owing to ragged attacks and hesitant entrances from nearly every section. The music started to command full attention with a great orange sunburst of sound in the third movement, over a slowly bouncing waltz rhythm that felt like boinking up and down in an extra puffy Discovery Zone. The last movement cranked along nicely, from the low “bummm” that flips the switch at the beginning to the bracing contrapuntal exertions of the wrap-up. Haydn is that rare composer who knows how to party intelligently, but there seemed to be a knob on Rayl’s console that wasn’t cranked high enough — the “verve” knob, maybe. Still, it’s a rare pleasure to hear Haydn done at all, even by the numbers.

The major work of the night, Johannes Brahms’ deeply consoling “German Requiem,” made a nobler and more commanding noise.

Consolation often starts with finding company in sorrow, and there was plenty of that on stage Saturday, with over 200 singers on hand from the University Chorale, the MSU Choral Union and the State Singers. The troops on the stage weren’t there for sheer spectacle, but to share the burden of life with the listener. Treating intimate gestures and grand sweeps as part of the same emotional universe, Rayl and his legions showed how one person’s grief threads into a long tapestry of human mortality. The second movement conjured the image of a vast procession of mourners, stretching backward to the beginning of time, as if from a long tracking shot. “You are not alone,” each pulse proclaimed to the newly bereaved or soon to be, which is all of us.

But the “Requiem” delivers better news than that. In a brief but crucial solo, soprano soloist Melanie Helton gave a message no mob could deliver. She was the essence of comfort in the fifth movement’s promise, “I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice.”

There was little comfort from the other featured soloist Saturday night. Baritone David Small has a steel-rod voice and impeccable diction that involuntarily makes you want to light his cigarette, but he made no emotional connection. When he sang “Lord, what wait I for?” in the soul-searching third movement, it was impossible (without a text) to tell whether he was lamenting human vanity or warning you to rotate your tires. His emotional distance and pulpit-worthy authority came in handier when he pitched God’s last-trumpet resurrection plan in the sixth movement, firing out the word “augenblick” (eyeblink) fiercely enough to raise the dead slightly ahead of schedule.

It’s to Rayl’s credit that with so much happening on the stage, balance and coordination were never in question. More than once, chorus and orchestra fused into a single, organ-like swell, with the cellos and double basses holding down the imaginary pedals and everybody else lining the hall like a fantastic array of airy stops and pipes. Despite the work’s scope and length, there was a dyed-in-the-fabric unity from edge to edge. Breakaway moments, like the exultant fugue in the penultimate movement, didn’t go for catharsis, as Handel might have, but rather, for a more emphatic, definitive consolation. I heard a couple of complaints that the performance was too measured, from the cushioned choral swells to the less-than-all-out whacks on the timpani, but that’s in keeping with Brahms’ abhorrence of cheap thrills. My neck hairs never went up, but I was steeped in a balm that hasn’t worn off yet.

One more thing: Surely a way can be found to amend the bizarre convention of making the two vocal soloists flank the podium, front and center, with folded hands and forced expressions of gravity, for the whole “Requiem,” despite their brief singing time. Couldn’t they be tucked at the edge of the chorus and cued to walk to the front before they sing? It would cause a few seconds of distracting movement, but anything would be better than an hour-plus of waxworks weirdness.

After 20 minutes or so, I couldn’t keep myself from stealing glances at the impassive figures of Helton and Rayl, until it started to feel like a David Lynch movie. Arriving home after the concert, I was afraid to open the door for fear they would be sitting on my couch, like silent Sphinxes in the semi-darkness. So much for sanity and comfort.