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Requiem from a heavyweight: Orchestra readies Brahms piece

March 5, 2019

Jere Lantz used the scientific method to determine that Johannes Brahms is his favorite composer.

“When I was in college, I used to play a lot of music in my room,” Lantz said. “The records that were wearing out fastest were my Brahms records. I guess I liked Brahms more than I knew.”

Now, 50 years later, Lantz is preparing to conduct the Rochester Symphony Orchestra & Chorale in a performance of the Brahms Requiem Saturday at Mayo Civic Center’s Presentation Hall.

“I’m not saying he’s the greatest composer,” Lantz said. “But he’s definitely the guy who reaches deepest into my soul.”

The Brahms Requiem, which the composer called “The German Requiem,” will be performed by the orchestra and the 90-voice chorale. “It’s the biggest group we’ve ever had,” Lantz said of the chorale. “We’ll be singing it in German, with the translation in the program.”

Brahms wrote the requiem, which was long a standard undertaking for composers, following the death of his mentor, Robert Schumann, and of his mother.

Brahms, though, broke the mold that had been used by Mozart, Verdi, Faure and others in writing their requiems.

First, those men were opera composers, who liked to use drama in their music. Secondly, they wrote what Lantz called “day of judgment” requiems. “Part of the message of that was to scare people into being good,” he said.

Instead, Brahms wrote a requiem of comfort, intended to provide solace to those left behind by the death of a loved one.

Brahms debuted his requiem on Good Friday, 1868, in the German city of Bremen. “It was the most successful performance of his career,” Lantz said.

It also established Brahms as a force to be reckoned with in music.

“It’s the piece that helped him find his voice as a composer,” Lantz said. “After that, every piece he wrote is at the core of the repertoire.”

The concert will feature as soloists baritone Erik Krohg, from the Twin Cities, and soprano Elizabeth Hillebrand, a former opera singer who is now a resident in family practice at Mayo Clinic.

Also on the program is Arvo Paert’s “Trisagion,” described by Lantz as in “a style known as spiritual or mystical minimalism.”