There were so many singers onstage with the Santa Barbara Symphony for this performance of Brahms’s A German Requiem that it took a while for all of them to reach their places. It was beautiful to watch the rows of eager faces gradually fill five deep to the top, and a thrill to then see their 148 music books open in unison at a signal from the podium. The music directors of these three organizations-Nir Kabaretti, Jo Anne Wasserman, and Michael Shasberger-are to be commended for creating a once-in-a-lifetime experience for everyone involved in this magnificent requiem.
The Requiem was preceded by a lovely and fascinating curtain raiser, Aaron Jay Kernis’s Musica Celestis, which was performed by the Santa Barbara Symphony configured as a string orchestra. At 11 minutes, this heavenly choir for strings delighted the audience at the same time that it prepared them for some of the rigors and depths of the epic Brahms, which lasts well over an hour.
The soloists, Susanna Phillips and Leon Williams, both handled the demands of the music very well. Phillips in particular had a sure and steady way with the idiosyncrasies of section five for soprano solo and chorus. Williams was also very good in his features during sections three and six, keeping the tone in line with the text and filling the Arlington with his robust baritone.
The twin glories of the Brahms Requiem are its choral writing and its humanistic sentiment, and both were fully realized on Saturday. The work, which Brahms wrote very much in the spirit of Romantic literature, rather than to accommodate the traditional topics and concerns of liturgical music, takes a consoling instead of a judgmental view of its subject. Wallace Stevens once wrote that “an old argument with me is that the true religious force in the world is not the church but the world itself,” and Brahms’s Requiem embodies this view of heaven as an idea about life. Thanks to the Santa Barbara Symphony, the Santa Barbara Choral Society, the Westmont College Choir, and the soloists for giving us a glimpse of heaven on earth.