Oberlin Musical Union, College Choir, and Arts & Sciences Orchestra (December 7)
››› December 21, 2014 | Posted By Monica Hunter-Hart

The enormity of tragedy cannot be overstated. Tragedy is not melancholy, the passing glumness you experience over a lonely day. It is not unhappiness, the disappointment of failing to achieve a goal to your satisfaction. Tragedy is immense: it is the direst of miseries, the most catastrophic of disasters. And tragedy was the subject that Oberlin's Musical Union, College Choir, and Arts & Sciences Orchestra took on December 7th through two pieces famous for their evocations of calamity. The collaborating groups effectively communicated the awe involved in their dark task. Their shared commitment to embracing the gloom brought a chill to Finney Chapel, despite the unusually warm December night.

First on conductor Jason Harris' agenda was Brahms's emotional Tragic Overture, which featured the orchestra alone while the singers sat patiently behind them. Although the players lacked total cohesion through the subtlest dynamic and rhythmic changes, they hit their stride in the piece's more aggressive passages through energetic, well-timed attacks. Some minor sectional issues arose: the horns occasionally struggled to create pure, full tones, and intermittent out-of-tune violin notes peppered both this piece and the next. Piccolo player Chloe Deshusses, on the other hand, was Brahms' greatest champion as she awakened his mournful statements through clean phrases that lightly sang through the orchestral layers as the purest voice of wistfulness.

In Mozart's Requiem, the chorus brought the concert atmosphere the deeper bleakness it had been missing. Immediately, the singers' round, dark vowels contributed a sense of ominousness to the mood: suddenly the collective concert black attire evoked not dress code compliance, but the garb of the bereaved at a wake.

The Requiem featured four solo vocalists, soprano Meryl Dominquez, mezzo-soprano Kayleigh Decker, tenor Daniel McGrew, and bass Aaron Keeney, who achieved an excellent blend. While Mozart uses the entire Requiem to apprehensively speculate about Christian Judgment Day, the lyrics in the "Tuba mirum" section are particularly grim: "What can a wretch like me say? What patron shall I ask for help when the just are scarcely protected?" Each member of the quartet captured the unnerving quality of this subject matter, but through unique approaches. Dominquez was sorrowful, Decker bitter. McGrew was tense in his sharp accents, Keeney severe through his long and unwavering phrasing. Seated as they were at the front of the stage, the soloists--who sat looking solemnly at their scores or up above the audience--appeared to be contemplating their fates in a Purgatory waiting room.

Crisp diction is difficult to achieve in Finney, especially with a group of this size--and the words that the chorus poured forth were often indistinct. But the emotions behind them were clear. In "Hostias," Harris drew an incredibly soft volume from the singers, through which they maintained full breath support. This brought a cautious weight to their voices, and as they sang to the Lord to "receive [...] the souls," the chorus truly embodied the humility of a desperate plea. And while the choir occasionally drowned out the orchestra, it made up for this loss through an abundance of excitement: Harris frequently called for emphases that gave the music an urgent pulse.

This was a mighty concert. Its impact was perhaps not enough to cause audience members to fear for their own souls, but certainly enough to make them fear for those of the four doomed soloists who were in spiritual jeopardy up front.

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