The fifth movement of Johannes Brahms masterful choral work “Ein deutsches Requiem” contains the text “I will comfort you as one’s mother comforts him.” This promise of comfort, sung in German, provides consolation, a promise that everything will be alright. The composer added the movement a year after giving the premiere in 1868, adding a soprano solo, expanding the work to seven movements.
On Thursday night at Symphony Hall, that added solo, performed by soprano Ying Fang in her Atlanta debut, turned the evening from a powerful showing by the ASO Chorus to a truly momentous occasion. Fang has a voice unlike any other I have heard with the orchestra. During the challenging solo, she seemed to effortlessly traverse wide intervallic leaps, the rich timbre of her voice as clear and true at the top of her range as at the bottom. The chorus sounded in fine voice — appearing here at an almost whisper, there at the top of their collective lungs — and baritone Russell Braun, a frequent ASO collaborator, sang his solo passages with gusto. But Fang simply transformed the work.
And it’s a work with which Atlantans are very familiar. Brahms’ Requiem is one of those compositions that is so strongly associated with the ASO Chorus that it’s hard to believe the last performance occurred nearly seven years ago, in April 2016, under the direction of former music director Robert Spano. Even without the headline that this is Runnicles’ last performance with the chorus, the piece’s inclusion on the program, and Runnicles’ presence leading the Brahms, creates a buzz of anticipation. (After all, it was Runnicles who, in December 2009, took the ASO Chorus to Germany to perform the work with the Berlin Philharmonic.)
The program began with “Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed,” Adolphus Hailstork’s 1979 rumination on the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The ASO hasn’t performed the seven-minute work, which progresses at a simmer with strings leading the way through a quietly yearning soundscape, on a subscription concert since 1996.
“Epitaph,” given proper space and breathing room by Runnicles, exists at a soft roar — until it doesn’t. Hailstork’s rumination broadens musically beyond the strings into the full orchestra about halfway through, building up to a horn-led celebration. The ASO musicians played this ascension such deliberate attention, making the slow climb more thrilling than the triple-forte summit. Hailstrok’s piece was a rare treat that proved an excellent introduction to the Brahms. Runnicles further linked the two by, after a brief pause, launching straight ahead into the Brahms.
Runnicles first came to the ASO as principal guest conductor alongside Robert Spano more than two decades ago. The former ASO music director is now in Fort Worth, Texas, where he recently extended his contract through the 2027-2028 season, and Runnicles ends his direct association with Atlanta at the end of the season. The Brahms concerts are his last appearances with the ASO Chorus. (Runnicles is back in Atlanta one more time with the orchestra this season, performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in May.)
Some ASO performances stick in the memory stronger than others. It is, of course, not true that one soloist can carry an entire performance, but I will always remember where I was sitting when I heard Fang sing the first notes of her solo, which brought comfort to, I would venture to guess, an entire hall’s worth of listeners.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Additional performance 8 tonight. $51-$103. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
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