Donald Runnicles conducts a concert “à la française”

12 Mar 2015

Berliner Philharmoniker
Donald Runnicles

Rundfunkchor Berlin, Kelley O’Connor, Martina Welschenbach, Noel Bouley

  • Olivier Messiaen
    Hymne (15 min.)

  • Claude Debussy
    La Damoiselle élue (23 min.)

    Rundfunkchor Berlin, Kelley O’Connor Mezzo-Soprano, Simon Halsey Chorus Master, Martina Welschenbach Sopran

  • Maurice Duruflé
    Requiem, op. 9 (47 min.)

    Rundfunkchor Berlin, Kelley O’Connor Mezzo-Soprano, Simon Halsey Chorus Master, Noel Bouley Bass Baritone

  • free

    Works by Messiaen, Debussy and Duruflé: Introduction by Simon Halsey (12 min.)

Donald Runnicles specialises in performances of requiems. At least this impression could arise if you look back on the Philharmoniker concerts the Scottish conductor conducted since 2003: he had already conducted the requiems by Benjamin Britten, Hector Berlioz and Johannes Brahms. This time, the general music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin conducts Maurice Duruflé’s requiem.

The work is the best-known creation of the French composer, who was one of his country’s great organists in the 20th century. Duruflé, who studied with Louis Vierne and Paul Dukas, was inspired in his requiem by the Gregorian melodies of the Catholic liturgy, which he in some cases quotes in the original and drapes in very subtle sounds. By this means he created a vocal composition of suggestive character – archaic, transcendent, consolatory. And the work makes one thing very clear: Duruflé’s musical language is rooted not only in Gregorian chant, but also in French Impressionism.

The programme begins with a work by Duruflé’s contemporary and colleague Olivier Messiaen: Hymne. Like Duruflé, Messiaen was also an organist. The Catholic church, the liturgy and piety also strongly shaped his musical oeuvre. The orchestral composition, an early work by Messiaen, has a sacral character and is characterised by a richly coloured, atmospherically dense musical language. Claude Debussy’s poetic cantata La damoiselle élue is another early work. While in this work the young composer is still under the influence of Richard Wagner’s music, Debussy’s personal style is already apparent.

Not All Roads Lead to Rome

They hated it, but they had little choice. If one wanted to make oneself heard as a composer in 19th-century France, it was extremely helpful to enter the competition for the “Prix de Rome” awarded every year. Anyone who strived for this highest award of the official French musical scene had to compose a cantata on an assigned, usually dull, text. Many great composers, from Berlioz to Bizet to Dutilleux, undertook this compulsory academic exercise, which had to be completed within three weeks in isolation and, if successful, culminated in a three-year, highly regimented stay at the Villa Medici in Rome.

Claude Debussy: La Damoiselle élue

The case of Claude Debussy illustrates the “instinct” with which the jury of the Paris Académie des Beaux-Arts sometimes made its judgements. Not until his third attempt did he win the prize with L’Enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Son) in 1884, and the subsequent work, La Damoiselle élue (The Blessed Damozel), which he had to submit as proof of his further artistic development, again failed to satisfy the watchdogs of harmonic practice in January 1889. They informed the 26-year-old Debussy that his music “manifests again these systematic tendencies of vagueness of expression and form for which the Académie has already had occasion to reproach the composer”. One cannot really blame the esteemed gentlemen. The first two bars, with their “bad” but atmospheric chord progressions, must already have given them a shock from which they did not recover, even after fragments recalling Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll were introduced seven bars later. Despite this not yet fully developed mixture, many characteristic features of Debussy’s unmistakable idiom are obvious in the score of Damoiselle. Soon afterwards he began work on his first major composition, the opera Pelléas et Mélisande; the damsel and Mélisande prove to be kindred spirits down to the smallest details.

The poème lyrique, based on a text by the English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, develops symmetrically. After a three-part orchestral prelude, a women’s chorus and narrator (mezzo-soprano soloist) describe the damsel. Surrounded by reunited couples, she (soprano soloist) longs in vain for her lover, who is still on earth. She weeps and, as she soars in increasingly exquisite tones, her voice fades away and the music returns to more ordinary tonal realms. Only the vocalizing chorus hovers like a Fata Morgana over the final C major chord.

Olivier Messiaen: Hymne

Olivier Messiaen admired Debussy all his life. Messiaen, who was born in 1908, also had experience with the Prix de Rome: he competed unsuccessfully for it in 1930 and 1931, each time composing a tone poem afterwards – an anti-academic antidote, so to speak – the second of which will be heard during this concert. Although Debussy was a largely unknown quantity when the jury rejected him, after Messiaen’s two failures he found solidarity with the public and critics, since he was a shooting star of sorts on the Paris musical scene in the early 1930s. The era of musical Impressionism was as much a thing of the past as the triumph of the Ballets Russes, and the neoclassicism which prevailed at that time called for a counterweight. The group La Jeune France (Young France), formed by Messiaen and André Jolivet, opposed the elegant lightness of Les Six (The Six), the group around Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud, countering it with evocatively spiritual music, which in Messiaen’s case was inspired by Catholic mysticism.

A contemporary reviewer described the Hymne pour grand orchestre(Hymn for Large Orchestra), which is also known under the title Hymne au Saint-Sacrement (Hymn to the Holy Sacrament): “The presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is glorified in it, the battle of mankind against sin is commented upon harshly, and the spiritual union of Jesus and the communicant is confirmed. Religious fervour, serenity and human violence are portrayed through musical means which are bold to the point of fierceness.” This boldness is obvious from the opening bar: the Hymne begins with a soaring cluster whose movement is abruptly stopped by the falling tritone B-F, the leading interval of the work, played in unison. Although Messiaen still appears to be influenced by Igor Stravinsky in this work, his style emerges clearly. With its variational chain form, free metrics and essentially tonal but highly dissonant harmony and always agitated intonation (a performance indication at the beginning of the Hymnecalls for it to be played “with enthusiasm”), this brilliant work, which ends in radiant B major, seems to be an outline of Messiaen’s life’s work.

Maurice Duruflé: Requiem op. 9

Maurice Duruflé is more closely associated with Messiaen’s personal circle than the canon of French music, at least according to the official version, which traces a line from Debussy to Messiaen to Boulez. In his book Die Musik in Frankreich im 20. Jahrhundert (Music in France in the 20th Century), published in 1995, the Swiss musicologist Theo Hirsbrunner mentioned Duruflé only once, in not exactly complimentary terms: “Organ composers are completely out of their time. … Only Maurice Duruflé dared to explore harmonies that could have come from Claude Debussy” – a comment which is unfortunately typical of the reception of these “outsider” composers but does not stand up to scrutiny since it is based on false criteria. If Duruflé wanted to “risk” something, it was certainly not an imitation of Debussy but rather a revival of music that was only then being explored again. His Requiem, Duruflé wrote, is “composed on the Gregorian themes of the Mass for the Dead. Sometimes the musical text has been respected in full, the orchestral part intervening only to support or comment on it; sometimes I was simply inspired by it.”

Only fourteen of Duruflé’s compositions were published; his best known work is the Requiem op. 9, composed in 1947, which was published in several versions for different scorings. Duruflé had begun working on it two years earlier. The world lay in ruins, but the immediate occasion was the death of his father: “à la mémoire de mon père” (to the memory of my father) is written above the score. In his dissertation on Duruflé the organist and musicologist Jörg Abbing showed that Duruflé took Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, composed between 1887 and 1900, as his model, including the structural details. Duruflé’s work sounds quite distinctive, however, since it conjures up the image of singing monks already in the first entrance of the choir – the vocalizing women’s voices that soon join them are admittedly very “French” but the declamation is unmistakably “Gregorian”. Duruflé maintains this impression by dividing the men’s and women’s voices remarkably often. Despite its polyphonic animation (the Kyrie is a double fugue), Duruflé’s composition seems tranquil and subdued. Rapture à la Messiaen is alien to his music, and when there is rejoicing (as in the “Libera eas” from the third movement or the “Hosanna in excelsis” from the fourth), it is introspective. Duruflé also shows restraint with the orchestration, although in the finale, for example, he gratifyingly takes the opportunity to use colouristic effects, depicting the angels with harp and paradise with an appropriately “celestial” celesta and corresponding organ registers. But the seemingly certain B major of this ninth movement is not achieved with the open chord at the close – a final uncertainty in the face of eternity? A weeping damsel in the paradise of lovers?

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Donald Runnicles has been General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra since the autumn 2009. He is also Music Director of the Grand Teton Music Festival and Principal Guest Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Donald Runnicles was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and educated in London and Cambridge. After first engagements at the theatres of Mannheim, Hanover and Freiburg, he became Music Director and Principal Conductor of the San Francisco Opera in 1992, a post he held until 2009. During his tenure, he led more than sixty productions, including the world premieres of John Adams’s Dr. Atomic and Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons. Since 1991 he works each year at the Vienna State Opera and has also led productions in the opera houses of Munich, Hamburg and Berlin, Milan, Paris and Zurich, and at festivals such as in Salzburg, Bayreuth and Glyndebourne. In concert, he is a frequent guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the North German Radio Orchestra, Hamburg (NDR), and Bavarian Radio Orchestra, Munich, as well as the Orchestre de Paris, the Staatskapelle Dresden and leading U.S. orchestras. He appears annually in Great Britain at both the BBC London Proms and the Edinburgh Festival. Since his debut in November 2003 with Britten’s War Requiem Donald Runnicles has returned regularly as guest conductor to the Berliner Philharmoniker. His last performance with the orchestra was in December 2011, when he conducted works by Richard Strauss and Edward Elgar. He is recipient of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and holds honorary degrees from Edinburgh University, Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Noel Bouley was born in Houston, Texas, and is a graduate of the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Louisiana State University. The young bass-baritone appeared in the title role of Stephen Sondheimʼs Sweeney Todd at the Aspen Music Festival at the start of the 2012/2013 season before becoming an ensemble member of Kentucky Opera where he sang the roles of the Sacristan (Tosca), Zuniga (Carmen), Antonio (Le nozze di Figaro) and Masetto (Don Giovanni). He subsequently made his debut with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra singing Ralph Vaughan Williamsʼ Five Mystical Songs. In the summer of 2013, the American singer covered the title role in Wagnerʼs The Flying Dutchman as a “Young Artist” at Glimmerglass Opera. He also appeared as Sir Lionel in Frederick Loeweʼs musical Camelot. In October of the same year, Noel Bouley made his debut at Amarillo Opera as Raimondo in a new production of Lucia diLammermoor. His repertoire includes the title roles of the operas Le nozze di Figaro and Falstaff and roles such as George in Carlisle Floydʼs Of Mice and Men, Collatinus in Benjamin Brittenʼs The Rape of Lucretia, Guglielmo (Così fan tutte), Angelotti (Tosca), Schaunard (La Bohème), Donald (Billy Budd), Marchese dʼObigny (La Traviata) and Lodovico (Otello). In January 2013, Noel Bouley was awarded first prize at Shreveport Operaʼs Singer of the Year Competition. After spending the 2013/2014 season as a scholarship student of the Patrons of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, he became a permanent member of the ensemble the following season. Noel Bouley now makes his debut in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Kelley OʼConnor studied in Los Angeles at the University of California and the University of Southern California, where she was a student of Nina Hinson. Her portrayal of Federico García Lorca in the premiere of Osvaldo Golijovʼs opera Ainadamar at Tanglewood in 2003 played a decisive role in the American mezzo-sopranoʼs stellar career. She has since sung the role on many occasions in leading opera houses and concert halls, and she was awarded a “Grammy” for the role. This season, Kelley OʼConnor has performed at New Yorkʼs Lincoln Center as a soloist in Mozartʼs Requiem with Louis Langrée conducting the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. The singer also sang in Leoš Janáčekʼs Glagolitic Mass with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Alan Gilbert. Last season included concerts with Beethovenʼs Mass in C major as part of an international tour with Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra, and performances of John Adamsʼ opera oratorio El Niño with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Kelley OʼConnor works regularly with conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel, Christoph Eschenbach, Iván Fischer, Daniel Harding, Lorin Maazel and Esa-Pekka Salonen. The versatility of her repertoire is demonstrated both by the names of composers such as Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák, Verdi, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bernstein and Berio and by a work such as Peter Liebersonʼs Neruda Songs with which the artist made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of David Zinman in mid-October 2008.

Martina Welschenbach received her musical training at the State University of Music and Performing Arts in Stuttgart and at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London; also in London, she graduated from the Opera Course at the Royal College of Music. While still a student, she appeared in minor roles at the Staatstheater Stuttgart and made her debut at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb as Pamina in Mozartʼs Magic Flute. Masterclasses with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Sir Thomas Allen and Graham Johnson completed the singerʼs training. In 2005, Martina Welschenbach joined the International Opera Studio of Zurich Opera where, after only a few weeks, she was engaged as a permanent member of the ensemble. Since the 2008/2009 season, the soprano has been an ensemble member of Deutsche Oper Berlin, where her roles have included Musetta (La Bohème), Ännchen (Der Freischütz), Susanna (Le nozze Figaro), Zerlina (Don Giovanni), Micaela (Carmen), Pamina (The Magic Flute), Woglinde (Das Rheingold, Götterdämmerung) and Liù (Turandot). The artist, who has worked with conductors such as Christoph Eschenbach, Vladimir Fedosejev, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Ingo Metzmacher, Carlo Rizzi, Donald Runnicles, Nello Santi, Peter Schneider and Franz Welser-Möst, made her acclaimed debut at the Opéra national de Paris in the autumn of 2010 as Regina in Paul Hindemithʼs Mathis der Maler. In June 2012, she enjoyed great success in the role of Thekla in a concert performance of Jaromír Weinbergerʼs opera Wallenstein as a guest artist with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Cornelius Meister. This will be Martina Welschenbachʼs first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin is a sought-after partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. In around 50 concerts per year the chorus displays an exceptional breadth of repertoire and stylistic versatility. With it’s experimental series, “Broadening the Scope of Choral Music”, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: In 2012 an interactive scenic version of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig / Sasha Waltz & Guests attracted great attention. Founded in 1925 and shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe and Robin Gritton, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been directed since 2001 by Simon Halsey. Their work together is documented by many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, such as the annual Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the end of January in Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

Watch now

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

In our free playlist, Kirill Petrenko conducts works including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. The best seat in the house is reserved just for you!

View our free playlist