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National Lutheran Choir offers requiem for the living

The National Lutheran Choir kicks off its 25th anniversary season on November 1 with a surprising selection for its traditional opening concert — “All Saints: A German Requiem,” by Johannes Brahms, in Benson Great Hall at Bethel University, St. Paul. The choir, under the direction of Dr. David Cherwien, seeks to strengthen, renew, and preserve the Lutheran heritage of choral music through the highest standards of performance and literature.

David Cherwien

Cherwien believes Brahms’ German Requiem to be appropriate for this anniversary season for three reasons. First,“It’s traditional for the choir to do a program on All Saints Sunday — a day with deep meaning for people, especially those who recently have lost a spouse or partner,” said Cherwien. “The choir had not originally planned to provide an All Saints program every year, but it has been so meaningful that we have decided to continue the tradition.”
Second, since it is an anniversary year for the choir, Cherwien hoped to gather former choir members together in reunion. “I wanted a piece that would allow alumni to participate.” The German Requiem requires more than 100 voices, as well as a full orchestra of 60, primarily filled with musicians from the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra. (In addition, guest artists Sonja DuToit Tengblad, soprano, and Jon Nordstrom, baritone, will provide solo voices.)
Finally, “personally, I want to conduct this piece before I die,” said Cherwien.
Such awareness of one’s mortality fits with the theme of Brahms’ Requiem. Whereas the requiems by Faure and Rutter open with texts like “Grant them eternal rest, O Lord” or “requiem aeternam,” Brahms opens with “blessed are they that mourn.” As Cherwien points out, “Rather than being the traditional Latin requiem liturgical texts, which are prayers for the deceased in light of the Last Judgement, Brahms uses biblical texts [in German] for the bereaved who are in need of peace and consolation.” In other words, Brahms’ Requiem Mass is written for the living.
Brahms was not necessarily overtly religious; he simply desired to respond to the challenge of writing a requiem. But, the National Lutheran Choir is in a unique position to respect the author’s intent, and still honor the worshipful context of a requiem. For that reason, the choir will use a traditional All Saints format, with the lighting of candles to remember the dead and the congregational singing of “For All the Saints.”
Cherwien says, “I don’t know if Brahms would be happy that we are returning this [requiem] to a worship setting, but then again, this one was written for the living.”
The choir has a full season planned, including its Christmas festival, “Emmanuel, God With Us” on December 10 and 11; the annual choral tune-up on February 5, 2011; “We Sing with Joy!,” with the choir conducted by the directors of seven area Lutheran colleges on April 16, 2011; and “Re-Member the Future,” the choir’s homage to choral music throughout the centuries on May 21 and 22.

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