Experiencing the “Human Requiem”

By · Photography © Matthias Heyde · Date 10/13/2016

We took our shoes off in a foyer with wooden floors. In the center of the room was a communal jug of water, in which leaves were floating. Plain white paper lay nearby, so that we could fold it into cups and drink.

I was at a performance of the “Human Requiem,” an immersive interpretation of Brahms’ “A German Requiem,” at Berlin’s Radialsystem venue. Performed by the Rundfunkchor Berlin, or Radio Choir, under the direction of Simon Halsey, and in a staging by Jochen Sandig and members of the dance company Sasha Waltz & Guests, the production will come to Lincoln Center’s white light festival on October 16, October 18, and October 19.  

The previous evening I met Halsey, now the conductor emeritus of the Rundfunkchor, for an interview. He mentioned that the event was meant to begin as a shock: the audience wasn’t supposed to know who was in the choir and who was in the audience. True, in the concert, the man towering over me at my first position was clearly a singer—he smiled broadly at me, he wore a button-down and blazer, he was built like a bass. When the music started I wasn’t surprised by him singing, but rather by a woman whom I hadn’t noticed because she was standing behind me, wearing a red dress.

The first line of the Requiem is, “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen.” Normally translated as “Blessed are they that mourn,” a more literal reading would be, “Blessed are they that carry grief.” The line seems to say that refugees, who carry their suffering with them across land, in dinghies and the processing points and detention centers of European countries, are holy, like the meek. About the Requiem, Halsey told me, “If you choose to make the Lord your God, then it can basically apply to any person on earth.”

As the first movement continued, two sopranos held hands and walked together to my right. The singers of the choir cut wide swathes through the audience, parting them like the Red Sea. In one contrapuntal section, the choir surrounded us. “Sitting inside a fugue is one of the best things that can possibly happen to you,” Halsey said, and he was right.

What would Brahms have thought of the spacialization of his Requiem? Contemporary composers will often write especially for a particular instrumental layout; Brahms certainly had a more traditional orchestra-choir setup in mind, so the movements amounted to active compositional decisions. At the performance, it seemed a worthy tradeoff to lose a bit of unity and mass for sonic immersion. (That’s not true of all music.) Also, the space, a long, ascetic, fairly resonant rectangle, helped fuse the spread-out voices.

Speaking of the Rundfunkchor Berlin’s familiarity with the “St. Matthew Passion,” which it performed two years ago in New York, Halsey said, “the roots of it [go] beyond their feet and into the floorboards.” The same could easily be said of “A German Requiem.” They’ve performed it 36 times, he said. He recalled moving to Berlin and being naïve enough to correct the choir’s German pronunciation. He grew to love the work as he got older (“I used to think it was really boring”), to the point where it’s now “become [his] principal calling card.”

If the choir’s familiarity with “A German Requiem” runs deep, so does the German audience’s. Halsey compared it to the general knowledge of Handel’s “Messiah” in the English-speaking world. “You find that the whole audience—if not singing along with it—you can feel them knowing what’s coming next,” he said. During the concert, I looked and listened to see if any non-performers were singing along, and for most of the piece no one was. But in the seventh movement, “Selig sind die Toten,” or “Blessed are the dead,” I noticed a man with a sharp features, white hair, glasses, and a walking stick. He was holding on to a younger woman from behind, with his arms wrapped around her midsection; his cane was in his hands and he was holding it so that it hovered slightly above the ground. They were both mouthing the words—though they didn’t know all of them—and it looked as though the woman was crying.

With its movement, light and music, the “Human Requiem” became a ritual. Halsey commented to me on that aspect, remarking that he often wished the audience wouldn’t clap afterwards; that they’d simply get up slowly, quietly, then linger with a glass of wine. (When I was there, they did clap, loud and long.)

But like a Catholic Mass, the rituals of the performance felt alienating at times. I had the feeling of not knowing exactly what to do, and when to do it. As a child, I was moved by the Gospels and the New Testament—but when I had to go to church, I didn’t know the chants or when I was supposed to say amen. I didn’t know how to fold a cup from paper. At one moment during the performance, an usher shooed me to the side, like an annoyed aunt. We all were constantly getting up and sitting down, as if ordered into pews. “I haven’t been to church in a long time,” someone said afterwards.

I asked Halsey whether the spaces he has worked in for “A German Requiem” and the “St. Matthew Passion”—the techno temple Berghain, or the Park Avenue Armory—are meant to recall the vastness of the cathedral, without the concrete theological associations, such as stain-glass images of Jesus Christ. But he said he chose them more in the hope of reaching new audiences who wouldn’t normally attend performances in the concert hall.

In the New York Times recently, Halsey recalled how Simon Rattle told him to specialize in choir music at a young age. “You probably could earn a living as a second-rate orchestral conductor,” Rattle said, but he thought it would be better for the music world if Halsey specialized in the voice. (At the time, Rattle was 28 and Halsey was 25.) Halsey said that he was proud to have worked with leading conductors: he was “glad to have a seat at the table.”

Humility is supposed to be a Christian virtue. And Halsey seemed truly convinced that Rattle was right; that he would never have made it in front of orchestras. They’ll meet again in London. In Berlin, having established the Rundfunkchor’s speciality in staged performances like the “Human Requiem,” Halsey has attracted imitators. He told me that to continue to thrive, the group would need a new director and a fresh set of ideas.

But this modesty made me less sure that Rattle was right to put Halsey off the orchestra conductor’s path so young. I’ve seen Rattle conduct the Berlin Philharmonic many times. But I’ve never left a concert of Rattle’s emotionally drained, moved, and drenched in sweat.

At the end of our interview, I asked Halsey if he is a religious man. He had a thorough Protestant education, and he is familiar with the Christianity; he knows the music, the mass, the architecture, the “iconography.” He knows the context, and he can easily explain it to choirs, which, since so much of the repertoire is sacred, is an important skill to have.

More generally, he is ambivalent about religion. He’s grateful for his education, but he also thinks it’s responsible for many of the world’s ills. Concerts like the “Human Requiem” keep him connected to the tradition, though. About his faith, he said, “I’m far out on the rope, but maybe one day I’ll get tugged back in.” ¶