Claire Nowak

The Joys of Performing a Requiem

World class soprano Jessica Rivera, guest soloist with MSO in Brahms’ “Requiem,” loves the music.

By - Oct 7th, 2014 04:15 pm
Jessica Rivera. Photo by Isabel Pinto.

Jessica Rivera. Photo by Isabel Pinto.

Jessica Rivera has performed professionally for almost 20 years – she joined the L.A. Opera Chorus right out of college – but this weekend marks her first time performing Brahms’ “Requiem.” She will perform as a guest soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

“A German Requiem,” the full name of the piece, is considered one of the composer’s greatest works. Brahms began composition on the requiem in 1865 and premiered it four years later. Said to be inspired by the death of his mother, its text expresses a theme of counsel and comfort to those who are suffering.

Singers can sometimes feel pressure to interpret the sorrow Brahms felt for his mother’s loss in a credible way to audiences. Rivera says she draws on personal experiences to fully capture the work’s grand themes. But that can be tricky, she adds.

“When (a piece) does become personal to you, (there’s) obviously a lot of emotion involved, and you want to be able to give it that emotion without making you emotional during your performance,” Rivera explains. “Because it comes from a very personal place for him, it makes it very poignant for me to be able to interpret it.”

Brahms’ intent was to create a very accessible work influenced by Martin Luther’s movement to implement German liturgies instead of Latin ones. Brahms chose to set his requiem’s text in the vernacular German, keeping in mind Luther’s push to make sacred texts accessible to average citizens.

Of course, that works differently for an English-speaking audience.

“German may not be (the audience’s) native language,” Rivera says,” (but) I think it’s something worthwhile to share with them because it will give them an insight into what it means to take hold of something musically from a personal standpoint and make it your own.”

The text is based on passages from the Holy Scripture, drawing from the Beatitudes, psalms and gospels. Rivera has a solid understanding of the source material from her Christian upbringing.

“I very much identity with that. I grew up in the church, and so I’m quite familiar with that, having gone to Sunday school and studied the Bible. It brings me great peace to actually sing about something that is very true for me personally.”

Beyond the text, meanwhile, is the masterful music Brahms created for his requiem, which can have a powerful impact on audiences of all religious persuasions.

The globe-trotting Rivera has performed with top orchestras nationally and internationally, in Berlin, Spain, Vienna and New Zealand. Based in California, she has worked with baritone Nmon Ford, another guest soloist in the Brahms work,in performances of the opera Carmen and in Haydn’s “Creation” at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Both have collaborated with conductor Robert Spano throughout their careers. Last year, Rivera recorded some of his original compositions and completed a national duet recital tour with him. She also makes a point to see him perform at least once a year with the Atlanta Symphony.

That close history with other musicians, according to Rivera, has a “beautiful effect” on any collaboration.

“That’s one of the benefits of the job we have,” she says. “We get to reconnect with people that we enjoy performing with from time to time, and that’s certainly the case with this experience.”

Connections with MSO music director Edo de Waart also ease any anxiety about her debut with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, knowing his successful history with the organization.

“It’ll be nice to work within an orchestra that I know is a wonderful group of musicians because Edo would accept no less,” Rivera says.

Ultimately, she sees the Brahms work as something special for audiences. “To be able to give it as a gift to the people who are experiencing (loss) in the audience and help them maybe deal with whatever loss means to them,” she says, “it’s a very comforting thought when you lose somebody.”

8 p.m. Oct. 10 and Oct. 11, and 2:30 p.m. Oct 12 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets range from $21.50 – $101.50 and are available online or by calling 414-291-7605.

Also This Week: Dowland in Dublin

Early Music Now’s season opener marks the end of a tour for Canadian ensemble La Nef, who will perform its program, “Dowland in Dublin: An Evening of Lute Songs in an Irish Pub” Saturday. Using traditional Irish instruments like the lute, recorder and cittern accompanied by strings, the group puts a Celtic twist on pieces from English Renaissance composer John Dowland to transform them into light, tavern tunes. American tenor Michael Slattery also makes an appearance on vocals and the shruti-box. The performance may take place in a church, but its lineup will generate the lively atmosphere of an Irish pub.

5 p.m. Oct. 11 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Tickets range from $28 – $44 with student prices starting at $10. They are available online or by calling 414-225-3113.

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