Classical Music: Conductor picks Brahms work for birthday concert

What: Brahms: A German Requiem, conducted by Hilary Coupland
When/where: Aug. 17, 8 p.m., Alix Goolden Hall
Tickets: $20. Online at ticketfly.com; in person at Larsen Music, 1833 Cook St.

 

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Last week, I noted forthcoming performances of Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus and Bach’s B-minor Mass, respectively on Aug. 5 and 6, and suggested that grand sacred choral-orchestral masterpieces are hardly standard fare during the summer.

Yet a third such work will be performed here on Aug.17: Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Brahms’s novel, very personal take on the Mass for the Dead, completed in 1868.

The seven-movement work usually runs for 60 to 70 minutes, so is considerably shorter than the B-minor Mass. Still, it is Brahms’s largest work and is meditative, profound and monumental enough to challenge listeners in any season. The Aug. 17 event is billed as a 70th Birthday Celebration Concert, and the birthday in question is that of the conductor, Hilary Coupland. This performance, which Coupland has organized herself, is, she says, the last item on her personal musical bucket list. She ticked another item off that list when she turned 65, by performing Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah.

Coupland is a retired high-school band director who has conducted musical theatre for more than 30 years, mostly with the Victoria Operatic Society. She also plays the saxophone in several bands and sings in the CapriCCio Vocal Ensemble. She played the oboe with the Victoria Symphony in the 1970s and ’80s, and conducted some of its concerts on tour. She was also music director of the Saanich Peninsula Orchestra.

Since her student days at the University of Victoria, Coupland has performed in Brahms’s German Requiem on more than a few occasions, as either an oboist or a chorister, but has never before conducted it.

Though privately organized, the concert will be no slim affair. It will involve more than 250 performers, including an orchestra of about 70. At the first rehearsal, 120 singers showed up; as of last week, the chorus numbered more than 190. (Elijah involved fewer than 200 performers.)

How did Coupland assemble such an army all by herself? Being “a natural salesman,” as she calls herself, certainly helps.

“She’s not a person who makes enemies,” one of her Elijah choristers told the Times Colonist in 2011. “She’s a person who makes friends.” A member of her Elijah orchestra added, with a laugh, that “she’s very persuasive.”

That’s no less an understatement today than it was five years ago.

The musicians for the German Requiem, who are coming from Victoria, up-Island, Salt Spring, Vancouver, and as far away as Toronto, Houston, Manchester, London, Berlin and Seoul, are friends, relatives, colleagues and former students representing more than 50 choral and instrumental ensembles, many of which Coupland herself has performed with or conducted.

The two vocal soloists will be bass-baritone Trevor Bowes and soprano Eve-Lyn de la Haye. Both were born in Victoria, but they now have busy international solo careers in opera and concerts. (Bowes is also a full-time chorus member of the English National Opera, in London. De la Haye lives in Vancouver.)

Coupland has known and worked with both singers since they were children. The two have sung together since they were teenagers, and were in the University of Toronto’s opera program at the same time.

This is a non-profit venture, incidentally. The ticket price is modest and proceeds will likely just cover the considerable expenses.

Indeed, a spirit of friendship, celebration and gratitude pervades the whole project. Many of the performers are paying Coupland back for gigs she has given them over the years; some asked to be included in the concert.

(Choristers are already pressuring Coupland to organize a 75th-birthday concert. If she does, she says, she would likely program Mozart’s Requiem.)

Coupland is dedicating the Aug. 17 performance to the man who introduced her to the German Requiem, her former conducting teacher, George Corwin, who taught at UVic from 1969 to 1995. Corwin, appropriately, will be singing in her chorus.

The concert will open with a half-hour set by a band headed by Coupland’s daughter Claire, a Toronto-based folk musician.

Finally, a heads-up: Elijah was “completely sold out with a lineup around the block an hour before the start,” Coupland said. “This one will be bigger.”

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