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Stirring Contemporary Requiem Gets Revival

German composer's work elicits strong reactions

I have never been to a classical concert like it. There were great stretches of time during it when the orchestra sat just waiting to play. The choruses, as many as five of them, likewise sat for long periods waiting to sing.

The performance was German composer Bernd Alois Zimmerman's "Requiem for a Young Poet" (A requiem is a Roman Catholic mass for the souls of the dead).

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In spite of its name, the gargantuan scale of the work suggests a wider theme than the memory of a single person, in this case the Soviet poet Mayakovsky who committed suicide in 1930. The requiem seems, rather, to mourn for the whole 20th century, even for civilization itself.

Above all, it suggests that the religious fervor on which the very concept of a choral requiem is founded, is locked in a final battle of survival. By the end, it is impossible to know if it has survived or not.

Zimmerman, the program note says, came to call the piece not an oratorio but a "lingual," concerned with language - with what may be said and how it may be said.

It soon became apparent that "meanings" in this work are intentionally obscured or muddled. Yet, unexpectedly, feelings were not.

It proved extraordinarily moving to be subjected to the piece's intense patchwork of sounds - to which both orchestra and choirs made a powerful, if somewhat truncated, contribution. At one point, the combined choirs let out, in a six-note chord, just the one word, "Requiem!"

For all its unconventionality, this was no abstract piece of esoteric, modernist music. It spoke, disturbingly, to experience itself. The babble of raised, often hysterical, voices seemed only too familiar.

I began to think the message of "Requiem for a Young Poet" might also be that the days of classical music are numbered; that there is little chance, in today's din, of it making itself heard.

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There was din all right.

Much of the performance at Edinburgh's Usher Hall, part of this year's Arts Festival, was recorded, not live. It was pushed out into the concert hall electronically and often deliberately distorted. And even this confusion of noise consisted more of voices than music.

Taped voices came and went in a haphazard and fragmentary manner. They were like stations tuned in and out by someone - perhaps the composer of the work himself - searching for a radio program he never finds.

The voices perpetually overlapped and interrupted each other. There were snatches of propagandist rhetoric, Wittgenstein philosophy, bits of James Joyce's "Ulysses," words from the Pope, a quote from Mao Tse-Tung. The surging roar of mass demonstrations.

At one point a brief bit of "Hey Jude" by the Beatles faded into part of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The voices came and went some more, a growing cacophony. The voices of Churchill. Hitler. Ribbentrop. Especially Mayakovsky the poet.

"Requiem for a Young Poet" is a performance work that has to be heard in a concert hall. Much of its potency comes from the conflict between recorded and live parts; it could hardly be appreciated on compact disc.

This 1-hour-15-minute choral work received its first performance, conducted by Michael Gielen, Dec. 11, 1969. Eight months later, the composer, like Mayakovsky, took his own life.

Gielen is conducting it again, taking it around Europe on a five-concert tour. He has described the work as "ambiguous."

By any description, the performance involves an enormous workforce. Not only the SWT Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden, but the five choruses (from Cologne and Stuttgart, Germany; Edinburgh; and two from Bratislava, Slovakia), a soprano soloist, a baritone soloist, two male speakers, an organist, and a jazz combo are the live elements. Each, when they are given the chance after much waiting, perform explosively, as if uncorked.

The performance was met with steady applause rather than elation. The critics immediately divided. Some hated it. Others were actually shaken by it into some heartfelt writing.

To a classical-music lover who believes that music is about subtleties of form and development, Zimmerman's requiem must seem infuriating and impossible to grasp. But the work does have an order to its deliberate disorder. It is reminiscent (though in terms of sound) of the American artist Robert Rauschenberg's multiple and diverse interpenetrations of images.

As with any work of art that attempts to express apocalypse or hopeless disintegration, there is a paradox: The very act of composing it suggests hope.

That Zimmerman's requiem can still stir people two decades after it was originated, alone suggests that it has something more durable to it than a prescience of terminal doom.

*On Sept. 21, 'Requiem for a Young Poet' will be performed in Paris at the Theatre Chatelet, and on the Sept 23 at the Philharmonie in Cologne, Germany.

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