Andión Fernandez, soprano/whip
Lars Grünwoldt, bass baritone/guiro
Modern Art Ensemble
Klaus Schöpp, piccolo/flute/alto flute/bass flute
Unolf Wäntig, Eb clarinet/clarinet/bass clarinet
Theodor Flindell, violin/re-strung and re-tuned violin
Jean-Claude Velin, viola/re-strung and re-tuned viola
Matias de Oliveira Pinto, cello/re-strung and re-tuned cello
Yoriko Ikeya, piano/tam-tam
A Chamber Requiem
When cellist Renato Lucas told me back in November 2015 that composer Jeffrey Ching’s next work to be performed here would be his completion of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s unfinished Requiem, I had to take several moments to let that thought sink in. It was hard for me to imagine the classicism of Mozart combined with the contemporary, 21st century idioms of Ching.
Some months later, still unable to grasp the notion of these two styles combined, I braced myself for the world premiere performance of Jeffrey Ching’s A Chamber Requiem at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. And I have to admit that I came in to this concert almost blind so to speak as my knowledge of Mozart’s Requiem is extremely limited. Yes, I know that Mozart died leaving the work unfinished and that there are many, mostly romanticized stories surrounding the work. Unfortunately, I have no idea which parts were truly by Mozart and which were the parts completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. This meant that I won’t be burdened by overanalyzing Ching’s work but still I had to be all ears throughout the performance.
A couple of days before the concert, I attended a reception in honor of Jeffrey Ching that was held at the residence of Michael Hasper, Deputy Head of Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany. There, I was able to have a brief chat with Jeffrey Ching and a few members of the Modern Art Ensemble that certainly got me into the mood to hear the new work already despite not knowing much about it.
Based on the title and the performers made up of only two singers and six musicians, A Chamber Requiem was more focused on the individual with the overall mood being more solemn and somber. Whenever soprano Andión Fernandez and bass-baritone Lars Grünwoldt sang, it was intimate and introspective.
What was most remarkable for me was the parts played by the six member Modern Art Ensemble composed of flutist Klaus Schöpp, clarinetist Unolf Wäntig, violinist Theodor Flindell, violist Jean-Claude Velin, cellist Matias de Oliveira Pinto, and pianist Yoriko Ikeya. Both Schöpp and Wäntig utilized all of the members of their respective instruments giving the piece more range, color and texture. But what really gave the work its distinct character was the additional violin, viola, and cello that were re-strung and re-tuned to the Qing dynasty scale. The unusual sounding string instruments were first heard during the Graduale, earlier on. As the vocalists chanted in unison and the winds burst out brief phrases, the strings played long, sustained notes that sounded like an unstable drone. The juxtaposition of the chant with that of the distinctly Chinese sounding accompaniment fascinated me.
But the next time I heard the re-tuned strings near the end at the Responsorium, I was left perplexed. The trio playing in the standard western scale with their re-tuned instruments not only sounded as if they were playing the wrong notes, but the quality was also scratchy as if they weren’t capable of producing a good, solid tone yet. I think that this effect was intentional and by design but whatever it meant to convey was lost in me.
Another moment in the music that grabbed my attention was when Lars sang falsetto. I thought it was initially the flute that I heard until I realized otherwise. What made this bit more interesting was that Andión was singing along with him but with lower notes. It was a case of the soprano descending the depths while the bass baritone scaled the heights.
The inclusion of stage direction also gave the piece an added layer/dimension. Near the beginning, there was an extended moment of silence with everyone standing up with their heads bowed for about a minute. The second part opened with the musicians playing as they walked around the audience section. Both singers descended the stage and performed at the audience section at one point too. There were parts that were played offstage most notably the tam-tam that was immediately followed by a dissonant chord by the strings located at the back rows among the audience.
Probably the most striking stage direction was right at the end when Andión and Lars exited the theater while still singing, their voices fading away as they walked farther away. All the while, the members of the Modern Art Ensemble gathered around the piano and slowly closed the lid not unlike lowering a coffin to the ground. Then, it was suddenly pitch black. And it took me several moments to let everything that I've seen and heard sink in before I let my mind head back from a trip from a different realm which was Jeffrey Ching's A Chamber Requiem.
It is never a guarantee that one will get to like a Jeffrey Ching composition or any other contemporary piece for that matter. I was very relieved that the overall concept of the work being a Requiem mass and a basic familiarity of Mozart’s other works meant that I had more than enough to ease me through A Chamber Requiem. So it wasn’t that jolting whenever the piece took some unexpected left turns. The world premiere performance of Jeffrey Ching’s A Chamber Requiem was dedicated to the memory of Celia H. Fernandez.