A recent rehearsal of the Burlington Choral Society opens exactly on time with all 100 members facing left to massage their neighbors’ shoulders. At a signal from director-conductor David Neiweem, who is smartly attired in blue shirt and red bow tie, the friendly din cuts to silence. The choir hums a few notes in unison to warm its collective vocal chords. Then: “Domine Jesu Christe,” says Neiweem, and a hundred scores open to the third movement of Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem.
It’s a good thing they’re getting right to work. The French composer’s 1947 take on the Latin mass for the dead — the centerpiece of BCS’ upcoming fall concert — is not exactly a walk in the park.
“It’s very rhythmically challenging,” notes BCS concertmaster Maggi Hayes of Williston during a rest before rehearsal.
“Three-four; four-four; nine-eight,” fellow alto Ruth Drake of Burlington chimes in, reading time signatures off a single page of the score. These women are hardly new to difficult music. Drake, 70, has sung in the choir since its founding in 1976; septuagenarian Hayes for 15 years.Both already sang the Requiem with the BCS at a 2004 concert.
Neiweem, a University of Vermont music professor now in his 15th year as head of BCS, acknowledges the Requiem is “very hard.” But the 57-year-old Colchester resident couldn’t resist reprising what he calls “one of the most dramatic choral works of the 20th century.” This is not, he admits, the overt drama of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, with its electrifying “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) movement of descending half notes amid a crashing orchestral accompaniment. Duruflé’s Requiem is based on the intricate, “warm and enveloping” patterns of Gregorian chant.
“It’s evocative of men singing in huge cathedrals,” Neiweem says. “It’s very tied to the traditional Roman Catholic experience. Then it takes it through its 20th-century paces.”
Duruflé, a lifelong church organist, wrote both orchestral and organ accompaniments to his Requiem; the BCS will perform with the latter. Neiweem cites the “wonderful” organist he snagged for the concert — Boston-based Bálint Karosi, from Hungary — as a major factor in drawing up the program. Karosi will also play Duruflé’s Organ Suite, op. 5, for Organ, one of the composer’s “virtuosic” organ works, as Neiweem describes them. The “opus 5” is telling: Duruflé was a perfectionist who turned out only about a dozen works over some 40 years of composing. The Requiem is number nine.
The program also includes another 20th-century work, Benjamin Britten’s “Festival Te Deum,” and one from the 21st: Neiweem’s own “Psalm 27.” An organist-composer like Duruflé, Neiweem accompanies weekly services at the First Congregational Church in Burlington and writes music ranging from the biblically inspired to the “downright nasty, [even] bawdy.” “Psalm 27” draws its text from the Book of Psalms, which is “said to have been written by King David, poet and lyricist of the Bible,” says Neiweem. The piece alternates between “an extremely austere section” proclaiming the psalm’s directive to put one’s faith in salvation and “a sweet, simple folk melody” affirming that “my experience right here [on Earth] is what it’s really about.”
But, deep into rehearsal, when the full choir erupts in a dramatically forte libera eias, it’s easy to lose one’s bearings in the earthly world.