Ambitious 'Requiem' unites 250 musicians

Joyful noise

Posted: Sunday, March 31, 2002

Every Wednesday night for the past four months a group of about 30 central peninsula residents has gathered in a classroom at Kenai Peninsula College under glaring fluorescent lights and surrounded by butcher-paper and marker posters from an education class held earlier in the day for the opportunity to be part of something greater than themselves.

They have little in common as a group -- they have different occupations, belong to different religions and are in different age groups, from 17 to 70s. But they do share in one common interest -- their love of great music.

In Homer there is another community group very similar to this one, except they meet on Thursdays and don't have the education posters to look at. At Homer High School, students in choir classes rehearse the same music these two community groups have been practicing. In Ninilchik, the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra has been meeting and doing the same.

On April 6 and 7, this mass of people will combine their voices and instruments under the direction of Mark Robinson, choral director for the Homer High School and Middle School choirs and artistic director for the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, to perform one of the greatest choral works ever composed -- Mozart's "Requiem."

"It's the culmination of the work of a person (Mozart) who's genius is so great as to be regarded as an angel," said vocalist Steve Hileman of Soldotna. "In a way perhaps, it is one of the greatest gifts of western civilization. I think it is truly divinely inspired, and I think people recognize that intuitively in the great power and beauty of it."

This is not the first time a well-known classical work has been performed on the peninsula. Every three to four years Robinson gets ambitious enough to put together a choral performance combining his choir students and a Homer community choir group. In the past they have done Brahms' "Requiem" and Vivaldi's "Gloria," for instance.

But this year Robinson's ambition carried him farther than he had originally intended to go. At first, Robinson planned the "Requiem" to be no different than his past combined choir productions, but the project took on a life of its own. Several years ago, Robinson received a standing invitation to bring a choir group to New York to perform Mozart's "Requiem" in Carnegie Hall. He decided last spring that 2002 was the year to accept the invitation.

Robinson tries to take his high school choir to perform outside Alaska about every three to four years, so a touring performance was nothing new. But adding community members to the trip was a new twist, as was combining the mass choir performance project with a tour in the same year.

On April 14, 30 Homer High School choir students, 30 adult community choir members and five other people, including Robinson's wife, Nancy Lander, and son, Nathan Lander, will leave for New York. The choir will perform the "Requiem" in Carnegie Hall along with a choir from Georgia and another from New Jersey. Then the Alaska group will perform by itself in St. Patrick's Cathedral.

As if rehearsing for the concerts and arranging the details of a performance trip to New York weren't enough to keep him busy, Robinson decided to take on yet another challenge. For the past three years he has been pursuing a master's degree in music with an emphasis in conducting from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. One of the requirements for the degree is a creative conducting project. Robinson was telling his professor over the summer about his plans for the "Requiem" performance and New York trip. The professor suggested he use the "Requiem" as his required conducting project.


Mark Robinson conducts a recent rehearsal. Bringing geographically and musically diverse performers together for the "Requiem" has not been without its challenges, Robinson said, but it's been a labor of love. "It's incredibly powerful, incredibly beautiful and, yet, doable," he said.


Since the summer, then, Robinson has been doing research on the piece to write a thesis paper about it. He has also prepared a lecture about the "Requiem" that he will give an hour before the Kenai and Homer performances. Robinson's professor is flying up from Indiana to watch him deliver the lecture and conduct the Homer performance.

"I have a pretty busy teaching life normally, add to that a trip to New York, and add to that doing a concert of this size and evening rehearsals, and add to that all the research I have had to do, and that's pretty much squeezing the turnip for all it's worth," Robinson said. "So there hasn't been a lot of free time. This year I've basically been a Mozart slave. But (the research) is great stuff, and it contributes to rehearsals a lot."

The project didn't stop growing there. Once word of the "Requiem" got out

around the peninsula, it grew by yet another step. From the moment Jean Brockel, adjunct professor of music at Kenai Peninsula College, heard that Robinson was putting together a "Requiem" performance, she wanted to be in on it.

"It's great music," she said. "How many times do you get to do something like this, and on the peninsula? It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not something you lightly pass up or toss aside."

Brockel mentioned her desire to sing alto in the choir to Maria Allison, adjunct professor of mu-sic at Kenai Pen-insula College, and Allison said Brockel wasn't the only person who would love to be included. Sure enough, there were about 30 people in the Kenai-Soldotna area who wanted to be involved. So Brockel spoke to Robinson and offered to re-hearse and conduct a Kenai-Soldotna choir with Allison providing the ac-companiment. Robinson agreed.

"It's such a wonderful thing to do," Brockel said. "I'm so delighted Mark let us come along on this adventure -- it wasn't as if he needed more work."

With the addition of the 30 people in the Kenai-Soldotna choir, the production size rose to about 120 adult performers and about 250 performers in all, counting the high school choir and the orchestra.

"There's certainly more people than I anticipated," Robinson said. "It's been kind of wild, but there's really been a wonderful adult energy. A lot of adults here love to sing but don't have much opportunity to do so, and Mozart is special stuff. They've had such a wonderful attitude about the project, and the kids have, too.

"It's been a whole lot of work, but it's been pretty joyous work because everybody's enthused about it."


Kenai Peninsula Orchestra violinists, left to right, Michael Schallock, Peggy McIntryre and Cathy McCarthy lend their bows to Mozart.


The sheer number of people involved in the "Requiem" has caused some logistical headaches that haven't existed in past combined choir performances. Getting everybody in one place to rehearse, for instance, has been difficult. The high school choir rehearses with Robinson at school during its choir class time. On Thursday evenings, Robinson rehearses with the Homer community choir group. The orchestra rehearses on its own in Ninilchik, and the Kenai-Soldotna choir holds rehearsals Wednesdays at 7 p.m. at KPC. So far, all the groups have met together twice to rehearse as one ensemble.

Just getting enough risers and chairs to accommodate that many people on stage was a hassle.

"The whole thing is a nightmare. With 250 people on stage we fill the stage front to back and side to side. It's just a wall of people, but it's all going to work out," Robinson said. "We have like 42 platforms of varying heights from all over the school district. We've been begging and borrowing. I won't say we've been stealing, but we've been ready to if we had to to get the platforms so everybody can be elevated at different heights to fit on stage."

At least Robinson hasn't been the sole coordinator of the project. Laura Norton of Homer is serving as the producer for the project. She got involved through her management of the Pier One Theater in Homer and her membership in the orchestra. She's been handling a lot of the planning and logistical aspects of the Homer and Kenai performances as well as the New York trip.

And Brockel conducts the Kenai-Soldotna rehearsals every Wednesday night, then drives to Homer on Thursdays to attend the Homer community choir rehearsals. That way she gets an idea of how Robinson wants the piece performed and can take his instructions back to the central peninsula choir, she said.

People involved in the project have logged countless hours preparing for the it. The central peninsula choir started meeting in December. Each singer got sheet music and a practice tape of the "Requiem" so they could learn their parts. So aside from devoting two hours to rehearsals each week since December, singers have been putting in time on their own to learn the music.

"Probably every member of that choir is an amateur and has been practicing since early fall," said Marc Berezin of Soldotna.

He and his daughter, Emily, 17, joined the choir because they love to sing and because it would be an opportunity for them to bond.

"There is an incredible amount of time that each member has spent on it. The only regret I have is that it will be done. It's one of those things where the process is every bit as much fun as the goal."

Berezin was not familiar with the piece before rehearsals started and found it difficult to sing, but learning it has been a labor of love for him.


An unidentified singer follows the vocal score at a recent rehearsal.


"The more you get into it, the more you realize that this guy is a genius," he said. "This is such an incredible piece of music. I've never experienced a piece of music that I've sung that's this brilliant."

Robinson decided to do the "Requiem" last spring after trying out a few movements on his high school choir.

"They really took to it, and that kind of sold me that my instincts (to do the piece) were right," he said. "It's going to be a good piece for them to do, and the other elements fell into place. So it sort of seemed like it was meant to be."

The "Requiem" is a formal concert piece that is difficult to perform, but not impossible.

"It's incredibly powerful, incredibly beautiful and yet doable," Robinson said. "It's a big stretch and challenge for high school kids and amateur adults, yet it is in their capacity. So for me as an educator it makes it an ideal teaching tool, beyond where they are but not out of reach. It's also something that can stand up to a great deal of rehearsal without getting tiresome."

Robinson has had a desire to do the "Requiem" for years, in part because of the personal significance it holds for him. When he was a senior in high school, the choir he sang in performed the "Requiem" and Robinson was allowed to conduct a movement of it. This was his first experience conducting. Robinson's father was a professional musician who accompanied the performance and his son's conducting debut on the organ.

"A couple of years ago my father passed away, so I was ready to do something personally in honor of him, and this seemed a highly appropriate piece," Robinson said. "It's sort of always been there, but was kind of sub-surface. This year it surfaced and then some. So it's a really exciting project for me, personally."

Since the "Requiem" is a funeral Mass, concert organizers thought it would be fitting to offer listeners a chance to honor their lost loved ones during the performance. So they sold votive candles for $10 that would be lit during the performances. The money raised from the candle sales went to the New York travel fund for the high schoolers.

"I would say if people have experienced the beauty of knowing someone and the pain of losing them and don't know quite what to make of it all that this would be two hours very well spent," Hileman said. "I think this music has great power to move people."

Ironically enough, the "Requiem" ended up being Mozart's own funeral Mass, as he died in 1791 while still composing the piece. The piece has 12 movements and is written in Latin, following the Catholic tradition at the time. An English translation will be printed in the programs at both the Homer and Kenai performances.


Trombonists Jared Szajkowski, left, and Paul Hettner help supply the music's bass line for the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra.


Since Mozart died before finishing the work, his widow, Constanze, had it finished by Mozart's pupil, Franz Sssmayr, which caused controversy over what parts were really written by Mozart.

Robinson's lecture before the performances will address these issues and more about the history of the "Requiem."

The piece itself is often described as somber, powerful and beautiful. Even though it is a funeral Mass, there are elements of joy and excitement to the music, so it is certainly not dull or dreary to listen to.

"I think Mozart has distilled the essence of human longing and love in a way that, to me, is just inexpressibly beautiful," Hileman said. "Even the Catholic Church no longer can summon up the energy to perform these things in a strictly religious sense, so it gives me great satisfaction to be part of a community effort that reunites the living and dead and people who share different faiths and unites us in human yearning for the eternal."

Rehearsals will continue this week in preparation for the concerts next weekend. After all the work that has gone into preparations, Robinson anticipates the groups will be ready to put on an amazing performance.

"It's been a really positive experience," he said. "There isn't anything in life of value and merit that doesn't require hard work and sacrifice -- that's just life. But it does not diminish its joy and value, so I have nothing but positive feelings about this."

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