Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade has reigned at the world’s great opera houses in great operatic roles; that she knows and understands what it means to be a great musical artist has long been established, and hardly needs further comment or confirmation.
However, Sunday night at Dallas City Performance Hall, von Stade created a memorable moment quite different but in many ways equal to her operatic triumphs. Quietly, wearing an orange tee-shirt and pants, she slipped into the ranks of a choir otherwise made up entirely of homeless and near-homeless Dallasites. Her show of solidarity, empathy, and sympathy with some of our most unfortunate and marginalized fellow citizens was breathtaking, heartwarming, and thought-provoking.
Von Stade’s surprising appearance came during the opening section of a concert which, after a brief pause, included the U.S. premiere of the Street Requiem, a remarkable, unique and beautiful work for chorus, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and orchestra. Jonathan Palant conducted, with members of the Dallas Street Choir and soloist von Stade (all changed into formal concert attire) joined by tenor Jonathan Welch, the Richland College Chamber Singers, and CREDO, a local community chorus. A top-notch chamber orchestra including some of the area’s finest professional instrumentalists accompanied.
Street Requiem (subtitled “To Remember Those Who Died Homeless,” and completed in 2014, after which it premiered in Melbourne) contains several unique characteristics, the most obvious being that it was a collaborative effort of three Australian composers, all haunted by the plight of the homeless throughout the world. While classical music audiences tend to have a prejudice against composition-by-committee, in this case the collaboration resulted in an unfailingly engaging eight-movement cantata based loosely on the Roman Catholic Mass for the dead.
Composers Kathleen McGuire, Andy Payne, and Welch (the last of whom was also tenor soloist for the event) liberally expanded the Latin texts in several directions, ranging from simply placing an English translation of the Latin next to the original to adding new texts (mostly by composer Payne) and other traditional lyrics, such as eighteenth-century Protestant hymn-writer John Newton’s “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” and the South African anti-apartheid folk song “Senzeni Na.” The composers adopted a strikingly straightforward compositional style, relying on obvious harmonies, strong rhythms, and simple but appealing melodies; with alternative accompaniment for keyboard alone, this is a work obviously within the range of a good community or church choir. One movement which left the traditional text virtually untouched, the Pie Jesu, displayed von Stade’s radiant, full tone to particular advantage.
In contrast to the simplicity and direct appeal of the music, the text—and meaningful manipulation of the text—provided the depth of the Street Requiem. Hymn-writer Newton’s evangelical praise of the ideal city of God takes on an ironic edge when mingled with the pleas of the ancient Kyrie Eleison (“Lord, Have mercy on us”) and the interpolated image of modern violence and commercialism in the added new lines, “Wind back the tape from the road so that traffic can run / Wash all the blood from the street so the tourists can come.”
Throughout the Street Requiem, the religious texts were constantly questioned, but with an effect that produced transformation rather than blasphemy. The audience is never let off the hook: in the final movement, the chorus intones, as if to remind that those who observe suffering are as much in need of divine intervention and guidance as those who suffer directly, “Give them peace. Give us peace.”
The proceeds of the concert benefited the Stewpot Safe Haven for Homeless and At-Risk Individuals. As the final movement moved toward its radiant but sorrowful conclusion, names of fellow human beings who have died, homeless, recently in our community flashed on the screen, reminding the audience that a holocaust of suffering happens here, now, in the midst of our comfort and affluence.