In an profile with San Francisco Classical Voice long-time Bay Area conductor Alasdair Neale was asked about a program he conducted with the Marin Symphony that paired Brahms' A German Requirem with Anna Clyne's Within Her Arms. Here's the exchange.
SFCV: How do you program your season? You tend to pair warhorses with new works in interesting ways. Your April program features the Brahms Requiem and a 21st-century work, Within Her Arms, by British composer Anna Clyne.
Neale: Musically, the two are separated by 150 years. What they have in common is both works were written in response to the composer’s mother’s death. They have this DNA connection. Both deal with the notion of consolation in the face of grief. Anna Clyne’s piece was written around 2006. It’s for a small string ensemble, so it’s quite different from the Brahms, which is a massive piece for chorus and large orchestra. It’s low-key and understated.
Neale: I think so. It’s understanding that contemporary music is part of a continuum, and not something to be ghettoized. It’s related to something that came before. Sometimes there’s a stylistic connection; in this case, it’s a philosophical connection. It shows that artists today are asking the same questions they were asking 150, or even 400, years ago. I think of it as tracing a continuous line that is not yet complete.
Agreed. I think this pairing works for a few of reasons. First, the fact that both works are a response to a mother's death is a profound extra-musical connection. Second, as Neale points out, the difference in the size of the ensemble used for each piece is huge; A German Requiem is a public, universal expression of grief for soloists, chorus, and orchestra while Within Her Arms, scored for 15 strings, is a much more private and intimate one. The harmonic languages contrast nicely as well. Brahms' is, well, Brahmsian, while Clyne uses a much more lush tonal palate with microtonal inflections (several critics noted the similarities to works by Tallis, Dowland, Tippet, and Tavener, and I would add Vaughn Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis to that list).
I've always felt that Brahms' large works are some of the most difficult to program around and tend to think that high contrast (very new or old, radically different textures and/or harmonic language) works best. I think this is a great example of how well that programming strategy can work.