Fauré Requiem and Vaughan Williams? Grace Church pairs two ethereal masterworks

Robert Layman / Staff Photo Alastair Stout, Minister of Music for Grace Congregational Church, leads the choir during practice for the annual Handel’s Messiah performance, Sunday afternoon, November 26, 2017.

By Jim Lowe
THE LOWE DOWN

Pairing Gabriel Fauré’s beloved Requiem Mass and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ also beloved “The Lark Ascending” may seem unusual, but not to Alastair Stout.

“Both are incredibly optimistic, beautifully light,” explains Stout, minister of music at Rutland’s Grace Church. “Both have this sense of hope. If we’re going to sing a Requiem right after Easter, it should be the Fauré. It is such an incredibly beautiful, optimistic and quiet (piece), it anticipates such wonderful things. ‘The Lark Ascending’ is similar in its outlook.”

“Both pieces have this sense about them of the sort of light at the end of the tunnel,” he said recently by phone.

Stout will conduct the Rutland Area Chorus and Orchestra, with soprano Allison Devery-Steinmetz, baritone David Castonguay and violinist Kevin Bushee, in the Fauré Requiem, Op. 48, and Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” at 4 p.m. Sunday at Grace Congregational Church. Castonguay will present a pre-concert talk at 3:30 p.m.

“It’s not going to be a very loud concert,” Stout said. “There are only about three fortissimos, so I hope people can stay with it. It’s incredibly fulfilling.”

Stout, a native of Scotland, became Grace Church’s minister of music July 1. He studied composition and organ at the Royal College of Music, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the University of London, where he earned a Ph.D in composition in 2002. His music has been commissioned, performed and recorded throughout the world. In 2002, Stout moved to the United States to work in Pittsburgh, before coming to Vermont.

Fauré wrote his Requiem in D minor, Op. 48, between 1878 and 1890, as a choral-orchestra setting of the shortened Roman Catholic Mass of the Dead in Latin. Lasting about 35 minutes, its focus is on eternal rest and consolation.

There are in fact several versions of the Requiem’s orchestra accompaniment. Stout is using the 1893 middle version, in the 1989 arrangement by composer-arranger John Rutter, which utilizes a chamber orchestra rather than the full symphony orchestra of the final version. Violas are the highest of the strings, save for a solo violin, played by Bushee, in one movement.

As he did with Handel’s “Messiah” in December, Stout is adding a couple of personal touches to underscore the spirit of the music.

“In the Offertory movements, whenever I’ve heard it sung, the opening alto and tenor entrance always reminded me of a quasi-plainsong sound world, so I’m giving the first entrance, the unaccompanied part, to the two soloists,” he said.

“They’re going to be off stage, and at a distance you’ll hear these two voices intertwining the melody, and choir and orchestra come in to echo what the offstage voices do.”

And, at the very end, the “Amens” offer a sense of release and transition into a totally new world.

“I’m going to put an offstage quartet to sing the last two ‘Amens,’ so the chorus and orchestra fade off,” Stout said. “So, what you hear is this offstage chorus that represents heaven, or being somewhere on a different plane.

“You know something very special is happening,” he said. “I’ve sung it so many times, and something always strikes me about it. It gives me an incredible sense of peace.”

“The Lark Ascending,” a poem by English poet George Meredith about the song of the skylark, inspired the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams to write his work of the same name, now better known than the poem. Originally composed in 1914 for violin and piano, the composer re-scored it for solo violin and orchestra in 1920.

“The text (Vaughan Williams) took out of that poem is all about this respect of the bird, paralleling it to the Eucharist,” Stout said. “He takes this bird, this quite usual object, and transports it into another dimension altogether.”

Stout was a chorister at Ely cathedral in England when he first heard “The Lark Ascending.”

“It was just the most remarkable experience for a 10-year-old boy from the north of Scotland; suddenly this sound world opened up for me in the acoustic of the cathedral,” Stout said. “It was unbelievable.”

Grace Congregational Church

Grace Congregational Church presents the Rutland Area Chorus and Orchestra, with soprano Allison Devery-Steinmetz, baritone David Castonguay and violinist Kevin Bushee, in the Fauré Requiem, Op. 48, and Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 29, at the church, 8 Court St. in Rutland. Castonguay will present a pre-concert talk at 3:30 p.m. Admission is by donation (to the organ fund); call 802-775-4301, or go online to gracechurchvt.org/music.